Submitted by Bedford Town Archivist Ashley Large
Picture it: Bedford, 1917. You are a woman living in town, contributing to the prosperity of your community, running a household, and raising a family with your husband. Your life is a pinnacle of what is considered traditional, virtuous womanhood at the time. However, when it comes to your role in deciding the future of the nation and the town, you have none.
State and federal laws cut you out of the voting population based on centuries-old presumptions about the nature of women. Some people assume that your husband represents the political sentiments of his family, including you. You are disenfranchised. The same is true of all women in Massachusetts, no matter their class and economic background, ethnicity, marital status, age, or race.
By the time 1918 rolls around, there has been much unrest about this very injustice for almost a century. Women such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Sojourner Truth, and Carrie Chapman Catt have campaigned, convened, and cooperated to work towards universal women’s suffrage.
Some states, such as Wyoming, have even given women the right to vote within their own borders, but there is nothing protecting these voters in the U.S. Constitution and Massachusetts has declined to vote for suffrage statewide. However, in some municipalities, women have been granted the right to vote for the School Committee. Women in Bedford have been serving on the School Committee since at least 1880 – Abbie C. Clark and Carrie L. Bacon are two examples.
The struggle is real. There are conferences, protests, marches, and publications dedicated to the cause. Women are spit on, scorned, jailed, and even force-fed during hunger strikes because they believe in suffrage.
However, due to the dedicated hard work of activist groups, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution is passed in the Senate on June 4, 1919. It reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
By Aug. 18, 1920, enough states have ratified the amendment, including Massachusetts, and it is law. What is the first thing you do, as a person longing to fully participate in the political life of your state and country? You go to Town Hall to register to vote!
Now, in 2023, we look back and see: The first woman registered to vote in Bedford after Aug. 18, 1920 was 77-year-old Lucy A. Flint, as can be seen in Bedford’s General Register of Voters, 1884-1920. Lists of registered women voters were relegated to the back of the register, per state law. There you find those records made more than 100 years ago.
Expecting little turnout, the clerk had started his listings too close to the end of the book and was forced to backtrack when so many women asserted their Constitutional rights. In 1920 and for a few years after, women would come in groups to register. What a happy occasion it must have been! Twenty-four women registered alongside Lucy Flint. The rest is history, as they say.
This was a stunning victory and it should be remembered with pride in Bedford. Yet, there is still much work to be done… Although the 15th Amendment had given Black men the right to vote in 1870, there were many places in the country where laws were passed meant to discourage access to the polls. Black women suffered this same treatment even after they were granted the right to vote. Indigenous peoples, immigrants, disabled individuals, and others were also affected. This is still true today. Universal suffrage for all continues to be something we strive for nationally.
This is the third in a series of articles by Bedford Town Archivist Ashley Large. She shares some of the interesting items that are in the town’s archives.