Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Emily Newell Blair, 1877-1951
By Lauren Bielecki, Missouri State Library
Emily Newell Blair was born on January 8, 1877, in Joplin, Missouri, the first child of Anna Gray and James Newell. She was introduced to politics at an early age; her father was elected to a four-year term as the county recorder in 1883, thus necessitating the family's move to the nearby county seat of Carthage. Emily would have a tranquil yet well-rounded childhood, encountering everyone from saloon keepers to members of her mother's Shakespeare club. She was particularly close to her brother, Jim, who was her junior by a mere year and a half.
Emily attended Goucher College after her graduation from Carthage High School in 1894, but she left Goucher after her father's death on June 4, 1895. She accepted a teaching position in Sarcoxie, Missouri, in 1898, where she remained until she married Harry Blair on December 24, 1900. They subsequently moved back to Emily's hometown of Joplin, where Harry had accepted a job as a circuit court reporter. They returned to Carthage in 1904 to raise their family.
Emily first gained national attention as a writer for publications such as Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, Lippincott, and Woman's Home Companion, ultimately becoming the president of the Missouri Women's Press Association. Already an active member of Carthage's local suffrage association, she began to speak to groups throughout the state. In 1914, she became the publicity chair for the Missouri Equal Suffrage Association as well as the first editor for Missouri Woman, a monthly magazine of the suffrage organization; she would eventually resign from this position, citing too much time spent away from her family. Her popularity as a suffrage leader in Missouri brought her to the attention of her national counterparts, including women such as Carrie Chapman Catt, to whom she suggested what would become known as the Golden Lane: a silent demonstration in which thousands of women lined the streets at the 1916 Democratic convention in St. Louis dressed in white dresses with gold sashes bearing the legend “Votes for Women” and clutching gold parasols.
With Harry stationed overseas for the YMCA during World War I, Emily accepted a position with Anna Howard Shaw and Ida Tarbell on the Woman's Committee of the Council of National Defense. Emily was assigned to write an interpretive history about the committee, which was published in 1920. Now living in Washington and working with some of the most high profile women in the country, Emily had fully focused her ambitions on the national level, though she had done so reluctantly.
In February 1922, Emily was appointed by Cordell Hull, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to lead the party's women. Within six months, she had founded more than seven hundred Democratic women's groups nationwide, and would go on to create the Woman's National Democratic Club in Washington. She was reelected to her post as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 1924, but would resign after the 1928 convention in order to focus on her career as a writer. Emily had not completely left politics behind—many of her writings throughout the 1920s and 1930s focused on women in politics.
Back in Missouri, the Blairs felt the blow of the Great Depression. Emily saw a light in the figure of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, drawing her back into politics. She helped to clinch the presidential nomination for Roosevelt, and was sent on speaking tours throughout the U.S. by the DNC. Emily had long hoped to move to Washington or New York to further her writing career, and she was able to get Harry on board by helping him secure a position as assistant attorney general for the Lands Division.
Throughout the rest of her life, Emily would supplement writing with politics. She would serve as chairwoman of the Consumers' Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration until the administration dissolved in 1936. With the approach of World War II, Emily accepted a seat on the Women's Advisory Council, which had been created by the War Department. The War Department then founded the Women's Interest Section of the Bureau of Public Relations. In 1942, at age sixty-five, Emily was nominated chief. After suffering a stroke in February 1944, she resigned. Emily passed away in Alexandria, Virginia, on August 3, 1951.
The life and accomplishments of Emily Newell Blair are detailed in her autobiography, Bridging Two Eras: The Autobiography of Emily Newell Blair, 1877-1951, edited by Virginia Laas. Details on Emily's work as a suffragette and the Golden Lane can be found in The Golden Lane: How Missouri Women Gained the Vote and Changed History by Margot McMillen. More information about Emily Newell Blair is available on her Missouri Encyclopedia page (https://missouriencyclopedia.org/demo/type/people/blair-emily-newell).
For a writing by Blair, see "Women's Committee: United States Council of National Defense: an interpretive report: April 21, 1917 to February 27, 1919."
Photo of Emily Newell Blair courtesy of the Library of Congress