Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Jean Brooks Greenleaf, 1831-1918
By Thomas Wirth (lecturer), Seth Anderson (student), and Patrick Moore (student), State University of New York at Cortland
President, New York State Woman Suffrage Association; President, Political Equality Club of Rochester; Delegate, New York State Constitutional Convention, 1894
Jean Brooks Greenleaf was born in Bernardston, Massachusetts on October 1, 1831. Her parents were John Brooks, a doctor, and Mary Bascom Brooks, a homemaker. Greenleaf had six older siblings, only three of whom lived to adulthood—Mary Brooks Smith (1808-1896), Catharine Brooks Yale (1818-1900), and Silas Newton Brooks (1825-1897). After attending the local public school in Bernardston, Greenleaf entered Melrose Seminary in West Brattleboro, Vermont. She stayed for two terms, but had to give up her studies after her mother fell ill, requiring her to return home to care for the household. She married Halbert Stevens Greenleaf, owner of a local lock company—the Yale & Greenleaf Lock Company—in 1852, and the couple lived for a time in Sherburne Falls, Massachusetts. Halbert joined the Union Army in 1862, enlisting as a private, and eventually rose to the rank of colonel.
After the Civil War, the Greenleafs lived briefly in New Orleans before heading back north in 1867 to make a permanent home in Rochester, New York. Halbert resumed his lock business (now Sargent & Greenleaf) and ran for Congress as a Democrat multiple times, winning two terms to the House of Representatives—the first from 1883-1885 and the second from 1891-1893. While he served in Congress, Jean embarked on her own career as a suffragist in Rochester, home to some of the most important early suffrage activists, including Susan B. and Mary S. Anthony. In 1887, Greenleaf joined the newly formed Women's Political Club (later renamed the Political Equality Club) and, in May 1888, became the club's second president. She also led the organizational meetings of the Woman's Ethical Club, founded by Mary T. Gannett in 1889, and in 1893 directed the committee that wrote the constitution for the Rochester chapter of the Woman's Educational and Industrial Union. This organization offered a range of services—from legal advice to job training—focused on improving the lives of working women.
In 1890, Greenleaf was elected president of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association (NYSWSA), taking over the position from Lillie Devereux Blake. She remained head of the association until 1896. As a delegate to the House Judiciary Committee meeting on suffrage in 1892, Greenleaf delivered a memorable speech in which she implored Congress to address the suffrage question, "to make it possible that the principle underlying the Government of this country may be embodied in a law which will make the daughters of the land joint heirs with the sons to all the rights and privileges of an enfranchised people." During the mid-1890s, Greenleaf continued to pressure elected officials at the state and national level to consider an equal suffrage law.
Along with Susan B. Anthony, Greenleaf helped arrange the Second New York Campaign for suffrage as New York State prepared to revise its constitution in 1894. With headquarters for the campaign set up in Anthony's home on Madison Street in Rochester, the two women staged a statewide petition drive carried out by hundreds of NYSWSA activists and speakers. In the end, campaign workers secured more than 330,000 signatures in support of suffrage. Both Anthony and Greenleaf spoke before the Suffrage Committee of the Constitutional Convention in May 1894. The Democratic Party nominated Greenleaf as the only female delegate to the Constitutional Convention in August 1894. The hope of securing equal suffrage in New York ultimately met defeat in 1894, yet Greenleaf still found a bright spot in the struggle. As she explained a year later to suffragists attending the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in Atlanta, "We had the satisfaction of knowing that the delegates...were kept upon a strong equal suffrage diet for days and nights together."
By the turn of the century, Greenleaf had relinquished her position as a prominent leader in the New York movement. She served on the NYSWSA legislative committee in 1901, but her priorities had generally shifted toward caring for Halbert, who had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1896. The suffrage organizations Greenleaf helped establish nevertheless continued to provide crucial opportunities for New York women to become involved in politics and added momentum to the cause of women's voting rights.
Jean Brooks Greenleaf died on March 2, 1918 at the age of 87.
- John Devoy, Rochester and Post Express. A History of the City of Rochester From the Earliest Times: The Pioneers and Their Predecessors, Frontier Life in Genesee County, Biographical Sketches (Rochester: Post-Express Printing Co., 1895), 162.
- Find-a-Grave.com, Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, NY. Readable photo: "Jean Brooks Greenleaf, 1831-1918." https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=7744285
- United States Congress. "Halbert S. Greenleaf," Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-present. http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=G000432
- Jean Greenleaf Brooks Papers, 1894-1912. Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester. https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/finding-aids/D300
- Rochester Regional Library Council. Western New York Suffragists: Winning the Vote, "Jean Brooks Greenleaf." https://rrlc.org/winningthevote/biographies/jean-brooks-greenleaf/
- Jean Brooks Greenleaf Address to the House Judiciary Committee, 1892: https://susanbanthonyhouse.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Jean-Brooks-Greenleaf-address-1892.pdf
- Ann D. Gordon, ed. The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Vol. 6 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013), 140-141, 506.
- "Obituary Notes," New York Times March 3, 1918, 23.