Wednesday, August 26, 2009

From the Collections: Women's Suffrage

Today marks the 89th anniversary of the 19th Amendment going into effect (which, oddly, doesn't get an artistic rendering from Google). In a few short weeks, as part of the Institute for Women's Health and Leadership, we'll be kicking off Vision 2020 at the National Constitution Center and we will also be involved in quite a few events to celebrate the 90th anniversary of women's suffrage next year as well as working toward the centennial in 2020. In light of that, here are a few items from the collection related to winning the right to vote.

Although it was at the forefront of women's medical education in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it may come as a surprise to some to learn that not all Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania students and faculty were in favor of the suffrage movement. This editorial in the student magazine from 1912, was very much opposed to the notion, even though the author (an anonymous female medical student) agreed, in principle, that women should have the right to vote - it just wouldn't be a good thing for the nation as a whole.

However, that was most definitely not the majority view; another anonymous student satirized the anti-suffrage viewpoint held by some men under the none-too-subtle pen name 'J. Ilted' in this poem from the very next issue of the magazine.

Throughout this period, there are notices of pro-suffrage meetings being held in the Philadelphia area (such as this one), and some WMC faculty members were by no means quiet about the issue.

Dr. Ellen C. Potter (WMC 1903) issued a call to arms in 1912, lamenting the fact that contemporary young women medical students were apathetic compared to the previous generation's struggling pioneers. Dr. Potter was a very popular professor and later a pioneer in public health and preventive medicine, which was a cause taken up by not a few suffragist physicians.

One of those was Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, who was a regular visitor to WMC, serving as commencement speaker when her schedule permitted (she was the leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association for a number of years); her death, only a few months after the passing of the 19th Amendment, inspired the creation of the Anna Howard Shaw Memorial Deptartment of Preventive Medicine - although it was no easy task. The department was not officially created until 1930, even though a campaign was begun in 1920 to raise funds.

Despite earlier anti-suffrage positions from some students, there is no indication that anyone chose not to take advantage of the college holiday afforded by the 1920 election; the account in the Bulletin recorded that, '...the casting of our first ballots assumed the solemnity of a religious ceremony.' Students took the opportunity to do some of the above-mentioned fundraising, '...collecting the National American Woman Suffrage Association's 'thank-offering' for the Anna Howard Shaw Memorial.'

It may have been a working holiday, but it was a most welcome one.


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