Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Johnston, 1870-1936
Written by Brent Tarter for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, a publication of the Library of Virginia. Reprinted with permission.
Mary Johnston (21 November 1870–9 May 1936), writer and woman suffrage activist, was born in the town of Buchanan in Botetourt County, Virginia, and was the daughter of John William Johnston and Elizabeth Dixon Alexander Johnston. Her father was a lawyer, one-term member of the Virginia House of Delegates, last president of the James River and Kanawha Company, and a former Confederate artillery officer who later served as president of the Georgia Pacific Railway Company. During his business career he moved the family from Buchanan to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1886, to New York in 1892, back to Birmingham in 1896, and then to Richmond, Virginia, in 1902. After her mother died in 1889 Johnston acted as her father's companion and as surrogate mother for her younger brothers and sisters.
A shy and frail girl, Johnston spent much of her childhood reading. She read widely in literature, history, mysticism, the sciences, and poetry throughout her life. Johnston's only formal education consisted of about three months in an elite preparatory school for girls in Atlanta in 1887. She developed a deep reverence for Virginia's landscape and history. Johnston also took pride in the role her family had played in Virginia since the eighteenth century.
In 1890 Johnston accompanied her father on the first of several extended trips to Europe. While there she saw Queen Victoria arrive at a resort in Savoy. Johnston later described the event in a short article entitled "Royalty on an Outing" published in the weekly Fincastle Herald. It is her earliest-known published work and, appropriately, appeared in an issue of the newspaper that women of her native county edited in 1895 as part of a charitable project.
Johnston started writing while living in New York but was unable to publish any of her work then. She began writing her first novel, Prisoners of Hope, in Central Park and published it in 1898 after the family moved back to Birmingham. A love story set in Virginia during the 1660s, the central event is a revolt of slaves and indentured servants, which she portrayed as an uprising against authoritarian royal government, as the historical literature of the time characterized Bacon's Rebellion of 1676. In 1900 Johnston published To Have and To Hold, a historical romance and action adventure set in Virginia early in the 1620s featuring a pair of star-crossed lovers, a loathsome suitor, a duel, piracy, and a war between English colonists and Indians. In both novels, as in her later works, Johnston vividly described the landscape, at which she excelled, and in her first two books she invested her principal characters with chivalric ideals. She treated Virginia's Indians largely in conventional stereotypes as brutal, uncivilized savages who exhibited occasional flashes of dignity and loyalty scarcely indistinguishable from the noble principles of the central characters, who were well-born English ladies and gentlemen residing in the colony.
Prisoners of Hope sold well, and To Have and To Hold was both a critical and popular success and earned Johnston $50,000 during the first year. It was made into silent films in 1916 and in 1922, translated into several languages, and staged as an amateur opera during a 1955 tobacco festival in Richmond. Johnston's publisher offered her large advances for future works, which appeared to guarantee her financial security, and she published a new novel every year or two thereafter.
Following the death of her father in 1905 and the long and debilitating illness she suffered immediately afterward, Johnston wrote Goddess of Reason (1907), a blank verse play set in the time of the French Revolution. The title character of Lewis Rand (1908), one of Johnston's most critically acclaimed works, is a protégé of Thomas Jefferson early in the nineteenth century. She then wrote two historical novels of the Civil War, The Long Roll (1911), and Cease Firing (1912). They were rooted in solid historical research and carry characters through the entire war and have been regarded as some of the best fictional accounts of the war to that time. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson is a leading character in the first volume, and her distant cousin Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston and other notable Confederate officers have major roles, as does her father who appears in Cease Firing.
Nearly all of Johnston's books were published in American and English editions, adding to her sales and income. None of her later books sold as well as To Have and To Hold, but her first nine books together earned Johnston more than $200,000, a very large sum for any writer at that time, especially for a woman. In 1911 she purchased land near the Warm Springs resort in Bath County and constructed a large house, Three Hills, where she and two sisters and a brother lived from 1913 to Johnston's death in 1936. Reduced earnings later and the expense of keeping up the large house forced her to lease the house during extended trips abroad or to seaside resorts during summer.
In the first two decades of the twentieth century Johnston was one of the most famous and successful women writers in the South, perhaps in the country. In all her writings, it is evident that she loved Virginia, but in striving for realism she generally eschewed glorification of Virginia and the South and even of the Confederacy. Social criticism began entering Johnston's literary works during the 1910s. By then she had drifted away from conventional Christianity to a mystical spiritualism, and she privately embraced socialism without ever joining a socialist political party. Those changes began while Johnston lived in Richmond from 1902 to 1912.
Woman Suffrage Advocate
In Richmond Johnston became friends with writer Ellen Glasgow, who eventually supplanted Johnston as the most notable woman writer in Virginia. Johnston publicly endorsed woman suffrage a few days before the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia was founded in November 1909 by Glasgow, Lila Meade Valentine, and other Richmond women. Johnston joined within a few weeks and chaired its legislative and lecture committees. The league published two of her essays, The Reason Why and The Status of Women, which had previously appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch. She wrote other articles in support of suffrage that appeared in newspapers and important national journals, including "The Woman's War" in the Atlantic Monthly and "The Woman Movement" in Woman's Journal and Suffrage News. Johnston served as a vice president of the Equal Suffrage League from 1911 to 1914, when she was named one of several honorary vice presidents. In 1910 Johnston reportedly took elocution lessons to improve her skill and confidence in public speaking. She lent her fame to the cause, and other suffragists advertised her speeches as special events because of her celebrity.
Johnston traveled extensively on behalf of woman suffrage, made speeches in many towns and cities in Virginia, and attended state and national conferences of suffrage organizations, where she was often a featured speaker. She addressed committees of both houses of the General Assembly of Virginia in January 1912 and legislators in Tennessee in January 1913, but persuaded neither state to change its laws or constitutions to grant women the vote. In December 1912 Johnston spoke on the same subject to members of the governors' conference (later the National Governors Association) during its annual meeting in Richmond. She joined other Virginians who marched in the 3 March 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., and spoke at the closing event. She was made an honorary president of the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference when it was founded in 1913 and became a contributing editor for the Woman's Journal and Suffrage News, the publication of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
While Johnston was active on behalf of woman suffrage she refrained from publicly advocating spiritualism and socialism in order not to draw adverse reactions that might injure the suffrage campaign. As chair of the Equal Suffrage League's legislative committee, she openly appealed to organized labor for support, addressing local unions on woman suffrage and the rights of working people. In 1911 she spoke at the annual convention of the Virginia Federation of Labor (later Virginia AFL-CIO). Johnston was uncomfortable with the radical tactics some suffragists employed, and she resigned from the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference because of the offensive racism of its president. She was also sensitive to the sharp public criticism many Virginia men and women directed at supporters of suffrage and eventually withdrew from public life about 1915. Up to that time Johnston was one of the most conspicuous Virginia activists and speakers supporting woman suffrage. Having retired from political activity she chose not to join the League of Women Voters after women gained the vote in 1920.
Social Reform and Later Writings
Johnston's 1913 pioneering novel Hagar, written and published during her most active suffrage work, promoted woman suffrage within her larger vision of feminism and women's rights. Woman suffrage, socialism, and spiritualism all appealed to her as means to achieve social reforms and through them a more just society. Johnston believed that women were entitled to play an essential role in the movement for reform. She wrote many of her later books to educate readers about the necessity for reform and to explain the means. The eugenics movement of the 1910s and 1920s, which broadly conceived aimed at improving people's lives by improving people, also appealed to Johnston for the same reasons. It is no accident that her gravestone bears the inscription, "And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."
Johnston's next novel, The Witch (1914), focused on gender relations, religious beliefs, and freedom of thought and was set in a seventeenth-century English town. A majority of Johnston's novels were set in whole or in part Virginia or in the South, and in them she advocated a more just and humane world with women playing important roles. Her later novels often focused on ideas, sometimes to the detriment of plot and character development. Johnston moved beyond traditional southern notions about women and society, but she did not move far from the culture of her native state on questions of race relations. African American characters in her early novels are for the most part stock stereotype simple-minded, helpless, hopeless menials. Johnston's 1924 novel The Slave Ship explored the corrupting influence of servitude on the culture as well as on individual white people, but it did not so carefully explore the effects of slavery and the notorious middle passage on the enslaved people. Johnston did not endorse full enfranchisement of African American men or women or publicly advocate an end to racial segregation or discrimination. In that she was very much a person of her time and place, as were most of the books she wrote. Perhaps because of her researching and thinking about war while writing The Long Roll and Cease Firing, Johnston became a serious opponent of war and declined to take part in public events in support of the country during World War I.
Popular styles in literature had changed by the time of Johnston's death, and most of her books did not wear well with later audiences or critics. That was only in part because she was more skilled at involving her characters in complicated difficulties than in getting them out at the end. For a writer of Johnston's popularity early in the twentieth century, it is surprising that she has not been the subject of as much scholarly attention as some of her contemporaries, and nobody has written a full-length biography. Nevertheless, several of her twenty-three novels were reprinted late in the twentieth century. The University Press of Virginia reprinted Hagar in 1994 with a long foreword by the southern women's historian Marjorie Spruill Wheeler; and the Johns Hopkins University Press reprinted The Long Roll and Cease Firing in 1996 with introductions by Virginia writer and scholar George Garrett. Annie Woodbridge and Hensley C. Woodbridge compiled and published The Collected Short Stories of Mary Johnston in 1982. Johnston's Richmond townhouse in Linden Row is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as is her home Three Hills.
Johnston continued to write and occasionally attended conferences of southern writers until she developed kidney cancer, which required surgery. Mary Johnston was working on a novel entitled Quest when she died at Three Hills on 9 May 1936. She was buried in the Johnston family plot at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.
Birth date on Birth Register, Botetourt Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics (BVS), Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; birth and death dates and parents identified on Death Certificate, Bath Co., BVS; Mary Johnston Papers, Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville; Johnston correspondence in National Woman Suffrage Association Records, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., and in Lila Meade Valentine Papers, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond; articles include Fincastle Herald, 5 Sept. 1895, Richmond Times Dispatch, 15 Nov. 1909, 12 Dec. 1909, "The Woman's War," Atlantic Monthly 105 (1910): 559–570, and "The Woman Movement," Woman's Journal and Suffrage News, 15 Mar. 1913; Mary Johns[t]on to the House of Governors (1912); important literary analyses are Edward Wagenknecht, "The World and Mary Johnston," Sewanee Review 44 (1936): 188–206, Lawrence G. Nelson, "Mary Johnston and the Historic Imagination," in Southern Writers: Appraisals in Our Time, ed. R. C. Simonini Jr. (1964), 71–102, C. Ronald Cella, Mary Johnston (1981), with a bibliography of her publications, and Clayton McClure Brooks, "Escaping the Veritable Battle Cloud: Mary Johnston and the Reconstruction of History," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (VMHB) 122 (2014): 336–367; George C. Longest, Three Virginia Writers; Mary Johnston, Thomas Nelson Page and Amélie Rives Troubetskoy: A Reference Guide (1978); suffrage activism documented in John R. Roberson, ed., "Two Virginia Novelists on Woman's Suffrage: An Exchange of Letters between Mary Johnston and Thomas Nelson Page," VMHB 64 (1956): 286–290, and Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, "Mary Johnston, Suffragist," VMHB 100 (1992): 99–118; obituaries in Washington Post, 10 May 1936, New York Times, 11 May 1936, and many Virginia newspapers, including Richmond Times-Dispatch, 10 May 1936, and Highland Recorder, 15 May 1936.