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Centennial celebration: North country women talk life as elected officials on 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage

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State Sen. Betty Little of the 45th District; Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville; State Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul; and Jefferson County Sheriff Colleen O’Neill. Photos by Sydney Schaefer and Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

When 16 American suffragettes picketed outside the White House on July 14, 1917 — on the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution — women in the United States had already been fighting for voting rights for decades.

Two years after the 1917 arrest of those 16 suffragettes of the National Woman’s Party, led by New Jersey’s Julia Hurlbut, Congress passed a joint resolution: “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.”

The resolution, which became the 19th Amendment after its ratification in 1920, meant white women and African American women in America could vote.

In the 100 years after the 19th Amendment’s ratification, powerful women have continued to lead the fight for civil rights, including thousands who have run for public office.

In partnership with a WPBS-TV installation of “More to the Story,” the Times sat down with four women — four north country representatives — to honor the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage victory.

Produced by an all-women team and featuring interviews with Jefferson County Sheriff Colleen O’Neill, state Sen. Betty Little of the 45th District and New York State Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, “More to the Story: Women in Office” premieres on WPBS at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, and will air again at 7:30 p.m. May 29. The episode also will be accessible online at watch.wpbstv.org, anytime after the premiere.

Long before any community of people, other than white men, could vote in the United States, the first women’s rights convention convened in 1848 over two days in Seneca Falls, situated among the Finger Lakes, about 50 miles west of Syracuse.

Effectively launching a formal women’s suffrage movement, the convention was led by anti-slavery and women’s rights advocates, including New Yorker Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Seneca Falls Convention helped give birth to waves of feminism and propelled civil rights movements with solid support.

Many women involved in the convention and its social blueprints appeared on ballots years before they could cast their own. Though the women’s suffrage movement culminated in a voting rights victory for white women and African American women in 1920, it wasn’t until 1962 that Native American voting rights were secured in all states.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the first woman to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives — running as an independent from New York in 1866 and receiving 24 votes of 12,000.

In New York, women could vote in the state a few years earlier than the rest of the country, after the right was won in 1917. The following year, about a dozen women ran for the New York State Assembly and two were elected: Mary Lilly and Ida Sammis.

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Rhoda Fox Graves. Watertown Daily Times archives

Rhoda Fox Graves, born in Fowler, St. Lawrence County, was elected to the Assembly in 1924, the fifth woman to serve in the role, and the first woman to be re-elected. In 1932 Graves decided to run for state senate, and after losing that year, she returned to the ballot in 1934, winning her seat and serving for 14 years.

The 1920s ushered in a new era for all Americans, but especially women, who could finally take their place at polling stations after years of fighting. In 2020, the centennial anniversary of when women across the country took that place, women continue to run for every level of office — even the presidency — thanks to the persistence of the nation’s early suffragettes.

With a long family line in Jefferson County and in law enforcement, Colleen O’Neill knew, from the time she was about 10 years old, she wanted to be a police officer.

“One of the great things about law enforcement, and one of the things that drew me to it, is that it’s really unpredictable and you don’t know what your day is going to be like,” she said.

When Sheriff O’Neill started at the State Police Academy in 1984, women had only been trained as troopers for about 10 years, she said, something that began as a sort of “experiment.”

“Those ladies excelled,” she said.

Centennial celebration

Jefferson County Sheriff Colleen O’Neill. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

Elected as Jefferson County sheriff in 2014 — the first woman elected as sheriff in New York — Sheriff O’Neill said she takes inspiration from her mother, “a go-getter,” her father, the late Alfred P. O’Neill who served as Jefferson’s sheriff in the 1970s and ’80s, and the historic suffragettes of the last two centuries.

“It’s almost hard to believe that it’s only been 100 years that women have been allowed to vote,” she said. “I have just an enormous amount of gratitude for the women that came before me and fought for equal rights.”

During her campaign, she didn’t have any idea she could be the first woman in the state elected sheriff, and that the specific victory didn’t sink in until she attended her first sheriff’s conference — “there’s a room full of 60 or 70 men, and I’m the only woman sitting there.”

“One of the things that took me a long time to embrace was that I might be a role model for younger women,” Sheriff O’Neill said. “I would encourage any young woman to do anything that she sets her sights on. If that was law enforcement, more power to her.”

Born and raised in Glens Falls, representing New York’s 45th Senate District, State Sen. Elizabeth “Betty” Little boasts a full career in New York politics.

After graduating from the College of Saint Rose in Albany as an elementary school teacher, she taught for a few years before beginning a 19-year period as a stay-at-home mother.

While at home, she was PTA president and her first elected office was as Warren County supervisor, a role she held for nearly 10 years. Sen. Little recalled one county campaign, reviewing election results and doing well, when a man next to her said, “Well next time I’m going to run as a woman.”

“I said, ‘Really? Is that what it takes?’” she said. “At the beginning there was a lot of that.”

In 1995, Sen. Little ran for New York State Assembly, vying for former Assemblyman Jim King’s vacant seat, and took office months later.

Before she was elected, she hit the road with a handful of volunteers. Her current Chief of Staff, Daniel MacEntee, was one of those volunteers. She said he would drive her around, getting to know the district well in the process, knocking on doors and handing out 100 information cards, known as palm cards, every afternoon.

Knowing she wasn’t very well known in Peru at the time, Sen. Little, her two sisters and their kids, along with the senator’s two youngest kids, formed a caravan of three cars and went to Peru with their palm cards. One of her nephews, about 4 at the time, asked his mother if he could go to one house alone to ask for a vote. She agreed, so he went and knocked on the door himself. A woman answered the door to see this young boy brandishing a card and asking her to vote for “Aunt Betty.” She was known as Aunt Betty in Peru for several years.

Centennial celebration

State Sen. Betty Little poses for a portrait following an interview with reporters in Tupper Lake on March 5. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

In anticipation of the centennial anniversary of nationwide women’s suffrage, Sen. Little pushed for the renaming of Mount Discovery in the Adirondacks, with the help of the New York State Women’s Suffrage 100th Anniversary Commemoration Committee. Mount Discovery, which had been called Mount Inez by residents of Lewis, Essex County, for years, was officially renamed Mount Inez in honor of suffragette Inez Milholland, buried in the town of Lewis.

Though she was a suffrage leader, Ms. Milholland never got to vote, never saw women across the country win that right. She died at the age of 30, but not before she became an iconic symbol of women’s suffrage wearing all white and riding white horses as she led marches in Washington and New York City.

“Every woman, hopefully, will vote because it took a lot of work to get us at the table,” Sen. Little said. “We’re there, we’re recognized, we’re respected at the table, but we want to make sure that the women’s vote is at the numbers it ought to be.”

At 79 years old, Sen. Little’s political career will end later this year as she won’t seek re-election in November, but she isn’t finished yet, citing projects like widespread cell reception for her district that she hopes to finish before she leaves office.

Representing New York’s 21st District, Congresswoman Elise M. Stefanik, 35, has already had her share of success in politics, and her career is still just getting started.

Born and raised in Albany, her parents owned a small plywood distribution company that her father started when she was a child, so she grew up seeing how challenging it is to own, operate and grow a small business. She was the first member of her immediate family to graduate from college, Harvard University.

At just 28 years of age, she began the process of running for Congress.

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Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville. Watertown Daily Times

“I ran because I felt we needed a new generation of leadership representing upstate New York,” she said. “I was definitely the underdog; many people did not think I would be able to win. I traveled over 100,000 miles driving around the district and reaching out to voters and sharing my ideas.”

In 2014, Rep. Stefanik won by more than 20 points and became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at the time — and is still the youngest Republican woman ever to be elected.

After her win, the congresswoman recalled that parents started to bring their young daughters to events she was attending — Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike — to see a public role model.

“There are still young women who reach out to my office, write letters or comments on social media, or reach out for photos because their daughters want to run for office someday,” she said. “It’s a humbling experience and it’s a real reminder of the importance of role models.”

A 24/7 job, the congresswoman’s days usually start with early texts, sometimes at 4 or 5 a.m. from constituents, generally farmers who are already up and working. During all hours of the day she said she talks to constituents, and when Congress is in session in Washington, she attends committee hearings and constituent meetings.

Rep. Stefanik said she is proud that upstate New York played such an important part in the history of women’s suffrage, and is particularly proud to lead the effort to recognize the centennial anniversary on the House floor by authoring the Women’s Commemorative Coin Bill, which requires the U.S. Mint to issue a coin honoring the anniversary.

“On a personal level, I would not have the opportunity to serve in Congress today were it not for those women who advocated and worked so hard for our right to vote,” Rep. Stefanik said. “It’s a reminder of all the women that came before us or are serving today, and it’s also a reminder that we serve as role models for the next generation.”

The Pew Research Center reported at the beginning of the 116th Congress in December 2018 that women make up a quarter of voting membership, the highest percentage in U.S. History. Currently there are 101 women holding seats in the 535 member U.S. House of Representatives and 26 women in the Senate.

Four women, who are nonvoting delegates, represent the American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, according to Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

New York’s Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, 61, believes there’s “tremendous power” in the voices of women and girls.

As a teenager, Ms. Hochul wrote press releases for campaigns in her hometown of Buffalo, knocked on doors, wrote letters and made phone calls. She became a volunteer for the Democratic Party when she was 15.

“But I never thought I’d run for office,” she said. “I was always behind the scenes.”

Centennial celebration

New York State Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks during an interview in her Albany office on Feb. 11. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

After earning her law degree from Columbus School of Law at Catholic University in Washington, she became a staffer in the late 1980s for U.S. Representative John LaFalce and U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan, as well as an aide for the New York State Assembly.

“I was the one who wrote the speeches and wrote the legislation and did the political analysis of different ideas,” she said. “That was really the path I was on, to become a top aide to a senator by the time I was 28. And I got there.”

It wasn’t until she witnessed a young man, just out of college, run for local office in her area, that she decided to be an advocate in a more public role.

“Despite my long resume of community activism, and being an attorney and working in politics for 20 years, I didn’t have the confidence to run,” she said. “And then I had that ‘a-ha’ moment, and I said, ‘You know what? I can do this, too.’”

Lieutenant governor since 2015, Ms. Hochul previously represented New York’s 26th District in the House, held county clerk positions in Erie County, was a practicing attorney and served as a Hamburg town board member in Erie County.

Ms. Hochul’s parents were involved in civil rights advocacy in the mid-20th century — her father was a steel worker, and she described her mother as a personal inspiration and advocate for victims of domestic violence.

“I grew up in an environment where we were always talking about society and challenges and the political world,” she said.

Citing Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman as key influences and her many women colleagues as inspirational fighters, Ms. Hochul said she feels honored to continue the work of women’s rights advocates before her and beside her.

“My work today reflects my strong understanding that the legacy has been passed on to us as New York women in 2020,” she said. “And I fight every day to find new opportunities for women, to fight for their health care, to fight for affordable childcare, to fight for decent wages for women. So that’s a part of who I am, and I never lose sight of the fact that I stand on the shoulders of some very brave and audacious women.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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