Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Florence Peshine Eagleton, 1870-1956
By Rachel Chiu, undergraduate student
Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Suffragist; Founder - New Jersey League of Women Voters; Trustee - Rutgers University; Founder - Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University
Florence Peshine Eagleton was born on April 16, 1870, in Newark, New Jersey, to Elizabeth Mary Jellip and Francis Stratford Peshine. She grew up in an affluent family and married wealthy neurosurgeon Wells Phillip Eagleton in 1913. Her marriage was announced in The New York Times.
During the suffrage movement, Eagleton was the Vice President of the New Jersey Suffrage Association. While there is little documentation about her at this time, Eagleton is noted for being an active civic leader in later documents. Upon the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Eagleton organized and participated in the New Jersey Victory Convention celebrating the long awaited ratification. Eagleton's activism did not stop with the victory of gaining the vote. Shortly after the 19th was passed, she founded and served as President of the Newark League of Women Voters, an organization dedicated to the fostering of educated female citizens. Documents from The Woman Citizen, a suffragist publication, record that Eagleton chaired a committee that put forth an action plan for educating female voters focusing on the ideals of government, both historic and practical.
Eagleton espoused the value of hands-on politics and education throughout her life as an activist and civic leader. She became one of the organizes of the New Jersey College for Women and was became the first female trustee of Rutgers University, serving from 1932 to 1946 at which point she became a trustee emerita. Articles from The Woman Citizen show that Eagleton sat on committees involved with prison health care and women's health even serving as a member of the New Jersey Birth Control League and the Newark Maternal Health Center.
Even in death, Eagleton continued to have an impact in the world of public policy and women's rights. Upon her death on November 22, 1956, Eagleton left a bequest of nearly $2,000,000 to Rutgers University to establish the Wells Phillips Eagleton and Florence Peshine Eagleton Foundation. She envisioned the foundation as an institute that would bring together political theory and practical politics. It was originally set up at Douglass College, the women's college of Rutgers. Since its inception, the institute has awarded fellowships to both undergraduate and graduates and has been a place for the development of both political thought and action. Today, it is known simply as the Eagleton Institute of Politics and also houses the Center for American Women and Politics. The following quote from Eagleton is cited as the institute's guiding philosophy, indeed, it is indicative of Eagleton's approach to political action throughout her accomplished life as well: "It is my settled conviction that the cultivation of civic responsibility and leadership among the American people in the field of practical political affairs is of vital and increasing importance to our state and nation… I make this gift especially for the development of and education for responsible leadership in civic and governmental affairs and the solution of their political problems."
"About Florence Peshine Eagleton." About Eagleton. Eagleton Institute of Politics, n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.
Anonymous: Getting together for citizen education; Woman's journal. Vol. 5, Iss. 18 (1920) pg. 492
Anonymous: State leagues pushing citizenship; Woman's journal. Vol. 4, Iss. 40 (1920) pg. 1182-1183
Anonymous, "The famous mile," Woman's journal. Vol. 8, Iss. 16 (1923) p. 21.
"Detailed Chronology National Woman's Party History." Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party (n.d.): n. pag. American Memory. The Library of Congress. Web. 5 Mar. 2017.
Document 63: Invitation to Opening of the Woman's Rights Collection [26 August 1943], RG XVIII, Series I, Box 1, folder 7, Records of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, 1942-2011, Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. 3 pp. Included in Maud Wood Park Archive: The Power of Organization, Part One: Maud Wood Park and the Woman Suffrage Movement, Documents for Part One selected and interpreted by Melanie Gustafson.
Florence P Eagleton, "Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, a tribute," Woman's journal. Vol. 4, Iss. 15 (1919) p. 382
"Florence Peshine Eagleton." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 07 Feb. 2017.
Mandel, Ruth B. "Message from the Director." About Eagleton. Eagleton Institute of Politics, n.d. Web.
Maud Wood Park Papers (Woman's Rights Collection). Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. Reel M-91, 14f, 54
"Mission and History." Mission and History | CAWP. Center for American Women and Politics, n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.
"Mission Statement." About Eagleton. Eagleton Institute of Politics, n.d. Web.
"Named by Women Voters: Mrs. F.H. Samford Elected President of New Jersey League." New York Times, 26 May 1928: 19.
New York Times. "Married: Eagleton-Riggs." The New York Times 27 May 1913: n. pag. Print.
Poulson, Theresa. "Eagleton Celebrates Anniversary." The Daily Targum [New Brunswick, N.J.] 12 Mar. 2001: n. pag.
"Five Win Fellowships." The New York Times [New Brunswick, N.J.] 6 Oct. 1958: 28.
"Mrs. Wells Eagleton, Rutgers Trustee, 83." The New York Times 24 Nov. 1953: 30.
"Politicians at Rutgers: Muskie and Case Will Work With Students for 10 Days." The New York Times, 15 Oct. 1957: 26.
"State Aide Named for Rutgers Fund." The New York Times, 8 Apr. 1956: 55.
"Women's Suffrage Timeline." Njwomenshistory.org. New Jersey Women's History, n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2017.
I found this process to be very exciting. I started out with a little trepidation, unsure of what sort of sources I would be able to find on Florence. However, as I began googling and started looking through our amazing online databanks I started to feel more confident that this was actually going to work.
I had a bit of a breakthrough when I went to the Schlesinger to do some archival research. Firstly, I'd like to acknowledge how incredibly helpful and knowledgeable the entire staff of the library was. With their help, I was able to locate one of Florence's letters in the Maud Wood Parks microfilm collection. This was my first time encountering microfilm and it was a very interesting experience. While I would never give up the convenience and efficiency of online research, there is something to be said for archival research. As cheesy as it sounds, holding the reel of microfilm in my hands, learning how to correctly hook it up to the viewer, and then arduously scrolling through pages and pages of letters, made this research feel like actual "serious academic work". The experience certainly gave me an appreciation for what academics of the past had to go through. While that sentiment somewhat plays into my own vanities, I think that this short dabble into archival work was a great gateway for future research.
That being said, the letter that I found after spending a solid hour in the Schlesinger didn't quite make it into my biographical sketch. The letter was simply a birthday card for Maud Park Woods signed by Florence - hardly anything to include in a paper. However, it was still very cool seeing the actual writing of someone who I had been searching through newspaper clippings for. In a similar vein, a lot of the mentions that I found of Florence in newspapers here and there didn't turn out to be particularly informative. I would get really excited every time I caught a glimpse of Florence's name, yet more often than not she was just mentioned in passing. Even so, seeing her in these articles was proof to me of her impact and of her "realness".
What actually turned out to be the most informative was secondary sources about the Eagleton Institute, Florence's most tangible legacy. While I was disappointed that I couldn't find very much on her activity in the years leading up to the ratification of the 19th, I was encouraged by the fact that this woman's actions led to the establishment of an organization that continues to be active and continues to fight for women in politics. I am so glad that women like Eagleton had the foresight to invest in the education of women and in the inclusion of women in academia. Organizations like the Eagleton Institute and the Center for American Women in Politics are vital to the creation of feminist knowledge and to the promotion of female leadership.
The other two treasure troves that I ended up using were the Gerritson Collection and the New York Times Archives. Florence seemed to be quite a society lady and was relatively frequently mentioned in the papers. I found Florence's obituary in the Times to be very informative and yet also very thought-provoking. While the obituary contained a very comprehensive list of all the organizations that Florence was a part of, her accomplishments were listed after a description of her ancestry. The description seemed very odd to me. The author emphasized her French and English ancestry and made a very forced and contrived claim that she was distantly related to George Washington. It was a reminder to me that the feminist movements of this time, at least the activism that was recognized by the mainstream media, were of a decidedly white and rich strand of feminism. The fact that her ancestry took precedence over her accomplishments, which were listed at the end of the obituary, was also a reminder that even with the vote, women were still very much seen as domestic creatures defined in terms of family. The fact that she is listed in this database as Mrs. Wells P Eagleton, rather than as Florence Peshine Eaglton, is indicative of this as well. While this project has given me much cause to be inspired by the women that came before me, it has also reminded me of how far we've come and how far we still have to go.