Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Amelia (Mrs. John) Spargo, 1880-1953
By Michael Bellesiles, historian
Vermont Equal Suffrage Association: Planning Committee
Mary Amelia Spargo, for twenty years a well-known suffragist and socialist, was born Marie Amelia Rose Bennetts in London on May 11, 1880, the daughter of Frederick M. Bennetts and Anna Smith. Her parents came to the United States with their young daughter in 1882, working in factories in the New York area. Mary Bennetts, as she became known, worked in a Yonkers carpet mill when she met and married the prominent socialist and recent widower John Spargo in 1904. She persuaded John to move into Prospect House, a settlement house in Yonkers, which they managed for a number of years. Friends and family credited Mary, who was known for her contempt of ideologues, with long-term influence on John's politics, convincing him to abandon his doctrinaire socialism for a more practical approach, moving her activist husband from revolutionary to reformist socialism, and talking him out of joining Henry Ford's much maligned Peace Ship in 1915. While living in Yonkers, Mary gave birth to two children, Mary and John Jr., who died in childhood.
John Spargo's persistent poor health led the couple to accept an invitation from their friends Mary Sanford and Helen Stokes—who lived in what was known as a “Boston Marriage”—to move to Bennington, Vermont. While John continued to write a steady stream of essays and books, Mary was elected Auditor of the Vermont Equal Suffrage Association in 1917. When the legislature and anti-suffrage Governor Percival Clement refused to consider the proposed Nineteenth Amendment in 1919, Mary Spargo helped organize the March of Four Hundred Women on April 21, 1920, to the Vermont State House. Spargo brought with her petitions bearing thousands of signatures calling on Governor Clement to convene a special legislative session to ratify the women's suffrage Amendment. Though supported by more than 1,600 telegrams and letters, the March of Four Hundred Women failed and the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the Constitution without Vermont's support.
Little is known of Mary Spargo's interior life. Despite a vibrant intellectual relationship, John and Mary's marriage appeared emotionally barren, with friends describing John as a domestic tyrant who expected Mary to take care of him and every aspect of their home. Mary Spargo once caustically stated, “John married me because he needed a cheap nursemaid.” As John's public career tanked in 1919 and he spent ever more time at home in Bennington, Mary became increasingly unhappy in her marriage. Some observers credited Mary with moving her husband ever further to the right, generally linking her unhappiness with her more conservative political vision. However, an even greater influence in the rightward move of this once dynamic socialist couple may have been John's heavy investment in the stock market without regard to any moral concerns, as he bought shares in some of the most infamous union-busters. By 1925 the pair had permanently abandoned progressivism to become leading Vermont Republicans, enjoying invitations to the White House from both Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. After World War II the couple fell into a “paralysis of mind and spirit,” as John wrote, having lost all influence or connection with the larger intellectual and political world. Mary died on February 17, 1953 in Bennington of acute coronary thrombosis; her death certificate listed her occupation as “housewife.”
Ann Batchelder, “Green Mountain Girls,” The Woman Citizen 4 (May 1, 1920): 1194, 1205.
Anthony Marro, “John Spargo, 1876-1966,” Walloomsack Review 15 (2015): 6-15.
Markku Ruotsila, John Spargo and American Socialism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)
Boris Bakhmeteff Papers, Columbia University, includes some letters from Mary Spargo.