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Balloons, Elephants and Lawyers, Oh my!

September 8, 2020

What do hot air balloons, elephants and lawyers have to do with the fight for female suffrage in Indiana? They were all creative ways used by various suffragists to advertise their platform and spread their message demanding equal voting rights.  

On November 61894, Helen M. Gougar attempted to vote in Lafayette, Indiana rebelling against the Indiana State Constitution that forbid women from voting. The local election board refused to give her a ballot on account of her sex and Gougar sued as a result. The case went all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court with Gougar (who was admitted to the bar in 1895 by the Tippecanoe County Circuit Court and in 1897 by the Supreme Court) representing herself. Even though she ultimately lost her case, Gougar refused to allow others to make her points for her and tried to use the courts to advocate and gain the same right to vote that men had.  

In 1912, the Equal Suffrage Association of Indiana also found a unique way to help spread their message. To try and garner publicity for an upcoming talk by Elizabeth N. Barr on “Active and Passive Opposition to Suffrage,” the women decided to charter a hot air balloon and have Barr ride above downtown Indianapolis to drop votes for women buttons on the crowd below. They ended up partnering with the Indianapolis Brewing Company, who donated the Duesseldorfer II to the cause. The “Balloon Jaunt,” as it came to be known was a huge success, helped along by the fact that suffragists planned a car parade that followed the balloon on the ground to increase publicity.

On May 6th, 1914 the Ringling Brothers Circus arrived in Indianapolis from Danville, Illinois. This was one of the largest gatherings of circus performers and animals up to this time. A little “Ringlingville” composed of 24 tents popped up to house the performers and animals. This village also included several hundred horses, countless camels and dozens of elephants. In addition to touring this exciting space, guests were invited to a large parade and two separate performances of the circus. The parade was described as “‘three miles of stretched out rainbow’” that was sure to delight all of the assembled spectators.  

Indianapolis News, May 6, 1914. 

At the same time, the Woman’s Franchise League of Indiana gathered in downtown Indianapolis for their third annual convention. The event attracted more than 1,000 women including Miss Prudence Winterrowd, Miss Floy Isley and Miss Eldena Lauter. These three women took a break from the convention on May 6 to view a circus parade that was happening on the morning. While out and about they also recruited two new members to the Woman’s Franchise League: Babe and Nellie. Babe and Nellie were two of the largest elephants in the Ringling parade and used their trunks to carry “Votes for Women” pennants while marching in the parade. These three women saw an opportunity and gladly took it to help advertise their stance on women’s voting rights. 

Whether it was arguing in front of the Supreme Court, borrowing elephants or flying in a hot air balloon, suffragists from all over Indiana used creative ways to spread their message and fight for equality in voting. 

Want to learn more? Explore these sources:

  • Helen M. GougarIndiana Historical Bureau.  
  • Morgan, A. J. (2020). We Must Be Fearless: The Woman Suffrage Movement in Indiana. Indiana Historical Society.  
  • Simins, J.W. (2020, June 8). “Suffrage Up In The Air:” The Equal Suffrage Assocation’s 1912 Publicity CampaignIndiana History Blog.
  • (1914, May 6) Babe and Nellie Join Franchise League. The Indianapolis News15.  

Abby Currier is an education and engagement assistant at the Indiana Historical Society. She is an avid reader and a recent grad of the IUPUI Public History and Library Science programs.

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