Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Jessie Fremont Easton Townsend, 1861–1941
By Jennifer Davis McDaid for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, a publication of the Library of Virginia. Reprinted with permission.
Jessie Fremont Easton Townsend (2 July 1861–24 September 1941), woman suffrage activist, was born in Covington, Kentucky, and was the daughter of James H. Easton and Martha Ann Goldsberry (or Goldsborough) Easton. After graduating from high school, she married Charles Edwin Townsend in Zanesville, Ohio, on 20 June 1882. They lived there for several years and had two daughters and two sons. They moved to Virginia early in the 1890s and lived in Norfolk, where he sold cars, adding machines, and typewriters before founding the Elizabeth Park and Land Company. She served at various times as the real estate company's secretary-treasurer, vice president, and president.
Townsend was an early member of the Norfolk Equal Suffrage League, which was organized on 18 November 1910, during a visit by National American Woman Suffrage Association president Anna Howard Shaw and Equal Suffrage League of Virginia president Lila Hardaway Meade Valentine. It was the third local league organized in the state and became one of the largest and most active. Elected treasurer in 1911, Townsend marched with more than a hundred Virginians in the 3 March 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. She attended state conventions regularly during the decade and was a Virginia delegate to the national conventions of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1913 to 1917. Townsend also joined the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (later the National Woman's Party), but withdrew after its 1915 convention.
Townsend and several other members of the Norfolk league became critical of the aggressive tactics of the league's founding president, Pauline Forstall Colclough Adams, and challenged her bid for reelection late in 1912. Elected corresponding secretary instead, Townsend succeeded Adams as president late in 1913 and served for two years. Intelligent, articulate, and opinionated, she developed into an effective public speaker. As league president, Townsend organized a canvassing of the city by members to drum up support, and planned and participated in street meetings. On one occasion she addressed a gathering that included men and women who came to scoff but remained to listen.
In her annual report for 1913 to the state league's president, Townsend described how she and the other ladies raised money to defray necessary expenses. She explained that "we went about it in a truly feminine way, the way women have raised things since time immemorial, a little here and a little there, everlastingly at it. A member who had a vacuum cleaner rented it to other members so much a day, the proceeds going into the treasury of the league. Another whose cook made fine loaf bread and pies, had a standing weekly order from another member; one who found she had put up an over supply of catsup, peaches, jelly and so forth, sold the surplus for the treasury, another member used her typewriter and spare hours, we had one card-party. We passed the hat at most of our evening gatherings. We went down into our own pockets as often as necessary and last but not least kept our expenses down to the minimum."
Townsend and other suffragists advised and assisted women in neighboring counties and cities to organize local leagues and spoke at county seats on court days, at county fairs, to women's clubs, and to schools and church groups. She later chaired the Norfolk branch's legislative committee, whose members in 1915–1916 secured signatures on suffrage petitions sent to the General Assembly and contacted local legislators and members of Congress to advocate voting rights for women. After the state league endorsed a federal suffrage amendment in November 1917, Townsend and others circulated petitions and wrote the chairman of the House of Representatives' Committee on Woman Suffrage to urge passage of the amendment.
Townsend was an avid correspondent on behalf of suffrage and in a 1914 letter to a North Carolina congressman expressed her "hot resentment against taxation without representation, and a firm belief in government by the people—all the people." Elected a vice president of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia in 1916, she served until ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 and was a trusted advisor of the league's president. Early in 1920 Townsend traveled to Chicago for the National American Woman Suffrage Association's convention, which issued her a certificate of appreciation that year for her work on behalf of woman suffrage.
After ratification of the amendment, Virginia suffragists organized the Virginia League of Women Voters. Townsend served on the committee that drafted the new league's constitution and was named director of the Second Congressional District, encompassing the counties of Isle of Wight, Nansemond, Norfolk, Princess Anne, and Southampton and the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth. She presided at the final meeting of the Equal Suffrage League on 9 November 1920 and the founding meeting of the League of Women Voters the following day. When the Norfolk branch of the League of Women Voters was formed, she was elected a director-at-large. She served as its president from 1928 to 1930. At the 1926 state convention in Lynchburg, the members honored Townsend with a silver loving cup.
Townsend was also active in other civic capacities. She served as chair of Norfolk's Committee on the Cause and Cure of War and helped plan study classes and meetings in the city with representatives from other women's organizations, including the Council of Jewish Women, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and the League of Women Voters. Townsend worked with the city's public library to add books on international affairs to its collection.
Townsend's husband died on 23 June 1930, and her son Charles Earle Townsend died as the result of an automobile accident the following year. She remained interested in civic affairs and was elected an honorary vice president of the Virginia League of Women Voters in 1930. When contacted in 1936 by Ida Mae Thompson, former secretary of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, about the history of the Norfolk branch, Townsend responded enthusiastically. She recruited some of her former suffrage acquaintances to write down their memories and also sent the local league's records, much of her correspondence with Valentine, and other mementos to Thompson, then a clerk with the Works Progress Administration's Historical Records Survey in Virginia, who was gathering the league's surviving records for eventual deposit in the Virginia State Library (later the Library of Virginia).
Jessie Fremont Easton Townsend suffered from poor health during the final years of her life. She lived with her sole surviving son in Norfolk and died of heart failure at his home on 24 September 1941. She was buried in Norfolk's Forest Lawn Cemetery beside the bodies of her husband and older son. Her obituary in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot appropriately identified her as a "State Pioneer in Suffrage Cause."
Biography in Jennifer Davis McDaid, "All Kinds of Revolutionaries: Pauline Adams, Jessie Townsend, and the Norfolk Equal Suffrage League," Virginia Cavalcade 49 (2000): 84–93 (with portrait); self-reported birth date and birthplace and affidavit confirming marriage date in passport application, 17 June 1924, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; correspondence, annual reports, and other documents (including birth date in sample voter registration form on verso of 10 July 1920 Republican Party circular letter to Virginia women, first quotation in annual report for 1912 (n.d.), and second quotation in Townsend to Edwin J. Webb, 1 Mar. 1914) in Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records, Accession 22002, Library of Virginia; correspondence in Adèle Goodman Clark Papers, Cabell Library, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, and in National American Woman Suffrage Association Records, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; obituaries in Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch, 24 Sept. 1941, and Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, 25 Sept. 1941 (third quotation).