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Campaign for a State Amendment

In late 1911, New Jersey suffrage groups joined together to form the Joint Legislative Committee to press for a referendum on women’s suffrage. Lillian Feickert represented the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association. Attempts to introduce a suffrage amendment in 1912 and 1913, however, both failed. An amendment to grant full suffrage to women in New Jersey was introduced once again in the state legislature in early 1914. The amendment passed both houses easily and was introduced again in January 1915. It passed unanimously in the assembly and passed 17 to 4 in the senate. One of the four senate hold-outs was Dr. William E. Ramsay of Perth Amboy. The legislation providing for a public referendum was passed on May 6, 1915, and the referendum was scheduled for a special election October 19, 1915, registration day for the regular election in November. The referendum granted the right to vote to every male and female citizen of at least twenty-one years who had been a resident of the state for at least one year. Referenda were also scheduled for fall 1915 in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, but New Jersey was the first. Now the full force of the national suffrage and anti-suffrage movements were focused on New Jersey as paid organizers and volunteers flocked to the state.

In New Jersey, the four suffrage organizations formed a Cooperative Committee, with a central fundraising arm. Lillian Feickert moved the headquarters of NJWSA from Newark to Plainfield, which was more convenient to her home near Dunellen. Branch headquarters were located in the twenty-one principal cities of the state, including New Brunswick. NJWSA mobilized for the campaign by county and by political district, canvassing house-to-house and organizing street meetings. The Women’s Political Union (WPU) was also an effective organizing force. Their members reached out to various minority groups, including German speakers and African-American women in Newark. Becoming aware that many labor unions were opposed to women’s suffrage, the WPU invited out-of-state organizers to come speak at the noon lunch break at factories in New Jersey cities including New Brunswick and Perth Amboy. For example, in July 1915, suffragists spoke at the Consolidated Fruit Jar Company and a wallpaper manufacturer in New Brunswick. Since several factories adjoined each other the WPU was able to draw a large crowd at the lunch hour. Speakers including Emily Pierson of Connecticut, who “has the rare gift of being able to look at things from a working man’s point of view.”

The looming referendum galvanized women at the local level. In September, the local papers requested all women in South River interested in women’s suffrage to meet at the Methodist Church to form a local association. Under the leadership of Sarah E. Selover, a celebrated local doctor, the South River group quickly became active, sending women’s suffrage literature to every voter in the borough. Selover soon became a leader at the county level. Lillian Feickert created a “Flying Suffrage Squadron,” which visited Middlesex County in September 1915. As well as two major rallies in New Brunswick, the group made stops and held meetings at every important voting location in the county, including Dunellen, New Market, South Plainfield, Oak Tree, Metuchen, Woodbridge, Perth Amboy, South Amboy, Sayreville, South River, Old Bridge, Spotswood, Helmetta, Jamesburg, Dayton, Monmouth Junction, Deans, Adams, Milltown, and New Brunswick.

In New Jersey, the suffrage cause was supported by an unlikely coalition of leftists, temperance advocates, and teachers. On the other side, opponents came from the urban political machines, liquor interests, and a growing anti-suffrage movement among both men and women. In Middlesex County, Perth Amboy and Sewaren had anti-suffrage organizations, while in New Brunswick the Anti-Suffrage League rented rooms downtown during the referendum campaign. Perhaps rightly concerned about voter fraud, the Joint Legislative Committee advocated for legislation enabling women to serve as poll watchers. After a successful mass training program, women suffragists, including African-Americans, served as poll watchers at 1,657 of 1,891 polling places throughout the state. Voter turnout on October 19, 1915 was heavy. In the end, the suffrage amendment was defeated by a margin of over 51,000 votes. It lost in every county except Ocean and in every city of over 25,000 except East Orange. In Middlesex County, the amendment lost 3,114 to 5,284 votes. It did win, however, in Metuchen, and by one vote in South River, after the suffragists demanded a recount. Although scholars like Joseph Mahoney’s research shows that immigrants were as likely as native-born Americans to vote for the amendment, it was clear that much of the opposition had come from the urban areas. The referenda in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts also lost.

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Woodrow Wilson and Women’s Suffrage

Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) served as president of Princeton University, governor of New Jersey, and 28th president of the United States (1913–1921). Despite his progressive views, many historians claim his support of women’s suffrage was lukewarm at best. In 1915, Wilson indicated that he would vote for the New Jersey suffrage referendum as a private citizen. Woodrow Wilson ultimately advocated for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

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New York Suffrage Parades

Beginning in 1909, Harriot Stanton Blatch organized suffrage parades in New York City, which many New Jersey women attended. The 1912 parade was particularly spectacular with between 10,000 and 17,000 marchers. College women marched under the names of their schools and African-American women had their own division. Major parades were also held in 1915 and 1917, before the passage of the women’s suffrage amendment in New York.

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Torch of Liberty

The Women’s Political Union excelled at publicity stunts such as the “Torch of Liberty,” an idea originating with Harriot Stanton Blatch. The wood and bronze-painted torch began its journey in Montauk at the tip of Long Island. Amidst much fanfare, it traveled throughout New York as far as Buffalo, then circled back and crossed the Hudson where it was received by WPUNJ president Mina Van Winkle. The torch arrived in Perth Amboy accompanied by seven automobiles filled with suffragists. In Perth Amboy, it was ceremoniously received by fellow suffragist and minister’s wife Thyra Dorf (1877–1948), since Ruth Benton, the president of the Equal Suffrage League of the Amboys, was away.

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Broadside, Votes for Women a Success

By 1913, the state-by-state approach had led to full suffrage being granted in five Western states—Oregon, Kansas, Arizona, Montana, and Nevada—while presidential suffrage had been achieved in Illinois.

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Anna Howard Shaw

Anna Howard Shaw (1847–1919) was born in England and emigrated to Michigan as a girl. She graduated from the Boston University School of Theology and became one of the first women to be ordained in any branch of Methodism in 1880. She proceeded to earn a medical degree from Boston University. A “master orator,” she broadened her interests to become a speaker on temperance, women’s suffrage, and world peace. After heading the Franchise Department of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union for several years, Anna Howard Shaw served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1904 to 1915. She died in 1919 before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. Shaw frequently spoke in New Jersey as seen in this broadside and ticket.


Women’s Suffrage Broadsides

This broadside published by the Cooperative Suffrage Committee of New Jersey dates from the 1915 campaign to pass an amendment to the New Jersey constitution granting women the right to vote.

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Women’s Suffrage Broadsides

This broadside published by the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association dates from the 1915 campaign to pass an amendment to the New Jersey constitution granting women the right to vote.

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First Baptist Church, Old Bridge

In early September 1915, a suffrage meeting at the First Baptist Church in Old Bridge received “hearty support” from local women.

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Profile: Sarah Selover

Sarah Selover (1863–1932) was born Sarah Evans in Lincroft, New Jersey, in 1863. She studied at the Peddie Institute in Hightstown and at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where she later taught chemistry and higher mathematics. After a few years of teaching, Selover became discouraged with the low salary, so decided to go into medicine. She graduated from the New York Medical College in 1893, and spent a year as an intern at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. In 1894, upon the advice of a friend, Selover set up a medical practice in South River, New Jersey, believing that it was easier for a female doctor to succeed in a small town. South River was an industrial town filled with factories, brick and clay work, and tile works. Workers of many nationalities including Poles, Russians, Austrians, Slavs, and Hungarians had moved to the area. Sarah soon built up a successful practice, and married a local man, Charles H. Selover, in 1896. They had no children.

In subsequent years, Sarah Selover became a leading medical doctor and citizen of South River. As a doctor, she did everything from bringing babies into the world to treating 450 patients during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Her practice extended from South River to the neighboring towns of Sayreville, Old Bridge, Spotswood, and Milltown. In South River, Selover served as town doctor, school examiner, and doctor for a number of lodges, societies, plants, and industries. She was a member of various local clubs and municipal organizations. Selover was a convinced suffragist who founded the South River Suffrage Club in 1915 and served as its president. Selover suffered a debilitating stroke in June 1931 and died in April 1932. All business in South River ceased for two minutes as her funeral began at the Tabernacle Baptist Church.


Main Street, South River

Originally known as Willettstown and then Washington, South River was a part of East Brunswick Township until its incorporation in 1898. In the nineteenth century, it served as a major transportation and shipping link between New York and Philadelphia.


Handkerchief Factory, South River

Industry including sand and clay mining, brick and tile manufacturing, shipbuilding, and textile and clothing manufacture has played a significant role in South River’s history. The community became home to numerous ethnic groups who came to work in these industries. Suffragist Sarah Selover of South River served as a company doctor for several factories. The handkerchief plant pictured in this postcard closed in 1918.