Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920

Biography of Mary Verhoeff, 1872-1962

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 11, 2017, Included in the H-Kentucky post are two good pictures of Verhoeff.

Mary (sometimes called Marie) Verhoeff was born around 1872 (several different birth dates recorded) in Louisville. Her father, Herman Verhoeff, was born in 1827 in Westphalia, Germany; landed in New York with his family in 1836; and moved with them to Kentucky in 1838. Herman went into the grain business in Louisville and in 1873 built the first grain elevator south of the Ohio. This business venture succeeded spectacularly, and Louisville became an essential stop for trains transporting grain from the Western to the Southern states. Mary's mother, Mary J., was born in Kentucky and married Herman Verhoeff in 1859.

As a member of one of Louisville's richest families, the younger Mary grew up with many educational advantages: she attended the Ellen Churchill Semple School, a private school for girls; graduated from Vassar College in 1895; and later received an M.A. degree in geography and sociology from Columbia University. Mary's younger sister Carolyn followed her to Vassar, and the two women, neither of whom ever married, lived together for much of their lives (see the bio-sketch of Carolyn Verhoeff).

Though her major interests were scholarship and research, Mary Verhoeff also devoted a great deal of her time to civic activities. She was a leader of the Vassar alumnae club, which raised money to send promising Kentucky students to Vassar and also promoted higher education for women. As a prominent member of the Monday Afternoon Club, she helped to sponsor lectures, concerts, and other cultural events. She joined women's civic organizations that provided playgrounds, supported the Louisville Public Library, and improved sanitation. In 1908, Verhoeff served on a committee appointed by the Kentucky Federation of Women's Clubs to raise money to improve rural schools; in 1916, she helped to mount an exhibit on garbage collection sponsored by the Women's Civic Association.

From 1911 on, Verhoeff was a member of the Filson Club (now the Filson Historical Society). While serving on the Club's Library Committee, she assisted in reading, arranging, and cataloguing old letters, manuscripts, and documents. She did this “with no thought of reward,” stated a tribute from the Filson Club, “except the satisfaction derived from worthwhile work well done.”

Like many suffragists, Mary Verhoeff came to the movement through other civic activities. She showed her interest in gender issues when at a welcome dinner for a guest professor from Germany in 1902 she gave a speech on “The American Man.” She and her sister Carolyn attended a meeting of the Woman's Club in 1912, where they heard a speech by the Chicago settlement house resident and suffragist Julia Lathrop. In 1914, the sisters served tea at a meeting of the Louisville Woman Suffrage Association. The featured speaker was Ruth von Pelt, a teacher from Frankfort, Kentucky who talked about her experiences as a suffrage activist.

After some Kentucky women gained the right to elect school boards, Verhoeff joined other local suffragists in informing them about the issues and urging them to go to the polls.

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.

Mary Verhoeff, however, belonged to a minority of activists 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. Mary Verhoeff was one of eight women who volunteered to serve on a committee to maintain support for the NWP in Kentucky.

Although we cannot know what attracted Verhoeff to the NWP, she was the kind of woman to whom the party appealed. Whereas many women's organizations advocated special protections for women, the NWP aimed chiefly to end gender discrimination and to remove barriers to women's achievement, especially in the professions. Mary Verhoeff was a woman who worked in a male-dominated professional field, geography. Ellen Churchill Semple, a Louisville native and Vassar graduate who had studied in Germany (as a woman, she was not allowed to receive a doctoral degree) and later became an internationally known geographer, was among Verhoeff's mentors. Both women investigated the many connections between geographical environments and human societies and cultures.

Verhoeff did her most important research in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. In a book published in 1911 and entitled The Kentucky Mountains, she attributed many aspects of the area's culture to its topography, which kept the population isolated and the area underdeveloped. Some of her data was taken from reports of the Hindman Settlement School, which had been founded by two Lexington women in 1902 to provide educational, social, and medical services to mountain communities.

In another book entitled The Kentucky River Navigation, published in 1917, Verhoeff criticized the Army Corps of Engineers for resuming work on the canalization of the Kentucky River—a project that had begun in the nineteenth century but had been left unfinished. The engineers, who were supported by state politicians, aimed to broaden and deepen the river's channel in order to create a waterway for transporting coal from the mountains to various markets. Verhoeff asserted that this project was an expensive boondoggle that would bring short-term profits but few long-term benefits. Railways rather than rivers were now the best means of transporting coal, and would also enable the mountain people to overcome their isolation and gain access to educational and employment opportunities in other areas.

Verhoeff's book was ignored, probably because engineers had little respect for women's expertise. But she was right. In fact, the canalization project proved to be a waste of money and resources because, as she had pointed out, the shipment of coal by rail was cheaper and more convenient than by water. “Today it is high time to recognize,” concludes the historian David F. Ross, “that Mary Verhoeff was not just a woman writer, not just a philanthropic clubwoman, not just a capable and faithful volunteer to eleemosynary organizations, but also a first-rate analytical thinker and a courageous advocate of the truth.”

In July of 1920, a month before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, Verhoeff and some other local suffragists responded to anti-feminist leaders who asserted that women were too uninformed and frivolous to vote. Verhoeff said that she had found from her work with school board elections that women were “very intelligent about voting when their occupations had brought them in touch with the need for legislation.”

Verhoeff continued her own scholarly career as a Fellow of the American Geographical Society and as a member of the Academy of Political Science and of the Kentucky Historical Society. Among her research interests was the history of journalism. Through her service to the Filson Club as a member of the Building Committee, as librarian, as a member of the Board of Directors, and as Second and First Vice President, she also created a place where members of her community could engage in research.

Mary Verhoeff died in Kentucky in 1962.

Mary Verhoeff
Herman Verhoeff
Carolyn Verhoeff

Louisville Courier-Journal:
Jan. 13,1895; Jan. 15, 1897; Apr. 30, 1899; Jan. 23, 1901; Feb. 16, 1902; Feb. 18, 1902; Nov. 13,1914; Jan. 10,1916; Mar. 22, 1916; Mon. Jue 25, 1917; July 23, 1920.

Louisville Herald, August 17, 1917.

Mary Verhoeff. The Kentucky Mountains: Transportation and Commerce, 1750-1911: A Study in the Economic History of a Coal Field. Louisville: Filson Club Publications no. 16, 1911.

Mary Verhoeff. The Kentucky River Navigation. Louisville: John P. Morton and Co., 1917.

Mary Verhoeff. Papers, 1907-1960. Filson Historical Society, Louisville.
In Memoriam: Resolution Adopted by the Board of Directors, The Filson Club. Brochure, 1962, Mary Verhoeff Papers, Filson Historical Society.

Jean H. Baker. Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005.

Nancy Cott. The Grounding of Modern Feminism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

“Ellen Churchill Semple,” Vassar Encyclopedia,

David V. Ross. “Mary Verhoeff versus the Army Engineers on the Canalization of the Kentucky River.” Filson Club History Quarterly 65, no.2 (April, 1991): 268-80.

back to top