Inside a box 2 feet by 1 ½ feet in size lies a treasure trove of women’s suffrage memorabilia that sat undisturbed for over a century. Found by Libbie and George Merrow when they were cleaning out their Bloomfield, Connecticut, home last year, these hundreds of letters, newspaper clippings and photographs once belonged to suffrage leader Isabella Beecher Hooker, and provide a rare insight into the inner thoughts and workings of the 19th century women’s suffrage movement.
The collection includes 26 letters from Susan B. Anthony and 10 from Elizabeth Cady Stanton written to advocate, abolitionist and lecturer, Isabella Beecher Hooker (the half-sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe). What makes these artifacts so unique is that they are political, not personal. They provide a unique look into the behind-the-scenes, day-to-day maneuvering, by both key players and lesser-known suffragists, that went into securing women the right to vote.
“I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to hold a letter that she had held more than a hundred years before,” Kitt told the University of Rochester’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections department when she realized she was in possession of an actual letter Susan B. Anthony had written to Isabella Beecher Hooker. Kitt went on to explain, “It really shows you what these women went through. They really busted their butts for us.”
How did the Merrow family come into possession of these amazing historical artifacts? It was George’s grandfather who purchased the former Beecher Hooker house at 34 Forest Street in Hartford, Connecticut. The Hookers sold the house when they could no longer afford its size and elegance, and left some personal affects behind.
This window into the suffrage movement survived two moves and has been passed down twice within George Merrow’s family, ultimately ending up in the family barn. When the couple decided to sell the barn and clean it out, they stumbled across the box, but they moved it to their porch and covered it with a tarp where it remained for a year.
When they finally looked through it in 2016 after deciding to sell their house, they contacted Bob Seymour and Adrienne Horowitz Kitts (rare book and manuscript dealers) to see if it contained anything of note. Combing through the collection, some of which was covered in mouse droppings and dust, they found something extraordinary.
To the Merrows, the University of Rochester seemed like a natural fit to house this new collection, already the home to the John and Isabella Beecher Hooker papers and the Susan B. Anthony collection.
Mainly written between the years 1869 to 1880, the letters highlight a particularly important—and often brushed over—moment in the movement, which found suffragists struggling with whether they could support the 15th amendment (that would grant black men suffrage) if women weren’t included.
While Lucy Stone (the first woman to ever carry her birth name throughout her entire, married life), wrote to Hooker explaining her support of black male suffrage on August 4, 1869, saying, “I believe that just so far as we withhold or deny a human right to any human being, we establish a basis for the denial and withholding of our own rights,” other activists believed obtaining suffrage rights piecemeal was counterproductive to the movement. All eyes were on Hooker—which side she would choose?
Ultimately Hooker sided with the Susan B. Anthony/Elizabeth Cady Stanton faction, believing that if black men received the right to vote without women it would set suffrage back—but she still worked to unify the movement.
Women’s suffrage wasn’t born overnight. It took decades of struggle, organizing and negotiating—efforts, that at times, seemed to lead nowhere. The frustration of the activists can be felt in their correspondence as the movement loses members to marriage and children, experiences a lack of funding and sees general support for the cause wane.
As special collections librarian at RBSCP, Lori Birrell explained, “Something that I’ve been really struck by is just how exhausting it must have been to try and keep going for this long. You get to this period in the 1870s and they’ve tried everything—state, national, they’ve tried voting and then got arrested for it in 1872. They’ve tried all of these things and they just kept at it. To read that year after year after year in these letters is simply amazing.”
Jessica Lacher-Feldman, the Assistant Dean for Special Collections and Preservation and the director of the RBSCP, told HISTORY one of her favorite letters is one from October 11, 1869, that begins in Susan B. Anthony’s handwriting and then switches to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They were obviously together while writing to Hooker, an important player in this complex web of people and activity. The letter ends with a touching quote from Stanton, “P.S. Whoever you invite will be agreeable to me. I can speak and work with all the children of men.”
Lacher-Feldman told HISTORY that if you really want to know a person pay attention to what they read and collect. If this is true, Hooker had a deep interest in suffrage. She amassed a mini-lending library of materials relating to suffrage and political activism, each noted with “I.B. Hooker, please return.”
Only one scholar has been granted access to this new find so far; Ann Gordon, Research Professor Emerita of History at Rutgers University, but the plan is to allow scholars to visit the collection both online and in person (when scheduled ahead of time). According to Gordon, these artifacts will fill in the gaps with regards to Hooker’s contribution to the suffrage movement—helping to shed light on some of the lesser-known players.
Lacher-Feldman told HISTORY, “What’s beautiful is we don’t really know yet, what will percolate to the surface. There might be one phrase, one sentence that really illuminates something for someone.”
Hooker ultimately died in 1907, 13 years before the 19th amendment (granting women the right to vote) went into effect. Anthony, died a year earlier in 1906, and Stanton even earlier in 1902. While very few of these early suffragists ever saw their work come to fruition, one thing is for sure—they worked hard for our right to vote.