The OHIO WOMAN’S SUFFRAGE ASSOCIATION (OWSA) led and organized Ohio women in the long fight for the right to vote for almost half a century. Founded in Cincinnati in September 1869, with national suffrage leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone in attendance, its purpose was to “advance the cause of woman suffrage and thereby to make our government in fact what it is in theory – a government of the people.”
A group of 20 women and 15 men held the OWSA’s first convention on November 23, 1869 in Cleveland, one day before the founding of AMERICAN WOMAN’S SUFFRAGE ASSOCIATION (AWSA), also in Cleveland. An AWSA delegate described the OWSA as the first state suffrage organization in the country. The two groups remained closely connected, politically and ideologically. Both were initially committed to achieving suffrage by amending state constitutions in contrast to the rival National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which advocated a federal amendment to enfranchise women. The two national groups merged as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890.
Throughout the 1870s, the OWSA presented memorials to the state legislature asking for woman suffrage. In April 1871, one legislator was so offended that he refused to vote on the measure and walked out of the building. In 1876, the women asked the Republican Party to include a woman suffrage plank in the party’s platform with no success. Nevertheless, the group persisted, holding annual conventions around the state, including in Cleveland in 1877 and 1887.
In 1884, the OAWA elected Ezra B. Taylor president. He was then on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and advocated for a proposed federal woman suffrage amendment, which, however, did not get the approval of the whole House. The association was re-organized in May 1885 in Painesville. In November 1886, OWSA member Sarah M. Perkins boldly asked for an endorsement of woman suffrage from the Knights of Labor, in Cleveland for a convention. The Knights’ response was polite but non-committal.
A series of legislative actions between 1888 and 1894 demonstrated the enormous difficulties faced by suffragists. In 1888, the Ohio legislature turned down an amendment to give women full suffrage and one to provide municipal suffrage. In 1891, a suffrage bill was defeated. In 1892 and 1893, school suffrage bills were defeated. In 1894, a municipal suffrage bill was defeated. Also in 1894, a school suffrage bill was finally passed, but its constitutionality was challenged. When it was upheld, there was an unsuccessful effort to repeal it.
The OWSA battles produced two local and national suffrage leaders: Harriet Taylor Upton, daughter of Ezra B. Taylor and OWSA president, 1899-1908 and 1911-1920, and ELIZABETH J. HAUSER, who became the press secretary for both the OWSA and the NAWSA, as well as a field organizer and lobbyist. Both Upton and Hauser spent two decades speaking, organizing, writing, and testifying on behalf of suffrage. Upton was also treasurer of the NAWSA and from 1903-1909, the Ohio NAWSA’s headquarters were in Upton’s home town of Warren.
OWSA meetings attracted suffrage and political celebrities. Susan B. Anthony addressed the 1887 convention in Cleveland. The 1902 convention in Cleveland drew Rev. Anna Howard Shaw, who was the elected NAWSA president in 1904. Carrie Chapman Catt, who succeeded her, and Rev. Olympia Brown. Toledo mayor Brand Whitlock spoke in Toledo in 1906, and mayor TOM L. JOHNSON, in Youngstown in 1907. With local suffrage groups, the OWSA organized a mammoth suffrage parade in Columbus in 1913 and helped with the CLEVELAND 1914 MARCH FOR SUFFRAGE. OWSA members spearheaded the drives for signatures to get suffrage amendments on the ballot and then worked to get the amendments approved by voters in 1912 and 1914. Both efforts failed.
The OWSA, like the NAWSA, defined itself as moderate, condemning the militant tactics of the Washington DC-based National Woman’s Party in 1914 and in 1917, who picketed the White House to protest President Woodrow Wilson’s reluctance to endorse suffrage. Both the OWSA and the NAWSA supported the United States’ efforts in World War I.
The Ohio legislature passed a bill giving women presidential suffrage in 1917. When it was overturned by a referendum of dubious legality, the OWSA finally switched tactics and endorsed a federal suffrage amendment, which finally passed on August 26, 1920. In February 1920, the NATIONAL LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS had been founded, and the OWSA, like most suffrage groups, was subsumed into it.
Marian J. Morton
Susan B. Anthony and Ida Husted Harper, eds., The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol IV, 1883-1891 (1902)