hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News October 2018


Local suffragist tried to upend a party machine

Maury Thompson


A Hudson Falls suffragette tested the muscle of local political bosses in 1918 and attracted statewide attention as the first woman in upstate New York to compete in a Republican primary for a state Assembly seat.

When Elizabeth Mitchell launched her campaign, it had been less than a year since New York amended its state constitution, in late 1917, to grant women the right to vote – three years before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extended women’s suffrage nationwide.
Politicians and political parties were still trying to figure out how their fortunes would be affected as women signed up to vote for the first time.

As The Post-Star of Glens Falls put it in an editorial on Aug. 2, 1918: “The Republican organization of Washington County is due for the biggest jolt in its entire history, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the slate as arranged by party leaders will be smashed to smithereens on primary day.”

The New York Herald said Mitchell was a “vivacious young woman who frankly gave the year of her birth as 1884.” The paper also described Mitchell as “about the size of a school girl.”
“The big fight will be in the primaries,” Mitchell told the Herald. “Washington County is a Republican district, and they say up there that ‘Every time they have an election they have a killin’.’ This is going to be a regular killin’ and I love a fight.”

Mitchell was the wife of Willis G. Mitchell, a U.S. Navy fleet engineer on the staff of Adm. DeWitt Coffman. The couple had three children, ages 2, 4 and 6.

In the end, Mitchell’s “jolt” wasn’t powerful enough to disable the local party machine.
The Republican-endorsed candidate, Eugene R. Norton, the owner of a Granville slate business, won the four-way primary with about 52 percent of the vote.

Mitchell, better known around Washington County as Betty, placed second, with 27.6 percent. Two other anti-establishment candidates, John C. Cotrell, a farmer, and A.H. Bunnell, publisher of the Fort Edward Advertiser, split the rest of the vote.

Just after the primary, county GOP Chairman James Parker of Salem, who was also the local congressman, was spared a leadership challenge when, just hours before the party’s annual organizing meeting, its leaders promised disgruntled committee members a greater voice in its operations.

In those days, before court rulings required that legislative districts be drawn to include roughly equal numbers of voters, Washington County as a whole comprised one Assembly district. Warren and Saratoga counties were in separate districts.

Mitchell had entered the race after the Washington County Republican Committee refused to endorse incumbent Assemblyman Charles O. Pratt of Cambridge, who had been an ardent supporter of woman’s suffrage.

Pratt decided not to seek re-election, and he served on Mitchell’s campaign committee along with Lillian C. Barkley, who was elected earlier in the year as the first woman village president of Argyle.

With World War I still raging, Mitchell ran on a “home morale” platform, focusing on issues of child welfare and her support for Prohibition, a cause that would succeed with ratification of the 18th Amendment two years later.

“She believes that keeping up the morale at home is a very important part in winning the war,” The Post-Star reported on Aug. 15, 1918.

Mitchell refrained from criticizing Norton, even when prompted by reporters.

“It isn’t the policy of the suffragists” to criticize, she said.

Norton emphasized his experience in business and government. His campaign ads called him “a business man for the Legislature” and warned, “It is no time for sentimental whims or promises.”
Mitchell’s campaign branded her as “the friend of the working people.”

She launched her campaign in Whitehall, where she “stationed herself on a busy corner” and spoke “for more than a half an hour,” The Post-Star reported on Aug. 16, 1918.

“It was said that Mrs. Mitchell’s address was one of the best political speeches listened to in the railroad village in many years,” the newspaper added.

She continued her unconventional campaign by crisscrossing the rural county, making speeches wherever people would listen.

Alice Morgan Wright, the recording secretary of the New York State Suffrage Party, campaigned with Mitchell in Salem. Katherine Devereux and Caroline Wagner, prominent suffragettes from New York City, campaigned with her in Fort Ann.

It was a campaign with ample political theater.
Mitchell, in her interview with the Herald, pointed out a jagged cut in her brown jersey dress.
“I tore this dress crawling under a barbed wire fence to get a farmer’s signature to my petition,” she said. “But it’s worth it. I got the signature and I mended the tear.”

In the Fort Edward Labor Day parade, just before the primary, a band of male jazz musicians performed dressed as women, riding on a wagon with a poster reading, “We Will Be Assemblymen Yet.”

Norton, after winning the primary, went on to win the general election and serve one two-year term in the Assembly.


Maury Thompson retired in 2017 after 21 years as a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls. He is now a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.