Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920
Biography of Rhea Agnes Miller, 1889-1968
By Brooke Ali, independent historian
Suffragist, social worker
From public school music teacher to the ground breaking career of juvenile court probation officer, Rhea Miller was already working for and with women and children when the opportunity to join the National Woman's Party was presented to her. She was active in political demonstrations and as a speaker on women's rights and was elected to co-vice-chairman of the Michigan Social Worker's Branch of the NWP.
Rhea Agnes Miller was born on 2 April 1889 in LaRue, Marion County, Ohio to David S Miller, a railway engineer, and Rose Marie Slanser (or Slauser). She had two older sisters, Zola (also called Mayme) and Gertie, and a younger brother, Gale (Gail) W. When Rhea was around 10 years old, her father died. The family stayed in LaRue until 1903, at which point they moved to Detroit, Michigan. Rose set up shop as a dress maker out of their home on Wheelock Ave to support the family.
Moving from a small village in Ohio to the big city of Detroit, Rhea was exposed to the growing culture of women's education and employment. Since women were still barred from what was considered “men's work,” they began taking up more space in careers such as teaching, nursing, and stenography, allowing women to be unmarried and self-supporting by choice. Rhea attended teacher training at Thomas Normal Training School and in 1907 began working as a public school music and drawing teacher in Fenton, Michigan. After a few years in Fenton, she became the supervisor of music and drawing for the district no. 2 public schools in Calumet, Michigan.
Rhea left teaching in 1913 to become the district investigator for Associated Charities of Detroit. Along with her duties as an investigator, she was able to continue working with children by facilitating charity events. One such event was a Christmas banquet put on for five hundred Detroit children by the Wolverine Automobile Club that included live music, a Santa handing out gifts, and “moving pictures.” She worked in this position for over a year.
With her years of experience working with children, for her next work she became a juvenile court probation officer. In 1914 Detroit, probation officers were a small group of women who did the work that we would consider of a social worker today. According to a piece highlighting the profession in the Detroit Free Press, “They handle all female juvenile delinquents, look after neglected children and families, [and] conduct the details of the mothers' pension bureau.” They also conducted home inspections, compiled information for court cases, and conducted follow-up inspections and probation checks. “To be a probation officer requires a sympathetic nature, a vast amount of tact and an inexhaustible supply of patience as well as perseverance... It also calls for detective ability for not infrequent cases of great consequence originate in the probation office.” It is in this position that Rhea met Ida Anne Reese, a woman with whom she would work, in the court system and the National Woman's Party, for many years.
Her work as a probation officer exposed her to a wide variety of cases and situations. In one case, her work with a 15 year old runaway exposed a possibly fraudulent magazine-selling scheme. She helped to gain the confidence of a young boy who was being taken from his single mother's custody for drug abuse charges and she endured having a hot flat iron thrown at her when she tried to investigate the living conditions of a family with six children. In 1915 she was put on the Board of Auditors of Wayne County twice: for the week of May 12th as the auditor for juvenile transportation and for the week of June 14th as the juvenile court expert. In 1918 she was on the Board of Auditors for the week of March 25 as a probations officer expert.
Rhea was a woman with a strong personality. When interviewed about a charity matrimony raffle that was being held at the court in which the winner would be married to a handsome prosecutor, she responded, “‘I'll bring down a big watch dog and chain him at our door.' She refused to explain what she meant by that.” She and her co-workers had to fight for respect in their positions and for their hard work and experience to be acknowledged. At one point the county auditors were recorded in the newspaper calling Rhea and her colleagues “‘school girl' investigators” and questioning their “understanding of the conditions of the poor and of slum work.” Despite this, the judge of the juvenile court, Judge Hulbert, trusted their ability and relied on them for information in court and social work cases.
With her experience working in the public school system, as a charity investigator, and as a social worker, Rhea would have been well aware of the need for women's voices in politics to speak up for their own needs and struggles. In February of 1918, the Michigan Social Worker's Branch of the National Woman's Party was formed, and she was elected to its first board as vice-chairman, a position she shared with Dorothy Earle, while her colleague, Ida Reese, was elected chairman.
On August 6 of that year, Rhea represented the Detroit branch in Washington, DC at the Lafayette Park demonstration. One hundred members of the NWP marched from their Washington headquarters in Jackson Place to Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. Adorned in the purple, gold, and white of the party colours, the women arrived and took up places in front of the podium. However, before the first speaker, Mrs. Lawrence Lewis, had completed the first sentence of her address to the crowd, she was apprehended by two police officers, one on each arm, and arrested. In total, 48 demonstrators, including NWP chairman Alice Paul, were arrested that afternoon on charges of gathering in a public park without a permit; Rhea was not listed among those arrested. The women made bail, but 37 of them were arrested again when they returned to the park on August 12 to repeat the demonstration. After being released on bail again, they immediately returned to the park for the second time that day and were arrested once more. A riot took place in the police station when the police attempted to remove the NWP sashes from the women. 26 women were found guilty of holding a meeting without a permit and sentenced to 10 days in jail, while 17 of them were given 15 days (the additional 5 days was for climbing the statue of Lafayette). They immediately initiated a hunger strike and, despite threats of forced feeding, maintained the strike until they were released on August 20 after only 5 days in jail. Rhea later gave a talk about her experiences in Washington at a farewell tea given by the NWP in honour of Mrs. Eugene Shippen.
In January of 1919 Rhea returned to Lafayette Park in Washington for the “watch fire” demonstrations. On January 1 demonstrators stood outside the White House in the pouring rain to maintain a watch fire they had started in a metal urn. The intent was to keep the fire burning until the Senate passed the women's suffrage amendment. While tending to the fire, the women fed it with speeches made by President Woodrow Wilson on his tour of Europe at the end of World War I. President Wilson had finally come to support a suffrage amendment, but many felt he was not doing enough to gain the last necessary votes in the Senate. Six women were arrested and released without bond. The fire was put out by a “crowd of men, some in uniform” on January 3. When the women relighted the fire on the sidewalk, it buckled the pavement and caused an explosion that could be heard for several blocks. When a group of men came with chemical extinguishers, the women used the remaining flame to light individual torches in an attempt to keep the fire going. Rhea spoke at a symposium on women's suffrage on June 3 of that year about her experiences at this rally.
Around 1922 Rhea took a break from social work to open a restaurant with Lucile Holgate. Located at 2894 East Grand Blvd in Detroit, the restaurant was called The Tavern Door. The family moved to East Grand Blvd so that Rhea could be close to her venture (she lived with her mother and younger brother for most of her adult life). The restaurant didn't seem to take off, however, as it had disappeared from the city directory by 1923. She returned to social work, bringing her brother into the career; he got a job as a supervisor at a juvenile detention home.
She became an assistant to her colleague, Ida Reese, who was then Friend of the Court for the county of Oakland, but this relationship ended in a falling out in 1931. In February of that year, a man named Glenn A. Judd presented the Circuit court judges with a petition signed by 800 “club women” asking for an investigation into Ida's supposed misconduct in her position as Friend of the Court. It was alleged that she had “usurped her powers, based her actions on prejudice and misrepresentation, and has failed to make a 10 percent reduction in the payroll of her department, as ordered by the board of auditors and supervisors, last Fall” and that she “mishandled divorce litigations involving little children.” The investigation went forward, and she was cleared of the charges, but she felt that her assistants, Rhea and Miss Joan Castell, were “disloyal” and hadn't supported her during the investigation, and she fired them both in May. It was decided that Ida didn't have the authority to fire her assistants and they were kept on the payroll while the matter was resolved, but Ida retaliated by refusing to give the two women any work to do. Ida eventually resigned and Rhea went on to become superintendent at Valley Farm Women's Hospital.
In 1935 Rhea, with her mother and brother, moved to Inkster, Wayne County, Michigan. Sometime between 1949 and 1953 she moved to Dearborn where she remained until her death in May 1968 at the age of 79.
Much of Rhea's life was recorded in newspapers, particularly Flint Journal, Detroit Free Press, and Detroit Times. City directories for Detroit helped fill out her career changes from year to year. Articles in the Washington Herald and Evening Star provided details about the NWP demonstrations that Rhea participated in. Her delayed birth registration provided her birth information and parents' names and the Social Security Death Index provided her death information.