Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Caroline Maria Seymour Severance, 1820-1914
By Virginia Elwood-Akers, Librarian Emeritus
California State University, Northridge
Founding member of the New England Women's Club; member of the New England Suffrage Association; Connecticut Woman's Suffrage Association; American Women's Suffrage Association; National Women's Suffrage Association; founder of the Friday Morning Club;
Caroline Maria Seymour was born on January 12, 1820 in Canandaigua, New York to Orson Seymour and Caroline Maria Clarke. On August 28, 1840 she was married to Theodoric Cordenio Severance, who was always called T.C., and moved with him to his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. During their years in Cleveland, Caroline gave birth to five children, the first, Orson Seymour, was born in 1841, and died in his first year of life. Her remaining children were James Seymour (1842-1936) Julia Long (1844-1915) Mark Sibley (1846-1931) and Pierre Clarke (1849-1890.)
In 1855 the Severances moved to Boston, and after spending the Civil War years in South Carolina, where T. C. was working for the Treasury Department on the Union-occupied Sea Islands, they returned to Boston until 1875, when Caroline, T. C. and their two older sons moved to California. She and T.C. settled in Los Angeles, where he died in 1892. When Caroline Severance died on November 10, 1914, she was honored with an elaborate “state” funeral, for which the entire Los Angeles City Council adjourned so that the members could attend. Revered as a “builder” of the City of Los Angeles, she has several monuments to her memory in the city.
In Cleveland, Caroline found she had joined a family of avid abolitionists, but she was also involved in the Woman's Movement almost from its beginning, attending her first Woman's Rights conference in Salem, Ohio in April of 1850. Inspired and excited by the cause, she quickly became a leader, and was elected a Vice President at her second conference in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Caroline made her first woman's rights speech at the Massilon, Ohio convention of 1852. She attended her first National Woman's Rights Convention in Syracuse, New York in September of the same year, and was again elected a Vice President. Electrified by meeting women like Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Ernestine Rose, Antoinette Brown, and Clarina Nichols, who were all leaders of the national movement, Caroline came to the realization that she wanted to move to Boston, the center of the action.
In 1855 the Severances moved to Boston, where Caroline remained active in the Woman's Rights Movement, although she still worked diligently for the cause of abolition. She and her friend Caroline Dall decided to host a convention in Boston, which was held in May 1859. The success of that meeting led to a second Boston convention in the following year, which was also a success, but marred by an unruly audience and by a tantrum that led to speaker Thomas Higginson stomping out of the hall. Perhaps for this reason, neither Caroline Severance nor Caroline Dall hosted, or even attended, a convention again until after the Civil War.
Like most of the woman's rights advocates, Caroline Severance retired from public life during the Civil War. When the Woman's Rights movement was split by dissension after the war, she decided on another path. In February 16, 1868, she and her friend Harriot Hunt invited several friends to join a new organization which they called the New England Women's Club, the purpose of which was to teach women to think for themselves and to take their rightful place in society. The Women's Club would be involved in all issues, not excluding politics, but not with an exclusively political agenda. When Lucy Stone chided Caroline for abandoning the cause of woman's suffrage, she replied that her new club would serve the cause of suffrage in the end.
In fact, Caroline had not abandoned the suffrage cause, although her energies were now concentrated on the Women's Club. She remained active in the New England Suffrage Association and her friend Isabella Hooker's Connecticut Woman's Suffrage Association. With Lucy Stone, Thomas Higginson and others, she helped to organize the first convention of the American Woman Suffrage Association to counteract the founding of the New York based National Woman Suffrage Association. But, perhaps tired of the squabbling in the East, and happy that her New England Women's Club was on firm footing, she left the East entirely.
In 1875, following the lead of their two older sons, T. C. and Caroline Severance moved to California. They settled in the dusty frontier town of Los Angeles, where T. C. retired from banking to be a gentleman farmer on a few acres of land on the outskirts of the city. Once settled, both Severances became activists, beginning with Caroline founding the city's Free Kindergarten Association in 1876 and both of them establishing the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles in 1877. In 1878 Caroline founded the city's first Women's Club. This club struggled but eventually morphed into the Friday Morning Club, one of the most successful of the American Women's Clubs. In 1885 the Women's Club founded the Women's Cooperative Union, with the goal of establishing a residence for working women in the city. To this end, they formed the Flower Festival Society, which held an annual festival to raise funds. It was so successful that this organization eventually took the name Flower Festival Society, and continued for many years.
Over the years Caroline Severance was active in virtually every social justice organization in Los Angeles, culminating in her involvement in Christian Socialism and the Union Reform League, which advocated many Progressive reforms. But she never lost interest in the cause of woman suffrage. She was active in the first attempt to pass a California Suffrage Amendment in 1895, which ended in defeat. Undeterred, California suffragists regrouped, and in a dazzling example of grass roots political power, mounted a new campaign which ended in the passage of the California Woman Suffrage Amendment on October 11, 1911. In her 90's by this time, Caroline Severance had not campaigned actively, but contributed speeches and other writing, and was honored by the suffragists as a heroine of the cause. She was quoted widely in the papers and honored by a personal delegation of registrars who came to her home on October 18 to register her as a voter. On November 5, 1912, Caroline Severance, who had joined the suffrage movement more than sixty years earlier, voted for President of the United States. Quoted in the newspaper, she said that the experience had made her “feel like a girl again!.”
Papers of Caroline Maria Seymour Severance, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
Caroline Maria Seymour Severance Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northhampton, MA.
Elwood-Akers, Virginia Caroline Severance, New York: iUniverse, 2010 This biography has a twenty-three page bibliography, listing more than three hundred books, articles, and other materials by and about Caroline Severance.