Making Democracy Work

Scarsdale Suffragists

Excerpts from "A Short Survey of the Birth and Background, Babyhood and Growth of the LWVS" by Anne Cartoun, 1951

The League of Women Voters of Scarsdale was founded in 1921. However, the history of the League in Scarsdale, should not start with its founding but with the activities of the Scarsdale women suffragists, which began seven years earlier.

The Scarsdale of 1914 would be almost unrecognizable to the villagers of today. It was a small town whose inhabitants worked and lived here. Route 22, a quiet narrow road, passed across one portion of the township, and Popham Rd. cut from it down into the village. There were very few homes on Popham, and only a few stores in the Village. Scarsdale Avenue was a daisy-riddled field. The Edgewood section was farmland and Fox Meadow was a private estate.

In this small village in 1914 the Scarsdale branch of the NYS Equal Suffrage League was organized under the chairmanship of Mrs. F.H. Bethell, Mrs. E.H. Anderson- VP, Mrs. Willard Winslow-Secretary, and Mrs. W.E. Castle-Treasurer. With a dozen members the group sought to gain membership of fifty members in the first year, with annual dues of $1.

The More Chiffon the Better

Mrs. Bethell`s interest in suffrage began one evening when she and some friends, feeling quite daring and frivolous, went to hear an English woman speak on suffrage. They arrived at the meeting expecting to hear a loud-voiced and masculine woman tell them why they should have the vote. Instead, a frail and dainty lady talked to them about the work that had been accomplished in England. So impressed were they that they went home without a word. They read, studied, attended meetings in NYC, and finally organized the Scarsdale branch of the Suffrage League in 1914.

The work was hard. There was an anti-suffrage group with paid workers, even in Scarsdale. Opposition came not only from men, but also from many Scarsdale women themselves.

Mrs. Bethell developed her own technique of public speaking. She donned her longest, fluffiest and most feminine dresses and was very polite. The more chiffon the better, was her opinion. Mrs. Bethell recalled one story in which she was asked to speak to the men in the Italian section of Hartsdale. While mounting the speaker's platform, she leaned heavily on a large beer-y man who helped her up. "Gentlemen," she said "because you love your sweet wives and dear mothers, I know you would like them to have the privilege of expressing themselves in the vote." She leaned heavily again on the beer-y man who helped her down. "That was the best speech we ever heard" the man confided to her. ..and the audience evidently agreed.

The Time for Quiet Work was Over

The Scarsdale Suffragists spoke all over Westchester County. Mrs. Bethell and Mrs. Montgomery were among a group who went to Washington to speak to President Wilson. The Scarsdale Suffrage League took an opinion poll in 1914 to determine local sentiment. Of the 365 letters sent to the populace, 200 were returned, over 100 were in favor, 30 opposed and 26 neutral. The objections raised to women's suffrage were fear of increasing the unintelligent vote, fear of overburdening women, fear of exploitation of feminism and hence the dissolution of home, and the general fear that no good and much evil would result.

In 1915 the Wayside Tea House was taken over as the League's campaign headquarters. Now the time for quiet work was over, they decided. Suffrage pins and signs were distributed. A "melting pot" was held where contributions of old jewelry, cash--anything could be donated to help the drive.

The women attended a "School for Watchers at the Polls", they went to the Hartsdale Democratic rally and more. But for all their work, the November 1915 elections were a disappointment. Mrs. Bethell was prepared, however with a huge yellow placard which was promptly hung outside Wayside Cottage that read "Victory Postponed. Regular Meeting Next Tuesday."

In 1916 the Scarsdale Suffrage League broadened its focus in local civic welfare to further its own cause. It became greatly interested and effective in village improvement through its association with the Red Cross, the Parents Association, and current events clubs among others. By 1917 the Scarsdale Suffrage Club had gained prestige and influence through its outside work. It did much to improve the conditions of immigrant laborers for the neighborhood, including starting an English school for them.

With the beginning of WWI, promised funds were withdrawn and contributions to the suffragist movement ceased. Mrs. Bethell had to carry a major part of the load herself. The Scarsdale Suffrage Club put itself wholeheartedly into war work during this period.

Success & the Birth of LWVS

Suffrage for the women of NY State was passed in the fall of 1917. Just before the election, the Scarsdale Suffrage Club sent postcards asking"Why do you so violently oppose women's suffrage?" Many men later said they could not vote against women's suffrage after having received this card.

Following the elections, a local debate occurred as to whether the club should disband or remain firm. It was decided the club should remain intact until there was a federal amendment for suffrage. However, the Scarsdale Suffrage and Civics Club lasted hardly a year. Toward the end of 1918 they voted to dissolve, and reorganized into a Women's Club, housed at Wayside Cottage.

The nineteenth amendment was signed in 1920. The League of Women Voters was founded that same year, with the Scarsdale League formed in 1921 with Mrs. Bethell as its first President.