Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920
Biography of Joy Webster (Bowerman), 1874-1965
By Erin Harrington
Graduate student, Eastern Illinois University
Through the 1910s, Joy Webster served as an organizer for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the Congressional Union, and the Woman’s Party. Born in 1874 in Nebraska, she was a graduate of the University of Nebraska. As of the 1910 census, she had moved with her father, a lawyer, and stepmother, a physician, to Washington, D.C. A profession is not listed for Joy; she is simply recorded as having her "own income." At least by 1911, Joy appears to have immersed herself in activism for women’s suffrage. In the minutes of the NAWSA’s October 1911 Suffrage Convention, where Joy would have heard Jane Addams’s speech "What Woman Suffrage Means to College Women," she is listed as a member of the National College League. Two years later, she helped to organize the college women’s section of the famous 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession, though news coverage indicates that she marched in the parade with the Nebraska section. During 1913, she also served as the Congressional Union’s Corresponding Secretary.
In January of 1914, Joy was appointed to a committee of 100 tasked with raising $50,000 for the Congressional Union over the course of the year. Also in 1914, Joy began her four-year tenure as treasurer of the Congressional Union. This role placed her among the executive committee and advisory council for the Congressional Union, where she worked alongside CU leaders Lucy Burns and Alice Paul.
In June 1916, Joy traveled with a group of D.C. women to the launching of the National Woman's Party in Chicago. The goal of this new political party, officially launched in the week prior to both the Democratic and Republican conventions, was to organize enfranchised women in the western states to use their political power toward securing a constitutional amendment that would win all American women the vote. That September, Joy received a letter from Alice Paul—a tantalizing piece of evidence (stored in the Schlesinger Library) as to Joy’s importance to women’s suffrage. In 1917, Joy became the National Woman’s Party treasurer, and in 1918 she combined those duties with her role as treasurer for a civic club supporting the Red Cross during World War I. According the National Woman’s Party Papers, Joy ended her role as treasurer in 1918, and there is little evidence about how she spent the next five decades of her life. Newspapers from Lincoln, Nebraska, which closely followed Joy’s visits home through the 1930s, announced her marriage to Dr. George Bowerman in the spring of 1937 as well as her death in October of 1965. To the end of her life, Joy preserved her Nebraska roots: in 1967, the Lincoln Evening Journal reported that Joy’s estate had left a bequest of over five thousand dollars to the University of Nebraska in order to set up a scholarship, named for her father, for law students.
While newspapers and Congressional Union documents offer a record of Joy’s participation in the women’s suffrage movement, the Suffragists Oral History Project, conducted in the 1970s, gives a very brief but more personal glimpse into her life as a suffragist. One of the project’s interviewees, Mabel Vernon, was a roommate of Joy’s in the 1910s. Mabel remembered interrupting President Wilson’s Fourth of July speech in 1916. The secret service man escorting her away asked what made her act in such a way. When Mabel recounted the story to Joy later on, Joy asked Mabel, "Why didn’t you say, ‘She does.’"-- Meaning Alice Paul. This small moment in Mabel’s and Joy’s lives reveals a group of women dedicated to each other and to a cause, of finding in each other the inspiration to speak to power.
A guide to the microfilm of the National Woman’s Party Papers: The Suffrage Years, 1913-1920 permits tracing Joy Webster’s involvement in the woman suffrage movement. This guide can be found at https://proquest.libguides.com/historyvault/womens_rights_organizational_records. The Washington Times was the most useful newspaper for uncovering Joy’s role in the suffrage movement during the 1910s, and the Lincoln Evening Journal and Lincoln Star are filled with references to Joy during the 1930s. Joy also appears in the 1880 and 1910 census records. Finally, Mabel Vernon’s story about her former roommate, documented through the Suffragists Oral History Project in the 1970s, can be found at: https://archive.org/details/suffragepeace00vernrich.