“It is my first vote.”
Hannah Raymond Ambler’s joy was palpable on the page in this well-underlined diary entry, dated November 3, 1920. The “nice, serious period” as Julie Hughes, the Wilton Library Archivist, describes, signifies the well-deserved victory in Wilton’s fight for suffrage, a battle Wilton women fought with courage and power.
One hundred years ago, a national victory struck a personal chord in Wilton, where the fight for Women’s suffrage was long and fierce. The advocacy of Grace Knight Schenck, a brilliant surgical nurse and president of the Wilton Equal Franchise League, extended even into her personal life, where her pony bore the name ‘Suffragette.‘ Wilton teacher Alice Merwin Eakland supported the Wilton League of Women Voters while also leading a Girl Scout league, while Hannah Ambler dutifully maintained a running record of progress toward suffrage in well-loved “scrapbooks,” in-between running her family’s large, operational farm.
One hundred years ago, these ordinary-turned-extraordinary women made it possible for 152 Wilton women to register to vote for that first 1920 election after the 19th amendment was ratified. Their advocacy, determination, and persistence changed not only local law, but local culture, making Wilton ripe for this change.
One hundred years later, in a town-wide, bi-partisan effort, a commemorative, virtual “I Voted” sticker will be distributed through social media and on GOOD Morning Wilton to honor these Wilton women on the centennial of their triumph.
“It’s important to remind people that rights are not something you just get. You have to fight for them,” Julie Hughes, the Library’s History Room Archivist, said.
The virtual sticker will be available to any local voters to post on their social media platform of their choice or to print out for Connecticut’s Primary on Aug. 11 and the general election on Nov. 3. They will be digitally distributed on Aug. 10 by the variety of organizations involved, including the League of Women Voters, the Wilton Historical Society, the DTC, the Wilton Library, the Wilton Garden Club and more.
Pamela Hovland, Wilton woman, designer, educator, and activist, spearheaded the idea to make the customized “I-Voted” stickers after an initial call from First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Women’s suffrage as a town (which was then led by Sarah Gioffre, Wilton’s Coordinator of Community Affairs).
When contemplating the sticker design, Hovland said she and Hughes combed through town records from 1920. In the “beautiful leather-bound books” holding the contents, 152 Wilton women registered to vote “in perfect penmanship.” Hughes then looked through the library’s archives to find photos of the women for the design. Five of these women are depicted on the stickers, but each of these women had their own unique journey to the ballot. Each woman had a story, and one Hovland and Hughes were determined to show.
“One hundred and fifty-two Wilton women voted in 1920, which means there are 152 distinct stories to uncover. What work did they do to support the movement? What issues prompted them to vote? What did it feel like to be voting for the first time in a national election? How did they document the historic event?… Did they know that Black women and Indigenous women still did NOT have the right to vote and if so, what did they think of that inequity? What did the men in their lives think about them voting?” Hovland said.
Vanderslice said that replacing the generic “I-voted” sticker with these tokens was just one of the many methods and events designated to celebrate the “history which many residents don’t know, but which we were all excited to shared.”
Hovland agreed, echoing that this bi-partisan effort draws attention to local heroines that, though exempt from history books, were essential to the movement in the town.
“The movement for suffrage involved women from diverse ideologies and backgrounds—it was what we now refer to as a ‘leader-full’ movement. It wasn’t just Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton,” Hovland said.
Town politicians, organizations, and individuals alike have united in support for the project, which Hovland said is indicative of Wilton’s values and curiosity.
“I am thrilled that so many organizations are supporting the project. Wilton is a place that values education so learning about the town’s history—and at the same time celebrating the local women involved in this historic event—seems like an extension of the town’s values.”
In addition to supporting the sticker initiative, the Wilton Historical Society has spent over a year planning a suffragette exhibit highlighting what Wilton was like during that time period through the lens of local women, much of it based on research done by Hughes. The now-virtual exhibit will premiere in mid to late August online.
Co-director of the society Allison Sanders said that the women who fought for suffrage in our town are “role models for all of us.” She hopes the stickers help people recognize the significant impact these women had on the town, as well as the right they fought for us to have.
“Wilton women, like Hannah Raymond Ambler, Grace Knight Schenck, Alice Haynes Bennett, and Alice Merwin Eakland…yearned for the right to fully participate in our democracy and to make their voices heard through the act of voting. Honoring them, remembering them, on the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, reminds us that we should all vote,” Sanders wrote to GMW.
Sanders added that the visual symbolism of the sticker is very historically appropriate, as suffragettes often proudly wore sashes and buttons to communicate their message.
The women of 1920 had a lasting impact in Wilton not only in regards to the Suffrage movement. Just one year after women secured the right to vote, Schenck was one of the charter members of the Wilton Garden Club, along with Mary Comstock, Helen Howard, and Abigal Rundel. Beyond supporting the sticker project, the President of the Wilton Garden Club Nancy Greely said the club hopes to make a garden dedicated to Schenck in Schenck’s Island, along with a commemorative plaque honoring her work with suffrage.
“We are proud to be associated with such a strong woman who was a community leader and activist who organized the first women’s suffrage meeting in town,” Greely said.
The Wilton Library, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, is supporting the sticker initiative as well, Janet Crystal said. Crystal said that at the time of suffrage the library was “already an integral part of the Wilton community”; in fact, Hughes said that records indicate Schenck’s advocacy allowed Wilton women to vote locally in limited ways before the 19th amendment’s ratification, including on issues regarding the library.
Tina Gardner from the League of Women Voters said the league is “excited to be involved” in the initiative. Peggy Reeves, former Registrar of Voters, the CT Secretary of State Denise W Merrill, and Ambler Farm also supported the stickers as well.
Two of the women running for office to represent Wilton as state representative for the 143rd district in the upcoming election also spoke in support of the project.
Stephanie Thomas (D) praised the sticker project for reminding people about the importance of voting and of the women who made this possible.
“As a Black woman, casting a ballot always took on added significance and the day a meditative quality as I remembered all those who fought, were jailed, and even died so that I might have the opportunity to choose my representation. I am so glad that this project to recognize and celebrate engagement in our electoral process was able to continue in a digital format. At a time when voting rights are under attack in this country, projects such as this stand as a reminder that many in our own community fought to secure this right for all our citizens. Then, like now, protecting the right to vote is not a partisan issue and I applaud the women recognized in the digital stickers for their efforts,” Thomas said.
Also a candidate for the 143rd district state representative seat, Patrizia Zucaro (R) agreed that the tribute to the Wilton women of 1920 is remarkable.
“‘I Voted’ is such an empowering statement and I am so grateful for the hard work and dedication the suffragettes made to provide women with the right to vote in this country. This symbolic virtual sticker is an amazing way to celebrate the courageous acts of these historical women,” Zucaro said.
Importance of Remembering History–Voting Rights Today, the Fight Is Not Over
The new, Wilton branch of Ms President US, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that prepares girls in grades 4-8 “to aim for the highest civic leadership positions and know they can achieve them,” is supporting the sticker initiative as well. A leader of the group Ann Nunes said that honoring these women can help young girls understand that they, too can make a difference.
“[These girls] go to Ambler Farm, they know about Schenck’s Island, and if we weren’t illuminating the past for them they would just be names. But this is a way for them to actually have an image and to connect their current reality and the places they visit that are part of their everyday life with the history behind it, for these places to come alive for them and the women behind them too,” Nunes said, adding that she hopes young girls will be inspired. “These were really exceptional women in their day and I think at this moment in history we need exceptional women again,” Nunes said.
Hovland said that she hopes this celebration compels people to exercise their own right to vote. However, she also hopes it reminds people that the work is not done.
“Voting is a right in this country, thanks to the men and women who fought for it. But voting is also at risk on many levels—voter suppression, the elimination of polling places, etc. We cannot take this right for granted and we must continue to do the hard work that secures that every citizen has safe and convenient access to voting,” Hovland said.
Hughes agreed, saying that it’s important to both “celebrate and to recognize and grapple with the deficiencies of that historic moment as well.
“It’s also important to remember that many Native American women did not get the right to vote in 1920. People living in [American] Samoa and Puerto Rico still don’t have the right to vote regardless of their gender. These are ongoing struggles.”
Voter turnout in Wilton in recent years has been mixed. In the 2018 midterm elections, 72.27% of Wilton’s registered voters cast ballots. For the 2017 Wilton budget vote, however, voter turnout was merely 16.2%. Hovland hopes this initiative inspires people to vote on Aug. 11 and Nov. 3, if for no other reason than to honor the people that made this possible.
“I hope the stickers—their visual form and what they signify—inspire Wiltonians to vote and also to look more closely at the nuanced stories of the women—in Wilton, in our state, and across the country—involved in the sustained effort it required to secure equal rights at the ballot box.”