In the long movement toward women’s suffrage in Massachusetts, there were a few moments when progress seemed to be made. One of them was in 1879, when Massachusetts women were granted to right to vote for their local school committee. Those who wanted full suffrage for women thought that school committee suffrage would be followed by voting rights in municipal, state and national elections. It was a long wait.
After years of agitation, in May 1895, the Massachusetts legislature voted to allow a non-binding referendum to appear on the November 1895 ballot. “All persons qualified to vote for school committee shall at the next state election have an opportunity to express their opinion by voting ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in answer to the question, ‘Is it expedient that municipal suffrage be granted to women?’” (quoted in the July 25, 1895 Concord Enterprise, page 3; see also Massachusetts Acts and Resolves of the General Court, 1895, chapter 436)
The referendum caused divisions on both sides of the issue. Supporters of women’s suffrage felt that nothing helpful could come out of a non-binding referendum; some advocated boycotting it. Female opponents of suffrage had to face the dilemma of needing to register to vote in order to cast a ballot against voting. Opinion pieces on both sides showed up with the Enterprise’s South Acton news in the weeks preceding the election, and one writer helpfully listed all the privileges that accrued to women because they were not considered fully independent apart from their husbands. (They were not, for example, held responsible for selling liquors illegally or for committing a misdemeanor in their husbands’ presence, because they were “presumed to have been coerced and are prima facie excused.” Concord Enterprise, Oct. 31, 1895, page 4)
The referendum took place on November 5, 1895. The vote went against women’s municipal suffrage. In Acton, the November 7 Concord Enterprise (page 5) gave the local results:
Acton Centre (Precinct 1) 13 Yes, 73 No
South Acton (Precinct 2) 28 Yes and 60 No
West Acton (Precinct 3) 29 Yes and 50 No
In the same Enterprise, South Acton’s news column said that because the issue had been decided, no more opinion pieces on women’s suffrage would be published. The newspaper did not report the number of women who voted in Acton, but the state later published breakdowns by town. In Acton, two women from Precinct 1, five women from Precinct 2 (the “five brave ladies” from South Acton), and 14 from Precinct 3 were registered, and all but one from West Acton actually voted. One would assume that the Acton women who voted would have been in favor of suffrage, as the vast majority of Massachusetts’ voting women were, but Concord’s news reported some of its women registered only “to be able to vote against it.”
Both sides of the 1895 referendum claimed a victory, of sorts. The fact that the “No” side won and that only a very small percentage of eligible women actually voted led the anti-suffrage groups to claim that women did not want the vote. Suffrage supporters argued that because over 96% of women who voted were on the “yes” side, women did indeed want the vote. The campaign for women’s suffrage was a drawn-out, draining process. It was twenty years before another referendum on women’s suffrage came up in Massachusetts, and the voters, only men that time, voted it down again. Massachusetts women finally gained the full right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th amendment. Hopefully, Acton's "brave ladies" who wanted to vote lived long enough to see it happen.