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Always Looking People Who Made A Difference

By John I. Blair

Harriot Stanton Blatch

Harriot Stanton Blatch (1856-1940) was a leader in the woman suffrage movement, a writer and an advocate for labor reform. She is credited with modernizing a suffrage movement that, by the opening of the 20th century, was listless and flagging. The combination of her energy, daring and political savvy spurred the movement on to its goal of enfranchising American women with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920.

    The sixth child of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriot was raised in a family where every member was expected to have an opinion and to voice it and was trained in politics and social activism. After the Stanton family moved to New York City in 1862, Harriot found a home she "thoroughly enjoyed" in the church school of Unitarian Octavius Brooks Frothingham, where the Bible was introduced as "partly the history and partly the myths of a primitive people." From her mother Harriot inherited a religion that combined scientific rationality and reform activism. She found this "sacred humanity" view too individualistic, however; hers was a more communal view, seeing society as an integrated whole.
    Her greatest inspiration and spiritual comfort came from the beauties of nature. She felt that even the experience of transcendence was something to be studied as she analyzed the "soul impression" made by sun flickering on the trees outside Paris. But in her work we see more of her mother's religion of humanity than of this young woman who drank inspiration from sunlight and mountain peaks.
    In 1882 she married English businessman, William Henry Blatch. For Harriot, the sacrament of marriage came not from divine blessing but from "the real aspirations of living men and women." In a forthright statement of religious belief, she wrote, "On my wedding day of all days, I feel I must be wholly true, and would I be that if I invoked the blessings of a Being in whom I have no belief?"
    Harriot Blatch spent the first twenty years of her marriage in Basingstoke, England, where she became involved with the English suffrage movement and Fabian socialism. Harriot protested that by virtue of her marriage she had become a citizen of England without her consent. She always felt like an American in her heart, and forewent swearing allegiance to Queen Victoria, a move that kept her from holding political office. She did, however, hold leadership positions in suffrage societies, the Woman's Local Government Society, the Women's Liberal Federation and the Fabian Society.
    In 1894 she was granted a Master of Arts degree by Vassar for her study of England's rural poor. In 1902 Blatch returned to the United States, where her work for women's rights would reach its greatest heights. Confident that people are moved more by emotion than by logic, she set about revitalizing a movement that "bored its adherents and repelled its opponents." In January 1907 she became a founder and first president of the Equality League of Self- Supporting Women, later called the Women's Political Union, and organized a campaign of publicity, education and civil action.
    Although more conservative suffrage workers were shocked by her tactics, Blatch instituted open-air meetings, spreading the message of enfranchisement on street corners and in parks and, once, even in a cemetery. Starting in 1908 she organized mass meetings at Cooper Union and annual Suffrage Day parades in New York. For the 1912 parade, the New York Tribune reported 20,000 marchers and 80,000 spectators. Blatch combined these tactics of civil protest with political action. She was determined that only through political channels would the dream of suffrage be realized. Seeing working-class women more as exemplars for others than as "victims to be succored," Blatch brought working women to Albany to argue their own case. At a 1907 hearing in Albany, union workers spoke so eloquently that an antisuffrage debater relinquished her rebuttal time saying, "I have been given today much to think about. I am not convinced, but I am silenced."
    The New York suffrage amendment of 1915, championed by Blatch, was defeated, but a similar amendment was passed in 1917. Blatch moved to the national scene. From her Grandma Cady, she had learned to mold people and circumstance. During a visit from suffragist Anne Cobden-Sanderson, well-known in England but unknown in America, Blatch casually informed an immigration official of Mrs. Cobden-Sanderson's prison record. His efforts to block the well-connected suffragist's immigration created all the publicity Blatch wanted.
    During the Republican parade preceding the 1908 election, Blatch stationed the exquisite Inez Milholland in a storefront window along the parade route. Distracted by this striking beauty, the young male marchers broke ranks, and "the young Republicans were persuaded to withdraw and console themselves with suffrage literature." In another political move Blatch took advantage of voting laws that stated that anyone could be a poll watcher and placed suffragists as watchers in the all-male polling places. On August 26, 1920, all of Blatch's manipulations and political maneuvering, humorous and serious, bore fruit in ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.
    She now turned her considerable energies elsewhere. In 1918 her first book, Mobilizing Woman Power, was a feminist view in favor of war as providing equality of work for women. However, thoroughly dismayed by first-hand experience of war-ravaged Europe, she turned to the peace movement.
    In 1920 she published her second book, A Woman's Point of View, Some Roads to Peace. She wrote: "My opposition to war was not because of the horrors of war, not because war demands that the race offer up its very best in their full vigor, not because war means economic bankruptcy, domination of races by famine and disease, but because war is so completely ineffective, so stupid. It settles nothing." Blatch continued her political work on behalf of workers, joining the Socialist Party because it was the only party that "aimed to raise the standard of living of the average citizen.

    Footnote: This column is based on existing materials on the internet, partially the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography and is so credited.

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