Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Ada L. James, 1876-1952

By Helen M. Bannan, Associate Professor Emerita, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

Vice President, Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association (WWSA), 1910-11; President, Political Equality League of Wisconsin, 1911-13. WWSA: Executive Secretary, 1913; Legislative Chair, 1913-14, Literature Chair, 1915-16, and 3rd Congressional District leader, 1915. Congressional Union (CU) Advisory Board, 1915-17; chair of Wisconsin CU/National Woman's Party (NWP) Branch, March 1916-June 1919.

The oldest daughter of ardent suffragists, Ada Lois James helped carry the family cause to its final success. David James, a Union army veteran, ran his family's hardware store in Richland Center, a small town in Wisconsin's southwestern corner. Four years after his first wife, Ada Briggs, died in 1869 from tuberculosis shortly after giving birth to their son, David married her older sister Laura, a professional telegrapher. Laura's first child died shortly after his birth; Ada Lois was born March 23, 1876, followed by two sisters.

Ada James spent her entire life in Richland Center; her suffrage activism began at home and was reinforced by accompanying her mother and grandmother to Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association (WWSA) conventions. In high school, James helped organize an Equality Club and used her hat to take up a collection after a speech by WWSA leader Olympia Brown. In her late teens, James became engaged but her parents, thinking her too immature, delayed the marriage and the relationship deteriorated; she never married. James graduated from the University of Wisconsin and, after treatments stopped the progression of her deafness, she taught school, travelled, and became an activist.

After her mother's death in 1905, James began keeping house for her father while continuing to work for suffrage and temperance. James became WWSA vice president under Olympia Brown, who sent her to the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) convention in 1910. That same year, James worked with her father, newly elected to the state Senate, on a referendum bill proposing full suffrage for women. In 1911, the elder James sponsored the bill, which was passed by the legislature and reluctantly signed by Governor Francis E. McGovern. It was then up to Wisconsin voters to decide its fate.

During this time, James organized progressive clubwomen into a new statewide organization, the Political Equality League (PEL). As its president, she led a publicity campaign to convince Wisconsin's men to vote in November 1912 to enfranchise women. Brown, often out of state and somewhat out of touch, felt betrayed and refused to step aside. The PEL and WWSA each led statewide referendum campaigns and NAWSA provided some funding to both organizations. Despite two hectic 20-month campaigns that reached every county in Wisconsin, the referendum failed by 90,000 votes, which suffragists attributed to the powerful beer and liquor interests who feared that enfranchised women would vote for prohibition.

Although schism did not cause their defeat, Wisconsin suffragists realized it didn't help, and by early 1913 they united under the WWSA name. They made Brown honorary president and selected Theodora Winton Youmans, a journalist, Women's Club leader and PEL press chair, as president. Ada James served for several months as executive secretary, but after the governor vetoed a second referendum bill, she moved back home. Youmans established WWSA headquarters in her home town of Waukesha with a different executive secretary. As WWSA's legislative chair, Ada James produced a widely praised 1914 pamphlet, "Wisconsin Legislators and the Home," listing lawmakers' votes on social welfare bills.

In July 1914, James accepted Alice Paul's invitation to join the Advisory Council of the Congressional Union (CU), but she remained on the WWSA board as literature chair. In 1915, she became WWSA's 3rd Congressional District chair, pushing the federal suffrage amendment and hoping to encourage collaboration with the CU. James responded to Paul's call to help organize a Wisconsin CU branch in 1915, but she resisted becoming its leader until March 1916. A leader in both organizations, James pushed the federal amendment with the CU but continued state and local work with WWSA, including coordinating suffrage editions of local newspapers in early 1917. However, she grew increasingly irritated by what she saw as WWSA leaders' unquestioning allegiance to NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt.

After the US joined the world war in 1917 and WWSA followed Catt's advice to support both the war and suffrage, James, a pacifist who preferred Alice Paul's single-minded pursuit of suffrage, resigned from the WWSA in November. She struggled to recruit women for the National Woman's Party (NWP), especially after it began picketing the White House. Initially, James wished she could join the pickets and protested their brutal treatment by police, but she wrote in her diary that when pickets "burned President Wilson in effigy" in February 1919, it was "too much like mob violence even for me." Still, she helped organize the NWP's "Prison Special" lecture tour in Wisconsin, and she marched with former imprisoned suffragists in Milwaukee. James' early opposition to suffragists doing war work did not prevent her from later serving on the Woman's Committee of the Richland County Council of Defense, chairing its committee on Women in Industry and selling war bonds.

When the federal suffrage amendment was close to passage in June 1919, Alice Paul asked James to organize meetings in every Wisconsin Congressional district during her visit to the upper Midwest. Writing in her diary that this "seemed a mistake," James instead chose to work to ensure the amendment's swift ratification by Wisconsin's legislature. Immediately after this occurred, James enlisted her father to travel to Washington to submit Wisconsin's papers to the US Secretary of State, making Wisconsin's the first recorded ratification, which NWP celebrated at its DC headquarters and covered in its newspaper, The Suffragist.

After that, James seemed to feel her suffrage work was done. She decided to skip a Jubilee Meeting of the Milwaukee NWP on July 3 during a heat wave, writing in her diary, "I do not see that I could accomplish anything by going." A few days later, she wrote that she was "baffle[d]" when she read in the newspaper that Mrs. Frank Putnam had been elected chair of the Wisconsin NWP branch at a Milwaukee meeting on July 4. "If they wanted someone in my place why didn't they tell me. I would have resigned. But to hold a meeting after the work was done to celebrate & then elect new officers seems to me strange." She did not mention suffrage in her diary for the rest of the summer. However, she agreed to speak at the WWSA's Victory Luncheon in Milwaukee in November 1919, where her spirited explanation of how Wisconsin became the first state to ratify aroused great cheers.

After 1920, Ada James devoted her efforts to charity work and, for a while, to state Republican Party politics. Initially loyal to Senator Robert M. LaFollette, she served as vice chair of the Republican State Central Committee from 1920 to 1926 and president of the Wisconsin League of Progressive Women from 1923 to 1924. However, never inclined toward orthodoxy, she resigned the latter when LaFollette supported a second term for Governor John J. Blaine. After that, James focused mostly on the Children's Board of Richland County, which she had helped establish and chaired from 1930 to 1948. Her experience sponsoring medical and psychological care for needy children and adults led her to support legalized birth control in the 1920s and also sparked her interest in eugenics, favoring sterilization of those deemed "unfit." Increasingly in ill health, Ada James died September 28, 1952.


Ada James Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI: MssOP, Micro 848. 30 archive boxes, 6 reels of microfilm.

Ada James' articles and speeches in Box 24 and her diaries in Boxes 27-28. Reels 5-6 of Microfilm 848 include scrapbooks of newspaper clippings from the suffrage era. Part of the collection is available online in WHS Digital Collections: Finding aid:; files of Incoming correspondence, 1912-23:

Grant, Marilyn. "The 1912 Suffrage Referendum: An Exercise in Political Action," Wisconsin Magazine of History 64:2 (1980-81), 107-118 (Ada James photos).

Graves, Lawrence. "Two Noteworthy Wisconsin Women: Mrs. Ben Hooper and Ada James, " Wisconsin Magazine of History, 41:3 (Spring 1958), 178-180. Digitized:

McBride, Genevieve. On Wisconsin Women: Working for Their Rights from Settlement to Suffrage. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

Youmans, Theodora W. "How Wisconsin Women Won the Ballot," Wisconsin Magazine of History 5:1 (1921-22), 3-32. (Ada James photos)

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