Posted on November 7 2017 by Eric Pumroy, Bryn Mawr College Head of Special Collections

National Elections on Campus: "Wild Disorder and Tremendous Enthusiasm"

"The Even-Class 'Tree Exercises' at Commencement' reprint, 1916"
Even-class tree exercises at the 1916 Mount Holyoke commencement activities.

It's election day today! Have you been to the polls yet?

This off-year election season has been relatively quiet, but elections were boisterous affairs on women’s college campuses a century ago, despite the fact that women did not have the right to vote. In 1908, Bryn Mawr junior Mary Whitall Worthington—whose voice we have featured here before—was deeply invested in national politics, as the president of the College’s Equal Suffrage League. She wrote at length about the raucous election eve parade, speeches and straw vote on campus in her diary. It seems there was a much wider representation of parties than today’s mostly bipartisan split:

I never hope to see such a scene of wild disorder and tremendous enthusiasm. I determined that the suffrage faction should be represented. At first we decided to be suffragettes & break up the meeting, but fearing reporters we decided to go to the other extreme and be the only well-dressed members of the large procession. So we decided that we were to behave in a most orderly manner, look our best, and at the end of each of the stump speeches, rise and say in chorus “Do you approve of giving women the Franchise.” . . . We all had on low necked dresses with trains and wore a badge with Votes for Women written across us.

The whole procession formed under the Arch at ½ past 7. . . . At the head marched the Bryn Mawr band blowing & beating away for all they were worth. . . . Next came the Republicans all with white bands over their shoulders with G.O.P. in black on them . . . Then came the Democrats with many transparencies, and then the Socialist Party – a large and flourishing array. At the head just in front of us were the anarchists with their faces all blackened wearing white tunics with black handmarks pasted all over them. They blew violently on trumpets and uttered a continuous yell

Suffragists from National Women's Party picketing White House, circa 1917
Suffragists from National Women's Party picketing White House, circa 1917.

Skull and bones,
Skull and bones,
Down with the government,
Hear our groans

Behind them we walked, rather a contrast to the rest of the procession. Behind us was the body of the Socialist party all in red carrying red flags. . . . . Behind the Socialists marched the Prohibitionists headed by Pat Murphy as Mrs. Carrie Nation. They all wore Mackintoshes and carried umbrellas with KEEP DRY painted on them. . . . Behind this energetic party came the Independents in yellow and white carrying empty dinner pails. Nearly everyone carried torches and the flaring candles of the transparencies cast a flickering weird light on the crowded heads and upturned faces.

The parade ended in the College’s main hall where everyone listened to political speeches on behalf of the parties. After the speeches the students held a straw vote: William Howard Taft, the Republican candidate, won overwhelmingly with 243 votes (75%). The Democrats received 38 votes (12%), the Socialists 29 (9%) and the Prohibitionists 7 (2%). (The College enrolled approximately 330 undergraduates at the time, so those participating made up about 75% of the student body.) Not allowed to vote were the students who were marching as anti-suffragists, mostly first-year students, including William Howard Taft’s daughter. The evening ended with an impromptu suffrage demonstration organized by Worthington and her group. As she described it:

When we were all dispersing a lot of the suffragists got together at the bottom of the stairs and started singing our song. As people streamed down the stairs they joined us and pretty soon we had the whole crowd yelling “Everybody votes but Women.”

Whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, a Socialist, an Anarchist, a Prohibitionist, an Independent or are otherwise affiliated, don’t forget to exercise your right to suffrage today!


All quotes are from Mary Whitall Worthington’s Diary, vol. 11, 1908-1909, pp. 302-306.


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