If you happen to spend the night anytime soon at the Women’s National Republican Club in New York, you’ll have a chance to meet a once-famous suffragist who might be new to you.
She is Henrietta Wells Livermore, prominently featured in the club’s exhibit, “Women’s Suffrage and the Founding of The Women’s National Republican Club.”
A review of the exhibit called Livermore a “one-woman juggernaut” who helped launch “the final push for suffrage” in New York and nationally. Livermore, founder of the WNRC, was hailed as a leading suffragist of her day by the New York Times, when she died in 1933.
Henrietta Livermore has been almost forgotten, which is a pity. She has plenty to say to us today, especially when it comes to educating voters on the issues. She was an 1887 Wellesley graduate, clubwoman,, wife of a New York lawyer, and activist for education. Honoring Livermore’s commitment to education, WNRC sponsors the Henrietta Wells Livermore School of Politics, which hosts a lecture series and organizes volunteers to participate in campaigns.
Starting in 1910, Henrietta Livermore held meetings in her house to organize women to work for suffrage in the state of New York.
Livermore was active in Republican politics and the first woman appointed vice-chair of the New York Republican State Committee. She was a good friend of President Calvin Coolidge, a longtime supporter of women’s suffrage, who embraced the cause long before he became president. When the club opened its second headquarters, in 1924, the Coolidges did the formal honors. The club subsequently moved to its present location, a Frederick Rhinelander King building at 3 West 51st Street.
Henrietta Wells was born in 1864 in San Francisco, but the family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her father Judge Henry Jackson Wells served as a member of the state House of Representatives and Senate. Henrietta Wells attended Harvard Grammar School and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wellesley. She and her husband, Arthur L. Livermore, lived their entire married lives in Yonkers, New York, on the Hudson River in Westchester County.
Livermore for years managed the Fairview Garden School, part of a movement to introduce gardening into schools, which was under the auspices of the Russell Sage Foundation. In a book on the Fairview Garden, Livermore called school gardens “a happy mingling of play and work, vacation and school, athletics and manual training, pleasure and business, beauty and utility.”
Livermore was a good friend of suffrage supporter Calvin Coolidge.
Livermore worked closely with Carrie Chapman Catt, who was Susan B. Anthony’s handpicked choice to become president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association’s (NAWSA), in which Anthony had been a dominant figure during the 1890s. Livermore held a string of positions in NAWSA: she was chair of the Literature Committee, which created and distributed pamphlets, and was in charge of NAWSA’s Suffrage Schools, which taught organizing and advocacy. Suffrage Schools were held all over the country.
Catt developed what she called her “Winning Plan;” it would rely on victories in the states to build pressure for extending the franchise to women on a national level. New York was pivotal to Catt’s plans. New York had been a focus of suffragist hopes since the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Catt “set out to build a women’s equivalent of Tammany Hall,” according to a Gotham Center profile of the suffrage movement in New York. Catt pulled together almost all the suffrage groups in the city. “While a substantial minority of the new organization’s leadership were Social Register ladies, the cadre also included numerous union organizers and settlement house workers and constituted a virtual Who’s Who of Gotham’s feminist political community.”
Henrietta Livermore held several positions in the New York State Woman Suffrage Association. Livermore was a prolific pamphleteer, whose works included both philosophical arguments for suffrage and practical pamphlets such as “How to Raise Money for Suffrage.”
Starting in 1910, Henrietta Livermore held meetings in her house to organize women to work for suffrage in the state of New York. A 1915 referendum to give New York women the vote failed, but two years later, on November 6, 1917 another referendum passed. New York became the first state east of the Mississippi River to guarantee women the right to vote. A few days after the 1917 referendum was passed, the Yonkers Herald praised Mrs. Livermore’s “brilliant leadership” in the crusade.
New York guaranteed women the right to vote in 1917.
New York was a milestone. “Woman suffrage is inevitable. Suffragists knew it before November 6, 1917; opponents afterward,” Catt stated in an open address to Congress. She never actually delivered the speech before Congress but frequently made use of it when speaking publicly. Catt saw women’s suffrage as rooted in America’s history. “Woman suffrage became an assured fact,” she declared in the open address, “when the Declaration of Independence was written. It matters not at all whether Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots thought of women when they wrote that immortal document. They conceived and voiced a principle greater than any man.”
At the March 1919 fiftieth convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), held in March, shortly before the House and Senate voted for the 19th Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification, the federal amendment dominated discussion. Livermore delivered a talk billed as, “Well, then what is the matter!” in which she chastised the national legislators for thus far failing to pass the federal amendment. But it wouldn’t be long before U.S. suffragists could claim national victory.
In May of that year, saying that “The time is ripe, the people are ready and the beneficiaries of this amendment are eager, willing and able to perform the duties of citizenship,” Republican Congressman James R. Mann of Illinois introduced on the floor of the House what would become the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. It passed the House 304 tom 89 votes: Democrats voted 104 to 89 for, with Republicans 200 to 19 in favor.
When the amendment came before the Senate in June of that year, 37 Republicans voted for it, while only 19 Democrats approved. In other words, 76 percent of Republican Senators voted for the bill and 60 percent of Democratic Senators voted against it. The 19th Amendment had the required votes for ratification when Tennessee voted on August 18, 1920.
Henrietta Livermore founded the National Women’s Republican Club in 1921.
In 1920, by now a member of the Republican National Committee, a gratified Henrietta Livermore said to American women, “You have it in your hands to win. You have new ideas, new methods in politics, and I cannot impress upon you too strongly the part you have to play in the coming campaign. You must cooperate with the men and have confidence in your own ability. The greatest work of the campaign will be the overcoming of the inertia and indifference of those who have a vote.”
In 1921, Livermore founded the National Women’s Republican Club. She “conceived of a national club for Republican women as a meeting place for the spreading of political knowledge to women voters.” “Livermore decided that women needed to be educated so they could vote,” Judy McGrath, the exhibit curator, told Marlo Safi on a tour of the show. “She was disappointed that there was very low female turnout in the first election that women could vote in, so she wanted to create a place where women could meet other women and become educated on the matters they’d be voting on.”
As we think about women’s suffrage this year, we can hope that someone will be inspired to delve into the archives and produce the much-needed and much-deserved biography of Henrietta Wells Livermore.