Suffragists had long maintained that the welfare of children as a main reason they wanted to vote. In 1916, they exhibited that commitment again.
In June of 1916, a Polio epidemic erupted in Brooklyn and spread throughout the northeastern United States and the rest of the country. "Infantile Paralysis" as it was called then, killed 6,000 people that year and most were children under the age of 5. 2,000 of the fatalities occurred in New York City alone. About 21,000 other victims were left paralyzed. Because the disease mainly attacked young children, amusement parks, pools, and playgrounds were closed. Frantic parents from New York wanted desperately to get their children out of the city and harm's way because the disease was so contagious.
Because of the close proximity of New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the city, special precautions were taken to inhibit a spread of the disease. Health officials guarded the borders of Pennsylvania and New Jersey to prohibit children under the age of 15 or 16 to enter the state unless they had a certificate of health. Movie theaters were closed to children under 16 in some counties here in Pennsylvania.
Sign from a rural area of NJ, July 1916
The headline preceded the news of the first fatality of the disease in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. A 2 year old toddler named Tommy who was visiting from New Jersey passed away. His family had a certificate of health for him but he didn't show symptoms until he visited the area.
In mid-July, the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association offered their full membership to the state boards of health to assist with the crisis. The assertion of the suffragists was that they were already well organized and had members in every county.
"There is nothing in which the suffragists of Pennsylvania are more interested in than the health and welfare of infants. Ours is largely an organization of mothers whose knowledge of children and the danger they face, even when there is no epidemic, is intimate," state Mrs. George Orlady, the President of the suffrage organization.
The women canvassed the state with information supplied by the board of health.
In Pittsburgh, suffragists even investigated unsanitary conditions that might contribute to outbreaks. Delaware County suffragists called for a "Permanent Relief Fund" to assist during times of health epidemics and collected money for families that were coping with the disease and quarantined (great idea--why not use it now?).
Newspapers lauded the women for their commitment and promptness in their response to the crisis: "Very apparently these women are interested in more than merely getting the vote," on newspaper reported. The inclusion of the protection of children in suffrage idealism was by this time 68 years old.
The Pennsylvania suffragists weren't the only ones that assisted during the epidemic. So too did women in New York like the suffragists of Nassau County, NY:
Map of the 1916 epidemic:
Polio outbreaks continued to plague the country until a vaccine was created by Jonas Salk in 1955; in 1961, an oral vaccine was created by Albert Sabin.