By Jill Zahniser
Suffragist, international organizer, author.
Doris Stevens was born in Omaha, Nebraska to staunchly Republican middle-class parents of Dutch-English ancestry. Outgoing and charismatic, she graduated from Omaha High School and went on to Oberlin College, where she discovered the woman suffrage cause. Stevens met Alice Paul while participating in a summer 1913 political event in Washington, DC organized by the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU). She quickly became a valued member of Paul's team, both as a paid organizer and as an administrator. In 1914, she opened a Newport, Rhode Island office for the CU and, during that time, met Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, a key patron of the CU, and quietly began to work for Belmont while she simultaneously worked for Paul. Stevens was one of the most effective CU organizers for Paul's 1914 and 1916 western election campaigns though, like most in the suffrage ranks, she was not immune from elitist and racist convictions. In her suffrage work she exhibited tremendous enthusiasm, sometimes so depleting herself with work that she was forced at times into weeks of recuperation.
Stevens maintained her commitment until suffrage was won. She was arrested after picketing the White House on July 14, 1917 and spent three days in the Occoquan Workhouse, Lorton, VA before being pardoned by President Woodrow Wilson. During the ratification campaign for the 19th Amendment, at Paul's behest, Stevens began research on an account of the National Woman's Party, using the party's extensive files and conversations with participants. Jailed for Freedom became the first published account of the last years of the suffrage campaign, published in September 1920, one month after the Nineteenth Amendment became the law of the land.
After the suffrage victory, Stevens continued to explore new cultural as well as political frontiers. She aligned herself after 1920 with a circle of radicals centered in New York City, including former CU activist Crystal Eastman and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. After several extramarital relationships, she married and divorced Dudley Field Malone and later married Jonathan Mitchell. She continued to work for Belmont and for the NWP as the organization focused on the Equal Rights Amendment and international work on equal rights for women. In 1928, she became the first chair of an Inter-American Commission on Women created as a result of NWP organizing efforts. Her international work continued into the 1930s, despite a break with Alice Paul. According to Stevens, Paul convinced Alva Belmont to bequeath $50,000 to the NWP that had been designated for Stevens. After Belmont's death in 1933, Stevens filed suit when she found herself cut out of the will; she eventually settled for $12,000. Her break with Paul was completed when, in 1946, she joined a successful lawsuit contesting the NWP leadership. By this time, Stevens had turned to writing and composing, though she continued on the NWP National Council and as vice-president of the Lucy Stone League until her death from a stroke in New York City on March 22, 1963.
The Doris Stevens Papers are housed at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The collection includes personal and professional papers (among them correspondence, diaries, financial and legal records), photographs, audiotapes, memorabilia, and original scores. The finding aid features a detailed chronology of Stevens's personal and professional life and a list of her published books and articles. Stevens's insider account of the suffrage campaign of the National Woman's Party, Jailed for Freedom, contains some information about her introduction to and work for Alice Paul. Mary K. Trigg's Feminism as Life's Work: Four Modern American Women through Two World Wars (Rutgers University Press, 2014) is the only lengthy biographical account of Stevens's life and work. An obituary appeared in the New York Times on March 25, 1963.