Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920
Biography of Cornelia Alexander Beach, 1871 – 1940
By Dr. Ann Allen, Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky
A version of this essay was previously published by Ann Allen on H-Kentucky for the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project's biosketches collection, December 4, 2017, https://networks.h-net.org/node/2289/discussions/1007502/cornelia-alexander-beach-1871-1940-louisville-teacher-and. Eugenia Potter contributed to her research on Cornelia Beach.
Louisville Teacher and Militant Suffragist
Cornelia Alexander Beach was born around 1870 in Indiana; neither her exact date nor place of birth is reliably recorded. She was the daughter of George R. Beach, a printer, and Frances (Fannie) M. Beach, a teacher, and was one of four siblings. Cornelia Beach grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana. As George Beach died in 1876, Cornelia and her brother and sisters were raised by their mother, who taught in the public schools of Terre Haute.
Fannie Beach was obviously a forceful woman who held progressive views on school health policy. In 1893, when the Indiana Board of Health issued an order that all pupils in the state's public schools must be vaccinated for smallpox, Fannie Beach refused to admit a boy who had not been vaccinated to her school in Terre Haute. The boy's father, who claimed that the state had no authority to force him to comply with a medical procedure in which he did not believe, sued Beach and the school superintendent, but courts upheld Fannie Beach's decision. The issue was finally decided in 1905, when the United States Supreme Court affirmed the power of states to make vaccination compulsory.
Cornelia Beach followed her mother's example and became a teacher. She gained her professional qualifications at Indiana State Normal School in Indianapolis and later at Cook County Normal School in Chicago. Beach, who was raised by a widowed mother, clearly was not so economically privileged as many local suffrage leaders, who attended elite private colleges such as Vassar, Bryn Mawr, and the University of Chicago. Beach took her first teaching position in the Primary Department of a school in Monroeville, Indiana, and later taught in two schools in Fort Wayne. She spent much of her vacation time in New Albany at the home of her cousin, Emily Beach, and other relatives who lived in the area. By 1909 she had moved permanently to southern Indiana, where she lived near New Albany in Silver Hills.
Like many of her contemporaries, Beach engaged in many forms of civic work before actively joining the suffrage movement. In New Albany, she served on the boards of her local branch of the American Humane Association (later the Humane Society) and of the Social Welfare Association, for which she served as secretary. In 1912 New Albany followed the example of many other American cities by planning a Social Welfare Exhibit centered on child health and welfare. Beach joined a planning committee that included representatives of charitable and civic organizations, churches, and women's clubs. The Exhibit, which opened in 1913, educated the public about issues including tuberculosis prevention, housing, and playgrounds. In addition to visual displays, the event featured lectures by representatives of the Indiana State Board of Health. School children entertained the crowd with dramatic and musical performances.
One of the lectures offered at the Social Welfare Exhibit was entitled “Women as Reformers of Society.” Beach was probably drawn to the suffrage movement because she was convinced that women, if given the right to vote, could be more effective reformers, especially in such areas as education and child welfare. She may also have had more practical concerns, such as the status of woman teachers, who earned low salaries, worked under difficult conditions, and seldom rose to leadership positions in school systems.
In 1913, Beach attended a luncheon put on by the New Albany Woman Suffrage Association and heard speeches by several Louisville suffrage activists who, according to a newspaper report, “displayed the profound thought the subject had received and exceptional ability in presenting it.” Among the visitors was Ruth Sapinsky, a former New Albany resident who lived and worked at Neighborhood House in Louisville. Like other settlement houses, Neighborhood House was a community of educated young people, male and female, who provided services to a poor, usually immigrant neighborhood and did research on social problems. Some of these workers actually lived in the building which also served as a community center. In 1913, Beach spent the winter as a resident of Neighborhood House, and seems to have moved there permanently in 1914, when she also took a teaching position in Louisville.
By 1914, the suffrage movement had ended its period of inactivity, or “doldrums” and had gained momentum from several victories in Western states. Expansion, however, also brought disputes over political alliances and tactics. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the umbrella organization to which state suffrage groups belonged, favored political non-partisanship. When the United States entered the First World War in 1917 its leaders urged suffragists to show patriotism by supporting the war effort.
Another group that first called itself the Congressional Union and later the National Woman's Party (NWP), however, used more partisan tactics. President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat whose first term began in 1913, had resisted pressure from suffrage organizations to support the so-called “Susan B. Anthony Amendment,” a constitutional amendment that would ensure women's right to vote throughout the nation. When Wilson ran for re-election in 1916, the NWP urged women in the nine states where they could already vote to oppose Wilson and other Democratic candidates.
In 1917, after the United States entered the First World War, members of the NWP picketed the White House, publicly accusing Wilson of hypocrisy for promoting democracy in Europe but denying it at home. The NAWSA and its state affiliates condemned the pickets, whom they charged with subverting the American war effort by undermining the authority of the President, who was the commander in chief of American armed forces.
Cornelia Beach was one of a small group of Louisville women who supported the NWP and its militant tactics. In August of 1917, she joined a group of local suffragists at a meeting called by the national NWP organizer Doris Stevens at Louisville's Seelbach Hotel. According to a report in the Louisville Herald, as Stevens spoke about her experiences as a White House picket, a telegram arrived from Washington announcing that a group of pickets had been arrested and sentenced to prison terms of thirty days. “Is there no one who will protest against such an outrage against liberty and democracy?” Stevens asked, and the audience voted to send a resolution to President Wilson protesting the arrest.
Beach must have been strongly committed to the NWP, for she was one of two members of the group who volunteered to travel to Washington to assist with the picketing. The other volunteer, Edith Callahan, served as a delegate to the annual conference of the NWP in December, 1917, but there is no record of her as an actual picket.
By August of 1917, when Beach arrived in Washington, the NWP needed more pickets because arrests had taken many off the street. Police routinely arrested White House pickets for obstructing traffic and brought them before a police magistrate, who forced them to choose between a fine or a jail sentence. On August 23, six women appeared before the White House with a banner that stated “We cannot postpone justice any longer in these United States”—an actual quotation from Woodrow Wilson himself. Within ten minutes they were arrested.
On August 28 the same women were back, some out on bail, and this time Cornelia Beach was with them. According to the New York Sun, a “little band of ten militants...took up their posts at the east gate of the White House, drew a comparatively small and mildly curious crowd, and finally were arrested and carried to the station house, all within fifteen minutes.” Along with Beach, the group included Lucy Burns, a prominent leader of the NWP.
Offered the alternative of a fine or a twenty-five-day jail sentence, the suffragists refused to pay the fine (which would imply an admission of guilt) and appealed the sentence. Beach and five others were released on one hundred dollars' bond. Beach's appeal seems to have been successful, probably because she was a first offender, for unlike some of her colleagues she did not go to jail. This was not the end of Beach's activities in Washington; the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that a month later she was still “prominent in suffrage work in Washington.”
The immediate public response to these events was chiefly negative. In March of 1917, as the picketing began, Julia Henning, then the Chairman of Congressional Work for the LWSA, had praised the “patient, dignified, and earnest” behavior of the NAWSA, condemned the NWP for its “heckling of public officials, disturbance of congressional sessions, and futile picketing,” and insisted that “the women of Kentucky will not require extreme measures to gain common justice.”
Newspaper reports implied that bystanders did not support the pickets but rather regarded them as unpatriotic and unladylike. Reporting on the events of August 28, The Durham Morning Herald praised the Washington police for rescuing the suffragists “from angry throngs...by hustling them to the police station.” The Louisville Courier-Journal called the militants “pseudo-pickets” whose banners had “become offensive to citizens of Washington and many suffragists throughout the country.” On Beach herself, the newspaper reported only that she was a teacher who lived at Neighborhood House, and that “no one could be found in Louisville yesterday who knew when she came to this city, or where from.”
As the arrests went on and the suffragists reported on their mistreatment in jail-- violence, filthy living conditions, and force-feeding--public opinion became more sympathetic. After all, what had these women done except demand rights to which an increasing segment of the public believed they were entitled? In September of 1918, Woodrow Wilson changed his mind and called on Congress to pass the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment.” Among the motives for this decision may have been the need to repair his public image, which had been damaged by the brutal treatment of the White House pickets.
Cornelia Beach returned to Louisville and continued to teach school. From about 1922 until 1936, she served as principal of Lower Fulton Street School. She continued to support woman suffrage and remained engaged in civic work. In 1919 she attended a suffrage tea in New Albany along with her mother, who was visiting from Terre Haute. Beach died in 1940 in New Albany.
Fannie M. Beach
Durham Morning Herald, Aug 29, 1917.
The Evening News (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), Aug 29, 1917.
Evening Star, Washington, Aug 29, 1917.
Indianapolis News, Jan. 14, 1898.
Louisville Courier Journal Aug. 2, 1896; Jun 21, 1896; Sept. 11, 1898; Jul 14, 1901; J Jan. 7, 1906; Jul. 26, 1908; Apr 9, 1910; May 29, 1912; Nov. 14, 1912; Dec. 5, 1912; Dec 21. 1912; Jul 20,1913; Sep 6, 1913; Mar 21. 1917; Aug 29, 1917; 23 Sep 1917; May 18, 1919.
Louisville Herald, Aug 17, 1917.
Washington Herald, Aug 29, 1917.
Monroeville Breeze, August 1, 1895.
The Sun (New York), 1917.