Biographical Sketch of Eleanor Elizabeth Gordon

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Eleanor Elizabeth Gordon, 1852-1942

By Hayley Ellis, independent historian

Eleanor Elizabeth Gordon was born October 10, 1852 in Montebello, what is now Hamilton, Illinois. Eleanor Gordon was a pioneer for her time. A progressive woman who fought for the franchise and was propelled by a tremendous faith. She rooted her life in social justice from the beginning and worked with a passion to show that women can be independent, they can be ministers, and hold positions within the pastorate. Eleanor's dedication to the church and social justice helped propel the fight for suffrage in the state of Iowa and put the national spotlight on the state when it came to the movement. Eleanor spent her life focusing on the advancement of women, using her role at the pulpit to make way for women to gain rights.

Eleanor was the oldest of six children and took on many responsibilities of the family when her father went to fight in the Civil War. Her mother, Permilia, was an invalid and much of the family responsibility landed on Eleanor throughout her childhood and early adult years. As she turned eighteen and took a job as a teacher at a small country school to earn a living, she brought along a trunk full of books to help pass the time. It was in that moment that she began questioning the state of women in the United States. She also took charge in the 1880s of the local "Band of Hope," the children's organization of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union.

As the years passed Eleanor became involved with the Unitarian Church and helped plant churches throughout the states of Iowa and Illinois. She lived with Mary Safford, a prominent Unitarian minister in this period, and herself was ordained as a Unitarian minister in 1889. She served initially as Mary Safford's associate, but later gained her own congregations, serving in Iowa City, Fargo, N.D, Des Moines, and Orlando, FL.

During her tenure as a minister in the Des Moines Unitarian Church, the church invited suffragists from England to stay and help with the fight for rights in America. This helped propel the Iowa suffragists toward a more combative stance on issues. One of Eleanor's most prominent moments in the Des Moines church was when women gained the franchise to vote in local elections and the ballots were hidden in coal sheds. Eleanor and her gang of suffragists took on those sheds and dug out the ballot boxes to vote.

In 1907 Eleanor was elected to the Presidency of Iowa's Equal Suffrage Association. Eleanor wanted women to stop seeing themselves as all around philanthropists and more as politicians. Iowa had been thought to be one of the states that would get involved with the franchise based on its liberal marriage and property laws, but the reality was that it was far behind. The franchise was first proposed in Iowa in 1871 but only came in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed.

On October 29, 1908 Eleanor lead the first full-fledged suffrage parade at the Equal Suffrage Association Convention in Boone. It was the first in the nation and had nationwide press that wrote about the event. Prior to this event, parades had only been associated with the militant English suffragettes and this marked a turning point in the suffrage movement in the United States. The parade began at the Unitarian Church in Boone and went to the downtown business district where prominent woman suffragists spoke to the crowd of nearly one hundred and fifty women. Women rode in cars, were led by a band, and carried signs that expressed their opinions on suffrage.

After the passage of the 19th Amendment, she worked to erect a statue in Des Moines outside of the statehouse to memorialize the fight. She also served with the League of Women Voters as a liaison with the statehouse.

Even in 1937 at the age of 85, she wrote a letter to the American Unitarian Association President regarding the new anti-feminist tendency within the Unitarian church and the movement away from women in the pastorate. Noting that since the First World War there had been a distinct trend in the world against a woman's role in both industrial and professional life, noting that "Positions of trust, authority, leadership, are being taken from women and given to men."

Eleanor lived until 1942 at the age of 90. Even in her elderly years she continued to be passionate about women's rights and share her thoughts about women's role in the clergy and at the pulpit.

Sources:

Biography of Eleanor Elizabeth Gordon, Box 7, Folder 28. Iowa Women's Suffrage Records. Iowa State Historical Archives at the State Historical Society. Des Moines, IA.

Eleanor Gordon Biography MS44.1 Addenda, Box 38, File 2. First Unitarian Universalist Church of Des Moines Records. Iowa State Historical Archives at the State Historical Society. Des Moines, IA.

First Unitarian Universalist Church of Des Moines Records, 1869-1996. Ms 44/44.1. Special Collections, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines.

Grant, Cynthia. Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1990.

Hudson, David, Marvin Bergman, and Loren Horton. Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008.

Iowa Women's Suffrage Records, 1866-1951. Ms 71. Special Collections, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines.

Julia Clark Hallam, Box 7, Folder 32. Iowa Women's Suffrage Records. Ioa State Historical Archives at the State Historical Society. Des Moines, IA.

Ministers Biography, Eleanor Gordon. Box 1, File 13. First Unitarian Universalist Church of Des Moines Records. Iowa State Historical Archives at the State Historical Society. Des Moines, IA.

Ministers Eleanor Gordon Biographical Information. Box 1, File 14. First Unitarian Universalist Church of Des Moines Records. Iowa State Historical Archives at the State Historical Society. Des Moines, IA.

"Old and New." Box 26, File 1. First Unitarian Universalist Church of Des Moines Records. Iowa State Historical Archives at the State Historical Society. Des Moines, IA.

"Old and New." Volumes 7-9, 12-14, 22. Iowa State Historical Library. Des Moines, IA.

Proceedings of the Fifty-Fourth Convention of the Iowa Unitarian Association. Iowa State Historical Archives at the State Historical Society. Des Moines, IA.

Proceedings of the Forty-Second Annual Conference of the Iowa Unitarian Association. Iowa State Historical Archives at the State Historical Society. Des Moines, IA.

Quist, Oval. A Brief History of the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, IA. Iowa State Historical Archives at the State Historical Society. Des Moines, IA.

Records of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association, Box 10. Iowa State Historical Archives at the State Historical Society. Des Moines, IA.

Scarth,Linda Loos. "Gordon, Eleanor Elizabeth" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 8 September 2017

Unity Circle Secretary & Treasurers Report 3-18-1904 to 4-12-1905. Box 20, File 4. First Unitarian Universalist Church of Des Moines Records. Iowa State Historical Archives at the State Historical Society. Des Moines, IA.

back to top