Chautauqua’s women’s suffrage debate to be re-enacted for lecture

To a 21st-century audience, the issue is not up for discussion: women have the right to vote. Moreover, it is difficult to conceive of a cogent reason against it. Not so in 19th-century Chautauqua, where, in keeping an open mind and an open platform, program organizers hosted a debate on whether or not women should have the right to vote.

At 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ, as part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series, the Rev. Anna Howard Shaw and the Rev. James Monroe Buckley will bring to life “The Suffrage Debate at Chautauqua, 1892.”

Chautauquans Bijou Clinger and Ralph Walton will re-enact the speeches of pro-suffrage Shaw and anti-suffrage Buckley, respectively.

Each re-enactor shared in studying the speeches, identifying the most important parts so as to represent the positions well in less time than the original speakers took to deliver.

“Speeches were different in the 19th century,” Walton said. “Audiences today expect information in bullet points.”

He and Clinger didn’t change words or alter ideas, but they removed some of the unnecessary fluff and indirection.

Walton found portions of Buckley’s arguments reprehensible, “especially his thoughts about minorities and immigrants.”

Some of Buckley’s arguments make sense, Walton said, but “they could be used just as well for suffrage as against it.”

Clinger came away from her study admiring Shaw very much. Shaw was very learned and “didn’t brook the argument that women were intellectually inferior to men. She knew women could do anything that a man could do, intellectually,” Clinger said.

In the days following the 1892 presentations, an editorial in the Chautauqua Assembly Herald said that Chautauquans had enjoyed the “presence, listened to the voices, laughed at the wit, applauded the eloquence and approved or disapproved the arguments, according to their predilections, of two of the foremost disputants in the ranks respectively of the woman suffragists and the antis.”

The editorial said that, while there was no clear victor, the discussion aroused much interest. Jon Schmitz, Chautauqua archivist and historian, said that the suffrage debate on the whole did not live up to political discussions of the 19th century such as abolition of slavery, or compared to the issue of segregation versus integration in the 20th century.

“We often have had these great issues, the discussion of which made people rethink democracy in fruitful ways,” Schmitz said. “The suffrage discussion didn’t produce a new sense of citizenship.”

Moreover, the reason why women’s suffrage prevailed was not because of the particular strength or novelty of the arguments for it; but rather, suffrage prevailed because of the weakness of the arguments against it.

Regardless, the 1892 audience thought it worthwhile, as did the editor of the Assembly Herald. “The discussion has been diverting and instructive. It has aroused interest in the question where there had been little or none before. The problem is one of the most important now before the people and Chautauqua, true to its principle of free speech, has done well in bringing here the great leaders of both sides,” the editorial read. “There cannot well be too much of discussion of the important problems of the day, when carried on as this has been, by such courteous, able and eloquent controversialists.”