In early morning hours of Feb. 10, 1920, New Jersey became the 29th state to vote for ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote.
The struggle of the suffragists, who had fought so hard, ended with the amendment’s successful ratification on Aug. 18, 1920.
On Feb. 14, 1920, during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the expectation of their ultimate success prompted Carrie Chapman Catt to found the League of Women Voters; its role would be to prepare the 20 million new women voters to carry out their new responsibilities and use their new power to shape public policy.
The Ewing Township Historic Preservation Society will join with the Lawrence League of Women Voters on Sunday, Feb. 9 to host a program marking 100 years since Lillian Feickert, president of the N.J. Woman Suffrage Association, packed the New Jersey Assembly chambers to witness the 34-24 roll call vote in favor of ratification.
The program will feature Carol Simon Levin, a professional storyteller and independent historian, who will portray Feickert as she shares stories of New Jersey’s fight for women’s suffrage: for example, about Lucy Stone and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s staging of tax and voting protests; about Alice Paul’s push for a federal amendment; and Florence Spearing Randolph’s bringing black women into the movement.
The free program will take place at 2 p.m. at the Ewing Presbyterian Church’s education building at 100 Scotch Road. For more information, contact (609) 883-2455 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“When we heard it was the centennial of women’s suffrage, we thought we should tell the story of the women and men who fought so hard for women’s right to vote,” said Mary Anne Midura, vice president of the Ewing Township Historic Preservation Society’s board of trustees.
The Society was looking to fill the program slot on the second Sunday of February for its monthly history programs, and they found the perfect person for through the N.J. Public Scholars program.
“We decided on Carol Simon Levin because she is a storyteller and a re-enactor. What better way to tell the story of suffragettes than through the persona of a suffragette,” Midrua said, adding that attendees, if they like, should wear the colors of the suffrage movement: white, purple and gold.
Because 2020 was the centennial of the League of Women Voters’ founding, the Society contacted the Lawrence chapter of the League. Midura said, “We thought it would be a great way to perhaps get women and men thinking about what their grandmothers and great-grandmothers went through, to get moms to talk to their daughters about the right to vote and teachers to do something in their classes for their children in this election year. It’s another way to make history come alive to people.”
At the same time, Lawrence resident Nicole Plett, co-president of the Lawrence chapter of the League of Women Voters, and her colleagues had been thinking for years about the upcoming 2020 anniversary of the League’s founding. As they scrambled to figure out how a small League like theirs, with 95 members and limited resources, could commemorate that anniversary, they welcomed the opportunity to team up with the Society for their program, Plett said.
The Lawrence chapter of the League is also planning a program as part of a nationwide League day of action called “Women Power the Vote,” that will be celebrated in over 750 communities across the country on Friday, Feb. 14.
League members will gather at noon on the steps of the Trenton Free Public Library, Plett said, “with some historic placards and our historic “votes for women” sashes, and we are going to thank our foremothers for this incredible hard work and sacrifice that they made to get women the vote.”
The Trenton library is concurrently hosting a related exhibit in two large cases put together by Lawrence League member Ellen Maak on women’s suffrage in New Jersey and on the League. The exhibit runs through Friday, Feb. 28, and in March will move to the Lawrenceville Library to commemorate women’s history month.
Maak, a former nurse, decided to honor the double anniversary of the 19th Amendment and the founding of the League by create an exhibit, having done so in the past for different causes in schools and libraries. “I have found that I can really tell a story with a display case,” she said.
One case tells the story of the 72-year fight of the woman’s suffrage movement to get the 19th amendment passed. With its passage, Maak said, “you had a bunch of new voters who didn’t know how this worked. The League was born, and we became educators and advocates leading women into civic engagement.” This story she tells in the second case.
“In doing the cases, I wanted to appeal to young people who don’t know the history and inspire them to find out more, and I wanted to honor the history of it,” Maak said. A case is something easy for both young and old to understand. “It is a snippet; it doesn’t overwhelm them.”
Her inspiration for this project was an artifact she found on an internet auction site: a pledge card from 1922, when Maude Wood Park was the first president of the national League. The text on the card begins, “A pledge for conscientious citizens. Believing in government by the people, for the people, I will do my best to …”; then it lists six items ranging from “inform myself about public questions” to “regard my citizenship as a public trust.”
The suffrage movement, Maak said, had two streams: “It had certain people who rallied, had discussions and forums, and talked to politicians, trying to further the cause with education and awareness. … As that was going slowly, it had a more aggressive movement that … started civil disobedience, threw rocks through windows, lit mailboxes on fire; poured acid on public mailboxes.”
Realizing that politicians were not listening, they did even more to bring attention attention to their cause: they picketed the White House and got arrested, and then went on hunger strikes in jail and sometimes were force fed. “Some were very sick, and some lost their lives.”
Representing this more activist trend in one case is a replica of lapel pins with a jailroom door and heart-shaped lock, worn by suffragists who had been imprisoned. Her exhibit also includes the words of a letter Lucy Stone wrote to tax a collector, where she said she was being “taxed without representation,” and since she couldn’t vote, she wasn’t going to pay taxes.
In the case about the League, a representative artifact is an old galvanized ballot box from Texas paired with a picture of a women showing women how to use a ballot box.
* * *
Plett said she was moved to become active in the League by its mission. “It was a post-9-11 realization that no matter how much I personally tried to have my values reflected on a national level that in fact all politics is local and that the effective action begins at the community level”
When she got started in 2002, the then-president asked her to get involved with promoting affordable housing in New Jersey. “I got really hooked on action—we’re so close to Trenton that our league can go and attend hearings and give testimony,” Plett said.
The League is nonpartisan. League members, Plett said, “are from every, all, and no party—Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated. The League is policy driven, and we never support an individual political party or an individual political candidate.” But, she adds, “our members may do so in all the other parts of their lives.”
To develop a position on a policy issue, chapters first study an issue, then have to reach a consensus. “If another political party happens to adopt that policy, that is as it may be,” Plett explains.
The League was instrumental in ending the death penalty in New Jersey, and nationally it has been actively filing briefs in every state to protect access to ballot, opposing voter IDs and every barrier to enfranchisement. “Everyone who is a citizen should be allowed to vote,” Plett said.
A recent success of the League in New Jersey was passage of the bill that, after a 20-year fight, restored the right to vote to people on probation and parole. “We believe strongly that for people who have been incarcerated, participation in the vote is a very good way to reenter their communities and become become politically engaged and active members.”
The League also supported a bill, later pulled, that would have permitted currently incarcerated people to vote. Explaining their rational, Plett said, “Those people pay taxes, have children attending public school, have families living in their home communities, and have legitimate interests in legislative matters. We hope moving forward eventually a major of people will see the wisdom of that.”
Regarding reproductive rights for women, her chapter defends Roe vs. Wade and defends women having final decision-making over their own bodies.
The Lawrence chapter organizes candidate forums every year, as they did in fall 2019 for the Lawrence municipal council and its board of education, and they have just implemented Facebook streaming. It also supplies trained moderators (of which Plett is one) for other League forums. “A moderator never moderates in the town where they are going to vote, so they are truly nonpartisan,” Plett said.
The League’s members also include men and range from students to retirees. Although historically there were leagues in every municipality in Central New Jersey, but now the Lawrence league now also covers Trenton, Ewing, and Hamilton. On the other hand, the League has gained many members since the 2016 election, because, Plett said, “many members of the public who had gotten a bit complacent about democracy and maybe didn’t really understand how it works, are very keen to reengage with the very essence of a fair and transparent democracy, which is what the League promotes.”
* * *
Plett was raised in the Cotswolds in England. Her mother was an artist, and her father was a scientist. The family came to America in 1966 when Plett was a teen because her father was taking a position at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
She went to high school in La Jolla, CA, and started college at UCLA. She and her now-husband, Jay Plett, left California when President Richard Nixon invaded Cambodia and the National Guard shot and killed protesting students at Kent State University. They moved to New Mexico where they married and raised their son and daughter. At the University of New Mexico Plett finished a bachelor’s and master’s degree in art history, with a focus on the history of photography. She worked as a freelance journalist, mostly covering dance, which she had been doing her whole life, and art.
After 20 years in New Mexico her husband got a job at Princeton University as a computer systems manager, and they moved to Lawrence because they were looking for good public high schools for their children. She freelanced for the New York Times New Jersey section until they stopped using freelancers, but by then she was already working for US1 Newspaper as its arts and entertainment editor. (US 1 is a sister paper to the Lawrence Gazette).
Plett left US 1 to become the assistant to the program manager for the Program in Women’s Study under women’s historian Christine Stansell. Then she moved to the Rutgers University Libraries, where she managed an innovative archival project for women artists; WAAND (Women Artists Archives National Directory). Her last jb, part time was for a land use nonprofit in Trenton.
Maak grew up in Lawrence Township, graduating from Lawrence High School.
Her grandmother, born in 1918, was head of a human resources department in big manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania. Her great aunt and her husband started a beer and beverage company in their garage, which grew into one of largest beer and beverage distributors in Pennsylvania.
Maak said, “I heard about voting all the time: my grandmother was picked on for being a Democrat. Voting was very important to me: I took my kids with me in strollers when I voted. I found the League as an adult, and you don’t ‘get picked on’ for an opinion because we include everybody.”
Maak raised her family in Monmouth County and moved back to Lawrence once her children grew up. She worked as a registered nurse for 23 years at St. Peter’s University Hospital and has volunteered in the healthcare area, for example, advocating in high schools for kids to have knowledge of their bodies
But, Maak, said, “The League is where my heart is. We were lucky enough to be born in the USA. A lot of other countries wish they had the system we had: the system was set up for the people to drive the democracy and we need to remember that.”
Midura grew up in Chambersburg in Trenton and 40 years ago moved to Ewing Township, where she raised her daughter. Her mother and father are first-generation Italian Americans. She graduated from Villa Victoria Academy in Ewing, then earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. Her mother raised three children, and her father was a funeral director. After college she returned from college in 1971, she started to work as a feature writer from the Trentonian newspaper. She then worked in public relations in healthcare at Helene Fuld Medical Center and St. Francis Medical Center, both in Trenton.
Midura has been active in the Ewing Township Historic Preservation Society for the last 10 years. She also co-chairs with the Society’s president, Rebecca Urban, the capital campaign for the Temple House, embarked on two years in preparation for the Society’s fiftieth anniversary in 2022.
The campaign’s goal is to make the house handicap accessible and to continue to develop a permanent exhibit for it.
The Benjamin Temple house, which the Society is responsible for, was occupied by members of the Temple family until 1903, then sold to the Ryan family.
The house had one of many dairies in Ewing Township, and when it was about to be demolished in 1973 to make way for I-95, the Society got it on the national and state historic registries of landmarks and in 1973 moved it to Ewing Township’s Drake Farm Park.
The Society is also charged with preserving township artifacts, from Native American to the huge General Motors plant that made Avenger airplanes during World War II to a large library of Ewing books and genealogical information.
For Midura, growing up in Trenton and in Ewing, close to Washington’s Crossing and Jacob’s Creek, early evoked her continuing interest in the history of the Revolution. So when her friend Carol Hill, then president of the Society, invited her to come and volunteer, she said, “That was the end of the story.”