Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Frances “Fannie” May Witherspoon, 1886–1973
By Jennifer A. Smith, Assistant Librarian, Holmes Community College
Pacifist and Woman Suffrage Activist
Frances May Witherspoon (Fannie) was born on July 8, 1886, in Meridian, Mississippi, to Samuel Andrew Witherspoon and his wife, Susan Elizabeth May Witherspoon. Her parents were married on June 17, 1880, in Memphis, Tennessee. Samuel Witherspoon was of Scottish descent and practiced law in Meridian until he was elected to Congress from the Fifth District in November, 1910; he served from 1911 until his death in 1915. His wife, Susan, was born in Kentucky to a native Frenchman who had served as a Confederate officer; they were an aristocratic family. Samuel and Susan Witherspoon had three children, Samuel Andrew Jr., Leitia Hardin and Fannie May. Fannie Witherspoon grew up in Meridian where she attended public schools and led a “normal” life in a white, upper middle-class family. No major event occurred in her life to propel her into a life of activism, but Witherspoon's family played an active role in the social and civic life of Meridian. According to Frances Early's book, Witherspoon said:
“I am no product of the ‘Magnolia South.' Unlike more aristocratic towns in the state, my birthplace boasted no mansions with stately porticoes. My parents—father, a struggling young lawyer, newly come from that same ‘Ole Miss' of today's unhappy fame, where he'd been a Classics tutor, my mother, Kentucky-bred and daughter of a fiery naturalized French father, a Confederate officer—reared their family in a plain little frame house, sans electricity, or even modern plumbing!”
While Witherspoon's relationship with her mother was described as cordial, she was very close to her father and credited him with influencing her antimilitarist views in her teenage years. Witherspoon also questioned the racial assumptions that she grew up with and the white privilege that white southerners, including her parents, saw as a normal part of society. “I was always a queer one,” she recalled; she “wanted to speak English instead of the dialect of the Southern whites or Negroes [and] early questioned the dogma that the college education my dear father insisted upon for me would develop the criminal (i.e. sexual) instincts of the Negro!”
At the age of 18, Witherspoon left Meridian to continue her studies at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She failed the entrance exam the first time, but passed on her second try and entered the in the fall of 1904 as a freshman. She majored in English Literature and Latin and began questioning the tenets of Christianity as they applied to the treatment of Negroes in the South where she grew up. Bryn Mawr was also the place where Witherspoon first discovered pacifism as a philosophy. Witherspoon's activism was further developed in college where she was heavily influenced by Bryn Mawr suffragist president M. Carey Thomas, a strong women's rights advocate, and became fascinated by Stanford University president David Staff Jordan who denounced war in his commencement speech to her graduating class. Soon after graduation, Witherspoon felt that she was “sufficiently pacifist to hold a soap-box meeting” echoing Jordan's pacifist philosophies, in a suburb close to Bryn Mawr.
Perhaps the most important event of her college career was the close relationship she formed with Tracy Dickinson Mygatt, a prolific writer, reader, and activist, who was also committed to working for a variety of humanitarian causes. Mygatt was raised in New York City by her mother, Minnie Clapp Mygatt who was widowed when her daughter was four. Mygatt's father, Dick Mygatt was an irresponsible man fond of drinking and other women, who blew through all of Minnie's money during their brief marriage. Mygatt and her younger brother Henry led protected childhoods in private schools and as an adult Mygatt felt torn between her desires to be an author with her obligation to help the world by serving others. She wrote, “I, who had had so much, ought to help [those who did not]. Incessantly there was conflict—the feeling of ‘noblesse oblige,' and yet the lure of my ivory tower.” Mygatt's rejection of the conventional heterosexual marriage arrangement was influenced by her mother's painful marriage, and Witherspoon's close identification with her own father and desire to be the “head” of a relationship, made them a natural pair. Witherspoon and Mygatt became devoted companions at a time when views of women were changing and the homosocial construction of gender for middle-class Victorian women was ending. After their graduation from Bryn Mawr in 1909, both young women chose to move to New York City and live together as independent women, thus beginning their lifelong partnership.
Soon after moving to New York City, Mygatt established, and Witherspoon helped run, the Chelsea Day Nursery for working mothers that existed with the help of donations from society women. They tired of this quickly and returned to Bryn Mawr where they rented a small apartment and earned a living through tutoring the children of faculty members. They then became restless with tutoring and began lobbying to change Pennsylvania labor laws. Frustrated with their failure as women to change these laws, they saw women's suffrage as the only solution. In 1911, Witherspoon and Mygatt became the first field organizers of the Woman Suffrage Party in eastern Pennsylvania. They traveled through the countryside, delivering passionate speeches about women's unique role in society and their responsibility to help uplift their less fortunate sisters. In an interview in 1912, Witherspoon stated, “If in a farming community, we talk of the need of better roads, improved school facilities and of broadening of the civic spirit of the community, and we tell the people that the ballot in the hands of women of the community will help bring about these things.” Using concrete examples for supporting women's suffrage encouraged many new supporters to join the cause.
The Mississippi State Women's Suffrage Association was invited to take part in the women's suffrage parade in Washington, D. C. in March 3, 1913. A parade committee was quickly formed between the Association and a few loyal Mississippi men and women who were living in Washington, D.C. at the time. Mrs. Avery Harrell Thompson and her husband, Harmon L. Thompson, were placed in charge and they arranged for a beautiful float to be Mississippi's entry into the parade. Mississippi's float was placed in the section of the parade titled “States Working for Suffrage,” and decked with palms and ferns and draped in purple and green, was drawn by two white horses dressed with green. At this time, Witherspoon was known as a suffragist and, being the daughter of current Mississippi Representative Samuel Witherspoon, was invited to ride on the float and represent Mississippi. Sitting on the float,
“...on a golden throne was Justice, impersonated by a young Mississippi woman, clad in flowing purple robes and carrying golden scales. Before her stood ‘Mississippi' in classic robes of white, represented by Miss Fannie May Witherspoon...In one hand she held a scroll lettered ‘Equal Property Rights' and in the other a similar one, ‘Equal Industrial Education.' These cherished rights Mississippi held closely guarded but pleaded for ‘Political Rights.' Behind the figure was a banner blazoning the words, ‘Mississippi was the first State to give married women their property rights,' and ‘Mississippi was the first State to establish an industrial college for its girls.'”
Six other young Mississippians carried the purple and gold silk banner of the State Suffrage Association in front of the float, including Mr. Gibbs, Judge Allen Thompson and his brother Harmon Thompson, and Walter and Edward Dent. They marched beside the float, performing “valiant volunteer police duty when it became necessary.”
Witherspoon and Mygatt moved back to Manhattan in 1913, enrolled in a course at the Rand School of Social Science, converted to socialism, and joined the Socialist Party. Both women sought to align their Episcopal Church New Testament teaching with their socialist views. They participated in the “church raids” of 1913 that focused attention of the vast unemployment crisis in New York City. They also helped organize the feminist-oriented national Woman's Peace Party and the Socialist Suffrage Brigade, until the vote for women was defeated in the referendum on November 2, 1915. By the spring of 1915, the pair had decided that they were absolute pacifists; they opposed the use of military force to settle disputes among nations or within a country. This belief was in opposition to the Socialist Party and they began lessening their involvement with the group. After hearing a speech by Jessie Wallace Hughan, an absolute pacifist school teacher with a Ph.D. in political economy from Columbia University, they were inspired to help her with the Anti-Enlistment League, an enrollment group against war participation. Witherspoon became the League's liaison officer for colleges. Both women served on the executive committees of the New York City branches of both the Woman's Peace Party and the Emergency Peace Federation, and Witherspoon served as assistant secretary for a long time. And both women helped edit Four Lights, the original publication of the New York City branch.
On May 3, 1915, the Woman's Peace Party and the Emergency Peace Federation (soon to become the People's Council), offered Witherspoon the job of taking charge of the free speech and free press complaints that were being brought to both groups. On that same day, Witherspoon wrote to suffragist-feminist and socialist Theresa Mayer that “there now existed a little bureau of legal first aid, which would perform the initial investigation of civil liberties cases and then link up the person in difficulty with some reputable lawyer who will give his services to seeing the case through.” On May 22, eight women active in the suffrage and peace movements met in the Ginn Building in New York to form the New York Bureau of Legal Advice, and Witherspoon was elected secretary. Witherspoon convened a conference on July 18 with representatives from the People's Council, the Workmen's Council, the Civil Liberties Bureau, and the Socialist Party to discuss the future of civil liberties work and suggest cooperative partnerships. Attendees suggested the Bureau of Legal Advice reorganize on a larger scale, with all four organizations contributing financially. The Bureau agreed, hired a full-time counsel on August 1 and began assuming full responsibility for all civil liberties cases in New York City. The Bureau was a very busy organization that assisted with cases of 431 individuals during May, June, and July of 1917. As Executive Secretary, Witherspoon realized that “disorderly conduct” was being used as a code phrase by those in power who wished to curtail free speech. During the summer and fall of 1917 she issued press releases and created pamphlets that pointed out the threat to free speech posed by the use of disorderly conduct and its use as a means to curb street corner speakers in New York City. Her strong condemnation against disorderly conduct helped the New York State Grand Jury determine that street speaking was legal in New York City, even if the content of the speeches appeared to be seditious. To better serve Bureau clients, Witherspoon also became a notary public in July 1918. In cooperation with other labor radicals, Witherspoon established the Liberty Defense Union in March 1918, a national organization whose purpose was to organize popular support on behalf of persons prosecuted for exercising their constitutional rights of free speech and free press. Witherspoon sat on the Executive Board of this organization, which was a precursor to the American Civil Liberties Union. During this time period, Witherspoon authored many essays, articles and pamphlets including “The Lumberjack and the Constitution” which appeared in The World Tomorrow in May 1919 and Who are the Conscientious Objectors published by the Committee of 100 Friends of Conscientious Objectors in 1919.
In 1923, Witherspoon and Mygatt helped organize the War Resisters League and later worked with the Women's Committee to oppose Conscription during World War II. During this time, she published Four Good Reasons, a concise argument against a draft for women published by the Committee to Oppose the Conscription of Women (1943). She also organized a campaign among Bryn Mawr alumnae against the Vietnam War, through her act of collecting signatures for a petition. On September 17, 1962, Witherspoon sent a telegram to Officials at the University of Mississippi urging them to defy the Governor of Mississippi and allow James Meredith to enroll in classes at the University.
Witherspoon died on December 16, 1973, while still actively conducting her pacifist activities.
This photo of Witherspoon was on her 1923 passport application.
Bowles-Smith, “Frances Witherspoon,” Mississippi Encyclopedia. Center for the Study of Southern Culture: July 11, 2017, Updated April 15, 2018. Accessed January 5, 2019. http://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/frances-witherspoon/
Early, Frances. World Without War: How U.S. Feminists and Pacifists Resisted World War I. Syracuse Studies on Peace and Conflict Resolution, Syracuse, New York. Syracuse University Press, December 1, 1997.
Frances M. Witherspoon to Mercedes M. Randall, October 25, 1958, box 1, Mercedes M. Randall Papers, Swarthmore College Peace Collection.
Frances M. Witherspoon to Theresa Mayer, May 3, 1917, reel 12.15, correspondence, 1916-19. Woman's Peace Party Papers, New York City Branch, Swarthmore College Peace Collection.
Frances M. Witherspoon's contribution to Record of 1908, Bryn Mawr Archives.
Harper, Ida Husted, ed. The History of Woman Suffrage. Vol. VI (1900-1920). N.p.: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922, p. 330. [LINK]
Liberty Defense Union Flyer, Liberty Defense Union Papers, Swarthmore College Peace Collection.
“Mississippi's Part In the Suffrage Parade.” Jackson Daily News, March 24, 1913, p. 7.
Newspaper Clippings, n.d., and various correspondence, Liberty Defense Union Papers, Swarthmore College Peace Collection.
Rowland, Dunbar, L.L.D., Director of the Department of Archives and History. The Official and Statistical Register of the State of Mississippi, Vol.3, Nashville, TN: Press of Brandon Printing Company, 1912. pp. 351-353.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1 (Autumn 1975), pg. 1-29.
Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985).
“Tracy Dickinson Mygatt,” in The Biographical Cyclopedia of American Women, vol. 2, ed. Erma Conkling Lee (New York: Franklin W. Lee, 1925), 132-34; newspaper clipping, box 11, scrapbook, Tracy D. Mygatt and Frances M. Witherspoon Papers, Swarthmore College Peace Collection.
Witherspoon, Frances May. Secretary's Reports, Reel 1, Box 2, File 20, New York Bureau of Legal Advice Papers, Tamiment Institute Library, New York University.
Witherspoon, Frances. newspaper clipping, box 11, scrapbook, Tracy D. Mygatt and Frances M. Witherspoon Papers, Swarthmore College Peace Collection.
Witherspoon, Frances. 17 September 1962. Western Union Telegram Collection at the University of Mississippi Libraries Digital Collections, Oxford MS. http://clio.lib.olemiss.edu/cdm/ref/collection/west_union/id/29
Witherspoon, Frances. “Woman Suffrage: No Longer a Side Issue by the Main Issue.” New York Call (December 1914).