Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Sophie Gudden, 1861- 1919
By Helen M. Bannan, Associate Professor Emerita, Women's Studies and History University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Oshkosh, Wisconsin
Vice President, Wisconsin Political Equality League, 1911-12. Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association: Press Chair, 1913-15; Chair of the German Press, 1916-17; Chair of the Foreign Language Press, 1918-19
Sophie Gudden was born in 1861 in Munich, Bavaria, the daughter of Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, a psychiatrist who died mysteriously with his infamous patient, "Mad" King Ludwig II of Bavaria, in 1886. In 1885 Sophie married her American cousin, Dr. Bernard Charles Gudden, then a postgraduate medical student in Germany. After her father's death, the couple settled in her husvband's native Wisconsin, where he established a medical practice in Oshkosh and she became a prominent clubwoman. She developed arterial sclerosis in the early 20th century, which progressively weakened her and confined her to a wheel chair, but she continued her activism, stating, "my tongue was never affected by sclerosis."
Gudden, a classic social feminist, wrote in 1911, "Ten years work in the Consumers' League (CL) have taught me the industrial necessity for political equality.'" In February 1911, the Wisconsin CL conference coincided with the state legislature's debate on a woman suffrage referendum. Gudden, a powerful orator despite a heavy accent, spoke for the bill at its legislative hearing, and it passed. Wisconsin suffragists responded with a twenty-month-long burst of organizational energy until the election in November 1912. Progressive women like Gudden thought the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association (WWSA), led by Olympia Brown, too timid in tactics and founded the Wisconsin Political Equality League (PEL). As its vice president, Gudden made more than 150 public speeches at county fairs and union meetings, from automobiles and boats, speaking in English or German as suited her audience, and organized suffrage chapters wherever she spoke. Gudden also wrote for Wisconsin's English and German newspapers. Her newspaper series on "Political Equality" traced the worldwide history of woman suffrage, countering every claim of its critics.
The PEL chose Gudden to coordinate its efforts with the WWSA in November 1911, but the two organizations did not unite until after the referendum was lost, due largely to the influence of the beer and liquor industries. In1913, Gudden became press committee chair of the newly reconstituted WWSA. When the European war began, Gudden worried about her German relatives, and wrote that "the weight of the war seems to aggravate" her health. Decreasingly mobile and unable to attend meetings, Gudden sent suffrage material to Wisconsin's English and German papers through 1915, though by 1916, she focused specifically on the German press. Unlike many WWSA/NAWSA loyalists, she noted that the newer militant faction attracted additional converts, and declared in 1916, "'Why not ‘the more the merrier?'" As U.S. interest in joining the war increased, Gudden advised suffragists to avoid participating in preparedness parades, warning that "we do not want to drift into militarism." Sophie's writing ceased in response to her husband's suicide in September 1916, but she resumed her suffrage correspondence in May 1917, shortly after the US entered the Great War.
By November, 1917 Gudden felt well enough to attend the WWSA convention in Milwaukee, where she spoke informally from her wheelchair urging the connection between suffrage work and patriotic Red Cross and Americanization efforts. She also stated that NAWSA suffragists "had suffered long enough from the stigma of the Woman's party," and its picketing and needed to differentiate itself from the militants. In early 1918, the WWSA renamed Gudden's position as "Chairman of the Foreign Language Press," rather than "German Press," and Gudden continued "grinding out . . . weekly articles" in that capacity. As legislative chair for the WCL , she issued a protest against forced night work by women street-car employees in Kenosha and encouraged the WCL's resolution endorsing the federal suffrage amendment in June 1918. By the time the Wisconsin legislature ratified suffrage in June, 1919, Gudden was too ill to celebrate. She suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died July 23, 1919.
Quotes: Wisconsin State Historical Society (WSHS), Ada James Papers, Mss OP, Box 14, file 5, Incoming Correspondence, 1912 , Sept 10-12, Sophie Gudden to Dear Comrades [PEL HQ], 9/10/12; WSHS, Ada James Papers, Mss OP, Box 6, file 2, Incoming Correspondence, 1911 Aug 16-Sept, Sophie Gudden to Ada James, 8/24/11; WSHS, WWSA Papers (Youmans), MSS HV, Box 5, File 3, Nov 1914, ; Sophie Gudden to Mrs. Youmans, 11/30/14; WSHS, WWSA (Youmans), MSS HV, Box 10, file 1, June 1916 , Sophie Gudden to Mrs. Youmans, 6/15/16; WSHS, WWSA (Youmans), MSS HV, Box 10, file 2, July 1916 Sophie Gudden to Mrs. Youmans, 7/7/16; WSHS, WWSA, Microfilm 870, WWSA Scrapbooks, 1883-1919, Reel 1, WWSA Scrapbook: "Suffragists Hear Canadian Woman," Milwaukee Free Press, 11/15/17; "Women's Party Slapped," Milwaukee Journal, 11/16/17.
Other sources: Genevieve G. McBride, On Wisconsin Women: Working for Their Rights from Settlement to Suffrage, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993); obituary, "Mrs. Gudden is Dead," Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, 7/23/1919, accessed on microfilm at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Archives, Polk Library.