Biographical Sketch of Maria Thompson Daviess

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Maria Thompson Daviess, 1872-1924

By Carole Stanford Bucy, Ph.D., Professor of History, Volunteer State Community College, Gallatin, Tennessee

Co-founder of the Nashville Equal Suffrage League, 1911; Vice-President of the Nashville Equal Suffrage League, 1911—1915; organizer of the Madison, Tennessee Equal Suffrage League, 1915; feminist novelist

Mary Thompson Daviess, one of the founders of the Nashville Equal Suffrage League, and a nationally known novelist, was born in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, on November 28, 1872, Thanksgiving Day to John Burton Thompson Daviess and Leonora Hamilton Daviess. She was named for her paternal grandmother Maria Thompson Daviess, an independent woman who wrote a regular column for the local Harrodsburg newspaper and lectured at a local academy. When young Maria Daviess's grandfather died, her grandmother successfully ran the family's 1000-acre farm. In her autobiography, Seven Times Seven, published shortly before her death, Maria Thompson Daviess wrote that her Daviess grandmother had been her role model.

Maria Thompson Daviess spent the first eight years of her life with her parents in Harrodsburg and saw her grandmother regularly. When her father died, however, her mother moved the family to Nashville to the home of her mother's mother and uncle, a prosperous hardware merchant. Daviess wrote that she was unhappy living in Nashville and missed her paternal grandmother. Her uncle persuaded her to stay in Nashville and offered to send her to Price's Seminary (also known as the Nashville College for Young Ladies). In a letter to Daviess from her uncle about his offer, he explained: "You have shown decided symptoms of intellect.... I want to make you into as great a woman as if you were a boy."

At Price's Seminary, Daviess thrived and developed a passion for novels. She also developed her artistic talents and took art classes. When she was thirteen, she enrolled in the Science Hill School, in Shelbyville, Kentucky. She enrolled and spent a year at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, but then returned home. After her mother died in 1895, she returned to Kentucky for a brief time. When her grandmother and namesake died the following year, she returned to Nashville and enrolled at Peabody College's School of Art. She then left Tennessee for Europe and enrolled in art classes in Paris, where she won a Salon des Beaux Arts award for her miniature painting.

When Daviess returned to Nashville in 1904 at the age of thirty-one, her apartment became a salon for the city's young female artists and writers. She accepted a faculty position in art at Belmont College, a women's college owned and run by Susan Heron and Ida Hood. While working at Belmont, she began to write short stories for young people, which she was able to sell to the Baptist Sunday School Publishing House, located in Nashville. In 1909, she published her first novel, Miss Selina Lue and the Soap-Box Babies. This book was the first of fourteen novels with strong female protagonists that Daviess published. Two of her novels were adapted into Broadway plays.

Above all, Daviess was a feminist and the characters in her novels reflect her ideas about complete equality between women and men. Her obituary in the Nashville Tennessean reported that she had "startled New York by remarking that women should not hesitate to propose to the men of their choice and that after marriage a couple should split the economic burden, each working half the time and doing house work the other half."

As her writing career developed, Daviess also became interested in the woman suffrage movement. During a meeting of the Tennessee Press and Authors Club, she invited six friends to meet Mary Elizabeth Moore Allen, a Memphis writer in town for the meeting, who was president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association. Ida Clyde Clarke, another Nashville writer, joined this group and on September 20, 1911 they organized the Nashville Equal Suffrage League. Anne Dallas Dudley, a longtime friend of Daviess, was elected president with Daviess as vice president. Nashville was the last of the major cities in Tennessee to organize. The minutes of the league stated that its purpose was to support woman suffrage "quietly and earnestly avoiding militant methods as unnecessary to southern women."

Daviess supported the suffrage cause through her writing. The year after the Nashville League was organized, Bobbs-Merrill published The Elected Mother, a Story of Woman's Equal Rights, a thirty-page story that Davis had written to aid the cause. In this fictional piece, Mrs. Pettibone, a woman living on a farm in rural Tennessee with her husband of forty-three years, was considering "beginning all over the Pa.... he will have to be led easy and blind-like to the fact that woman's day has dawned," she told a young neighbor as the two women snapped beans. When her guest expressed astonishment, Mrs. Pettibone, the mother of five sons, explained her ideas further, "She's been downtrodden, geared up uneven, stalled up in a house over a cook stove, poked fun at by love-making and things of that kind until she is in danger of just going on permitting it and being happy in spite of it. Child, don't you know about woman's suffrage when you hear it mentioned in such feeling terms as those?" Throughout the conversation, she talked about various forms of discrimination that women faced. Mrs. Pettibone had learned about suffrage on a recent visit to the fictional town of Wahoo City to visit her son and daughter-in-law. In Wahoo City, women were allowed to vote and run for public office. In fact, a woman was running for mayor of the town the week Pettibone arrived.

Soon after her arrival in Wahoo City, Mrs. Pettibone and Elviry, her daughter-in-law, attended a meeting where the female candidate was speaking. On election day, Elviry worked at one of the polling places as a counter. When the candidate expressed some doubts as to whether or not she was doing the proper thing by running for office, Mrs. Pettibone replied, "No, child. It is not every woman who could do what you have done and it won't be that most of them can ever run their woman-jobs and take up these cares of state, as they are rightly called, but neither could most men or can they ever.... That husband of yours is no more disqualified by your being a good mayor of this town than I am by Tom's being president of that bank." On election night as the votes were being counted., the candidate gave birth to a son. When it was announced that the female candidate had won, Mrs. Pettibone stayed in Wahoo City two extra weeks so that she could attend the swearing-in ceremony. In sharing this story with her neighbor, Mrs. Pettibone told her that she had not discussed yet told her husband about her transformation; "I can't tell Pa, for I'm keeping him blind until I can get time to commence on his reformation and my emancipation.... I'm not going to be so vigorous about it, still I'm going to lead him up to my idea gentle but firm."

When the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) held its annual meeting in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium, Daviess chaired the press committee. The year after the convention, she organized the Madison Suffrage League and hosted its early meetings on her Sweetbriar Farm in Madison, a suburb of Nashville. As her writing career developed, she spent less time as an active member of the suffrage league, but continued throughout her life to give talks on suffrage and women's equality.

Her last novel, The Matrix, was a story about Nancy Hanks, the mother of Abraham Lincoln who had died when he was nine years old. Daviess portrayed Hanks as a woman with a strong belief in equality that she handed down to her son. Her interest in Nancy Hanks subsequently led her to initiate the building of Nancy Hanks Cottage for female students at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. She then provided a generous gift toward its construction.

As a result of the success of her novels, Maria Thompson Daviess became a wealthy woman and divided her time between the Sweetbriar Farm, a Grammercy Park apartment in New York City, and a vacation home on a Canadian island. She suffered from severe arthritis during the last five years of her life and died of a heart attack in New York City on September 3, 1924, at the age of fifty-two. According to her wishes, she was cremated and her ashes buried with her parents in the Daviess family plot in the Spring Hill Cemetery in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. She left no papers.

Sources:

Maria Thompson Daviess, Seven Times Seven: An Autobiography (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1924).

Kay Baker Gaston, "Maria Thompson Daviess: The Making of a Writer and Suffragist," Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 70, #3 (Fall 2011), 224-39.

Libbie Lutrell Morrow, "Maria Thompson Daviess: A Personal Sketch," The Book News Monthly, (Philadelphia: John Wannamaker, 1914), 223-26.

A. Elizabeth Taylor, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee (New York: Octagon Books, 1978; originally published in 1957).

Numerous articles about Daviess were published in Nashville's newspapers, The New York Times, and other newspapers.

 

Sketch of Maria Thompson Davies by Sarah Eakin Cowan, 1924, published in Seven Times Seven: An Autobiography. #x200e

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