Suffragists had to educate both men and women that women's views mattered and that they had a right to participate in government. Staten Island suffratists argued their cause before the houses of the New York State Legislature, to women gathered in parlors and clubs, and to male voters everywhere from lecture halls to street corners.
Elizabeth Neall Gay (1819 – 1907)
A Quaker from Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Neall was dedicated to ending slavery and accustomed to women’s equal participation in political discourse. However, when she attended the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London alongside early women’s rights leaders Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, women were barred the proceedings. Suffragists later pointed to the meeting as a catalyst for organizing the women’s rights movement. A few years later, Neall married journalist Sydney Howard Gay, editor of the Anti-Slavery Standard and moved to Staten Island. The couple opened their home to freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad. Elizabeth remained committed to women’s rights, a conviction she passed on to her daughter Mary Otis (Gay) Willcox.
George William Curtis (1824 – 1893) and Elizabeth Burrill Curtis (1861 – 1914)
Staten Island women had two potential routes to the vote: Either the New York State Legislature would amend the state constitution to include women’s right to vote or the United States Congress would amend the Constitution to bar states from sex-based discrimination at the polls. Political dynamos George William Curtis and his daughter Elizabeth Burrill Curtis represented Staten Island at the conventions of 1867 and 1894 respectively, arguing for a change to the State Constitution that would allow women to vote.
Internationally renowned orator, author, and editor, George William Curtis settled on Staten Island in the 1850s to marry Anna Shaw of the influential Shaw Family. He supported universal suffrage, the extension of voting rights to men and women regardless of race or color. In his speech at the 1867 New York State Constitutional Convention he declared that “a woman has the same right to her life, liberty and property that a man has and she has consequently the same right to an equality of protection that he has,” earning the praise of his friend, suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Elizabeth Burrill Curtis proudly carried on the progressive legacy of the Shaw and Curtis families as a vocal advocate for voting rights and civic education for women. At the 1894 New York State Constitutional Convention, Curtis argued, “Because the protection and safety of the home are so vital to most women…I plead for the power to effectually guard that home.” Her pleas went unanswered, but she was undeterred by the loss. Curtis founded the Political Equality Club, “the first organization on Staten Island to preach the equality of women and men,” in 1895. After her death in 1914, fellow suffragist Mary Otis Willcox said of Curtis’ contribution to the movement, “By the force of her personality [she] raised the cause from a subject of ridicule to one at least for serious consideration.”
Mary Otis Willcox (1861 – 1933)
The Political Equality Club conducted its earliest meetings as lectures and discussions in the parlors of Staten Island’s social elite. Eventually, local suffragists expanded their tactics to include broader recruitment efforts like automobile tours and open-air meetings, seeking to unite women from the various towns on Staten Island in an active campaign for the vote.
Described as “indefatigable” by her fellow suffragists, Willcox began her work as an officer in the Political Equality Club and then spearheaded the local campaign as Chair of the Staten Island Woman Suffrage Party. A wealthy woman, Willcox was able to host many of the Party’s events in her home, provide her car to transport suffrage speakers around the island, and give generously to the movement’s fundraising efforts. She and her husband, William G. Willcox supported many of Staten Island’s charitable organizations, including the Red Cross, Shiloh AME Zion Church, and the Staten Island Museum. In fact, at her death, the Museum recognized her as the first woman to serve on its Board of Trustees.