Columbus 200: March to Equality
By Chris GaittenPublished September 1, 2012
It’s a contentious season in Ohio, a dry summer fraught with boiling temperatures and even higher political pressure. The nation anxiously awaits the coming of what promises to be a brutal presidential election in a few months; a group of concerned activists has taken up residence in the Columbus Board of Trade building while special interest money and partisan support flood in from the surrounding states, hoping that Ohio will act as a bellwether for the political mood of the entire country.
Although it resembles our current situation in an almost eerie way, this was actually the scene 100 years ago when a group of pioneering women in the Ohio Woman Suffrage Association (OWSA) were preparing to stage the largest parade for women’s suffrage in Columbus history. The three-mile parade of 5,000 women took place downtown during Columbus’ centennial week celebration on August 27, 1912, as 100,000 onlookers watched in awe.
In a 2012 ode to the historic parade, Columbus resident Leslie Blankenship is giving her presentation, “When 5,000 Women Marched in Columbus for the Right to Vote,” at various locations around the city. In the guise of parade organizer Belle Coit Kelton, she teaches people about a time when half our residents had to fight for the most basic democratic right.
Blankenship, self-described as a “little old lady,” is a retiree who volunteers at the Kelton House Museum and Garden after 37 years with the marketing department at Chemical Abstracts. The Kelton House, located on East Town Street, was owned by her husband’s family for more than 150 years and is now dedicated to keeping alive the arts, culture and daily life of 19th century Columbus.
Blankenship has played the role of many of Ohio’s most important historical women, including Mary Minor Horton, John Brown’s wife Mary, and Kelton’s mother and fellow suffragist, Elizabeth Coit.
“Since it was the bicentennial this year, I wanted to do a program on [Kelton] ... I thought it would be timely,” Blankenship said, adjusting her black knit shawl around her shoulders. “In this case, I’m trying to do an impersonation of Belle, but that’s kind of the springboard. Really, I have the PowerPoint that talks about the whole [suffrage parade], because I think it’s more important.”
Isabella “Belle” Coit was born on November 26, 1855, and raised in a progressive household under the heavy influence of her mother, who played an important role in both local suffrage and the larger movement. Elizabeth was well connected to influential players in the national suffrage movement, including Mary Livermore and Susan B. Anthony, both of whom stayed at the Coit house from time to time as Belle was growing up.
Belle graduated from Central High School in 1873 and decided to join the first-ever group of women to attend the newly founded Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College, which changed its name to The Ohio State University in 1878. Ohio A&M President Edward Orton rejected their application, saying it was intended to be a male-only school.
Such sexism would not stand for Elizabeth, who pulled the school’s charter, stating that it had been founded to educate the “youth of Ohio,” not just men. A court agreed with her, and Belle became one of the first seven women to attend the college in 1874, although she never graduated.
In 1883, Belle married Frank Kelton, whose progressive family had been staunch abolitionists in the years leading up to the Civil War and had used their house as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
“You like to think of her taking her honeymoon and doing this, but [Belle and Frank] went to the first women’s suffrage convention,” explained Blankenship, stating that Belle’s mother was a delegate. “It was held here in Columbus in 1884.”
Elizabeth was elected treasurer of the OWSA in its first year in 1885 and served as president of the Columbus branch. Belle stayed active as much as she could while she began her own family, attending monthly and annual meetings and traveling with her mother to suffrage strongholds in the Ohio Western Reserve near Painesville and Warren.
The movement ebbed and flowed over the next 25 years, scoring some small victories but still short of achieving its ultimate goal. All of that changed, however, when social and political pressures from many special interest groups brought about Ohio’s 1912 Constitutional Convention.
There were amendments to allow for referendums, initiatives, and voting machines, among 41 others. The Convention added an amendment for women’s suffrage to the ballot on May 31, 1912, giving the OWSA only three months to prepare for the special September election – a deadline made even more dreadful by the fact that they had a mere $20 in their treasury.
The OWSA and its leader, Harriet Taylor Upton, targeted Columbus’ centennial week celebration, one week before the September 3rd election, as its best opportunity to sway the local voting population.
The women sought help from the more organized and experienced suffragists from the National American Woman Suffrage Association, specifically Harriet Stanton Blatch, who had been the lead organizer of successful suffrage parades in New York City since 1910.
“They poured all their attention and money on Ohio because they thought it would be a bellwether, like today,” said Blankenship, who added that there were six states up for a vote and Ohio was the first.
Support flooded in from all around, and offices were set up in the Columbus Board of Trade building to stage a central headquarters. Belle became vice chair of the parade and took the lead role in planning and organizing the event. Blatch helped bring in notable influencers from all around to help with the urgent effort to pass the amendment. Perhaps most important among this group was speaker Margaret Foley, a woman who came from Boston to help the women of Columbus learn how to speak publicly. She would often literally stand on soapboxes to steal the attention of crowds that had come to hear politicians’ stump speeches.
These orations were the trickiest part of the OWSA plan. The issue of suffrage was well documented, and people were aware of similar events in New York, but a key part of the parade was having Columbus women stop along the route to speak publicly and passionately about the issue, an unheard-of demonstration at the time.
To make the challenge even greater, outside interest didn’t only come from supporters.
Liquor companies dumped money into the Ohio anti-suffrage campaign, fearing that once women were allowed to vote, they would overwhelmingly support temperance, or worse – Prohibition.
“Liquor interests spent 10-to-one against the women’s suffrage,” Blankenship said. “Boy, you read the stuff back in 1912, it’s just like being here. Special interests. Privileges.”
Kelton, Upton, Blatch and all the rest did what they could to bring the parade together, and after three short months the day arrived – August 27, 1912, Tuesday of the centennial week celebration.
Temperatures were in the mid-90s, but thousands of people descended on the parade route to witness the spectacle for themselves, not to mention the multitudes of women who arrived on trains from at least seven different states to participate.
“People didn’t know what to expect. In fact, they made a big deal out of the fact that the parade started on time – women are never on time,” Blankenship added, noting that several newspapers prominently featured the ladies’ timeliness.
Promptly at 11 a.m., Dr. Alice Littlejohn, a physical education professor at Ohio State, rode atop her horse with a stopwatch in hand and gave the go-ahead sign for the parade to begin. From that moment, 5,000 women dressed mostly in white with yellow sashes paraded through the cobblestone streets of downtown Columbus from the intersection of Grant Avenue and Broad Street along the three-mile course to the Ohio State House.
The parade had more of the feel of a festival than an angry march. There were floats, and horse-drawn chariots, and people dressed as famous freedom fighters, from Joan of Arc to Abraham Lincoln. The 67-year-old leader of the national suffrage movement, Dr. Anna Shaw, marched the entire route to address the crowd at the finish.
And behind it all was Belle Coit Kelton, 57 years old at that time. The march signaled a sea change in public opinion about women’s role in society, said Blankenship.
“Let’s put it this way: they were expecting the worst. They didn’t think women could pull it off, and when they did, and it was well-done, and on-time ... people were very impressed.”
Despite the efforts of the OWSA and the success of the parade, the amendment was defeated a week later by a count of 336,875 to 249,420, according to Ohio’s Constitutions: An Historical Perspective. It was one of the few amendments that didn’t pass.
The suffrage movement fractured soon after, both nationally and locally.
The 1912 election split the Republican Party – the umbrella under which suffrage thrived – into a progressive wing under former president and Bull Moose Party candidate Teddy Roosevelt, and a mainstream wing under sitting president, former Ohio governor William Howard Taft.
The suffrage movement endured a similar split, with Paul creating a more militant offshoot of the mainstream movement with which Kelton was aligned.
In Ohio, suffrage also took a backseat to more practical matters. A massive flood in 1913 did extensive damage across the state and much of the Midwest, so voting rights were tabled while women helped rebuild.
Ohio finally gave women the right to vote in November 1917, and it became the fifth state to ratify the 19th amendment on June 16, 1919. Women across the nation won nationwide suffrage on August 26, 1920.
Fortunately, it was a moment that Belle lived long enough to see – and then some. She didn’t pass away until November 23, 1956, after devoting much of her 100 years to bringing suffrage to the forefront of the political debate right here in the capitol city.
“She’d been connected to Columbus history all her life, and I just try to bring little things like that bring her character to life,” said Blankenship.
Blankenship’s next presentation will be September 13th at 7 p.m. at the Grandview Heights Public Library, 1685 W First Ave. For more information, www.ghpl.org.