By Katherine Will, Undergraduate, Loyola University Chicago
Mary Wright Sewall was born on May 27, 1844 in Greenfield, Wisconsin, the youngest child of Philander and Mary Wright. Mary’s father, a teacher, home-schooled her during Mary’s formative years, instilling values of gender equality and higher education in his lessons. She lived and taught in several towns in Wisconsin before attending Northwest Female College (now Northwestern University) in Evanston, Illinois. Sewall graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in 1866 and a Master of Arts degree in 1871. After graduating, Mary returned to her home state of Wisconsin where she taught for a few years before moving to Michigan. In Franklin, Michigan, Mary met and married her first husband, Edwin Thompson, a fellow teacher. She later became the first female principal of the town’s high school, thus solidifying her leadership role in education. Mary and Edwin moved to Indianapolis in 1874, where Mary began to establish her roots as a pioneer for both suffrage and education. After Edwin died, Mary remarried to another teacher, Theodore Sewall, and together they opened a school in Indianapolis called the Girls’ Classical School. The curriculum taught at the Girls’ Classical School included modern languages and sciences, quite a departure from the curriculum taught at other girls’ schools that promoted art and music. The courses, Sewall believed, were integral to the academic development of young women who intended to attend college.
In addition to her work as an educator, May Wright Sewall established one of the first women’s clubs in Indianapolis, a place where women could challenge and improve their “mental and social culture.” Sewall joined the suffrage movement in 1878, when she and several other women met secretly to form the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society, a group which catapulted her to national recognition when she lobbied the Indiana General Assembly to pass the state’s women’s suffrage law. Although the Indiana state senate refused to pass the bill, Mary’s frustration over gender inequality and voting rights sent her to the national level where she became Chairperson of the National Women’s Suffrage Association from 1882 until 1890. Sewall pushed the NWSA to spread their work internationally, helping women of many countries establish national councils who could in turn join the International Council of Women. Sewall was the president of the International Council of Women from 1899 to 1904, a period of time when the organization peaked with membership and activity. The World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago in 1893 attracted more than 150,000 women from 126 countries. President William McKinley selected Sewall to be the U.S. representative of women at the 1893 Paris Exposition, due in part to her global work for women’s suffrage. In her last years, Sewall agreed to join the Advisory Council of the National Woman’s Party.
May Wright Sewall spent the remaining years of her life as an advocate for peace and spirituality. The International Council of Women elected Sewall to speak at four peace conferences between 1904 and 1911, aligning nearly eight million women with world peace efforts. An ardent spiritualist, Sewall published a book about psychic experiences, Neither Dead Nor Sleeping, which chronicled her communication with her deceased second husband (who passed away in 1895), as well as a Russian pianist and French priest.
May Wright Sewall died on July 22, 1920 of kidney disease in Indianapolis. Her legacy and work contributed to the passage of the 19th amendment, which was ratified one month after her death.
Ray E. Boomhower, Fighting For Equality: A Life of Mary Wright Sewall (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Press Society, 2007).
Jane Stephens, “Mary Wright Sewall: An Indiana Reformer,” Indiana Magazine of History (1978), 274-92.
“Sewall, May Eliza Wright,” in Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary; Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 270.