A Leader From The Past

This Portland woman was instrumental in Maine ratifying women’s right to vote in 1919

Anne Gass remembers her aunt, Priscilla Whitehouse Rand, telling her about the three boxes full of papers she’d found in the family’s camp in East Raymond. The boxes belonged to her Aunt Priscilla’s grandmother, Florence Brooks Whitehouse. Gass knew only vaguely that Whitehouse, her great-grandmother, had been a part of the Maine suffrage movement. But her aunt had stayed with Whitehouse often when she was a child attending Waynflete and remembered her well. She knew the papers might be important. “Someone has to go through these boxes,” her aunt told Gass.

But this was more than 20 years ago, when Gass was raising two small children and busy with her business, working with nonprofits at a state and local level, fundraising, writing grants, confronting issues such as affordable housing and homelessness. She couldn’t face digging into the boxes. “I didn’t have the bandwidth,” she said. Her aunt donated the papers to the Maine Historical Society, and there they sat until one day in 1999, Gass took her mother to the historical society and asked to go through the boxes,

“Almost from the get-go, I was hooked,” Gass said. “There were telegrams from the National Women’s Party. I realized at that point I knew nothing about women’s suffrage history and in my family, no one else really knew Florence’s history at all.”

Gass plunged into it, working on the project at night. After 15 years of steadily researching a movement marked by both success and warring factions, she had uncovered her great-grandmother’s history. Florence Brooks Whitehouse was a member of Portland society, a committed volunteer who worked with the Red Cross and a mother who sent two of her sons off to World War I in the middle of her fight to get the vote. Active in the suffrage movement starting in late 1913, when she joined the Maine Women Suffrage Association, Whitehouse turned down an invitation to join national organizer Alice Paul in Washington, D.C,, to fight for the vote. She wanted to work instead on passing a suffrage referendum in Maine, which went before voters in 1917.

“The eyes of the nation were on Maine,” Gass said. “If Maine had passed it, it would have been the first state east of the Mississippi to pass one.”

The 1917 vote went spectacularly badly for the suffrage movement. “It failed on a 2 to 1 vote,” Gass said. Whitehouse had lobbied hard for it, including with U.S. Sen. Frederick Hale, a Mainer she knew socially. “I think she wanted the feather in Maine’s cap of being the first state east of the Mississippi,” Gass said. “They really thought that the good old state of Maine wouldn’t let them down.”

It did, but two years later, after the 19th Amendment was passed in Washington, Maine moved to ratify it within months. Whitehouse had fallen out with the Maine Women Suffrage Association by then; it opposed the “radical” tactics of activists like Paul, who believed in picketing the White House criticizing President Woodrow Wilson and didn’t mind getting arrested. The Maine Women Suffrage Association disapproved. “They were very vocal in the condemnation of the picketers and Florence was under pressure to condemn them as well,” Gass said.

She wouldn’t, and Gass believes that this 1916 rift was the reason that Whitehouse, despite continuing as an activist, with a focus on advocating for peace, hadn’t received her due as a leader in the Maine suffrage movement. Gass lobbied successfully for her great-grandmother to be inducted into the Maine Women’s Hall of Fame in 2008. And she began working on turning her research into something publishable. “My mother said to me, I am not going to live forever.” In 2014, Gass published the book she’d written about the great-grandmother she’d never met, “Voting Down the Rose: Florence Brooks Whitehouse and Maine’s Fight for Woman Suffrage.” Both her Aunt Priscilla and her mother, also named Anne, had died just a few months before. But Gass had fulfilled their wishes.

She also has carried out her great-grandmother’s legacy of activism. Motivated, she says, by the election of Donald Trump, Gass, a Gray resident, ran as an independent in House District 67 last November. She lost the race, but the spirit of the 2018 midterm elections invigorated her nonetheless. “There’s a real hunger for change and for going beyond party politics,” she said at the time.
—Mary Pols

For more information on commemorative events around the state visit mainesuffragecentennial.org.

This year marks the centennial of Maine ratifying the 19th Amendment.

The Maine Suffrage Centennial Collaborative is a non-partisan group of organizations and individuals seeking to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of suffrage. Participants include the Maine State Museum, Maine Historical Society, the League of Women Voters, Girls Scouts, Creative Portland, ACLU, NAACP, Telling Room, Immigrant Rights Coalition and many more. Each organization is participating in their own way, with a tapestry of events that begins with a Maine State Museum exhibit opening in March.

“We are looking back with our eyes wide open,” says Ellen Alderman, the leader of the Maine Suffrage Centennial Collaborative. “History is fraught with those who were left out. Going forward, we want to hear every voice. We want the true spirit of suffrage, the idea that every voice is being heard.” She notes that “Native Americans did not receive the vote in 1920, but rather with the passage of the Snyder Act in 1924, which granted them the rights of citizenship. Still, it took over 40 years for all 50 states to enforce. The Collaborative aims to be especially mindful of Native American stories at this time of celebration because for them, and for so many other people of color, the centennial of the 19th Amendment does not truly mark 100 years of voting rights.”
—Lucinda Hannington

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