Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Meigs Atwater, 1878-1956
By Judith McCarrick
Artist, educator, suffragist
Independent, resilient Mary Meigs was born on February 28, 1878, in Rock Island, Illinois, the eldest of six daughters of Montgomery and Grace Lynde Meigs. The Meigs girls were educated at home until high school age. Theirs was a closely-knit family with an engineer father who read nightly to his daughters and a religious mother who Mary described as "mystic and introverted."
At age fourteen, Mary attended boarding school in Rhode Island. Though Mary begged her father to send her to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study engineering, he refused, sending her instead to the Chicago Art Institute of Design where she studied textile design.
With support from her father, (her mother died when Mary was seventeen), she went to Paris to study mural painting. Believing that women could create their own destinies, Mary lived alone in Paris, but had an abundant circle of friends. Through a former boarding school roommate, Dorothy Atwater, she met Dorothy's brother, Maxwell, a mining engineer, who was visiting his family in Paris. A courtship followed and Mary and Max married in 1903.
Mary Atwater's new life in Telluride, Colorado was a stark contrast to her earlier experiences. In the mining camps that were to be their homes, Atwater learned to cook, clean, garden, and ride horseback on mountain trails, becoming a woman her own mother would scarcely have recognized.
The couple relocated frequently and life proved challenging. Mary seemed game for all of it, and her studies in art, drawing, and mathematics foreshadowed her future as the "dean of hand-weaving." Her life moved in the direction of a theme: Independence for women. Her underlying motivation was to become a self-sufficient woman, passing her skills and knowledge on to other women and supporting their right to vote.
From 1903 to 1909, Max and Mary Atwater lived in Oregon; La Paz, Bolivia; Black Mountain, Mexico; Estrella del Norte, Mexico; and Butte, Montana. Their son, Montgomery (Monty) was born in 1904. Their daughter, Abby, born in Bolivia, died when she was just two weeks old. On February 29, 1916, Elizabeth Joan Atwater (Betty) was born eleven years after her older brother, Monty.
During these years much of the west was seeing strong support for woman suffrage. Life, particularly in the mining communities, was hard; women carried their share of the load and more. Into this arena came Jeanette Rankin, a native Montanan who had helped maintain her family's ranch. Montana women, including Atwater, rallied around Rankin to support woman suffrage.
Atwater, along with other women in her community, helped to raise funds for the suffrage movement. In February 1911, Rankin became the first woman to speak before the Montana legislature, making her case for women's suffrage. Finally, on November 3, 1914, a woman suffrage referendum was narrowly adopted by 41,302 votes in favor to 37,588 against—53 to 47 percent—a margin of just 3,714 votes. After years of campaigning, women had won the right to vote in Montana. Atwater promptly joined the effort to elect Rankin as the nation's first female member of the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1916, Rankin became the first congresswoman in the United States.
Soon after the successful suffrage movement at the state level, Atwater started weaving seriously, first as an artistic outlet and later to provide business for women in her community. Buying looms and relying on her art training, she researched the weaving of the southern United States. In that way she created the Shuttle Craft Guild that flourished for the next thirty years.
During World War I, Atwater volunteered in Army hospitals as an occupational therapist. She was sent for training to Camp Lewis, Washington and later to Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco, California, where she taught weaving to convalescents.
In 1918, Max Atwater became seriously ill during the flu pandemic that ravaged the country, and on June 4, 1919, he died from encephalitis. Mary Atwater soon returned to her Army post, leaving her children with her in-laws; her work with patients helped her grieve the loss of her husband while her children were in good hands.
Eventually, Atwater moved with her children to Seattle, where she began teaching a weaving class at the University of Washington. To supplement her income, she developed a correspondence course in hand-weaving. From Seattle, Atwater and Betty followed Monty to Massachusetts, where he enrolled at Harvard. In 1924, Mary started The Shuttle-Craft Guild Bulletin, which thrived for the next thirty years under her supervision. During the summers she went to New York, setting up occupational therapy programs in several hospitals.
In 1928, Atwater, her son Monty, and his new wife returned to Montana, where they began a beaver ranch. There, in 1931, Atwater completed The Recipe Book, a new work about weaving. A long drought and the Great Depression took its toll on beaver ranching, and Atwater's weaving business became more important as a way to support her family. She also began to expand her work as an author, publishing a mystery novel, Crime in Corn-Weather, in 1935.
Her health in decline, Atwater moved to Salt Lake City, Utah in 1947 to be near Monty and his family. Local weavers and the university welcomed her, and she continued to weave, teach, and write. Mary Meigs Atwater died on September 5, 1956, in Salt Lake City.
Atwater, Mary. Byways in Handweaving: An Illustrated Guide to Rare Weaving Techniques McMillian, 1954.
Atwater, Mary. Crime in Corn-Weather. Houghton Mifflin, 1935.
Atwater, Mary. The Shuttle-Craft book of American Hand-Weaving : Being an Account of the Rise, Development, Eclipse, and Modern Revival of a National Popular Art. Mcmillian, 1928.
Biehl, Betty Atwater. From the Reminiscences of Betty Atwater Biehl, Weaving A Life: The Story of Mary Meigs Atwater. Interweave Press, 1992.
Koplos, Janet and Metcalf, Bruce. Makers: A History of American Studio Craft. The Center for Craft, Creativity, and Design, 2008.
Lincoln, Marga. "Mary Atwater: Dean of American Hand Weaving," (Helena) Independent Record, 9 October, 2003.
O'Brien, Mary Barmeyer. Jeannette Rankin, 1880-1973; Bright Star in the Big Sky. Two Dot Books, 1995.
Osterhaug, Anita. "Mary Meigs Atwater." Interweave. 28 July, 2010
Reiter, Mary Jo and Patterson, Veronica. Weaving A Life: The Story of Mary Meigs Atwater. Interweave Press. 1992.
Scott, Lynn and Thatcher, Linda. Atwater, Mary.Women in Utah History. Utah State University Press, 2005.
Shontzler, Gail. "Votes for Women, Remembering Montana's Battle over Suffrage 100 Years Ago." Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 2014.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Anthony, Susan B., Cage, Mathilda, Blatch, Harriet Stanton, and Harper, Ida H. The History of Women's Suffrage 1900-1920. Vol.6. Fowler and Wells, 1922. [LINK]