Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Isabel Howland, 1859-1942

By Donna Greene, independent historian

Isabel Howland was clearly a product of her upbringing.

She was the granddaughter of Slocum Howland, the patriarch of a prominent Quaker family in Sherwood, NY, who used his resources to help slaves escape to Canada and to promote women's suffrage. In 1837 he built a store in Sherwood that became an important station on the Underground Railroad.

Her aunt, Emily Howland, was also an activist in these same movements and Isabel traveled with her aunt to Europe in 1884-85.

She graduated from Cornell University in 1881, One of her classmates was Harriet May Mills, the daughter of an abolitionist and freethinking family. The two worked together often on many suffrage activities over the years. Together, they also established Sherwood's first library and museum.

Isabel Howland was born 1859 in Sherwood (now known as Aurora) to William Howland and Hannah (née) Letchworth.

At what precise age her own activism began, it is not clear, but it went on for decades. (See

  • In the 1880s, she was corresponding secretary of the Association for the Advancement of Women and active with the New York State Woman Suffrage Association. As such, she communicated with key people in the suffrage and anti-slavery movements including Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Booker T. Washington, and Julia Ward Howe. (Isabel Howland Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass.)
  • She was a founding member in 1891, with her father, of the Sherwood Equal Rights Association, a chapter of the national Equal Rights Association. Her mother was its first president.
  • She helped to found the Sherwood Political Equality Club, a woman's suffrage group, which met at her parents' home.
  • She served as treasurer of NYSWSA's important conventions, held at Geneva venues including the Smith Opera House, Collins Hall, and the Hotel Nester on November 3–6, 1897.
  • The New York Times on Nov. 8, 1895, in a report of a state suffragists convention in Newburg, referred to her as one of the “prominent” suffragists who would be in attendance.
  • In the 1910s she served as an officer of the New York Woman Suffrage Association in the years that Harriet May Mills served as statewide president of the association.

Isabel Howland lived in Paris in the 1930s, caring for her invalid brother Herbert. She died Dec. 4, 1942 at Massachusetts General Hospital at the age of 83, while visiting Boston. The cause of death was a heart attack. The obituary in The New York Times does not mention her activism, referring only to her being a “member of a prominent up-State New York family.”

The Southern Cayuga Tribune was far more effusive in its Dec. 11, 1942 report: “A life whose radiance and sympathy had become a part of the community, was commemorated in a simple service held at her home.”

According to the report, the officiator said the name of her estate, Opendore, typified “the whole spirit and expression of her life, the eager sympathy, the unfailing hospitality, the wise understanding that were the natural expression of her mind and personality. The acts of kindness, the deeds of generosity, the hours of remembered friendship are literally countless in this community.

Because of its importance, the entire hamlet, known as the Sherwood Equal Rights Historic District, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. One of the parcels that has been restored is Opendore.


Isabel Howland, 1881. Accessed online at


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