A Catskill Catalog: May 9, 2012

Don’t normally associate the woman’s suffrage movement with Keeney Hollow. In fact, until last week, I didn’t even know where Keeney Hollow is. If you do know, you’ve been around these parts a long time.

Keeney Hollow is on the uphill side of Southside Road, in Margaretville. It’s an obscure, depopulated stretch of brook-washed hollow, obscured now by decades of watershed-protecting city ownership.
Up there, Emma Keeney and her children ran Meadowbrook Farm, a family-farm that was also a popular tourist haven in the ’30s and ’40s. That was the Keeney Place, for the first half of the 20th century, from the time Emma Keeney and her husband moved here from New York City in 1896.
Emma was already something of a country girl. She had been born in 1855 on a farm in Manhattan, located on an expanse now called Park Avenue.

The Keeneys bought the old Burr farm, rechristened it Meadowbrook, and started their new upstate farm life. But two short years later, Mr. Keeney died, and Emma Keeney was left a widow, a young mother with mouths to feed and a farm to run.

The responsibilities of young widowed-motherhood probably led Emma to gradually morph her farm into a successful summer boarding house. Young widowed-motherhood might also have spurred her interest in winning the right to vote.

What led me to Emma Keeney was a recent email, forwarded to me by a reader, about the women’s suffrage movement. A History Lesson on Why Women Can Vote in 2012, contains 10 vintage photographs, with explanatory captions. The viewer scrolls down the screen, tracing the story of the sacrifice and commitment of suffrage-movement leaders, and just plain women alike, as they marched and fought, sometimes were jailed, even beaten, for seeking the right to vote.
Got me thinking. I wonder how that played-out around here? So, I started poking around.

That’s when I discovered Emma Keeney. When it comes to suffragettes in our area, Emma Keeney’s name stands out. She was our local leader in the effort to win the right to vote for women.
We learned in school about the 19th Amendment: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” That’s the full text, ratified by three-fourths of the states, becoming part of the U.S. Constitution just after World War I. American women won the right to vote in 1920.

But the struggle began long before that, 165 miles west of here, in Seneca Falls. Lucretia Mott, famed Philadelphia activist, was coming to Seneca Falls to speak, and five women in the town decided to make her appearance part of a larger event, a first-ever Women’s Rights Convention.
Six sessions were held over two days. Only women could attend the first day’s discussions, while men were invited to join them to hear Lucretia Mott speak on day two. Nearly 300 attended the convention, and 68 women and 32 men signed The Declaration of Sentiments which the convention produced.

For the next 72 years, women all over the country marched, signed petitions, gave speeches, lobbied husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons, looking to gain many rights, with the right to vote foremost among them.

We know the big names - Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt. But what about the local women, the ones who lobbied their neighbors and friends, who dared stir their own community?

On June 15 and 16, 1914, area women held the first-ever Delaware County Equal Suffrage Convention, in Delhi. A distinguished roster of speakers was highlighted by Carrie Chapman Catt, herself. Seven Delaware County women were listed as the convention’s steering committee. Mrs. Keeney was Margaretville’s representative.

Local suffrage leaders pushed for a referendum, a vote at the polls to change the state constitution, extending the voting franchise to women. Surely, New York State would lead the way toward equality. Put the question on the ballot, they argued. Voters will do the right thing for their wives and mothers, sisters, and daughters. November 1915 would be the vote.

Mrs. Keeney must have shed bitter tears when she read the election report in the November 5, 1915 Catskill Mountain News. “Suffrage and new State Constitution both lose by a big vote,” headlined the newspaper. Male voters in every Delaware County town but Sidney rejected women’s suffrage. The vote was close only in Walton. Mrs. Keeney’s own town, Middletown, rejected voting rights for women 556-349. The initiative was roundly defeated, statewide.

That didn’t last long. New York women responded to the loss at the polls with petitions and pressure, applied most effectively at the local level, where, throughout the state, town board after town board passed local ordinances allowing women to vote in state elections. Town board members, all men, had to vote aye or nay publically on the petitions submitted to them. No secret ballot hid their vote from their wives and mothers, sisters and daughters.

Soon, in 1917, the state legislature granted women the right to vote in state elections.
In November 1918, women went to the polls for the first time, many to be turned away because they had neglected to register beforehand. Many women chose not to vote. Margaretville’s usual turnout of 325 to 350 voters increased by a hundred, to 450.

But I know Mrs. Keeney was one of them. She’s our suffrage leader. And Keeney Hollow our suffrage historic site.
billbirns@gmail.com