Fiat Radical, Radical to the Core!

In August of this year, a nationwide celebration will recognize the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. This landmark legislation was the culmination of the Suffrage Movement, the decades-long effort of courageous activists using their collective voices to give equal rights to women.

On our Alfred University campus, women have consistently been encouraged to speak publicly on important issues. The passion of those who used their voices to advocate for women’s rights—like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton—is part of the fabric of our University’s history and tradition of inclusivity.

In 1836, nearly a century before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Alfred University was founded as the first co-educational institution of higher education to admit women and allow them to pursue the same full course of studies offered to male students. This is well known in the Alfred University community. What is not as well known, but which carries significant meaning, is that a decade later, in 1846, Alfred University (then the Alfred Academy) became the second institution of higher learning to establish a women’s literary society.

The Alphadelphian, established by Abigail Maxson Allen 1844, wife of Jonathan Allen 1844, 1886 HD, Alfred University’s second president, was not the first women’s literary society in higher education. That distinction belonged to Oberlin College, which established its Young Ladies Association, 11 years earlier. However, Oberlin’s society quickly fell dormant and attempts to revive it in 1846 were unsuccessful. The Alphadelphian, meanwhile, thrived after its founding that same year. In 1850, it evolved into the Alfriedian Lyceum.

Women’s literary societies encouraged women students to speak publicly about issues important to them. This was evident at Alfred University, where Abigail Allen, a staunch advocate of women’s rights who served as an inspiration to Susan B. Anthony, urged students to “be radical, radical to the core.”

Susan Strong, a former vice president for Enrollment Management and associate provost at Alfred University, wrote in her book, Thought Knows No Sex, that the Alphadelphian was “the most progressive” women’s literary society of its time. (It should be noted that the Women’s Suffrage movement in the United States began in 1848, two years after the Alphadelphian was established on our campus.)

Laurie Lounsberry Meehan ’91, Alfred University librarian and archivist, recently shared with me articles from the March and April 1876 issues of The Alfred Student campus paper, which show that Abigail Allen’s message to students was well received. The stories describe a simulated debate by members of the Alfriedian Lyceum, playing the roles of members of an all-female Congress. The debate, set in the year 2000, centered around the following House resolution: “Resolved, if the House concur, that, to ensure the best interests of humanity, the Constitution be so amended as to extend the right of suffrage to man.”

An initial reaction would be to characterize the exercise as mere spoof or satire. To do that, however, would dismiss the character, courage, resolve, and foresight of our students. In 1876, our country was still 44 years away from granting women the right to vote. Yet, here were our female students, using their collective voices to speak out for equality.

The fight to give women—all women—equal voting rights did not end with the passage of the 19th Amendment. After its ratification on August 26, 1920, the status of many American women did not change much. African American women in the South were still subject to voter-suppression laws, and many American Indian and Asian immigrant women remained disenfranchised because they were denied citizenship. It was not until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act passed, that all women were finally granted the right to vote.

Still, Women’s Suffrage is considered the most significant achievement of women in the Progressive Era. The goals of the movement—giving women a voice equal to men—has long been the standard at Alfred University. The Alfriedian Lyceum’s 1876 debate—and the message it sent to our campus—shows without question that, throughout our history, Alfred University has, indeed, been radical, radical to the core.

Fiat radical, radical to the core!