Biographical Sketch of Gertrude Edgerton Knox Wells

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920

Biography of Gertrude Edgerton Knox Wells, 1887-1977

By Janice Okoomian, Assistant Professor of Gender and Women's Studies, Rhode Island College

Suffragist; Teacher; Relief Worker; Community Activist; President, Rhode Island League of Women Voters

Gertrude Edgerton Knox Wells was born in 1887 in Wakefield, New Hampshire to Horatio Bickford Knox and Mary Edgerton Roberts Knox. The family moved to Providence, Rhode Island when she was ten years old. Knox was raised on the campus of the Quaker Friends School, later called the Moses Brown School, where both her parents were teachers. She attended Mount Holyoke College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. (1909) and M.A. (1911) in history. Her life after college included teaching, beginning a Ph.D. program, scholarly writing, marriage and motherhood, and a prodigious amount of volunteer and charity work. Throughout her life, Knox maintained an active interest in public affairs, especially in international relations. In addition to extensive public service throughout her life, Knox enjoyed the hobbies of painting and mountain climbing. She explained in an interview that, “I am a great advocate of pleasure. Work hard and play hard is my motto, and I believe one can derive as much uplift from social relaxation as from campaigning for higher things.”

As a recent college graduate, Knox became a high school history teacher at St. Mary's Hall in Burlington, New Jersey. However, her father's death before the end of the school year caused her to return to Providence, where her mother still lived. In Providence, she took over her deceased father's history faculty position at Rhode Island Normal School, now known as Rhode Island College, Soon after, Knox had a “mental breakdown” and took a year off from working in order to recover. She began a teaching position at Lincoln School, a private girls' school in Providence in 1913 and became its head of the history department in 1916.

Between 1916 and 1918, Knox was an active member of the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association (RIESA). She co-hosted a weekly tea at the association's headquarters and represented it at a woman suffrage booth at the Food Fair in 1917. Knox also served as an officer in the College Suffrage League, a subgroup of the RIESA. Note: there is a prominent anti-suffragist named Gertrude E. Knox in New Jersey in this time period, but it is a different individual with the same name. In addition to her suffrage work, Knox was active in the Congregational Church, the Rhode Island Consumers' League, and the Rhode Island Young Women's Christian Association. She portrayed “The Association Spirit” in a YWCA pageant in Roger Williams Park in 1916. As part of her professional interests, Knox was a founding member and served on the executive committee of the Rhode Island Historical Teachers' Association.

It may have been while she worked on the Mount Holyoke College farm in the summer of 1918 that Knox became interested in missionary work. Mount Holyoke had a long tradition of students and alumnae engaging in international missionary projects. In 1918, the College partnered with the Near East Relief organization to give aid to Armenian genocide victims in Ottoman Turkey. Under cover of World War I, the Young Turk government carried out a genocide of its Armenian citizens between 1915 and 1922, killing 1.5 million people. Knox sailed to the region with a party of Near East Relief missionaries in February 1919. There also was a strong connection with the suffrage movement and women's voluntarism during and after WWI. One of the leaders of the Rhode Island campaign for Armenia was Agnes Jenks (Mrs. Barton P. Jenks), former president of the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association, and Jenks traveled with Knox to Armenia to participate in relief work. The National American Woman Suffrage Association highlighted Knox and Jenks' overseas work and their connections to the suffrage movement in its 1919 handbook. Knox worked in the region for nearly three years, in Samsoun and in Constantinople as associate professor at the Women's College of Constantinople. She returned to the United States in September 1921.

While in Turkey, Knox wrote several dispatches home about her work. One such dispatch, published in The Providence Journal, detailed her efforts in the provincial village of Samsoun, the only surviving Armenian village out of two hundred in the Black Sea coastal region, where she and one colleague served refugees (mostly Greeks, as all but six hundred of the local Armenians had been killed). They established soup kitchens for sixteen hundred people and dealt with a continual influx of refugees, mostly orphaned children and women. They set up orphanages, treated the diseases from malnourishment, strategized to find material for tents, and purchased wool so that refugees could be employed carding, spinning, and weaving it. They established a home for Armenian girls who had been forcibly married to Turks during the genocide. Knox also used funds donated by Mount Holyoke College to establish a schoolhouse and a micro-lending project for farmers.

After her return to Providence, Knox described her missionary experiences in newspaper interviews and in numerous public speeches. She continued to raise money for genocide victims, the Women's College of Constantinople, which was training women for leadership roles. During a fundraising campaign for an Armenian orphanage, Knox told audiences about the dire conditions, with “children dying daily in the city streets of Asia Minor for want of food and care.” Soon after her return to Rhode Island, Knox also became an active member of the Rhode Island United League of Women Voters and taught a series of citizenship classes for the organization.

Knox had contracted amoebic dysentery in Turkey, and to improve her health, she relocated to California in 1922. She got a job as a research assistant in the Stanford University Economics Department and decided to pursue a Ph.D. in History at the university. She enrolled and completed one year in the doctoral program, during which time she wrote a chapter on modern Turkey for a book published by Stanford professor Eliot Mears. She also taught at the Castelleja School in Palo Alto. Knox became involved in a courtship with John Hazard Wells whom she had known in Providence and who took a vacation from his job as vice president of the Rhode Island Hospital Trust to follow her to California. Their marriage announcement in March 1924 came as a surprise to many. After the wedding, Wells returned to Providence, while Knox finished out her year of graduate study. She returned to Providence and did not complete her Ph.D. program. Knox was 36 years old when she married, and her son Richard was born in 1930, when Knox was 40. In a 1960 Mount Holyoke alumnae questionnaire, Knox wrote: “Those of us marrying in the 1920s had to almost choose between a career and marrying. It kept many of us from marrying until we were older. Thank goodness that is changed now.”

In the 1936 Mount Holyoke College alumnae directory, Knox's answer to the question “Do you administer the household?” was “yes”, but to the follow-up question “Is it your chief occupation?” she answered “no.” Although Knox had given up the idea of an academic career, she continued to take an interest in international affairs, becoming active in the International Institute of New England, an organization affiliated with the YWCA, and serving as its chairman for six years. In that capacity, she continued to advocate for Armenian relief, as well as for legislation in Rhode Island that would expand “Mothers' Aid” to include not only citizens but also “alien” women. She revisited the Constantinople Woman's College while guiding tourists on a “World Acquaintance Tour.” Drawing on her experience with the ravages of war, Knox joined a peace organization, the Cause and Cures of War Committee in Rhode Island.

She also became a frequent speaker at women's clubs and charitable organizations, usually on topics related to international and current affairs. She assumed a number of leadership roles, including chair of International Relations Committee for the Rhode Island Council of Women; chair of public affairs, vice president, and member of the board of directors for the Rhode Island YWCA; and member of public affairs committee for the national YWCA. In 1936, Knox became president of the Providence Plantations Club, a high-profile women's organization that offered intellectual, social, and physical activities for women. Knox explained that the club “tried to cover all aspects of the modern woman's life.”

During World War II, Knox participated in war support efforts, chaired the War Services Committee for the Plantations Club, and became president of the World Affairs Council of Rhode Island. She became interested in peace treaty negotiations, researched the materials related to potential treaties, and became a strong supporter of the United Nations. A firm internationalist, she spoke publicly on the important role American women should play in preventing post-war isolationism. Knox also continued her long connection with the Rhode Island League of Women Voters, leading a 1942 campaign called “Your Vote Will Help Make the Future,” chairing its Department of Government and Foreign Policy, and being elected its president in 1945. At the same time as this extensive community activism, Knox was caring both for her young son and her 78-year old mother.

Knox became the first woman, and the first alumna, to be elected President of the Board of Trustees of Mount Holyoke College in 1948 and was awarded an alumnae medal of honor in 1950. She continued her work in foreign affairs well into her 70s and traveled around the world with her husband. He died in 1969 and Knox died in 1977 at the age of 89.

 

“Miss Gertrude E. Knox,” The Providence Journal, Jun 10, 1916.

 

“Three Providence Persons Who Will Be Awarded Medals for Oversea Work in Near East Relief,” The Providence Journal, January 9, 1922.

Sources:

Gertrude Knox Wells papers, Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections, South Hadley, MA.

Mount Holyoke College online archives, https://www.mtholyoke.edu/archives/history/alumnae_medalists_year, accessed August 18, 2018.

Justina Leavitt Wilson, ed. Handbook of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and Proceedings of the Jubilee Convention (1869-1919) (New York: National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company, Inc., 1919), 294.

Near East Relief Foundation https://neareastmuseum.com/memorials/, accessed August 3, 2018.

Rhode Island Normal School Bulletin (June 1912), 5, 6.

“Miss Gertrude E. Knox,” The Providence Journal, Jun 10, 1916.

“Local Woman Writes of Work of Relief Expedition in the Near East,” The Providence Sunday Journal, September 7, 1919.

“Providence Girl Restores Village,” The Providence Journal, September 15, 1920.

“Work of Local Woman Among Greek Refugees,” The Providence Sunday Journal, October 16, 1921.

“Near East Makes Christmas Appeal,” The Providence Sunday Journal, December 18, 1921.

“Three Providence Persons Who Will Be Awarded Medals for Oversea Work in Near East Relief,” The Providence Journal, January 9, 1922.

“R.I. Romance Ends in California,” The Providence Journal, March 24, 1924.

“Married in California,” The Providence Sunday Journal, March 30, 1924.

“Change in Mothers' Aid Law of R.I. Is Proposed,” The Providence Sunday Journal, February 15, 1931.

“Mrs. Wells Heads Plantations Club,” The Providence Journal, April 29, 1936.

“New President Maintains Wide Array of Interests,” The Providence Sunday Journal, May 31, 1936.

Norma Sherburne, “Presenting Madame President,” The Providence Sunday Journal, December 1, 1940.

“Woonsocket Kiwanis Told U.S. Must Help Insure World Peace,” The Providence Journal, April 25, 1945.

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