Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, 1880-1966
By Donna Greene, independent historian
Suffragist, activist, first chair, New York State League of Women Voters
Narcissa Cox was born on Feb. 9, 1880 in Quincy, Illinois, the daughter of activist parents who valued education and political involvement. With her enormous leadership skills and elegance, and the support of her accomplished, wealthy husband, she left her mark on national, New York State and local politics. A lifelong Republican, her passion and influence went far beyond the women's suffrage movement to include health care for the poor, workers' rights, immigrants' rights, education and much more. She was the first chairman of the New York State League of Women Voters, and her friends included Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she recruited to the LWV's board of directors. Her portrait as a philanthropist was installed at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 1981.
"She was freed by affluence from economic worry . . . With a sense of mission she directed her energies, interests and skills toward philanthropic and reform activities. Her wealth, social connections, organization experience and beauty enabled her to mobilize people in support of her causes." -- from Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, by Hilda Watrous, published by the Foundation for Citizen Education,1982.
From an early age, Narcissa Cox, the youngest of six children of Charles Epperson Cox, an Illinois manufacturer and political activist, and Narcissa Woods Cox, a former school teacher, showed she would be a twentieth-century woman. She excelled academically and - rare for a woman of her time - she attended the University of Chicago, a co-educational college. There, she was elected manager of the girls basketball team, wrote frequently for the school newspaper and did volunteer work in the community. Not unusual for the times, she dropped out of college to marry (just weeks before graduation, although 30 years later, she returned to get her degree).
In 1903, she met Frank A. Vanderlip, a self-made man, former newspaper reporter, 16 years her senior and a vice president of the National City Bank of New York (now Citibank). By his own account, he was captivated. She must have been, too, as they were married just a few months later. The wedding guests included many prominent people in the social and financial worlds that he was part of. After an extensive honeymoon in Europe, they settled in New York City, where the first two of their six children were born.
In 1906, the family moved to a 75-acre estate known as Beechwood, located on the Hudson River in the Scarborough section of Briarcliff Manor, NY. From there, her efforts to get women the right to vote intensified, first centering on her home state. By 1917, she and Frank (who had risen to president of the bank, one of the biggest in the country) were among the largest financial contributors to the New York State Woman's Suffrage Party. (He contributed $10,000; she, $7,000, according to party records.) He became chairman of the Men's Advisory Board of the party; she was elected chairman of a three-county district.
On Nov. 6, 1917, voters in New York State approved a referendum to allow women to vote, three years before the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave women this right nationwide.
To accomplish this, Narcissa and Frank Vanderlip were tireless. At the same time, she did not abandon other causes. She was appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury to a post to encourage women to buy war bonds. She consulted with Herbert Hoover on food conservation, and supported a myriad of other social causes to help the war effort, military families and others in need. In 1919, the couple toured war-torn Europe to learn about the plight of refugees. In England, she addressed the Women's Committee of the National War Savings Committee.
In 1919, the National American Woman Suffrage Association launched plans for each state to create a League of Women Voters. The idea was to educate women about the issues of the times, not to affiliate with a party. In November 1919 in Utica, N.Y., at the first convention of the NYS LWV, Narcissa Vanderlip was elected chairman.
By then the issues she had also taken on included working conditions for women in industry, minimum wage and compulsory health insurance. At its Utica convention, the league endorsed policies to promote some of these issues and agreed to oppose the reelection of the state's senior U.S. senator, James W. Wadsworth, a Republican, opponent of prohibition (many in the Suffrage movement favored prohibition), the League of Nations - and women's suffrage. (This was before League bylaws prohibited endorsement of specific candidates.)
In 1920, as the Nineteenth Amendment was on the verge of being ratified, she was a delegate to the 51st convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and to the birth of the National League of Women Voters.
Ratification of the amendment did not in any way cut down on Narcissa Vanderlip's activism. She worked for the establishment of free maternity centers, limitations of women's work hours and legislation against commercial vice (i.e., licentious literature, pictures, songs, movies, etc.).She worked tirelessly for the defeat of New York Senator Wadsworth, a noted opponent of woman suffrage. (He was reelected anyway.) And she teamed up with Eleanor Roosevelt on a variety of progressive issues, including advocacy for the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infant Protection Act.
In the ensuing decades, her many causes and activities included:
The New York Infirmary for Women and Children, serving as its president for 37 years
The rebuilding of Tsuda College for women in Japan, destroyed by an earthquake
The founding with her husband of the Scarborough Day School in 1912
Support for a federal bill to give women doctors official status in the armed forces.
Her grandchildren say that when growing up they were not aware of the extent of her activism but were generally in awe of her in so many other ways.
"Monnie was short, elegant, upright, with a gravelly voice," her namesake granddaughter Narcissa Vanderlip, who was 16 when her grandmother died, wrote in an email. "She wore dark silk, maybe silk taffeta, mid-calf dresses, with a square neck, probably custom-made for her, and sensible dark pumps. Her swollen feet poured out of her shoes a bit. She used a cane. She was not a warm and cuddly grandmother, but neither was I scared of her. Just respectful."
I did not know about her activism growing up. I do remember that she had a secretary, a gentleman who would work with her upstairs in her room, and that she went to New York City by train once a week, with an overnight bag, staying overnight in a hotel apartment she kept there. I did not learn of my
grandmother's suffragette past till much later. I later learned that Narcissa had all her children march with her in suffragette parades, so they were indoctrinated young, and were not brought up with the limited vision for most women of their time.
Granddaughter Katrina Vanderlip remembers her grandmother's love of nature.
"What I loved the most was the huge cutting garden and the rows and rows of strawberry and raspberry plants where we could pick all we could eat…. She had a large needlepoint carpet in her bedroom at Beechwood made of squares sewn together. Each square had a different botanical flower done in petit point that she had embroidered herself."
She describes her grandmother reading to the grandchildren on the porch of Beechwood "where we had to sit still," her collection of seeds from her travels to Europe, her love of Japanese culture, and the fundraisers her grandparents held at Beechwood for Japanese in need.
"The more I read [family records] the more impressed I have become by both my grandparents," she says. "Each were really remarkable in their own way."
Frank died in 1937 at the age of 72. Narcissa died in 1966. Both are buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.
Much is known today about Narcissa Vanderlip, thanks mainly to an extensive biography, Narcissa Cox Vanderlip, written in 1982 by Hilda Watrous, published by the Foundation for Citizen Education; a biography of her husband, Frank A. Vanderlip, (The Banker who Changed America by Vicki A. Mack ); Frank Vanderlip's autobiography (From Farm Boy to Financier, B. Appleton-Century Co., 1935); as well as numerous newspaper articles that Narcissa Vanderlip wrote, many of which can be found online. Note that some resources say she was born in 1879, not 1880. This sketch is also based on information provided to this writer by two of her granddaughters, Narcissa and Katrina Vanderlip.