Thomas W. Palmer: A Michigan Senator's "Masterly Argument" for Women's Suffrage

By Ziewacz, Lawrence E. | Michigan Historical Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Thomas W. Palmer: A Michigan Senator's "Masterly Argument" for Women's Suffrage


Ziewacz, Lawrence E., Michigan Historical Review


On 6 February 1885 Thomas W. Palmer of Detroit, a U.S. senator, gave one of the first major speeches in the Senate in favor of women's suffrage. (1) Later reprinted in The History of Woman Suffrage, 1883-1900, his address was praised in the introduction as a "great speech" and introduced in the text as a "masterly argument which has not been surpassed in the fifteen years that have since elapsed." (2) Susan B. Anthony, who was in attendance, said that she and other suffragettes were ordering thousands of copies and desired the printing plates. (3) Palmer must have complied. In 1889, after a twelve-city whirlwind tour of South Dakota in support of women's suffrage, Anthony returned home to mail out fifty thousand copies of Palmer's speech "under his frank." (4)

Palmer's speech was not a one-shot deal. His political life demonstrated that he was a consistent supporter of women's suffrage, yet one searches in vain for any recognition of his efforts which were so valued by Susan B. Anthony and other women's suffrage advocates. Such major works on women's suffrage as Doris Weatherford's A History of the American Suffragist Movement; Susan Marilley's Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820-1920; Janet Z. Giele's Two Paths to Women's Equality: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Origins of Modern Feminism; and Eleanor Flexner's Century of Struggle: The Women's Rights Movement in the United States do not even list Palmer in their indices. (5) Virginia Caruso's 1986 dissertation at Michigan State University, "A History of Woman Suffrage in Michigan," does not use Palmer's papers; she mentions Palmer only twice and not in conjunction with his 1885 speech. (6) And although Sharon E. McHaney in her 1991 article on women's suffrage in Michigan History describes Palmer as a "staunch defender of Michigan suffragists," she does not mention his 1885 address. (7) Sylvia Strauss in her excellent work "Traitors to the Masculine Cause": The Men's Campaign for Women's Rights also makes no mention of Palmer and indeed indicates that after the Civil War "American feminists did not have anyone in the Congress to carry forward their cause." (8) Only in the 1995 volume titled Michigan Women's Suffrage: A Political History, edited by Elizabeth H. Giese, is Palmer given some credit for his work on behalf of women's suffrage. His picture graces a full page, two paragraphs are excerpted from his 1885 speech, and the author notes that when Clara Barton wanted to start a Men's League for Woman Suffrage in Michigan, Palmer "agreed to have his name used as head of the invitational committee." (9)

Palmer's speech gave welcome encouragement to a cause whose leaders had experienced considerable difficulty and frustration both nationally and in Michigan. The women's suffrage movement suffered a debilitating blow when a disagreement arose over the Radical Republican plan for Reconstruction, which postponed women's suffrage in order to concentrate on rights for the freed slaves. For Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, this was tantamount to betrayal; and in 1869 they established the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which lobbied for a federal amendment to allow women to vote. The NWSA attacked "existing institutions and refused to admit men into the organization." (10) In the same year the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) was founded by Lucy Stone and Henry B. Blackwell. More conservative than the NWSA, the AWSA concentrated on a state-by-state approach to suffrage. It was not until 1890 that the two organizations would merge and form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). (11)

Interestingly enough, Caruso discovered that Michigan suffrage organizations did not affiliate with either of the national bodies. "The ability of people with ties to both suffrage organizations to work together for woman suffrage in Michigan," she argues, "suggests the split between the two groups at the national level may have been more personal and less issue or principle oriented than historians have been led to believe.

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