Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Martha Wentworth Suffren, 1858-1957
By Jacalyn Kalin, teacher (retired), Montgomery College, Maryland
Advocate for Suffrage and Civic Reform
Martha Wentworth was born in October 10, 1858 in Strafford, Pennsylvania to John, a merchant, and Martha (née Emlen) Wentworth. She was educated at two private schools, first in Pennsylvania and then in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She married Charles Suffren, a lawyer, on June 3, 1880 and they had three children, two daughters and a son. They lived in Rockland County, New York after their marriage, and moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1889. Her husband supported the suffrage cause as a member of the Men's League for Woman Suffrage. She remained in Brooklyn until 1920 when she returned to Strafford as a widow. Her husband had died in 1917; they had been married thirty-seven years.
While living in Brooklyn in the early twentieth century, Mrs. Suffren fully engaged in volunteering for the suffrage cause. Her earliest involvement in suffrage seems to have been in 1900. She participated as a member and an officer in various Brooklyn suffrage organizations including serving as president in the Flatbush Political Equality League and recording secretary of the Bedford Political Equality League. In 1903, the Bedford League was the largest suffrage club in the United States with eight hundred members.
Mrs. Suffren also became very active in the Woman's Suffrage Party in New York City, which launched in 1909. When Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt served as state chairman of the Woman's Suffrage Party of New York, Mrs. Suffren became recording secretary and later, vice-chairman. Mrs. Suffren considered the work she achieved for the party the most important thing she ever did in life.
Mrs. Suffren used her skills and creative ideas in the suffrage cause. A major tactic of the party: take the suffrage message to the people in the streets. She spoke outdoors on street corners, in parks, from parked automobiles, and at Brooklyn Borough Hall. In meeting rooms, she addressed male and female societies. She held neighborhood teas to gather recruits for suffrage and organized young female suffrage clubs. She addressed state legislators in Albany, the capital of New York, several times, as well as Republican state conventions, heading delegations of suffragists to urge a suffrage plank in its platform. Mrs. Suffren, a skillful organizer, helped plan and participate in numerous parades, including a 1912 torchlight and lantern procession that ended Carnival week, a Monday to Saturday event with suffrage meetings both indoors and outdoors in every borough of the city, and a 1915 “Votes for Women” parade. Slogans on banners for the various marches included “Taxation Without Representation Is Tyranny!” and “New York State Denies the Vote to Idiots, Lunatics, Criminals and Women.”
Her creative sparks led to fresh ideas in the fight. She put suffrage arguments on yellow grocery bags and persuaded Brooklyn grocers to use them. She raised money for the party by having suffragists grow and sell yellow flowers, and make and sell an endless chain of homemade cakes. She helped organize fairs that sold goods for ‘the Cause' and chaired the committee for Dollar Day, encouraging people to give a dollar at party headquarters for suffrage. She organized the Daughters of Freedom, a female association advocating the boycott of British goods until England released suffragette Emeline Pankhurst from her nine month prison sentence.
Through the extensive efforts of Mrs. Suffren and like-minded suffragists, New York passed the right of women to vote in state elections on November 6, 1917, and approved the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution in 1919. The Woman Suffrage Party became the New York chapter of the League of Woman Voters in 1919. She left Brooklyn in 1920, the year the nineteenth amendment granting woman the right to vote at the national level was ratified. She returned to the house she and her husband had built in Strafford, Pennsylvania, her hometown.
While living in Brooklyn, Mrs. Suffren had also engaged in civic reform. On the Board of Directors for the Flatbush Playground Association, she advocated for the building of playgrounds in Flatbush and for using roof space for gardens to lift up the health of children and to avert the menace of tenements. She participated in the Women's Society to Lower Rents and Reduce Taxes on Homes, speaking before groups and at meetings. In both her civic and suffrage efforts, Mrs. Suffren contributed extensive volunteer time, boundless energy, dedication and talents.
After her retirement to Strafford, she periodically wrote letters to newspapers, continuing a practice she exhibited in the suffrage cause. Mrs. Suffren urged that women be placed on the inefficient government food control boards during World War II. She wrote that “most of the trouble we experience in this country over the food situation comes from the fact that it is managed entirely by men.” “Woman Suffrage Movement” headlined another article describing the early history and tactics of the Woman Suffrage Party.
In a 1955 article about Mrs. Suffren and her suffrage activities, the writer stated that at the age of ninety seven, Mrs. Martha Wentworth Suffren had never missed voting in an election since the passage of the nineteenth amendment. She considered it a privilege to cast a ballot.
Martha Wentworth Suffren died in August 1957 and was laid to rest next to her husband in St. David Church Cemetery, Radnor, Pennsylvania on September 1st.
Martha Wentworth Suffren, from “Daughters of Freedom to Boycott English Wares.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 28, 1912, p. 23.
“Dress rehearsal of Suffrage Parade.” The New York Times, April 21, 1915, p. C5.
“Endless Chain Of Cake.” The Evening Sun, May 6, 1913, p. 6.
“Flatbush People Form Playground Association.” TheBrooklyn Citizen, April 1, 1911, p. 10.
Patterson, Emma. Martha Wentworth Suffren,Women's Suffrage, Lucretia Mott, League of Women Voters. Radnor Historical Society, www.radnorhistory.org, November 18, 1955.
“Republican Conference.” The Brooklyn Citizen, July 24, 1914, p. 1.
“Roof Playgrounds.” The New York Times, June 23, 1914, p. 10.
“Suffrage Snare For Dollars Set.” The New York Tribune, August 31, 1915, p. 5.
“Suffrage With The Food: Brooklyn Idea Serves the Arguments on Paper Bags.” The New York Tribune, July 16, 1910, p. 1.
“Suffragist Converts Girls To Her Cause.” The Standard Union, December 22, 1910, p. 6.
“Suffragist Fair Opened.” The Brooklyn Times Union, November 6, 1903, p. 6.
“Suffragists Plan Carnival Week To End In Torchlight Procession.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 22, 1912, p. 21.
“Suffragists Sell Flowers.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 28, 1913, p. 4.
“Woman Suffrage Movement.” The New York Times, September 17, 1949, p. 16.
“Woman's Day At The Lower Rents Exhibit.” The Standard Union, March 13, 1913, p. 2.
“Women Going To Saratoga.” The New York Times, September 24, 1912, p, 2.
“Women March For Votes.” The New York Tribune, May 22, 1910, p. 3.
“Women Urged For Food Control.” The New York Times, October 14, 1943, p. 20.
U.S. Bureau of the Census: 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1930, and 1940. Ancestry.com