In the midst of this election, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Smith College Relief Unit, who went off to France in the middle of a war to save lives– but still weren’t able to vote at home.
On November 6, 1917, after a strenuous, decades’ long battle, women won the right to vote in New York State. Even in the muddy wasteland of the Somme, the news made its way to the Smith College Relief Unit.
On November 17th, 1917, one of the Unit members wrote home: “Apropos of nothing I’ve said before– Hooray for Suffrage!!! It seems too good to be true. How I wish I could have been in for the finish. There are three N.Y. girls and one California girl in the Unit and we are crowing over all the rest.”
(The underlining is mine, but the three exclamation points are all hers.)
As a New Yorker, I read that and crowed with her. But it also made me stop and think. Here were these women, most of them in their late twenties or early thirties or older, all of them college graduates, some with graduate or medical degrees, who had traveled across the Atlantic in war time, who were building communities where no communities had been left standing, driving their trucks in all weather across shell-pitted terrain, hauling furniture, wrangling livestock, carrying gas masks as a matter of course– all of this, and yet, outside of New York State and California (which had voted in women’s suffrage six years earlier), they couldn’t vote.
It highlighted for me part of the purpose of the Unit: not just to help the struggling villagers, although that was certainly the heart of it, but also to show the world what the American college woman could do. It’s very clear from the letters of the Smithies how much they felt themselves constantly on probation, and how intense the pressure was to be an exemplar, to prove that women were equal to anything.
So, as we all watch our votes being counted across the country today, here’s to those Smithies and their mothers and grandmothers, who stood up and showed the world what the American woman could do, who marched for suffrage and braved war zones– and made our voices count.