Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Phebe Lester Ayres Ryan, 1851-?

By Nan Weber, author and independent historian

Phebe Ann Lester, the youngest of seven children of Charles and Julia Lester, was born November 20, 1851 in Kewanee, Henry County, Illinois. The Lester family farmed and Phebe was afforded an adequate education that qualified her to teach school. By the time she was eighteen she was teaching in Galva, Henry County and boarding with a relative. Her brother, Champlin Lester, also had made his residence in Galva. Living just one household away from Champlin was the John A. and Mary Ayres family.

One of the sons of John and Mary, William Buenos Ayres, had made his way west to the mining town of Virginia City, Nevada and was working as a machinist, but he returned to Illinois where he and Phebe were married on September 20, 1872 by James Tompkins, a Minister of the Gospel. Their first daughter, Lottie Hortense, was born December 2, 1873 in Galva. Soon after Hortense's birth the family moved back to Virginia City.

Phebe and William would have three more daughters, Adela Phebe (Dell), Jessie S., and Fannie. All three of the youngest daughters died, two from the 1884 Virginia City Diphtheria epidemic. Phebe protected her surviving daughter Hortense as she watched William advance to master mechanic. The family moved to Granite, Montana where William was in charge of the Bi-Metallic Mill at Clark. Here Phebe observed the workers organize a miners' labor union.

On July 7, 1889 William suffered a horrific mill accident which took his life. Through her sorrow, Phebe took control by arranging Masonic Rites and organizing the shipment of his remains to Oakland, California where he would be interred. From correspondence with the Bi-Metallic mine superintendent James B. Risque, Phebe showed her integrity, "If convenient will you kindly remember me to those who were so good to me in my awful days in Clark."

Phebe quickly regrouped. She moved to San Jose, California where she began teaching at the University of the Pacific. A member of the University Senate, Phebe taught stenography and typewriting in the Commercial Department. Daughter Hortense entered California State Normal School.

While in California, Phebe met James Ryan, a mining superintendent from San Francisco. On February 12, 1893 the two married in Nebraska, in the presence of Phebe's former parents-in-law John and Mary Ayres. By December 1893 Phebe, Hortense and James were living in Seattle. Hortense had received her teaching certificate and began work at the Cascade School. Phebe and James welcomed their son, Francis Milton into their lives on February 4, 1895. Phebe was 44 years old when she gave birth to Francis.

In the midst of the joy of a new child in her life, Phebe was again thrown into mourning. On June 8, 1895, James was killed in a mine accident in Zacatecas, Mexico while attending to business at the El Bote Mine. For the next few years Phebe worked to help her two children succeed. Hortense, after a few rough years, continued to teach before marrying in 1899. Frances began to excel in school specifically in communication and electronics, a specialty that would carry him through his life.

Rising through her grief, Phebe became civically involved. Seattle was a hotbed for the suffrage movement. She joined the Woman's Century Club (WCC), which was founded in July 1891 by ten women including Carrie Chapman Catt, who was the first president of the organization. Although the club was not, in essence, a suffragist organization, it did profess voting for women. Phebe was active in the WCC between 1907 and 1913. From 1907 to 1910 Phebe was involved with the literature and travel department of the organization.

In 1909 and 1910 Phebe became a delegate of the Women's Century Club to the Seattle Federation of Women's Clubs (SFWC). She was in fact a member of the SFWC and served as secretary in 1910. The Seattle Federation of Women's Clubs was a branch of the Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs (WSFWC) and the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC).

Nineteen ten was a fighting year. A year when President Taft stated, "it is fair to say that the immediate enfranchisement of women will increase the proportion of the hysterical element of the electorate." In 1910 Phebe also became a member of the newly formed Washington Equal Suffrage Franchise Society. She was one of the founding members and the financial secretary of the "Votes for Women" organization.

The Washington Legislature put a referendum on the ballot for women's suffrage in 1909. Phebe among the women and men of Washington State had twenty months to convince their representatives to vote for the referendum. On November 8, 1910 Washington State was the fifth state to approve women's suffrage.



Census Records (accessed through and/or National Archives and Records Administration—

Year: 1860; Census Place: Wethersfield, Henry, Illinois; Roll: M653_182; Page: 677

Year: 1870; Census Place: Wethersfield, Henry, Illinois; Roll: M593_230; Page: 176A

Year: 1880; Census Place: Virginia City, Storey, Nevada; Roll: 759; Page: 197A; Enumeration District: 046

Year: 1910; Census Place: Seattle Ward 7, King, Washington; Roll: T624_1661; Page: 10B; Enumeration District: 0141

Year: 1920; Census Place: Seattle, King, Washington; Roll: T625_1927; Page: 7B; Enumeration District: 154

Year: 1930; Census Place: Lower Moreland, Montgomery, Pennsylvania; Page: 4B; Enumeration District: 0081

Year: 1940; Census Place: West Orange, Essex, New Jersey; Roll: m-t0627-02341; Page: 6B; Enumeration District: 7-378

Military Records—

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Consolidated Lists of Civil War Draft Registration Records and


Henry County, Illinois Court Records, Film # 1435944 - 1435945

Library and Archives of the Nebraska State Historical Society; Lincoln, Nebraska through Nebraska, Marriage Records, 1855-1908 [database on-line]

Coroners records, Virginia City, Nevada

Virginia Department of Health; Richmond, Virginia; Virginia Deaths, 1912-2014

U.S. City Directories—

1822-1995, Seattle WA 1893 through 1920, San Jose CA 1889 through 1894; Orange, New Jersey 1920 through 1935


Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress:

Washington State Library Digital Newspapers:

Passenger lists—

Hawaii, California, New York, Florida


U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1990;

Archives, Museums, Library etc.—

Clerk and Recorders of Granite and Deer Lodge Counties MT

The Granite County Museum and Cultural Center, Philipsburg MT

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps,

Many thanks to many people who helped me, here are a few—

Tammy Peterson (CWW); Daniel Reddish—Mayor of Philipsburg, Montana; Chanelle Haskins; Nicole Grady; Georgia Weber; Paul Boruff

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