Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Octavine Cowper, 1881-1968
By Shannon Moryl, Undergraduate,
Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Regional Director, Third Region, League of Women Voters
Mary Octavine Cowper (nee Thompson) was born in Shelbyville, Bedford County, Tennessee on May 20, 1881. A highly educated woman, she graduated from Drury College with a Bachelor of Letters in 1904 and received a Master of Arts in English with a minor in French in 1907. She received a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Kansas in 1914 and completed the coursework for a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago in 1916. She employed this extensive knowledge of the social sciences to further Progressive reforms, focusing primarily on advancing the social, economic, and political status of women and working-class children by encouraging women's suffrage.
On April 17, 1909, Mary Thompson married Frederick Augustus Grant Cowper, an assistant professor in the modern language department at Drury College, and later a French professor at Trinity College. In 1918, the Cowpers moved to Durham County, NC, where Mary spent the rest of her life as a community activist.
With the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, Mary Cowper helped organize the North Carolina chapter of the League of Women Voters (NCLWV), a branch of a national organization dedicated to educating women on their civic duty as voters to shape policy making. She also edited the NCLWV monthly bulletin from 1923 to 1931. Elected in 1925 as Director of the Third Region of the League of Women Voters (encompassing Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia), Cowper aimed to register at least 75 percent of eligible women voters, influence public opinion through widespread publicity, and enlist the assistance of women's clubs to lobby for NCLWV legislative goals.
Dismayed by the low-paid, overworked women and children in the North Carolina textile industry, Cowper emphasized labor reform. In her 1925 case study on cotton mill villages, Cowper critiqued the exploitive capitalist system for its destruction of the cooperative tendencies of humans as well as its enslavement of uneducated women and children to the industrial machine of production and profit. In addition to crusading for child labor laws, health and safety regulations, and shorter working hours, Cowper worked towards the establishment of child-care programs and mandatory public education. She hoped these reforms would serve to lessen the burden of working parents, limit the hours children could legally work, and educate the rising generation of voter citizens.
By her death on October 26, 1968, in Durham, NC, Cowper had assumed leadership roles on a number of progressive committees and associations dedicated to the social advancement of women and working-class children. In addition, she earned a writing fellowship at the University of North Carolina in 1925, which she used to publish numerous articles and reviews.
Mary O. Cowper, "Cotton-Cloth: A Type Study of the Social Process," Social Forces 4, no. 1 (1925): 169-74; Mary O. Cowper, "The North Carolina League of Women Voters," The Journal of Social Forces 2, no. 3 (1924): 424-424; Mary O. Cowper, The Papers of Mary Octavine (Thompson) Cowper, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University; Marjorie Shuler, "Enforcement, World Court and Back to Polls Crusade Urged On Women Voters: Regional Directors of the National League of Women Voters," Christian Science Monitor (April 17, 1925); "The State Conferences for Social Work," Journal of Social Forces 2, no. 3 (1924): 396-99; Special to The New York Times, "Women Voters Act on Major Policies," New York Times, April 21, 1925, sec. Radio; Vylla Poe Wilson, "Activities of the Women's Clubs: Among The Clubs," The Washington Post, November 8, 1925, sec. Amusement Features; "Women Voters Get Dry Resolution: National League Convention Asked to Urge Congress to Uphold Law,"; "New York's Only Woman Alderman Speaks on Politics at Cleveland Gathering," New York Times, April 18, 1926.