Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Josephine Saxer Irwin, 1890-1984
By: Charlene Savoca (Connors), researcher, script writer and portrayer of Josephine Saxer Irwin
Led 1914 Suffrage Parade in Cleveland, Ohio; founding member Cleveland League of Women Voters
In reflecting on the life of Josephine Saxer Irwin, it is evident that she was dedicated to securing rights for women and advocating world peace. She worked tirelessly on both of these issues throughout her 94 years of life. She was born to James and E. Elizabeth (Saunderson) Saxer in Lakewood, Ohio, on March 1, 1890.
As a young woman, Josephine Saxer did a variety of errands at the suffrage offices in downtown Cleveland in an effort to help get women the vote. She reasoned that if women had the vote, they would not have to suffer as her mother had trying to raise two children after her father's untimely death. Although she worked with such stalwarts of the suffrage movement as Florence Allen and Mrs. Malcomb McBride, her crowning moment was on October 3, 1914, at the age of 24. On that day, she was one of five escorts riding roan horses and leading a suffrage parade of 7,000 suffragists down Euclid Avenue. The marchers, in white ankle-length dresses with yellow roses at their shoulders, marched to the sound of "Onward Christian Soldiers" as 200,000 spectators watched. Throughout her life when hearing this hymn tears always came to Saxer's eyes as she relived the vivid memories of that day.
Josephine Saxer's marriage to John Preston Irwin on June 19, 1919, and raising three children in Fairview Park, Ohio, did not deter her from continuing her activism. When the Suffrage Amendment passed in 1920, Josephine Irwin became a founding member of the Cleveland League of Women Voters. She also turned her attention to the issue of world peace as the Chairman of the Department of International Affairs for the Cuyahoga County League of Women Voters and the Department of International Relations for the Cleveland Federation of Women's Clubs.
Soon after the start of World War II, she wrote an article entitled, "What of the Future, My Children?" In it, she asks what right anyone has to bring children into so mad a world unless you "dedicate your energy to the eternal hope that someday peace may dwell upon the earth?" After the war, having had both of her sons in the military, she became the Ohio Chairman of the Women's Action Committee for Lasting Peace. In 1943, she formed the Lakewood Library Foreign Affairs Discussion Group that continued for over thirty years.
From 1958 to 1962, after the death of her husband, Josephine Saxer Irwin became the first woman in the Fairview Park City Council. By the 1970s and in her eighties, she once again focused on women's rights by advocating the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. On February 8, 1975, she gave a moving speech to the Ohio Coalition for the Implementation of the Equal Rights Amendment at Capital University in Columbus Ohio. In that speech, she contends that women did not keep the impetus going after winning the vote turning to "volunteerism" instead of jumping into the political arena. The fight for the passage of the ERA again brings the need for women's rights to the forefront with "one woman lighting a candle" that re-ignites an entire movement. When the amendment failed, she was upset, but she looked to her grandchildren's generation to continue seeking equality for women. Irwin passed away on September 15, 1984. The local National Organization for Women and WomenSpace instituted a Josephine Irwin Award for women who have contributed substantially to women's rights.
Fairview Park Regional Library; Cuyahoga County Public Library; Biography of Mrs. J. Preston Irwin; written as a letter by Mrs. Irwin to Carol Grossman, Women's Equity Action League; Washington D.C.
"Irwin, Josephine Saxer," Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, accessed April 4, 2018, http://case.edu/ech/articles/i/irwin-josephine-saxer/.
Speech given at Capital University, Columbus Ohio, February 8, 1975, to the Ohio Coalition for the Implementation of the Equal Rights Amendment.
"Three Local Women Preach Peace Cause in Club Circles," Cleveland Press, January 1940.
Western Reserve Historical Society (http://www.wrhs.org), Josephine Saxer Irwin Photographs; Identification PG344.
WVIZ PBS Channel 25 Cleveland Ohio August 22, 1978 – "Josephine Irwin, A Civilizing Influence." Interview, Photos and NOW Rally with Josephine Saxer Irwin.