In November 1915, New York men voted overwhelmingly against a state constitutional amendment on gender equality in suffrage. It lost in 139 out of 150 Assembly districts and in 57 out of 62 counties. Only a few months later, the same proposition began moving through the state legislature again. It would be approved in 1916 and 1917 and appear on the ballot a second time in November 1917. Anyone dealing with a legislature would do well to study how pro-suffrage organizations outmaneuvered the leadership of the state Assembly and state Senate to pull this off after what seemed to be utter defeat. It was a thing of beauty.
This proposition passed, granting to all New Yorkers meeting qualifications the right to vote in all elections and to run for any public office. It passed partly because the diligence, devotion, passion and dignified persistence of advocates was too admirable for even the skeptical to ignore. But also, it was time. Many women in New York could already vote in school and town elections, and society was surviving just fine. Just as with opinions on marriage equality a century later, you could almost feel the ground shift in 1916 and 1917.
Two women were elected to the state Assembly in November 1918, one a Democrat in Manhattan and one a Republican in the 2nd District of Suffolk County, made up of that county’s four western towns.
Mrs. Ida B. Sammis of Main Street in Huntington, a widow of a certain age, had family roots in that town dating back to 1656 and was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She had organized the first modern suffrage club in Suffolk County and became an outstanding captain in the county’s Women’s Suffrage Organization (WSO). She was the only woman candidate in the state to successfully weld together two grassroots movements based around active women: suffrage and prohibition.
Sammis entered the Republican primary against Assemblyman Henry Murphy, a five-term incumbent who had only lived in Suffolk for a decade and was still resented by some Old Salts as a carpetbagger. She came out swinging, calling him “unpatriotic” because of his lack of fervor for temperance legislation (then being sold to America as a sacrifice for the troops).
The WSO, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and other groups enrolled thousands of women voters, and Sammis conducted what they used to call a “whirlwind canvass.” An Islip newspaper, reminding readers that politics “is a man’s job,” nevertheless endorsed Sammis because Murphy stood for nothing in particular and the purposeful Sammis had “tackled” the campaign “manfully.” Sammis won the primary, 1,527 to 1,288, and then won the general election in November, carrying all four towns within the district, but running significantly behind other Republicans with 53 percent.
In January 1919, 201 state legislators took office, but it wasn’t immediately clear even which restrooms would be available to two of them. The early women legislative pioneers were openly resented by some of their colleagues and by much of the all-male, heavy-drinking Capitol press corps. Even legislators and lobbyists of good faith were unsure about how to behave or what to say near them.
Democratic and Republican floor leaders reached an agreement that, as a courtesy, the two women would be assigned seats directly in front of the chamber’s rostrum. These seats were traditionally held for older or infirm members who wouldn’t have to walk so far from the lobby. In the Assembly, each party conference met to choose seats by lottery on the basis of seniority. Democrats made sure that Assemblywoman Mary Lilly was in the first row. In the Republican conference, a member from Rockland County smiled and chose the seat reserved for Sammis. He refused, loudly, to give the choice seat to a woman.
Sammis ended up in the back row.
Michael Miller (email@example.com) has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.