Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Harriet May Mills, 1857-
By Patricia A. Hopkins, Rochester, N.Y.
Harriett May Mills was born to abolitionists Harriet Ann Smith and Charles B. Mills in Syracuse, August 9, 1857
In 1851 Harriet's parents fled Ohio because they were teaching "Negros" how to read. They migrated to Syracuse, one of the gathering places for abolitionists in New York State. Syracuse was an active area for the Underground Railroad of which the Mills home was one of the stations.
The Syracuse home was a place where leaders in the abolitionist and suffrage movements would gather including, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt and others.
Miss Mills went to Cornell University. She entered the University two years after the first woman student was admitted. After college she taught at a private academy near Boston. It was here that she first embraced the suffrage cause after hearing Lucy Stone speak in 1886. She then moved to New York City to work with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
In 1892 Miss Mills returned to Syracuse to organize New York State's first statewide suffrage convention. By 1894 she had been named recording secretary for New York State Chapter of NAWSA. From 1902 until 1910 Miss Mills was vice president of the New York Association and President from 1910-1913. Miss Mills helped organize public meeting across sixty counties in New York with notable speakers to include Miss Susan B. Anthony, Dr. Anna Howard Shaw and Mary Garrett Hay.
Additionally Miss Mills assisted suffrage organizations in Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Massachusetts, Delaware and New Jersey.
Often a speaker at these state meetings, Miss Mills would speak of "The Winning of Educational Freedom." Quoting statistics from the U.S. Commissioner of Education for 1899, Miss Mills refuted arguments predicting the unhealthy effects of education of women.
Standing on the threshold of the new century, we behold the woman of the future thus armed, we see the fully educated woman possessed of a truer knowledge of the fundamental principles of government, we see her conscious of her responsibilities as a citizen, and doing her part in the making of laws and in the fulfillment of the ideal of democracy. Educational freedom must lead to political freedom.
As vice president of the NY Woman Suffrage Association, Miss Mills worked closely with Emma Bidwell Sweet to arrange for the state conventions to be held. All details were coordinate by her – location, fees for hall, speakers, hotels, advertisements, etc. This was done while she producing the New York Suffrage Newsletter for which she was the editor for ten years.
In 1919 Miss Mills founded the Onondaga County Democratic Women's Club and was its president until her death.
In 1923 she was appointed as the first female State Hospital Commissioner. Her main concern were the problems of the mentally ill.
Following the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, Miss Mills was a candidate for the New York State elected office of Secretary of State on the ticket with Alfred E. Smith who ran for Governor. Although they were unsuccessful, Miss Mills continued to be active in the Democratic Party and assisted Mr. Smith's campaign in 1922 for Governor and in 1924 for U.S. president.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt recruited Miss Mills to assist him on becoming Governor of New York State (1929-1932) and then his election to the President of the United States in 1933. Miss Mills served on the Electoral College that sent Roosevelt to the White House.
Miss Mills remained active in the Democratic Party until her death on May 16, 1935.
1. Free Thought Trail.org
2. Harriet May Mills, Isabel Howland: Manual for Political Equality Clubs. Philadelphia, National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1986.
3. Website of the Harriet May Mills House, Syracuse, NY, accessible online at harrietmaymills.org.
4. "Syracuse's Harriet May Mills, Women's History Legacy," accessible online at Urbancny.com/syracuses-Harriet-May-Mills-womens-history-legacy.com
5. Emma Biddlecom Sweet Papers, A.S97, Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester.
6. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Brownell Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Ida Husted Harper. History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6, Fowler & Wells, 1922 [LINK]
7. Jennifer A. Lemak , Ashley Hopkins-Benton: Votes for Women: Celebrating New York's Suffrage Centennial (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2017) , p 83.
8. New York State Hospital Commission: The State Hospital Quarterly, Vol. 8, 1922.
9. New York Suffrage Newsletter, Harriet May Mills, editor. New York State Woman Suffrage Association, Syracuse, New York April 1908. (Library of Congress, hdl.loc.gov/loc.rbc/rbcmil.scrp4004901)