Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Elisabeth Freeman, 1876-1942
Margaret R. Johnston, independent historian
Elisabeth Freeman was born in England, in 1876, and came to this country as a small child with her brother John and sister Jane, and their mother, Mary Hall Freeman. Elisabeth worked for causes spanning nearly every progressive movement in the early 20th century; she was fearless, bold, innovative, and hard working for her beliefs.
While on a trip to England, a chance encounter with the British suffragettes led to a career as a professional speaker and organizer. She tells the story of her conversion to the suffrage cause this way: "I saw a big burly policeman beating up on a woman, and I ran to help her, and we were both arrested. I found out in jail what cause we were fighting for."
In 1905, Elisabeth threw herself into the cause, getting arrested, being jailed, participating in huge processions and rallies to capture the public imagination. When she returned to the America in 1911, she used her militant training as an entree to obtain speaking engagements and organizing jobs with generating extensive press coverage.
To Elisabeth, who had gone to jail for the Cause, street speaking, selling suffrage newspapers, and attracting the attention of reporters and photographers seemed like child's play. Even when the press was against them, she knew that suffrage was being discussed at the dinner table.
Elisabeth Freeman worked with many suffrage organizations, including the NYS Woman's Suffrage Assn., the Women's Political Union, the National Woman's Suffrage Assn., The Woman's Journal, the Texas Woman's Suffrage Assn., and the Congressional Union. In addition to platform speaking, she was known for her "media stunts" finding activities that would capture media attention and guarantee press.
Elisabeth was also an ardent supporter of women trade unionists, and labor issues were among her speaking topics. She supported the striking garment workers, getting arrested with them, and protested the famous Triangle fire. Elisabeth protested Standard Oil's shooting of striking miners in Colorado and was arrested with Upton Sinclair.
The most arduous media stunt was the "Suffrage Hike" to Wilson's first Inauguration in the winter of 1913. Elisabeth was engaged to be the official speaker on the trip and drove the horse drawn literature wagon. The stunt garnered full page coverage in every town along the way. In 1914, Elisabeth was engaged by Alice Stone Blackwell's Woman's Journal to take a horse drawn carriage trip from NY to Boston. In 1916, she was engaged by the Texas Woman Suffrage Assn. to make a tour of that state and enliven suffrage supporters.
While in Texas she investigated a lynching in Waco for the NAACP, and then began a speaking tour of black communities for the NAACP anti-lynching campaign. In the presidential campaign of 1916, she joined the Women's Campaign Train stumping for Charles Evans Hughes, the first time women were engaged in such a political campaign. Elisabeth Freeman spoke to black audiences and also on the subject of suffrage and labor to white and black audiences.
By the end of 1916 Elisabeth Freeman had established herself as a national organizer and began working for the Emergency Peace Federation, a coalition of groups brought together to discuss peace. This group became the People's Council of America opposing the war and standing up for civil rights during war time.
Elisabeth worked for a number of organizations after the war, including the Lighthouse for the Blind, and a precursor to New York City's Social Services. She operated an antique shop in Provincetown MA for several years, and eventually retired to Altadena CA where she was active in the Woman's Party until she died of pleurisy in 1942.
Elisabeth Freeman Archives, property of Peg Johnston, Binghamton NY
www.elisabethfreeman.org a website with original source material.
Patricia Bernstein, The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press 2005).
See the two-part document project on Elisabeth Freeman on this website. [LINK]