By James Keating
Graduate student, University of New South Wales
Suffragist, feminist activist.
Margaret Fay Whittemore was born in Chicago, Illinois to James Whittemore, a patent attorney, and Blanche Leggett in 1884. In 1887, the family moved to Detroit, where Margaret began her association with the woman suffrage movement. Her Quaker grandmother, Elizabeth Seaman Leggett, pioneered suffrage activism in Michigan, and Margaret followed suit, joining the Equal Suffrage League of Wayne County after its formation in 1912.
Margaret’s involvement in the Michigan campaign drew her into national suffrage work. She joined Alice Paul’s Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU)—later the National Woman’s Party (NWP)—in 1914, and became one of the union’s first generation of organizers. She led the CU’s election campaign in Washington, urging the state’s enfranchised women to oppose the Democratic Party until it supported a federal women’s suffrage amendment. In 1915 she established the CU’s ‘freedom booth’ at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. That year she also organized state branches in California, Ohio, and Michigan, the latter chaired by her sister-in-law, Marjorie Miller Whittemore.
Over the next four years, Whittemore travelled extensively. With twenty-three others, she joined the CU’s “Suffrage Special,” a five-week railroad tour of the enfranchised western states that left Washington, D.C. in April 1916. On its conclusion, she continued her fieldwork in Idaho, Nevada and Washington, holding organizational meetings for the new NWP, securing subscriptions to The Suffragist—for which she occasionally wrote—and leading deputations to state legislators.
Margaret Whittemore returned to Washington, D.C. in 1917, and participated in the Independence Day protest march from the NWP’s headquarters to the White House. There, she and twelve others were arrested and jailed for three days when they declined to post bail. In 1918, Whittemore led the NWP’s “spring campaign” on the Pacific Coast, addressing crowds from San Diego to Portland, Oregon. She continued the campaign in Idaho, asking voters to pressure Senator William Borah into supporting a suffrage amendment. When he refused, she led the NWP’s unsuccessful drive to unseat him at the November election. Whittemore was jailed again in January 1919, when she applauded those sentenced for burning President Woodrow Wilson’s speeches on democracy outside the White House.
After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, Margaret Whittemore continued to work for the NWP. She joined the Party’s national council in 1922, and with Mabel Vernon drove from Indianapolis to Santa Barbara, California on a nationwide tour in support of female candidates in the 1924 election. When Alice Paul resigned the Party’s vice-presidency in 1925, Whittemore was one of five women elected to replace her. The following year she represented the NWP at the Women’s Industrial Conference in Washington, D.C. Whittemore spent the late 1920s in Europe, representing the NWP and Equal Rights International at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s Prague (1929) and Geneva (1931) conferences, and before the League of Nations in The Hague in 1930.
In 1921 the Whittemore family moved to Santa Barbara, where Margaret Whittemore died on 2 December 1937.
Alice Tarbell Crathern, In Detroit Courage was the Fashion (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1953); Inez Haynes Irwin, The Story of the Woman’s Party (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1921); Mabel Vernon and Amelia Fry, Mabel Vernon, Speaker for Suffrage and Petitioner for Peace (Berkeley: University of California, Regional Oral History Office, Suffragists Oral History Project, 1976); The Suffragist (1914–1918).