Russell Sage and a Century of Women’s Suffrage

“A Women’s Suffrage Meeting in Mrs. Russell Sage’s Drawing Room”, 1894. Mrs. Russell Sage by Ruth Crocker, 2006, fig. 8.1, p. 158.

When I talk about the founding of Russell Sage College in 1916, I often note that it occurred four years before the passing of the 19th amendment that granted women’s suffrage. I do this to stress how different the status of women was at the time and how progressive was the cause of women’s education. That women should be educated and enter professions was not widely accepted. Indeed, one of the anti-suffrage arguments was that women would just double the votes of their husbands or fathers—a notion that seems both quaintly paternalistic and appallingly sexist to us now.

It reminds us how much has changed in a century–but also of how close those pre-suffrage days are. Both of my grandmothers would have turned 21 before women had the right to vote; my mother was born just two years after the first U.S. election with women voters.

It seems especially fitting that the Women’s Institute at Russell Sage College will open in fall 2020, the one-hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Olivia Slocum Sage initially shared her mentor’s, Emma Willard’s, view that women’s education was far more important than the highly contested struggle over voting rights. But Olivia Sage was later influenced by fellow graduate of the Troy Female Seminary, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton was an early and powerful advocate for women’s causes, including suffrage, and she played a key role at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Sage and Stanton spent time together in 1892 and 1893. In October 1893, Stanton notes in her diary that “Mrs. Sage has been converted to woman suffrage and she tells me that she is drawing Mr. Sage in the right direction.”

As the campaign proceeded, activists sought endorsements from prominent men, and millionaire Russell Sage provided a full-throated encomium in January of 1894: “I believe when women vote we shall have wiser government, cleaner politics, more ballots, and fewer bullets. When men and women labor together there is a compact, new completeness, thoroughness, in the result that is often wanting when the sexes work separately. If men have experience, women have insight; if men use logic and reason, women use instinct and intuition; if men are hasty, cruel, brutal, women are diplomatic, merciful, refined. Combine these qualities and you have a unit that approaches perfection.”

While we wouldn’t trade in such stereotypes today, at the time this was known as the suffrage argument on the basis of difference: women should have the vote because they offered a sensibility and realm of experience different from that of men and deserving of representation and inclusion.

After 1893, Olivia Slocum Sage worked as a prominent advocate of women’s suffrage and hosted meetings in her home, one of which is depicted in a sketch that has been preserved. The campaign for suffrage that began around the time of the Civil War continued for another quarter century after Sage’s conversion before finally being ratified. By that time—August 1920—Russell Sage and Olivia Sage had both died, Olivia had founded Russell Sage College, and the first class had just graduated.

Now, a century later, our students benefit from the progress of women and a far more open society, but they still face discrimination, unequal pay, prejudice, and harassment. They work to create a gender inclusive society and to achieve fully the opportunities and equality that the college’s founders fought for.

Look in fall 2020 for the opening of the Women’s Institute and a celebration and reflection on a century of suffrage, resistance, and achievement. Our first formal programs will debut between the hundredth anniversary of the amendment’s ratification and the hundredth anniversary of the first U.S. national election in which women could vote.

Some years before the suffrage movement succeeded, Olivia Slocum Sage predicted that women voters would root out corruption, telling the New York Times: “When women vote there will be a national housecleaning such as no nation ever saw. Once armed with the ballot, then the mop, the broom and the bucket will be decidedly more in evidence in the places in which they are needed.” They are words of continuing relevance and resonance.

Chris Ames
President, The Sage Colleges