Biographical Sketch of Kate Stoneman

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920

Biography of Kate Stoneman, 1841-1925

By Sue Boland, Historian
Matilda Joslyn Gage Center
Fayetteville, NY

Kate Stoneman is best known for being the first woman lawyer in the state of New York, admitted to the bar in 1886 before being the first female graduate of Albany Law School in 1898. She was also very involved with the local and state woman suffrage movement for many years and was the first woman to legally vote in Albany in 1880 when New York women were granted the right to vote in school elections. She was friends with Susan B. Anthony and worked alongside Lillie Devereux Blake, Mary Seymour Howell and other prominent suffrage leaders. Stoneman lived long enough to witness New York women voting in 1918 and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, which ended gender discrimination in voting.

Katherine “Kate” Stoneman was born circa April, 1841,1. There is some confusion over the year and day of Ms. Stoneman's birth. Her gravestone is inscribed "1840-1925." Her obituary says she died at 84 years old, born on April 1, 1841 (Knickerbocker Press, 22 May 1925). Geoffrey Williams in The Encyclopedia of New York State says she was born on April 11, 1841. to Katherine Cheney and George Stoneman in Lakewood, Chautauqua County, New York. In 1864, she enrolled in the Albany Normal School, a school for training teachers, and graduated two years later. She became an instructor of drawing, penmanship and geography at the school and taught there for 40 years.

A history of the Albany Woman's Suffrage Society, written by Stoneman herself, states the group was formed in 1880. “We had worked consistently but in no organized fashion up to that time,” she later reminisced. The impetus to form a society was a new state law allowing women to run for and vote in school board elections in New York State. The suffragists set out to register to vote and most were successful; but in some wards, women were refused. Among those who registered were Dr. Mary DuBois, “the leading female physician,” and six black women, “led by Mrs. C. Mary Williams, a vice president of the County Woman's Suffrage Society” and a woman “of considerable education and refinement.”

School suffrage was one of several types of limited voting rights for women that could be passed in the New York state legislature without having to go through the lengthy process of amending the state constitution. Because women were traditionally in charge of caring for children, school suffrage was relatively easy to get passed; yet everyone realized that it was a step on the slippery slope to full enfranchisement. Therefore, school suffrage became controversial across the state of New York in 1880. Despite intimidation, verbal abuse, and threats of violence, twenty-five to thirty women voted in Albany's charter election on April 13, 1880. Kate Stoneman was at the polls before they opened and became the first woman to vote in Albany.

Even though National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) leaders worked for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting the voting rights of all female citizens, they knew that an amendment would have to be ratified by the states, so their presence in Albany was important. But it wasn't just about the vote. Since long before the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, feminist activists had been traveling to the capitol seeking protection for a variety of civil rights, such as property rights for married women, custody rights for mothers, or raising the “age of protection” for girls. With the creation of the Albany society, the NWSA and the New York State Woman Suffrage Association (NYSWSA), led by Lillie Devereux Blake, had a group of women who knew the legislators and could lobby them at a moment's notice.

In the “Minute Book” of the suffrage society, Stoneman (as Secretary) described their efforts:

The reports of work done in the Assembly were made, individual cases were attended to, and measures proposed for reaching the hardened Assemblymen . . .. Mrs. Blake, Pres. of the N.Y.S. Suffrage Association was present, and gave account of lobby work done among the members on the day of the meeting.

Years later, in an interview, she explained:

. . . we divided the legislators up into groups of five or ten, gave their names to a certain number of suffrage society members with the injunction that these men be seen during a certain week, and their views and support enlisted. I think it is called lobbying now, but in those days, it was the simplest thing in the world to get inside the brass rail. We had the “run” of the two houses, and were allowed to go and come as we pleased. James W. Husted . . . was anxious to see suffrage win, and he made extra provisions for our comfort, and helped us in every way he could.

James Husted of Westchester was one of the hardest-working politicians for woman suffrage in the New York Assembly. Year after year, pro-suffrage senators and assemblymen would introduce bills to the legislature and invite suffragists to speak before committees. Some suffrage bills received close votes. In 1881, Husted favored a bill to prohibit disfranchisement on account of sex which received 57 ayes to 55 noes, but did not reach the required majority of 65 ayes to pass the Assembly. Finally, in 1892, a woman suffrage bill unexpectedly passed the Assembly, 70-34. Every effort was made to get it through the Senate in the three days remaining of the legislative session. Kate Stoneman and Mary Seymour Howell, president of the Albany Woman Suffrage Society, contacted every one of the 32 senators, but the bill did not pass. This pattern of occasional small victories amid frequent defeats is typical of the slow progress of the suffrage movement in the 19th century.

Stoneman's suffrage work decreased as she pursued a career in law. She had always been interested in reading law and worked as a legal copyist when she arrived in Albany. Family friend and attorney W. W. Frothingham offered her a clerkship in his firm, which was the typical path to becoming a lawyer in the 19th century. In early May of 1886, Stoneman passed the New York State Bar Examination, but her request to be admitted to the bar was denied by the New York Supreme Court, which explained that the Code of Civil Procedure required applicants to be male.

Stoneman set out to change the Code, using her experience with the legislature. A bill amending the code had already been introduced by Assemblyman John Platt of Dutchess County. He pushed the bill out of committee and it passed by a vote of 78-6, taking out the word “male” and stating that “the race or sex” of an applicant was no cause to refuse them. The bill quickly passed the Senate. Concerned that Gov. David Hill might not sign the bill, Stoneman took it to him personally, along with a bevy of supportive politicians and press reporters. The governor did sign and immediately sent the new law to the Supreme Court so that Stoneman could reapply. She was admitted to the bar on May 20, 1886.

Stoneman became famous, as news of “New York's First Lady Lawyer” spread through newspapers across the country. She continued teaching part-time at the Albany Normal School while opening up a law office. The executive committee of the normal school on Nov. 1, 1887, directed the president “to explain to Miss Stoneman that any expression of her views in regard to women's rights and cognate subjects to the students was contrary to the wishes of the executive committee.” That didn't slow her down. After ten years of practicing law, Stoneman entered Albany Law School (at that time, part of Union University, a precursor to Union College). On June 3, 1898, she became the first female student to earn a bachelor's degree (in her case, a LL.B. or Bachelor of Laws) in any department of the university. Stoneman continued to practice law and teach until her retirement in 1906, although she was listed in the city directory as a lawyer long after that date.

Stoneman is next mentioned in the historical record in November of 1916, when the Woman Suffrage Party held a national convention in Albany. A local newspaper paid homage to Stoneman with an article on the front page of the Sunday paper, calling her a “pioneer suffragist.” When New York women finally voted in their first general election on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1918, Stoneman worked as a poll watcher in south Albany. She was 77 years old. Women voting, the start of prohibition, and the proposed League of Nations prompted another interview and article about Stoneman in February, 1919, as she had long supported the temperance movement and international peace efforts. She was characteristically modest at having lived to see three major reforms, saying, “I have done my bit, and yet it was only just a bit.” She stressed how different things were when she was a young woman:

. . . there were only seven occupations open to women, all more or less connected with the pursuits of women, housekeeping, sewing, cooking, tailoring, domestic nursing, teaching in ‘dame' schools, and shop work.
I cannot quite realize that this is the same world then and now. It is as though the minds of the universe had been taken out to air, and had imbibed some new germs which have universally taken seed . . .. we have metamorphosed into a series of communities in which equality between sexes is an undisputed matter of fact.”

After Kate Stoneman died on May 19, 1925, at the age of 84, she was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery (south side of Section 56). Many years later, a Kate Stoneman Committee was formed at Albany Law School to place a plaque there, telling her story of becoming a lawyer and graduating from law school. Albany Law celebrated its first Kate Stoneman Day in 1994, which has become an annual event. Since then they have created Kate Stoneman awards and a permanent Kate Stoneman Chair in Law and Democracy. In 2009, Stoneman was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. Her memory lives on in Albany and the legal community.

Kate Stoneman should be appreciated once again as a “pioneer suffragist,” along with the large cast of ordinary and extraordinary New Yorkers who worked on behalf of all future girls and women. As Stoneman herself wrote of the Albany society, “Their work has advanced the woman suffrage cause in the entire Republic.” Those suffragists knew in 1886 that Stoneman's achievement as the first female lawyer in New York was both the result of woman suffrage work and a success that pushed woman suffrage forward. Voting and rights were always intertwined, and probably always will be, whether the issue is gender, race, class, or one of the many others confronting America. In 1881, in the only record we have of one of her speeches, Stoneman was optimistic about women getting their rights. “The men might as well give up the contest,” she said, “for we shall win in the end.”

 

Kate Stoneman, Class of 1866, M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University at Albany, State University of New York.

Sources:

“About Kate Stoneman.” “Endowed and Distinguished Professorships.” “Gravestone Memorial Keeps Stoneman's Legacy Alive.” “Kate Stoneman Day.” Albany Law School website, http://www.albanylaw.edu.

Albany Woman Suffrage Society minute book, 1882-1884. BD9879, Manuscripts and Special Collections, New York State Library.

Anthony, Susan B. and Ida Husted Harper, eds. History of Woman Suffrage, vol. IV: 1883-1900. Rochester, NY: Privately published, 1902. [LINK]

A Historical Sketch of the State Normal College at Albany, N.Y. and a History of Its Graduates for Forty Years. Albany, NY: Press of Brandow & Barton, 1884.

An [sic] Historical Sketch of the State Normal College at Albany, N. Y. and a History of its Graduates for Fifty Years. Albany, NY: Brandow Printing Company, 1894.

Laws of the State of New York, passed at the One Hundred and Ninth Regular Session of the Legislature. Albany: Banks & Brothers, 1886.

National Women's Hall of Fame website. https://www.womenofthehall.org/inductee/kate-stoneman/.

Sebourn, Christine. “Kate Stoneman.” (2005) Women's Legal History, http://wlh-static.law.stanford.edu/papers05/StonemanK-Sebourn05.pdf.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds. History of Woman Suffrage, vol. III: 1876-1885. Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1886.

“The Stoneman Family.” Town of Busti website. http://townofbusti.com/history-of-busti/the-stoneman-family/.

Stoneman, Kate. “The Albany Woman's Suffrage Society.” History of the County of Albany, N.Y., from 1609 to 1886. George R. Howell, ed. New York: W. W. Munsell & Co., Publishers, 1886.

Williams, Geoffrey P. “Kate Stoneman.” Peter Eisenstadt, ed. The Encyclopedia of New York State. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005.

Williams, Geoffrey and Carole Novick. “A Woman Who Wouldn't Take No for an Answer.” Albany Law School. Spring 1992.

Newspapers:
The Albany Law Journal [Albany, NY]
The Argus [Albany, NY]
Albany Evening Journal [Albany, NY]
Knickerbocker Press [Albany, NY]
National Citizen and Ballot Box [Syracuse, NY]
New York Times

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