Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920

 

Biography of Dora Kuhn Kelly Lewis, 1862-1928

 

__________________

By Jill Zahniser
Independent Scholar

Reformer, suffragist.

Link to NWP Database

Dora Kuhn Kelly was born in 1862 to Henry K. Kelly and the former Louisa Warner Hard. Both sides of her family traced ancestry back into the colonial period. Kelly married lawyer Lawrence Lewis on May 16, 1883 and subsequently bore a daughter and three sons. She was widowed in 1890, after her husband was killed in a train accident. Lewis became engaged with reform efforts, including the Philadelphia shirtwaist workers strike of 1909-10, suffrage, and prison reform. She was the chair of local arrangements for the 1912 NAWSA Convention and invited Alice Paul to assist her; Paul had gained recognition for her suffrage activities in Britain and locally in Philadelphia.

Paul and Lewis established a close bond quickly, though Lewis was more than twenty years Paul's senior. Extant letters from Lewis to Paul beginning in 1912 are full of affectionate, even intimate remarks. Lewis signed on as a guiding member of the Congressional Committee Paul led in 1913. Lewis's long relationship with Philadelphia resident and NAWSA president Anna Howard Shaw eased the sometimes tense relationship between Shaw, NAWSA and Paul.

When NAWSA and Paul parted ways, Lewis threw in with Paul and became a key player in the Congressional Union and later the National Woman's Party. She served on the executive committee from 1913 through 1920 and led the fundraising effort after 1917. Though Lewis only visited Washington on occasion, she provided advice and connections and also raised money from her well-heeled friends. In addition, her steadfast support gave Paul solace in the midst of often-difficult circumstances. When Paul collapsed in July 1917 and was diagnosed with fatal Bright's disease, Lewis insisted Paul visit her brother Howard Kelly, an eminent Johns Hopkins physician, who corrected the misdiagnosis and sent Paul home with instructions to follow a strict diet and rest.

In 1917, Lewis became one of the first women arrested for picketing the White House; she was ultimately arrested four times and served sentences in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia and in the District of Columbia Jail. Her November 1917 demand for political prisoner status at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia occasioned the violence later known as the "Night of Terror."

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds the Dora Kelly Lewis Collection, which is a small group of letters, 1884-1921, mostly written to family members. "Political Prisoner," a paper discussing Lewis's activities with the NWP, is included in Lewis's file in the Amelia Roberts Fry Collection at the Alice Paul Institute, Moorestown, New Jersey. J.D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry's Alice Paul: Claiming Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) contains the fullest account of Lewis's activities with the CU/NWP and her relationship with Alice Paul.

back to top