Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mrs. Martha J. Williams, 1858-1939
By Daisy McNairy, The New Historia
Mrs. Martha J. Williams was a dedicated pioneer of the women's suffrage movement in New York, a highly involved member of her community whose efforts served to lay a foundation on which women's voting rights were eventually won. Mrs. Williams was born December 16, 1858 in New York City to John and Elizabeth (Mills) Rees (Leonard, 888). Growing up, Williams was educated in the Brooklyn public school system although details of her education remain obscured. On June 2, 1878 she married Mr. Theodore Williams. Together they had two children, Oreola and Harold, born in 1879 and 1882 respectively (Leonard, 888). Oreola Williams Haskell was a noted suffragist in her own right and the author of the suffrage collection, Banner Bearers: Tales of the Suffrage Campaigns (1920). [LINK]
Mr. Williams was of Welsh descent but originally from Hydeville, Vermont where he spent his formative years. A graduate of Williams College, class of '78, and a member of St. David's Society (dedicated to Welsh history), he would go on to spend the majority of his life working for newspapers in the New York area. Both writing and editing, Mr. Williams put in time at Leslie's Weekly, The Associated Press, The Brooklyn Standard Union, The New York Herald, The New York Witness, the Troy Free Press, and Judge Magazine among others (“THEODORE”). Mr. Williams also published two books of poetry under the pen name Tudor Williams that dealt with themes of his Welsh heritage and memories of his childhood in Vermont (“Theodore”).
Mrs. Williams's work within the women's suffrage movement had much to do with organizing. Between 1869 to 1903 at least fifteen women's suffrage associations were established and devoted to furthering the cause in New York state (Harper, 459). Smaller organizations had been bound by slightly larger county organizations for some time, but in 1903 the Interurban Woman Suffrage Council was established to further link organizations to one another and increase their reach and ability to act (Harper, 459). In several instances, the Council was unprecedented in their reach and their actions. The first meeting was held at the Brooklyn home of a suffrage pioneer and presided over by Mrs. Martha Williams, who became a charter member. At the time, Mrs. Williams served as President of the Kings County Political Equality League (Harper, 459). The Interurban was headed by Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt as chairman and as they grew from a group of five societies to twenty societies they established their headquarters at the Martha Washington Hotel in New York City (Harper, 459). The Interurban Woman Suffrage Council would go on to launch the Woman Suffrage Party of Greater New York in 1909 (Harper, 459).
In the meantime, the Council would continue to organize. In 1905, the New York County Woman Suffrage Association was formed. It consisted of members of several existing leagues and was overseen by Mrs. Martha Williams as President (Roberts, 118). The Association aimed to “interest and educate women and men in political equality, to show them the advantages, duties, and responsibilities of woman suffrage and to widen woman's sphere of activity in the world,” the Association “lends its efforts toward the enactment of just laws for women along legal, industrial and political lines” (Roberts, 118). Mrs. Williams was also the President of the Harlem Equal Rights League, one of the groups that made up the Association. That same year, the League hosted a private election that gave women the opportunity to cast their vote (Special). One account recalls; “the balloting was conducted just like the men's poll in the barber shop across the street, except that the voters were all sober and no one sent in any sandwiches and tea in the course of the afternoon” (Special).
Mrs. Williams also served as press chairman for numerous other suffrage clubs, organizer for the New York Equal Rights Association, and historian for the New York State Woman Suffrage Association (“MARTHA”). Mrs. Williams was a member of the Brooklyn Woman's Health Protective Association, the Debating Club of Public Good Society, N.Y. Equal Suffrage League, and an officer in the Brooklyn Christmas Tree Society (“MARTHA”).
Throughout the years, Mrs. Williams made numerous public speeches about the causes that she cared about and inspired the women around her to take action (Leonard, 888). At one convention, “historian, Mrs. Martha Williams of New York, congratulated the club of Geneva on its having three scrap-books of newspaper clippings. The state president advised the other clubs to adopt this method of preserving records of the history of their clubs as it is the only way of estimating the progress of the suffrage movement” (Geneva). This shows that already there was a concern for the ability of these women to document and preserve records of their efforts.
For Williams, another way of ensuring their continued work was by the involvement of her daughter, Mrs. Oreola Williams Haskell, who looking back is almost a more prominent figure than her mother. Mrs. Haskell went on to serve women's suffrage organizations that her mother had helped found, and went on to author two publications: Banner Bearers: Tales of the Suffrage Campaigns and Switchboard Suffrage. Haskell's writings concerned themselves with some of the same issues that her mother dealt with, namely to preserve and record the efforts of these women.
In 1934, Mr. Williams passed away at the age of 83 (“Theodore”). Only five years later, in 1939, Mrs. Williams's death was announced in the New York Times with multiple headlines; “MARTHA WILLIAMS, SUFFRAGIST, DEAD; Charter Member of the First Federation in Greater New York was 85; HEADED LEAGUE IN HARLEM; Widow of Newspaper Man Also Was President of Kings County Equality Group.” If Williams's birth date is to be believed, she would have been 81 years old at her time of death (not 85 as listed in her obituary).
Enclosure: Mrs. Oreola Williams Haskell, speaker at New York State Woman Suffrage Association Convention. 18-Oct-04. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/rbcmiller002737/>.
Geneva Daily Times. “Suffragists Hold Busy Sessions.” 1907. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/rbcmiller001122/.
Harper, Ida Husted, et al., eds. The History of Woman Suffrage. New York: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922. [LINK]
HASKELL, OREOLA WILLIAMS. “‘SWITCHBOARD SUFFRAGE' (1920).” Reprinted in Treacherous Texts: An Anthology of U.S. Suffrage Literature, 1846-1946, edited by Mary Chapman and Angela Mills, Rutgers University Press, 2011, pp. 284–88.”
Haskell, Oreola (Williams), Mrs., Banner Bearers: Tales of the Suffrage Campaigns. Geneva, N. Y.: W. F. Humphrey, 1920.
"IVINS ON WOMAN'S SUFFRAGE." New - York Tribune, Oct 28 1905: 2.ProQuest. 25 Nov. 2018 .
Leonard, John William. Women's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914 - 1915. [LINK]
“Martha Williams President Harlem Equal Rights League,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 12 Oct. 1905. Accessed at Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/clip/5780580/martha_williams_president_harlem_equal/.
"MARTHA WILLIAMS, SUFFRAGIST, DEAD." New York Times, Oct 08 1939: 48. ProQuest. 14 Nov. 2018.
Roberts, Ina Brevoort. Club Women of New York, Volume 6, 1910-1911. Club Women of New York Company. New York, NY; 1908.
"WOMEN ELECTED HEARST." The Washington Post, Nov 08 1905: 3. ProQuest. 25 Nov. 2018.
“THEODORE WILLIAMS." New York Times (1923-Current file) Oct 20 1934: 15. ProQuest. 14 Nov. 2018.
“Theodore Williams Dies in 83rd Year.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Oct 19 1934: 14. newspaper.com. 14 Nov 2018.