Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Ettie (Mrs. George E.) Dunbar, 1869-1930
By Stacey Davis, Undergraduate Student, Rhode Island College, and Elisa Miller, Associate Professor of History, Rhode Island College, Providence, RI
Chairman, Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party; Chairman, Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association; President, Newton Equal Suffrage League; Massachusetts Woman's Republican Club; Censorship Activist
Mrs. George E. Dunbar was born Ettie Lois Simonds on March 6, 1869 in Newton, Massachusetts, to Royal (Rial) and Lucy Simonds. Both of Simonds' parents descended from families who arrived in the American colonies in the 1600s and Ettie was reported to be a descendant of Miles Standish. Rial Simonds worked at various times as a teamster, a clerk, a stockbroker, a real estate broker, and a restaurant manager. The family moved in the 1870s to Providence, Rhode Island. In 1887, at age eighteen, Simonds married William Henry Pike, a ticket agent in Boston. The Pikes had three children, William, Jr. in 1888, Lotta in 1889, and Earle in 1891. Two weeks before Earle's birth, George Pike died of peritonitis at age twenty-four, leaving Ettie a twenty-two year old widow with three young children. Pike remarried in 1893 to George F. Lowell, a Boston restaurant owner and a widowed father of two children. Ettie and George adopted each other's children and went on to have five additional children: Lester, Ralph, Lucie, Arthur, and Chandler. George Lowell died in 1906 and after his death, Ettie opened up her own business, a bond and investment firm in Boston. The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography described her as "one of the few women who engage in active business life" and attributed her success to her "remarkable aptitude for mathematics" in school. Ettie Lowell married for a third time to George E. Dunbar, at some point in the period 1912-1915. Dunbar was a Methodist minister and the family settled in Cranston, Rhode Island.
Ettie Lowell, usually under the name Ettie L. Lowell or Mrs. George F. Lowell, emerged as leading political and social activist in Massachusetts in the 1900s. The Boston Globe called her "one of the most prominent clubwomen" and "one of the best-known suffragists of the state." By 1907, she was the president of the Newton Equal Suffrage League and an official of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association. Lowell participated in a wide variety of suffrage activism—including meetings, protests, parades, fundraising fairs, and meetings with legislators. She made a name for herself locally and nationally as a speaker, gaining a reputation as "brilliant, convincing, and witty." She gave suffrage speeches on topics such as "Women and Democracy," "Why the Mother Needs the Ballot," and "After the Ballot, What?"
In her speeches, Lowell tried to persuade audiences that woman suffrage was a good thing for the country and that it did not threaten more traditional ideas about women, home, and family. She held strongly maternalist ideas about voting, that women brought unique perspectives to politics and society that men did not possess and that women could protect the interests of home and children with the vote. In one speech, Lowell argued that woman suffrage was a "better-home" campaign. She explained that, "All suffragists claim that woman's sphere is in her home by nature, and therefore she knows best concerning the needs of the home...Women will not be influenced away from the home by becoming interested in political life...The more women know about sanitary conditions, disease and crime the more ardent suffragists they become...Government is housekeeping on a larger scale—and woman are the traditional housekeepers." She criticized an anti-suffrage speaker for claiming that suffrage would be damage American homes and families. Lowell retorted, "Does Mrs. Ladd [the opponent] think that a woman must become unwomanly, neglect home and family, if twice a year she expresses her choice by ballot for the men who are to make and enforce the laws under which she and her family must live?" Alice Stone Blackwell, a prominent suffrage leader, used Ettie Lowell as an example to discredit the anti-suffrage idea that women voting would hurt the family or turn women away from the home. She noted that Lowell was an active suffragist and also the mother of ten children.
Lowell was also concerned that suffragists would be viewed as unwomanly and that perception would hurt the cause. As a result, she tried to convince suffragists to dress in a conservative and feminine manner. In 1911, she gave a speech in which she highlighted the importance of suffragists' appearances. She claimed, "The one serious mistake of the Massachusetts suffragist is that she is too careless about her dress. I approve of the hobble skirt and feathers and plumes. If we are to persuade men into letting us vote, we must first charm them by our attire and personal appearance. The exquisitely dressed Fluffy Ruffles type of woman is one of the best aids to our cause; whereas the masculine attire of certain college girls and so-called ‘advanced' women is a great drawback. Women in men's clothes are misunderstood and, if, as is usually the case, they are suffragists, they lead the public to believe we are all unwomanly."
Lowell traveled to London, England as a delegate to the Universal Peace Congress in 1908. In London, she witnessed the powerful and forceful English suffrage movement, including hearing a speech by Mrs. Pankhurst. She was impressed by the speeches, the excitement, the pageantry, and the size of the crowds. In a letter to the Woman's Journal, Lowell wrote about her experience, stating, "The enthusiasm has made me feel more determined than ever to work for woman's cause, as I see it. I wish I could be here to work with them, where women are so alive to the issue, but possibly I am needed more in America, for here they seem to have plenty of workers."
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography credited Lowell in 1910 as a pioneer in the use of fairs and expositions as a means of raising awareness and support for woman suffrage. The authors claimed that the national suffrage organization adopted these tehniques after Lowell had shown their value. The authors reported that at a fair in Brockton, Massachusetts, Lowell was able to get 6,000 signatures on a suffrage petition and that Lowell and her assistants interviewed 25,000 people about woman suffrage at a Boston Food Fair.
Beyond her suffrage work, Lowell participated in numerous political and social causes. She was active in local and state educational issues in Massachusetts and connected education to the campaign for women's equality. In Newton, she instigated an investigation into whether female schoolteachers were getting paid fairly in comparison to their male peers. She lobbied strenuously for women members to be added to the State Board of Education. As she forcefully explained at an education meeting, "women were parents as much as men" and that "the board [should] be composed of half men and half women." In addition to education, Lowell was a prominent supporter of the Republican Party in Massachusetts and nationally. She served as president of the Massachusetts Republican Women Voters from at least 1900 to 1910 and called the Republican Party "a party of progress." She was especially impressed by President Theodore Roosevelt and campaigned for him. Lowell described Roosevelt as "a philosopher by theory and a very pugilist by action. Some timid people call his courage recklessness, but Republican women admire a brave man and are willing to take the chances of his strenuous administration." As a result of her loyalty to him and the party, Roosevelt received Lowell at the White House in 1908.
After her marriage to George Dunbar, Ettie Dunbar moved to Cranston, Rhode Island and continued her suffrage activism there. By 1915 she was the chairman of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party and then became chairman of the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association when Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association, the College Equal Suffrage League, and the Woman's Suffrage Party joined forces as one organization that same year. She continued in the kinds of suffrage activism she had done in Massachusetts—speeches, meetings, and events.
A common theme in Dunbar's suffrage activism was the need to persuade American men to support women's right to vote. While traveling in England in 1908, Dunbar (then Lowell) witnessed a suffrage protest there. She was impressed by the spectacle, especially the large numbers of men and women wearing "Votes for Women" badges. In a letter to The Woman's Journal suffrage newspaper, she asked, "Do you suppose our American men will ever wear such emblems for us?" When she expressed her concerns about the clothing that suffragists wore, she emphasized the need to appeal to men, claiming suffragists should be "groomed and plumed and gowned in our finest. Let's charm mere Man, and then we will get what we ask for." At a Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party meeting in 1915, Dunbar gave a speech where she reaffirmed that "it was necessary first to interest men if they ever wished to obtain the privilege of voting."
As a result of this speech, the Rhode Island suffragists planned and held a Labor Day demonstration where they drove cars decorated with American flags and bunting in yellow (an official color of the movement), carrying women wearing yellow and white, throughout downtown Providence. When they parked the cars, crowds of people would develop and the women sold copies of suffrage literature and gave speeches about woman suffrage. Dunbar was one of the suffragists giving speeches during the event. She also specifically reached out to American men by speaking at their organizations on the topic of woman suffrage. For example, she gave a speech and answered questions on woman suffrage to the male workers of a Granite Cutters' union in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1908. The men were reportedly hostile to the idea of woman suffrage before the event but following her presentation, they voted unanimously for a resolution in favor of voting rights for women. Dunbar ran a suffrage stand for the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association at the Rhode Island Food Fair in 1916. She noted that the suffrage campaign was making headway, particularly with men. "The situation is greatly changed from other years," Dunbar explained, "We used to make speeches and wave flags to attract attention, but now men and women walk right up to sign their names and get literature. Already 300 men have signed for our Men's League."
Dunbar also participated in political lobbying with the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association. In 1915, a group of suffragists met with the Rhode Island governor, Livingston Beeckman, who had announced his support for a woman suffrage amendment. Dunbar hosted the meeting at the State House and gave a speech forcefully expressing the need for voting rights for women. Dunbar said, "As women we are conservators of the race and yet, because we are women, we are denied the right to vote and are placed with the idiots and criminals."
In addition to advocating for suffrage, Dunbar remained active in social reform in Rhode Island. She became especially concerned about the rise of modern urban culture, such as movies and burlesque shows. She found this culture immoral and damaging to young people and society. In 1916 Dunbar wrote to The Providence Journal explaining the negative effects of films on developing teenagers. She asked, "shall the development of American youth be sacrificed to appease the vile tastes and appetites of a class whose standard of life is antagonistic to American ideals?" She lobbied for increased censorship of modern culture, stating "It behooves the powers that be, for the sake of good citizenship, to present to the eye of the youth that which uplifts and ennobles, and to obliterate anything base, immoral, suggestive of the sensual and appealing to the lower nature." In addition to increased government censorship, Dunbar specifically wanted women appointed to the censor boards. This idea again reflects her maternalist ideas that women brought more moral, familial, and community-minded perspectives to government. She connected the censorship issue to the need for woman suffrage, telling an audience that government officials had given them the runaround in trying to get a woman appointed censor. She noted that it was the lack of women's voting power that allowed the officials to treat them that way. Dunbar explained that, "the indirect power wielded by women was a negligible quantity...[and] women need ballots to enforce their rights." Related to their concerns about modern culture and morality, George and Ettie Dunbar were both strong supporters of temperance, and Mrs. Dunbar was a member of the Rhode Island Women's Christian Temperance Union.
Dunbar had a long connection with the Republican Party and was a wealthy woman who had run her own brokerage firm. In the 1910s, though, she became a supporter of the single tax, a movement that called for increased taxes on land ownership. The movement originated in the late nineteenth century with Henry George, an economist and reformer, who explained and critiqued the wealth inequality caused by industrialization. In 1916, Dunbar gave a speech at the Rhode Island Tax Reform Association about the single tax. She explained that, "land monopoly was the curse of every nation, making the few wealthy and the many poor, and was the cause largely of the poverty in Rhode Island to-day."
Dunbar worked diligently in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island to help improve the community and gain rights for women. Her behavior depicts the maternalistic view that women should care for their family, community, and society. While being outspoken may have been out of character for women in the past, at the turn-of-the-century women found their voice and used it. Ettie Dunbar did just that. In a 1908 speech to the Massachusetts Press Association, she warned that some suffragists believed that women would gain the vote quickly. She noted that important reforms, such as women gaining equal guardian of their children as men had taken over fifty years to obtain. She warned that, "The women of America could get the ballot, and anything they wanted, provided they waited long enough." With the dedication and hard work of activists such as Ettie Dunbar, the constitutional amendment on woman suffrage was achieved twelve years after that speech. By 1920, Dunbar had moved back to Massachusetts and she died on July 10, 1930.
Ida Husted Harper, ed. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6: 1900-1920 (New York: J.J. Little & Ives, 1922). [LINK]
Sara M. Algeo, The Story of a Sub-Pioneer (Providence, RI: Snow & Farnham, 1925).
The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. Vol. XIV (New York: J. T. White, 1910), 540-41.
Ettie L. Lowell, "Suffrage Festival," The Woman's Journal, Vol. 39, No. 34 (August 22, 1908): 1.
"The Dawn of Sanity," The Altoona Times (Altoona, PA), January 30, 1911.
"Five Generations of Girls," The Boston Globe, November 5, 1908.
"For Better Homes," The Boston Globe, September 12, 1909.
"Greatest ‘She' City," The Boston Sunday Globe, March 13, 1910
"In Colonial Garb," The Boston Globe, May 16, 1907.
"Suffrage Bazar Closes," The Boston Globe, April 19, 1908.
"To Attend Peace Conference," The Boston Globe, July 15, 1908.
"Women Suffragists in Jubilee Meeting," The Boston Post, April 17, 1904.
"About Women," The Charlotte News, July 25, 1908.
"Clothes are Too Confusing," The Daily Republican (Monongahela, PA), April 26, 1911.
"Mother Also a Parent," The Florence Herald (Florence, AL), June 3, 1909.
"Women and Democracy," The Hartford Courant, December 13, 1909.
"Suffragettes and Beauty," The Indianapolis News, January 24, 1911.
"Storm Bay State Capitol," The Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1909.
"Board to Censor ‘Movies' Planned," The Providence Daily Journal, September 30, 1916.
"Burlesque Rouses Suffragist Wrath," The Providence Journal, September 4, 1915.
"Committee Asks for Woman Censor," The Providence Journal, September 16, 1915.
"Mrs G. E. Dunbar Speaks on ‘Class Legislation,'" The Providence Journal, September 27, 1915
"R.I. Suffragettes Plan Labor Day Demonstration," The Providence Journal, August 25, 1915.
"R.I. Suffragists Go to March in Boston Parade," The Providence Sunday Journal, October 17, 1915.
"Samples Abundant at Pure Food Fair," The Providence Journal, February 17, 1916.
"Sensualism and Infidelity as Featured in the Movies," Providence Sunday Journal, December 12, 1915.
"Suffrage Leader Recalls ‘Puss Puss' Invitations," The Providence Journal, September 3, 1915.
"Talks Given at Meeting of Reform Association," The Providence Sunday Journal, August 27, 1916.
"Woman Suffrage Societies United," The Providence Sunday Journal, May 2, 1915.
"Woman Suffragists Speak to Crowds from Autos," The Providence Journal, September 7, 1915.
"Long and Uphill Struggle," Times-Republican (Marshalltown, IA), April 29, 1909.
"Society," The Washington Post, April 18, 1909.
Alice Stone Blackwell, "Fact and Comment," The Woman Citizen, Vol. 3 (September 14, 1918): 312.