Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Ellen "Ella" Olive Pierce Biggs, 1859–1944
By Nancy Alexander Simmons, Fairfax Station, VA
Woman Suffrage Activist
A 1970 news article about Biggs begins:
"Ella O. Biggs was born a slave. Lincoln didn't free her....Biggs was not born black. She was not born in the South. She was not born on a plantation. She was not the property of a slaveholder. But she was born a female."
This description aptly captures how Ella Biggs must have felt as she fought for suffrage much of her adult life.
Ellen "Ella" Olive Pierce was born in Indiana on February 22, 1859, to Alexander Pierce and Finette Gordon Pierce. Her father died when she was a baby and she lived with her mother, brother, and maternal grandparents by the time she was a year old. She had at least one year of college. On November 22, 1881, she married Robert William Biggs in Jasper County, Indiana; he was a railroad agent. They had one daughter, Alma Biggs.
As early as 1895, Biggs expressed her support of suffrage through an editorial that rebutted another woman who had spoken against suffrage. In 1897, Biggs, then living in Crystal Springs, was Superintendent of the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association's (MWSA) Literature and Press Department.
At the MWSA's first annual convention in March 1898, Biggs was elected recording secretary. During the meeting, Biggs was appointed to revise the organization's constitution and bylaws with Lily Wilkerson Thompson. She also presented her superintendent's report on press work, saying she had contacted local clubs to get women to gain access to local papers. She wrote letters to newspaper editors asking for their views on and support of suffrage; their responses were kind but unsupportive. She identified five papers that "could be relied upon to lend assistance;" but she concluded that women should rely on their own distribution of literature. Biggs served as treasurer of the local Crystal Springs suffrage club this same year.
In a 1907 editorial, Biggs wrote:
"I am moved to announce in your columns my firm and unchanging belief in the right, justice, and expediency of woman suffrage in Mississippi, not only for some future time but now."
She argued that she had paid taxes and had abided by laws, so she should have the right to vote. She clarified that allowing woman suffrage would not make it compulsory—a fear expressed by suffrage opponents—adding that just because some women do not want "a voice in the management of town, county, state, or national affairs, is no reason why I, who would like it, should be deprived." She emphasized that suffragists do not hold men in contempt and remarked that the men in her family were suffragists.
In April 1910, Lily Wilkerson Thompson, the MWSA state superintendent of press work, reported that Biggs "of Crystal Springs edited over her signature a splendid column in the Crystal Springs Meteor for about six months." Unfortunately, a fire destroyed all known copies of that paper. A year later, Biggs was commended for her suffrage work at the annual MWSA convention.
At the eighth annual MWSA convention in April 1912, Biggs was elected corresponding secretary. She also served as recording secretary for the April 10th meeting sessions. As chair of the Committee on Constitution, Biggs recommended that there be two vice presidents of the MWSA, and that chairs of standing committees be elected; the recommendations were adopted. She was re-elected corresponding secretary at the end of the meeting and was elected, along with Nellie Sommerville, to be a delegate to the national convention. However, the MWSA quarterly report in October 1912 reported that Biggs had resigned as delegate to the national convention and that Annie Dent had taken her place.
Meanwhile, Biggs had moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where she became active in the Equity League of Jackson. Her attendance and leadership at league meetings stretched from 1911 to at least 1915. She served as temporary recording secretary at several meetings, in the absence of the elected recording secretary and hosted meetings in her home. At the June 4, 1912, meeting, members decided to participate in the state fair exhibit and put Biggs in charge of the bazaar. Biggs subsequently secured space at the fair in the Liberal Arts Building and reported that Belle Kearney had sent them "a handsome California pennant" to use at the state fair and that Kansas also offered a pennant. At the October 11, 1912, meeting, Biggs reported that "Mrs. Willing, a lady newly arrived in town, had been asked to serve in the booth for the six days of the Fair she to receive $1.00 a day." Members decided to arrange a schedule for those serving in the booth with Mrs. Willing and to divide each day into thirds—morning, afternoon, and night—with at least two members always on duty. They also agreed to display at the fair a framed photograph of "The Suffragist Trying to Arouse Her Sisters," an image that was widely used during the suffrage movement.
Back at the state level as MWSA's corresponding secretary, Biggs issued an appeal to women to take part in the 1913 suffrage pageant in Washington, DC. She wrote:
"On March 3rd in Washington there will be a suffrage pageant which will eclipse all previous efforts in this country, and it is our desire to have Mississippi represented by appropriate float and marchers in column with banners."
At the MWSA convention in April 1913, Biggs served in the Institutional Department; was appointed to the Auditing Committee with Alfreda Grant Collins; and was appointed along with Nellie Somerville as a delegate to the National Convention. As recording secretary, Biggs prepared the minutes from the convention; she was re-elected that position at the end of the convention. Later that year, the MWSA arranged a number of speakers for Suffrage Day at the state fair on Friday, October 13; Biggs presented a program on "Working Woman and the Ballot."
In May 1914 at MWSA's tenth annual convention in Jackson, Biggs once again was re-elected recording secretary. At the same time, Biggs was part of a five-member committee appointed by the Equity League of Jackson to find a speaker for a public demonstration whose purpose was to "offer personal and specific prayers at the noon hour on May 2 for the benefit of a wide spread cause of woman suffrage and the granting of the vote universally." In August 1914, Biggs was elected President of the local league; she thanked the league "for the honor conferred in her election and bespoke for herself and all of the new officers, the earnest support of each member." At the October 20 meeting, she gave a brief presentation on women and the law in Texas and Tennessee. And, as in prior years, MWSA planned a suffrage day on October 26, 1914, at the state fair. Biggs was on the MWSA's Committee for Arrangements for this event with fellow suffragists Annie Dent, Pauline Orr, Nellie Sommerville, Ethel Claggett, and Alma Birdsall; and she gave a "brief talk" on Suffrage Day.
In 1915, Biggs remained an officer in the MWSA and continued as President of the Equity League of Jackson. Under her leadership, the local league undertook significant events. Biggs suggested arranging a public viewing of "Your Girl and Mine"—a suffrage film that illustrated the perils of women not having equal rights—as a benefit for the league. Local theater owners agreed to obtain and show the film, which they did. The league also organized for the first time in Mississippi, a suffrage section of the parade that preceded the opening of the state fair. Twelve women were enlisted to participate and each would carry a placard with the name of one of the states that allowed woman suffrage; however, only six women showed up to participate in the parade. The women wore yellow sashes and walked with a banner that said "Women Vote in 12 States. Why Not in Mississippi?" Biggs and Sadie Goeber carried the banner followed by Lily Wilkinson Thompson, Sarah Magill Watts, Avery Harrell Thompson, and Laura Divine Durfey. The women were frequently applauded along the route. The league also hosted Dr. Anna Shaw, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, while she was visiting Jackson; Shaw spoke to an overflowing crowd in House of Representatives.
Biggs remained active in the league in 1916, and was referred to as one of the pioneers of woman suffrage in Mississippi because she had attended the first MWSA convention. At the thirteenth annual MWSA convention in Starkville, Biggs read the minutes as recording secretary. Biggs, as well as her husband and daughter, signed cards stating:
"I believe in the right of suffrage for women, and thereby enrolled myself as a member of the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association,' constitute the enrolled membership of the Equity League of Jackson, auxiliary to the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association."
By 1919, Biggs had moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In December 1919, she was a member of the Mississippi Ratification Committee that urged men to endorse the national amendment permitting women in the United States to vote.
Her husband died on February 4, 1920, in El Paso, Texas, and is buried in the Concordia Masonic Cemetery there. In 1930, Biggs moved to California to live with her daughter and son-in-law. She died on December 14, 1944, in San Bernardino, California, as a result of a fractured hip that she had sustained several days before; she is buried there at Montecito Memorial Park.
These photographs of Ella Biggs were provided courtesy of her descendant, Georgianna Kirst.
1860 U.S. Census, Indiana. Ross, Lake County, p. 762. Digital images. Ancestry.com.
1900 U.S. Census, Mississippi. Copiah County, p. 11, Enumeration District 0047. Digital images. Ancestry.com.
California, Death Index, 1940-1997 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2000.
Eighth Annual Report, Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections, Lily Thompson Collection, April 1912. http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/suffrage/id/37/rec/4
"Ellen O. Biggs." The San Bernardino County Sun (California), December 16, 1944, p. 7.
Equity League Minutes 1911-1914, Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections, Lily Thompson Collection http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/suffrage/id/243
Equity League minutes 1914 – 1915, MWSA, Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections, Lily Thompson Collection http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/suffrage/id/286
Equity League minutes 1915 – 1916, MWSA, Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections, Lily Thompson Collection. http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/suffrage/id/176
"Friday Great Day at State Fair." Jackson Daily News (Mississippi), October 30, 1913, p. 5. Available through newspapers.com.
Harper, Ida Husted, et al., eds. The History of Woman Suffrage. Vol. VI (1900-1920). N.p.: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922, pp. 332-333. [LINK]
Indiana, Marriage Index, 1800-1941 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005.
Metz, Leonard. "Women, Born ‘Slaves,' Worked for Years to Acquire Suffrage." The San Bernardino County Sun (California), February 15, 1970, p. 13. Available through newspapers.com.
Minutes of the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections, Lily Thompson Collection, March 29-30 1898. http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/suffrage/id/25/rec/11
Minutes of the Ninth Annual Convention Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections, Lily Thompson Collection, April 15-17, 1913. http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/suffrage/id/109/rec/12
Minutes of the Second Annual Convention of the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections, Lily Thompson Collection, April 5-6, 1899. http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/suffrage/id/50/rec/13
Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association 7th Annual Session, Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections, Lily Thompson Collection, April 11-12, 1911. http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/suffrage/id/92/rec/14
"More Talk of Suffrage." Jackson Daily News (Mississippi), December 21, 1907, p. 5. Available through newspapers.com.
"Mrs. Ellen Biggs." The San Bernardino County Sun (California), December 15, 1944, p. 17. Available through newspapers.com.
"Program for Woman Suffrage Day." Jackson Daily News (Mississippi), October 28, 1914, p. 8. Available through newspapers.com.
"Programme." East Mississippi Times, April 6, 1917, p. 1. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87065609/1917-04-06/ed-1/seq-1/
Report of the Organization of the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, Meridian, Mississippi,, Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections, Lily Thompson Collection, May 5, 1897. http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/suffrage/id/6/rec/19
"Robt. W. Biggs, El Pasoan, Dies at Family Home Here."El Paso Herald (Texas), February 7, 1920, p. 7. Available through newspapers.com.
Second Quarterly Report, Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections, Lily Thompson Collection, Jul-Nov 1912, p.2. http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/suffrage/id/137/rec/28
"State Meeting of Suffragists Held." The Columbus Commercial (Mississippi), May 31, 1914, p. 1. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87065028/1914-05-31/ed-1/seq-1/
"Suffrage Workers at State Fair." Yazoo City Herald (Mississippi), October 16, 1914, p. 2. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87065709/1914-10-16/ed-1/seq-2/
"Suffragist Press Department. The Greenville Times (Mississippi), April 29, 1910, p. 1. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85034374/1910-04-29/ed-1/seq-1/
Texas, Death Certificates, 1903-1982 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.
"Woman Suffrage." The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, Louisiana), February 9, 1895, p. 6. Available through newspapers.com.
"Women Want the Men to Indorse." Greenwood Daily Commonwealth (Mississippi), December 18, 1919, p. 4. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87065131/1919-12-18/ed-1/seq-4/