LIMA — Lila Graham Gamble was early for her appointment with history, which took place in a garage on the corner of Market Street and Kenilworth Avenue on a rainy November morning nearly a century ago.
At 6 a.m. Nov. 2, 1920, one half hour before the polls officially opened, Gamble voted, becoming the first woman in Lima to vote in a national election. The wife of L.C. Gamble, one of Lima’s first black law enforcement officers, she was the mother of two other remarkable Lima women — noted actress Maidie Norman and Clarice Gamble Herbert, the first black woman to head a YWCA in Philadelphia.
When Gamble marched to her polling place in the garage in the pre-dawn gloom of that morning, she was walking in the footsteps of countless other women who’d devoted their lives to the suffrage movement, which resulted in the passage of the 19th amendment in August 1920. Many of those same women had, earlier that same momentous year, founded the League of Women Voters, devoted to educating women and men on the candidates and issues.
Women had formally been fighting for the vote since 1866 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the Woman Suffrage Association in New York. In 1874, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which was closely associated with the suffrage movement, was formed with a goal of banning alcohol in the United States. Because of that association, liquor interests also strongly opposed the suffrage movement. In 1878, a suffrage amendment was introduced in Congress but quickly died.
In April 1894, Ohio granted women the right to vote in school board elections. Ten years later, in early 1904, the Lima Federation of Women’s Clubs was organized and set up a suffrage committee. That committee, in February 1912, brought the noted English suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst to Lima for a speech.
“There are three classes of people who are opposed to women’s suffrage,” Pankhurst told a crowd of 600 at Trinity Methodist Church, the Lima Times-Democrat reported on Feb. 27, 1912. “First, the people who have contempt for women — who think them playthings and dolls rather than thinking beings; second, the people who have a contempt for government; third, the people who have not thought.”
Pankhurst was one of the first of a wave of state and national suffrage proponents to speak in Lima in 1912 — some in a tent set up by the local suffragists near High and Elizabeth streets, some in the Public Square — in advance of a fall vote on a suffrage amendment.
In late August, Lima’s Republican-Gazette reported the village of Waynesfield was “in turmoil over woman suffrage” after a debate and poll sponsored by the local suffrage club showed audience members, most of them women, about 4 to 1 against it. “It is said that the bitterness of feeling between the women for the ballot and the women against it is rising so high that the men are declaring the situation is a fine specimen of the discord that would prevail if the women were actually using the vote instead of merely talking about it.”
The amendment again failed in Ohio that fall. Bessie Crayton, who headed Lima’s Political Equality Club and was the backbone of the local suffrage movement, remained optimistic in defeat. “We were defeated, 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,” she predicted.
And so, the suffragists continued to debate, lobby and hold pro-suffrage parades and rallies. “By early October 1914,” the Lima News wrote in March 2003, “Lima had secured the visit of Carrie Chapman Catt, the head of the international Suffrage Association. Catt, who was joined locally by Harriet Taylor Upton, the president of the Ohio delegation came to Lima in part because of this city’s interest in the cause, and in part because she was a relative of Bessie Crayton.”
The late October parade drew more than 1,500 people, including many men. At one point, when a man carrying a banner promoting home rule attempted to horn in on the parade, Crayton, the News noted, “tore his banner from the heavy staff and stamped it beneath her feet.”
On Oct. 31, 1914, the News published opposing views on suffrage from Catt, described as a “leading suffrage worker,” and Lucy Price, secretary of Ohio Women’s Anti-Suffrage League. Catt wrote that the amendment would pass “because it is the logical evolution of our democracy.” Price argued that less than 12 1/2 percent of Ohio women wanted the vote and that the roles of men and women were fundamentally different — and that the role of women did not include voting.
The 19th amendment was again defeated in the November 1914 election, in which much more interest was focused on a Prohibition amendment.
In mid-November 1916, as World War I entered its second year, Lima’s importance to the suffrage movement in Ohio was underlined when the city played host to the state organization. “By 1917,” the News wrote in March 2005, “the cry for voting rights became more intense as talk of war with Germany came to the forefront. The local paper wrote, ‘The knowledge that women will be expected to bear their full share of responsibility in the event of war is said to have simulated among many women a demand for a voice in the government.” That May, with war now a fact, about 350 women attended a suffrage tea at the Gramm house in Lima. The theme for the tea was, “Woman’s Hour Has Struck.”
The hour, it turned out, had not yet struck, but it was getting closer. In February 1917, an Ohio measure known as the Reynolds Bill, which gave women the vote for presidential elections, was signed into law only to be struck down in a referendum vote that November.
However, momentum for suffrage turned in January 1918 when President Woodrow Wilson finally threw his support behind the idea. After much debate, the amendment, known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, passed the House in May of 1919 with the Senate following suit in June.
Meanwhile, on June 16, 1919, Ohio again passed a new Reynolds presidential suffrage bill granting women the vote whether the 19th amendment was ratified by the states or not. Ohio ratified the 19th amendment the following day.
On March 17, 1920, the News wrote, “Women of Lima and Allen County may vote at the primaries on April 27 to elect delegates and alternates to the Republican and Democratic national conventions and also to the state conventions.” Except they didn’t as anti-suffragists succeeded in getting enough votes for a referendum on the Reynolds bill.
It all became moot in August 1920 as Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment. On Aug. 26, the amendment became law.
“The final meeting for all time of the Political Equality Club of Lima was held at 3 o’clock Friday afternoon,” the News reported Sept. 3, 1920, “after which 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.” Two days later Bessie Crayton was elected the first president of Lima’s League of Women Voters.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.