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Markers will honor Mainers who fought for women's right to vote, 102 years after the 19th amendment

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Irwin Gratz
/
Maine Public
Anne Gass, a member of the Steering Committee for the Maine Suffrage Centennial Collaborative, poses under the sign erected in front the home at 42 Deering Street in Portland, where her great grandparents, the Whitehouses, lived.

The pandemic interrupted, among other things, events marking the centennial of the 19th amendment. It was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920.

The Maine Suffrage Centennial Collaborative has been erecting seven roadside markers to honor the Mainers who helped win the right to vote for women. The latest marker is being dedicated on Thursday in Farmington, honoring Isabel Greenwood, founder of the Franklin County Equal Suffrage League. And on Aug. 26, Governor Janet Mills will participate in a ceremony unveiling a marker near the State House.

Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz spoke with with Anne Gass, a member of the Collaborative's Steering Committee. After meeting at another marker on Deering Street in Portland dedicated this past June, Gratz began by asking who it marks.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Gass: So these are my great grandparents, Robert Treat and Florence Brooks Whitehouse who were both suffrage leaders. They were from Augusta but had moved to Portland once they got married and lived in Portland the rest of their lives.

Gratz: And where are the other markers in the state?

The other markers are in Lewiston for Camille Lessard-Bissonnette and Augusta Hunt here in Portland at 165 State Street. Isabel Greenwood is honored with a marker in Farmington.

And there's a marker at the State House that just kind of commemorates the ratification of the 19th amendment and all the suffrage activity that took place at the State House.

What did and do women bring to the electorate that men did not?

Well, the suffragists, many of them believed that women would purify politics, that at the time, there was this this cult of womanhood that kind of put women on a pedestal. And people talked about how women were so pure, and that they could only improve the dirty rough and tumble nature of politics. You know, in fact, I'm not sure that that has happened. Just as it's hard to mobilize any other segment of the electorate, it's hard to get women to vote all the same way. And so, you know, people have different opinions. But that was definitely part of the rationale for getting women the right to vote. I would say that my great grandmother, especially Florence Brooks Whitehouse, was among those kind of a minority in Maine who understood that it wasn't enough for women just to get the right to vote, that women lacked a lot of other basic rights that needed to get fought for as well.

What else has been going on to honor that centennial? And are there still other things that will be happening in the next few months?

Native Americans weren't even granted citizenship until 1924. And in Maine, we know that they didn't actually get the right to vote until the 50s and 60s. So we couldn't find a Native American in Maine that would fit that bill, and we couldn't find Black suffragists either, it was just really too difficult. So what we decided to do, we being the Maine Suffrage Centennial Collaborative, was to raise money separately for two additional markers that we could use to honor Black suffragists and a Native American woman. So the Black Matriarchs of Bangor will have their own marker, it'll be the only marker recognizing that Bangor even had a vibrant and thriving Black community back in the early 20th century. So I'm really excited about that one. And Lucy Nicolar Poolaw was a citizen of the Penobscot Nation, and she'll be honored with another marker.

It's interesting that you talk about those two markers as well, because the other thing they also can reveal is the importance of the universality of suffrage.

The history of the suffrage movement, as well, up until relatively recently, was the history of White affluent women and men, you know, women like my great grandmother who didn't have to work for a living because her husband brought home the money and, and so she had time to turn her hands to good works, which thank goodness she did, but still, she didn't have to work in a factory for, you know, 60, 70 hours a week in order to just keep food on the table and a roof over her head. So we're really thrilled too that one of the markers, Camille Lessard-Bissonnette was a French Canadian woman who emigrated to Lewiston to work in the mills but also began writing for a French-language newspaper. She was well ahead of my great grandparents on the suffrage issue, and she wrote columns about the need for women Suffrage on both sides of the border. And so three of these seven markers recognize someone other than White affluent people, and so we're really excited about that.