Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Gail Laughlin, 1868-1952
By Phyllis Herrick vonHerrlich, Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, Independent Scholar in Maine Studies, Augusta, Maine
Gail Laughlin was born in Robbinston, Maine, in 1868 to Robert C. and Elizabeth (Stuart) Laughlin. First named Abbie Hill Laughlin, she later changed her name to Gail when the college she attended (Wellesley) refused to accept Abbie as her name and enrolled her as Abigail. Her family moved to Portland, Maine, as she was entering high school after her father had died and the family had lived with her mother's family in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. Abbie Laughlin was the head of her Portland High School class, and she and a male student received the Brown Award for highest ranking. With his award, the male student received a full scholarship to Bowdoin College and pledges of help with law school if he decided to attend. Abbie received the only the medal.
Her strong work ethic and lifelong commitment to equality were shaped early and extended throughout her life. After high school, she worked to earn funds for Wellesley College, from which she graduated in 1894. After Wellesley, she legally changed her name to Gail, then worked to earn funds for Cornell University where she received a law degree in 1898. After earning her law degree, she opened a practice in New York City to deal specifically with women's issues. When her practice did not sufficiently sustain her, she took a job as a special agent of United States Industrial Commission, then moved to a job as a "gospel laborer" for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) for nearly five years going around the country to convince communities to give women the right to vote. She worked mostly in western states, but did speak in Maine when on visits to her family.
In addition to her association with the NAWSA, Gail was an early member of the Congressional Union, which became the National Woman's Party. Alice Paul, in a series of interviews in 1972 and 1973 for the Suffragists Oral History Project (first published in 1974) credits Laughlin with bringing the critical issue of absolute equality to the party. She was a founder and first president of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Associations, as well as a longtime vice president in the National Woman's Party. She demonstrated with the party to beseech Congress to grant women the right to vote.
Gail lived in Colorado and in California before returning to Maine in the early 1920s. She chose Colorado because the state first granted women the right to vote in 1893. Among the many boards she served on there two stand out: she served on the State Board of Pardons and on the Denver Mayor's Advisory Council. She worked to establish a budding Progressive Party and ran for the state legislature in 1912. In California she was active in promoting suffrage, even serving as an unofficial overseer for voting and the vote count. Women in California got the vote in 1911 by a very narrow vote margin. She worked on legislation which finally gave women the right to serve on juries (passed in 1917) and defended it in a court case, served as judge in the police courts, and was vice president for the Republican Party. She was a founder and director of the California branch of the National League for Women's Services and worked on other state and national organizations working for the substantial contributions and the rights for women.
After suffrage was granted for women in all states (1920), Laughlin continued her work with the National Woman's Party and served on a committee that worked on writing the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She returned to Maine in the early 1920s, joined her brother in a law firm, and was elected to the Maine legislature where she worked for equality for women. She lived the rest of her life in Maine, serving in the state legislature in the House of Representatives for three years and as a Senator for three years. She worked tirelessly for women's equal rights during her public tenure -- legislation to change the age of marriage, the way in which someone could be committed to the state asylum, equal hours and wages, and equal rights to property for married couples were among her sponsored bills. In all her legislation, women held equal rights to men. She resigned in her last term to become the Reporter of Decisions of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, where she was responsible for interpreting the laws passed and for writing protocols for their enforcement. In four years she produced three volumes of Maine Reports, and then left the position in March 1946 for health reasons.
Laughlin worked ardently for suffrage, but also had a much larger view of the need for equality for women. "Absolute equality in custom and law" was how Laughlin described her lifelong work. Getting women the right to vote was a major part of that.
Fry, Amelia R. (interviewer). "Conversations with Alice Paul: Woman Suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment." Calisphere, University of California, Suffragists Oral History Project, c. 1975.
Lewiston Evening Journal, "Gail Laughlin and Maine," January 22, 1927, p. 4.
Maine, Legislative Record of the Ninetieth Legislature of the State of Maine, 1941.
Sargent, Ruth Sexton, Gail Laughlin, ERA's Advocate, Portland, ME: House of Falmouth Publishers, 1979.
Wellesley College Alumnae Association files, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Biographical sketch in Notable American Women*: The Modern Period, 410-11.
Full-text of items marked with an asterisk is only available at institutions that subscribe to Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000.