Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Elizabeth Hewes Tilton, 1869-1950

By Daria Rose, undergraduate student
Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Elizabeth Hewes Tilton was born on March, 13, 1869 in Salem, Massachusetts. Her father and mother, James Tracey Hewes and Eleanor (Jewett) Hewes were originally from Maine. Shortly after their marriage on June 27, 1865 in Portland, Maine, they moved to Massachusetts, where James Tracey Hewes worked as a Unitarian minister. He worked as head minister at First Unitarian Church (316 Essex St Salem, MA) from 1868 to 1875. As a result, Elizabeth Tilton's upbringing was highly religious, which would later go on to influence her work as a temperance crusader and suffragist. Hewes had two brothers, Henry F. Hewes and James Tracy Hewes Jr. Hewes attended Radcliffe College between 1887 and 1888. She later married William Frederic Tilton (1867-1961) of Cambridge, Massachusetts on January 10, 1911. William F. Tilton graduated from Harvard in 1890, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Freiburg in Germany in 1894. William worked as a social worker around the Massachusetts area and also encouraged Elizabeth during her temperance work. The couple lived on 11 Mason Street, Cambridge MA for most of their marriage, until Elizabeth Tilton's health began to fail in the late 1930's. It is not known definitively if they had any children. Elizabeth Tilton died on March 17, 1950 at her winter home in Winter Park, Florida. She is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Elizabeth Tilton was a dedicated advocate and champion of women's right, the temperance movement and passionately effective on issues regarding children like labor and education. Beginning in 1911, just after her marriage to William, she began working for Associated Charities of Boston -- much of the volunteer work involved disseminating pamphlets and smaller materials on the dangers of alcohol usage. Along the way, Tilton chronicles her experience in a series of correspondences and papers. She is inspired by her friend, Lucy M. Peabody to take a more active role in the organization. Tilton obliges and begins working with Dr. Charles Putnam and Dr. John W. Elliott to launch what newspapers would call, "a poster war on alcohol." Tilton used advertising and billboards to get the attention of the press and media, because she found that it was more effective than essays or statements. It was a new idea in the realm of political advertising, which had long been reserved for consumerism and the private sector. Tilton even received a direct letter from former president William Howard Taft in 1914 discussing her position on prohibition and his objections to it -- nonetheless recognizing her reach. After this campaign was well received, Tilton assumed the position of director of Unitarian Temperance Society (1913-1914).

As Elizabeth Hewes Tilton continued her fight for prohibition, she noticed the parallels between her cause and the Women's Suffrage movement. As an already well known activist and leader in the Boston community, Tilton took on her next major task as chairman of the Massachusetts Woman's Suffrage Association (1916-1918). Again, Tilton used propaganda as means of furthering the agenda of the women's vote. She was at the head of almost every meeting and engaged with high society figures around the Boston area promoting the 19th amendment. After it's passage, Tilton also led a campaign to ensure that women in the Massachusetts area were registered -- this was more a grassroots campaign that involved going door to door and issuing mail drops.

For the last segment of her activist career, before she became ill, Tilton turned her attention towards children and mothers. She served as chairman of the legislation committee of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers from 1921-1931. During this time Tilton penned hundreds of articles and appeals to the government and constituents regarding law reform on child labor, education, literacy, and maternity benefits. Many of those became the basis for bills like the Shepard-Towner Act that allowed for federal funding for maternity and child care due to high infancy morality rates and deaths of women in labor.

Elizabeth Hewes Tilton was a tireless defender of the rights' of women and children. Even in her later years, she continued to correspond with leaders and executives through letters and articles. She was committed to the betterment of American life and her legacy lives on in the change she enacted.


Elizabeth Hewes Tilton's papers are available at Harvard University's Schlesinger Library.

back to top