Thank You, Miss Ophelia

Ophelia Griffith, date unknown

By Rachel Brown

It was a warm June day in the year 1874 when Ophelia Griffith stood with hands planted firmly on hips in the kitchen of the summer hotel on Lake Chautauqua. Miss Ophelia, as she was known to one and all, was the proprietor with older sister Martha. At the age of 37, she was what was called a “spinster,” a somewhat pejorative term for any woman who remained unmarried after the age of 30.

She looked with some exasperation on the flurry of activity that characterized the preparations for the noontime meal. The cook, Hilda Swanson, a broad-faced Swede, was attempting to instruct two younger Swedish girls as they made the daily loaves of bread, while at the same time seeing to the large roast beef ready to be removed from one of two massive wood-burning cook stoves in the kitchen. Being Saturday, a new contingent of boarders was expected to arrive for the week. Someone would need to be down at the dock to meet the steamer from Mayville and to see to the trunks. Where was Anders Hedin, the hired man?

As if on cue, Anders came into the kitchen, somewhat hot and dusty after the long walk from his home atop Swede Hill in Jamestown. “Anders, there you are,” said Miss Ophelia. “Hitch the wagon and get down to the dock right away.” It was then she noticed the young boy who had followed the man into the kitchen. “Who’s this?” She demanded. “D’is my boy Johann,” said Anders. “He come help.” The boy, a slender lad of no more than eight looked shyly up at the imposing figure now looming over him. “Good,” said Miss O. “Get that load of wood and stack it here by the stove,” pointing to the woodshed attached to the back of the kitchen. The boy jumped into action with a speed and willingness not lost on his stern taskmaster.

From that day forward young John, as he came to be known, was an indispensable part of the operation. He would spend the next 64 years of his life in that place. He would meet his future wife Selma Moline, like himself a Swedish immigrant. She had come in 1892, making the long voyage in steerage on a ship from Sweden, via Liverpool, England, and on to New York, passing through the gates of Ellis Island at the age of 16. Together they would raise a family of three children – the youngest being Anna, my grandmother. The year my grandmother was born, Ophelia Griffith turned over the deed to the farm to John Hedin.

John and Selma Hedin with their three children: Florence, Griffith, and Anna (center). Courtesy of Anna’s granddaughter, Rachel Brown.

Anna Ophelia Hedin Erickson was born April 30, 1906. Less than one month later, on May 23, 1906, Ophelia Griffith opened her home to the annual meeting of the Political Equality Club of Chautauqua County. My grandmother grew up literally, “at the knee” of this remarkable woman; a woman who had become a pillar of the community, the embodiment of strength and independence. She would call her “Grandma” and would be nurtured and cared for and encouraged in turn to find her own strength and independence.

A sketch of Ophelia’s from her youth, courtesy of Rachel Brown

Ophelia Griffith (1837-1920) was the youngest of twelve children born to John and Tryphena Bemus Griffith. Both of her parents had come with their parents to Chautauqua in the year 1806, when it was still a dense wilderness. Jeremiah Griffith and Daniel Bemus were pioneer settlers, arriving during the inhospitable winter months. They traveled down the frozen lake, carrying their belongings on sleds pulled by oxen. Jeremiah arrived a couple of months after Daniel Bemus and laid claim to a large tract of land extending from the Belleview Road to Fluvanna, in what is now the Town of Ellery. Years later Jeremiah’s oldest son, John, would divide the land among his twelve children. In the 1850’s, to his two unmarried daughters he gave 100 acres in the section now known as Martha’s Vineyard. Martha and Ophelia took charge of the farm, planting grapes, corn and other crops and keeping a small herd of cattle. They then determined to add on to the family home built by their father and transform it into a boarding hotel to accommodate the growing number of summer visitors flocking to the area.

After the Civil War, Ophelia and Martha had become members of the newly formed Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange. This was an association of farmers created to give support to those living in rural areas; to share the latest improvements in farming techniques and implements, as well as to provide a clearinghouse of information on issues of concern. Chief among these concerns was the railroad monopoly, scourge of farmers across the country. In its structure, the Grange was modeled after fraternal organizations like the Masons or Odd Fellows. Unlike many such societies, however, the Grange admitted women and even encouraged a certain number be made officers of the organization. Like rural churches, granges often became the center of farming communities, hosting suppers, concerts, speakers and even lending libraries. According to the History of the Grange Movement by Edward Winslow Martin, published in 1873, this was a way to mix business with pleasure: “It was the old principle of the husking-frolic and the quilting bee, applied to loftier objects and practiced with a sterner eye….” The loftier objects in this case were nothing less than the elevation of society, socially and morally. At the beginning, some male members were wary of giving women equal stature in this pursuit. They felt that “woman’s proper sphere is the fireside,” and women’s involvement would be “the first step toward woman’s rights.” This latter fear proved to have some merit. As it turned out, women did want to participate more fully; they wanted to have a voice in the direction of their own lives, in their communities, and in the nation. One way to achieve this would be through winning the right to vote.

Chautauqua County became an important epicenter of the movement for women’s political equality during the latter part of the 19th century, through the efforts of women like Ophelia Griffith. The county became the first in New York State to form a Political Equality Club and by 1891 had the largest and best-organized association of these suffrage clubs in the entire country. One of the first orders of business was to get women elected to local school boards. Chautauqua newspapers, including the Jamestown Evening Journal (now the Post-Journal) opposed the idea of making any changes to the all-male Board of Education, saying in an editorial in 1889 that “they should let well enough alone.” But the clubs pushed forward and two women were elected that year.
One of the rallying cries for woman’s suffrage echoed that of our founding patriots: “No taxation without representation!” In 1902, the fifteenth annual convention of the Chautauqua County Political Equality Club was held at the home of Mrs. Carrie Hanson of Fluvanna. A couple of the local club members had taken on the painstaking chore of compiling a list of taxpayers in Jamestown. This task had taken two days but in the end they were able to show that fully one-third of the city’s taxpayers were women. Think of it! One third of the city’s citizens paid taxes but weren’t allowed to vote!

Miss Ophelia continued to attend local, county, and even state meetings for woman’s suffrage, as well as Grange conventions in the state, while operating the summer hotel at Martha’s Vineyard. On March 30, 1917, she turned 80 years old. A guest book on this momentous occasion shows the event was attended by over 100 people, including many members of the Political Equality Club. Another milestone would be reached in November of that year – one that Miss Ophelia and others had worked long and hard to achieve; an amendment to the New York State Constitution was approved giving women the right to vote. New York was the first Eastern state to fully enfranchise women, though it would be another three years before the U. S. Constitution was amended, giving the right to all.

Ill health prevented Ophelia Griffith from exercising her hard-won right. She died April 13, 1920, two weeks after her 83rd birthday. It is safe to say that without the courage and determination of Miss Ophelia and the other women of Chautauqua County, we would not be celebrating over 100 years of women having the right to vote in New York State.

Local Political Equality Club members, circa 1910. Pictured from left to right are: Hetty Sherwin, Sarah Dickenson, Ophelia Griffith, and Eleanore Grant. Provided courtesy of Kim Bentley.

Chautauqua County’s Political Equality Movement

Helping Women Win the Vote in Albany & Washington

National Woman’s Party members unfurl victory banner in Washington, D.C. upon ratification of 19th Amendment

By Traci I. Langworthy

August 26, 2020 will mark the centennial anniversary of the official ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote. As the decades have passed, our national memory of the suffrage movement has galvanized around this final, crowning achievement. Often forgotten are the many years of protest and grassroots organizing that paved the way for national victory. Much of the work went on at the local level, as suffrage leaders canvassed election district by election district to help turn the tide of public opinion and convince elected officials to support the cause. Women’s enfranchisement, after all, depended upon men’s votes to change the law.

New York State holds a particularly esteemed place in the long-term struggle. In the mid-1850s, a core group of New York State reformers – including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine Rose, and other women as well as men – began to “systematize” their efforts toward women’s equality. In 1854, Susan B. Anthony, whose work on behalf of temperance and the abolition of slavery had only recently led her to women’s rights activism, began traveling the state as “general agent” of the Woman’s Rights New York State Committee. She organized “conventions” in each of the counties where she and other key supporters spoke and distributed petitions.[1] It was a simple model for grassroots advocacy that suffragists would use again and again in years to come.

Susan B. Anthony, c. 1855

The first stop in Anthony’s 1854-1855 travels was Chautauqua County. On the day after Christmas in 1854, she presided over a convention at the Chautauqua County Courthouse in Mayville, New York to discuss “all the reasons which impel Woman to demand her right of Suffrage.”[2] She went on to lead a multitude of similar public meetings across the state for the remainder of the decade. Her efforts paid off, in part. In 1860, the New York State Legislature passed a law expanding married women’s rights to control their own property and wages and attain custody of their children in the event of a divorce or separation. Albany lawmakers thus were among the first in the nation to grant women some equal protections before the law. But New York women’s right to vote would have to wait until the next century.

Elnora M. Babcock, Chautauqua County Political Equality Club president, 1891-1893

As suffragists doubled their efforts in the years after the Civil War, the rural reaches of Southwestern New York State became strongholds for the cause. In fact, by the waning years of the nineteenth century, women’s suffrage drew some of its strongest support from farming towns where women made vital contributions to the sustenance of their households and communities. Many women from the Chautauqua-Allegany region joined what became known as “political equality clubs.” In addition to advocating for women’s suffrage, these local organizations taught women about civic institutions and parliamentary procedure, shared news of women’s issues around the nation and world, and promoted the election of women to local school boards. (Women in New York State earned the right to vote in school board elections in 1880.)

The first of these clubs was founded in 1887 by thirteen women in Jamestown, New York.[3] No other clubs of this name were known to exist at the time. (Although other local suffrage clubs were in existence elsewhere in the nation – including a “Women’s Political Club” founded in December 1885 in Rochester, New York – they only later adopted the moniker “political equality.”[4]) Before a year had passed, eleven more political equality clubs formed in the area, leading to the formation of the Chautauqua County Political Equality Club on October 31, 1888.[5]  In another three years, the county group’s membership would well exceed one thousand individuals across twenty-four different townships, making it the largest county suffrage organization in the United States.[6]

The nation’s leading suffragists quickly took notice. At the annual convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1891, delegates designated New York as the “banner state” and Chautauqua as the “banner county” in the nation, based on the membership rolls of the Chautauqua County PEC. Chautauqua County held this distinction into the mid-1890s.[7] Throughout this period, Anthony, Rev. Anna Howard Shaw, Carrie Chapman Catt, and other noted suffrage lecturers regularly appeared at Lily Dale, New York, Chautauqua Institution, and county conventions.

Anthony at Lily Dale, NY, likely for the Woman’s Day celebration in 1894. Look for her seated to the right of center.  Photo courtesy Chautauqua County Historical Society, Westfield, NY

In 1894, when state lawmakers were due to hold a special convention to update the state constitution (New York State law provides for such a convention every twenty years), women across the region worked tirelessly to gather signatures for a statewide petition campaign to show support for adding women’s suffrage to the list of revisions. Their efforts ultimately failed; delegates to the convention refused to bring women’s enfranchisement before the state’s voters in that year. Still, the numbers of signatures collected show both the strength of support for women’s suffrage in the state’s western counties and the effectiveness of small-town organizing. Although somewhat misleading since the petitions were signed by women (who could not vote) as well as men, the 12,547 signatures canvassed by club members in Chautauqua County were equivalent in number to about 90 percent of the county’s voter turnout in the preceding year’s election. A similarly remarkable level of support also resulted from petition campaigns in Allegany, Cattaraugus, and the other largely rural upstate counties of Orleans, Wyoming, and Yates. In Monroe County, suffragists in Rochester and surrounding towns actually collected enough signatures to exceed the number of men who voted in their county in 1893.[8]

When Albany lawmakers finally submitted the question of women’s suffrage to state voters in 1915, men in Chautauqua County approved the measure by the widest margin in the state.[9] Although it failed that year statewide, the editor of the Jamestown Evening Journal held that local women should be proud “in this showing for their own city and county.

It shows that they not only represented but helped to mould [sic] public sentiment on the suffrage question, and Chautauqua County will go down into history as a leader in the suffrage movement.”[10]

The persistent advocacy of women in Southwestern New York ultimately paved the way for New York State voters’ passage of a referendum on women’s suffrage in 1917. In that, upstate women might also claim a small role in the eventual passage of the 19th Amendment; when New York became the first eastern state to grant women the vote, the political balance in the U.S. Congress began to shift. The final events were now set in motion, after many years of committed activism on the part of many progressive-minded Americans.

Women's Political Union Headquarters, Dunkirk, NY, 1914

Women’s Political Union tent headquarters, Dunkirk, NY, 1915.                                                                                                                                   Photo courtesy Dunkirk, NY Historical Museum


For Further Reading

Elnora M. Babcock, “Political Equality Movement,” in The Centennial History of Chautauqua County, New York (Jamestown: Chautauqua History Company, 1904), 1: 510-519,

Traci I. Langworthy, “Women’s ‘Banner County’: Chautauqua County and the Suffrage Movement,” Western New York Heritage 16, no. 4 (Winter 2014): 18-27. 

Jennifer A. Lemak and Ashley Hopkins-Benton, Votes for Women: Celebrating New York’s Suffrage Centennial (Albany: SUNY Press, 2017)

Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello, Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017).


[1] Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds., History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1, 1848-1861 (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1881), 619, Anthony’s diary documents her travels in 1854 to 1855. See Ann D. Gordon, ed., In the School of Anti-Slavery, 1840 to 1866, vol. 1 of The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 288–289, 291-295, 301-302.

[2]  “Woman’s Right to Suffrage,” Mayville Sentinel, December 20, 1854; “Chautauqua County Women’s Rights Convention,” Mayville Sentinel, January 3, 1855.

[3] “Political Equality Club,” Jamestown Evening Journal, Saturday, November 12, 1887, 4.

[4] For a summary of the Rochester Women’s Political Club, renamed the Rochester Political Equality Club, see Blake McKelvey, “Woman’s Rights in Rochester: A Century of Progress,” Rochester History 10, nos. 2–3 (July 1948): 15–17 ( Geneva, New York was the home of another particularly active PEC by the late 1890s, as seen in Robert A. Huff, “Anne Miller and the Geneva Political Equality Club, 1897–1912,” New York History 65, no. 4 (October 1984): 325–348.

[5] See Elnora Monroe Babcock, “Political Equality Movement,” in The Centennial History of Chautauqua County, New York (Jamestown: Chautauqua History Company, 1904), 1: 510-519; John P. Downs, ed., History of Chautauqua County, New York, and Its People (New York: American Historical Society, 1921), 1: 351-356; and Minutes of the Chautauqua County Political Equality Club, 1888–1903, Ms. 29, Special Collections, Fenton History Center Museum and Library, Jamestown, NY.

[6] See Babcock, “Political Equality Movement,” 515; and the report of then-state suffrage association president Jean Brooks Greenleaf in “The National American Woman Suffrage Convention,” The Business Woman’s Journal [later American Magazine] (February 1892): 53.

[7] “The National American Woman Suffrage Convention,” 53; “Woman’s Day at Cassadaga Lake,” The Woman’s Tribune, September 10, 1892, 172. Babcock reported that the county held this distinction for “several years” (The Centennial History of Chautauqua County, 1: 515). In her annual report of 1892, state President Jean Brooks Greenleaf confirmed that Chautauqua County had not “lowered her colors, though closely pressed by Cattaraugus and Wyoming counties in activity” (“New York,” The Woman’s Tribune, February 4, 1893, 30).

[8] 1894. Constitutional-Amendment Campaign Year: Report of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association (Rochester: Charles Mann, 1895), 139-141,

[9] Downs, History of Chautauqua County, 356; “Woman Suffrage Defeated in Three of the Eastern States,” Jamestown Evening Journal, November 3, 1915, 1.

[10] “Woman Suffrage,” Jamestown Evening Journal, November 3, 1915, 4.