“Come on over and sit next to me,” Pete Seeger called out as I wandered around searching for a seat at a Clearwater potluck held in Beacon, NY during the 1980s. I squeezed into the space and froze. When I opened my mouth, no words emerged. I was clueless about what to say to one of the nation’s beloved folksingers and founders of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., a model throughout the U.S. for grassroots environmental activism.
Finally, I found my voice. If it hadn’t been for the conversational risk I took, I might not have found out about Pete Seeger’s aunt, Anita Pollitzer (1894-1975) who made history in a number of significant ways over one hundred years ago.
Pete might not have mentioned his noteworthy aunt if I hadn’t made a faux pas by telling him the first thing that came to mind at the Clearwater potluck: “After you played a concert at my high school back during your blacklisting days, Pete, I became a teeny bopper fan of yours. The ‘Kisses Sweeter than Wine’ melody made my heart pound,” I said.
I expected Pete to laugh. Instead, he blushed. His face turned scarlet. A heavy silence descended over the potluck table. Pete had interpreted my comment as idolizing him. I bounced back after changing the subject to something better defined as common ground.
Back then, I was a Hudson River Sloop Clearwater employee, co-editor of the organization’s membership publication. In the early days of my employment, I communicated with Pete through notes we exchanged in writing—messages appearing in my office mail box similar to the following: “Marguerite, can you cover this year’s Clearwater pumpkin festival on Kingston’s waterfront?”
“Sure, Pete,” I always replied.
The organization has close to a 50-year history as a “classroom of the waves” represented in public by a replica sloop sailing the Hudson since its launching in 1969. Mention Clearwater and people from around the world are aware of the school children and folks of all ages and backgrounds having been welcomed for decades on board the sloop for fun and education about the fragile river ecosystem.
Prior to the potluck, Pete Seeger and I never had an occasion like this to visit — face to face and up close — that is, until I placed my bowl of Stone Soup and salad on the table next to Pete. Clearwater potlucks were Toshi Seeger’s specialty. Her signature Stone Soup resulted from a huge pot of water boiling over a stove or campfire. A clean stone was dropped into the water along with numerous vegetables and spices contributed by volunteers. The pot’s contents simmered for hours until served at the potluck buffet table.
Anita Pollitzer and Georgia O’Keeffe
Pete set me up for a second helping of Stone Soup by trading family stories. I told him about my suffrage activist grandmother Edna Kearns. He told me about suffrage activist Anita Pollitzer, who in 1928 married his mother’s brother, Elie Edson; the couple lived in New York City. Born and raised in South Carolina, Anita Pollitzer left her fingerprints on American history even if a broader recognition of her life and contributions are still in the process of surfacing. The 2017 New York State suffrage centennial and upcoming national observance of American women voting for 100 years in 2020 are bringing more anecdotes like this to public awareness.
Anita Pollitzer made a mark in American art history in 1916 by introducing her friend Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) to famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). Anita and Georgia attended art school together and corresponded over the years — an exchange of letters preserved in Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer (Simon & Schuster, 1990).
Pollitzer chose words and persuasion to fuel her determination and passion much as O’Keeffe expressed herself in color, shapes, lines and symbols on canvases. Whereas Anita was an extravert, Georgia was an introvert who relied on Anita to send her news from New York, especially after she traveled to Northern New Mexico to paint.
Anita was effective in persuading her friend to join the militant National Woman’s Party, but for the most part, Georgia stuck to her painting and Anita to her activism. As the years passed, Anita became more involved in the 19th Amendment campaign while Georgia soaked up the solitude of the Southwest and made famous the region’s dramatic sandstone cliffs and high desert. Alfred Steiglitz, who became O’Keeffe’s mentor, husband, advocate, and business manager until his death in 1946, spent considerable time and effort supporting American artists, and O’Keeffe in particular.
Anita Pollitzer and the 19th Amendment
While Anita Pollitzer has been acknowledged as impacting artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s career, relatively few know the story of her pivotal role in the ratification process of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing American women the right to vote — a version of the story circulated by Pete Seeger. He told me at the Clearwater potluck, and later in writing, that his aunt Anita “clinched the deciding vote in Tennessee in 1920.” This was no small accomplishment. Pete explained that this occurred during the well-publicized showdown associated with the 19th amendment’s ratification — when Tennessee stood to become the 36th and final state to ratify the federal amendment and guarantee American women the right to vote.
Pete said his aunt Anita had dinner with 24-year-old state legislator Harry T. Burn (1895-1977) the evening before the Tennessee state legislature’s final vote. No record was ever made of what happened that evening, but this is when Anita was believed to have convinced Harry to change his position from “no” on women’s voting rights to “yes.”
The widely-circulated version of the tale told today is that Burn switched his vote after receiving a letter from his mother encouraging him to vote for the suffrage amendment’s ratification. Many commentators and historians cite the message from Phoebe Ensminger Burn to her son as the reason why Harry had a change of heart. Phoebe Burn’s frequently-quoted letter, now preserved in a Tennessee library, stated in part: “Hurrah and vote for suffrage…Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”
This letter from Harry’s mother was only part of the story, according to Pete Seeger. He described Anita Pollitzer as a “firecracker” with a record of convincing many to support the federal suffrage amendment. She may have been short in stature, but she was powerfully successful in any task to which she was assigned.
Anita rose in the National Woman’s Party ranks to become a national organizer and someone Party head Alice Paul relied on as a close aide and special advisor. In addition, Paul recruited Pollitzer to carry out special missions, including sending her to Nashville for the ratification vote in 1920. Tennessee’s elected officials couldn’t have predicted the circus Nashville turned into after a wide range of individuals and organizations arrived to either support or defeat ratification during a blistering summer season.
Nashville’s War of the Roses
Those for and against women voting arrived in Nashville in July of 1920 to wage what came to be referred to as the “War of the Roses” in which suffrage opponents wore red roses and suffrage supporters displayed yellow roses. Representatives of alcohol and various business interests spent money lavishly in order to defeat the entry of women into politics since many were certain they would upset the social and political status quo. Radical and mainstream suffrage groups sent organizers and grassroots activists to Tennessee from across the country. Powerful opponents were believed to be lurking in hotels and government buildings, tapping phones, and eavesdropping in public spaces during weeks when a predicted tie in the ratification process brought Nashville to a boiling point.
From her Washington, DC office, Alice Paul kept in constant touch with Anita Pollitzer and other National Woman’s Party organizers on the front lines. Carrie Chapman Catt and National American Woman Suffrage Association lobbyists arrived in Nashville and placed crack lobby teams in motion. Tennessee had its own infrastructure of suffragists on state and local levels who filled legislative galleries and followed elected officials everywhere, including to and from their homes. It was said Nashville reeled from one end to the other as advocates representing one position or another cornered anyone even remotely associated with the ratification process and pressed them up against the wall.
Aware of the importance of breaking the vote deadlock, Anita Pollitzer took on the challenge of lobbying the youngest official then in the legislature — Harry Burn from McMinn County. His unexpected and shocking vote in favor of women’s suffrage broke the stalemate and led to victory. Even into his old age during the 1970s, Burn — still controversial among his former constituents and political associates — claimed his mother’s letter had influenced his vote.
Burn didn’t mention the story circulating in Pete Seeger’s family about dinner with Anita the evening before the ratification vote as a turning point. However, the expression on Harry Burn’s face in a vintage photograph when holding Anita Pollitzer’s hand suggests support for Pete’s claim. It’s possible that when Pete’s aunt and Harry’s mother leaned on him during the War of the Roses in Nashville, Harry knew what he should do. The fact that he did it, against the advice of his legislative superiors and pressures from every side, shows he had the same kind of courage and vision that marked those who worked for equal rights for decades—including those like Pete Seeger’s aunt, Anita Pollitzer.++
Marguerite (Culp) Kearns is a writer of creative nonfiction. She started working for Woodstock Times for its first issue in 1972 and stayed through 1990. She loves the stories her grandfather Wilmer Kearns told her as a child about her suffrage movement activist grandmother Edna Kearns about a time in American history when women couldn’t vote and equality must have seemed like an impossible dream.