Biographical Database of Rhode Island Women's Suffragists
Biography of Mabel E. Orgelman, 1885-1966
By Kaitlyn Carr, undergraduate student, and Elisa Miller, Professor, Rhode Island College, Providence, RI
President of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party, Chairman of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters
Mabel E. Orgelman was born in September 28, 1885 to Augustus and Emelia (Newberger) Orgelman, in Newtown, Connecticut. Augustus was a German immigrant and Emelia was born in Rhode Island to German immigrants. Augustus earned a living as a harness maker and the family moved from Connecticut to Bristol, Rhode Island in 1900. Mabel Orgelman never married and worked at various times as a stenographer, owner and manager of a tearoom, and professional organizer.
Orgelman was active in the Rhode Island woman suffrage movement by the early 1910s. Throughout her years of activism in Rhode Island, she was affiliated with the Bristol Equal Suffrage League, the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association, and the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party. Her earliest recorded activity is helping out with a bazaar, to raise funds and awareness for the suffrage campaign in 1914. She performed the lead role in a play put on by the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association in 1916.
By 1916, Orgelman served as the organization chairman for the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association. Orgelman played an important role in campaigning for legislation to allow Rhode Island women to vote in presidential election, including lobbying political leaders to support the bill. In addition to organizing within the state of Rhode Island, she was responsible for attaining the support of the Rhode Island politicians serving in the House of Representatives and Senate in Washington, D.C. She campaigned at both Republican and Democratic Party rallies during the 1916 election year. The Rhode Island state government passed the presidential suffrage bill in April 1917. Interviewed by The Providence Journal about this major victory for the suffrage movement, Orgelman declared, "I am proud of Rhode Island men, and of the members of the General Assembly of 1917. I feel sincerely that full suffrage will be given to women by Federal amendment, in 1920." In The Woman Citizen, Elizabeth Upham Yates, a long-time Rhode Island suffrage leader, praised Orgelman for her efforts on behalf of the bill. She wrote, "Miss Mabel Orgleman [sic], State organizer, rendered very effective service, and aided by other women of wit and wisdom, a most efficient lobby was conducted." Orgelman attended the official signing of the bill with the governor and several other prominent suffragists.
In 1917, Orgelman broadened her suffrage activism beyond Rhode Island. Carrie Chapman Catt, the NAWSA leader, invited her to serve as an organizer in the New York suffrage campaign. Orgelman spent time giving speeches and helping set up suffrage leagues in the Bronx and Manhattan. She also tried to intervene in a Maine referendum on woman suffrage, writing series of letters to a Maine newspaper about woman suffrage. Orgelman's letters in The Express-Adversiser offer important insight into her beliefs and philosophies about woman suffrage.
In these letters, Orgelman wrote passionately about political equality and democratic rights for women, stating, "As a woman, I hope more deeply than I can express that the result will be to take the women of Maine out of the class to which they are now assigned politically, along with idiots and criminals, and put them upon a political equality with their sisters in the West, as self-governing citizens in a true republic." She also stressed that woman suffrage would benefit American society as a whole, drawing on maternalist rhetoric about the nurturing attributes of women. She explained, "Women have become possessed of broader vision: through their increased civic interest and civic intelligence, they have quickened the civic intelligence of men, and by making public interests a home topic, they are raising children who will constitute a more patriotic and more intelligent citizenship than that of today. The interests of the home, of the school and of the child are better safeguarded than ever before and the moral and spiritual forces of the community strengthened." In these statements, Orgelman tried to depict woman suffrage as a benefit to the entire society and assuage concerns that voting would undermine women's roles in the family and home. Orgelman also pointed to states such as California and Colorado where women had earned the right to vote as examples of how political rights benefited women. After the passage of woman suffrage, according to Orgelman, "Women in the equal suffrage states receive a respect and deference unknown to women of other states. I don't mean the sort of deference that consists of a bared head in an elevator or the picking up of a dropped handkerchief, but a respect for the opinion and judgment of women in civic affairs and elsewhere, a deference to them as human beings, as comrades and equals."
Following the strategy of the National American Woman Suffrage Association during World War I, Orgelman combined her suffrage activism with service to the war effort. She served as a member of Women's Committee of the Council of National Defense and officer of the local branch. While campaigning for suffrage in New York, Orgelman also gave speeches on behalf of the Liberty Loan Committee. In Rhode Island, as well, she manned a booth for the Women's Liberty Loan Committee. Like other NAWSA leaders and members, Orgelman explicitly connected women's wartime support to the cause of woman suffrage. She explained, "In this hour when the Nation is at a crisis, when women throughout the land are being called upon for service and sacrifice in support of the Government and for the preservation of our National existence, and are responding patriotically to that call, the righteousness and justice of giving them an equal voice in the Government which they are equally called upon to govern is even more apparent than it is under ordinary conditions." At the end of the war, she attended a conference in Boston run by the Congress of the League of Nations.
Orgelman's organizing and lobbying skills were especially important in the final push to get the suffrage amendment ratified in 1919. She served as legislative chairman of the Woman Suffrage Party, and with Leila Andrews, her close colleague in the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party, Orgelman attended meetings with prominent politicians such as Isaac Gill, a powerful local politician whom The New York Times referred to as the "reputed dictator of Rhode Island Elections." When a delegation of Rhode Island suffrage leaders met with Governor Livingston Beeckman, Orgelman served as the primary spokesperson for the group. Both Gill and Beeckman agreed to demands to support a special legislative session to ratify the nineteenth amendment. The Woman Citizen highlighted an example of Orgelman's skills and success in the political arena in 1919. Representative Luigi de Pasquale of the Rhode Island Legislature wrote to Orgelman explaining that he had not supported woman suffrage in the past but had changed his mind recently. He explained, "It will give me great pleasure to vote for ratification if a special session of the Legislature is called, and if it is any encouragement to you I promise I will speak in favor of the Amendment. Rhode Island needs a little cleaning-out of politics, and it is up to the women to do the cleaning."
In addition to lobbying politicians, Orgelman traveled the state giving speeches and answering questions from ordinary Rhode Islanders. She gave speeches such as "Suffrage in New York," "Women as Citizens," and "Legislation—Good and Bad," to organizations such as women's clubs and labor unions. Orgelman also participated in efforts to get women registered to vote, both in preparation for full suffrage and to vote in presidential election, rights that Rhode Island women had already secured. She traveled to New York with other Woman Suffrage Party members, to consult with Carrie Chapman Catt, chairman of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and Will Hays, national chairman of the Republican committee, on suffrage strategy and organizing.
In November 1919, Orgelman, along with other members of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party, filed legal papers to change the name of the organization to the Rhode Island League of Women Voters. They listed the purpose of the organization as being " for the purpose of securing the ratification of federal suffrage amendment, to further the education of women politically, socially and otherwise, to support a program of legislation which aims to improve the electorate so that all voters of out state shall speak English, read their own ballots and honor the American flag." These goals were crucial for the League of Women Voters for numerous reasons. By gaining the right to education for women they would be able to compete with men for jobs and become more independent. Further, this education would provide women with the means of having a voice in the political sphere, therefore affecting change in other areas pertinent to women's suffrage. Suffragists hoped that civic education would also help alleviate concerns about women being ignorant and ill-equipped to serve as voters.
In the renamed organization, Orgelman worked on number of related goals—working toward the ratification of the suffrage amendment in Rhode Island and gaining new membership for the League. The Woman Citizen recognized the hard work of Mabel Orgelman and Leila Andrews on behalf of the League of Women Voters, reporting that, "Miss Andrews and Miss Orgelman have been especially successful in organizing new Leagues of Women Voters throughout the state and making addresses on the work of the League."
Orgelman was at the center of ratification efforts in Rhode Island in 1919. She tirelessly lobbied for a special legislative session to consider the suffrage amendment, in speeches, meetings, and letters to the newspaper. In a letter to the editor about ratification, Orgelman explained how critical the issue was to Rhode Island Women. She stated, "Rhode Island led the Eastern States in granting presidential suffrage and now has the opportunity to go on record as one of the first to grant full enfranchisement. Is this too much to ask when one remembers the pioneers and the faithful workers who have toiled through so many years, circulating petitions, laboring with the unconverted and ‘carrying on,' year after year, in the face of opposition, criticism and much ridicule? The Governors and Legislatures of New York, Kansas and Texas were eager to declare to the world that their women need not petition in vain. Are the women of Rhode Island less worthy? After waiting fifty years, a few months more or less may not seem such a very long time, but the opportunity to pay a splendid compliment to the women of the State is here and now."
As the ratification campaign heated up, Orgelman criticized the actions of American political parties and argued that a stance of non-partisanship would be most effective for woman suffrage. She said that the League of Women Voters' stressed that "principles not parties should govern." She acknowledges that political parties were angered by the League of Women Voter's non-partisanship and issued a warning to them. She stated, "Let the wise ones within the parties beware. Take to these new voters men and women who meet their ideals. Drop the candidates whose records are questionable. Do not make your party suffer from the sins of omission and commission or weight your tickets with the names of men who, while asking us to vote for them, do not believe that we have that right." Orgelman wanted the political parties to earn the support of women voters by taking their political rights and interests seriously and supporting good government reforms. She criticized elements of hypocrisy in the parties, noting "with one breath the men want us right in the party because they need us, and in the next breath say you can just wait for the privilege of voting." She also issued a warning that the political parties ignored the influence of women at their own peril, stating In a few short months we will be in the midst of a national political campaign; the women who are petitioning now will be, perhaps, the deciding factor."
The Rhode Island state government officially ratified the nineteenth amendment in January 1920. As with the presidential suffrage bill in 1917, Orgelman attended the official signing with the governor and he awarded her one of four pens used in the ceremony in recognition of her efforts and importance in the ratification. A month after the Rhode Island ratification success, Orgelman and other leading Rhode Island suffragists attended NAWSA's annual convention in Chicago in February 1920. The convention was intended to celebrate the progress made toward the suffrage amendment, mark the transition of the national organization to the League of Women Voters, and set goals and strategies for continued activism. At the convention, Carrie Chapman Catt, the head of NAWSA, honored Orgelman with an award in recognition of her "distinguished service" for woman suffrage. Orgelman was the only Rhode Island suffragist to receive the award. At the convention, Orgelman was chosen secretary and member of the elections committee of the New England caucus of the League of Women Voters.
After the ratification of the suffrage amendment, Orgelman was a leader in the League's civic education programs. She was a member of the League's Americanization Committee, and as the League's legislative chairman, lobbied for legislation for mandatory English language training in Rhode Island. Orgelman and other suffragists supported Americanization efforts following World War I where American nationalism and anti-immigrant fears and hysteria intensified in the country. Orgelman helped establish and lead civic classes for women such as weekly study groups and trips to the Rhode Island State House to familiarize them with how the government worked. Leila Andrews retired as head of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters at the end of 1920 and the membership unanimously elected Orgelman as her successor as chairman of the organization.
By the late 1920s, Orgelman became devoted to the animal welfare movement. She explained her interest in protecting animals as " Let us hope the expansion of consciousness to include all races and creeds will continue until it reaches every living thing" and that "To use one's pleas on behalf of our animal friends, who cannot speak for themselves, is a most unselfish act." She used the experience she had developed working for woman suffrage to try to improve conditions for animals in the United States. She joined organizations, lobbied politicians for legislative reform, and wrote essays and gave speeches on the issues. In particular, she fought against vivisection—scientific experimentation on live animals.
In the early 1930s, after moving away from Rhode Island, Orgelman joined the New Jersey Vivisection Investigation Society and then served as chairman and paid organizer for the New York State Committee Against Vivisection. In addition to her animal activism, in 1941 Orgelman, the daughter of a German immigrant, headed a Long Island branch of the America First Committee, an organization that opposed American involvement in World War II. By the late 1940s, she had moved to Northern California and joined the Alameda County Anti-Vivisection Society. In 1953, a controversy emerged when the board of the society terminated her membership after accusing Orgelman of taking action without their approval. Orgelman petitioned the court to reinstate her membership, arguing that society had violated her legal rights. When that action was unsuccessful, Orgelman founded and chaired a new organization, the Citizens' Volunteer Anti-Vivisection Committee. A reporter interviewing Orgelman in 1957 about her animal activism described her as " Well-known to legislative bodies of the state." In this interview, the reporter talked to Orgelman about her long history of activism, most prominently for women's and animal rights. He asked if she had ever been sent to jail. She responded, "Pretty close a few times, but never actually jailed."
Orgelman lived in Alameda, California for nearly twenty years and died there on April 3, 1966. Mabel E. Orgelman was a major leader in the Rhode Island suffrage movement. NAWSA honored her for her service to the cause, she was a one of a few people who were invited to attend the Governor's official signing of presidential suffrage in 1917 and the suffrage amendment in 1920, and the Governor recognized Orgelman's contributions to ratification by gifting her one of the pens used to sign it. Despite this prominence, Orgelman appears only briefly in a footnote in the Rhode Island chapter of The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6. Sara M. Algeo wrote the Rhode Island history of NAWSA suffrage activism in the book and had been voted out as president of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party by a group of suffragists that included Orgelman in favor of Leila P. Andrews, an ally and colleague of Orgelman's. Algeo's conflict with Orgelman likely explains her limited presence in The History of Woman Suffrage.
Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, at the January Session, A.D. 1920 (Providence: E. L. Freeman Company, Printers, 1920), 920.
A. G. Spencer, History of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association, Providence Public Library, Providence, RI.
Ida Husted Harper, ed. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6: 1900-1920 (New York: J.J. Little & Ives Company, 1922).
Justina Everett Wilson, ed., Handbook of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and Proceedings of the Jubilee Convention (1869-1919) Held at St. Louis, MO. March 22-29, 1919 (New York: National American Women Suffrage Association, 1919).
Sara M. Algeo, The Story of a Sub-Pioneer (Providence, RI: Snow & Farnham Co., 1925).
Hale, Margaret; Merrill, Elizabeth Goodard; Laughlin, Gail; Powell, Rev. Hannah Jewett; and Burnham; Mabel E. Orgelman, Anna E., "The Letter Box Gail Laughlin Writes on Suffrage Vote" (2018). League of Women Voters (69.129). 66. Maine State Museum, Digital Maine. https://digitalmaine.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1065&context=lwvme
F., M. J.; Orgelman, Mabel E.; K., M. C.; and Whitehouse, Florence Brooks, "Letter Box Suffrage Replies" (2018). League of Women Voters (69.129). 67. Maine State Museum, Digital Maine. https://digitalmaine.com/lwvme/67.
"Rhode Island," The Woman Citizen Vol. 4, No. 20 (December 6, 1919): 531-532.
"Rhode Island Ratification Day," The Woman Citizen Vol. 4. No. 27 (January 24, 1920): 762-763.
"Rhode Island's Convert," The Woman Citizen Vol. 4, No. 5 (July 5, 1919): 146.
"Rhode Island's Lead," The Woman Citizen Vol. 4, No. 25 (January 10, 1920): 710.
"Beeckman Favors Suffrage Session," The Providence Daily Journal, July 18, 1919.
"Governor Beekman, Prominent Woman Suffrage Workers and General Assembly Leaders Land Passage of Bill by Rhode Island Legislature," The Providence Journal, April 18, 1917.
"Governor to Try Again for Session," The Providence Daily Journal, July 15, 1919.
"Local Delegates to Victory Convention, " The Providence Sunday Journal, February 8, 1920.
"League of Women Voters Plans Legislative Study," The Providence Journal, January 10, 1920.
"League of Women Voters Plans More Civic Classes," The Providence Journal, October 30, 1919.
"Miss Mabel E. Orgelman Honored at Convention," The Providence Journal, February 20, 1920.
"Miss Mabel Orgelman as ‘Betty' in Clyde Fitch's First Play," The Providence Journal, March 2, 1916.
"Miss Mabel Orgelman as ‘Betty' in Clyde Fitch's First Play," The Providence Journal, March 2, 1916.
"Special Session Decision Expected To-Day," The Providence Daily Journal, July 21, 1919.
"The Political Sisterhood Lines Up," The Providence Sunday Journal, July 20, 1919.
Mabel E. Orgelman, "Special Session for Suffrage," The Providence Journal, June 30, 1919.
Mabel E. Orgelman, "Woman Suffrage in R.I.," The Providence Journal, September 30, 1919.
Mabel E. Orgelman, "Woman Suffrage Progress," The Providence Journal, August 2, 1919.
Sara L.G. Fittz, "How We Won Suffrage," The Providence Sunday Journal, April 29, 1917.
Mabel E. Orgelman, "Animal Friends," The Oakland Tribune, December 18, 1951.
"The Way We Were," https://newtownbee.com/way-we-were-week-ending-november-17/.
Elizabeth Upham Yates, "Rhode Island's Suffrage Prestige," The Woman Citizen, Vol. 1, No. 3 (June 16, 1917): 50.
Bill Romwall, "In This Corner," The Daily Review (Hayward, CA), March 11, 1957.