As pundits discuss the role that women’s issues will play in 2016, it is good to remember that a century ago this year, Nevada became one of the last western states to approve suffrage after a struggle that started forty-five years earlier with the first attempt to bring the issue to the legislature. Women won their point in 1914 thanks to a new, grassroots organizing campaign and publicity, publicity, publicity.
Assemblyman Curtis Hillyer first introduced a woman suffrage resolution in 1869, which would have made Nevada one of the first states to grant women the vote, but his resolution failed in the Assembly. It was introduced several times in subsequent years, but fell short of the Nevada Constitutional stipulation of two legislative approvals before submitting an amendment for voter approval. Finally, in 1911, after a decade without legislative support, a woman’s suffrage resolution passed the Nevada legislature. But there was no guarantee that woman’s suffrage would muster voter support, and suffragists worked continuously for three years to make that happen.
The Nevada Equal Franchise Society (NEFS) formed in 1911 and moved rapidly forward to achieve victory. National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) President, Anna Howard Shaw, cautioned Nevada women to engage in a low-key campaign, but the Nevada suffragists embraced a new style of suffrage work that had been successful in California and Washington. Anne Henrietta Martin, a Nevada native who returned from a sojourn in England, joined the organization and served as press secretary in the fall of 1911. Martin had worked with British suffragettes who had adopted far more radical techniques than their American counterparts, and she came home with new ideas to organize the women in her home state. Martin became the President of the NEFS early in 1912. Quickly, she mobilized local chapters and beefed up the education and press departments of the organization. They had a lot of ground to cover – literally: Nevada is 110,000 square miles and had at that time 80,000 citizens, with the largest city consisting of about 20,000 residents. The rest of the population lived in small towns or mining camps, or on isolated ranches. By early 1913, the NEFS had created eleven county societies with 500 members.
Nevada suffragists understood that their greatest support would have to come from the small towns, rural areas, and among the working class, just as had been the case in California, where liquor interests successfully pushed the anti-suffrage message. Nevada suffragists built ties with wage earners, laborers, and the Socialist Party. They also limited any connection with the temperance work of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to eliminate the animosity from liquor interests that had slowed woman’s suffrage elsewhere. Since Nevada women lacked experience in state and national organizational work, and few could speak well in front of a public audience, Martin asked for NAWSA and its rival Congressional Union’s support to send organizers and speakers. The Congressional Union (CU) had been part of the NAWSA until early 1914, when they split over ideological differences in the use of militant tactics. Anne Martin was a militant, but wanted to keep ties with the CU quiet, as she was already viewed as a radical from her suffrage record in England.
Many speakers arrived from California and back east to help Nevada women win the vote. Feminist novelist Charlotte Perkins Gilman came to Nevada in 1912, receiving a good reception everywhere except Las Vegas, where the socialist Gilman refused to speak on the same platform with Nevada’s Democratic Senator Francis Newlands. Oregonian Sara Bard Field, in Nevada to get a divorce, worked for Nevada suffrage as she had in her home state. She became well known as a gifted speaker and traveled throughout the state in 1913 and 1914. Anna Howard Shaw roused audiences in 1914, as did Jane Addams of Hull House fame. At the suggestion of the head of the CU, Alice Paul, Mabel Vernon arrived in Nevada early in 1914 after a failed campaign in her home state of Delaware. Vernon helped plan events and became well known for her abilities at speaking in open air meetings. (Alice Paul, Anne Martin, and Mabel Vernon would become founding members of the National Woman’s Party in 1917 and engaged in picketing the White House and other militant actions for a constitutional suffrage amendment.) Suffrage speakers traveled thousands of miles on trips around the state. They took trains, drove automobiles, rode horses, and occasionally walked to reach remote mining camps and ranches. If they did not reach their destination by nightfall, they camped out. Traveling around the state was no picnic, even for those fortunate enough to be able to use cars. Few roads were paved; automobiles had no heat or air conditioning, and were open to the elements. But suffragists knew that personal contact with the voters was essential.
Martin and her dedicated group of suffrage workers engaged in a number of tactics from 1912 to 1914 to keep suffrage in the forefront of voters’ minds. Systematic press work and public meetings targeted rural residents, labor unions, women’s clubs, and political parties. Martin peppered newspapers with press bulletins and wrote a regular column for two Reno newspapers, the Republican Reno Evening Gazette and the Democratic Nevada State Journal. Forty-five editors throughout Nevada received suffrage news regularly. NEFS sold 20,000 copies of the booklet, “Women Under Nevada Laws,” written in 1912 by Goldfield attorney Bird Wilson, or about one copy for every registered voter. Suffrage activists canvassed the state, town-by-town and house-by-house. They sponsored pageants and processions, teas and parades to keep attention on the upcoming November vote. Novelist Mary Austin chipped in to help her friend Anne Martin and they co-authored another booklet, “Suffrage and Government” in 1914. This pamphlet emphasized the transient nature of the average Nevada voter, which, when combined with a dominant male population, made the franchise imperative for women to influence society.
When officials counted the votes after the November 3rd election, the tally was 10,936 for and 7,258 against. The dedication and hard work of the Nevada suffragists had paid off. Success came from the small towns, mining camps, and laborers as predicted, while not a single ward in Reno voted in favor of suffrage. Carson City and Virginia City also turned women down. And so, the final three-year struggle came to a triumphant end and women settled in to becoming active citizens of the state, having demonstrated political savvy they would continue to put to use, in Nevada and elsewhere.