The University of Rhode Island gave community members the opportunity to learn about the local history of suffrage in Rhode Island with this week’s Suffrage Centennial Lecture Series.
“Historical Perspectives on Woman Suffrage: Rhode Island and Beyond.” was the topic at this week’s lecture, which was the eighth installment in the series.

This week’s lecture was focused on providing the audience with three perspectives on the Women’s Suffrage movement, as well as the effect that denying women the right to vote still has on women to this day.

The series was created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which prohibited the government from denying citizens the right to vote based on race.
The event featured three speakers, who each spoke on a different aspect of women’s suffrage.

The first speaker, Elizabeth Stevens, the editor of Newport History, the journal of the Newport Historical Society, spoke about the biographies of Rhode Island’s women’s suffrage activists. Specifically, she talked about Elizabeth Buffam Chance and Paulina Wright Davis, the founders of the Rhode Island Women’s Suffrage Association. 

The Association heavily impacted women’s voting rights in the state through petitioning the General Assembly from when they were founded in 1868 until women were given the right to vote in 1920. 

Buffam Chance also advocated for extending voting rights to African-American women, according to Elisa Miller, history department chair at Rhode Island College. 

“Too often in the past women’s suffrage has been treated as a marginal issue in American history, in education, and in the media,” Miller said. “[It is] given a token day during Women’s History month or a sidebox in a history textbook. A new narrative seems to have become common – that women’s suffrage was led by white women, for the benefit of white women and that the 19th Amendment for women’s suffrage only provided women’s rights for white women. This is a false narrative, and one that erases Black women as important actors in the history of women’s suffrage.” 

Miller spoke about how the injustice that Black women experienced during the suffrage movement caused women’s suffragist Bertha G. Higgins to create the Rhode Island Union of Colored Women’s Club (RICWC) to help the voices of Black women to be heard. The RICWC was overturned after many petitions were sent to the government to include Black women in the 19th Amendment.

Professor Emily Lynch, a lecturer in the political science department at URI, spoke about how the effects of denying women the right to vote in the past and the suffrage movement can still be seen in politics today. 

As of 2021, women only make up 26 percent of the United States Congress, according to Lynch. She said that women who run for office win elections more than men when they run. However, fewer women run for office due to what she described as an “instilled ambition” and “confidence gap.”

Dr. Evelyn Sterne, the director of URI’s Center for the Humanities and the contact person for the Suffrage Series, said these topics are specifically important in relation to Rhode Island’s history. 

“I think it’s really important to learn local history,” Sterne said. “Whether you’re from Rhode Island or not, I think it’s important to appreciate the history of where you’re living. A very prominent women’s suffragist lived in Newport: Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. She lived in Newport and was in charge of the headquarter of the Rhode Island Women’s Suffrage Association in Newport.”

Sterne said that Rhode Island was one of the states that had an “undemocratic voting culture” for a long time. The Dorr Rebellion, which occurred in Rhode Island in 1842, looked to overturn the Rhode Island Constitution that made it so only landowning white men could vote in the state. This rebellion was partially successful, though these problems weren’t completely fixed until 1928, according to Sterne.

“Learning about history helps us appreciate how incredible a right [voting] is,” said Sterne. 

She also emphasized the importance of these topics following a tumultuous election year. The 2020 presidential election demonstrated the importance of every vote and voter turnout, according to her. Sterne said that the Jan. 6 insurrection on the United States Capitol Building shows how easy the right to vote can be threatened.

The next and final lecture in the series will take place on April 21, it is titled “Felon Disenfranchisement and the History of Women’s Voting Rights.”  It will feature guest speaker and Douglas Southall Freeman Chair in history Pippa Holloway from the University of Richmond.