Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Emma F. Angell Drake, 1849-1934
By Chadwick Pearsall
Graduate student, Idaho State University
To label Emma F. Angell Drake as simply an Idaho women's suffragist, a medical doctor, a temperance advocate, an author, a minister's wife, or an Idaho state legislator, would be to sell her short. The truth is that she was all of those things and more. For a time she lived in Idaho, but she also lived in New York, Kansas, Michigan, Massachusetts, Colorado, Wisconsin, California, and Oregon. In order to grasp who Emma F. Angell Drake was we have to track her work and advocacy across the span of her life. I argue that she was not primarily a woman suffragist, though it is undeniable that she was involved in the women's suffrage movement. Instead, at her core Emma F. Angell Drake was an avid temperance advocate whose medical training and religious beliefs influenced her life's work.
She was born Emma Frances Angell on September 15, 1849 in Angellville, New York. Her parents were Silas T. Angell and Deborah Angell. Little is known about her childhood, but by the time Emma was thirteen she was living in Lamont, Michigan with her family. By the mid-1860s she had become a primary school teacher in Lamont, and later in Robinson, Michigan. In the fall of 1870 she enrolled at Olivet College, a Congregational school near Lansing. After graduating in 1874, she returned to Robinson to continue teaching, until educational pursuits took her away to medical school at Boston University in 1878. During her time in Boston Emma was exposed to the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the Massachusetts Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU); she even became a member of the WCTU while in Boston. After graduating with a medical degree in 1882 she became the principal and physician at Northfield Seminary, a female seminary founded by Dwight L. Moody in Northfield, Massachusetts. It does not appear that the seminary was a good fit for her, as her tenure there lasted only one year.
On July 3, 1883 Emma married Rev. Ellis Drake, who she likely knew from when she was in medical school and he was pastoring in Boston. After marrying, Emma disappeared from social activism for some years, which may have been due to the demands of her new role as a minister's wife and her duties to their church. What is known is that Emma and Ellis had three children during this period: Ruth, (1884), Philip (1886), and Paul (1891). By the time Paul was born the family had moved Kansas, which was a hotbed of advocacy for women's suffrage and prohibition. The Drakes continued their western migration by moving to Denver in 1896. In Denver Emma accepted a position as professor of obstetrics at the Denver Homeopathic College and Teaching Hospital. Around this same time Ellis became sick with an unspecified degenerative illness and son Philip died suddenly of appendicitis. Ellis's sickness would eventually result in husband and wife switching roles, with Ellis taking care of the home while Emma became more involved in public life. After being replaced at the Denver Homeopathic College, as the school moved to an all-male faculty, Emma began to try her hand at writing.
Her career as an author, and public figure, took off when she won a national contest for her manuscript entitled What a Young Wife Ought to Know. She received a $1,000 prize and her book was published as part of Rev. Sylvanus Stall's "Self & Sex Series." By 1902 Emma had added two more books to the series with Maternity Without Suffering and What a Woman of Forty-Five Ought to Know. For a brief time Emma even owned and edited her own magazine, though she sold it in less than a year. While Emma was experiencing great professional success her personal fortunes sank, when Ellis died of pneumonia in 1906.
When her youngest son Paul went off to college Emma stepped away from her medical practice and went to work for the WCTU. At their national convention in the spring of 1907, held in Denver, she was one of the featured speakers. By 1908 Emma was in Idaho speaking to the state chapter of the WCTU. In the 1914-1915 Woman's Who's Who of America Emma self-reports as being in New Plymouth, Idaho, but she did not permanently settle in Idaho until 1917, when she became the interim president of the Idaho WCTU. Later that fall she dropped the interim tag when she was officially elected president of the Idaho WCTU.
By 1918 Emma had officially entered the realm of organized politics and ran for the office of State House Representative for Payette County. She won both the Republican primary (371 to 295 votes) and the general election (1,142 to 868 votes). Also elected that same year was Carrie Harper White, who would work with Emma on many of her legislative activities. They became the fifth and sixth women elected to the Idaho Legislature. When the Idaho legislature convened in January, 1919 Emma's first act was to move for a vote on the Eighteenth Amendment (enacting Prohibiton), which passed unanimously. The following month Emma and Carrie White attempted to pass a bill that would reduce the nine-hour work day for women to an eight-hour work day, but they were unsuccessful. Although they were the only female representatives in Idaho, Emma and White were not universally approved of by women's clubs. When a women's clubs-backed bill, which called for the appointment of a woman to the State Board of Education, came up for a vote both Emma and White voted against it, because they favored equal rights as opposed to specially protected rights for women.
While in office Emma pushed hard for public health reforms, which is not surprising considering her medical background. One bill proposed further empowering the Idaho Board of Health, while another required licensing of maternity hospitals. Unfortunately for Emma, both bills failed. She was able to achieve a legislative victory when it came to a bill requiring physical exams and vaccinations for all school children, and providing public school nurses for all communities who wanted them. A later WCTU-backed bill that would have restricted the sale of alcohol-based patent medicines met the same fate as her earlier two health-related bills. Other notable bills that Emma helped pass were a $51,500 provision for separate women's housing at the St. Anthony Industrial Training School and getting the Child Welfare bill passed, after crossing party lines to filibuster the adjournment of the legislative session.
After her session in the legislature Emma was back traveling on behalf of the WCTU, even going to London to attend a world WCTU meeting. Despite all her travels she was back in Boise for the special session which convened to vote on the Nineteenth Amendment, on February 11, 1920. After Emma made a "strong and logical speech" to introduce the legislation, it passed both houses, with only six dissenting votes in the Senate. It is worth noting that women in Idaho had already possessed the right to vote since 1896. Emma's speech in support of the Nineteenth Amendment would be her last as a legislator. Following the special session she was back on the road for the WCTU, speaking in San Francisco on "The Menace of Alcohol by Prescription." Later that year she went on to chair the inaugural meeting of the Idaho branch of the League of Women Voters.
After reaching her zenith Emma began to slowly fade from the public eye. By 1925 she had relinquished her title as President of the Idaho WCTU. From 1926 until her death she moved around between California, Oregon, and Wisconsin, each time living with friends or family. She died in Inglewood, California on October 5, 1934, due to cancer that had spread to her stomach.
So what are we to make of Emma F. Angell Drake? She was an extraordinary woman who poured herself into the causes that inspired her; chief among them being temperance. While she did live into her eighties, her list of accomplishments seems to have spanned multiple lifetimes. She was a teacher, a temperance advocate, a medical doctor, a women's suffragist, a mother, a minister's wife, an author, and one of the first female legislators in Idaho. Though she was involved in many areas, her lifelong commitment to temperance, specifically her fifty years of involvement with the WCTU, stands out above the rest.
Image taken from the inside cover of What a Young Wife Ought to Know (1901)
Binheim, Max, ed. Women of the West: A Series of Biographical Sketches of Living Eminent Women in the Eleven Western States of the United States of America, p. 121. Los Angeles: Publishers Press, 1928.
Drake, Emma F. Angell. What a Young Wife Ought to Know. Philadelphia: Virginia Publishing Company, 1901.
Harper, Ida Husted, ed. The History of Suffrage, p. 144. New York: J. J. Little and Ives Company, 1922.
Leonard, John William, ed. Who's Who in America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Men and Women of the United States, 1906-1907. Chicago: A. N. Marquis & Company, 1906.
--- Woman's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914-1915. New York: The American Commonwealth Company, 1914.
Miller, Beverly A. What's a nice lady like you doing in a place like this? : the life and times of Emma Angell Drake. M.A. Thesis, Boise State University. 1998.
Moulton, Charles Wells, ed. The Doctor's Who's Who. New York: The Saalfield Publishing Co., 1906.