Biographical Sketch of Janetta R. FitzHugh

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Janetta R. FitzHugh, 1866-1950

Written by Brent Tarter for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, a publication of the Library of Virginia. Reprinted with permission.

Janetta R. FitzHugh (13 April 1866–16 May 1950), woman suffrage activist, was the daughter of William Henry FitzHugh and his second wife Mary Ann Harrison FitzHugh, and was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, or nearby at her father's farm in Stafford County. Her middle name may have been Ravenscroft. Little is known about FitzHugh's youth and education, but she probably attended the public schools in Fredericksburg as her younger brother and several sisters did. Like many of Virginia's leading suffragist activists, she had socially and politically prominent relatives and was engaged in civic reform movements. FitzHugh no doubt believed that woman suffrage was a civic right to which she and other women were entitled and a potent vehicle for achieving some of the civic goals for which she worked.

Community Activism

As early as December 1901 FitzHugh had become treasurer of the woman's committee of managers for the local Mary Washington Hospital, and served as a vice president of its executive board in 1915. She organized the founding meeting of the Fredericksburg Civic Betterment Club on 29 March 1911 and was elected president. FitzHugh focused the club's initial work on garbage collection and public health matters and in December 1912 petitioned the city council to uphold its health ordinances. In September of that year the mayor appointed FitzHugh and four other delegates (among them three local physicians) to attend the International Congress on Hygiene and Demography in Washington, D.C., that month. At the beginning of March 1913 she and the club laid plans for a city-wide cleanup day, a fly-killing contest, and further discussions of how to improve local garbage removal.

After the board of supervisors in neighboring Spotsylvania County ceased funding local farm demonstration work in 1913, FitzHugh publicly urged the city council and the Business Men's Association to reinstate the work and wrote a check for $100 to help finance it. In March 1914 FitzHugh was present when pioneering home demonstration agent Ella Graham Agnew spoke in Fredericksburg about girls' canning clubs and the importance of canning to supplementing the incomes of working families. To establish a club, each city or county government or a committee of local residents had to provide $200 that would be matched by the state's extension division. After $100 was raised at the meeting, FitzHugh and several others set out to raise the remainder.

Suffrage Activism

FitzHugh's first known public involvement with woman suffrage took place in the summer of 1910, when she and another Fredericksburg woman donated twenty-five books on hygiene and morality to the new reference library of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. When her friend Mary Johnston, the famous Virginia novelist and suffragist, addressed the Literary Society of Fredericksburg in February 1911, the local newspaper described the city as then "the most conservative town in the South" on the subject of woman suffrage.

In December 1911 FitzHugh attended the state convention of the Equal Suffrage League. When Johnston and league president Lila Meade Valentine spoke in Fredericksburg on 7 March 1912, they stayed with FitzHugh, who introduced Johnston at the meeting. The following day eight women organized the Fredericksburg chapter of the Equal Suffrage League and elected FitzHugh president. She held the office until women won the right to vote in August 1920. In spite of the initial opposition in the city she increased the Fredericksburg league's membership to 26 by May 1913, to 35 by November 1915, and to 325 as of 6 May 1918. Documentation on the league's work is scarce because FitzHugh later discarded the records. During the early years she evidently paid for local members' subscriptions to the Woman's Journal, and like leading suffragists elsewhere in the state, she probably organized educational suffrage events at schools, churches, or county fairs, and circulated petitions for people to sign in support of woman suffrage. She also made unsuccessful appeals to local legislators to submit an amendment to the state constitution to grant women the right to vote.

In March 1913 FitzHugh was in the first line of a long train of Virginians who marched in the national suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., but incomplete records leave it unclear how often she may have taken part in such public events. She regularly attended state conventions of the Equal Suffrage League, and at the December 1915 convention, FitzHugh was one of several delegates who met with the governor to argue for woman suffrage. She may have attended the 1912 national convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and she was named an alternate delegate to 1914 and 1917 national conventions.

FitzHugh suffered a period of ill health early in 1918, during which she did little for the cause of woman suffrage. It is possible, but not clearly documented, that the Fredericksburg Equal Suffrage League either ceased functioning during World War I or that its officers diverted their energies to support war-related work as did many other Virginia suffragists. That would explain why on 21 July 1919 Adèle Clark reorganized the Fredericksburg league, with FitzHugh remaining as president. By that time FitzHugh's chapter had recruited nearly a dozen men as members, including her sister's brother-in-law, Richard Henry Lee Chichester, then a circuit court judge and later a judge of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, who was described as helpful to the suffrage cause.

Early in 1920 when both houses of the General Assembly refused to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, both the senator and delegate from Fredericksburg voted against it, but at the same session of the assembly the persuasive work of local suffragists paid off when they both voted in favor of an amendment to the state constitution to grant women the vote. After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in August 1920, the assembly did not submit the state constitutional amendment to voters. A new Virginia law adopted at the same session allowed women to pay the required poll tax after the deadline, which had long since passed, and register to vote. FitzHugh was among the first women in Fredericksburg to pay the poll tax and register at the beginning of September. Nearly 250 Fredericksburg women registered to vote during the first three weeks of registration. The only local report of women voting that November did not mention FitzHugh, who had worked for nearly a decade to gain the franchise for women.

In September 1920 FitzHugh was one of the women appointed to the committee charged with organizing the Virginia League of Women Voters, but her involvement with the league is otherwise undocumented. Never marrying, Janetta R. FitzHugh lived alone or with family members until she died of cancer in Fredericksburg on 16 May 1950. She was buried in the family plot at Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery.

Sources:

Birth and death dates on Death Certificate, Fredericksburg, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia (LVA), and on gravestone in Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery; civic activities documented in Fredericksburg Free Lance, including 4 Feb. 1911 (quotation), 4 Apr. 1911, and in Richmond Times-Dispatch, including 7 Aug. 1910, 12 Mar. 1912, 22 Jan., 16 Oct. 1913, 17 Mar. 1914; a few letters in Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records, Accession 22002, LVA; some letters in Adèle Goodman Clark Papers, Cabell Library, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond; obituary in Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, 17 May 1950.

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