New-York Historical Society

The “Suff Bird Women” and Woodrow Wilson

Written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, let’s focus on an attempted publicity stunt from 1916 involving New York suffragists, a biplane, and President Woodrow Wilson. Three fantastic photographs in the library collection tell the beginning of the story as a group of suffragists met at Midland Beach, Staten Island on December 2, 1916.

Members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association join pilot Leda Richberg-Hornsby at Midland Beach, Staten Island prior to her flight.

Members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association gather at Midland Beach, Staten Island prior to their liberty flight. N-YHS Prints and Photographs, PR 68.

The plan was to “bomb” President Woodrow Wilson on his yacht, the Mayflower, as it made its way down the Hudson River en route to the illumination of the Statue of Liberty. This “bomb” consisted of yellow petitions from “woman voters of the West” and leaflets in support of the Susan B. Anthony suffrage amendment. Written by Anthony (1820-1906) with the assistance of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), this amendment called for the extension of the right to vote to women. First presented to Congress in 1878, by 1916 it had been rejected by the Senate twice, and had recently been defeated in the House of Representatives in January 1915. Not until 1920 would woman suffragists be victorious with the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Leda Richberg-Hornsby (1887-1939), the first female graduate of the Wright School in Dayton and only the eighth woman in the United States to earn a pilot's license. She attempted several times to join the US flying corps as a combat pilot in France during the First World War. Her service was refused.

Leda Richberg-Hornsby (1887-1939), the suffragist pilot, was one of the pioneer female aviators of the 1910s. She attempted several times to join the US flying corps as a combat pilot in France during the First World War. Her service was refused. N-YHS Prints and Photographs, PR 68.

The pilot of this intrepid suffrage plane was Leda Richberg-Hornsby (1887-1939) of Chicago, described by the New York Sun as “petite, plucky, brunette, holding in her hand the all-around aviator’s license she won a month ago which entitles her to fly as a Lieutenant in the Government’s service in case of war.” She was only the eighth woman in the United States to earn a pilot’s license, and the first female graduate of the Wright Flying School in Dayton. The original choice for pilot was Ruth Law (1887-1970), who unfortunately was unavailable due to her involvement with the illumination ceremony – circling the Statue of Liberty in an illuminated plane with Liberty written on the bottom. A suffragist herself, Richberg-Hornsby volunteered in Law’s place, stating: “This is war for woman’s rights. I am proud to fly for you.”

Ida Blair (1874-1930) joined Richberg-Hornsby on the flight. A committed suffragist and welfare worker, Blair had previously participated in other suffrage stunts during the 1915 Empire State campaign.

Ida Blair (1874-1930) joined Richberg-Hornsby on the flight. The two were described as “togged out in several layers of everything that birdwomen wear, with trimmings of suffrage yellow.” N-YHS Prints and Photographs, PR 68.

Joining Richberg-Hornsby in the two-seater biplane that day was Ida Blair (1874-1930), a business woman, welfare worker, and suffrage leader, who had previously participated in other suffrage stunts during the 1915 Empire State campaign. The plane was adorned with a large banner reading “Women Want Liberty Too,” which can be partially seen in the first photo. (The message is also written on the photo in the sky above the plane.) Cheered on by their fellow members of the New York branch of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Richberg-Hornsby and Blair took off around 5:45pm on their bombing mission. Unfortunately, the weather was not on their side.

December 3, 1916 headline from the New York Sun.

December 3, 1916 headline from the New York Sun.

Although airborne for nearly a mile, the high winds that day (described by the New York Sun as “virtually a gale”) forced Richberg-Hornsby to crash land the plane in a Staten Island swamp. Neither woman was seriously injured from the adventure, nursing only a “few mundane bumps,” but were disappointed not to succeed in their attempt to demonstrate the fervor of their convictions. One thing is sure. Regardless of the outcome, they were committed to their cause, as were the hundreds and thousands of other women who fought so long and hard in the late 19th and early 20th century for the right to vote. Cheers to you, ladies.

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This is a blog created by staff members in the library to draw attention to the richness and diversity of our collections.

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