RS Suffrage Project: Meet Bertha Sapovits
By Julia Williams, RS Suffrage Project Member
In 1915, the pro women’s suffrage organizations in Philadelphia were focused on a single goal – passing an amendment in Harrisburg to allow women to vote. Barred from the voting booth, women had to convince the male voters of Pennsylvania to support women’s rights. These suffragists organized a campaign of persuasion – letter writing, “chalking” sidewalks, lectures, displaying posters, parades, and street speaking.
Street corner oratory, especially when the speaker was a woman, attracted a lot of attention. Philadelphia newspapers sometimes announced locations of upcoming rallies and also reported on spontaneous gatherings. One of the most prolific speakers in Philadelphia was a young Jewish woman, Miss Bertha Sapovits.
Bertha Sapovits was the American-born daughter of immigrant parents. Her parents were Jews who emigrated from Europe in the 1870s. The census of 1910 tells us much about the family. Her father, Louis Sapovits, was a jeweler who owned his own store and home in Chester, PA. Jennie, his wife and mother of seven children living at home, had no listed occupation or profession. The three younger children were students. The older four children all worked. The eldest, Sadie, worked in a new industry as a pianist at a movie picture show. Bertha is listed as a saleslady in a department store. She was 17 years old.
Newspapers such as the Delaware County Daily News in Chester, PA covered local news thoroughly. Thanks to this newspaper, we know of Bertha’s appendicitis, that she was bitten by a dog, and that she visited family members in Philadelphia in 1911. She was also present during a robbery at her father’s store and witness to the subsequent shoot-out. In 1916, her father’s obituary in that paper described Bertha as “one of the leaders in Woman Suffrage Circles in Philadelphia.”
Bertha Sapovits was indeed one of the public faces of the suffrage movement in Philadelphia and even beyond. In 1915, the Jewish Exponent reported that she made her first open-air speech in April. Soon after, she was engaged by the Equal Franchise Society (one of many suffrage organizations in the city) to spend a month organizing working people to the suffrage cause. The papers in Philadelphia were peppered with reports of her speeches. She was everywhere—street corners, churches, clubs. The Exponent described her: “She is a Jewess, speaks Yiddish and is particularly effective in her appeal to the working man. Her meetings attract large crowds and she is making many converts.”
In May of 1915, suffragists put on a huge parade in Philadelphia. More than ten thousand supporters marched in what a local paper called “the opening of the campaign for woman suffrage, a campaign that will be waged with vigor and enthusiasm until its purpose has been accomplished.” (Evening Public Ledger editorial May 1, 1915). The parade was followed by open-air meetings in locations like Washington Square, City Hall Plaza, and the Metropolitan Opera House. Bertha Sapovits spoke at least at three different locations that day.
It was with “vigor and enthusiasm” that the campaign took off, with the goal of winning voting rights in the November election. Bertha was an active member of what was called the “Suffrage Army.” She spoke around the region, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, before her summer assignment to organize pro-suffrage activities in the whole state of Delaware. How successful she was is hard to measure. A Trenton, NJ paper said he got 47 men to pledge to vote yes when she spoke at the Fels plant there. A more personal “conversion” was her brother, Harry Sapovits, a student at Central High in Philadelphia. He submitted an essay to the Evening Public Ledger detailing his reasons for supporting women’s suffrage. The paper printed his essay along with his photo. The headline “Central High School Lad Follows His Sister, Miss Bertha Sapovits, Leader of Fight for the Ballot.”
Despite efforts like these the fall election failed to win women the right to vote. The suffragists of Philadelphia who must have been disappointed did not cease the fight. They continued to campaign in states with up-coming elections. Bertha went on a tour, speaking in many cities before settling in Davenport, Iowa where she was in charge of organizing for an Equal Suffrage group. In 1916, her name is found in dozens of Midwestern papers. In Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, she spoke before audiences large and small, to postal workers, women’s club and church groups.
By the end of 1916, Sapovits was back in her home region, first organizing in Delaware then working on the suffrage cause in Philadelphia. She embraced the tactics of the suffragists in the Women’s Congressional Union and later the National Women’s Party which focused on the federal government rather than state governments to obtain voting rights. These women set up pickets at the White House, hoping to persuade President Wilson to push for their cause. In 1917, this photo of Bertha and her colleagues was printed in local papers as well as reprinted in papers across the country. Along with this new method of protest, the Suffragists continued to write letters, speak on street corners and in halls, post handbills. Their campaign of persuasion continued.
Finally in 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment. Then the states had to ratify it. Pennsylvania did so quickly, but other states did not. It took over a year to add the 19th Amendment of our Constitution.
Like many of the women who devoted so much of their youth to secure voting rights for women, Bertha mostly disappears from public life. In 1920, she was living in Chicago with her new husband, Samuel Michael Nunez Cardozo, and his parents. They had married in June of 1919, just a few weeks after Congress passed the 19th Amendment. One can only wonder how the couple came to meet. Perhaps he heard her on one of her Midwestern speaking tours and was won over politically and romantically. They were childless and lived in Kokomo, Indiana, where they ran a gas station and grocery store. Bertha’s oratorical skills mainly were confined to the local businesswomen’s club, although in the 1930s she was active with the Democratic Party. She ran for a local office and was defeated.
I was able to find a death certificate. She died in February 1984 at 91 years of age. Nowhere could I find an obituary which might recount at least some of the accomplishments of this woman who worked so hard to secure our right to vote. It seems appropriate for us to acknowledge and thank her here.