Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Baird Bryan, 1861-1931
By Nancy Cole, retired librarian
Mary Baird was born June 17, 1861, in Perry, Illinois, the only child of John and Lovina Baird. Her father was a prosperous merchant who owned the only two-story house in town. At age 18, she enrolled in the Jacksonville Female Academy, dubbed the "Jail for Angels" by local men. The Presbyterian school had opened in 1833 and was the earliest college to exclusively educate women in the Midwest. She graduated in 1881 at the head of her class.
It was at a school social during her first year at the Academy that she met William Jennings Bryan, a student at nearby Illinois College. They soon became engaged although William was adamant that he had to earn enough to support both of them before they could marry. He rejected her offer to "keep separate accounts," proclaiming that no woman could love a man if she performed her domestic duties and also paid for her own support.
They married in 1884 and moved to Jacksonville, Illinois, where until 1887 William practiced law. In 1885, Mary gave birth to a daughter Ruth -- who in 1928 was elected as Florida's first congresswoman. After the birth of Ruth, Mary studied law and was licensed as a lawyer in Nebraska. As with many of her efforts over the next forty years, she did not accomplish this with the intention of practicing law but solely to help her husband. In later years, she devoted a year of study to the German language so that she could steer William to influential writings on political economy in that language.
In 1888, Mary joined William, who had moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, to practice law the year before. During the next few years she gave birth to two more children, William, Jr. and Grace. In 1890, William was elected to the U.S. Congress from Nebraska's first district and then reelected to a second term. Mary and the children spent more than half of the time Congress was in session in Washington.
This was the beginning of William Jennings Bryan's political career as a Democrat and Populist. He became known as the Great Commoner and a skilled orator, and in 1901 he started his weekly newspaper The Commoner to promote his brand of Christian populism.
He was the Democratic Party candidate for president in 1896 (also nominated by the Populist Party) and engaged in campaign stumping, unheard of for major party candidates. He visited 26 states and spoke to as many as 5 million people. Mary joined him for half the time. A New York female reporter was assigned to report just on Mary.
Prominent author Willa Cather, who had grown up in Nebraska in the late 1800s, questioned candidate Bryan's judgment but wrote that Mary Baird Bryan was "a student and a thinker, a woman burning with enthusiasm." Noting that eastern newspapers had criticized Mrs. Bryan for her dress, Cather continued that it "is doubtful if she ever spent ten minutes planning the construction of a gown. But many and many an hour have she and her husband spent by their library fire talking over the future of the West."
After that first presidential campaign, which he lost, Mary edited and wrote a biographical sketch of her husband in The First Battle: A Story of the Campaign of 1896. The book of speeches and other material from the campaign was for a time one of the best-selling books in America. William ran for president twice more for the Democrats in 1900 and 1908 and lost those elections as well.
In A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, Michael Kazin writes that William's career "would have been impossible without Mary's continuous and varied labors. She managed his correspondence, helped prepare his speeches, edited his articles, and on occasion even negotiated with his fellow politicians."
In 1905 the Bryans with their two youngest children left for a one-year-trip around the world. They visited 18 nations in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. A sketch of Mary in the Omaha Daily Bee in 1914 noted that she "has probably traveled over more countries and met more kinds of people than any other woman in the United States."
After waffling publicly for years on the prohibition issue, and with his election campaigning days behind him, William came out full square for prohibition in 1910, bringing him boos for the first time in Nebraska. Partly to avoid the anti-prohibition "wet" German Americans in Nebraska, the Bryans moved to Miami for their winter home at the end of 1912.
When Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1913, he appointed William Jennings Bryan secretary of state. The Bryans then moved to Washington, while also maintaining their homes in Nebraska and Florida. In June of 1915 Bryan abruptly resigned over Wilson's strong rebuke of Germany's sinking of the Lusitania and his belief this would lead to the U.S. joining World War I.
Although he endorsed women's suffrage in 1910, it wasn't until 1916 that William made votes for women a central part of his rhetoric. In an effort to appease the racist southerners who feared granting the vote to black women, he emphasized that the Democratic Party platform recommended state equal-suffrage laws rather than federal.
It was also in 1916 that Mary moved the entire household to Miami year-round, although William remained a Nebraska resident for voting purposes until 1921.
Mary then became a national figure in her own right, promoting suffrage and prohibition and becoming an official of both the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
In 1917 Mary, as head of the legislative committee of the Florida Suffrage Association, made a speaking tour of the state. She was a big hit with local reporters who covered her speeches. The Daytona Daily News noted that "Mrs. Bryan... has a very sweet personality, as well as a very sweet voice, in direct contrast to the women which have been held up to the public as advocates of suffrage, severely drawn as mannish women with no femininity." Giving woman the vote won't "unsex her, make her coarse or vulgar," she argued during the speech reported on. "She can be a voter and still be an excellent wife and mother."
The Lakeland Evening Telegram noted that at a January talk to the Suffrage Club in Miami "Mrs. Bryan offered one of the cleverest and wittiest expositions on the reasons why men are opposed to the vote for women." Her listeners were "fairly weeping with joy into their napkins" as she agreed that woman's place was in the home and man's place was providing for his family. But surely, she argued, if women got up a bit earlier and went to bed a little later, they might be able "to cast a ballot two or three times a year." She also concluded in that speech that "women are more than breeding machines as men are more than sires."
On one of Mary's 1917 trips to Tallahassee she was accompanied by three well known Florida suffragists, as well as Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who much later became a prominent conservationist but at the time was a reporter for the Miami Herald. In her autobiography, Douglas described the women speaking to a joint committee "with men sitting around on two sides with their backs propped up against the walls and large spittoons between every other one of them. Talking to them was like talking to graven images. They never paid attention to us at all. They weren't even listening."
Mary was tasked with representing the suffrage movement in a speech to the state legislature in April 1917 before consideration of a state constitutional amendment to enfranchise women. She spoke for an hour and a half to a joint house-senate session. According to The Pensacola Journal, she said that women would have "their own special work to do without interfering seriously with that of the men." She also argued that women should "crochet less and read more" so that they could be better companions to their husbands.
In the following days, both houses of the legislature failed to come up with the necessary three-fifths of the total vote required for constitutional amendments.
When the U.S. Congress finally passed the proposed Nineteenth Amendment in 1919 and it went to the states for ratification, Florida could have been the first to approve as it was one of the few legislatures still in session. Instead they adjourned before considering it. It wasn't until 1969 that the Florida legislature symbolically ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, the last state to do so.
In the 1920s, William made himself into one of the nation's leading evangelists and became a spokesperson for banning the teaching of evolution in public schools. In 1925 he argued the prosecution side in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in which a teacher was charged with violating a Tennessee state law by teaching evolution. Although the jury gave him a win, the national and international news media proclaimed it a humiliating loss. Five days later, William died in his sleep.
Ailing with arthritis and grief-stricken, Mary returned from his funeral in the nation's capital to Miami to write more than half of the nearly 600-page memoirs of William Jennings Bryan published later that year. In 1931 Mary died and was buried beside William in Arlington Cemetery. Her section of the headstone simply reads: "His Wife and helpmate Mary Baird Bryan."
Find a Grave: Mary Elizabeth Baird Bryan, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/9058097/mary-elizabeth-bryan/photo
Bryan, William Jennings. (1896). The First Battle: A Story of the Campaign of 1896. Chicago: W.B. Conkey Company.
Cherny, Robert W. (Fall 1983), Willa Cather and the Populists. DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska – Lincoln. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/greatplainsquarterly/1694/
Coletta, Paolo E. (Autumn, 1957). "Won, 1880: One, 1884": The Courtship of William Jennings Bryan and Mary Elizabeth Baird. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 50(3), 231-242.
Kazin, Michael. (2006). A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
"Mrs. Bryan Goes to Florida Home: Expects to Start Work at Once on Unfinished Memoirs of Commoner." Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.). Aug. 2, 1925, p. 6.
"Mrs. Bryan Lecturing on Woman Suffrage at the State Capital." The Pensacola Journal (Florida), April 21, 1917, p. 5.
"Mrs. Bryan Makes Talk to Suffrage Club of Miami." Lakeland Evening Telegram. (Florida), January 1, 1917, p. 4.
"Mrs. William J. Bryan Gives Suffrage Talk. Daytona Daily News (Florida), January 26, 1917.
Taylor, A. Elizabeth. (July 1957). The Woman Suffrage Movement in Florida. The Florida Historical Quarterly. 36(1), 42-60.
"This Lawyer Can Cook: Mrs. William Jennings Bryan is One of the 450 Distinguished Women Who Have Written the Most Talked of Book of the Year. Omaha Daily Bee, February 20, 1914, p. 12.
Weatherford, Doris. (Winter 1995/1996). "From Then to NOW. Women and Political Participation 1900-1982. Last Instead of First." Forum: The Magazine of the Florida Humanities Council. 16-21.
Title: Mrs. W.J. Bryan
Creator(s): Bain News Service, publisher
Date Created/Published: [between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915]
Medium: 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.
Summary: Photograph shows Mary Elizabeth Baird Bryan, wife of William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925). (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2011)
Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ggbain-17933 (digital file from original negative)
Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication. For more information, see George Grantham Bain Collection - Rights and Restrictions Information https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/274_bain.html
Call Number: LC-B2- 3310-2 [P&P]
Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print