‘A Real, Live Suffragette’

Caroline Lexow Babcock ’1904 devoted her life to women’s rights

By Lois Elfman '80

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As field secretary of the Women's Political Union, Caroline Lexow Babcock traveled from Albany to Buffalo and along the Southern Tier to organize units in communities where the New York State Woman Suffrage Association had not yet organized. Courtesy the Nyack Library Local History Image Collection.

A century after women won the right to vote, tens of millions of women cast their ballots in the 2020 election. The historic turnout at the polls — bolstered by a record number of women running for political office — was a testament to the hard work of generations of women activists, including Barnard’s own Caroline Lexow Babcock ’1904, who was a leading organizer in the suffrage movement.

Babcock was born in 1882 in Nyack, New York, to a political family — her father was New York State Senator Clarence Lexow, and her mother was Katharine Morton, a social reformer. In their household, conversation often centered on politics, as  Lexow Babcock’s granddaughter Katharine Morton Fulmor Jr. recounted in the Historical Society of the Nyacks’ newsletter. “Suffrage was discussed. Her father did NOT support women’s suffrage. Her mother DID. Caroline began to question why her father could vote but not her mother. The stage was set,” wrote Fulmor. 

While at Barnard, Lexow Babcock became active in the suffrage movement and rubbed shoulders with many of its leaders, including Susan B. Anthony. After earning her bachelor’s in economics (as well as making Phi Beta Kappa), she traveled the country speaking and campaigning for women’s right to vote. In 1904, she helped organize the College Equal Suffrage League of New York State, soon afterward serving as its president. She later became executive secretary of the National College Equal Suffrage League.

“One of Caroline’s most significant contributions to the suffrage movement was her involvement in the New York State branch of the College Equal Suffrage League,” says Karen Pastorello, a professor at Tompkins Cortland Community College, who co-authored the book Women Will Vote. “This seemed to be a very influential organization that drew many young women and men to the suffrage cause.”

The Topeka Daily Capital captured Lexow Babcock’s fierce commitment to the movement in the 1909 article “Miss Lexow Is a Real, Live Suffragette,” in which she asserts, “I became actively interested in suffrage work and a member of the league, and I expect to devote the most of my time to the cause until it wins.” 

Even as she married and raised three children, Lexow Babcock continued to fight for women’s enfranchisement. After the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1921, she turned her attention to pacifism. She was a founding member, and later the field secretary, of the Women’s Peace Society, which evolved into the Women’s Political Union (WPU). During this period, she often went door to door to lobby for her cause. At the WPU, she helped draft a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited Congress from declaring war. 

Her activism never waned, and her involvement in numerous organizations only grew over the years, including a tenure as the executive secretary of the National Women’s Party from 1938 to 1946. Always aligned with women’s issues, Lexow Babcock also served on the executive committee and board of directors of the Birth Control Federation of America. When she died in 1980, at the age of 98, she was reportedly wearing a button in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. 

“My grandmother never stopped. She remains a comforting and inspiring beacon,” wrote Fulmor. “She personifies the courage and determination it took for multiple generations to secure for themselves and others the right to vote.” 

In 2019, Lexow Babcock was honored by the Center for Safety & Change as part of the Rockland Women Leaders Hall of Fame. “She continued to work for peace,” said Fulmor when she accepted the honor on her grandmother’s behalf. “She suffered defeat and she persisted. … It just was this core within her that was so strong.”

Latest IssueFall 2020

In this issue, you'll read about the alumnae healthcare workers who served on the frontlines of the pandemic, Barnard women's resilience during historic crises, a personal story on protest, the 19th Amendment reexamined, and more.