By Jessica Roden, Vassar College ‘17
Elizabeth McShane was born on November 9, 1891 in Fayette County, Pennsylvania as the eldest of Anna Dixon Vail and William Wallace McShane’s three children. After attending Uniontown High School, she studied German and Greek at Vassar College and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa as part of the class of 1913. Prior to joining the women’s suffrage movement, she taught in Indianapolis for two years and sold bonds during the war. She was active in many different women’s organizations, including the Congressional Union, National Woman’s Party, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Women’s Trade Union League. She even drove a replica Liberty Bell around Pennsylvania in 1915 to attract attention to getting the vote for women. During this time, she was jailed several times for protesting, noting in a letter, “I don’t know how many times I went to jail.”
In her diary that she kept while in jail from November 16 to 29 of 1917, she described in detail and anguish how she and other women went on a hunger strike to demand better jail treatment calling on President Wilson to meet their demands for suffrage. Commenting on her weak state after not eating, she agonized “My mind feels much confused. I wonder if we have come in vain” and “This is the most despairing moment of my life. Every instinct within me has been outraged, hurt & insulted, for I have been forcibly fed.” She continued to fight for her rights, though, noting, “I feel queer in my head, cold & hollow, but not suffering. Nervous. Am so anxious about my job & so hungry. Feel more indignant than ever that we should be here for the sake of Wilson’s fat, smug, little soul.” Despite the pain, it was worth it, for “I feel that we must insist on promise that our status will be recognized & rights given. Otherwise, we are being constantly teased like mice…It is such brutality. How can Wilson stand it when he alone is responsible?” This time in jail did not scare her away from further activism, as she was subsequently arrested, then jailed for 15 days for participating in the Lafayette Square meeting in August 1918 and refusing to pay the assessed fine, served five days for joining in the watchfire demonstration of January, 1919. Due to her active involvement in the women’s movement and memories of suffering in jail, she was a member of the 1919 prison special, traveling around the nation for one last rallying cry for the right to vote.
After the ratification of the nineteenth amendment, Elizabeth McShane studied chemistry and biology at Bryn Mawr College and worked for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in Philadelphia. Since she had prior experience of working with the American Medical Association, writing a report about the health of Pennsylvania industrial workers in 1918, and now a newly gained science education, she began researching and teaching about industrial disease at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston in 1921. She then married accountant William Hilles on February 5, 1924, and they subsequently raised two daughters and some sheep on a farm in Pennsylvania for several years. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1938, and she continued on as a teacher in numerous secondary schools for 25 years. During this time, she was an active member of many different organizations, including the Friends of Boarding Home in Newtown, the American Civil Liberties Union, Friends’ Committee on National Legislation, as a Board member of the League of Women Voters, and a Board Member and Secretary of Bucks County Homemaker Service. In an alumnae response to Vassar College in 1969, she noted that she was working to defeat Nixon and end the Vietnam War, and was interested in disarmament, racial integration, conservation of natural resources, and improvement of public education. She died on August 13, 1976 at the age of 84.
Sources for this sketch include the Elizabeth McShane folder in Box 38 of the Vassar College Alumnae/i Biographical Files (AAVC), located in the Archives and Special Collections Library of Vassar College Libraries in Poughkeepsie, NY. This collection includes a copy of her prison diary from November 16-29, 1917, a letter from her daughter expanding upon her obituary in 1976, various Vassar College alumnae questionnaires, and other correspondence to Vassar College. Biographical information was also found in Doris Stevens’s Jailed for Freedom (1920), accessed online at http://chswg.binghamton.edu/WASM-US/crowdsourcing/Stevens_JailedForFreedom_Appendix4.pdf.
League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania publication, the Pennsylvania Voter, book review of Miss Laura Lou Brookman 1970’s Fifty Years Old and Proud of It: A History of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, found in the Elizabeth McShane folder, AAVC.
Senior-year yearbook entry including a photo and a drawing in the 1913 Vassarion, found in Vassar College Libraries.