“All honor to the ladies” – The women of Williams Valley cast their first vote

Election Day 1920 dawned wet and dreary over the coal mining towns of Pennsylvania’s Williams Valley. As the morning light filtered through low, gray clouds hanging on the mountainside, an exciting new era in American history had just begun.

“It is the most important election held in this country since the days of Lincoln,” wrote one local newspaper that autumn. “It is the first time in the history of the United states that women can vote.”

As polls opened up and down the valley, in the towns of Tower City, Williamstown, Lykens, and their surrounding neighborhoods, women prepared to head out to cast their first vote under the 19th Amendment. Ratified just three months earlier, the suffrage amendment stated that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

After weeks of preparation that included meetings and discussions about the proper marking of ballots, November 2, 1920 had finally arrived and the historic day was marked by the highest turnout ever recorded in each of the valley’s voting precincts.

Local newspaper editors encouraged these first-time voters to vote early to avoid crowds, and men. “They should go to the polls early,” the West Schuylkill Herald declared a few days before the election, “By noon every woman’s vote should be in. Most men as a rule wait until the afternoon before casting their ballot, so that if the women turn out early they will have the poll almost to themselves.”

By all accounts, voters took such calls to heart and created powerful scenes as crowds of women descended on the polls on this dreary November morning.

In Tower City, situated in far western Schuylkill County, two of the community’s renowned ladies marched in to cast their first vote together.

First to Vote
West Schuylkill Herald, November 5, 1920

“Mrs. Catharine Machamer, almost 90 years of age, was the first person to cast her vote in the east precinct of Tower City,” wrote a reporter for the Herald. “Mrs. Wm. Owens, widow of a well known Civil War veteran… was the second. Both ladies went to the polls together, arm in arm.” In the town’s west precinct, schoolteacher Susan Callan and her mother were the first to vote.

Ten miles west, in Lykens, women were the first to the polls as well. “The Borough polls were rushed from 7 AM until late in the afternoon,” wrote the Lykens Standard, “the newly enfranchised taking the advice of going to the polls early.”

Mrs. Daisy Long was the first to cast her ballot in the eastern side of town, braving the rain to mark a large X on her ballot.

Up and down Williams Valley, where factories and mines were closed for Election Day, reporters noted that most women had cast their ballots by 3 PM. The Herald added that “most of the women voted the straight Republican ticket,” helping to elect Senator Warren G. Harding as President of the United States.

Election observers briefly pointed out the historic nature of the election, marveling at the large returns in each of the local districts and crediting the “newly enfranchised” with carrying out their civic duty. Across the nation, scholars estimated that women made up more than 35 percent of the electorate in the 1920 election.

The West Schuylkill Herald succinctly and movingly ended their Election Day story with, “all honor to the ladies.”


Featured Image: Women line up to vote for the first time in New York after the passage of the 19th Amendment, in 1920.
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

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