The Progressive Era: The years between 1900 and 1920, known in United States history as the Progressive Era, were characterized by struggles for political and economic equality and for social reform. Women's suffrage was at the forefront of these struggles, and deep in the fray were the college-educated women who were products of the boom in women’s higher education during the latter half of the 19th century.
Activism and Ambivalence: In the fall of 1895 after a period of debate Mt. Holyoke College held a vote on whether or not Massachusetts women should be given the municpal ballot. The surprising result was 185 opposed, 114 in favor. Many people feared that giving women a voice in representative government would be damaging to society, and that women should remain within the sphere of the home. Although the pro-suffrage movement gained steam in the early 20th century, anti-suffrage and ambivalent sentiment was nevertheless evident in the media as well as in the personal correspondence of students at Mt. Holyoke during these years. Both sides in the battle took pains to propagate their ideas through publications of various types.
Women who became actively involved in the Suffrage movement did so by attending demonstrations, marches, pickets, and lectures. They formed organizations, circulated literature pertaining to the issue, and communicated and corresponded with other activists.
During Mary Woolley's tenure at the college, a chapter of the College Equal Suffrage League was formed, the Debate Society argued the pros and cons of the suffrage issue, and students and faculty particpated in local and statewide suffrage marches.
How did the idealistic fervor of the Progressive Era, and more specifically of the suffrage movement, play out at Mt. Holyoke College, which was after all a pioneer in women’s education?
Archival documents such as photographs and personal letters can help us to reconstruct to some degree the story of the suffrage movement at Mt. Holyoke. They can show us how the small community of the college mirrored the breadth of opinion and engagement on this important issue in the wider society.