Biographical Sketch of May Eliza Wright Sewall

Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920
 
Biography of May Sewall, 1844-1920
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SEWALL, May Eliza Wright (May 27, 1844-- July 23, 1920), educator, suffragist, club-woman, and pacifist, was born in Greenfield, Milwaukee County, Wis., the second daughter and youngest of four children of Philander Montague Wright and Mary Weeks (Brackett) Wright. Her parents were New Englanders of colonial descent who had migrated westward, first to Ohio and then to Wisconsin, where Wright, a former schoolteacher, settled his family on a farm. May, a precocious child who is said to have read Milton at seven, studied at home with her father and at academies in Wauwatosa and Bloomington, Wis. After teaching school for a time at Waukesha, Wis., she entered Northwestern Female College (later absorbed by Northwestern University) in Evanston, Ill., receiving the degrees of Mistress of Science in 1866 and Master of Arts in 1871.

She spent several years as a teacher and school administrator in the small communities of Corinth and Plainwell, Mich., and Franklin, Ind. In 1872 she was married to Edwin W. Thompson, a mathematics teacher from Paw Paw, Mich., and moved with him to Indianapolis, Ind., where they both taught in what later became Shortridge High School. After Thompson's death in 1875 she continued in that institution for five years, teaching German and English literature. On Oct. 30, 1880, she became the wife of Theodore Lovett Sewall, a graduate of Harvard College who conducted a boys' school in Indianapolis; she had no children by either marriage. In 1882 Mrs. Sewall founded with her husband the Girls' Classical School of Indianapolis. Sewall, always sympathetic toward his wife's career, closed his boys' school in 1889 in order to give more effective assistance to the school for girls; he died in 1895. Mrs. Sewall remained at the head of the girls' school until June 1907. During her twenty-five years as teacher and principal in this well-known Indianapolis institution she introduced dress reforms and physical education and prepared hundreds of young women for college through a rigorous course in ancient and modern languages and mathematics.

May Wright Sewall became most widely known, however, for her work in the organized woman's movement. An ardent suffragist, she was in 1878 a founder, with ZERELDA G. WALLACE, and first secretary of the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society. Remaining aloof from the state suffrage organization, formed in 1869 as a branch of LUCY STONE's American Woman Suffrage Association, this Indianapolis group in 1887 called a convention at which was organized a rival state organization, under the presidency of HELEN MAR GOUGAR, affiliated with the National Woman Suffrage Association of ELIZABETH CADY STANTON and SUSAN B. ANTHONY. Mrs. Sewall served as chairman of the executive committee of the new group until 1889, when the two state societies merged and she retired "for personal reasons." A decade later, however, she led in reorganizing the Indiana suffrage association, which had become dormant. She had meanwhile been a prime mover in the near-successful campaign of 1881-83 for a state suffrage amendment. On the national level, she was chairman of the executive committee of the National Woman Suffrage Association for eight years (1882-90) and a frequent witness before Congressional committees.

Mrs. Sewall left her mark in the woman's movement particularly through the National and the International Council of Women. These two organizations grew out of an international assembly of women held in Washington, D.C., in 1888 to honor the fortieth anniversary of the original woman's rights convention. First planned by Mrs. Stanton and Miss Anthony, this meeting evolved, under the leadership of FRANCES WILLARD and Mrs. Sewall, into an attempt (only partially realized) to unite for common purposes representatives of women's organizations of all types, at home

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and abroad--professional, educational, cultural, religious, welfare, and reform. Mrs. Sewall was the initial recording secretary of the National Council of Women and later served as its president (1897-99) and as president of the International Council (1899-1904). Somewhat similar in scope was another project Mrs. Sewall headed: the World's Congress of Representative Women, held in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in May 1893, at which some 330 women read papers on all aspects of women's concerns. Mrs. Sewall traveled extensively in Europe in 1891-92 to publicize the Congress and secure speakers, and she presided over its sessions. She was also a founder and officer of two other national organizations in these years: the first vice-president of the General Federation of Women's Clubs (1889) and twice president of the Western Association of Collegiate Alumnae (1886, 1888-89), a forerunner of the American Association of University Women.

In addition to lecturing widely in the United States on behalf of woman's rights, Mrs. Sewall was an internationalist and world traveler, visiting almost every European country in the course of her duties as officer and delegate of various women's associations. President McKinley appointed her United States representative at the Paris Exposition of 1900. For the last fifteen years of her life she was especially concerned with world peace. An active member of the American Peace Society, she espoused the cause among women's organizations here and abroad, persuading the National Council of Women in 1907 and the International Council in 1909 to adopt peace programs. Her work in this field reached its climax at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 when she called and presided over the International Conference of Women Workers to Promote Permanent Peace. In December of that year she sailed with ROSIKA SCHWIMMER and other pacifists on Henry Ford's peace ship, the Oscar II, in a fruitless attempt to halt the European war.

Despite her national and international commitments, Mrs. Sewall found time to participate in local and civic affairs in Indiana. Her home in Indianapolis was a center of club and educational activities where she organized such groups as the Contemporary Club and the Ramabai Circle (one of a number of American societies formed to aid the effort of Pandita Ramabai in India to found a school for child widows as a step toward elevating the position of Indian women). She was one of the founders of the Indianapolis Art Association in 1883 and of the affiliated art school which became in 1902 the John Herron Art Institute. She was a charter member, in 1875, of the Indianapolis Woman's Club and conceived and planned the building of its clubhouse, the Propylaeum, completed in 1891. For several years she edited a woman's column in the Indianapolis Times.

When the Girls' Classical School closed in 1907, Mrs. Sewall left Indianapolis for the East, making Cambridge, Mass., and Eliot, Maine, her headquarters thereafter. Although both she and her husband had been members of the Unitarian Church, after his death she became a convert to spiritualism, an interest she pursued for the rest of her life. In her Neither Dead Nor Sleeping (1920) she described her unusual psychical experiences and set down messages allegedly received from her dead husband. She died at the age of seventy-six, of chronic parenchymatous nephritis, at St. Vincent's Hospital, Indianapolis. She was buried in that city's Crown Hill Cemetery.

May Wright Sewall was an effective teacher and platform speaker, but her chief talents lay in organization and administration. One chronicler of the woman's movement found her a "powerful, dominant and queenly personality" who inspired both "tender and loyal friendships and vivid aversions" (Irwin, p. 229). A second-generation leader of the woman's rights crusade, she helped carry the movement into important new areas--women's clubs, internationalism, and world peace.

[Mrs. Sewall edited several volumes dealing with aspects of the woman's movement: The World's Congress of Representative Women (2 vols., 1894), an account of its background and an abridged record of its proceedings; Internat. Council of Women, 1899-1909 (2 vols., 1910); Genesis of the Internat. Council of Women and the Story of Its Growth (1914); Women, World War and Permanent Peace (1915). The Ind. State Library, Indianapolis, has a few of her letters and several scrapbooks, as well as two short unpublished sketches of her life, by Merica E. Hoagland and Grace Julian Clarke. Brief, eulogistic accounts are found in: Frances E. Willard and Mary A. Livermore, eds., A Woman of the Century (1893); Pictorial and Biog. Memoirs of Indianapolis and Marion County, Ind. (1893), pp. 322-25; Jacob P. Dunn, Ind. and Indianans (1919), IV, 1679; and, by Bertha Damaris Knobe, in Harper's Bazar, June 1900. Other references: obituaries in N.Y. Times, July 24, 1920, and Indianapolis News, July 23, 1920; Nat. Cyc. Am. Biog., XIX, 108; Woman's Who's Who of America, 1914-15. There are scattered references in the official Reports and Proceedings and in the histories of the organizations in which she had an active part, including the Nat. Council of Women, the Internat. Council of Women, the Nat. Woman Suffrage Assoc., and the Gen. Federation of Women's

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Clubs. See also: Anna Garlin Spencer, The Council Idea: A Chronicle of Its Prophets and a Tribute to May Wright Sewall (1929); Elizabeth C. Stanton et al., Hist. of Woman Suffrage, vols. III-VI (1886-1922), especially the chapters on Indiana (she herself wrote the one in vol. III); Jane C. Croly, The Hist. of the Woman's Club Movement in America (1898), pp. 433-39; Marion Talbot and Lois K. M. Rosenberry, The Hist. of the Am. Assoc. of Univ. Women (1931), pp. 40-41, 112-13, 279; Art Assoc. of Indianapolis, A Record (1906); Inez H. Irwin, Angels and Amazons (1934). Death certificate from Ind. State Board of Health, Indianapolis.]

 

CLIFTON J. PHILLIPS

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