The Making of a Suffragist: Belle Sherwin and Women Activism
From October 2019-October 2020, we will be featuring a special guest blogger once a month to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
This month we are excited to share a post from Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University. You can learn more about the blog series here.
In the long fight to achieve women’s suffrage in the United States, Ohio, and more importantly Ohio women played an important role. One of the most famous suffragists Ohio put on the national stage was Belle Sherwin, a native Clevelander who dedicated her life to political and civic activism. A forgotten name today, Sherwin rose quickly in the suffrage ranks of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), fostering a long activist career that culminated in becoming the national president of the League of Women Voters in 1924.
Sherwin’s biography and background were typical to many suffragists at the time. She came from a wealthy family, being the daughter of Frances Mary Smith and Henry Alden Sherwin, the founder of the Sherwin Williams paint company. Sherwin attended Wellesley college, graduating with a B.S. in 1890, and later attended Oxford University for graduate studies in history. She never married, like many activists in her generation. Sherwin’s education and financial means provided her with the skills and economic independence to pursue her own reform agendas. Her class position however, also shaped much of her political perspective and emphasis.
Like many suffragists, Sherwin came to the movement through other reform activities. For her, gaining the vote was never the main goal, but part of a broader reform agenda that sought to promote women’s rights. Suffrage was a means to an end, not the end itself.
Sherwin began her activist career with the Consumer League of Ohio, serving as its first president from 1900 to 1907. Under her leadership, the organization concentrated on voluntarist campaigns such as the “white label” in which League members encouraged consumers to buy only products that were manufactured under fair labor conditions and health standards. It was this type of work that convinced Sherwin of the importance to have a voice in government. The Consumer League also gave Sherwin invaluable experience and organizing skills. As she asserted, “It gave number of women in Cleveland a practical knowledge of laws and law-making.” She credited the Consumer League to her political awareness, seeing it as a “laboratory of political education.” She and the League understood that for a meaningful change to happen they will need to go the legislative route, and to pass protective bills that would protect workers and ensure the safety of products, and for that they will need political power.
Sherwin’s involvement with the suffrage movement intensified after she met Maud Wood Park in 1910, who convinced her to join the College Equal Suffrage League. Park also introduced her to some of the national leaders of NAWSA like Carrie Chapman Catt. Sherwin harnessed these connections on the local level, organizing state efforts to achieve the vote. In 1912, she enlisted to the campaign to put women’s suffrage into the State constitution, giving soap-box speeches in favor of the referendum. She also made use of her family finances and her electric car to place suffrage billboards all over Cleveland and to publicize the suffrage cause. Despite high hopes, the measure was defeated by 87,455 votes, and another attempt in 1914 also failed.
Figure 3. League of Women Voters, U.S. Records. Woman suffrage headquarters in Upper Euclid Avenue, Cleveland–A. at extreme right is Miss Belle Sherwin, President, National League of Women Voters; B. is Judge Florence E. Allen holding the flag; C. is Mrs. Malcolm McBride. Cleveland Ohio, 1912. Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Sherwin always incorporated her suffrage efforts into a broader reform agenda that sought to increase women’s voice and presence in the public sphere. In 1916, she and other prominent local suffragists like Florence Allen and Mary Grossman founded the Cleveland Women’s City Club, in order to encourage women’s interests in civic affairs by offering a place to meet for public discussions and to promote the welfare of the City of Cleveland.
Similar to other organizations in this period, the Women’s City Club relied on the voluntarist political style that women developed since the mid-nineteenth century. Rather than trying to challenge sexual hierarchies, these women sought to expand their influence beyond the home by domesticating or feminizing politics, not by trying to imitate men. The club acted primarily as a public forum, sponsoring classes and lectures on topics ranging from public affairs to music and the visual arts. This was a space where women networked and banded together to advocate for various civil causes, mostly revolving around education and women and children’s welfare. In fact, although many suffragists belonged to the club, it did not openly campaign in favor of the franchise, but instead worked to promote women’s issues and rights and to increase women’s public role.
Figure 4. Women’s City Club of Cleveland, 1916
World War I did not bring a halt to Sherwin’s political activism, but like many in NAWSA, she devoted her efforts towards the war mobilization. This was part NAWSA’s strategy, led by Carrie Chapman Catt, who believed that if women would show their patriotism during the war, they will be rewarded after it. Sherwin led the Ohio branch of Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense, orchestrating food conservation drives, selling of war bonds, and women’s work in factories and the Red Cross—a job in which she demonstrated her administrative and organizational skills.
After the war, Sherwin shifted her focus to suffragists’ final push to pass a constitutional amendment. In 1919, after Congress passed the amendment and the states ratification process began, Sherwin became the president of the Cleveland Suffrage Association, helping with the efforts on the local level.
On June 16, 1919, Ohio became the fifth state to ratify the amendment, yet Sherwin was already busy in thinking of the days ahead. She supported Catt’s suggestion to form an organization that would train and educate women on their new civic roles, playing important part in the transformation of NAWSA into the League of Women Voters (LWV). The Cleveland chapter was formed in 1920 with Sherwin as its president.
The League sought to educate women voters and to get them into political offices, yet it was non-partisan in nature and refused to endorse candidates. In Cleveland, Sherwin made an exception for her old friend and fellow suffragist Florence Allen, who ran as an independent for a judge position in the Court of Common Pleas. Allen was elected as the first woman to this position, making history along the way. Staying true to her perspective that voting was only part of a broader reform agenda, the League under Sherwin’s leadership also supported the passage of the federal Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act in 1921, worked to bar child labor, endorsed minimum wage for women workers, and joined the anti-war and pacifist effort after WWI.
Sherwin maintained her political connections on the national level and in 1924 she became the president of the National League of Women Voters, serving in this position until 1934. During this decade, Sherwin consolidated many of the organization’s programs and committees, shaping the League’s mission as a non-partisan educational organization. “Miss Sherwin has applied competent force to the National League of Women Voters,” the Cleveland Press said of her. “But she has done it with a fine understanding of democracy.”
After her tenure as the LWV president, she was appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Consumer Advisory Board of the Nation Recovery Administration, coming full circle from her activist days in the Consumer League of Ohio. Sherwin left Washington in 1942, to return to Cleveland, where she remained active in civic life until her death in 1955.
Always a reformer who saw the vote as a means to increase women’s influence and power, Sherwin represented a generation of women who banded together to fight for change that not only benefited themselves, but also society at large.
Einav Rabinovitch-Fox is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University. She has written and presented on the connections between visual culture, politics, and modernity, especially with regards to feminism. She is now working on her book manuscript Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism with University of Illinois Press.