Biographical Sketch of Mary Rathbone Ballou

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Mary Rathbone Ballou, 1837-1926

By Faythann Fallon, undergraduate student, Rhode Island College

Teacher; Suffragist; Treasurer for Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association; Vice President of Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association; Member of the League of Women Voters

Mary Rathbone Kelly was born on April 28, 1837 in Blackstone, Massachusetts to Eli and Lydia (Rathbone) Kelly. Her father was a prosperous factory owner in the Blackstone Valley. On her maternal side, Kelly descended from the Hazard family who had settled in Rhode Island in the 1630s. Kelly was raised a Quaker; her maternal grandmother, Alice Peckham Rathbone, was a prominent Quaker minister and Mary attended the Friends' School (later renamed Moses Brown School) in Providence, Rhode Island where her grandfather had served as principal and her grandmother as matron. After graduating, Kelly became a teacher and taught for several years before marrying Barton A. Ballou on November 28, 1867. Ballou belonged to a prominent and historic Rhode Island family and became a leader in the jewelry industry. He founded and served as president of the jewelry company, B.A. Ballou and Co., and was a director on the Manufacturing Jewelers' Board of Trade. He also was active in the community as a trustee of the Bell Street Chapel Fund, a member of the Pilgrims' Society, and a director of the Home for Aged Men and Aged couples, among others. Kelly was Barton's second wife, as he was previously married to Delia A. Wesley who died shortly after their marriage. The Ballous had three children: Frederick, Charles and Alice.

Ballou became an early leader in the Rhode Island woman suffrage campaign. She joined the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association (RIWSA) in 1868, served as its treasurer, and hosted weekly suffrage meetings at her home in Bristol Ferry, RI. At these meetings, the members discussed progress on woman suffrage would be discussed and Ballou reported receipts and expenditures. Bristol Ferry was a small town on Narragansett Bay, but became a “nerve center” of the woman suffrage cause in Rhode Island as a result of the activism of Miss Cora Mitchell, Miss Sarah J. Eddy, Mrs. John Eldredge, and Mary Ballou, who were friends and neighbors. In addition to her suffrage activism, Ballou was an active member of the Rhode Island Women's Club.

Ballou embarked on an international vacation in 1907, with stops in England, Spain, Italy, Egypt, and Jerusalem. While traveling, her attention remained focus on the woman suffrage cause. She reported on her trip to the Woman Citizen (RI), a publication of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association, noting that she cut out an article from a London newspaper about suffragists trying to break into the House of Commons. She criticized these radical suffrage tactics, stating, “I am glad it did not happen in our country and that they were not American women. I do not like that way of doing things. They lose the respect of the men they wish to influence.” Ballou also noted that she asked her son to send her copies of The Woman Citizen (RI) and The Woman's Journal while she was out of the country.

After fifty years of working for suffrage, Ballou witnessed the passing of the Presidential suffrage bill in 1917, which allowed Rhode Island women the right to vote in presidential elections. In an interview for The Providence Journal, which was published on April 18, 1917, she expressed her thoughts on the victory. She said that, “It marks the beginning of the end of what has been for me a long and often hopeless appearing fight. I have worked for suffrage for almost 50 years and when I celebrate my 80th birthday next week I will have a real cause for celebration. I hardly expected to live long enough to see old hide-bound Rhode Island take its place at the head of the processional of progress in the East.” She noted, though, that presidential suffrage was only the beginning and hoped to see full suffrage rights for women in the near future. When Rhode Island ratified the nineteenth amendment in 1920, Ballou told The Providence Journal that, “I am glad to have lived see this day.” The Providence Journal heralded Ballou as one of “Rhode Island's Suffrage Pioneers.”

Two years after the passing of Rhode Island's Presidential suffrage bill, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) transformed into a new organization, the League of Women Voters. This organization formed in order to support the newfound suffrage rights and to further expand women's roles in public affairs. Ballou's suffrage activity carried over to this organization on April 2, 1919, when the Rhode Island State division received its charter. Seven years later, Mary Rathbone Ballou passed away on April 21, 1926. With her dedication to the suffrage movement, the Rhode Island Women's Club paid tribute to Ballou's memory. In 1930, on the 10th anniversary of the woman suffrage amendment, Ballou was honored by the League of Women Voters with a place on its National Honor Roll of the League of Women Voters. This honor was a recognition of Ballou's contributions, dedication, and loyalty to the long fight for women's rights in Rhode Island and the United States.

 

"Rhode Island Suffrage Pioneers,” The Providence Journal, June 29, 1919. John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, RI.

 

“Governor Beekman, Prominent Woman Suffrage Workers and General Assembly Leaders Laud Passage of Bill by Rhode Island Legislature,” The Providence Journal, April 18, 1917.

 

Mary R. Ballou, The Woman Citizen (RI), Vol. 3, No. 3, March 6, 1907, p. 4, Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association records, 1868-1930. Rhode Island State Archives, Providence, RI.

Sources:

Sara M. Algeo, The Story of a Sub-Pioneer (Providence, RI: Snow & Farnham Co., 1925).

Ida Husted Harper, ed. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6: 1900-1920 (New York: J.J. Little & Ives Company, 1922). [LINK]

“Barton Allan Ballou” History of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: Biographical, http://theusgenweb.org/rigenweb/articles/214.html.

“Mary Rathbone Ballou,” 1930. Box 1, Folder 7, League of Women Voters Records, MSS 21, Rhode Island Historical Society, Providence, RI.

“Suffrage Pioneer Recalls Struggle: Tribute Paid to Leaders,” The Providence Journal, March, 27, 1930.

“SUFFRAGE SYMPOSIUM,” The Providence Daily Journal, January 14, 1915.

Mary R. Ballou, Woman Citizen, March 6, 1907, 4. Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association records, 1868-1930. Rhode Island State Archives, Providence, RI.

“Governor Beekman, Prominent Woman Suffrage Workers and General Assembly Leaders Land Passage of Bill by Rhode Island Legislature,” The Providence Journal, April 18, 1917.

“State House Brevities,” The Providence Journal, April 2, 1919.

“Rhode Island Women's Club,” The Providence Journal, October 10, 1926.

“Attempt at Delay in the Senate Fails; Governor May Sign Measure To-Day,” The Providence Daily Journal, January 7, 1920.

“Rhode Island's Suffrage Pioneers,” The Providence Sunday Journal, June 29, 1919.

Thomas Williams Bicknell, The History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Vol. 7 (New York: The American Historical Society Inc., 1920).

Caroline E. Robinson, The Hazard Family of Rhode Island, 1635-1894 (Boston: Printed for the Author, 1895).

The Providence Society Blue Book, New York: Dau Publishing Company, 1905.

back to top