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Exhibit Shows Michigan Helped Lead The Way In Women's Suffrage

Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

The first Women’s Rights Convention was held in New York in 1848, but women wouldn’t win the right to vote until 70 years later.

“Many people think that this began sometime in the 1900s and oh maybe after 10 or 15 years they got it done. That wasn’t the case," says Lin Cote, vice president of the Ladies Library Association in Kalamazoo.

“Things got rolling in 1848 and the Ladies Library Association coincidentally began with a readers group of four women in 1844 and then in 1852 we became a formalized organization. So the Ladies Library was really in the thick of it.”

September 12th through 19th, the Ladies Library will have a free exhibit on women’s suffrage in Michigan called "Petticoat Patriots."

Cote says Michigan was on the forefront of the movement. Two years before that first women’s convention, European activist Ernestine Rose advocated for the female vote in front of the Michigan legislature. Michigan also had help from abolitionists like Sojourner Truth. 

“The state of Michigan was the 2nd state to actually put it on the ballot so that we could vote for women to have right to vote and we were one of the very first three states to ratify the 19th amendment,” says Cote.

But it was still a long, difficult road for women to vote. Cote says few women were educated enough to get something on the ballot.

“There was a name called ‘blue stocking’ and that was considered a cut, it was not a compliment. A blue stocking was a woman that read - heaven forbid - read newspapers, studied things,” she says.

Cote says even the women who could read were worried that they would be ostracized from society:

“The way that most women survived was through a good marriage. And so a lot of women that certainly had the abilities and the mental capacity to understand this and become leaders were thinking, ‘Well, gee, do I really want to do this? I might be a spinster for the rest of my life and be branded as a troublemaker.’ For the married ladies, it’s I don’t want to upset my husband and I don’t want to cause a big rift at home.”

Before women could vote nationally, Michigan tried to pass at least four bills to allow suffrage at the state level. All of them were shut down except one.

In 1867, women were given the right to vote for school trustees. Cote says while women were seen as too emotional to vote in other elections, lawmakers trusted them with Michigan’s schools.

“The general feeling or consensus of opinion was that women could be reasonable and make wise decisions with school trustees because they were more or less looking at these people as guardians and caretakers of their children,” says Cote.

Cote says she’s not sure why Michigan was so active in women’s suffrage, but she has a theory. The original founders of the Ladies Library and many other suffragettes moved to Michigan from the New England area - which Cote says was the epicenter of the movement.

“Unknowingly, probably, but I think these women possibly acted as liaisons in that they were going back and forth between these states for family reasons and shopping and other reasons - and I think they caught the bug,” she says.

You can see the exhibit "Petticoat Patriots" at the Ladies Library in Kalamazoo. It will run from September 12th through 19th.

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