Women’s Suffrage and CHE

Eleanor Roosevelt and local CHE women including Martha Van Rensselaer

The women of the United States will unquestionably get the vote, it cannot fail to come because it means democracy, and democracy cannot exist where one-half of the human race is subordinated to the other half. The woman’s vote is just as right as the man’s vote.”

Martha Van Rensselaer 

August marks the hundred-year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote. A trip into the College’s archives reveals the connections between the suffrage movement and the College of Human Ecology, and the progressive foundation of a school that made higher education accessible to rural women before they could even vote.

Martha Van Rensselaer arrived at Cornell in 1900 at the invitation of Liberty Hyde Bailey, professor of horticulture and later dean of the College of Agriculture. Bailey had been successful in developing the Farmers’ Reading Course and was looking for a way to reach farmers’ wives. In 1901, they sent a letter to rural women asking them what they would like the Cornell Reading Course for Farmers’ Wives to address. Around 2000 responses poured in, leading Van Rensselaer to dedicate the first bulletin, titled Saving Steps, to helping rural women complete their work more efficiently and freeing up time for personal pursuits. The bulletin was so successful that enrollment in the reading course grew to over 6000.

By 1903, Van Rensselaer was offering home economics winter courses and in 1907, Flora Rose arrived and the Department of Home Economics was established within the College of Agriculture. In 1911, the pair, who would remain companions until the time of Van Rensselaer’s death in 1932, were appointed Cornell’s first full-time women professors and named co-directors of the department in 1912.

While home economics might bring to mind antiquated gender roles that limited the scope of women’s work to housekeeping and child-raising, Van Rensselaer’s department was teaching students the science of nutrition and sanitation, product and housing design, textiles, the economic principles of home management, and the emerging science of child development.

Furthermore, Human Ecology archivist and university records manager Eileen Keating noted, as home economics was housed in the College of Agriculture and would become its own New York State College in 1925, the tuition was free to residents of New York State. This opened the doors to higher education for a group of women who could not afford it otherwise.

The department, which became the School of Home Economics in 1919, further advanced the position of and opportunities for women in higher education by giving a home to female academics--such as Cornell-educated architect Helen Binkerd Young--who faced gender-discrimination in securing appointments elsewhere. Among the “firsts” to come out of the college: the first African-American woman in the U.S. to be awarded a PhD in nutrition in 1936 and the first female dean at Cornell in 1941.

Although her name is not well-known in the history of women’s suffrage, letters show that Van Rensselaer’s work connecting with women throughout the state had drawn significant attention from the women we now think of as synonymous with the movement.

In 1905, Susan B. Anthony, writing Van Rensselaer on stationary from the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), asked: “How do you succeed in getting farmers’ wives to talk? I should like very much to be at one of your meetings and be like a mouse in the wall, to see and hear how you get on, for I find it the hardest work to get women to talk on any subject in a public meeting.”

In a 1913 letter, Mary Garrett Hay (president of the New York Equal Suffrage League at the time) asked Van Rensselaer for her mailing list, and in 1915, Carrie Chapman Catt, knowing Van Rensselaer’s extensive work traveling to Granges across the state to speak with groups of rural women, asked Van Rensselaer to encourage Grange women to support suffrage. Van Rensselaer declined both requests, explaining to Hay that she needed to be diligent about avoiding criticism leveled against her fledgling department and suggesting Catt go directly to the Grange women herself.

Keating said that while Van Rensselaer needed to be publicly vigilant about not bringing the political debate over suffrage into home economics, there is evidence she helped advance the cause out of public view.

In 1914, a woman suffrage conference was held in connection with the Homemakers’ Conference at Cornell’s Farmer’s Week, featuring Carrie Chapman Catt and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw as key speakers.

“Martha is not listed in the program, but it’s connected to the Homemaker’s Conference. I think she’s behind the scenes supporting it,” Keating said.

In 1916, Van Rensselaer made her thoughts on woman’s suffrage public in a letter published in the Cornell Daily Sun. “The women of the United States will unquestionably get the vote, it cannot fail to come because it means democracy, and democracy cannot exist where one-half of the human race is subordinated to the other half. The woman’s vote is just as right as the man’s vote.”

Once New York voters passed a suffrage amendment, Van Rensselaer, Rose, and the Human Ecology faculty saw a responsibility to reach out to the same farmer’s wives they had been educating in household sciences and expand that education to include policy and politics.

Suffrage literature

Left: 1918 bulletin titled “Civic Duties”

Right: In 1920, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) placed Martha Van Rensselaer on the organization's honor roll for her aid.

Photos courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

In a 1918 bulletin titled “Civic Duties,” Blanche Hazard, hired by Van Rensselaer and Rose, wrote about the civic responsibilities of women and the need to be educated in political, industrial, social, and international issues in order to be informed voters. While Hazard acknowledged that women already overburdened with the work of the house and the family might feel they do not have the time for civic education, she connected the welfare of the home with the politics outside of it.

“Home economists often used an expanded meaning of the word ‘home,’” Keating said, “to include the community, the nation and even the world. Understanding the relationship between home economics and society was part of their extension mission.”

By 1920 it is clear that the household names of the suffragist movement regarded Van Rensselaer as a leading figure in improving the lives of American women. At the NAWSA convention in 1920 she was named to the organization’s honor role for “her distinguished service to the cause of Woman Suffrage in America,” and in 1923, the League of Women Voters chose her as one of the 12 greatest living American women.

When Van Rensselaer and Eleanor Roosevelt became friends around the same time, they each gained a political ally and the college received the funding to build what would become MVR Hall, thanks to Roosevelt’s pressure on her husband.

Keating keeps a quote from Flora Rose on her bulletin board that is perhaps the most fitting way to conclude a look at the impact of Van Rensselaer, from someone who knew who her best.

“The History of an institution is essentially the history of the people from whom it takes form and color.  If an institution has greatness, this is due in large measure to the purposes and ideals of those men and women who labor in its behalf and who pursue its objectives with courage and vigor.”

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