LIMA — “If the men of Allen and adjacent counties have been thinking that the women do not want to vote,” the Lima Daily News declared Oct. 21, 1914, “that erroneous doubt was forever set at rest by the remarkable pageant of Tuesday afternoon.”
On that warming autumn afternoon more than 1,500 women, children and a few men, including a 96-year-old identified only as “Mr. Wheldon,” marched up South Main Street to the Public Square in a mile-long procession to show their support for woman’s suffrage.
“As cohort after cohort passed, now a group of earnest, serious women, many of them with gray hair; then a group of laughing, bright-faced school lassies carrying their banners proudly and stepping in quick time to the music, which was so far ahead of a part of the procession that the marchers kept step to the spirit of it and not the real music. They aroused not only the enthusiasm of the crowd, but earnest thought as well,” the News wrote.
Of all the suffragists marching that day, perhaps the most earnest and serious was 57-year-old Bessie Crayton, described by the News as “the indefatigable president of the Political Equality Club.” When a man carrying “a huge ‘Home Rule’ banner” attempted to join the march, it was the indefatigable, not to mention indomitable and, at that point, pretty much immoveable Bessie Crayton who blocked him and “tore his banner from the heavy staff and stamped it beneath her feet,” the News noted.
That evening Memorial Hall was packed “to the doors” to hear national suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt and Harriet Taylor Upton, Ohio’s leader. Despite the enthusiasm of the suffragists, however, a state measure granting women the vote was rejected that November, just as a similar measure had been two years earlier, just as proposed amendments granting women the vote had died in Congress since the late 1870s. Ohio women at the time were only allowed to vote in school board elections.
Although renowned speakers like Catt, Upton, Luella Levining, English suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst and others drew large crowds on visits to Lima, Bessie Crayton was the backbone of the local effort. She was at one time “the only woman identified with the suffrage movement in Allen County … ,” the News noted.
Bessie Crayton was born Mary Elizabeth Catt in 1857. On June 30, 1881, the Allen County Democrat reported that “Mr. Wm. E. Crayton and Miss Bessie Catt were united in marriage … . The bride and groom are well known in the city and have a large circle of friends who wish them every happiness imaginable. The bride for several years past has been a teacher in our public schools and the groom is an employee of the Lake Erie shops … ” Bessie Crayton was soon an ex-teacher, resigning her position in August 1881.
William and Bessie Crayton hosted vegetarian dinners from their home at Vine Street and Greenlawn Avenue and pushed for prohibition through their involvement in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which was allied with the suffrage movement. William Crayton was editor of the Clipper, a prohibition weekly newspaper. Bessie Crayton, meanwhile, had “200 children enrolled in a ‘Loyal Temperance Legion’” on the south side, according to a 1921 history of Allen County. Both would remain with the prohibition movement until passage of the 18th amendment in 1920 banning alcohol consumption in the United States.
At a meeting of the temperance union in January 1906, Bessie Crayton and other speakers argued that the suffrage and temperance movements were complementary. “The opinion was freely expressed that influence does not count like votes and woman wants the ballot because it is her right as a rational being; especially do we demand a right to vote on the liquor question,” the News wrote on Jan. 13, 1906.
Interest in the suffrage movement heated up in the Lima area in early 1912 when the Lima Federation of Women’s Clubs, which was organized in 1904, invited Pankhurst to speak in Lima. “There is something wonderful about the little woman, and it is possibly sincerity and earnestness to secure votes for women,” the News wrote Feb. 27, 1912, of Pankhurst’s talk at Trinity Methodist Church.
Bessie Crayton matched Pankhurst’s zeal to secure the vote for women. In 1912, with yet another vote on suffrage looming in Ohio, Bessie Crayton and the Political Equality Club opened an open-air headquarters in a tent at Market and Elizabeth streets. “Headquarters were opened as a symposium for discussions of the all-important subject,” the News wrote July 8, 1912. “Suffragists and anti-Suffragists are invited to the rendezvous where daily discussions will be held.” The tent drew the attention of the New York Evening Post, which published a picture of the tent headquarters in a special edition on woman’s suffrage.
Noting the stifling heat beneath the canvas tent, Bessie Crayton asked a News reporter, “Don’t you think we deserve to vote? When women are willing to brave the torrid atmosphere beneath a heated tent, certainly they are earnest in their endeavors for equal suffrage.”
Even after Ohio voters turned down equal suffrage in September 1912, Bessie Crayton remained optimistic. “We were defeated,” she said, “but we are just about the happiest bunch of crestfallen women you ever saw. The day will soon approach when Ohio women have the ballot.”
Bessie Crayton and other local suffragists continued to lobby for the vote, hand out leaflets and challenge all comers to debate the issue through seemingly unending setbacks at the national, state and, on one notable occasion, the local level.
In 1915, the Liberty Bell was being taken by rail from Philadelphia to San Francisco for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It was the only time the bell ever toured the country and, on July 6, 1915, it stopped in Lima. About 15,000 people jammed the area along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks to see the bell, which was displayed on a special flat car, while merchants held “Liberty Day Sales,” and other groups hawked souvenirs.
However, the Political Equality club’s request to “place a small tent on the public square from which literature was to be distributed on Liberty Bell Day was defeated” in city Council, the News reported on July 3, 1915. “The women, undaunted, are now planning to put up the tent somewhere else, but at any rate declare that they will be on the street distributing the literature, which is in favor of woman suffrage.”
Such efforts, along with changing attitudes after World War I, paid off. On June 16, 1919, Ohio passed a suffrage bill granting women the right to vote and, on the following day, ratified the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th amendment became law in the United States.
“The final meeting for all time of the Political Equality Club of Lima was held at 3 o’clock Friday afternoon, after which the club will be known as the League of Women Voters,” the News reported on Sept. 3, 1920. “The club which was organized here some years ago has a strong membership, and it is expected to be increased considerably by the admission of new members, now that the league has been formed. Preceding the business session and selection of officers, a citizenship school was conducted, Mrs. W.E. Crayton, one of the active suffrage workers in the county instructed the class on registration and how to vote.” Two days later, she was elected the first president of the League of Women Voters.
Bessie Crayton died in 1933, the same year Prohibition was repealed.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.