Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Sara Loretto (Groden) Fittz, 1877-1969
By Lisa M. Bianco, undergraduate student, Rhode Island College, Providence, RI and Linda D. Wilson, Independent Historian, Oklahoma City, OK
Corresponding Secretary and Publicity Committee Chair of the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association; Corresponding Secretary of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association; Secretary, Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party; Member of the Board of Directors and Publicity Chair of the United League of Women Voters of Rhode Island; Teacher
Rhode Island suffragist Sara Loretto Groden, the daughter of Peter Groden (1843-1915) and Emily C. Dowling (1851-1942), was born in October, most likely in the year 1877 in New York, New York. Her father, an Irish immigrant, worked as a detective for the New York City police department and as head of the Irish Immigrant Protection Society with an office at Ellis Island. Her mother, who was born in Scotland to parents of Irish descent, taught school and composed music. On June 24, 1897, Sara Groden graduated from the Normal College of the City of New York. Following her graduation, she was certified as a substitute teacher; by 1903 she had a position as a primary school teacher at Public School 157 in Manhattan. Sara and her sister Mary, also a teacher, attended a 1908 banquet of the Interborough Association of Women Teachers where they heard Arthur Brisbane, editor of The New York Evening Journal, give a speech in favor of woman's suffrage. On September 4, 1911, Sara L. Groden married Jerome Mathew Fittz, a Providence, Rhode Island native, who worked as a builder and contractor. The couple lived in Providence and Cranston, Rhode Island and did not have any children.
In Rhode Island, Sara Fittz became active in the suffrage movement, usually under the name "Mrs. Jerome M. Fittz" or "Sara L.G. Fittz." One of the first published accounts of her involvement in the women's suffrage movement was in October 1912. At the annual meeting of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association (RIWSA), Sara Fittz was elected corresponding secretary, although she likely had been active in the organization before becoming an officer. She also later served as chair of the Publicity Committee. With outstanding oratory skills and intellect, she was in great demand as a public speaker. On April 11, 1913, the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party (RIWSP) was formed. Sara M. Algeo, Helen R. Parks, Esther H. Abelson, and Fittz were founding members, with Algeo serving as chair and Fittz as secretary. During the spring and summer of 1913, the RIWSP held numerous teas and meetings at which Fittz gave speeches. Both RIWSP and RIWSA were state branches of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). As corresponding secretary, Fittz was a frequent contributor of letters to the editor about suffrage to The Providence Journal. Following the achievement of woman suffrage, Fittz continued to write these essays on a wide variety of social and political issues. Jerome Fittz was supportive of his wife's commitment to suffrage. On December 29, 1914, the two of them signed a petition to the U.S. House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee for a suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Fittz and Algeo were daughters of Irish immigrants. In her memoir, The Story of a Sub-Pioneer, Algeo praised Fittz for her suffrage outreach with Irish Americans living in Rhode Island. In a letter to the editor of The Providence Journal in July 1915, Fittz stated that although 100,000 women in Ireland had the right to vote, Irish women living in Rhode Island had not gained suffrage. She appealed to Rhode Island men of Irish descent to give their women living in the United States the same privileges that women in their home country enjoyed. Fittz also used her Catholic background to speak about suffrage to Catholic audiences, at a time when most members of the suffrage movement were Protestant. Fittz wrote a letter to Cardinal James Gibbons, the archbishop of Baltimore, to try to convince him to endorse women's suffrage. Local suffragists had solicited her to be part of the Catholic women's delegation to speak with him. Although Gibbons continued to oppose suffrage throughout the campaign, he advised women to take advantage of the ballot after the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920.
The Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party (RIWSP) utilized venues that attracted large audiences in order to propagate their message. In 1914 and 1915, Fittz arranged the RIWSP suffrage booth at the Pure Food Exposition, a high-profile community event. With a large crowd in attendance, the suffragists solicited signatures on a petition to be sent to the General Assembly asking the assembly to pass a Presidential Suffrage bill. In April 1915, Fittz also assisted at a suffrage booth at the Woman's Industrial Exposition at the Grand Central Palace in Manhattan, New York. As principal speaker, she spoke at a mass meeting at a church. Fittz wrote several contributions to the Woman Suffrage Party News, a one-time publication put out by RIWSP in 1915, including a satiric poem and jokes.
In 1914, NAWSA declared a national week of suffrage events to be held in April and May. Rhode Island suffragists organized numerous events, with each day of the week having a different theme. Local stores displayed suffrage merchandise and theaters showed suffrage films and plays. Suffragists spoke in open-air meetings, sold copies of The Woman's Journal, held a suffrage ball with four hundred individuals in attendance, and raised money through a rummage sale. The week ended with a "Woman's Independence Day" celebration held at Roger Williams Park. The event included speeches by Fittz and other local suffragists as well as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.
At the annual meeting of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party (RIWSP) in 1915, members decided to combine efforts with two other suffrage groups. RIWSP, the College Equal Suffrage League, and the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association merged under the name, the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association (RIESA). Sara Fittz was named corresponding secretary and served as chair of the legislative committee of the new organization.
Fittz engaged in numerous suffrage activities in 1915. In January 1915 the Providence Woman's Christian Temperance Union awarded Fittz a silver medal for her participation in a debate on woman suffrage. She participated in the 1915 Labor Day Parade in Providence. The organization had decorated two automobiles with yellow banners and American flags and Fittz and Mrs. George E. Dunbar gave speeches at open-air meeting. In September 1915, Fittz spoke before the Bristol County Equal Suffrage League. She emphasized the need for woman suffrage and the passage of laws relating to child labor, minimum wage, inheritance, and equal guardianship. As with many NAWSA suffragists, Fittz believed that women were naturally more nurturing and moral and would bring these feminine traits to politics and help reform American society. She stated that American society was "calling for mothering" and that "the enfranchising of women will be the salvation of the world."
At a suffrage conference held in Providence, Rhode Island, on February 17, 1916, Carrie Chapman Catt, NAWSA president, was the principal speaker. Other speakers included Rhode Island suffragists Sara Fittz, Elizabeth Upham Yates, and Sarah P. Doyle. During the meeting Fittz was appointed as a delegate to represent the RIESA at an upcoming meeting to organize a local peace organization, the League to Enforce Peace. In June 1916 she spoke before Jamestown women who were establishing a suffrage league. During the following year, she gave talks in Cranston and the West Elmwood neighborhood when women organized local suffrage leagues there.
Sara Fittz invited Rhode Island anti-suffragists to suffrage meetings to attempt to change their position. In April 1915 she held two meetings with the antis in Providence. Her topics were "Anti-Suffrage Objections Analyzed" and "Convincing Truths from the Suffrage Zones." In January 1916 Fittz held a meeting with the anti-suffragists and answered their opposing arguments. Although unsuccessful, she tried again in November 1916 to convince the anti-suffragists to favor women gaining the ballot.
In 1916 Fittz worked to recruit Rhode Island men for the cause of woman suffrage. She created a Men's League and grouped them by their professions, calling them Fishers of Lawyers, Fishers of Clergymen and Doctors, Fishers of Aldermen, and Fishers of Plumbers. Their mission was to enroll at least five men per week. In addition, during the 1916 election season Fittz, Agnes M. Jenks, Elizabeth Upham Yates, and other Rhode Island suffragists campaigned for women's suffrage at rallies held by the Republican and Democratic parties.
As Fittz worked for woman suffrage, at times she criticized men who did have voting rights. She expressed offensive ideas about racial and ethnic male voters being inferior to white women who did not have voting rights. At an open-air rally in October 1914, she asserted that,
The American woman for over 60 years has asked for a voice in their own government. During that time they have seen the ballot thrust, unasked, in the hand of the male negro, given to the Indian without even consulting him, and now Congress has declared the brown men of the Philippines are capable of self-government. And all the time our American women, taxpayers, social workers and others, remain in the class of lunatics, idiots and minors.
Two years later, she reiterated her frustration about women not having a voice in the government. In a 1916 letter to the editor of The Providence Sunday Journal, she questioned what right the government had to ask women to support the World War I effort when they had no political rights - rights that, Fittz bemoaned, had been accorded naturalized citizens, drunkards, and pardoned criminals. She reiterated Elizabeth Cady Stanton's complaint about the Fifteenth Amendment providing supposedly inferior African American men the right to vote when white women did not. Fittz remarked:
In order to work for the freedom of the slave, women laid aside their own fond hopes of freedom. Their reward was to see the black men, who could not spell or read boosted over the heads of the noblest American women. They saw themselves degraded and humiliated under the feet of their former slave - now, their political masters.
In February 1917 RIESA's lobbying led to the introduction of a legislative bill that would allow women able to vote in presidential elections, a cause that Rhode Island suffragists had been working on since 1892. In April the state legislature passed the presidential suffrage bill and on April 18, 1917, Rhode Island Governor Livingston Beeckman signed the act. Sara Fittz was one of approximately twenty-five suffrage leaders who attended the signing. TheProvidence Journal interviewed local suffragists about the groundbreaking presidential suffrage bill. Fittz declared, "The long, hard fight for a just principle is over. Above and beyond our great triumph stands the integrity and loyalty of the members of the Assembly. We feel particularly pleased that members of both parties stood firmly behind our act." Fittz also gave credit to the hard-working suffragists in Rhode Island. In The Woman's Journal suffrage newspaper, she explained how the presidential suffrage victory in Rhode Island was realized. She wrote, "Our victory was no accident, no intervention of Divine Providence, no miracle, no taking advantage of unsettled war conditions." She proclaimed that presidential suffrage was gained through "the women leaders' consecration, unselfishness, intelligence, wit, and great sacrifice of time, money, and creature comforts."
To prepare women for their newly gained voting privileges, the suffrage associations offered courses that discussed political science and citizenship. Fittz served as an instructor for a series of courses to study government and citizenship during the summer months of 1917. In May, she led classes at the suffrage headquarters in Providence on "Political Parties, Their Principles, Issues and Platforms." In June she traveled to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and held a workshop to instruct women on citizenship and government. In Rhode Island, she also presented classes on free trade and protective tariffs to inform women on some of the political topics of the day.
As the United States entered World War I in 1917, NAWSA leaders strongly supported the war effort, believing that women's patriotic war service would help gain support for woman suffrage. In Rhode Island, RIESA suffragists also engaged in war voluntarism on the home front. Fittz had previously criticized World War I as a tragedy that had been created by men. In an October 1914 letter to the editor in The Providence Journal, she stated that "[t]he consequences of this calamity are falling with crushing weight upon the women who have never been consulted. With arrogance men have dominated the government of the world." Once the United States entered the war, though, Fittz became an active supporter. In May 1918 she was one of four RIESA officers who enlisted in the Rhode Island Red Cross Speakers' Bureau. In February 1919 she spoke at a Red Cross Society meeting, discussing Rhode Island Governor Livingston Beeckman's Child Welfare Program and the need to improve women's working conditions. In 1918, Fittz received a certificate from the U.S. government that granted her the right to speak as a "Four-Minute Man." This initiative was part of a national endeavor to promote short speeches on various topics related to the World War I effort. The orations were filmed and reached public attention by being shown in movie theaters. Additionally, Fittz was a member of Woman's Council of National Defense that organized in January 1918 in Ward 6 of Providence. She chaired the education committee and gave presentations on the aim of the organization and the service that women could provide. At the end of the war, Fittz argued for suffrage on the basis of women's patriotism, arguing that American women "alone can train in the souls of men the kind of patriotism needed to guard the nation."
On January 6, 1920, the Rhode Island legislature ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The following day Fittz and other Rhode Island suffrage leaders were present and photographed with Governor Livingston Beeckman when he signed the act. The Providence League of Women Voters planned a victory dinner with U.S. Representative Jeanette Rankin as guest speaker. As RIESA secretary, Fittz attended the gala and sat next to Governor Beeckman. She gave a witty toast to the anti-suffragists that bought laughter to the audience. For her service in the suffrage movement NAWSA presented Fittz with a distinguished service certificate signed by Carrie Chapman Catt. In May 1920, Fittz, as a member of the Suffrage Emergency Corp organized by the National League of Women Voters, joined women from New York to help Connecticut women petition their state legislature to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. She was invited to participate because she was originally from New York and a former member of the Interborough Association of Women Teachers.
Before and after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, Sara Fittz was active in the Democratic Party. In September 1918 the Sixth Ward Democratic Committee in Providence asked her to accept the nomination to the school committee. Although she was pleased that to be offered the opportunity, she stated that she had to decline because "my duties are so many that I could not at present conscientiously fill the office if elected." Fittz was later nominated as a presidential elector at the Rhode Island democratic convention held in October 1920. She served as chair of the Democratic women speakers' bureau and gave many speeches for the Democratic Party in Rhode Island. In that capacity Fittz sent a letter to Olivia M. C. (Mrs. Frank H.) Hammill, director of political education of Republican women, asking her to answer to several questions. For example, Fittz wanted to know why Republican women speakers referred to President Woodrow Wilson as "Kaiser Wilson." In 1922, The Providence Journal referred to her as one of the "women political leaders" in the state. Following the suffrage amendment, she argued in a letter to the editor that American society would benefit from women to running for and serving in state and national government.
After woman suffrage had been achieved, Fittz continued working for women's and social issues through the League of Women's Voters, the successor to NAWSA. She served on the Board of Directors of the United League of Women Voters of Rhode Island. At a meeting of the International Institute of the Y.W.C.A. in April 1921, Fittz, under the auspices of the League's Americanization Committee, spoke about the importance of educating immigrant women and the many opportunities for them to gain knowledge relating to American government and society. In September 1921 Fittz was in charge of publicity for the first annual convention of the United League of Women Voters held in Providence. Through league meetings she continued to educate women on the workings of politics and to encourage them to be responsible citizens to enforce laws that affected food, child labor, transportation, and public safety. She served as a delegate to the state law enforcement convention to strengthen the laws relating to the prohibition of alcohol. Fittz also defended the League and women's support for reform issues in the 1920s against allegations of communism during a Red Scare in American society.
In the late 1920s and 1930s Sara Fittz kept busy with club work, politics, and public speaking. She served as president of the Round the World Club and held meetings in her home. Club members discussed world disarmament and current events in Europe, and presented accounts of their personal foreign travels. She wrote letters to the editor in support of political issues including world peace and the need for a world court. Fittz was a member of the Jeffersonian Club and served on the international relations committee of the Nautilus Circle. In March 1936 she joined the Catholic Citizens' Committee for Ratification of the Child Labor Amendment. Fittz spoke before the Queen's Daughters May 1936 meeting at St. Xavier's auditorium in Providence. With approximately four hundred members and guests present, she gave a speech on the topic of "Catholic Women and Their Civic Responsibility."
Her husband, Jerome Fittz, died on June 30, 1943 and is buried in St. Ann's Cemetery, Cranston, Rhode Island. After his death, Sara Fittz moved to New York. She died on May 13, 1969 in Centerport, Long Island in New York. She is buried in Woodside, Queens, New York in Calvary Cemetery, where her parents are buried.
Rhode Island Governor signs the nineteenth amendment for woman suffrage, January 7, 1920.
Sara M. Algeo, The Story of a Sub-Pioneer (Providence, RI: Snow & Farnham Co., 1925), 7.
Left to Right: Mrs. Clarence Fuller, Miss Mabel E. Orgelman, Mrs. George D. Gladding, Miss Mary Angell, Mrs. Jerome M. Fittz (woman in the back on the riser), Mrs. Barton P. Jenks, Mrs. Frank H. Hammill, Mrs. Edward S. Moulton, Governor Livingston Beeckman, Miss Adelaide Esten, Mrs. Edwin C. Smith, Miss Mary B. Anthony, Mrs. Sara M. Algeo, Miss Sarah E. Doyle, Miss Ellen Hunt
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