On This Day in 1911: A Prize Fight for Suffrage

In the early 1900s, one could usually find a boxing exhibition or prize fight on any given Friday night in New York City. Punches would be thrown and dreams would be made and lost among the cigarette and cigar smoke of the crowd. The card held at the Long Acre Athletic Club on October 27, 1911, was one of these shows, with one notable difference: It was a prize fight for women’s suffrage.

A fight for the right to vote.

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The promoter, Mrs. Sarah Ruhlin. Library of Congress

Promoted by Sarah Ruhlin, wife of former heavyweight boxer Gus Ruhlin, assurances were given that all rules would be followed “so that there is no chance of being raided” by the police. (1) (Both Ruhlins applied to the New York State Athletic Commission for “boxing club licenses” later in 1911, but were denied because “there were too many clubs in existence all ready.” (2))

The event was held to raise money and awareness for her new pro-suffrage organization, the Woman’s (also referred to as “Women’s” in news reports of the time) Progressive Political League. Mrs. Ruhlin, a Brooklyn resident, was a determined and enthusiastic worker for the right to vote. The New-York Tribune called her “one of the most energetic of the recruits to the suffragist ranks”. (3) The Detroit Free Press proclaimed her “a militant suffragist.” (4)

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The Evening World, August 24, 1911

She was the Woman Suffrage Party’s 20th Assembly District chair, but split with the group after high-ranking members rankled and rumbled (5) about her choice of headquarters: the saloon her husband owned at 1490 Myrtle Avenue, in the Ridgewood section of Brooklyn, New York. The former prize fighter’s pub was adorned with newspaper clippings telling tales of his days in the ring; his former glories mingled with alcohol advertisements and signs proclaiming a woman’s right to vote. Yellow “VOTES FOR WOMEN” signs were hung in the front window and behind the bar. Mrs. Ruhlin hosted meetings for The Cause in the saloon’s back room.

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Harvard University

The idea of an Assembly District chairwoman holding lectures on the lofty values of women’s suffrage in the same space where John Barleycorn and the Demon Rum mixed was more than some of the Woman Suffrage Party’s Temperance-leaning leadership could bear. One fellow district leader, Miss Mary Donnelly, proclaimed: “That banner […] is sacred. Women have died for that banner. It is shocking and dreadful to think of its being flaunted from the front window of a saloon. Suffrage will lose the help of the Church is this isn’t stopped.” (6)

Invoking “the Church” in the battle for suffrage was a surefire way to invoke the ire of Mrs. Ruhlin, the saloon keeper’s wife:

…   the saloons have a better right to the vote than the churches, because they pay taxes and the churches don’t. The claim of those old suffragists that the cause will lose the support of the church if the banner isn’t taken down right away from my husband’s window is silly … (7) 

While Miss Donnelly fanned herself at the thought of a suffrage banner in a bar, others took a more dire stance:

I didn’t close my eyes the night after I heard that a suffrage headquarters had opened in a saloon. It seemed to me that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton must rise from their graves in righteous protest. In the threescore years of the woman suffrage movement, it has suffered much from those who professed to be its friends, but this is the crowning humiliation. It is true that all classes of voters must be reached, but if to do this it is necessary to establish headquarters in a saloon and put our banners on its windows and walls, then it is far better that the movement should stop absolutely — yes, better that it it should go back to its foundation of high principle and honorable methods. –Mrs Ida Husted Harper (8)

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Mrs. Ida Husted Harper. Library of Congress

The disdain from refined society further entrenched Mrs. Ruhlin in her position: “It’s all a matter of class, anyhow, I  guess, because Gus, once a prize fighter and now running a saloon, is not up to their social standard. But perhaps there are some narrow-minded bigots that don’t measure up to my standard, either.” (9)

On September 28, 1911, Mrs. Ruhlin announced her split from the Woman Suffrage Party to form her Woman’s Progressive Political League. The League’s goals were helping to win the vote for women and lobbying on behalf of more mundane issues, one of which was expanding the number of school seats available in New York City. (10) To raise awareness and funds for her nascent group, Mrs. Ruhlin proposed a prize fight for women’s votes to be held on Friday October 27, 1911.

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Syracuse Herald, October 24, 1911

If a bar holding suffrage meetings would cause Anthony and Stanton to rise from their graves, a prizefight for women’s votes would surely send them back clutching their pearls, but the Woman Suffrage Party took a more measured tone. The chair of its ways and means committee, Mrs. H. L. Griffin, said that “…we didn’t see that the cause of woman’s suffrage would be helped materially by such a thing as a prizefight.” (11)

Mrs. Ruhlin thought that such a thing would shake up the staid methods of promoting their cause, which mostly involved lectures and literature distribution:

That’s one of the troubles with the work of the Women’s Suffrage party: They give long talks and hand out limitless tracts. If there is anything more dismal, name it … That isn’t gaining anything for women’s suffrage — its simply boring people who are tired from a day’s hard work. (12)

With her fellow suffrage leaders shaking their heads, what was the response from the fight world regarding her planned event? Did boxers support women’s suffrage? Mrs. Ruhlin told a reporter with The Evening World

I guess they’re suffragists if their wives are! […] Jeffries does what Mrs. Jeffries says. Sharkey does as Mrs. Sharkey wants him too. I’ll bet Mrs. Robert Fitzsimmons could get Bob to box for anythong on earth in half a second. I’ve told Gus I want him to challenge Johnson to a boxing match on the suffrage question… (13)

When pressed on her husband’s chances against the world’s then-heavyweight champion, Mrs. Ruhlin revealed that her first foray into fight promotion wouldn’t be entirely on the level:  “Oh, I don’t mean a real fight. I mean one of those things where the men walk into the ring, kiss their hands at each other and one of them falls down — you see.” (14)

A women’s wrestling match was also proposed.

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New-York Tribune, October 15, 1911

No photographs exist of Mrs. Ruhlin’s event. The Long Acre Athletic Club, at 158 West 29th Street in Manhattan, could hold up to 1,400 spectators. It was described as festooned with yellow flags and banners promoting the cause of the evening. Tickets were $1 for ringside seats, $.50 for general admission but attendance was sparse, with only 500 people reported at the exhibition. (15) “The Athletic Club regulars were not willing to spend their good money to see such a pink tea affair as they were afraid would be served up to the women.” (16)

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle put suffragette attendance at “two dozen women and their escorts” (17) while The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that “at least 75 women were at ringside…” (18) Mrs. Ruhlin later acknowledged the low turn out from the suffrage crowd: “Afraid Mrs. William Warren Penfield or Mrs. Clarence Mackay would hear of it and scold them…” (19)

Only nine matches took place (as always, the card was subject to change). (20) Bell time was scheduled for 8pm and the event didn’t kick off until 9.

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New-York Tribune, October 15, 1911

Gus Ruhlin, “Young” Corbett, and “Montana Dan” Sullivan refereed the bouts: eight boxing and one wrestling. Boxers mentioned in reports covering the event were up-and-comers and never-weres whose names have been largely lost to history: Al Panzer and Jack Gitney, Red O’Neill and Willie McDonald, Young Mango and Kid Black, Jerry Gaines and “The Bleached Blonde,” and Young Saks and Young Walter. (21; 22)

Women sat in the front row — some smoking cigarettes throughout the night — and joined the men in becoming vocal members of the crowd. At one point, “… one woman became so enthusiastic that she poked her head through the ropes and cried out: ‘Can’t you knock that puny little fellow down? You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”’ (23)

Further quelling any thoughts about the fights being fair and unfixed, it was publicly known that the event “… was not the real thing and wasn’t intended to be…” (24) After his match Young Walter admitted to a reporter at the event “I couldn’t do anything because Saks told me I must only tap him a bit.” (25)

The women’s wrestling match did not come to fruition, but Nick Mundy locked up with a competitor named Young Hackenschmidt, who was unfortunately announced by the master of ceremonies as “Young Hackensack”. (26) For you wrestling fans, this Young Hackenschmidt should not be confused for a young George Hackenschmidt. The performer appearing on Mrs. Ruhlin’s card was either Joe Turner (who admitted to working under the name in 1910) or Charles Hackenschmidt, who plied his trade using the same moniker.

The suffragettes seemed to have enjoyed the grappling, though they did complain about the wrestlers’ skimpy attire. However, they conceded that the yellow suffrage button “Hackensack” wore “showed that he had good principles” (27) and eventually got into the match:

“Well, I wouldn’t hold onto the rope,” said a woman, who had been looking through her fingers. The men didn’t believe in that either, and they called to the referee: “Gus, shall I get you an axe?” (28)

While Hackenschmidt had Mundy in an ear hold, one suffragette reportedly ran from the room declaring “War was never like this.” (29)

There was only one speech in favor of The Cause. Teenaged suffragette Dorothy Frooks implored to the men in attendance for their support:  

You men won’t come to hear suffrage speeches, so we come here to make you. If you think this is not a nice place, it is your fault because it is the kind of place you have made. We thank you all for coming here. To show your appreciation for Mrs. Ruhlin won’t you give three cheers for her, and make the house come down? (30)

Mrs. Ruhlin entered the ring to cheers, unusually demurred. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not a speaker, I’m  a worker and so I must go down.” (31)

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Dorothy Frooks. Library of Congress

After the final bell was rung and the audience left, Mrs. Ruhlin assessed her first foray into fight promotion. “The seats weren’t very satisfactory,” she said, “but everything has gone off well and I am satisfied.” (32) Mr. Ruhlin gave his seal of approval (“‘It was fine” (33)), but his fellow referee, Young Corbett was more enthusiastic: “They out-Renoed Reno … It was the first time I ever saw women occupy ringside seats and the first time I ever saw a woman puff a cigarette at a boxing show. Surely the ladies appeared to  enjoy themselves.” (34)

Entertainment was only a tertiary purpose that evening. Fundraising and awareness were primary goals and, despite the low turn out, Mrs. Ruhlin felt she succeeded on the former and announced that “a satisfactory sum of money was realized for the suffrage cause.” (35)

While Mrs. Ruhlin did gain some publicity for women’s suffrage, her work was greatly curtailed by the untimely death of her husband in February 1912. Although her impact was small and short-lived, the dream of women gaining the right to vote was granted in New York State in 1917 and throughout the United States in 1920 with the passing of the 19th Amendment.

And, in some small way, her fight for the right to vote has its place in that history.

.

Footnotes:
(1) TISDALE, F S. “What! Shall Woman Suffrage be Promoted by Jabs and Swings from Boxers’ Brawny Arms?” New – York Tribune (1911-1922), Oct 15, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/574833305?accountid=35635.
(2) 
“NO LICENSE FOR MRS. RUHLIN” New – York Tribune (1911-1922), Dec 21, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/574847794?accountid=35635 .
(3) “THE BANKER’S CONGE.” New – York Tribune (1911-1922), Dec 17, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/574858934?accountid=35635.
(4) “PUGILIST’S WIFE NATURALLY IS A MILITANT SUFFRAGETTE.” Detroit Free Press (1858-1922), Oct 14, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/565035562?accountid=35635.
(5) “AGAINST SUFFRAGE BAR.” New – York Tribune (1911-1922), Aug 29, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/574802273?accountid=35635.
(6) Ibid.
(7) “MRS. “GUS” RUHLIN REPLIES.” New – York Tribune (1911-1922), Sep 01, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/574828246?accountid=35635.
(8) “AGAINST SUFFRAGE BAR.” New – York Tribune (1911-1922), Aug 29, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/574802273?accountid=35635.
(9) “CASTE QUESTION IN SUFFRAGISM.” Los Angeles Times (1886-1922), Sep 13, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/159714128?accountid=35635.
(10) “BOXING BOUTS TO AID WOMAN SUFFRAGE.” New York Times (1857-1922), Sep 29, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/97174388?accountid=35635.
(11) TISDALE, F S. “What! Shall Woman Suffrage be Promoted by Jabs and Swings from Boxers’ Brawny Arms?” New – York Tribune (1911-1922), Oct 15, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/574833305?accountid=35635.
(12) Ibid.
(13) GREELEY-SMITH, NIXOLA. “In Husband’s Saloon Mrs. Ruhlin Fights for Suffrage Championship.” The Evening World (1887-1931), Aug 24, 1911.  http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030193/1911-08-24/ed-1/seq-3/.
(14) Ibid.
(15) “SUFFRAGISTS SEE “BOXING FIGHT” AT LONGACRE CLUB.” Buffalo Courier, Oct 28, 1911. http://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html.
(16)”MRS. RUHLIN’S FIGHT NOT SO VERY AWFUL.” New York Times (1857-1922), Oct 28, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/97119588?accountid=35635.
(17) “PRIZEFIGHT REALLY REFINED.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 28, 1911. http://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html.
(18) “WOMEN CHEER THE BOXING BOUT.” Cincinnati Enquirer (1872-1922), Oct 28, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/897229472?accountid=35635. (special_1911)
(19) “SPILL BLOOD FOR SUFFRAGE.” New – York Tribune (1911-1922), Oct 28, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/574819262?accountid=35635
(20) “SUFFRAGISTS SEE “BOXING FIGHT” AT LONGACRE CLUB.” Buffalo Courier, Oct 28, 1911. http://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html.
(21) “SPILL BLOOD FOR SUFFRAGE.” New – York Tribune (1911-1922), Oct 28, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/574819262?accountid=35635
(22) “WOMEN CHEER THE BOXING BOUT.” Cincinnati Enquirer (1872-1922), Oct 28, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/897229472?accountid=35635.
(23) Ibid.
(24) 
“MRS. RUHLIN’S FIGHT NOT SO VERY AWFUL.” New York Times (1857-1922), Oct 28, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/97119588?accountid=35635.
(25) Ibid.
(26) “
SPILL BLOOD FOR SUFFRAGE.” New – York Tribune (1911-1922), Oct 28, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/574819262?accountid=35635.
(27) Ibid.
(28) 
“MRS. RUHLIN’S FIGHT NOT SO VERY AWFUL.” New York Times (1857-1922), Oct 28, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/97119588?accountid=35635.
(29) “SUFFRAGISTS SEE “BOXING FIGHT” AT LONGACRE CLUB.” Buffalo Courier, Oct 28, 1911. http://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html.
(30) “MRS. RUHLIN’S FIGHT NOT SO VERY AWFUL.” New York Times (1857-1922), Oct 28, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/97119588?accountid=35635.
(31) Ibid.
(32) Ibid.
(33) Ibid.
(34)
“SUFFRAGISTS SEE “BOXING FIGHT” AT LONGACRE CLUB.” Buffalo Courier, Oct 28, 1911. http://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html.
(35) “WOMEN CHEER THE BOXING BOUT.” Cincinnati Enquirer (1872-1922), Oct 28, 1911. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/897229472?accountid=35635. 

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