By Anna Faherty, graduate student, Simmons College
Eleanor A. Calnan was born in 1874 and moved to Methuen, Massachusetts with her mother in 1900, following her father's death. According to Dan Gagnon, who wrote a biography of Eleanor for the Methuen Historical Society, she worked as a dressmaker. Eleanor had joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association, but she decided they were "too conservative in their methods." She became a member of the National Woman's Party (NWP) and in 1917 became a congressional district chairman for Massachusetts. Eleanor was arrested at least three times for picketing the White House with other members of the NWP. She was arrested twice in Washington, D.C. in 1917, in July and September, and sent to Occoquan Workhouse. She was also arrested and sent to Charles St. Jail in Boston in 1919, along with fellow members of the NWP, for protesting President Wilson's post-war visit to Boston, because of his continued lack of action for the women's suffrage amendment. While imprisoned, she demanded that she and her fellow political prisoners be allowed communication with each other and their friends on the outside.
Eleanor strongly believed that women deserved the vote and equality with men in all things, especially in the labor force. After women won the vote in 1920, she continued to work toward women's acceptance in the workplace: wage equality, equality of time scheduled, and ability of women to work the same jobs as men were important to her. She worked toward equalizing rights of working mothers with those of their working husbands, and in 1929 opposed a bill that would force women to give up their night time work hours. Another important issue for Eleanor was education. In 1920 when Massachusetts jails were considering consolidating for lack of inmates, she suggested converting an old jail into a school.
Eleanor was well thought of in her community of Methuen: a Boston Globe article in 1917 stated she was a well-known and respected suffragist. Her work for the NWP was considered invaluable to her colleagues in the suffrage movement. Her passion and wit were well known, and her obituary mentions her "Irish temper." An example of this zeal can be found in a letter she wrote to Alma Lutz in 1932. Eleanor railed against women who idealized men as protectors, saying: "It is alright to talk common cause with and equal rights to people capable of reasoning but over-sexed people are not in that class." Eleanor died in 1937 after an illness, which may have been pneumonia.
Dan Gagnon, "Jail, White House were stops on way to women's vote," Methuen Life Magazine (Jan. 2006).
"Miss Calnan, Suffragist, Well Liked in Methuen," Boston Daily Globe, July 18, 1917.
"PRESIDENT MAY ASK RELEASE OF PICKETS," Boston Daily Globe, July 19, 1917.
"Twelve White House Pickets doing time," Boston Daily Globe, Sept. 6, 1917.
"JAILED 'SUFFS' SEND WIRE TO PRESIDENT," Boston Daily Globe, Feb. 28, 1919.
"MILITANTS THINK THEIR JAIL TREATMENT 'LOVELY,'" Boston Daily Globe, Feb. 27, 1919.
"What Shall we do with the Jails?" Boston Daily Globe, Dec. 12, 1920.
Letters, Eleanor Calnan to Alma Lutz, January 25, 1932, and Theresa C. Doherty to Alma Lutz, July 23, 1937, MC 182, Massachusetts Branch Correspondence, Alma Lutz Papers, 1929-1946, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library in the History of Women, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge Mass.