More than 100 years ago, Valley residents were fighting for equality and women's rights.
Shamokin resident Kathryn Cleaver Heffelfinger, born in 1889, had by 1917, joined a militant suffragist group, the National Women's Party.
Little is known about Heffelfinger, other than the fact that she received three jail sentences for picketing and demonstrating in Washington D.C., near the White House.
On October 6, 1917, Heffelfinger and eleven others were arrested for “blocking traffic” in front of the White House. For that, she received a six-month sentence in the District of Columbia jail, beginning on October 16. While in jail, Heffelfinger took part in a hunger strike. She was force-fed along with other suffragists who participated in the hunger strike.
Meanwhile, it's not as if people on the other side of the Susquehanna River, in Union County weren’t aware of the suffrage movement, said Bruce Teeple, president, Union County Historical Society board of directors.
"It came down to this," Teeple said. "Women weren't taken seriously. They were considered second-class citizens."
Teeple researched old newspapers, the main means of communication back then.
It just was a different time. "Newspapers had traditionally been semi-official mouthpieces of political parties," he said, "with the publisher often doing double duty as the editor, and the entire operation was financially at the mercy of local advertisers."
Some of the earliest local coverage of any suffrage work — "while patronizing and condescending in tone," Teeple said, "began around March 1913, as suffragists organized a protest march just before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as president."
Page 2 of a 1913 issue of the Mifflinburg Telegraph tells us that “On March 4th, a party of ladies started to 'hike' to Washington, to join the suffragettes in their parade." They never made it past Vicksburg.
In early newspapers, Teeple found reports about local women across the county organizing for civic improvement. Laurelton, for example, formed the “Ladies of the Concrete Sidewalk” in 1912 to improve pedestrian traffic in that village.
Speakers from the Chautauqua [Mount Gretna] summer circuit also presented impassioned speeches in Mifflinburg and Lewisburg to educate audiences and raise awareness of women’s issues.
Just before the First World War, Teeple said, newspaper and magazine articles cited early psychological studies claiming that apple green was the perfect color to "calm down those pesky wives clamoring for a right to vote."
The opening salvos in the Valley began innocently enough in February of 1915 with a masquerade ball held in Lewisburg. Over $90 (or about $2,300 today) was raised to promote the cause, Teeple said.
The local movie theatre also raised money that month by showing the Olive Wyndham feature, “Your Girl and Mine,” a film publicized as officially backed by the National Women Suffrage Association.
The film argued that “women are fighting for the ballot because their economic and social interest demands that they share in government, and not merely because they want to vote for the sake of voting.”
This was quite a landmark in local coverage, in that actual reasons for women voting appeared on the page, even if this article was on page 7 of the Lewisburg Journal.
Activities started heating up with the season’s temperatures.
Throughout May and July of 1915, the Journal reported on speeches given by several state and national politicians advocating women’s right to vote. Oddly enough, Teeple said, "what created this turnaround and began raising the collective consciousness was suffragists sponsoring a statewide tour of a replica of the Liberty Bell on the back of a truck.
"For four days in mid-September," Teeple said, "the Bell made fourteen separate stops across Union County: crisscrossing from Allenwood to Winfield, and from Lewisburg to Laurelton.
New language and arguments about women’s suffrage crept into the pages of the newspaper, with words like “justice,” “fair play,” and “a square deal for women,” Teeple explained.
As Pennsylvania’s Election Day approached, the Lewisburg Journal started publishing even more editorial cartoons favoring suffrage.
The momentum kept going right up through October to Election Day.
Union County also announced the nomination of Miss Edith Cummings for Register and Recorder of Deeds, the first female candidate for a county office. This was so unprecedented that even the Philadelphia papers reported the story.
And yet on Election Eve, the Journal’s front-page editorial argued that men should not let women vote "by launching into a ludicrous tirade and giving a twisted ultimatum of “Union County, love it or leave it.', Teeple said.
“The state of PA has more women than the eleven full suffrage states combined. The city of Philadelphia has more people than five of those states, and the city of Harrisburg contains more women over twenty-one than reside in the entire states of Wyoming or Nevada.
“If the suffragists want the freedom of the franchise, let them buy a ticket to some state where women vote, instead of advocating higher taxes, more extravagance, jury duty for women, and double suffrage here.” (Lewisburg Journal, 22 October 1915, p.1)
Despite all their work, though, the suffragists lost the 1915 state and county-wide election, with only Lewisburg’s South Ward – out of all the men in the entire county – favoring a woman’s right to vote.
There were 1697 votes cast in the 1915 election; 641, or 38 percent voted for women's suffrage.
Also, according to the Journal, the dark arts and dirty tricks of electioneering had been at work. Not long after the county committee met, rumors quickly circulated just before the election that no one legally could or would swear Edith Cummings into office if she won. (Lewisburg Journal, 1 November 1915, p. 4)
Why throw away your vote on a candidate who won’t be allowed to serve?
Local suffragists were undaunted and determined.
The biggest boost in raising people’s awareness about the changing role of women came during and after the First World War.
America had declared war on Germany in April of 1917. Defeating the Hun and obliterating all things German was the new priority. That involved nine intense months of mobilizing and training millions of soldiers until the first sizable overseas deployment in January of 1918.
We had “Mom” tending the home fires and embracing “our boy” with outstretched arms.
Women finally won the right to vote on 20 August 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The vote was almost anti-climactic, with nowhere near the local coverage that the 1915 efforts received. People were exhausted. The world was still recovering from a world war and an influenza pandemic….and the vote just made sense.
When women first voted in the 1920 Presidential election three months later, the Mifflinburg Telegraph provided column after column, and page after page of excessively detailed instructions on how the voting process worked and what women had to do.
To the delight of the Journal, the publisher of the rival Saturday News, Congressman Ben Focht, took a safer, more conventional stance against women’s suffrage, asserting that “the vast majority of women do not want the vote nor do they need it for their protection.”
Once women did get the vote Focht lost every successive election where he was a candidate.
Meanwhile, there was some grousing and whining, as in this Journal editorial: “Life in America is just one darned amendment after another. First, they took away a man’s liquor with the Eighteenth Amendment. Now they add a nineteenth amendment, taking away his wife. No home is big enough to hold two adult voters of opposite political creeds and sexes."
The push to prevent women and other groups from voting continued for years and from every direction.
Even fifteen years after women could vote legally, Francis W. Coker, president of the American Political Science Association, still maintained that "we must abolish any democracy that’s founded on 'the dogma of universal suffrage,'" that allows “the ignorant, the uninformed and the antisocial elements” to vote.