Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Vira Boarman Whitehouse, 1875-1957
By Brooke McDonald undergraduate student, State University of New York at Binghamton and Tara Schwagerl, undergraduate student, SUNY Old Westbury. Faculty Sponsor, Carol Quirke; Librarian Christa Devirgilio.
Chairman, New York, New York State Woman Suffrage Party (1916-1917); Chairman, New York City, Empire State Campaign (1913, 1917); Vice-chair, New York City, New York City Woman's Suffrage; Woman's Political Union, New York; National Woman's Party, New York City; Democratic County Committee in Manhattan's 15th assembly district
Vira Boarman was born on September 16, 1875 in Virginia to Robert Boarman and Cornelia Terrell Boarman. Her elite status often put her in the spotlight for summers spent in Newport, Rhode Island or Europe, or hosting events for local horse derbies. Indeed, Whitehouse first became active in the movement after an event at the celebrated abolitionist and suffrage leader Julia Ward Howe's nearby country home.
She attended Newcomb College in New Orleans and married James Norman de Rapalye Whitehouse (1858–1949) in 1898. He worked as a New York stockbroker in Manhattan where they resided. She was more often referred to by her husband's name, Mrs. Norman deR. Whitehouse. She had one daughter at the age of 32, Alice Vira Whitehouse, who was born in New York City on March 31, 1908.
Whitehouse participated in more than five woman suffrage organizations. According to Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello's Women Will Vote, she had extraordinary leadership skills, leading to high-level positions in New York women's suffrage groups. Whitehouse was the state chairman for the Empire State campaign committee in 1913. She also served as first vice-chair of New York City Woman Suffrage Party. Unlike some other leaders in the suffrage movement, who chose a more radical or centrist stance, Whitehouse bridged the more radical Political Union and National Woman's Party with the mainstream Woman's Suffrage Party. Finally, Whitehouse was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Her name appeared in newspapers all over the nation as one of the most prominent figures in New York State suffrage. Vira Boarman Whitehouse was well-liked by all for her warm approach to women's suffrage. She was known to incorporate humor into the cases she presented and greatly denounced radical suffragists. Her personality greatly helped her to gain the support of people in New York State.
Whitehouse was a natural leader who knew how to work well with others to achieve her goal. She organized two mass suffrage parades in New York City. In 1913, Whitehouse helped organize and promote the New York suffrage parade that went on for five miles, according to Erin Blakemore of Time Magazine. She oversaw publicity by creating signs and newspaper flyers. She stated that it was "the proudest moment of her life." She also chaired the committee overseeing the October 1915 Banner Parade, the largest national suffrage parade. Over 30,000 women marched down Fifth Avenue in hopes of New York state passing a ballot initiative for women's suffrage. Although many women refused to march in the parade because of its public nature, the resulting coverage, both positive and negative, helped organizers spread the movement.
In addition to organizing parades, Mrs. Whitehouse called for state conferences and meetings. At one point, according to the History of Woman Suffrage, Mrs. Whitehouse organized over 100 women in a "Press and Publicity Council." The women established connections with editors of nearly a thousand newspapers, trade journals and foreign language papers, created advertisements, answered anti-suffrage letters to promote the movement, established a suffrage calendar in local dailies, scheduled suffrage slide shows at movie theaters, created billboards and theater placards, and organized a variety of publicity stunts, such as entertaining games at Coney Island Whitehouse also recommended a woman's strike, to prove that society could not function without women. According to the History of U.S. Woman Suffrage, "Department stores, telephone company managers, employers of all kinds of women's labor, hospitals and schools, protested loudly against the crippling of public service, the loss of profits and the disruption of business which would result from even one day's absence of women from their public places." Whitehouse had wanted to "test the dictum ‘woman's place is in the house.'" (6:473) Whitehouse often reached out to other groups in the area and invited them to meetings to inspire alliances and coalitions. In November 1914, Mrs. Whitehouse called for a meeting at Carnegie Hall, where nearly $115,000 was promised to woman's suffrage, pointing to her elite connections. Whitehouse and Helen Rogers Reid also solicited one-on-one contributions for the movement, including large donations from prominent businessmen and wealthy women.
After the November 1915 defeat of the New York suffrage referendum, she became chairman of the campaign going forward. On September 8, 1917, she led the second New York State suffrage campaign at Sagamore Hill. There is film from the Library of Congress showing her conversing with former president Theodore Roosevelt at the beginning of the campaign on Long Island. Whitehouse also worked alongside other suffragists during this campaign that can be seen in the film by the names Mrs. Ogden Mills Reid and Mrs. James Lees Laidlaw. It was not a rare occurrence for her to work with other suffragists. An article dated September 13, 1917 in the Kentucky newspaper The Courier-Journal stated that she was associated in her efforts with Alice Carpenter, a member of the Congressional Union, and other women connected to the Women's City Club of New York.
After extensive efforts by Whitehouse and other suffragists, they started to gain significant ground within the state. In November of 1917, the voters finally approved the women suffrage amendment to the New York State Constitution after the first attempt had failed in 1915. In an Arizona newspaper article dated November 7, 1917, it was reported that women suffrage in New York won by 85,000 votes. Whitehouse stressed in History of Woman Suffrage, "we worked like amateurs" on the 1915 ballot initiative; by 1917 the women had electoral and publicity savvy. Under Whitehouse's leadership the Party established "suffrage schools," to lecture interested in audiences in the history of the franchise, and of the women's movement. It was an overwhelming result for political leaders and suffrage workers. The article quotes Vira Boarman Whitehouse's reaction to the event: "We hardly expected such a landslide." (Associated Press 1) The passage of the amendment enfranchised two million women in New York State thanks to the advocacy of Whitehouse and other suffragists.
After World War I began, Whitehouse and other suffrage leaders decided to work with the government's war effort to help spread awareness of the suffrage movement. Suffrage organizations donated to war relief funds. World War I, which the United States joined in April 1917, caused public attention on suffrage to diminish. Suffrage organizations helped the Red Cross and donated money for war relief efforts. Whitehouse wanted people to associate suffrage and patriotism.
In her efforts, Vira Boarman Whitehouse also had the privilege of working with Hungarian feminist, Rosika Schwimmer. Schwimmer was one of the first female ambassadors ever, and they worked closely together when Whitehouse joined the Swiss office of the Committee on Public Information in 1918, due to her successes publicizing the suffrage campaign. Whitehouse gained even more recognition for working with Rosika Schwimmer, and it further expanded her fame outside of New York State. She later published a book called A Year as a Government Agent (Harper & Brothers, 1920) based on her experiences.
Even after national suffrage was passed in 1920 with the 19th amendment, Vira Boarman Whitehouse spent the remainder of her life actively organizing state political campaigns. She was elected to the Democratic County Committee in 1925 from Manhattan's 15th Assembly District. She eventually became the national chairman of the Woman's Action Committee for Victory and Lasting Peace and continued to participate in the Women's City Club of New York, having been a founding member back in 1916. Then in 1926, she became Chairman of the Independent Women's Committee for Judge Wagner.
Mrs. Whitehouse was also a proponent of birth control. Whitehouse was a member of the National Council of the American Birth Control League founded by Margaret Sanger.
In addition to her political role in society, Vira Boarman Whitehouse bought a leather company, and renamed it Whitehouse Leather Products Company. Her leadership was further displayed through her managing of the company as president. Making good use of her authority, she made changes in favor of women in the workplace. For example, instead of the workweek being 48 hours, she lowered it to 44 hours. Even in her private life, she did everything in the best interest of women. She sold the company before the 1929 stock market crash after managing it for eight years.
Vira Boarman Whitehouse lived a long life full of successful contributions on behalf of the women of her country. After serving pubic committees, working alongside famous suffragists, and managing her own company, Vira Boarman Whitehouse was clearly a leader who passionately strived for the fair treatment of her fellow women. She died on April 11, 1957, at the age of 82, in her New York City home.
Associated Press. "7 Nov 1917, p. 1 - Arizona Daily Star at www.newspapers.com
Glant, Tibor. "Against All Odds: Vira B. Whitehouse and Rosika Schwimmer in Switzerland, 1918." American Studies International, vol. 40, no. 1, Feb. 2002, p. 34.
"New York, New York City Births, 1846-1909," database, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2WCJ-CB3 : 20 March 2015), #x00a0Vira Boarman Whitehouse in entry for Alice Vira Whitehouse, 31 Mar 1908; citing #x00a0Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, reference cn 19099 New York #x00a0Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,992,044.
"Papers of Vira Boarman Whitehouse, 1889-1957." Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.
"Vira Boarman Whitehouse Biography." UpClosed, UpClosed, upclosed.com/people/vira-boarman-whitehouse/.
"Women Suffragettes Visit TR at Sagamore ." Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/mp76000037.
13 Sep 1917, p. 4 - The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) at www.newspapers.com
"Birth Control Review." https://lifedynamics.com/app/uploads/2015/09/1929-01-January.pdf.
Blakemore, Erin. "The Real Women's Suffrage Milestone That Just Turned 100." October 23, 2015. Accessed March/April 2018. http://time.com/4081629/suffrage-parade-1915/.
Goodier, Susan, and Karen Pastorello. Women Will Vote. Cornell University Press, 2017.
Harper, Ida Husted, ed. History of Woman Suffrage. Vol. VI. [LINK]
"International Division in Suffrage Parade," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 09 Sep 1915, newspapers.com
"The Monitor." May 1919. Google Books. Accessed March/April 2018. https://books.google.com/books?id=ZZJDAQAAMAAJ&pg=RA8-PA35&lpg=RA8-PA35&dq=norma deR whitehouse&source=bl&ots=sEgVM2_E6q&sig=JEVWv8L0pOGtUHVLpyMSmhEvx9I&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwirxISwrIXZAhVQuFMKHcE2C24Q6AEINjAC#v=onepage&q=norma whitehouse&f=false.
New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 03 July 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1922-07-03/ed-1/seq-7/>
"What Would Happen if 8,000,000 Women Struck for a Day," The Day Book, September 9, 1915, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045487/1915-09-09/ed-1/seq-14/
Whitehouse, Vira. "A Year as a Government Agent : Whitehouse, Vira (Boarman) 1875- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming." Internet Archive. January 01, 1970. Accessed May 12, 2018. https://archive.org/details/yearasgovernment01whit.
"Vira Boarman Whitehouse." Wikipedia. Accessed March/April 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vira_Boarman_Whitehouse.
Vira Boarman Whitehouse -- Wikimedia via Library of Congress, accessed online at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c4/Vira_Boarman_Whitehouse_1915_circa.png.