Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Eleanor Sample Coit, 1878-1955
By Rebecca Blair and Shannon Thennis, student researchers, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana
Secretary of the Montana Woman Suffrage Association; Chairman of the Congressional Committee for Montana; Chairman of the Montana Good Government State Central Committee
Mrs. Harvey Coit was born Eleanor Sample on September 29, 1878 in Ohio. At age 19, Eleanor Sample married Harvey Coit in Franklin County, Ohio on June 28, 1897. About a year later, they had their first son, Robert Coit, in 1898 and their second son and last child, Frederck Coit, in 1905, both in Ohio. Sometime between Frederck's birth and 1910, the Coit family moved to Big Timber, Sweet Grass County, Montana. Coit completed three years of college. Along with raising her children and household work on the family farm, Coit spent much time public speaking, traveling, and writing for women's suffrage. The earliest sign of Coit's involvement in the suffrage movement came after she moved to Montana and was chosen secretary of the Montana Woman Suffrage Association at their meeting in Helena, Montana in January1913. She also became Sweet Grass County Chairman of the State Equal Suffrage League. In February 1913, Coit gave a speech at the local Congregational church in her county about "Why Women Should Vote." The following year she started traveling throughout Montana to visit other counties' suffrage clubs and organizations. In fact, she was cited as an "honored" guest at these functions and elected to more positions in the movement, such as Chairman of the Congressional Committee for Montana. Coit was known for countering arguments against women's suffrage, and had a persistent attitude that reflected her belief that there was no excuse for women to be deprived of the vote. In her famous declaration about women's suffrage, Coit stated that, "the women of Montana would be ready to join the state militia and shoulder a rifle" if military service was to be a requirement for voting rights. Coit was known for her witty line when registering to vote for her first time, remarking to the clerk, "How do you do! I want to register!"
Starting in 1913, Coit worked alongside Jeannette Rankin, leader of the Woman Suffrage Association in Montana, which expanded her opportunities in the suffrage movement. Rankin and Coit would gather for well attended meetings through the Woman Suffrage Association, where perhaps they built their relationship. Coit's assistance and effort with Rankin's campaign for the 1916 Congressional election did not go unnoticed. She helped organize and coordinate events and meetings for the campaign, and encouraged the public to use their vote to send Rankin to Washington. Rankin, in a telegram to Coit, remarked: "I wish I could be with you to thank you for all that you have done for me, for your loyalty and generous support." The record of their friendship can be seen in the large collection of their letters located at the Montana Historical Society. Coit was a firm believer that Rankin would be the first woman elected to the office of U.S. Representative, and put forth immense effort to ensure her success while denying her own opportunity to be nominated to run for state legislature. Coit also travelled with Rankin after her election, continuing to spread the message of national women's suffrage. Although Coit's close relationship with the famous Rankin heightened her presence as a public figure, as she is cited in more than 500 Montana newspapers, she was a humble woman.
In 1914, after women finally gained the right to vote in Montana, Coit was elected Chairman of the Montana Good Government State Central Committee, which succeeded the Woman Suffrage Association. She used her new platform to advocate further social reforms. In her first years as chairman, the organization introduced several laws to the state legislature. Coit stated these laws would provide "for the co-guardian of children by parents [,] ... teachers' pensions... [and] vocational training of dependent girls." Soon after, Eleanor Coit became involved with Sweet Grass County's chapter of American Red Cross and became vice chairman in 1917. She made speeches to encourage women to join any branch of the Red Cross both abroad and at home during the First World War. In 1926, Coit wrote an opinion piece in The Montana Woman that discussed the topic of a Child Labor Amendment, which would require a minimum age for child labor, and mark the age of consent at 18 years old. The U.S. Census listed Mrs. Coit with no occupation, as a wife and household worker; however, it is evident she was a "worker for public betterment who [became] widely known and... [belonged] in the public in her interest and activity in everything benefitting women and children."
There is little historical record of Eleanor's later years in life. At some point, possibly after World War II, Eleanor Coit, her son Fredreck, and possibly Harvey Coit moved to California, where she is believed to have died on July 4, 1955 in San Diego. Her eldest son, Robert, died in 1935 at the young age of 37 in Spokane, Washington, and her youngest son was a Private First Class in the United States Army starting in 1942, which perhaps halted her involvement in public affairs. There is no historical record of her movements to California, and no indication of what she did there. Additionally, her tombstone remains dateless and resides in Sweet Grass County, Montana where her husband of 50 years rested in 1947. It is possible Mrs. Coit and her son moved to California after her husband's death. It is baffling that a woman who was so influential in Montana's involvement in the suffrage movement, and exceptionally well documented in Montana newspapers and publications nation-wide, could go unrecorded and undocumented for so many years. Coit's determination, contentious nature, and great wit influenced women's suffrage in Montana, the election of the first woman to the House of Representatives, and the public's knowledge of other needed social reforms.
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Image Credit: "Mrs. Harvey Coit," Library of Congress, accessed on February 16, 2018, https://www.loc.gov/item/2014710246/