Meet the Suffragists

 

Presented here are brief biographies of the twelve suffragists whose oral histories were collected by the Regional Oral History Office of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and are now available online. They appear in order of their involvement and significance in the suffragist movement.

Bary | Butler | deFord | Field | Kettler | Matthews | Paul | Rankin | Reyher | Seiler | Thygeson | Vernon


Alice Paul

Alice Paul's suffrage activities started during her time in England. While in London (1906-09) she worked in a settlement house and was jailed on three occasions for suffragist actions. Back in the United States, in 1912, she became the chairperson of the congressional committee of the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). However, by 1913 she had become impatient with its policies, so she helped to found the more militant Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (which merged in 1917 to form the National Woman's Party). She was the chief organizer of the 1913 NAWSA Congressional Committee's Inauguration Parade in Washington DC. She was single-minded in her commitment to get the vote for women, she endured much adversity which included, being jailed, waging a hunger strike in prison, hospitalization, being force-fed and even treated as insane.

After women won the right to vote with the 19th Amendment, she devoted herself to gaining equal rights for women and in 1923 introduced the first Equal Rights Amendment in Congress. Even though she did not see the ERA Amendment ratified, she did play a pivotal role in getting an equal rights affirmation in the preamble to the United Nations charter.

Alice Paul was a highly educated woman. She studied a Swarthmore College, took her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1912 and by 1922 she also had a law degree from Washington College. Read oral history Conversations With Alice Paul: Woman Suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment.

Click here to listen to audio excerpts from Alice Paul's oral history.

Mabel Vernon

Mabel Vernon met Alice Paul while they were students at Swarthmore College in the early 1900s. It was Alice Paul's invitation to work with her at the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU) in 1913 that initiated Vernon's full-time devotion to the cause. She became the CU's first national suffrage organizer, and, in 1914, was sent to Nevada to work with suffragist Anne Martin in the campaign for ratification of that state's suffrage amendment. In 1915 she arranged Sara Bard Field's transcontinental auto campaign for woman suffrage. Vernon's interruption of President Woodrow Wilson's speech on July 4, 1916, was one of the suffragists' first acts of militancy. In May 1917 she participated in a small commission that met with the President to demand support for a federal suffrage amendment. She was among the first suffragists to be arrested for picketing the White House, and spent three days in the District of Columbia jail. After her release she traveled through the mid-western and northwestern states to educate the public about the goals of the NWP. She served as campaign manager for the 1918 and 1920 senatorial campaigns of Anne Martin. Vernon's skill in public speaking, and her ability to make a strong fundraising pitch, were some of the qualities for which she was most noted.

Following the ratification of the nineteenth amendment in 1920, she acted as superintendent for the Swarthmore Chautauqua, organizing meetings and lecturing on feminism. In 1924 she earned a master's degree in political science from Columbia University. Beginning in 1924 she spent two years traveling across the country supporting women candidates for Congress. She then returned to the National Woman's Party as executive secretary to work for the Equal Rights Amendment.

In 1930 Vernon joined the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, adopting peace and disarmament as the issues to which she would devote the rest of her life. She organized a transcontinental Peace Caravan in 1931, gathering signatures for petitions that were presented at the 1932 World Disarmament Conference in Geneva. Vernon also acted as campaign director in 1935 for the Peoples Mandate to End War, a committee of the WILPF that stressed a worldwide campaign for peace. She eventually focused her efforts on Latin America, serving as director of the renamed Peoples Mandate Committee for Inter-American Peace and Cooperation, and chaired the committee from 1950 until her retirement in 1955. In 1942 she was awarded the Diploma de Honor by the Ecuadorean Red Cross and in 1944 received the Al Merito from Ecuador in recognition of her longtime commitment to peace.

Vernon lived in Washington, D.C., with her companion of twenty-four years, Consuelo Reyes-Calderon, who was also active with the Peoples Mandate. She died in 1975 of heart disease at the age of 91. Read oral history Mabel Vernon: Speaker for Suffrage and Petitioner for Peace.

Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin was both a suffragist and a pacifist. She worked for women's causes and the peace movement throughout her lifetime. As a suffrage organizer, Ms. Rankin helped win the vote for women in Montana in 1914. She then served as a National American Woman Suffrage Association field secretary. She lobbied for suffrage in fifteen states across the nation. In 1916, she started her campaign for Congress and in 1917 she became the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Standing firm on her pacifist beliefs she voted against entering World War I. Also during her term in the House in 1941-43, she was the only member of Congress to vote against entering World War II. She continued to lobby for peace in later years, particularly during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In 1967 in her honor a group of women formed the Jeannette Rankin Brigade to oppose the Vietnam War. Real oral history Jeannette Rankin: Activist for World Peace, Women's Rights, and Democratic Government.

Sara Bard Field

Sara Bard Field first became involved in the campaign for woman suffrage in Portland, Oregon, where she joined the Oregon College Equal Suffrage League and worked as the paid state organizer for the campaign that won suffrage in that state in 1912. Field became known as an eloquent orator when she canvassed the state during the summers of 1911 and 1912. The following two years, 1913-1914, she assisted the Nevada suffrage campaign. Having grown emotionally and politically distant from her husband, a Baptist minister, she divorced him in late 1914, over his pronounced objection; he moved to Berkeley, California, with their two children, who became his custody following the divorce.

Field joined efforts to obtain national suffrage and worked with the Congressional Union and its successor, the National Woman's Party. In 1915 Alice Paul asked her to travel across the country by automobile, collecting signatures on a petition in support of the woman suffrage amendment. Field and two drivers left San Francisco, where Field had gone to be close to her children, in September 1915. She was preceded by Mabel Vernon, who organized greeting parades along the way. The trip was not free of hardships--they endured Wyoming blizzards, mid-western mud, and repeated mechanical breakdowns. They presented the petition, signed by 500,000 people, to President Wilson on December 6, 1915.

Furthering the development of the National Woman's Party, Field spoke at its Chicago convention in 1916 and throught the west. She was a member of another deputation to President Wilson in January 1917 and in 1918 supported Anne Martin's senatorial campaign in Nevada. A pacifist, she also supported the San Francisco People's Council after the U.S. entered World War I. Field retreated from political activity in late 1918, bereaved by the death of her teenage son. She had been on a family outing when she lost control of the car she was driving; the car tumbled over the edge of a steep hill and crushed her son.

When Field finally recovered, she continued to be somewhat active politically (for example, she delivered a speech to Congress in 1921), but turned her primary attention to writing poetry. By then she was living with the poet, writer, and philosophical anarchist Charles Erskine Scott Wood, a West Point graduate and corporate lawyer whom she had met in Portland eight years earlier. Their San Francisco home became a gathering spot for writers and artists in the Bay Area. Field's poems were published in many literary and political magazines; her first collection, The Pale Woman, was published in 1927. Her long narrative poem, Barabbas (1932) won the Book Club of California gold medal. Her second volume of poems, Darkling Plain, was published in 1936. Following the death of C. E. S. Wood in 1944, Field edited his Collected Poems (1949), arranged his papers for the Huntington Library, and supported the activities of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1955 she moved to Berkeley to be near her daughter, Katherine Field Caldwell. The Bancroft Library conducted Sara Bard Field's oral history from 1959 to 1963. She died in 1974 at the age of eighty-seven. Read oral history Sara Bard Field: Poet and Suffragist.

 

Rebecca Hourwich Reyher

Born in 1897 in New York City, Rebecca Hourwich was the daughter of Isaac Hourwich, a noted economist and authority on immigration and Russian-American law. She was sixteen years old when she marched in the Woman's Party Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., in 1913, and was only eighteen years old when she campaigned for the Suffrage referendum in New Jersey. She later took charge of the Brockton district for the Massachusetts Woman's Suffrage party. She took part in the picketing of the White House in 1917, and, that same year, traveled to the South to tell about the arrests of the suffragists. Reyher headed the Boston office of the National Woman's Party in 1918, the New York office from 1918 to 1919, the Washington, D.C., headquarters in 1921, and the NWP headquarters in Chicago in 1923. She served on the board of the NWP from 1927 to 1929.

She received her B.A. from the University of Chicago, and in 1920 studied at the New York School of Social Work. During the 1920s Reyher wrote articles for Hearst's International magazine; she took her first trip to South Africa for Hearst's International in 1924.

In 1927 Reyher was an associate editor for Equal Rights magazine, and was the featured speaker at the NWP's Colorado Springs Convention. She was one of the leaders of the Equal Rights Envoys who traveled to South Dakota to meet with President Coolidge.

Reyher taught at the New School for Social Research and New York University, and gave lectures about her travels in Asia and Africa. She wrote several books based on the years she spent abroad, including Zulu Woman: The Autobiography of Christina Sibiya (1948) and The Fon and His Hundred Wives (1952) . She also wrote Babies and Puppies are Fun!, and, under the name Becky Reyher, retold My Mother Is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (1945) .

She died in 1987 at the age of eighty-nine. Read oral history Rebecca Hourwich Reyher: Search and Struggle for Equality and Independence.

 

Helen Valeska Bary

Helen Valeska Bary's suffrage involvement was primarily in southern California where she worked with the Los Angeles Political Equality League to get the Suffrage Amendment passed in California. She was the general secretary for the Political Equality League in 1910 and 1911. Ms. Bary went on to have a long career in social welfare administration. She worked at a variety of agencies such as the United States Children's Bureau, and the California State Department of Social Welfare, until she joined the newly formed Social Security Administration in 1935. Read oral history Helen Valeska Bary: Labor Administration and Social Security--A Woman's Life.

Burnita Shelton Matthews

Born near Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in 1894, Burnita Shelton Matthews trained to be a musician, but had always wanted to study the law. So she moved to Washington, D.C., where, in 1920, she received her law degree from the National University (later consolidated with George Washington University). While attending law school, Matthews learned about the National Woman's Party, and participated in picketing the White House on many occasions. "It was amazing in those days how some of the people felt about women picketing," Matthews recalled. "On one of those occasions when I wasn't doing anything but just carrying a banner, someone who was watching the parade came up and said, 'What are you being paid for this?' They used to say things like that."

As a private practitioner, Matthews specialized in real estate transactions. In the late twenties she represented the National Woman's Party in its attempt to reach a fair settlement when the government sought to acquire the National Woman's Party headquarters in a condemnation proceeding. The United States Supreme Court Building now stands on that site.

After the nineteenth amendment was ratified, Matthews served as general counsel of the National Woman's Party. With the help of her aides, she reviewed each state's codes and drew up reforms to correct the existing inequities under the law. She spoke at a series of Congressional hearings on the Equal Rights Amendment, arguing the importance of having an amendment to the Constitution rather than passing case-by-case bills. She was part of a delegation to discuss the ERA with President Harding in April 1921, and in 1926 attended the International Woman Suffrage Alliance meeting in Paris.

Nominated by President Truman, Matthews was appointed in 1949 to serve as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, making her the first woman to serve as a federal district judge. Matthews continued hearing district court cases until 1983. The Bancroft Library conducted her oral history in 1973, the same year she was interviewed by Bill Moyers for his television program, the "Bill Moyers' Journal." She died in 1988. Read oral history Burnita Shelton Matthews: Pathfinder in the Legal Aspects of Women.

 

Ernestine Hara Kettler

Born into an agnostic, anarchist Jewish family in a suburb of Craiova, Rumania in 1896, Ernestine Hara Kettler immigrated to the United States in 1907. Her father's death left her family without any money, and her mother went to work in a New York sweatshop. Kettler was thirteen when she began associating with the Young People's Socialist League, attended political meetings in Union Square, and joined strikes when the opportunity arose. Displaying a gift for writing, members of the local Labor Temple offered Kettler wealthy sponsors who provided her a private education, first at an academy in Massachusetts, and later at an academy in Oberlin, Ohio. Still, Kettler was drawn to the community of radical activists in New York, where she associated with members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), anarchists like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, and the writers and artists of Provincetown, including Eugene O'Neill and Louise Bryant. She was at a Socialist convention in 1917 when somebody told her about the National Woman's Party and invited her to go to Washington, D. C. to join the picketing of President Wilson. "Of course, anything as exciting as that would have appealed to me," she recalled. She was twenty-one years old, the youngest of the three other suffragists with whom she was then arrested on September 22, 1917, for "obstructing traffic." She was sentenced to thirty days at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia--an experience that would haunt her for the rest of her life. "I felt horrified by the different things that could happen to you in prison," she remembered, and though she wanted to go back to the picket line again, as she recalled, she "just wasn't courageous enough." In the years that followed, Kettler continued to be politically active, especially within the labor movement. She joined the Socialist Workers Party in the late 1930s and worked for the Office Employees Union. In the 1940s she worked for the waterfront union and later the AFL. She joined the National Organization for Women in the late 1960s. At the time she was interviewed in 1973 for the Suffragist Oral History Series, she was seventy-seven years old. Read oral history Ernestine Hara Kettler: Behind Bars.

Jessie Haver Butler

Born in 1886 of "pioneer stock" in Pueblo, Colorado, Jessie Haver Butler had a difficult childhood. Her mother, an unconventional woman who participated in the suffrage campaign in
Colorado, died when Butler was only ten years old; she made it her dying wish that Jessie gain a formal education. Overcoming many obstacles, Butler fulfilled her mother's wish by attending Smith College. Upon completing her education, Butler worked at the Macmillan Publishing Company in New York, the Pulitzer School of Journalism at Columbia University and then, beginning in 1913, as a statistician and investigator for the Massachusetts Minimum Wage
Commission to help secure a minimum wage for women. While in Boston she attended a lot of lectures on woman's suffrage and birth control, and heard the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst lecture on more than one occasion while touring the U.S., however, Butler was never directly engaged in the suffrage movement. It was in 1919, while she was working as a lobbyist with the Consumers League of Washington that she came into contact with the suffrage lobbyists, including Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt. Butler admired Catt's oratorical skill, and traveled to California with Catt where she piggy-backed her own lectures on the meat-packing industry's cornering of the war-time market with Catt's attempts to speed the ratification process. Butler was appointed the first legislative advocate of the National League of Women Voters, which grew out of the NWSA following ratification of the 19th amendment.

Following her marriage in 1920, Butler moved to London with her husband, who had secured a position at the American Embassy. It was in London that Butler was able to pursue one of her early passions, by teaching public speaking to members of the American Woman's Club. In 1929 she returned to the U.S., where she began lecturing about her experiences in England. When Butler moved back to Washington, D.C., she took a number of speech courses at George Washington University, and from 1935 to 1950 taught speech lessons to congressional wives and diplomats (including Eleanor Roosevelt). Butler wrote the first textbook on public speaking for women, Time to Speak Up, published in 1946, and in 1967 published Adams Other Wife. She became the speech coach for the General Federation of Women's Clubs. She wrote a complete autobiography (unpublished). She brought her skills in public speaking to the women's movement, conducting speech workshops for NOW. In 1970, Butler served as chairman of the Task Force for Child Care Centers of Pomona Valley NOW. "I want to spend the rest of my life helping women to find themselves," Butler concluded. Read oral history Jessie Haver Butler: On the Platform.

 

Sylvie Thompson Thygeson

Reflecting on her life at the age of 104, Sylvie Thygeson commented, "I was interested in every kind of social problem that came my way." Born in 1868, Sylvie Thygeson grew up in the small town of Forreston, Illinois. Her parents provided her an open-minded environment where discussion of social issues was encouraged. Her mother was an avid reader and a supporter of woman's suffrage; her father a lawyer who loved to talk about politics. Thygeson's family moved to St. Paul in 1884, following the death of her father. It was in St. Paul that Thygeson eventually became active in the Woman's Welfare League, which invited guest speakers--including on at least one occasion, Sara Bard Field--to their weekend luncheon meetings to educate their members on the topics of suffrage, birth control, and "any of the things that belonged to women." Thygeson also hosted small tea parties in her home where she would talk about women's issues and answer questions. These informal "parlor" gatherings were particularly effective, she recalled, because they would attract women who would not otherwise attend a lecture or more formal event. Inspired by Margaret Sanger, Thygeson made a conscious decision to limit her own family by using birth control. With two associates, Thygeson defied the law that at that time outlawed distribution of birth control by organizing a birth control clinic in St. Louis. Sylvie Thygeson died in 1975, almost 107 years old. Read oral history Sylvie Grace Thompson Thygeson: In the Parlor.

 

Laura Elizabeth Seiler

Laura Elizabeth Seiler's suffrage activities started during her college years. In 1912 while at Cornell, she started the Suffrage Club and during this same period she participated in various suffrage parades. After graduating from college, she continued to promote the suffrage cause by organizing the movement in the western counties of New York. She traveled through the counties and did "street speaking" from the back of her car. Shortly after this, she took a position as the head of the Women's Political Union Speakers' Bureau. Using her training in public speaking that she had received while at Cornell, she coached volunteer speakers who would go out and speak on the street corners. She was involved in some of the more daring acts during the Suffrage Movement such as the New York Harbor incident where a group of women carrying banners sailed a boat through the harbor. She also gave a speech atop a horse on Wall Street. Seiler went on to have a long career as an account executive in the advertising field. She worked from 1917-1948 for the Federal Advertising Agency, working her way up from Copywriter to Account Executive, to Vice-President and member of Board of Directors. Read oral history Laura Elizabeth Seiler: On the Soapbox.

 

Miriam Allen deFord

From the early age of 14 Miriam Allen deFord started working at the woman's suffrage headquarters in Philadelphia. She continued to participate in the movement by overseeing their public relations and by participating in parades in Philadelphia and in New York. She continued her suffrage activities when she moved to Boston. Between 1912-1915 she was "soapboxing" for the suffragist cause for the Massachusetts Woman's Suffrage Society. She went on to be a writer and was very involved in radical political activities in the San Francisco Bay Area beginning in 1920. Both with Maynard Shipley, her husband, and independently, she played an active role in the major radical causes of the day. She helped Shipley organize the Science League of America during the anti-evolution fights of the 1920s. Her published writings range from poetry and verse in Scribners, Harpers, Woman Voter, to murder mystery stories, science fiction, book reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle, and biographies. In addition, she worked as one of the first (if not the first) female insurance claims adjusters. She died in 1975. Read oral history Miriam Allen deFord: In the Streets.
 
Source: The photographs on this page are from the Regional Oral History Office at The Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley.

 


Last modified: 4/3/99