Women on Nantucket voted for the first time in February 1880. The Massachusetts legislature passed a law allowing women to vote in April 1879, but it was limited to voting for school committee members.
Several months after the law was passed, instructions for prospective women voters were published on the front page of The Inquirer and Mirror in a letter from the Massachusetts Suffrage Association. Women had to be 21 or older, citizens of the Commonwealth for over a year, and residents of the municipality where they intended to vote for six months. They had to be able to read the state constitution and to write their names. They had to prove they had paid taxes, had to register with their town assessors by a specified date with written lists of their estate, and had to be willing to pay the poll tax. Women were advised to check that their names had been properly placed on the rolls, which the law said had to be provided at least ten days before each election.
Only thirteen Nantucket women voted in that first election in 1880. The Inquirer and Mirror noted that the presence of women had not disrupted the town meeting. The men were “respectful” as the women filed in and took their seats to vote for the school committee.
Nantucket women had been active in the suffrage movement for decades. Eliza Starbuck Barney, her husband Nathaniel, and their daughter Sarah, attended the first women’s suffrage conference in Massachusetts in 1851. The Nantucket civil rights activists such as the Barneys were involved in abolition, educational reform, temperance and women’s rights.
After the Civil War, women expected to be included in the 15th Amendment which gave black men the right to vote. When women were excluded from amendment, the suffrage movement split in two. One faction came out in opposition to the amendment because of women’s exclusion. The other supported passage of the 15th amendment because of the dire plight of black men. As Frederick Douglass explained, black men’s plight was more urgent because they were “molested, beaten, shot, stabbed, hanged and burnt.” The Nantucket suffragists agreed with Douglass and supported the 15th Amendment, confident that that their turn was next.
Some progress was made locally. In 1875, the Atheneum named its first women trustees – Eliza Starbuck Barney and teacher Ellen O. Swain. The Atheneum had a history of placing trust in women, such as when young Maria Mitchell was appointed its first librarian in 1836 when few women held such prestigious positions.
The following year, the Nantucket Republican party invited women to attend a meeting to select delegates to the statewide convention in Worcester. Attendees included Eliza Starbuck Barney, Anna Gardner, Harriet Coffin Peirce and Charlotte Austin Joy, all veteran abolitionists and suffragists.
Women’s suffrage was a key topic at the Fourth Women’s Congress held in Philadelphia during the Centennial Year of 1876 and Nantucket women were well represented. The Congress was presided over that year by astronomy Professor Maria Mitchell. Lucretia Coffin Mott, in her 80s, added her voice to those in favor of women voting. Also in attendance were Eliza Starbuck Barney, her niece Catherine Starbuck and Charlotte Austin Joy.
But it was sixty-year-old Anna Gardner, recently returned from years of teaching freedmen in the South, who gave a long, passionate speech calling for the vote. She carefully and methodically refuted the arguments that had been used for years against women’s suffrage. She argued that, even if women were beginning to attain higher degrees of education and professions, that they would “never attain the highest possibilities” without the right to vote. As long as women were denied the ballot, they would “continue to be repressed, and to feel an enforced subjection, which alike impoverishes her affections and narrows the scope of her intellect.” She predicted there would be a time when men and women’s roles were interchangeable, calling the boundaries separating the genders as “simply absurd.”
Massachusetts began to consider granting women limited suffrage in the 1870s. The excuse for limiting the vote to school committee members was that women’s opinions about education were appropriate because of women’s traditional role taking care of children, as well as the number of women in the teaching profession. Every other political issue was off limits.
Not content with the notion of such a partial ballot, Nantucketers submitted a petition to the legislature arguing for full suffrage in 1876, signed by 292 people. Alexander Macy, Jr., husband of Lydia Gardner Macy, wrote an accompanying letter noting that, as the island had fewer than 3,000 inhabitants, such huge support should “awaken a response from our honorable Legislature.” The legislature was not convinced.
Ten years passed between the passage of the 15th Amendment and the Massachusetts law granting women limited voting rights. Nevertheless, the suffragists mobilized to register women, even if it was “a crumb of the loaf,” as Anna Gardner wrote.
The women who voted that first year were members of Nantucket’s Suffrage Club. Most were elderly reformers. The first woman to cast her ballot was Anna’s sister, Lydia Gardner Macy. She was joined by Eliza Starbuck Barney, 78, almost 30 years after she had attended the first woman’s suffrage conference in Massachusetts. Also voting were Anna Gardner, Harriet Coffin Peirce and Charlotte Austin Joy.
Interestingly, when the Nantucket women cast their votes in 1880, there were already women serving on the Nantucket school committee. The law had not prohibited women from membership on school committees and Judith J. Fish and Elizabeth C. Crosby had been elected in 1875 by male voters.
The suffragists were disappointed when only 13 women had registered to vote that first year. They mobilized to register more women before the next election. Their effort resulted in an almost doubling of the number of women voters to 25.
Anna Gardner had told the Women’s Congress that the best preparation for women to vote was to give them the vote. She was proven correct because the number of women registered to vote steadily increased. By 1884, 106 women had registered, and by 1885, it had climbed to 176.