Whitewashing anti-suffragists


Whitewashing anti-suffragists


When your origin story is on the #WrongSideOfHistory, it tends to get whitewashed. 

Such is the case with the @CooperHewitt, a marvelous museum to visit, even digitally. Their website tells the story of its founding sisters, but doesn’t mention their anti-suffrage leadership. 

Sarah (L) and Eleanor Hewitt (R) were bold and interesting and devoted to women’s education in the decorative arts--design, we call it today. Neither ever married, and they hung out with hip lesbians like Elsie de Wolfe and Bessie Marbury. 

They didn’t need to marry for money, because they had plenty. Their maternal grandfather, Peter Cooper, was a fabulously rich industrialist and founder of @CooperUnion >> in 1861. Their father was the Mayor of New York City.

Reading the CooperHewitt web series on the sisters, it was clearly a LOT of fun to be rich in the Gilded Age. The city house, the summer estate, the day dresses and evening gowns and fancy dress costumes, the horses, the servants, the annual shopping trips to Europe… 

The Hewitt parents believed in education for girls, and nothing was denied to Sarah, Eleanor, or their sister Amy. They were athletic and musical, multi-lingual and artistic. >> Here’s Sarah at Ringwood, their New Jersey estate.

The New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage was founded in their family home in 1895. Their mother was a leading patron of the New York antis. Their father, the politician, published anti-suffrage articles about why men needed government, women just needed love.

The Hewitt sisters were adults in their 30s at the time, and they did not disagree.

By the time New Yorkers considered women’s suffrage again, 20 years later, Sarah and Eleanor’s parents had died. They carried on the family’s anti-suffrage tradition, opposing women’s votes until the very end of the New York campaign. 

In February 1917 they celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s birthday by hosting an “Anti-Suffrage Review” at their mansion. Despite their efforts, New York men approved suffrage that November.

Like Annie Nathan Meyer, founder of @BarnardCollege and another devoted foe of women’s suffrage, the Hewitt sisters sought to create opportunity for other women. They helped create jobs for interior designers, a growing field for well-off women. 

Sarah and Eleanor used their fortune to build an art and design collection, ultimately fulfilling their grandfather’s wish that the Cooper Union contain a museum. That collection is now the Cooper-Hewitt, housed in Andrew Carnegie’s mansion and run by the Smithsonian.

The institution lauds its founders as “independent women who not only were pioneers in the field of design education but successfully pursued their dream of opening a unique museum.” True, as far as it goes. But not mentioning their work against suffrage is lousy history.

The Hewitts’ anti-suffragism is not a quaint, quirky detail--it’s a moral failing. They used their wealth and access to keep other women subservient. They fueled the opposition and provided cover to men who opposed suffrage. If accomplished, independent women like them didn’t think suffrage was needed, why should men?

Thanks to @goodier_susan for her book  No Votes for Women, about anti-suffragists in New York, for the story of the Hewitt sisters and many other prominent anti-suffragists.

I wonder if institutions like @BarnardCollege and the @CooperHewitt don’t talk about their anti-suffrage roots because they’re embarrassed--or because they just don’t think the story is that important. Maybe both.



Daily Suffragist


December 24, 2020


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Daily Suffragist, “Whitewashing anti-suffragists,” Daily Suffragist, accessed July 22, 2024, https://dailysuffragist.omeka.net/items/show/540.

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