Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Elizabeth Upham Yates, 1857-1942
By Elisa Miller, Associate Professor, and Magalis Santana, Undergraduate Student, Rhode Island College, Providence, Rhode Island
Missionary; Lecturer for the Maine Woman Suffrage Association, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union; Chair of Presidential Suffrage for NAWSA; President of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association; Honorary President of the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association; Vice President and Executive Committee Member of the New England Woman Suffrage Association; Member of the United League of Woman Voters, Candidate for Lieutenant Governor; Honorary Chair of the Democratic Women's Bureau of Rhode Island; Peace Activist.
Elizabeth Upham Yates was born on July 3, 1857 in the Round Pond village in Bristol, on the eastern coast of Maine. Her family had lived on that homestead since 1742. Her parents were Alexander Yates and Lois Thompson Yates; her father worked at various times as a ship captain, grocer, Maine state legislator, and postmaster. Her family had historic roots in New England and Yates was a descendant of John and Priscilla Alden, who came to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620. Prominent nineteenth-century ancestors included Thomas Cogswell Upham, a noted philosopher, author, and professor and his wife, Phebe Lord Upham, an antislavery and women's rights activist and author. She was friends with abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe and wrote a religious tract about an enslaved woman that some scholars feel was an inspiration for Stowe's famous book, Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Yates went to school at the Kents Hill Seminary. She was a Methodist and after her graduation, Yates went to China as a missionary with the Women's Foreign Missionary Society. She was reportedly the first Methodist woman from Maine to be a missionary. She spent five years in China, primarily in Peking (now Beijing), until she came home to assist her father. The New York Times claimed that while in China that Yates bought and educated an enslaved girl in order to free her. In 1887, she published an account of her time in China, titled Glimpses into Chinese Homes. In it she discussed issues for women in Chinese society. She claimed that Chinese men traditionally had been taught "to regard women as inferiors" but that Christianity had taught them "to appreciate and honor womanhood." Christianity in China, she believed, would help elevate Chinese women and help decrease harmful traditions such as foot binding, opium use, and polygamy. The Woman's Journal, a suffrage newspaper, claimed that she worked as a teacher after returning from China. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, Yates became a prominent suffragist in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the Maine and Rhode Island state suffrage associations, and worked closely with prominent suffragists including Lucy Stone, Henry B. Blackwell, Alice S. Blackwell, Susan B. Anthony, Anna Howard Shaw, and Carrie Chapman Catt. (Reports usually refer to her as Elizabeth Upham Yates, Elizabeth U. Yates, or Miss E.U. Yates.)
In the late 1880s, Yates began what developed into a notable career as a public speaker and activist. By 1888 she was a state organizer with the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in Maine and a member of the Maine Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) giving suffrage speeches throughout the state. She may have been a supporter of woman suffrage before 1888, but this is the earliest documented year of her suffrage activism. A newspaper reported that Yates was "called the Frances Willard of Maine," referring to the famous WCTU president. The temperance movement against alcohol was one of the most prominent of the late nineteenth-century reform movements, especially among women. There was much overlap in membership, ideas, and concerns between the suffrage and temperance movements. Yates explained at a Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) meeting in Rhode Island in 1896, that the WCTU was the "greatest result of woman's progress" and that "every woman should be deeply interested in the cause of temperance." She continued that temperance activism and legislation could help solve "all the other important problems now before the world. Immigration, the contest between capital and labor, all involved temperance in some form." In other speeches she claimed that woman suffrage was the best way to achieve temperance and prohibition. As a fairly new public speaker, Yates received praise for her skills from the Woman's Journal, when the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association reported that "Miss Elizabeth Yates held the attention of the company for an hour while she discussed the franchise for women. Miss Yates adds special training to natural gifts of a high order, and both by the logic of her discourse and the charm of her manner succeeds in winning her audience." She also testified before the Maine House of Representatives in 1889, along with women's rights leaders, Lucy Stone and Henry B. Blackwell. She testified numerous times before state and national legislatures on woman suffrage in upcoming years.
After starting to give public lectures the previous year, Yates attended the Boston School of Expression to study oratory in 1889 and 1890. She soon earned a national reputation for her speaking skills as she traveled the country giving speeches on woman suffrage and temperance. She also earned a license to preach in the Methodist Episcopal Church. The formal training helped Yates advance her speaking career. The MWSA hired her as "state lecturer" to give lectures throughout the state in support of a campaign for the municipal suffrage bill. MWSA president, Rev. Henry Blanchard praised Yates in the Woman's Journal, writing that "Earnest, able, persuasive, she wins converts wherever she speaks." Also in 1890, Yates became a lecturer on woman suffrage in the Franchise Department of the WCTU and later a part of the WCTU National Lecture Bureau. Besides her work in Maine, through the WCTU bureau she was hired by state associations across the country to give lectures on both suffrage and temperance topics. She was strategic in how she approached the suffrage topic with audiences. For some audiences, she explained, she would give a lecture on temperance and then at end of it would present a "petition for municipal woman suffrage which we are to bring before our [Maine] Legislature. I explained the import of the proposed bill, and invited signatures" after she had already won the audience over with her temperance speech. She presided over a religious service at the 1889 annual convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association in Knoxville, Tennessee, right before the organization merged with the American Woman Suffrage Association to create NAWSA in 1890.
Yates combined her commitment to the Methodist Church and woman suffrage in 1890. She participated in a successful effort to get women admitted into the Methodist General Conference. In an article about it in The Woman's Journal, she argued, "This is a subject of great moment, not only to the church in which the important action in to be taken, but also to the cause of woman's advancement...Let all the friends of equal suffrage use their influence to obtain full liberty of service and joint authority to the women of the largest Protestant denomination in the world." She also wrote a pamphlet on the topic for NAWSA's Political Equality series.
In 1891, the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association (RIWSA) hired her for a two-month term giving speeches and doing organizing work before she left to conduct a series of forty lectures temperance and suffrage in Vermont. A local newspaper reported that Yates "is said to be one of the ablest young women on the platform at the present time." In 1892, she went on an extensive speaking tour throughout the United States that took her to eleven states, spanning from New York to North Dakota to Virginia. Her extensive lecturing and travel continued in 1893 until she became ill and had to take several months off recuperating.
In 1893, Yates gave a speech at the annual NAWSA convention, which raised her national profile in the organization. She was also elected chair of resolutions and nominations of the New England Woman Suffrage Association. In 1894, she continued her national speaking tours, with extended visits in Kansas, New York, and Connecticut. She again spoke at the 1894 NAWSA convention and the Woman's Journal reported that "Miss Yates is one of the very best of the younger speakers on equal rights and kindred themes. Her address at the recent Washington convention delighted every one." Commentators frequently mention Yates' use of humor in her speeches and the History of Woman Suffrage, Volume 4 reports that her convention speech in 1894 was "so bristling with humor was this address that there were several times when the speaker had to stop and wait for the laughter to subside."
By 1895, Yates represented Maine on the NAWSA executive committee, served as a member of the petition committee for NAWSA and delivered a prayer and speech at the annual convention. Yates's speech at the 1895 NAWSA convention in Atlanta gained great attention within NAWSA and local newspapers. She explained that voting was not an inherently masculine act and that "There is something else for women to do than to sit at home and fan themselves 'cherishing their femininity.' Womanliness will never be sacrificed in following the path of duty and service." She gave a humorous prediction of a world fair in Atlanta in the year 1992 when she expected "a mummy of the last anti-suffragist would be displayed." The Atlanta Constitution claimed that "It was evident the audience had fallen in love with her." She also gave a number of speeches in the community in Atlanta. At a speech at an Atlanta church, Yates tried to dispute objections to woman suffrage, which were common in this time period but especially prominent in the South as a region with more conservative men, women, and churches and much resistance to changing white women's roles, challenging white male dominance or weakening white supremacy by giving Black women the right to vote. The Atlanta Constitution reported that the audience was not predisposed to support woman suffrage but "listened with rapt attention to the eloquent and logical plea in favor of the enfranchisement of women which this gifted lady so forcibly presented...It was probably the ablest argument in favor of woman suffrage that has been made in Georgia."
Carrie Chapman Catt, future president of NAWSA, became the chair of the organization committee, a new effort from NAWSA in 1895. Following Yates's successes in Atlanta, Catt hired her to conduct an extensive speaking and organizing tour throughout the South as the region with the weakest suffrage support and organizations. Catt had high praise for Yates's work on the tour, writing that "Miss Yates made a successful tour through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. From every point we have received expressions of gratitude for having sent her. Her work was of inestimable value to our cause, and has paved the way for future work." In South Carolina, a member of the Abbeville Equal Rights Association agreed with Catt's assessment and wrote, "Miss Yates did us a world of good by her visit and lecture...In our opinion, and in that of every intelligent person present, she surpassed any orator we had ever heard. A few more such speakers [like her] would, I believe, entirely convert our community." Similarly, the local newspaper, The Abbeville Press and Banner, that usually expressed ideas against woman suffrage, reported that "The audience was delighted with the charm and force of her argument, which was simply unanswerable."
Yates found her suffrage work in the deep South to be frustrating. She sent essays about her travels to The Woman's Journal, and explained, "Among the clergy we have some strong supporters, but many more oppose us bitterly." She wrote, hopefully, that it would be better for clergy to prepare themselves for "the inevitable advance of human progress. All efforts to thwart the divine intent of the eventual equality of men and women in home, in church, and in State, will provide as futile as [the popular fictional character] Mrs. Partington's endeavors to sweep back the ocean with her broom. The day is dawning when justice and righteousness shall prevail." Despite the challenges she faced in the South, Yates also claimed that the opposition from the press denouncing the suffrage events could actual be helpful as advertising and helped draw people to the events to see what the fuss was about.
Yates was a leading participant at the 1896 NAWSA convention in Washington, D.C. She once again gave a speech and served on the resolutions and finance committees. She joined a delegation of fifty suffragists led by Susan B. Anthony who testified before House and Senate committees about woman suffrage. Yates told the Congressmen that women needed the vote as citizens and as mothers, two themes she frequently discussed in her suffrage speeches. She stated:
We do not express an irresponsible, an idle wish, but as citizens of the United States under the Constitution avail ourselves of the privileges of this bill. We have as much interest in all legislation and government as you have...I claim the right as a citizen to have the home protected, and I ask of you that the home queens be given power to extend the protection of their scepters over the children who spend their time in the street or in the schoolroom; give to the home queens power to reach out and protect their children, their subjects. Is not a child of more value than all else?
Yates also became engaged in an official dispute within NAWSA about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a woman's rights pioneer and former NAWSA president. Stanton had recently published The Woman's Bible, an effort to rewrite the Bible to challenge religious assumptions about women's inferiority. Yates spoke in favor of a resolution to censor Stanton for this work and the resolution passed.
Later in 1896, Yates engaged in a suffrage tour throughout California with Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw, among other prominent suffragists, to drum up support for a suffrage referendum scheduled for the fall in the state. Yates traveled to fifty counties and gave one hundred speeches in a four-month period in California. As in the past, her public speaking received praise in local newspapers. One paper reported:
If the suffrage movement always sent as charming women to advocate the cause as Miss Yates has proven herself, there will be no doubt as to the result of the vote for the amendment. With a bright face, sparkling eye, and a noble, intelligent countenance, she is handsome and winning. Her voice and delivery are perfect, and her thorough knowledge of her subject places her in the lead among the speakers for woman suffrage.
In 1896 and 1897, Yates took a break in her suffrage travels and moved to Boston to attend Radcliffe College as a special student, taking courses in economics, and collaborated with the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association. At the end of 1890s, Yates suffered the first of several severe injuries that hindered her health and mobility and caused pain for the rest of her life. In 1899, she broke her ankle in a bicycle accident. Then in the winter of 1903-1904, she slipped on ice and broke her leg in multiple places. After that she wore leg braces, used crutches, and, eventually, a wheelchair. Between these injuries and the death of her father in 1901, Yates took a break from her activism for most of 1901-1908. Despite the challenges created by her disabilities, Yates participated vigorously in activism for the next several decades.
In 1908, Yates moved to Providence, Rhode Island and became a member of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association (RIWSA). She was well-known in Rhode Island from many previous speaking engagements and her two-month stint working for RIWSA in 1891. By 1909, the RIWSA members elected Yates as president of the organization, a position she held until 1914. The following year, Rhode Island suffragist, Mary F.W. Homer reported in The Woman's Journal that Yates "is making an admirable president, and is winning all hearts by her worth and charm. We are happy to have increasing membership and greater activity under her guidance and skill." Several years later, Agnes M. Jenks, Yates' successor as president noted, "Miss Yates, having had wide experience as lecturer of the National Woman Suffrage Association, brought our work the needed gifts to meet the demands of the hour." Many years later, Sarah Doyle, a pioneer activist for women's rights in Rhode Island, praised Yates' contributions to the Rhode Island suffrage movement, stating that Yates, "came to the presidency of the Suffrage Association when the cause was at its lowest ebb and formed the link between the new movement and the old."
Yates took new actions in her life in addition to her suffrage work in Rhode Island. She attended the Woman's College at Brown University from 1909 to 1911 as a special student taking course in sociology and philosophy. She studied with Lester Frank Ward, a prominent sociologist and advocate of social reform. Yates had been unmarried throughout her adult life; in her fifties, though she began a "Boston Marriage" relationship with Sarah E. Usher in Rhode Island. Usher was fifteen years older than Yates and had owned a clothing store. From at least 1910 to 1924, when Usher died, Yates and Usher lived together, shared property, and worked together in the suffrage organization. Usher gifted Yates a piece of property while she was alive and then created a trust from her estate to provide for Yates after Usher's death. In the 1920 United States Census, Yates is listed as Usher's "companion." Usher served as chair of literature in RIWSA for several years in the 1910s; it is not clear if Yates met her through the suffrage organization or if she got Usher involved in suffrage work after their partnership began.
In addition to president, Yates served as legislative chair for RIWSA and engaged in extensive political efforts to pass a presidential suffrage bill that would give women the right to vote in presidential elections in Rhode Island. RIWSA leaders had first introduced a presidential suffrage bill in 1892 but it had repeatedly been killed in committees by politicians and denied a full vote by the legislature. In Rhode Island, Yates increased efforts to lobby politicians on presidential suffrage and testified on many occasions before legislative committees on the topic. In November 1908, a new governor was elected in Rhode Island. Once he took office, The Evening Bulletin newspaper claimed, "He had no more than warmed the seat of the executive chair than, looking up, he found Miss Yates at his side explaining matters."
In addition to her presidential suffrage work in Rhode Island, in 1909 Yates became chair of the NAWSA presidential suffrage committee after its long-time chair, Henry B. Blackwell died. Yates served as chair until 1915. In this position, she claimed that presidential suffrage could be very beneficial and strategic for suffrage associations across the country and should be pursued before efforts for full suffrage in the states. Too often, she believed, full suffrage campaigns were initiated prematurely, dooming them to fail and undermining the progress of the suffrage movement. In her committee report for 1913, Yates wrote that presidential suffrage offered suffragists the most gain and the least risk. She asked, "Is it not good political tactics to proceed along the lines of least resistance, and bring our energies to bear upon our legislatures, for the measure of political privilege most potent, and at the same time most easily procured?...[It is] the maximum of result with the minimum of effort." In addition to being easier to obtain under the Constitution than full suffrage, Yates argued that adding new states that offered women presidential suffrage rights would give more electoral votes from suffrage states and increase women's ability to influence presidential elections. In 1914, she claimed that presidential suffrage efforts had the possibility to double the number of women voting in the presidential election in 1916. Presidential suffrage campaigns, Yates said, also offered a valuable way for suffragists to gauge the positions of politicians and levels of popular support. Through NAWSA and The Woman's Journal, Yates offered to provide information and advice to state suffrage associations who wanted to pursue the presidential suffrage route.
Throughout her suffrage career, Yates gave speeches and testimony that revealed her thinking about woman suffrage. A common theme was to link woman suffrage to core American political principles. She frequently used words and ideas of self-representation, sovereignty, and citizenship. In 1894, Yates gave a speech about democracy and argued that to be a member of a commonwealth that women needed the vote, and that indirectly influencing their husbands and sons was not true democracy. She drew on classic political thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and William Blackstone in her speeches. In her 1896 testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, she declared that women were "citizens of the United States under the Constitution." She said, "Gentlemen, you think we should be content to-day without self-government. How would you like the position of the American women? She stated to audiences that "woman should enjoy the same freedom in politics as a man" instead of being "placed on a level with lunatics [and] criminals."
The political principle argument was based on the idea that women were equal citizens with men. Yates also drew on ideas of women's differences and their roles in the home and family. A common anti-suffrage argument was that suffrage would undermine women's responsibilities for the home and children. Yates told her audiences that that assertion was false and that in the states "where women vote, husband's socks are darned and babies are well cared for, and equal suffrage is bringing forth a fruitage of good both for the home and the State." She also frequently used the concept of maternalism to make the case for woman suffrage. Maternalism was an increasingly popular idea in suffrage and social reform at the turn of the century, the idea that women had different traits, skills, and duties as women that made them naturally more moral and nurturing and that they should use these characteristics to improve American society. Drawing on her religious convictions, she claimed that "the redemption and salvation of the world depended upon this [suffrage] movement, [and] that woman was needed at the ballot box for her goodness." Women had important duties in the home, Yates acknowledged, but said that women also had "a duty to perform at the ballot box as well, in seeing that the laws of the nation are as righteous and as just as those of the fireside."
Yates also claimed that voting would make women better mothers. In modern society, she said, the domestic sphere and the political sphere were fundamentally interconnected. "The welfare of the home," she argued, "depends upon the action of the State." For example, she stated that the food that mothers fed their children could be negatively or positively affected by legislation. She claimed the question had changed from "What will become of the children if the mother votes?' to 'What will become of the children if the mother does not vote?" She continued, "A mother's whole duty to her children cannot be done unless she endeavors...to secure proper conditions for their mental, physical and moral development." For Yates that meant that mothers needed the vote to create a better society for children. Women needed the vote as mothers, according to Yates, but she also argued that wage-earning women and women reformers especially needed the vote in order to protect themselves and other women and children in American society.
In her speeches and activism, Yates often connected woman suffrage to social reform, seeing the vote as a critical way to advance reform goals on issues such as temperance and industrial conditions. Without the vote, Yates believed that women had less political influence on politicians and legislation and their ideas and concerns were easily ignored. In a 1914 speech, Yates stated, "We ask for the ballot to be equipped to aid in righting the world's wrongs." For Yates, social reform was both a goal for woman suffrage and a tactic. She explained that women's engagement in social reform helped to increase "public confidence in our fitness for the duties of active citizenship."
As Yates advocated for woman suffrage, she often made clear that she did not see all Americans as equal or worthy of the vote and that she was willing to criticize various kinds of American men as inferior to women as voters. Speaking for woman suffrage in Atlanta in 1895 Yates said that people were concerned that "if women were enfranchised the ballot would be put in the hands of the bad women." She replied that evidence from Denver, Colorado where women had some voting rights revealed that the "most intellectual precinct furnished the most voters in the elections." Historian Shannon M. Risk argues that Yates's references to the "intellectual" voters and her descriptions of women having belonged to their husbands in the past like "chattel" were her way of using language to evoke slavery and white supremacy and to appease white voters in the South who were concerned about the prospect of Black women getting the right to vote.
Years later, in Rhode Island, Yates was more explicit with her exclusionary ideas about suffrage. While testifying at a 1910 legislative hearing on woman suffrage, Yates appealed to anti-immigrant sentiment. She told the committee, "one of the great problems of to-day is the foreign vote. But we would call to your attention to the fact that there are 32,000,000 American women here and only 10,000,000 foreign-born men and women. The way to keep the beam balanced is to give the vote to the American women." Besides arguing that native-born women would be a check on the power of foreign-born voters, Yates reassured Rhode Island legislators at a 1915 hearing that woman suffrage would not increase the number of foreign-born voters and that a suffrage bill in Rhode Island would create 119,000 new women voters and only 32,000 of them were naturalized citizens. At a different hearing, Yates argued that women would be better voters than men because men were more criminal and less moral than women were. She argued, "Open the doors of your prisons and see 100 men come out for every woman. Open the doors of our churches and see how many more women you will find there than men." In a 1914 speech, Yates called for "an educational qualification for voters and declared many persons did not know how to exercise their franchise intelligently." Yates was a contradictory figure on these issues. She expressed ideas about voting that were racist, exclusionary, and undemocratic. She also, though, gave speeches at African American churches and worked closely with leading Black club women in Rhode Island.
In her arguments for suffrage, Yates criticized the ideas and actions of Emmeline Pankhurst, the prominent British suffragette who embraced militant tactics. When Pankhurst was in the United States giving a lecture tour in 1911, Yates invited her to speak in Providence and gave the introduction at the lecture. She later explained that she invited her to speak because it was an issue of "conspicuous public interest." After 1911, though, Yates claimed that the British "Suffragette tactics have passed from folly to crime. Property has been destroyed and human life endangered by dynamite bombs, incendiarism and other forms of violence." She denounced the "lamentable fanaticism of Mrs. Pankhurst" and stated that she did "not approve of their methods, and have no sympathy, whatsoever, with such violent forms of contention." Instead, Yates explained, she, RIWSA, and NAWSA believed that "persuasive propaganda is more persuasive and effective than violent methods." On several occasions, the Providence Journal referred to Yates as a "suffragette"; she responded with angry letters to the editor correcting the newspaper's language, explaining that the British "suffragettes" supported militance and the American "suffragists" did not. As the same time as she denounced Pankhurst, Yates also acknowledged her "phenomenal gifts and her unselfish devotion to a great cause."
Besides Yates's work in Rhode Island, she continued to participate in efforts outside of the state in the 1910s. She assisted in suffrage campaigns in New Jersey and Maine and served as a vice president and executive committee member from Rhode Island for the New England Woman Suffrage Association. In 1913, she visited the White House with a delegation of NAWSA suffragists to discuss a constitutional amendment for woman suffrage with President Woodrow Wilson; only a handful of the leaders actually got to meet with Wilson. She engaged in larger suffrage events, including parades. At the NAWSA convention in 1912 in Philadelphia, Yates spoke to a crowd of over 10,000 people in the Metropolitan Opera House, with more people flocked outside. In 1915, she helped lead a delegation of Rhode Island suffragists at a Boston parade in which she dressed entirely in yellow and had ribbons that read "Votes for Women" all over her cape. She participated in new tactics such as campaigning from automobiles festooned with suffrage banners. In 1916, while attending the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, she participated in large suffrage parades in Chicago and St. Louis.
In 1913, Yates was elected RIWSA president for the last time. In her opening address, the Providence Journal reported that she told the members that conditions for woman suffrage and for women were improving, and that "like a tidal wave, the femmist [sic] movement is rising with phenomenal power." Yates decided not to run for re-election in 1914, after serving for five years. She continued to be an active RIWSA member, though. She also participated in efforts with new suffrage organizations in Rhode Island. Sara M. Algeo, the former chair of the College Equal Suffrage League (CESL) created the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party (RIWSP) in 1913 and used more assertive, but not militant methods. In 1914, Yates participated in a RIWSP political effort in which "woman suffragists stormed the [Rhode Island] State House...and made a verbal assault upon the members of the General Assembly." The suffragists "buttonholed" members of the legislature, confronting them in the building's corridors, stairs, and elsewhere to promote the presidential suffrage bill. In 1915, RIWSA, CESL, and RIWSP amalgamated into a new united organization, the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association (RIESA). One of the organization's first actions was to make Yates its honorary president.
For eight years, Yates worked toward presidential suffrage in Rhode Island, as well as her six years as chair of presidential suffrage for NAWSA. At a legislative hearing in 1911, Yates tried to convince legislators that Rhode Island was falling behind other states. She stated, "Many States have already extended the franchise to women. Shall cultured New England be behind the wild and wooly West?" The political environment in Rhode Island was tricky and dominated by the Republican political machine; Yates was a long-time Democrat. The slow pace of progress on woman suffrage frustrated her and she claimed that Rhode Island was a state "whose conservatism is in inverse ratio to its area."
In numerous hearings throughout the years, she testified about the benefits of woman suffrage to the state, society, and home, and engaged in lobbying efforts with individual politicians and various political parties. In 1916, she and two other RIESA member conducted suffrage survey with state residents to inform "the people of the State with the work the members of the suffrage association have accomplished" and try to build popular support for presidential suffrage.
In April 1917, the Rhode Island legislature finally passed a bill for presidential suffrage for women, twenty-five years after RIWSA suffragists had first introduced the measure, making Rhode Island the first state on the East Coast to approve presidential suffrage. When Governor Livingston Beeckman signed the bill, Yates attended and was featured in a photograph of the event. Afterward, Beeckman awarded her one of the pens he used to sign the bill in recognition of her contribution to passage of the bill. In an interview with the Providence Journal, Yates reacted to the victory, stating:
I am rejoiced that Rhode Island has honored itself and womanhood by this measure of justice. It will never be regretted. I have labored for this bill for years and what it means to me can be known only by those who have stood with the minority for justice and waited its hour. I want to repeat a quotation from [author] Victor Hugo bearing on the victory, which is "Stronger than armies or any material force is the power of an idea when its time has come."
An article in The Woman's Journal gave Yates credit for this groundbreaking victory with her strategy that presidential suffrage should precede full suffrage campaigns. The writer argued that "By her clear vision and logical mind, she grasped the potentialities and possibilities involved in this measure...She earnestly urged its adoption by all States as the easiest and most direct method to full enfranchisement." When suffrage seemed to gain more support in Rhode Island by 1917, some RIESA leaders wanted to pursue full suffrage rights instead of presidential suffrage. The article explained, though, that Yates "urged that all endeavors should continue to be focused on presidential suffrage. Her opinion finally prevailed with the Executive Committee and by that means a substantial victory has been won." Yates echoed this conclusion in an article she wrote for The Woman Citizen, the new NAWSA journal. She claimed that "presidential suffrage was the only safe and sane measure and [that she had] recommended that no bill for full suffrage...should be recognized. This program made victory possible."
After the Rhode Island presidential suffrage victory, Yates worked to gain full suffrage rights for Rhode Island women through the suffrage constitutional amendment. She served as congressional chairman for RIESA and lobbied Rhode Island Congressmen and Senators in Washington, D.C. on the amendment. She conducted a "suffrage school" for activists at RIESA. She also used her oratory skills on behalf of the American war effort in World War I and was certified by the U.S government as a "four-minute man," someone qualified to give four-minute speeches in the community on war-related topics She attended the 1918 Rhode Island Democratic convention as an honored guest on the platform with several other prominent suffragists.
The earliest date that Rhode Island women could register to vote, following the presidential suffrage bill, was July 1, 1919. Suffragists held an event that day called "Rhode Island Women's Independence Day" to celebrate and encourage women's registration as voters. Yates could not attend the event in person but sent a message she addressed to "the sisterhood of citizenship" and celebrating that the "gate of opportunity, so long closed, swings open and we enter into our rightful heritage of self-government."
On January 6, 1920, the Rhode Island legislature debated the Nineteenth Amendment for woman suffrage. Suffragist Sara M. Algeo described that Yates was ill at her home during the deliberations and that she, the "beloved historian and pioneer of the suffrage cause, lay in her home on a bed of pain with hand outstretched to the telephone to get the latest developments." The legislature ratified the amendment by a large majority and Yates provided a quote to the Providence Journal that stated:
The clock of time has struck the woman's hour. Only those who have given a lifetime of endeavor to the emancipation of woman from the thralldom of the ages can appreciate the significance of the recognition of her political equality in the United States Constitution. We congratulation our opponents who have had the wisdom to rally to the winning side, and shall ever remember most gratefully those who stood by us when it cost so much.
Following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Yates remained involved in women's clubs and political activism. She was awarded a certificate of distinguished service by NAWSA for her suffrage work. Yates documented the history of the Rhode Island woman suffrage movement by writing the Rhode Island chapter in NAWSA's History of Woman Suffrage, Volume 6.
A long-time Democrat, Yates also became a leader in Rhode Island Democratic Party. In the 1920 election, the first after the woman suffrage ratification, Yates was one of two Rhode Island women who ran for state office. Yates was nominated to run for Lieutenant Governor and Helen I. Binning for Secretary of State by the Democratic Party. Newspapers across the country covered Yates's candidacy, frequently referring to her as an "invalid" due to her physical disabilities. One story reported, "She expects no sympathy for her age or invalided condition, but expects to win because of her platform only." The Providence Journal reported that Yates's candidacy was "the highest State office any woman in the country aspired to at that time."
Yates described herself as "an independent Democrat" but explained that she believed in the Democratic platform and accused Republicans of "gambling with the destiny of the human race for partisan purposes." She stated that women were "the most intelligent and most moral" voters and urged them to "weigh the issues and take your stand for what you think right." Her long-time colleague and women's rights pioneer, Alice Stone Blackwell, wrote a letter supporting Yates that was used in a political advertisement. Blackwell stated, "If Miss Yates is elected, it will rejoice the hearts of many women, not only in her own State, but in other parts of the country; and Rhode Island will have a Lieutenant Governor who can be trusted to stand for the public interest." She described Yates as having lived "a life of able and brilliant service rendered for the public good." Yates pointed to her candidacy as a sign of progress for women in the country, noting "The unique position in which I find myself not only shows the evolution of American womanhood, but also of American manhood, yea, of the whole human race." Yates did not win the election but earned more votes than her Democratic partner running for governor.
The Democratic Party also appointed her as honorary chairman of the Democratic Women's Bureau in Rhode Island and she offered political courses for women for the bureau. She explained that women were new to politics and would need time to build their political influence but that the signs in the early 1920s were promising. Yates stated that in their first election in 1920 that women "voted in large numbers in every State. And throughout the campaign in which they were actively engaged, they deported themselves with dignity and distinction." Furthermore, she noted, politicians recognized that they had to court the support of the new women voters and that women continued to support and advocate for public welfare measures. "To sum up," she claimed in 1922, "the human race has more to gain and nothing to fear from woman's participation in politics."
In the early 1920s, Yates became a member of the United League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, a non-partisan organization that emerged out of the suffrage movement. She praised the league's efforts to push for social welfare legislation and noted that its members were "women of all parties combined to secure the common good, irrespective of any and all party interests." Yates chaired several committees and gave speeches for the league on numerous topics, such as voter registration, the Constitution, opium drug trafficking, and international relations. She supported the League of Women Voters's focus on social reform to protect the interest of women in American society and denounced Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party's support for an Equal Rights Amendment for legal equality against women as radical and unwise. Like many former suffragists, she probably also feared that it would undermine legislation to protect women workers. Yates criticized the "radical programme of feminism advanced by the National Woman's Party" and claimed that as "women make good in given opportunities they will gradually arrive at equal recognition and rewards in the work of the world." She did, however, support legislative efforts in Rhode Island to provide women teachers equal pay with male ones.
During the 1920s, Yates became increasingly active in peace efforts. She served as chairman of foreign relations for the Rhode Island State Federation of Women's Clubs, chairman of peace and arbitration for the Rhode Island Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and member of the international co-operation committee for the United League of Women Voters of Rhode Island. She attended the convention on the Causes and Cures of War in Washington, D.C. in 1925. In addition to her peace work, Yates also defended women's clubs against accusations of supporting radicalism and communism in the 1920s. She wrote a report on the topic for the Rhode Island Federation of Women's Clubs in 1927. She explained that "she had asked all federated clubs of Rhode Island to present to her any evidence that radical doctrines are being disseminated in their clubs." There were no replies to her inquiry, according to Yates, demonstrating that the radical accusation was false. The truth, she stated, was that "Club women are dyed-in-the-wool Americans, a body loyal to American traditions."
In the years following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, suffrage pioneers kept Elizabeth Upham Yates in their thoughts. Her old friend and colleague, Alice Stone Blackwell, wrote a commemorative poem for Yates on her birthday every year. The one from 1927 reads in part:
Clear eyes to see a righteous cause,
When those who saw for few;
A brilliant brain, that could discern
The false thing from the true;
A tongue of wit and eloquence
That crowds would follow after;
A sense of fun that thrilled great throngs
And made them roar with laughter...
For suffrage and for temperance
She spoke and worked and wrote.
We joy that she has lived to see
All women to vote!
In the poem from 1932, Blackwell references Yates's physical struggles, writing:
then years of weariness and pain
With fortitude she bore
Carrie Chapman Catt, former president of NAWSA, had hired Yates in the 1890s to lecture for NAWSA throughout the United States. In 1930 she won an award for her peace activism. Catt decided to give away the prize money to ten former suffragists, explaining that the women she chose "were frail, not young, and women who I thought might be helped out by a small sum." Yates and nine other suffragists, including Ida Husted Harper, Alice Stone Blackwell, Maud Wood Park, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, each received one hundred dollars from Catt.
During this period, Yates also remembered her early experiences with suffrage pioneers. In 1935, on the 115th anniversary of Susan B. Anthony's birth, Yates gave an interview with the Evening Bulletin newspaper in Providence. She had toured with Anthony on suffrage campaigns in California and Alabama in the 1890s. Yates said that "I was but a child in the regiment when Miss Anthony was the general. For Miss Anthony was about 70 when I first knew her." She described her impressions of Anthony, explaining:
I know that she had an aggressive personality as one had to have to espouse so unpopular a cause when the claim for political equality for women tinged its advocates for martyrdom. She was the kind of commanding individual who told you what you ought to think. It was only when one got to know her better that there was warmth in one's feeling toward her."
Yates's health declined in the 1930s. In a letter to Carrie Chapman Catt in 1930, she wrote that her health was very poor and that she was suffering from atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries, a condition she believed had been aggravated by years of wearing braces on her legs. She spent time living in a nursing home in Providence and then moved back to her childhood home in Round Hill, Maine to live with her nieces. By 1940, she moved to Watertown, Massachusetts where she lived as a boarder with her widowed older sister. She died in Watertown on December 23, 1942. She was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Round Pound, Maine. Her grave reads, "First female Methodist missionary from Maine." The Rhode Island General Assembly passed a resolution in recognition of Yates's death, honoring her as a "woman's suffrage leader and candidate for Lieutenant Governor in 1920." Sara M. Algeo, a long-time colleague in the Rhode Island woman suffrage movement, called Yates "a fine and noble person" in a letter to the editor in the Providence Journal. She stated, "I wonder how many young people realize the debt they owe this sturdy pioneer for her unremitting labor in behalf of woman suffrage." Earlier, in her 1925 memoir, Algeo reflected:
Almost a pioneer herself, Miss Yates had enjoyed the blessed privilege of serving as understudy to Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and other great leaders. She came into the Rhode Island work when her particular talents were most needed and faithfully she devoted her all to the great cause. Her personal beauty, her really remarkable gifts of oratory, her humor, her good sense, her persistence and devotion, all were laid upon the altar of women's enfranchisement.
Yates was a significant figure in the NAWSA suffrage efforts on both the national and state level, advancing the cause by lecturing throughout the county during the 1890s, advocacy for presidential suffrage, and her leadership in Rhode Island during the 1910s. In her more than thirty years as a suffrage activist, the movement had gone from a small and marginalized movement to a large and effective one that succeeded in getting woman suffrage added to the U.S. Constitution. When she was giving her suffrage lectures, a woman reportedly said to her, "It must be very tiring to shake so many hands." Yates responded, "It isn't half so tiring as when there were no hands to shake." Yates's work helped the suffrage movement to survive during the years when the cause was less popular and to build political and public support in the critical years of the 1890s and 1910s.
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