Maine Author's New Book Tells An Unknown Slice Of Suffrage History
101 years ago this month, women in America won the right to vote. But getting to that point was something of a bumpy road - in some cases, quite literally. In 1915, two immigrants from Sweden volunteered for a road trip that took them motoring across the country from California, eventually back to their home in Rhode Island, but with a very important side trip to Washington, DC. Maine Public's All Things Considered Host Jennifer Mitchell spoke with Maine author Anne Gass, who has written a book about this rather unknown slice of suffrage history.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mitchell: So who were these two Swedish women that did this big road trip? And why are they perhaps not as well known as some of the other women we associate with the suffrage effort?
Gass: Well, the two women were called Ingeborg Kinstedt and Maria Kindberg. I believe, after doing this research that they are not as well known as the other women who made the trip, because they didn't fit the profile of what the suffragists the suffrage leaders at the time were trying to promote as the new modern woman voter. The preferred profile was that they were white, young, well educated, native born, Ingeborg and Maria didn't meet that profile at all. They were middle aged immigrants, they spoke English with a heavy accent. They didn't dress in a modish fashionable way. And I think they were lesbians. One of them at least, Ingeborg, she was what what would have been called at the time is kind of "man-ish," or, you know, I don't know what the comparable term would be today - "butch," I suppose. But she was the one who fixed the car. Neither one of them ever married, they didn't have children, but they lived together. In my book, I portray them as lesbians, because I kind of believe that to be the case, even though I was unable to document that.
So this is not a small undertaking any time but especially in 1915. We're talking back roads that were made for ox cards, no services. A lot of folks didn't even have an automobile or know how to drive one or how to fix one. What was so important that they wanted to do what must have been kind of a grueling trip?
So they were launched from the Panama Pacific International Exposition by an upstart suffrage organization called The Congressional Union. The Congressional Union had had a booth at the exposition for a number of months, and they were collecting signatures on this petition to Congress and the President demanding an amendment to the U.S. Constitution enfranchising women. The purpose of this journey was to drive these petitions, which were supposed to represent the desires of the women voters of the West.
And just to clarify for those who might have missed it, that when you say women voters of the West, we're talking about a number of states and territories where women actually had full voting rights before universal suffrage?
Exactly, because there were about a dozen states that had enfranchised women through state action. They were all west of the Mississippi. So these this petitions, they said they had 500,000 of them, they were going to bring them to Congress and the President as an illustration of how powerful the demand was for women's suffrage. There were no polls in those days. The petitions were needed, because it was one of the few ways that women could really express their commitment to this cause.
Alright so let's be real here - long trips in the car with other people can either be a hoot or hell on wheels. So which was this? What kind of trip was this?
Yeah, I mean, think about any trip that you've taken with someone you love. And even when you love them a lot, you know, there are times when you want to kill them. I mean, they just drive you nuts. And that was certainly the case in this trip. They started off in the trip with four women, Ingeborg and Maria, a woman named Sara Bard Field and another woman named Frances Jolliffe. Maria, she was age 55 at the time of the trip, she did almost all of the driving. Now, Frances Jolliffe dropped out in Sacramento, which was their first stop. So it was really just the three of them on their way across the country. And Sara Bard Field was much younger, she was in her 30s. She had a lot of health issues. She was kind of high maintenance, but because she met the profile and had a lot of suffrage organizing and speaking experience, she was the one who did all of the speaking. Ingeborg, I think really resented that she wanted to be known as a suffrage leader in her own right. Sara later claims that Ingeborg threatens to kill her. But you know, you can just imagine that the difficulties, the rigors of the journey would just make you lose it at one point or another.
So did they make it to DC? And did the trip have any kind of real impact? Did people notice?
They didn't make it. They were due in in DC on December 6, which was opening day of Congress, and they do meet with Congress and the President and show them the petitions and talk about their cause. But one of the interesting things about The Congressional Union is that one of their core strategies was to hold the political party in power accountable for failing to move the suffrage amendment through Congress. And in 1915, that was the Democrats. And so the trip had a couple of purposes: one was to organize women across the country and get them united behind this, that this idea of a federal amendment, but also to put Congress on notice, put the Democrats on notice, that if they didn't get the work done in 1915, or make substantial progress on it, that the women would campaign against them in the 1916 election campaign. President Wilson would be running for reelection, and of course there would be congressional races across the country. Congress did not act and the Congressional Union did send out field organizers to the western states where women could vote, to try to persuade them to vote against the democrats in 1916. And Wilson was reelected with a much narrower margin than he had been in 1912. So they claim credit for that. Perhaps there were some other issues, but we've talked about a lot of heavy issues. But it is a story of a road trip, and so there's a lot of humor. It's fun. It's an adventure story. I mean, it's not just a downer lecture about women's history. It's a fun adventure story, and a good beach read too.
Anne Gass is an author who lives in Gray, Maine, her new book is out now We Demand: The Suffrage Road Trip.