By Kristen Weischedel
Graduate Student, Archives/History MS/MA, Simmons College
Jessica Lord Cox was born March 11, 1867 in Pittston, Maine. Born to Gershom L. Cox and Elizabeth A. Scott, she was the youngest of nine children; she had five full siblings and four half siblings from her father’s previous marriage. Her father, a wealthy mariner, travelled throughout the world, including such faraway places as Hawaii and China. He died suddenly on October 30, 1867, a few months after Jessica’s birth, forcing Jessica’s eldest brother, to become the sole financial caretaker, while her mother became the uncontested head of the household. Known as Jessie to her friends and family, Jessica was deeply influenced by her mother’s leadership, which drove her to the conclusion that women were capable, strong leaders.
The financial stability of her family provided Jessica the luxury of an education, rare for women during this time period. Jessica attended Westbrook Seminary, a private boarding school in Portland, Maine. She married Walter Bryan Henderson on her 25th birthday in Arlington, Massachusetts. The couple moved to Wayland, Massachusetts, in the late 1890s, purchasing a colonial home to live in. This home was soon filled by their six children, the first born prior to their move in 1884, and their last, also named Jessica, born in 1906; among her children is Wilma Henderson, another notable suffragist, born in 1904.
Jessica was an active member of the Wayland Women’s Club, hosting meetings in her own home and providing crucial support at meetings. In this circle, Jessica promoted her suffragist beliefs, though not all in the club supported these beliefs. She was elected president of the newly formed Sudbury-Wayland Equal Suffrage League in August 1915. Her activism grew, so that by 1919, she was openly protesting in favor of women’s suffrage.
In February 1919, Jessica and 21 other suffragists, including her daughter, Wilma, were jailed for their protests in Boston, dubbed the demonstration of welcome to the President. These activists greeted President Woodrow Wilson, on his return from peace talks in Europe, with signs that challenged him to secure a Senate vote for the suffrage amendment before its March adjournment. They were charged with violating a city ordinance, and refused to pay a fine, leading to their arrest. These suffragists were sentenced to 8 days in jail, due to this refusal to pay fines.
After the 19th amendment was passed and women were given the right to vote, Jessica Henderson continued to work toward equal rights for women with the National Woman’s Party. She became a member of the National Woman’s Party Massachusetts Branch, and served as vice-chairman of the league in 1929. In 1952, at age 57, she was photographed protesting in front of the White House. That protest resulted in another arrest (this time with 270 of her former fellow suffragists, including Alice Paul), and brought her to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who created a file on her.
Throughout her life, Jessica Henderson was an activist for causes she believed in, whether it was vegetarianism, the Sacco-Vanzetti defense, or suffrage. She passed away in November 1952 at the age of 86. She was cremated, and her ashes spread into the ocean in Maine.
“Activities of the Suffragists,” The Christian Science Monitor, 2 Aug. 1915.
"Arrest of 22 Suffragettes," Boston Daily Globe, 24 Feb. 1919.
Marjorie Gillis, Letter to Rebecca Hourwich Reyher, 1929. Rebecca Hourwich Reyher Papers, 1877-1988; MC 562. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
"Mrs. Jessica Henderson," Boston Daily Globe, 29 Nov. 1952.
Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920).
Wayland High School History Project, “Over Here and Over There: Wayland during the World War I Era, Ch. 1: Family Life.” http://whshistoryprojectwwi.weebly.com/ch-1-family-life-1800s-1952.html.
“Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party.” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mnwp.160008.