Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Eliza Calvert Obenchain, 1856-1935
By Lynn Niedermeier, Manuscripts & Folklife Archives Assistant, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Kentucky.
An earlier version of this sketch appeared in H-Kentucky, accessible online at https://networks.h-net.org/kentucky-woman-suffrage-biosketches
Press Superintendent, Kentucky Equal Rights Association; Author and poet.
She was born Eliza Calvert in Bowling Green, Kentucky on February 11, 1856 and was known to all as "Lida." Her mother, Margaret Younglove, was a native of Johnstown, New York and her father, Thomas Chalmers Calvert, was born in Giles County, Tennessee. Thomas was the son of a Presbyterian minister, Samuel Wilson Calvert, and his wife Eliza Caroline Hall Calvert. Lida would use as her grandmother's name, Hall, as her pen name.
Lida's early years were comfortable, but at age fourteen her life changed dramatically. Her father, outwardly prospering as a lawyer, entrepreneur and bank manager, was found to have misappropriated funds of his bank to fuel his speculative ventures. Forced into bankruptcy and fearing for his safety, Thomas Calvert abruptly left town and spent more than a decade as a fugitive. He was not reunited with his family until he received a pardon in 1883.
During her father's absence, Lida and her family lived proudly but precariously. Margaret Calvert, it is said, took in washing. Lida nevertheless attended a local private school and studied for a year at the Western Female Seminary in Oxford, Ohio. Helping to support her mother, three sisters and brother by teaching, Lida also began to write poetry. In 1879, Scribner's Magazine paid $15 for two of her poems.
Over her lifetime, Lida would publish more than thirty poems, four of them by 1885 when, at the age of 29, she married William Alexander Obenchain. A Virginia native and Civil War veteran, 44-year-old Obenchain had turned aside from his ambition to become a lawyer to follow instead his beloved Robert E. Lee into the field of education. In 1883 he became president of Ogden College, a small school for young men in Bowling Green.
The burdens of a married woman weighed heavily on Lida. Over eight years, she gave birth to four children: Margery, William Alexander, Jr. ("Alex"), Thomas Hall, and Cecilia ("Cecil"). Housekeeping and child care duties left her exhausted and with little time to write. Even more frustrating was the fact that neither law nor custom assigned her household labor any monetary value; as a wife, she was expected to "make do" on her husband's modest salary.
Around the time of her second child's birth, Lida was approached by the Kentucky Equal Rights Association to help circulate a petition to reform laws governing married women's property rights. She was reluctant at first, but then discovered the Woman's Journal, a suffragist newspaper founded in Boston in 1870. After reading its pages, she later remarked, "I knew just where I stood." She began to write in support of women's rights and to work for the Kentucky Equal Rights Association circulating petitions, promoting lectures, and serving from 1900 to 1909 as the Association's press superintendent, distributing both original and syndicated pro-suffrage articles to as many as 100 newspapers across the state.
It was Lida's suffrage work, and in particular her outrage at laws denying married women control of their own property or custody of their children, that compelled "Eliza Calvert Hall" to write her most successful short story. In 1898 The Cosmopolitan magazine published "Sally Ann's Experience," in which a plain-spoken country woman shames the men of her church congregation for their poor treatment of their wives. "You're one o' the men that makes me think that it's better to be a Kentucky horse than a Kentucky woman," she tells an offender. Not only was the story reprinted in the Woman's Journal, the Ladies' Home Journal, in magazines and newspapers as far away as New Zealand, and in book form by Boston publishers Little, Brown and Company, it became familiar to thousands more through platform readers, teachers of expression and Chautauqua performers.
"Sally Ann's Experience" became the first chapter of Aunt Jane of Kentucky, a collection of nine stories told by the elderly, cheerful, quilt-making, rural character "Aunt Jane." After eight publishers turned it down, the volume finally appeared in 1907. For much of the year, it ranked among the top six most popular books sold in cities such as Louisville, Boston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and St. Louis. President Theodore Roosevelt pronounced the book required reading for men accustomed to mistreating the women in their lives. It eventually appeared in more than thirty editions.
Two more "Aunt Jane" collections followed: The Land of Long Ago (1909) and Clover and Blue Grass (1916); many of the stories first appeared in The Cosmopolitan. Lida published a short novel, To Love and to Cherish, in 1911. Her interest in the craft of the mountain weavers of Appalachia produced A Book of Hand-Woven Coverlets, published in 1912. While researching the book, Lida would emerge from her home to stop farmers hauling wagonloads of tobacco beneath old coverlets and buy pieces for use as illustrations. The book was one of the first of its kind, detailing designs, colors and names and appealing for the rescue of neglected examples of this art.
While achieving success as a poet and author of fiction, Lida continued to write in support of suffrage and equal rights for women. Under both her own name and as "Eliza Calvert Hall," she published at least 90 articles and essays, many in national publications such as the Woman's Journal, Womankind, the Woman's Standard, and The New York Times. The National American Woman Suffrage Association reprinted three of Lida's articles for its Political Equality Series of leaflets. With titles such as "Woman in Politics," "Woman Suffrage a Principle," "The Woman on the Pedestal," and "Woman's Right to Be Ugly," her writing could be passionate and sarcastic, but always emphasized the undeniable logic of simple justice for women. The exact number of Lida's suffrage articles may never be known because she did not take pains to include them in her literary resume; however, she freely acknowledged that her successful career in fiction was the direct result of her embrace of the cause of women and her work for the Kentucky Equal Rights Association.
The death of Lida's husband in 1916 and the growth of her children to adulthood left her more intent upon devoting herself to literature; in particular, she was anxious to publish a volume of poetry and a book on basketry. Unfortunately, more family duties intervened after her oldest daughter Margery, who had married and moved to Dallas, Texas, contracted tuberculosis. Lida joined the family there, where she helped raise her two young grandchildren until Margery's death in 1923. Lida remained in Dallas and died on December 20, 1935.
Today, a Kentucky Historical Marker across the street from Lida's former home at Chestnut St. and 14th Ave. in Bowling Green memorializes her significant contributions to the state and national woman suffrage movement, and to Kentucky literature.
Calvert-Obenchain-Younglove Collection, Department of Library Special Collections, Western Kentucky University.
Laura Clay Papers, University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center.
Niedermeier, Lynn E. Eliza Calvert Hall: Kentucky Author and Suffragist. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007.
Leonard, John William, Woman's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada: 1914-1915. New York: The American Commonwealth Company, 1914. [LINK]