Pennsylvania Women Win Vote, Taxes as Booby Prize, Say No

Here is another case to accompany my previously-recounted examples of women in Pottstown, Pennsylvania in , Anna Beck of Murrell, Pennsylvania in , and women in Darby, Pennsylvania in . This one concerns women in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, as reported on in the Washington Reporter:

Charleroi School Tax Delinquents To Be Arrested

The Charleroi board of education, at a meeting called by President F.C. Stahlman , in the high school building, decided to take drastic measures to force 2,000 taxpayers to pay their assessments. Of the delinquents, 1,700 are women who have steadfastly refused to pay school taxes and the discussion last night centered for the most part on them. Tax Collector Fred W. Brady and his bondsmen were present. The board passed a motion to the effect that Tax Collector Brady, in accordance with the provisions of the legislative act made and enacted in , be empowered to make arrests of all the men and women who are school tax delinquents. Mr. Brady is today preparing the papers and will begin to serve them on .

The work of serving the warrants will be performed by two constables duly qualified, and the delinquents will not only have their taxes to pay, but the added costs. The board further agreed to stand the expense of the transmission to jail of either man or woman who failed to liquidate when served with a warrant by the constables.

Why southern Pennsylvania in particular would have been host to such actions is curious to me, but I can’t think of a good explanation. I think I’ll do some more digging in the archives and see if maybe I can piece together more.

Anti-tax agitation began as early as , according to an article in the Wellsboro Gazette which noted that “Because of the irregularities in the taxation of women in city and county a movement has been started in many parts of the State…” The irregularities being that there was no poll tax on women in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, but there was on rural women. The article ends on this note: “Tax collectors will be hard up against it in some districts in getting the money, as hundreds will refuse to pay from $3 to $6 to exercise their right of suffrage at the polls this fall.”

The Wellsboro Gazette noted some of the curious background of the tax law in its edition:

Women Must Pay Taxes

May Be Sent to Jail for Failure to Pay Their Taxes

According to a bill signed by Governor Pinchot last week women who fail to pay their taxes may be sent to jail. It is not likely, however, that the jail penalty will ever need to be enforced. There are comparatively few women in Pennsylvania who are not willing to pay their taxes and cast a ballot.

That turned out to be optimistic. But anyway:

If the law were to be strictly enforced in every case there would be more men than women landed in jail for failure to settle their tax bills.

When Governor Pinchot signed the bill permitting imprisonment of women for non-payment of taxes he made effective legislation that was strongly advocated by a large majority of the women of Pennsylvania but that was for a time threatened with defeat by members of the law-making body.

It was not until some time after women were given the ballot and taxes were assessed against them that it became generally known that under the law of the State women could not be imprisoned for refusal to pay taxes although it provided for the imprisonment of men taxables who failed to settle.

Soon after the present Legislature convened a bill amending the law so as to make it apply to women as well as men was introduced and its strongest supporters were the women members of the House. The measure passed the House by a large majority but when it got over into the Senate, in which there are no women representatives, it met with strong opposition and a majority vote was cast against it [19-24, according to another account].

Later the vote was reconsidered, the bill was put through, and now by receiving the Governor’s signature, it becomes a law.

The New York Herald, in an editorial dealing with the passage of an old law which made it impossible to place in jail women who did not pay their taxes, assumes that the reason for the passage of the measure was the desire, through the forcing of the payment of taxes by women, to qualify more of them as voters.

The Philadelphia Record says that the Herald is all wrong: “The tax law which it is desired to enforce against the women of Pensylvania who live outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh is the school tax law, and not the tax law providing for the payment every two years of a State or county tax, which alone is the tax that carries with it the right to vote. A woman or a man who pays a school tax alone cannot vote.

“The school tax law as passed before the advent of the women as a citizen with the same rights as a man provided that, in addition to the regular property tax, every citizen on the assessors’ list should pay an occupation or head tax of not less than $1, nor more than $5 a year for school purposes, as the directors of each school district might determine.

“The makers of the law, the members of the Legislature, were controlled by the leaders of the political machines in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. They realized that to make this tax general would force on the list of taxpayers the thousands of irresponsible voters in the two big cities who do not personally pay any tax, except such as they contribute indirectly through the landlord or the dealers who pay taxes and take that into consideration in fixing rents or the prices of the articles they sell. They realized also that once this class of voters were called upon or forced to pay a direct tax of any kind they might begin to take an interest in what they were voting for.

“But under the new School Code money was needed, much more money than could be provided by the ordinary property tax. This at least was true of the country districts. And so the tax plan of adding a head, or occupation, tax was devised, with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh exempt.

“It is operating as the law provides, outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and it is the women of the farm and of the small town who will have to go to jail if they do not pay. The city ladies need have no fear of either the jail or the tax.

“The city man does not pay the tax or go to jail. Neither does his wife or daughter of age. The farmer pays it. So do his wife and daughter, or to jail they go until they do or are declared paupers.”

, the Wellsboro Gazette noted that, despite the optimism in the above article, “Refusal of women to pay school taxes has become so State-wide that many school boards are making inquiries how to proceed.” And also, that “Trouble has been started in many districts where the boards hold the new act is retroactive and are trying to collect back taxes.”

The Chester Times reported that “800 women in the township [of Haverford] failed to pay taxes of approximately $3.20 each last year.”

“The law is the law,” the township treasurer [G. Howard Leedom] explained. “I can’t see why the women should want to evade the payment of the small tax. As a matter of fact, it is only $4 this year and the road tax, which is due , is only $1. Surely the women are not kicking over that. I am determined to get this money. The law says that the women must pay and the notice [he issued] speaks for itself.”

Some announced they would get a list of the women who had not paid and would request county newspapers to publish the names. The treasurer would not give up the lists, however, and the threat failed.

Not long ago at a Commissioners meeting, Mr. Leedom announced that he was afraid of the women vote in the township and that as a result he would not be a candidate for treasurer at the fall elections. It looks now as though it will be up to Leedom’s successor to follow out or reject the Leedom proclamation. So far there are four candidates who have shied their hats into the ring and at least five others are expected to come out within the next two weeks.

Four of these men when questioned as to what they would do if either one of them happened to be treasurer, were non-committal. “You don’t think that I am going to antagonize the women and then ask them for their votes, do you?” said one candidate and his sentiments were echoed by the others.

The two constables of Haverford… are also up for re-election and there are candidates in the field against them, so these two men will not commit themselves either.

Just what would happen in Haverford township if constables went forth to drag women to jail for non-payment of taxes is uncertain. It is a foregone conclusion, however, that no red-blooded male of the township would see his spouse dragged off to the pretty little cells at Oakmont without putting up a howl, and it’s a safe bet that two constables would have their hands full if the self-same women who did not pay last year made up their minds that they would not pay again this year.…

By , there were still “[s]everal hundred women residing in Haverford… delinquent in their taxes.” They were notified that warrants would be served on those who continued to refuse the $4.68 tax (plus $2.50 in penalties), and threatened that the cost of the warrant would add another $4.10 to that amount.

the Chester Times had quoted the treasurer of Essington complaining: “So far as the taxes of the women voters is concerned, I fear that the Legislature must first pass a law governing this matter, and unless the women who owe taxes pay willingly or have some property that can be attached and the money secured in this way, there will be a pretty mess of it.” the Delaware County League of Women Voters put the tax resistance movement on its agenda (they were against it), and 250 women were reported to be resisting in Media (where the collector tried and failed to get them made exempt). School board president Joseph E. Quinby said:

“Somebody may be arrested and put in jail, to test out the law. Of course, no one desires to see a woman go to jail, but how are the authorities going to find out whether women are exempt from paying taxes?”

Instead, the authorities seized property from five of the resisters:

Media Tax Delinquents Change Minds and Pay

Action Taken when Collector Showed Determination to Sell Personal Property

A public sale of articles owned by five Media women who had refused to pay delinquent taxes was called off by Mrs. Emily Cooper, the borough’s delinquent tax collector. The holdouts changed their minds and paid taxes ranging from $3 to $5 each.

Twelve other persons who have declined to pay were notified that levies will be made on their personal property for public sale .

The taxes collected amounted to $1000 and should have been paid in . The Media school board told Mrs. Cooper she must either collect the amount or pay the taxes, whereupon Mrs. Cooper said she would levy on the personal property of 100 women who were delinquent.

Mrs. Cooper’s action was taken after she had learned a recent act of the legislature permitted her to levy on personal property to recover unpaid taxes.

The women had refused to pay their taxes saying it was only since women got the right to vote that that taxes were said, was “wished” upon them against their will.

It seems as though it were typical for the government to present a tax bill to the tax collector based on how much they felt was collectible in the collector’s demesne, at which point the collector her or himself was liable for the amount, and would sometimes cough the whole of it up in advance of collecting it. Then he or she’d have to go back to the government and plead for “exoneration” for certain taxpayers if they couldn’t be collected from for reasons of death, poverty, or… ornery womanhood.

If I can judge from the sample of newspaper articles I reviewed, usually these pleas by the tax collector to exonerate stubborn women fell on deaf ears. But occasionally they succeeded, as when the Borough Council of Clifton Heights lopped “the personal taxes of about seven hundred women taxpayers” off of its books in , amounting to $3,280 (more or less). The women who had paid then demanded (and received) refunds.

The Wellsboro Gazette of reminded its readers:

Women Taxables Are Liable

County Tax Collectors Instructed To See That Act Is Complied With

The following statement issued by the County Commissioners precludes the possibility of any further conjecture regarding the liability of women taxables:

There seems to be some doubt in the minds of a great many people as to the liability of a woman to pay her taxes, and a spirit on the part of a great many to let them go by default.

For the benefit of all those who may doubt the liability of these women to pay their tax, be advised that the Act passed , P.L. 169, makes it compulsory for a woman to pay her tax under penalty of arrest for non-payment.

It has been brought very forcibly to the attention of the County Commissioners, by women property owners, that the County Commissioners and officers of other municipalities are compelled by law and their oath to see that this tax is assessed and collected.

This statement is to notify the women tax payers of Tioga County, that the tax Collectors of the various boroughs and townships are being instructed to collect this tax and comply with the Act above referred to.

F.G. Brown, R.B. Baity, F.E. Reinwald, County Commissioners.

But that did not seem to convince everybody. The following comes from the Wellsboro Agitator of :

Women Must Pay or Go to Prison, Court Decides

Sex does not exempt tax delinquents, asserts judge who advises making examples

Holding that women who refuse to pay their taxes should be sent to jail, and that females cannot expect to stand on their modern privileges without assuming the burdens which attach to them, President Judge Fuller, of the Luzerne county court, in a decision handed down advises tax collectors to make an example of defiant female tax dodgers as a warning to all others.

The decision was based on a petition of Hugh F. O’Donnell, tax collector of Freeland, who asked for a declaratory judgment on female liability in respect to non-payment of school tax. The tax collector presented a list of fifteen women who refused to pay school taxes for , amounting to from $4.35 to $6.49 on each for each year.

Solicitor M. S. DePierro stated there are almost 200 women In Freeland who have refused to pay school taxes and hundreds of women in other municipalities of the county who do not pay taxes. The decision of the court has a bearing on all women tax delinquents.

Judge Fuller’s decision is as follows:

“We are asking in this proceeding to render a declaratory judgment that certain fifteen refractory and delinquent taxables of Freeland shall forthwith pay their taxes to the tax collector.

“We have no power in this proceeding to declare that they shall pay, but we do have the power to declare, as we have already declared, that they should pay or go to jail for default, after unsuccessful effort to collect by levy and sale of property.

“Females cannot expect to stand on their modern privileges without standing under the burdens which attach.

“We would advise, however, that the collector does not make at the outset of his anti-female campaign, an omnibus commitment of fifteen, but that he first select one or more of the most refractory delinquents, single women, defiant, childless, and able to pay, who may be committed without compunction, as a warning to others.”

This is accompanied by a sidebar:

Please Read the Above Warning Carefully.

To the delinquent taxpayers of Wellsboro, Pa.: We wish to state that we do not want to cause any hardship on any one, but we are going to collect all taxes collectible; so please pay them on or before , and save further costs and added percentage. Two-thirds have paid, why not you?

Very truly yours
W.R. Keagle, Tax Collector.

Wellsboro is in north-central Pennsylvania, by the way, so at least we have learned that there was nothing special about the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh axis in the south.

A edition of the Wellsboro Gazette noted the peculiar feature of the then-law that no woman (“or infant or person found by inquisition to be of unsound mind”) could be jailed for nonpayment, but said that this would not necessarily be a bar to enforcement, as the usual techniques of property levy and sale could still be used. According to that article, 923 out of 974 women voters in Hollidaysburg had paid-up, with 51 delinquents unaccounted for.

While hunting, I found another article or two on the Darby case, which came kind of late in the movement. In , “[t]wo thousand notices were sent out to delinquent tax payers” there, and “several hundred women” paid up after getting a warning letter according to the Chester Times.

The others were in no hurry. The authorities extended the deadline, but that wasn’t much help either:

Collector [S. Robert] Shaw threatened several hundred women with jail if they had not paid up by . he granted them 48 hours of grace to pay the outstanding taxes. Now they have until .

He was much disgruntled when his office opened and a few women straggled in to pay their taxes, while down the street he said scores of women were standing in line and pushing their way into a department store that had announced a sale on buckets.

“Look at the way they rush for a bargain and yet won’t pay their legal debts,” he commented.

Threats to throw women in jail seemed largely to be bluff, but there were examples. Here’s one from the Chester Times of :

Two Women Jailed; Refused to Pay Taxes

Because they refused to pay their personal taxes for a two-year period and refused to let their husbands pay, Mrs. Ella Rotz and Mrs. Rhoda Rotz, sisters-in-law, of Shippensburg, Pa., were committed to the Cumberland county jail yesterday. The taxes amount to $5.57 and $3.91[? not legible —♇] respectively.

Under state law women as well as men may be jailed for non-payment of their local taxes. Having no property they were arrested although their husbands offered to pay.

They will be held until taxes and the penalty are paid, it was announced by Tax Collector C.A. Goodhart.

And here’s another, from the Chester Times of :

Woman Who Refused to Pay Taxes Is Jailed

Tax Collector W.L. Bailey, of Franklin township, brought Mrs. E.A. Webster to Montrose, Pa., and she was placed in the county jail for refusing to pay her taxes. Her husband also refused to pay them for her, says a Montrose, Pa., newspaper. As a collector is bound under the law to collect the taxes where the party is able to pay them, which appeared likely in this instance, his only recourse was to commit her to jail. Her taxes amounted to $2.10, and the justice’s costs for hearing was $2, making a total of $4.10 to secure her release. The collector is also entitled to additional costs if he sees fit to impose them, such as a dollar for serving the warrant and ten cents a mile for travelling expenses in placing the delinquent in jail.

Franklin’s tax collector has had two other women who refused to pay their taxes, but after a hearing in each case their husbands had come to the rescue by paying taxes and costs. This is the first instance known in the county where a woman has gone to jail because of refusing to pay taxes. A number of similar instances have come up in various parts of the state, but after remaining in jail a few hours or a few days the husbands have come along and paid the taxes and thus released their wives.

On , Henry Webster, of Hallstead, her son, came to Montrose and paid the taxes and costs and she was released.

And another, from the Reading Eagle of :

Woman Goes to Jail Rather Than Pay Tax

The Washington county jail was again the temporary home of a Monongahela Valley resident because of refusal to meet a tax bill.

Mrs. Caroline Behanna, of Eldora, went to prison rather than pay a road and school levy amounting to $5.80. She is the third resident of that district to go to jail under such circumstances in the last 18 months.

The first was Mrs. Henrietta Moss, of North Charleroi, who remained in the prison for a month until members of her family persuaded her to pay the small amount.

Wade Ford, of Monongahela, recently served five months. He claimed he had no money to meet the taxes. His case gained widespread attention, contributions being received from all sections of the country to pay the taxes and costs. He was released when the gifts reached the total needed.

Relatives Pay

Committed to the Washington county jail for refusing to pay taxes, Mrs. Caroline Behanna, of Eldora, was released today after relatives paid $19.99, the amount of the taxes and costs.

The bottom-up, seemingly leaderless, loosely-organized nature of this revolt means that it has left a somewhat diffuse record — notice for instance how few times in any of the accounts above any of the women involved are quoted or their motives are given. But the thousands of resisters involved, and the great difficulty the collectors had in combating the resistance, makes this one of the major tax resistance campaigns in United States history.