By Kassie King
Undergraduate student, Simmons College
Camilla Whitcomb was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1860 to businessman and machinist Alonzo Whitcomb and his wife Sybeil. She was a prominent activist for women's suffrage and an influential member of the National Woman's Party. Camilla was also an artist who enjoyed both drawing and painting. She never married or had children, and spent her entire life in the family home where she was born.
When the fight for women's suffrage began to emerge in Worcester in the late 1880s, Camilla, along with her sister Lucy Stella Browning, went to a local meeting open to anyone who was interested in the movement. Her sister was not keen on participating and never became heavily involved in the suffrage struggle. Camilla, however, became an extraordinarily influential force in the movement and one of its biggest proponents. Her father seemed to accept her desire to participate, calling it "a matter of course." Her mother seemed less inclined to support her, thinking Camilla "had tied [herself] up with the wrong side of things." Her parents may have influenced Camilla's more conservative views; even as an elderly woman she believed that America should have a female president, but that women soldiers were "not necessary," and she also disapproved of women who smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol.
During her involvement fighting for women's suffrage Camilla Whitcomb was jailed on two occasions. In 1917 she was among 41 women who were sentenced to 3 months at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, for picketing outside the White House. On her first night there Camilla shared a cell with suffragist Betty Gram Swing who later became one of the most remembered and notable leaders of the women's movement, and the two quickly became friends and collaborators. Camilla was jailed again in 1919, along with 21 others, for picketing President Wilson on his return to Boston, charged with "loitering after seven minutes." She served part of her 8-day sentence on hunger strike until some one anonymously paid her fine and she was released against her will.
Camilla's other work related to the movement included being an organizer of the National Woman's Party, Corresponding Secretary of the Worcester Equal Franchise Club (formed in 1913, she became president in 1915), Chairman of the 4th Congressional District of Massachusetts for the NWP, and later working on the Equal Rights Amendment as part of the NWP. She also organized a group of local women (which later became the Worcester Forum) to get together once a week to speak about women's issues. Camilla was also involved in other causes, such as giving voice to the revolution of Chinese youth, working to help lepers, and supporting organizations in support of peace.
Outside of her political work, Camilla was very loyal to the Episcopal church. She played the organ for many years at All Saints Church where she was confirmed in 1876 and of which she was the oldest living communicant. Camilla was also an artist. The Annual Exhibition of Work by Artists and Art Students of Worcester featured her work in 1924 and 1929, including a drawing titled Seascape with Boats, and a painting called A Bit of Manomet.
Toward the end of her life Camilla became more reserved and isolated from the public eye. One article said she had become "a shut-in, ailing and lonely" when she had been "once firey." Despite how her life quieted down after the peak of the women's movement, Camilla remained a "proud, composed, unbending old lady." Camilla died in her home on September 15, 1949 at the age of 89, and was remembered by her fellow suffragists (specifically Betty Gram Swing) as an extremely influential woman who became a catalyst for action against injustice.
"Camilla Whitcomb, Famed Champion of Women's Rights, Dies," Worcester Telegram & Evening Gazette, Sept. 15, 1949.
"Worcester's Camilla Whitcomb Was 50 Years Ahead Says Betty Gram Swing," Worcester Telegram & Evening Gazette, Jan. 5, 1947.
"Camilla G. Whitcomb: Women's Rights Leader in Bay State, Aged 89," Boston Globe Sept. 16, 1949.
"In Memoriam. Camilla G. Whitcomb," Equal Rights 35:4 (1949): 47.
"Jailed ‘Suffs' Send Wire to President," Boston Globe 28 Feb. 1919.
"Recent New England Meetings Demand Immediate Senate Action," The Suffragist 6:12.
"Suffragist of the Month 2013," Turning Point Suffragist Memorial, Nov. 2013.
Twenty-First Annual Exhibition of Work by Artists and Art Students of Worcester and its Neighborhood. 1924. https://archive.org/stream/twentyfirstannua1924worc/twentyfirstannua1924worc_djvu.txt
Twenty-Sixth Annual Exhibition of Work by Artists and Art Students of Worcester and its Neighborhood. 1929. https://archive.org/stream/twentysixthannua1929worc/twentysixthannua1929worc_djvu.txt
Inez Haynes Irwin, "Chapter XIII: The Appeal to the President on His Return," in The Story of the Women's Party (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1921). [LINK]
Inez Haynes Irwin, Up Hill with Banners Flying (Penobscot, ME: Traversity Press, 1964). "The AAS Drawings Collection," American Antiquarian Society, accessed online at http://www.americanantiquarian.org/Inventories/Drawings/box8.htm#005.