Local Suffrage Leader Helped Shape National Women’s Movement
The world was in the throes of World War I when Jamestown resident Edith Ainge went to Washington, D.C., to join the national campaign for women’s right to vote. By the time the 19th Amendment was finally added to the Constitution in August 1920, she had risen to the inner circle of the movement’s newest leaders.
This summer, as Americans everywhere celebrate the amendment’s 100th anniversary, Ainge is being honored as the subject of Jamestown’s newest historical marker. The city historian and Historical Marker Committee dedicated the marker on Friday at the corner of Fourth and Pine streets downtown, where Ainge was living during the final years of the suffrage struggle.
Although Ainge has been featured in historical programs around the area, her story still remains unknown to many local residents. Born in England on Sept. 10, 1873, Edith came across the Atlantic with her mother, Susanna (Taylor) Ainge, and then five siblings when she was nine years old in 1883. Her father, William Ely Ainge, likely made the journey earlier. After their arrival the family grew to include nine children total, with Edith being the second oldest.
William soon made a name for himself in the bustling American business world, serving as the business manager for a steel company in Ohio. His ties to Jamestown began when he became affiliated with Art Metal, a local furniture company specializing in metal office furniture. In the 1910s, he opened his own accounting firm at 15 E. Fourth St. With dual offices in Jamestown and Youngstown, Ohio, the business grew to provide accounting services to corporate clients throughout the Northeast. The family moved to the corner of Fourth and Pine streets, adjacent to William’s office.
Edith’s first involvement in the suffrage movement traces to this time. In 1914, she joined the Women’s Political Union, a new suffrage organization founded by Harriot Stanton Blatch (Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter) that had sent a field organizer to Jamestown. Where earlier suffrage organizations had focused on petition campaigns and behind-the-scenes lobbying, the WPU took the suffrage campaign to mass audiences, using parades and street meetings to recruit working women and garner more publicity.
Edith quickly stepped up to chair the local WPU chapter. In this role, she spearheaded local events promoting the passage of women’s suffrage in New York State. With the first statewide referendum on the issue slated for November 1915, the WPU orchestrated a torch relay across the state, from Long Island to Buffalo. As the “Liberty Torch” passed from town to town, rallies and speeches ensured maximum media coverage. On July 25, the torch made its way from Salamanca to Jamestown, with Edith coordinating its arrival. A week full of events ensued, including speeches by Blatch at the Celoron bandstand and Chautauqua Assembly, a boat tour of towns around Chautauqua Lake, a highbrow “garden party” in Jamestown, and street meetings in Fredonia and Dunkirk.
Although voters in Chautauqua County were in favor, the referendum failed to pass that year statewide. But the movement’s leaders were not easily shaken. Women across the state, including many in Chautauqua County, doubled their efforts. Their work paid off in 1917 when New York became the first state east of the Mississippi to grant women the vote.
Edith’s attention, meanwhile, had already turned toward the bigger challenge. In the summer of 1917, she headed to Washington to take part in demonstrations being coordinated by the National Woman’s Party. The WPU had merged with this new organization the previous year to funnel its activities toward a national constitutional amendment. Led by Alice Paul, a young Quaker woman who had become involved in the suffrage cause while studying in England, the NWP organized pickets outside the White House gates beginning in January 1917.
The “Silent Sentinels,” as they were called, didn’t utter a word; by holding up their colorful banners at the nation’s seat of power they aimed to pressure President Woodrow Wilson and congressional leaders into bringing a suffrage amendment to the floor of Congress. But events in Europe soon enveloped their silent protests in controversy. Angry locals swarmed the women in August when the Sentinels appeared with a banner that compared President Wilson to the German kaiser. Women were knocked down and assaulted as the crowd tore at their banners. A shot was fired into the NWP headquarters across the street. Thereafter, arrests became commonplace — but not of the assailing mob. Instead, police targeted the women on the picket line.
On September 4, the day of Ainge’s first arrest, crowds had gathered downtown for a different spectacle. A “gala” parade was planned to send off the first group of draftees headed for Europe. As President Wilson arrived and the festivities got underway, a group of NWP women took positions by the parade reviewing stand. Edith was at the front of the line, carrying a banner that read: “It is unjust, Mr. President, to deny women a voice in their own government while the government is conscripting their sons.” NWP member Dorothy Stevens described what happened next: “They were gathered in and swept away by the police like common street criminals – their golden banners scarcely flung to the breeze.”
Ainge was one of 12 women arrested that day. According to a newspaper account, she and another woman attempted to give “suffrage speeches” in court, but the judge quickly stopped them and gave a mini-speech of his own; American women would never win the right to vote with such tactics, he said. He sentenced them to 60 days in the Occoquan Workhouse, a women’s prison located nearby in Virginia.
Some of Edith’s neighbors undoubtedly shared the judge’s disapproval. An editorial appearing in the Jamestown Evening Journal on Sept. 7 called the picketing a “disgraceful” attempt to “annoy the president during this his time of great trial.” The editor continued, “Miss Ainge is naturally too intelligent a woman to get mixed up in this militant movement. . . . She is a woman of unusual energy and independence from whom it is reasonable to expect better service. . . . While her friends may have some sympathy for Miss Ainge, they will have none whatever for her acts.”
Edith now began a great trial as a political prisoner. A legal affidavit that she prepared following her release attests to the poor conditions she and other women endured while incarcerated at the workhouse. Long hours in the sewing room were broken up by only one half-hour break in the middle of the day. Much of the food was wormy and rancid, making it “impossible” to eat. Some women fell ill but were denied medical treatment. Near the end of her sentence, Edith required temporary hospitalization. When she refused to return to work she was sent to the district jail in Washington to serve her final two weeks in solitary confinement. “I was in perfect health at the time I was sent to Occoquan,” she stated, “and . . . at the end of six weeks, I had lost 23 pounds and was unable to walk from lack of nourishment.”
On the day when Edith was released in November, Alice Paul and another NWP prisoner, Rose Winslow, were taken on stretchers to the prison hospital. While there they resolved to begin a hunger strike.
Although Ainge did not experience the multiple hunger strikes that followed, she might very well have participated had she been in prison still. Before she was released, she helped to circulate a powerful statement of protest from inside the walls of her cell. She and 10 other occupants of solitary confinement began pushing a folded-up piece of paper through the tiny space surrounding pipes in the walls. In it they declared: “As political prisoners, we, the undersigned, refuse to work while in prison. We have taken this stand as a matter of principle. . . . This action is a necessary protest against an unjust sentence. . . . We were exercising the right of peaceful petition, guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. . . .”
In the months afterward, Edith was arrested four more times, although her other sentences amounted to just a few days. By 1918, after reports of the women’s mistreatment had won them sympathetic headlines, the Wilson administration was reluctant to give Paul and her followers the media attention that longer sentences might bring.
In January 1919, with the proposed amendment still held up in the U.S. Senate, Ainge lit the first of the symbolic fires used in the NWP’s “watchfire” demonstrations. Taking position, once again, in front of the White House, the women lit a fire in an urn and proceeded to toss copies of President Wilson’s speeches into the flames. NWP member Doris Stevens later claimed: “A soldier rushed to the scene with a bucket of water to extinguish the flames, but the fire continued to burn as if by magic. A policeman used a fire extinguisher, but the fire burned on. The flames were as indomitable as the women who guarded them. Rain came, but all through the night the watchfire burned. All through the night the women stood guard.”
Later that year, after the Senate had voted down the amendment, Ainge signed on to the NWP’s “Prison Special” tour. On Feb. 15, the 26 women went to Union Station in Washington and boarded a train they christened “Democracy Limited.” Over the course of the next three weeks, they spoke of their prison experiences in cities across the country, from New Orleans to San Antonio and Los Angeles and New York, with many stops in between.
When the Senate finally approved the Amendment in June of 1919, it was off to the states for ratification. Edith remained active in the cause as it made its way through state conventions. The 1920 census recorded her employment in “Suffragist Organizing.”
In fact, her work on behalf of women’s rights did not end with the amendment’s adoption. Ainge was elected treasurer of the NWP in 1922 and continued to serve on the organization’s National Council until at least 1930. As part of the inner circle, she helped promote what became known as the Equal Rights Amendment. Proposed by Alice Paul in 1923, the amendment sought to eliminate the full slate of legal barriers that still discriminated against women in the home, in the workplace, and in society at large. Edith was among a large delegation of women to advocate for the amendment with President Calvin Coolidge directly in 1923. They were received in the East Room of the White House. When Coolidge was re-elected for a second term, she and a dozen other NWP women talked up the amendment to crowds gathered for the inauguration, planting themselves at the capital’s six busiest street corners the night before the ceremonies.
Like her mentor Alice Paul, Ainge’s interest in women’s rights extended beyond America’s borders, as well. In 1930, she and seven other women from New York State – including her younger sister, Jessie Ainge – gained an audience with President Herbert Hoover regarding a proposed international provision giving women equal nationality rights with men. The issue was then being considered by an international law conference at the Hague.
Although travels likely took her away much of the time, Ainge continued to make her home in Jamestown into the 1930s. The 1940s found her living with siblings at a home in Angola, N.Y., where she hosted Alice Paul on more than one occasion. Even as she aged, Edith maintained a close friendship with Paul. Their letters speak of visits they traded to each other’s homes and Edith’s support of Paul’s ongoing activism.
When Edith passed away in 1948, her death was noted in the New York Times. Paul traveled from Washington to attend the funeral services in Buffalo and Jamestown. Edith was laid to rest in Jamestown’s Lake View Cemetery, alongside her parents and six of her siblings. Her small, plain gravestone bears these simple words of memorial: “Edith Ainge, 1873-1948, Suffrage Leader.”