Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Marietta Allen Benchley, 1825-1880
By Carol Kammen, independent historian
Starting in 1870, there were small notices about a woman named Marietta Benchley in the local Ithaca, New York newspapers. These sentences were noteworthy because while they reported her suffrage, temperance and reform activities, they were also snide in tone.
Collected together these newspaper articles described the Widow Benchley's four short essays that appeared in May 1871 entitled “Why I Wish to Vote,” in the Ithaca Journal. Her causes were many: there was the issue of the tariff, licensed liquor-selling, “licensed prostitution,” monopolies, heavy taxation, armed supervision of elections, forced attendance at public schools, present laws of inheritance, “protection of the brute creation,” annexation of new territories, laws concerning children and apprentices and “many other things more or less controlled by votes and legislation. In other words, Marietta Benchley saw the right to vote a way to control half the population and if that were true, she wanted the vote for herself and her gender to make things fair. In July, there was a sharp response to “Shawanebeke,” as she called herself, and a mockery made of her argument. She was treated as an unwanted community scold.
In rebuttal, an unnamed writer believed that that “government is simply force, power, or the ability to punish crime,” and that woman was powerless to fill the offices of policeman, jailor and hangman, “therefore she ought to have nothing whatever to do with government.”
“She illustrates the weakness and lack of depth in the female mind,” the writer commented, “which is clamoring for the ballot, instead of showing any necessity therefore or giving any evidence that its possession will cure any of the evils complained of.”
After this heated exchange, there were no others. But newspaper mention of Marietta Benchley continued. In March 1872 she gave a lecture about the status of Texas; in 1873 she took an educational tour of Europe; and in 1874 she lectured to the Ithaca Farmers' Club on the subject of how to educate farmers' sons and daughters and complained that the Farmers' Club belonged to the elite whereas farm life was difficult and farm women had too little access to society.
She gave a rousing sermon at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Wheat Street on the occasion of the death of Senator Charles Sumner, whom members of the congregation revered. She was the only white speaker at the event and she might have been the generous New England woman who sent special flowers.
In April of that year she spoke at a temperance rally and organized a new group, the Ithaca Friends of Temperance and then submitted a letter to the newspaper about intoxication of students at Cornell University. In April the Ithaca Daily Journal noted that “Mrs. B,” had read her address in a “very pleasant manner” remaining true, she replied, “to her Indian name, Shawanebeke.” At that temperance lecture, she branched off upon equal rights, woman's suffrage and “kindred subjects at the close of her somewhat long paper.”
In October, the Cornell student literary magazine, The Era carried a short comment from “Shawanebeke,” in which she questioned why women did not give up skirts at once? “Warm, full trousers buttoned to a shirt waist with a band below the knee, a full plaited skirt reaching to the knee, with handsome boots, would make a graceful costume which would be admired by all, so soon the eye became accustomed to it.” She called for no heavy drapery that that might “rest upon the vitals.” This dress would not need ornament, she but bright ribbons and flowers could be attached.
By 1875 the Ithaca Democrat had taken notice of Mrs. Benchley's plea for women as well as men to be able to speak out as preachers. The editor of the Democrat disagreed: “It is to the teachings of enlightened Christianity that woman holds the elevated position she does today,” he wrote. She is, after all, regarded as superior to man “because her soul and brain are so “draped” in innocence, delicacy, and purity—that she is thus hedged about and protected.” Besides, commented the editor, how many women would actually avail themselves of the privileges of speaking out, preaching and voting, were they granted? Most women, he asserted, were not “restless seekers after unwomanly notoriety and prominence.” The few that were, he advised, should read the Epistles of St. Paul.
A week after this dressing down in the Ithaca Democrat, Mrs. Benchley was elected chaplain of the Forest City Grange and a week later she was speaking at the Etna [in the Town of Dryden, Tompkins County] Methodist Episcopal Church. Yet, the Ithaca Journal commented that the people of Etna “do not like to have that subject treated in their house.”
Less than a month later, in January 1876, the Varna [also in the Town of Dryden] church announced it was desirous of procuring the services of Mrs. Benchley as a permanent preacher.
That year, the local newspapers reported that Marietta Benchley was frequently speaking out about women's rights and temperance. She was, stated the editor, also writing a novel to be called “Hope Deferred,” to illustrate the “woman question, in some or all of its phases.” She even went to Boston to present her rights, the editor wrote in rather high dudgeon, “or rather what she considers her wrongs to the Episcopal Church Congress.” The Ithaca Democrat reported that the Congress “sensibly refused to listen to her.”
The next news concerning Mrs. Benchley is sparse but in 1878 the Liberal League, an organization that had been meeting regularly for some time, submitted a petition to the State Legislature to extend the right of suffrage to women. It was sent from Ithaca to Senator Hopkins who presented it to the Senate. At the top of the list of 170 names of petitioners was M. K. A. Benchley.
This petition is as important as its life was short. It is also the last time Marietta Benchley is mentioned in Ithaca, excepting for obituary notices that appeared in January 1880, for soon after the petition disappeared into a drawer or wastebasket in Albany, she moved to New York City, attached herself to Dr. Clemance Losier, died and bequeathed her body to the Women's Medical College for dissection and requested that her skeleton be hung in the museum.
All this is the publicly reported life of Marietta Benchley. But who was she?
According to the census, Marietta Allen was born in Sackets Harbor, New York in 1825. By 1856 she was married to Henry Benchley, an abolitionist and one of the founders of the Republican Party in Massachusetts where he also served as Lieutenant Governor. Threatened because of Henry's activities aiding fugitive slaves the Benchley family moved to Texas where Henry served as a freight agent, the small community taking his name. Henry Benchley died in 1867. From this time in Texas came Marietta Benchley's Indian name Shawanebeke, and her knowledge of Texas -about which she lectured.
In 1870 Marietta Benchley moved her two children to Ithaca to educate them at newly opened Cornell University. She bought ten acres of land on the corporation line, near the university.
It is in the Cornell University archives where Marietta Benchley comes alive. Cornell University was chartered in 1865 and opened in 1868; it was a radical educational experiment plastered on top of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862. Set on a hillside that had only recently been farmland, everything at Cornell was new.
A number of students lived at a place called the Grove. Aspiring to create as much of university life as possible, even in the confines of their ramshackle boarding house, the students at the Grove created a literary society not far from the home that Marietta Benchley bought on Dryden Road in Ithaca.
Mrs. Benchley had two children, Paul and Laura. Her daughter apparently was quickly noticed by Cornell students. Writing on July 16, 1872, David Starr Jordan recorded the fact that Mrs. Benchley and her “blackeyed daughter” Laura both attended the lectures at the University. Laura made, according to Jordan “smashing work among the hearts of Cornelians, and her presence might be looked upon as a sufficient guarantee of a full attendance were [only] one half of her ardent admirers present.”
Mrs. Benchley, also called Widow Benchley, made an equally strong impression on the members of the “Soiree Litteraire.” Jordan, who was a shining star among the students and later distinguished himself in a number of ways, becoming an ichthyologist, educator, eugenicist, and peace activist, and also president of Indiana University and then of Stanford, noted that the literary meetings took on a change brought on by Mrs. Benchley, “the rich widow just across the fields.” She
talks women's rights on all occasions, cracks sharp #x00a0jokes at the expense of the lords of creation in general, being especially polite and deferential to each one of them in particular, who discusses points of theology with the D.D.s, statesmanship with the politicians, criticizes the university professors' lectures on any subject &c &c. And who takes no particular pains to conceal the fact that the mittens she is knitting are intended as a Christmas present to little Mike, one of the ragged urchins to whom she gives regular instruction at Benchley Manson. She possibly, accidentally drops some remark showing that she is the widow of the late Gov. Benchley and in speaking of her valuable estate here carelessly reveals the secret that she is the owner of immense tracks of land in Texas, where she intends to go after the children are educated.
It takes all sorts of information to bring someone from the past to life. In the case of Marietta Allen Benchley, we have newspaper accounts of her reform activities, a description of her wardrobe, thought rather unbecoming, census information, and most importantly, the observations of David Starr Jordan.
Marietta Benchley published a series of essays in The Woman's Journal in 1871 and that same year in the Ithaca Journal. Throughout the decade of the 1870s notices appear in the local newspaper about Benchley, the Liberal League, and in 1878 about the petition to the New York State Legislature to eliminate the word male from the state constitution. There is a letter from Benchley to Andrew Dickson White in the White Papers #1-2-2, Cornell University Library (CUL) and the comments by David Starr Jordan about Benchley in the “History of the University Grove,” unpublished manuscript, July 16, 1872, Collection #37/16/190, CUL. See also Kammen, “How Ithaca Church Honored Abolitionist Senator,” Ithaca Journal, Sept 21, 2017, accessible online at https://www.ithacajournal.com/story/news/local/2017/09/21/how-ithaca-church-honored-abolitionist-senator/681510001/ and “Crumbs of Justice,” Archives: the magazine of the New York State Archives, Spring 2012. See also, Carol Kammen and Elaine Engst, Achieving Beulah Land: The Long Struggle for Suffrage in Tompkins County, New York (forthcoming).