Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Adèle Goodman Clark, 1882-1983

Written by Jennifer Davis McDaid for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, a publication of the Library of Virginia. Reprinted with permission.

Adèle Goodman Clark (27 September 1882–4 June 1983), painter and woman suffrage activist, was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and was the daughter of Robert Clark and Estelle Goodman Clark. During her childhood her family moved several times, to Virginia, to Mississippi, back to Alabama, and then to Louisiana. After her family settled in Richmond about 1894, she enrolled in Virginia Randolph Ellett's school (later Saint Catherine's School). She graduated in 1901, studied art privately with Lily M. Logan and at the Art Club of Richmond, and in 1906 received a scholarship to the Chase School of Art (later the New York School of Art and eventually the Parsons School of Design), where she studied with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri.

Clark returned to Virginia and taught classes in illustration at the Art Club of Richmond and was an instructor at the Richmond Training School for Kindergartners. About 1916 she and the Richmond artist Nora Houston established the Atelier. Their studio became a training ground for a generation of Virginia artists, including Theresa Pollak, who later founded the art program at the University of Richmond and the art school at Virginia Commonwealth University. Intending to revive the long-moribund eighteenth-century Academy of Sciences and Fine Arts, Clark and Houston in 1919 founded the Virginia League of Fine Arts and Handicrafts, which later merged with the Atelier and became part of the Richmond Academy of Arts. A painter primarily of portraits, landscapes, and religious scenes, Clark exhibited canvases at the Carnegie Institute, in Pittsburgh, and at Richmond's Valentine Museum. Her oil painting Cherry Tree (ca. 1920–1930), depicting a shimmering impression of a tree blooming in her garden, is in the permanent collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Clark's life exemplified the crucial role women played in the social reform movements of the twentieth century. She applied her sharp intellect, artistic skills, and determination to champion women and the arts. Her interest in the woman suffrage movement began in 1909. On 27 November of that year Clark and other civic-minded women held a meeting to establish a statewide suffrage organization. Many of them wanted the vote in order to work more effectively for the passage of health, education, and child labor laws.

Clark was elected recording secretary at that first meeting of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia but resigned the office the following March. Her first paying job in Richmond, as a stenographer for the Chamber of Commerce, provided useful experience. She enlisted her mother and sister in the suffrage cause, helped direct legislative initiatives, designed and drew postcards, organized suffrage rallies, and went on speaking tours that helped establish league chapters throughout the state. In 1912 Clark debated the antisuffrage leader Molly Elliot Seawell in various Richmond newspapers. Clark opened with "If Women Were to Vote" on 8 February in the Richmond Virginian, Seawell answered with "Why Women Should Not Vote" on 25 February in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Clark shot back in the Times-Dispatch on 11 March with "The Suffragist Movement: A Reply to Miss Molly Elliot Seawell," a detailed explanation of why women should have the vote. Clark's second article was so persuasive that the Equal Suffrage League distributed an expanded version as an educational booklet entitled Facts vs. Fallacies: Anti-Suffrage Allegations Refuted (1912). That same year Clark organized the screening of a suffrage film at the state fair, where the league also distributed suffrage buttons and yellow "Votes for Women" flags. The women often held their meetings in public places, such as Capitol Square, and Clark sometimes set up her easel and began drawing chalk sketches to lure people to suffrage speeches. "It reached the point," she remembered, "where I couldn't see a fireplug without beginning, 'Ladies and gentlemen.'"

Through canvassing, distributing leaflets, and public speaking, members of the Equal Suffrage League intended to educate Virginia's citizens and legislators and win their support for woman suffrage. Despite the fact that the league was one of the most vital suffrage organizations in the South, the General Assembly defeated woman suffrage resolutions in 1912, 1914, and 1916. Virginia suffragists thereafter directed their work primarily toward the passage of an amendment to the Constitution of the United States. By the time Congress submitted the Nineteenth Amendment to the states in June 1919, the league boasted 30,000 members. Clark chaired the league's ratification committee in 1919 and 1920. Nevertheless, Virginia was one of the nine southern states that refused to approve the amendment, and the commonwealth did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment until 1952.

Within a few weeks of the national ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, the Equal Suffrage League disbanded, and its successor, the Virginia League of Women Voters, began work to make the new vote an informed one. Clark chaired the organization committee to establish the league, was the first chair of the league in 1920, and served as president from 1921 to 1925 and again from 1929 to 1944. With fellow suffragist Naomi Silverman Cohn, Clark in 1923 founded the Virginia Women's Council of Legislative Chairmen of State Organizations (later the Virginia Council on State Legislation) to monitor bills of special interest to women. Her work involving social issues and governmental efficiency expanded in 1924 when she was elected to the board of the National League of Women Voters (later the League of Women Voters of the United States) as director of the third region, which included Washington, D.C., Virginia, and several other southern states. From 1925 to 1928 she was second vice president of the national league. In that capacity she traveled to and spoke at conventions in twenty-four states, including an address before the platform committee at the 1928 Democratic National Convention. In 1927 she chaired the Lila Meade Valentine Memorial Association, which sought to place a tablet or bust honoring the Richmond suffragist in the State Capitol.

In 1922 the governor appointed Clark to the Commission on Simplification and Economy of State and Local Government, on which she served for almost two years as secretary. In 1928 the next governor appointed her to a nine-member commission, of which she also became secretary, to study the feasibility of establishing a new liberal arts college for women at one of the state teachers' colleges. From March through September 1926 Clark was acting social director of women at the College of William and Mary, which had become coeducational in 1918.

Beginning in 1933 Clark was a field supervisor in Virginia for the National Reemployment Service, and from 1936 to 1942 as the state director of the Federal Art Project (after 1939 the Federal Art Program) of the Works Progress Administration (after 1939 the Work Projects Administration) she sought to provide employment opportunities for artists in Virginia. Under her direction, artists produced murals for public buildings and executed hundreds of paintings for display in local and state tax-supported institutions. During Clark's tenure several new art galleries were established, including the Federal Art Gallery at Big Stone Gap. In 1938 Clark chaired the Virginia committee for the exhibition of southern art at the 1939–1940 World's Fair in New York. She served in 1941 on the Virginia executive committee for National Art Week.

Clark was active in the Richmond community for decades. After converting to Catholicism in 1942 (her mother had been Jewish, her father raised in the Church of England in his native Ireland), she helped organize the Richmond Diocesan Council of Catholic Women and shape its legislative program. She spoke for desegregated schools and against the poll tax. In December 1967 Clark received a brotherhood citation from the Richmond chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (later the National Conference for Community and Justice). In the 1940s she taught art to Richmond children who were disabled or convalescing from illness. She also worked with the city school board and the Virginia Society for Crippled Children and Adults. Clark offered instruction in painting and modeling, along with making masks, puppets, marionettes, and block prints. She continued to support the city's art community and was instrumental in establishing Virginia's Art Commission, of which she was a member from 1941 to 1964. Clark never married and for many years lived with her companion and first cousin, the bohemian fashion designer, artist, and writer Willoughby Ions.

On 2 February 1973 Clark's photograph appeared on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch with the skeptical headline, "Beginning of an ERA?" The ninety-year-old Clark and 800 other people had attended a public meeting to express their opinions of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. As usual, Clark did not mince words. "This is an appalling amendment," she told an audience that included citizens, legislators, the president of the National Association of Women Lawyers, and prominent ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly. "It reflects the thinking of fifty years ago. They are fighting a battle that has already been won." Adèle Goodman Clark, who had been fighting the battles from the beginning, died in a Richmond retirement community on 4 June 1983 and was buried in Emmanuel Episcopal Church Cemetery, in Henrico County.


Biography in Valentine Museum, Catalogue: Three Generations of Richmond Artists: William Ludwell Sheppard, Nora Houston, Adele Clark, Edmund Minor Archer (1957); Adèle Goodman Clark Papers (1849–1978), including several autobiographical memoranda and questionnaires (two with birth date), James Branch Cabell Library, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, and Adèle Clark Papers, Virginia Historical Society (VHS), Richmond; other Clark letters in Library of Virginia (LVA), The Valentine, VHS, and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, all Richmond; transcription of 1964 oral history interview, VHS; Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records (1909–1935), Accession 22002, and scrapbook (1920–1923) in League of Women Voters of Virginia Records, Accession 39487, both LVA; Federal Art Project Records of Adèle Clark (1931–1963) and Clark interview, 16 Nov. 1963, both Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution), Washington, D.C.; feature articles (most with portraits) in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 10 July 1932, 5 Feb. 1943 (first quotation), 27 Dec. 1944, 3 July 1949, 16 Sept. 1956, 6 Dec. 1967, 2 Aug. 1971, 13 Aug. 1978, 26 Jan., 22 June 1979, 20 Apr. 1980, 12 June 1983, Richmond Catholic Virginian, 21 Sept. 1956, and Richmond News Leader, 16 Dec. 1964, 18 Apr., 4 June 1969, 24 Sept. 1982; Richmond Times-Dispatch, 20 Apr. 1929, 2 Feb. 1973 (second quotation); Cynthia Kennedy-Haflett, "To 'Raise Oneself to a Higher Plane': The Political Activism of Adele Clark, 1909–1930" (M.A. thesis, University of Richmond, 1989); Amanda Garrett, "Adele Clark: Suffragist and Women's Rights Pioneer for Virginia" (honor thesis, University of Richmond, 1999); principal publications include "If Women Were to Vote," Richmond Virginian, 8 Feb. 1912, "The Suffragist Movement: A Reply to Miss Molly Elliot Seawell," Richmond Times-Dispatch, 11 Mar. 1912, Facts vs. Fallacies: Anti-Suffrage Allegations Refuted, A Reply to Miss Molly Elliot Seawell (1912), "Address before the Conference on Citizenship Education at the University of Virginia, April 22, 1920," Proceedings of School of Citizenship, University of Virginia Record, Extension Series (1920), 46–49, Atelier of the Virginia League of Fine Arts and Handicrafts, with Nora Houston (1921), "The Ideals of the League of Women Voters," Institute of Citizenship and Government, University of Virginia Record, Extension Series (1923), 64–67, "A Critical Analysis of State Administrative Reorganization," Virginia Institute of Citizenship and Government, University of Virginia Record, Extension Series (1927), 145–163, "Academy Square, Richmond, Virginia," Medical College of Virginia Bulletin 25 (Nov. 1928): 9–13, a tribute to Lila Hardaway Meade Valentine in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 10 May 1931, reprinted in Richmond Literature and History Quarterly 2 (fall 1979): 33–35, Virginia Capital Bicentennial Commission, "Art," Sketches of Societies and Institutions, Together with Descriptions of Phases of Social, Political and Economic Development in Richmond, Virginia (1937), pt. 6, and "Robert Terrill Gills, Artist and Illustrator," in It Happened at Appomattox: The Story of an Historic Virginia Village (1948), 41–42; obituaries in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 5 June 1983, Richmond News Leader, 6 June 1983, and Richmond Catholic Virginian, 20 June 1983.

[originally published in Sara B. Bearss et al., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1999– ), 3:258–261]

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