THIS YEAR, WE CELEBRATE the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. In marking this important historical moment, it is appropriate that we look back at our history here in Albany—both the city and the law school.
It’s fitting to begin with the first woman to graduate from Albany Law School, Kate Stoneman 1898. Many of us know Stoneman’s struggle to be admitted to the New York State Bar, but did you know of her fight for a woman’s right to vote?
Historically, we do not know as much about Stoneman’s personal life, but we do know that she was a fighter for what she believed was right, never backed down, and persevered. Stoneman was one of the founding members of the Women’s Suffrage Society of Albany and served as its secretary. The society was unique in that it kept its independence from the state’s suffrage organization.
In a 1919 interview about her life, Stoneman told the Albany Knickerbocker Press that, though the society wanted to regulate its own policies, it supported the state organization sending delegates to its convention and backing its platforms.
According to Stoneman, the first milestone for women’s suffrage came in 1880, when the state Legislature passed a bill allowing women to participate in school elections. Stoneman cast her first vote in a school board election that year.
Many of Stoneman’s accomplishments and activities are documented in the Woman’s Journal, founded in Boston, Mass., in 1870 by Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry Browne Blackwell. In 1894, Stoneman and other activists attended the opening of the 1894 Constitutional Convention in hopes of attaining suffrage for women. However, women in New York would have to wait until 1917 to be granted suffrage.
Stoneman, serving as a poll watcher, later witnessed the state’s women exercising their widespread voting rights for the first time.
One interesting piece of Albany Law history on women’s suffrage involves a former dean and his wife. James Newton Fiero was the first dean in favor of women attending the law school; during his tenure, Stoneman became the first woman to graduate. Despite this, the dean’s wife, Jeanette, was not a suffragist, as one might expect, but instead was on the advisory committee for the Women’s Anti-Suffrage Association of the Third Judicial District. One can only imagine what the conversations between the dean and his wife on women’s suffrage were, especially after admitting Stoneman, a prominent suffragist in Albany, to the law school.
In 1920, the year the 19th Amendment was ratified, 22 women attended the law school under Dean Fiero. Ruth Miner, a member of the Class of 1920, would become one of the law school’s most prominent graduates. She was described as a “civic minded attorney” and became the first counsel to the Albany Legal Aid Society. She later served as executive deputy secretary of state for New York State, and she was a trustee of the law school. In 2014, Miner posthumously received Albany Law School’s Kate Stoneman Award.
The ABA Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress created a traveling exhibit, “100 Years After the 19th Amendment: Their Legacy, and Our Future.” During a virtual presentation in March 2020, Schaffer Law Library director Professor David Walker and librarian Leslie Cunningham read the banners on display at Albany Law. A speech by Professor Mary Lynch, the Kate Stoneman Chair in Law and Democracy, followed.
Reflecting on the 19th Amendment, one cannot stress enough the importance of voting rights to a true democracy. Albany Law School is proud to have ties to the local suffrage movement, and to mark this important centennial.