Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Owen Graham, 1872-1957
By Natalie Tkac, student; Simone Caron, professor,
Wake Forest University, Winston Salem, North Carolina.
Teacher, Assistant Superintendent, Mecklenburg County Schools; President, Peace Institute; President, North Carolina Teachers Association; Committee Member, National Democratic Committee
Mary Owen Graham was born on October 13, 1872, in Wilmington, North Carolina. Graham came from a large family of educators and politicians. Her grandfather John Owen was the former governor of North Carolina, her cousin Frank Graham was a U.S. Senator and a United Nations mediator, and her brother Edward Graham was the president of the University of North Carolina.
Graham graduated from the Charlotte Female Institute (now Queens College) in 1890. In 1892 she began her career at a grade school teaching primary education. She progressed to training future teachers, and eventually became the assistant superintendent of Mecklenburg County schools. In 1916 she moved on to her most highly esteemed position as the president of the Peace Institute, a Presbyterian junior college for women, until 1924. Her goal for the school was the physical, spiritual, and social development of the students. Graham improved the conditions and academic standards of the school by appointing highly qualified teachers and administrators. She prepared and encouraged the women of the Peace Institute to continue their studies at a college or university. Graham advocated for suffrage through educating the future generation of woman voters.
Aside from her presidency at the Peace Institute, Graham was an influential leader in many political advocacy groups. She was a prominent member of the League of Women Voters working to educate women on political issues. She often gave speeches before state government officials, including the House and Senate of North Carolina in support of equal rights for women and suffrage. She also played an important role in pioneering the way for women to hold leadership positions by being the first woman president of the North Carolina Teachers Association and first woman committee member of the National Democratic Committee.
Graham's contribution to the suffrage movement was based upon education and example. She convinced young women that they had the same intellectual capacities as men. Many of her students went on to be politically and socially active and to have their voices heard in the government. Graham was an admirable role model to the younger generation to which she was so committed. She demonstrated through example for women that with enough hard work and perseverance, a woman could hold leadership positions in a highly patriarchal society.
Graham passed away on March 29, 1957. Over the years the Peace Institute evolved, changing its name in 1930 to Peace: A Junior College for Women, but Graham's influence on the institution has not been forgotten as her portrait hangs in the admissions building. She is remembered for her lasting influence on the women of the Peace Institute and her political advocacy for women's rights and suffrage.
Grady L. E. Carroll, "Graham, Mary Owen," NCpedia, accessed online, October 27, 2016 at http://ncpedia.org/biography/graham-mary
**Mary Owen Graham, "Peace Institute," The High School Journal, March 1922, p 79 accessed online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/
**Special Staff of Writers, History of North Carolina (New York, N.Y.: Lewis Publishing Company, 1919).