By Danelle Moon
Head, Special Research Collections, UC Santa Barbara
Suffragist, Anti-capital punishment activist
Vivian Pierce was born 12 August 1879 in San Diego, California to Henrietta B. Pierce (1854-1933) and Charles O. Pierce (1842-1889). She had four sisters, Anna Pierce (1876-1951), Sarah Pierce Brisco (1877-1970), Estelle Pierce Phelps (1885-1959) and Imogene Pierce Lange (1887-1933). Her paternal grandparents, Oclott Pierce (1810-1879) and Sarah J. Pierce (1815-1893) were early San Diego pioneers.
Pierce graduated in 1899 from Russ High School in San Diego. According to newspaper accounts she attended the University of Southern California taking courses in journalism. She penned local society stories for the San Diego Union, followed by more serious reporting in San Francisco working for the Daily News (predecessor to the San Francisco Chronicle). In 1914 she covered the presidential campaign of Senator La Follette for the Daily News and later joined Hiram Johnson's campaign for Governor of California, taking charge of the labor publicity for his campaign. In 1914 Lucy Burns and Rose Winslow influenced her to join the Congressional Union (CU). In 1915 she left the Daily News to direct the press department of the CU during the Panama Pacific Exposition. Pierce provided important field work in Arizona, North Dakota, Idaho, and in her home state of California. In 1916, she left California for Washington D.C., where she assumed editorial responsibilities of The Suffragist, the newspaper of the CU and National Woman's Party (NWP). Pierce represented a growing number of talented and dedicated western women who joined the CU and helped form the NWP. (The Suffragist, November 18, 1916, p. 5).
While living in D.C. and working on The Suffragist, she wrote several articles focused on the campaigns in Arizona, Louisiana, and New Jersey. A few of her articles included a memorial story on Inez Milholland Bossevain (Nov. 25, 1916, p. 7) and articles on the 97th anniversary of Susan B. Anthony's birth. (Feb. 17, 1917, pp. 7-8) Between the years 1917-1919 she participated in the White House pickets and reportedly was arrested over 30 times, though she never went to prison. The primary California newspapers in San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco reported on her role in the pickets and covered stories related to the California campaign. (SF Chronicle, June 26, 1917 pg. 4; SD Union, July 27, 1917, p. 1, March 13, 1919; LA Evening Herald, June 29, 1917, August 29, 1917)
A polished writer, speaker, and lobbyist for the national suffrage movement, Pierce represented California and other western states speaking to diverse groups of women and civic organizations. Many of the California newspaper accounts ran headlines of her suffrage activities and highlighted her role as a militant suffragist ("Original White House Picket in San Diego for Short Visit; Predicts Suffrage Victory," San Diego Union, March 13, 1919.) In various newspapers accounts, Pierce defended the "so-called militancy" of the NWP and emphasized the right to peacefully protest. She rebuffed one interviewer stating that "holding banners and burning small pieces of papers-- could hardly be seen as militant. Our so-called militancy accomplished exactly what is was designed to do. It focused the attention of this country on suffrage". This was legitimate agitation." (San Diego Union, March 13, 1917, p. 1)
During the state ratification process, Pierce, along with a large group of California club women, challenged the obstructionist Governor of California, William Stephens, who refused to call a special session to ratify the 19th Amendment. The women took to the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento pointing to the ratification by other Eastern States and the call for special suffrage sessions in two Southern states--finally shaming the Governor into action. (SF Chronicle, June 12, 22, 1919). In 1921, Pierce and her California NWP peers, including Sarah Bard Field, attended the NWP convention, unveiling the statue of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony, and several were honored for picketing the White House. (San Diego Evening Tribune, Feb. 7, 1921, p. 6)
Following the ratification victory of the 19th Amendment, Pierce channeled her social activism to abolish capital punishment. In 1925 she worked closely with Clarence Darrow, Doris Stevens, and Dr. Miriam Van Waters, among other notable radicals, to form the League to Abolish Capital Punishment in New York; it later incorporated as the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment (ALACP). The ALACP hoped to eliminate capital punishment in all states and to prohibit new legislation supporting capital punishment. Pierce, the primary force behind the organization, served as the executive secretary and later as the director for 22 years. She earned the reputation for her vivid personality and burning zeal for the cause. (Darrow, 505)
Pierce took to the road as a political lobbyist, campaign organizer and speaker, and distributed educational literature as part of her work. Interest in the abolition of capital punishment waned significantly during World War II, as did donor support of the organization and national board membership. Pierce spent the war years in California, where she organized and ran the west coast lobbying campaign moving in between San Diego and Los Angeles, while working with Anne Martin to promote legislation in Nevada. As a result of housing storages and overcrowding in Los Angeles, Piece had difficulty finding adequate office space to run the campaign and a drop in financial contributions made it difficult to sustain the West Coast operation. Pierce sacrificed financial comfort and security to work for the cause, and she partially supported herself from a small monetary gift from an unnamed elder suffragist. In 1947, Pierce resigned as director, and she transferred ownership of the organizations materials and documents to then acting President, Dr. Miriam Van Waters. Pierce and Van Waters maintained a close personal friendship from the 1930s through the late 1950s. Sara Ehrmann took over as the executive director of the ALACP, serving from 1949-1961. Pierce returned to San Diego in the late 1940s, where she resided until her death on 27 March 1971.
The life of Vivian Pierce is documented through local newspaper accounts in California, Washington D.C., and in New York. The National Woman's Party Papers contains a handful of correspondence and The Suffragist, newspaper of the Congressional Union and NWP provide additional accounts of her suffrage work. Collections documenting her work with the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment, include the Miriam Van Waters Papers and Sara R. Ehrmann Papers at the Schlesinger Library. Northeastern University has a small collection on Sara R. Ehrmann, and the New York Public Library has some of the early reports and newspaper scrapbook donated by Vivian Pierce. Photographic materials are available through the Schlesinger and Library of Congress. Additional sources include the edited letters of Clarence Darrow, In the Clutches of the Law: Clarence Darrow's Letters, edited by Randall Tietjen, (University of California Press, 2013), and Estelle B. Freedman, Maternal Justice: Miriam Van Waters and the Female Reform Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1996). Other standard government sources from the U.S. Census, city directories, social security, and grave indexes helped confirm her actual birth and death dates, and her family genealogy.