Biographical Sketch of Josepha Whitney

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Josepha Whitney, 1871-1957

By Ève Bourbeau-Allard, MA, MSI, Yale University

Anna Josepha Newcomb, later known as Josepha Whitney, was born on September 27, 1871 in Washington, D.C., to Mary Caroline Hassler Newcomb (1840-1921) and Simon Newcomb (1835-1909). Whitney's father, a renowned professor of mathematics and astronomy, had co-founded the American Astronomical Society and served as its first president. Her older sister Anita Newcomb McGee (1864-1940) became a medical doctor who established the Army Nurse Corps. For her part, Whitney would go on leaving her mark on the politics of the day.

Growing up in an academic environment, the young Whitney received a privileged education in Washington D.C., Geneva, Switzerland, and Berlin, Germany. Upon her graduation in 1890 as the valedictorian of the McDonald-Ellis School, a Washington D.C. newspaper reported that “she showed herself to be a bright scholar and highly talented.” Developing a passion for the visual arts, Whitney then studied watercolor at the Art Students' League of Washington, served as the institution's corresponding secretary, and participated in several exhibitions.

On April 11, 1896, Whitney married Edward Baldwin Whitney (1857-1911), who had been serving as Assistant Attorney General of the United States since 1893. The couple eventually moved to New York City, where Edward practiced law and was appointed as a New York Supreme Court judge. Edward's life was cut short by pneumonia. His death in 1911 left Whitney a young widow in charge of their six living children. From then on, the Whitney family mainly resided in New Haven, CT.

The early 1910s marked the beginnings of Whitney's involvement in the suffrage movement at local, state, and national levels. In 1912, she led the first suffrage meeting in the town of Cornwall, CT and, the following year, she travelled to Hartford to plead the cause to state legislators on behalf of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association (CWSA). Whitney eventually served as the New Haven County CWSA chair and as a member of its Central War Work Committee. Her dedication was felt in local New Haven clubs as well, where she presided the Equal Franchise League of New Haven and was active in the New Haven Political Equality Club. She later also presided the New Haven League of Women Voters.

At the national level, Whitney spoke at a mass suffrage meeting at the Washington Public Library in June 1914 that led to a march to the White House through the streets of the capital. In December 1917, she returned to her hometown again as one of the thirty or so activists in the Connecticut delegation to the National Suffrage Convention organized by the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

For Whitney, suffrage activism was part of a lifetime of advocacy. During World War I, and in its aftermath, her commitment to women's suffrage intersected with peace activism. Whitney advocated for “woman suffrage as a peace measure” because the “peace-loving half of the people [would gain] a voice in questions of militarism, commercialism and arbitration,” as she put it in a letter to the editor published in The Survey in 1914. Whitney acted as the Connecticut chair of the Woman's Peace Party and was involved in the Women's Peace Society and the League to Enforce Peace. Additionally, the meeting minutes of the New Haven Political Equality Club, renamed the New Haven League of Women Voters in 1920, show Whitney raising awareness and support for the League of Nations, founded in the wake of the Paris Peace Conference. She even hosted the first meeting of the Connecticut League of Nations Association in 1924 in her New Haven home.

Following the ratification of the 19th amendment, Whitney herself sought political office. After having been designated as New Haven Mayor David E. Fitzgerald's alternate for the Democratic National Convention of 1920, Whitney launched her own campaign for a state house seat in 1922. Her ensuing loss did not discourage her from running for office again a decade later. She was successfully elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1932 as the Democratic Party candidate for New Haven. During her term of office, Whitney continued her advocacy for women's rights, adding her voice in favor of a bill to include women in juries, which passed in 1939. Beyond women's rights, labor rights, property rights, and public works also emerged as key themes in her legislative activities. Whitney served on the Sale of Lands Committee and introduced eight bills to the House (House Bills no. 696, 698, 791, 917, 1106, 1112, 1138, and 1139).

In later years, she was involved with the National Woman's Party. She wrote a pamphlet in support of the Equal Rights Amendment published by the Party in 1943 and served, as of 1946, on the Party's National Advisory Council. Whitney passed away in 1957, at the age of 85.

Photographs

 

Josepha Whitney. Published in The Hartford Courant, October 23, 1922. Retrieved from http://cornwallhistoricalsociety.org/exhibits/women/whitney.html.

 

Josepha Whitney (left) at a suffrage march in Washington, D.C. Published in The Evening Star, June 30, 1914. Retrieved from https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1914-06-30/ed-1/seq-10/

Sources

“Brush And Charcoal: The Art Students' League,” The Washington Post, November 20, 1893. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

“Connecticut Democrats Give Places to Women,” The Evening Star, May 20, 1920. Retrieved from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1920-05-20/ed-1/seq-4/

Cornwall Historical Society. “Women's rights: Cornwall's Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers: Josepha Newcomb Whitney,” 2013. Retrieved from http://cornwallhistoricalsociety.org/exhibits/women/whitney.html.

“Death Takes Judge Whitney,” The Washington Post, January 6, 1911. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Government Publishing Office. Congressional Record of the Senate for 22 January 1946, 1946. Retrieved from https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/GPO-CRECB-1946-pt1/pdf/GPO-CRECB-1946-pt1-7-1.pdf

Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Connecticut. Hartford: State of Connecticut, 1933, pp. 303-304, 318, 407-413.

Kendig, Keith. Never a Dull Moment: Hassler Whitney, Mathematics Pioneer. Providence: MAA Press, an imprint of the American Mathematical Society, 2018, p. 10-21.

League of Women Voters of New Haven. League of Women Voters Minutes and Other Records, 1920-1923. Connecticut Historical Society, MSS 97845.

Leonard, John William, editor. Woman's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada. New York : American Commonwealth Co., 1914, p. 879. [LINK]

Marquis, Albert Nelson, editor. Who's Who in New England, 2nd edition. Chicago: A.N. Marquis & Company, 1916, p. 1149. Retrieved from HathiTrust https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006686955

Moon, Danelle L. “The Local is Global: Broker for Human Rights -- Florence Kitchelt, Connecticut Peace Activist and Feminist, 1920-1961," 34th Annual Meeting of the Social Science and History Association, 2009, p. 7. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?/&httpsredir=1&article=1010&context=lib_pub

“Mrs. Josepha Whitney Nominated for House Prominent Socially,” The Hartford Courant, October 23, 1922. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

“National Suffrage Association Convention 10th of December,” The Bridgeport Evening Farmer, November 26, 1917. Retrieved from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84022472/1917-11-26/ed-1/seq-7/

Nichols, Carole. Votes and More for Women: Suffrage and After in Connecticut. New York: Routledge, 2012, pp. 48, 85.

“Nine Sweet Graduates: Commencement Exercises of the McDonald-Ellis School,”

The Washington Post, June 5, 1890. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

“Speeches to start suffragist march,” The Washington Times, June 26, 1914. Retrieved from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1914-06-26/ed-1/seq-4/

Whitney, Josepha. “The War and the Social Movement: To the Editor,” The Survey, October 31, 1914. Retrieved from Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/surveycharityorg33survrich/page/116, p.117.

“Wilson Gives Basis for World Peace,” The Washington Post, May 28, 1916. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

“Women March Today: Suffragists Will Lay Their Cause Before President,” The Washington Post, June 30, 1914. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

back to top