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  • Writer's pictureLocal History Collection

Katherine Duer Mackay and the Equal Franchise Society

Katherine Duer Mackay, the first wife of Clarence H. Mackay, was known throughout New York’s high society circles for her beauty, charm, and dedication to various causes for women and children. Katherine’s feminist sensibility, along with her advanced social position, led to her involvement in the Women’s Suffrage Movement of the early 20th century. On the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, we remember Katherine’s efforts towards promoting a sustainable future for the suffragist cause.

Residing in Roslyn at the immense estate, Harbor Hill, Katherine’s socially-conscious contributions were well-remembered by the community, especially in the area of education. Believing that it was “necessary for the rich as well as the poor to patronize them,” Katherine enrolled her own children in the local schools. She was the first woman elected to the Roslyn Board of Education and contributed educational initiatives that included a high school curriculum.

“We have to plead our cause without raising our voice.”

An elegant face for the Suffrage Movement, Katherine stood in contrast to the “frumpy” suffragettes whose rigorous activism towards equal rights was considered unladylike by the genteel class. Much like a modern celebrity spokesmodel, she used her popularity and influence to gain support for the movement. Just as magazines like US Weekly discuss today's celebrity style, newsmen crafted detailed accounts of Katherine's clothing, from the cut of a garment to its textiles and color. These reporters often departed carrying “carefully prepared summaries of suffrage arguments.”


The establishment of the Equal Franchise Society (EFS) in 1908 solidified her stake in the fight for women’s rights. Taking the role of president upon its inception, Katherine applied her taste for lavish surroundings to the luxurious EFS offices at Madison Square. At these headquarters, she employed several secretaries to manage the organization’s funds and hired three women as publicists to promote various activities and events.


While her dedication to the cause is without question, the tranquil bubble of Katherine’s society upbringing undoubtedly influenced her decorous approach to the Suffrage Movement. Her staunch aversion to raucous street protest was predicated on the belief that “we have to plead our cause without raising our voice” and that propaganda and sensationalism were ineffective towards furthering the movement’s message.


In line with her strong advocacy for education, Katherine organized a series of lectures at Roslyn High School given by “the best speakers on the Suffrage question.” Attended by audiences that included notable socialites, the lectures aimed to educate young people on the importance of suffrage so they may be “convinced of its value in their personal lives.”


As reported in a 1909 clipping contained within the Local History Collection, Katherine appeared at a suffragist convention at Carnegie Hall, an event which featured “the sale of the new Suffrage Calendar, in preparation of which Mrs. Mackay and Mrs. Henry Miller, of the Collegiate Equal Suffrage League, have spent many months.”

Containing quotes from figures as varied as George Eliot and Abraham Lincoln, the calendar’s proceeds were donated solely to the Collegiate Equal Suffrage League, as Katherine’s involvement in its creation was “purely a friendly one for the associate league.”


Though her formal request for an amendment to the New York State Constitution was denied, Katherine’s social influence awarded her a meeting with Governor Charles Evans Hughes in 1910 where she was “received cordially.” The following year, the EFS led a march down Fifth Avenue with droves of women “proudly waving their banners” and accompanied by bagpipes.


By 1911, Katherine had stepped down as president of the EFS, but remained a member. Her short, yet powerful influence over the American Suffrage Movement helped spread the cause to other wealthy society women, whose further efforts eventually achieved the passing of a constitutional amendment.


While the Nineteenth Amendment eliminated gender as a legal hindrance to voting, the suppression and loopholes that prevented non-white women, as well as men, from participating in elections meant that true suffrage was not achieved until decades later. This centennial anniversary serves as a reminder that historical context is a necessary tool when measuring the worth of a celebrated achievement.


Sources:


Long Island and the Woman Suffrage Movement / Antonia Petrash (2013)


Mrs. Mackay to Read Equal Franchise Society Platform at Carnegie Hall (1909)


Another Suffrage Lecture / Roslyn News (1908)


Woman Suffrage Lecture / Roslyn News (1908)


Leaders in the Woman Suffrage Movement / Town & Country (1909)


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