“Welcome, sister Suffragettes!” Phyllis Rodgers called out from her Riverton home’s porch, all decked out in early-20th-century attire and waving to the nearly 30 women who had convened on her property the afternoon of Aug. 26.
To observe the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote, the president of The Porch Club of Riverton hosted a Suffragette Celebration on Women’s Equality Day. As befits a club founded in 1890, attendees were invited to don their own Suffragette-era clothing, including the movement’s primary colors — purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity, green for hope — and, of course, Rodgers’ collection of hats for a finishing touch.
The Porch Club began as a reading circle for a handful of women who convened the only way they were allowed to: on their porches. As women gained more rights and leadership positions, the organization grew and became a force of social change and local improvement. It has helped new mothers, aided war and natural disaster victims, supported the Riverton Free Library and awarded annual scholarships to local students.
It continues to give its members a supportive, thriving community that’s part of both the General and New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs, and brings together about 200 women from not just Burlington County but all over New Jersey, Pennsylvania and even New York. This year was an especially noteworthy one for The Porch Club, as 2020 is not only its 130th Founding Anniversary but also the 125th anniversary of being a New Jersey Federated State Women’s Club.
It had to postpone a number of the events, field trips and fundraisers it had planned for 2020’s trifecta of celebrations because of COVID-19. Members were eager for a way to observe the 19th Amendment centennial and their club’s ow
n milestones despite the pandemic, and were happy to find a safe, socially distanced way to come together.
“I had to promise the mayor everybody would stay 6 feet apart to have this event,” Rodgers said with a laugh.
The day was an opportunity to not only mingle with friends old and new but also remember the history that unites women. Amid the purple-and-green decorations, pop-up awnings for shade, refreshments and lawn seating, Rodgers thanked all attendees for coming together to celebrate a milestone day for women.
“This amendment states, and I quote: ‘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,’” she said to the women of all ages who had gathered at her home. “I don’t know if I would have phrased it quite like that, but a win is a win.”
Rodgers revisited the suffrage movement’s history in America, expressing her gratitude to notable figures like Susan B. Anthony; Lucy Stone; Julia Ward Howe; Lucy Burns; Carrie Chapman Catt; and, of course, local Alice Paul, who was born in Mt. Laurel, lived in Moorestown, is buried in Cinnaminson and, according to Rodgers, visited with the Porch Club when she was in town to see her family.
“We are gathered here today, on this Women’s Equality Day, to offer a heartfelt thank you to all who took part in the suffrage movement,” Rodgers said. “We thank them for their bravery, tenacity and courage and for fighting for the freedom that women enjoy today.”
Before other Porch Club members had their turn at the mic, Riverton councilwoman Laura Majors read a proclamation from Mayor Suzanne Cairns. Riverton Historical Society President Bill Brown spoke about historic women who advocated for their sisters, citing a letter Abigail Adams sent to her husband, second U.S. President John Adams, urging him to “remember the ladies” as the country demanded its freedom. Both officials presented plaques to Rodgers on the club’s behalf.
Porch Club Historian Pat Brunker shared a few words, offering a look back at how the club’s history is intertwined with the fight for women’s rights. Brunker highlighted Riverton’s Quaker roots — “there were close ties between the Quakers and the suffrage movement,” she reminded the day’s guests — and cited the 1904 demand from club members for a suffrage committee.
Brunker also spoke of how founding member Helen Lippincott held a suffrage meeting in 1907, where Reverend Anna Shaw, then president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, was the guest of honor and which more than 100 people attended.
“The Porch Club, from its inception in 1890, has been involved in the rights of women to hold an equal and significant place in society: The suffrage movement was no exception,” Brunker added.
Club member Carol McCarthy spoke of discovering an aging red journal buried among meeting minutes in the club’s archives. It was filled with poems written between June 1895 and December 1905, many of which reflected common themes still familiar to women today. McCarthy recognized the need to preserve the words of women who came before them.
“It was stunning,” she said of the handwritten collection. “I thought, ‘I have to put these poems in a digital format or they’ll be lost forever.’”
The undertaking, however, proved to be more challenging than McCarthy anticipated, and she put the effort aside for a while. The 19th amendment’s centennial was the wind in her sails that she needed, and she resumed typing away as the anniversary drew closer.
“I have their words in files now so we can all read them,” McCarthy said, adding that the project’s intersection of past and present left a profound impression on her. “These were voices of women from another era. What struck me was that the words and the verses spoke of these women’s dreams and hopes and frustrations.”
At an event where women could meet more freely than their club’s charter members did, the ripple effect of the past influencing the present was a palpable presence, underscoring the importance of the 19th amendment in an election year.
And Brunker advised her fellow Porch Club members to not let their long-ago sister Suffragettes’ efforts be in vain.
“Never give up your right to vote,” she advised. “The women who came before us were arrested, they were jailed and they were tortured because they fought for it.”
Visit theporchclub.org for more information about The Porch Club of Riverton.