Biographical Sketch of Henrietta von Klenze

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Henrietta von Klenze, Ph.D., 1871-1945

By Joanne Schneider, Professor of History, Rhode Island College

President, Rhode Island College Equal Suffrage League; Vice-President, New England Woman Suffrage Association; Academic

Henrietta Katherine Becker was born on May 30, 1871 in Frankfurt, Germany to Gustav Becker and Frances Mülch. In 1879, she and her mother immigrated to the United States, initially settling in New York City, where Becker attended school. They later moved to Seattle, where she was employed as a teacher in 1892 Washington State Census. In the late 1890s, they relocated to Chicago, where she enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1899. She earned a B.A. in 1900 and a Ph.D. in 1903 in Germanic Studies. Her dissertation examined Heinrich von Kleist and Friedrich Hebbel as thematic and stylistic predecessors of Norwegian author Henrik Ibsen. She taught German at the University's Correspondence Study Department for four years until 1906. On June 18, 1906, she married Camillo von Klenze, an immigrant from Switzerland, a professor of German at the University and the couple moved to Providence, Rhode Island later that year when he joined the faculty of Brown University's German Department. (Note: in volumes 5 and 6 of The History of Woman Suffrage, she is mistakenly referred as “Mrs. Camilla Von Klenze.”)

During her early years in Providence, von Klenze fulfilled the functions of a Brown faculty wife. This included hosting events for German Department guest speakers, officiating at a Student Government Association of the Women's College Tea, and sponsoring various campus dances. Starting in 1907, she began speaking at local women's clubs about German literature. By 1909, she was a member of the Rhode Island branch of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, an organization to which some prominent Rhode Island suffragists also belonged. She later became president of the organization in 1913.

Her first reported involvement with the woman suffrage movement in Rhode Island was when she was elected president of the Rhode Island branch of the College Equal Suffrage League in April 1911. However, she was likely a member of the organization prior to becoming an officer. Sara Algeo, a prominent Rhode Island suffragist and founder of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party, noted that von Klenze's commitment to suffrage came from her study of literature and her experience as a public school teacher. As the president of the College Equal Suffrage League and a college-educated woman, von Klenze stressed the importance of college women in the suffrage movement. Speaking at a Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association meeting in 1911, she explained that in order for women to catch up to men, they needed “to learn the power of organization. We need to form a mutual education association; organizing; and the burden of this falls on the college women, who are the beneficiaries of the first great movement toward the emancipation of women, the educational movement.” She later gave speeches with titles such as “The Duty of College Women in Regard to Suffrage.”

Under von Klenze's leadership, the league embarked on a series of monthly meetings to discuss civic issues, especially economic and political ones and how they related to women. At her first meeting as president, the speaker was Florence Kelley of the Consumers' League, who gave a talk on “The Vote and the Working Girl.” The League hoped to bring in additional prominent speakers to give lectures on topics related to women's citizenship. In December 1911, she served as part of the official welcoming party when noted British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst arrived in Providence to speak. von Klenze also supervised the opening of new headquarters for the College Equal Suffrage League and the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association in the Butler Exchange building in downtown Providence. Among other activities, she participated in lunch-time talks there devoted to women working in retail and nearby offices; one of her subjects was “Advancing Womanhood.”

With woman suffrage a prominent and contentious issue, The Providence Journal ran a series of debates with suffragists and opponents in 1912. The first of these high-profile and heavily-advertised debates ran on January 7 on the topic “Would the granting of suffrage be beneficial or detrimental to women, and why?” von Klenze wrote the “beneficial” essay which was paired with a “detrimental” one by Mrs. Roland G. Hazard, president of the Rhode Island Association Opposed to Woman's Suffrage. von Klenze opened up her remarks by connecting woman suffrage to her academic study of the author Henrik Ibsen. She explained, “Like Ibsen's hero in “The Doll House,” man cries out to her, ‘First of all, you are a wife and mother! And like Nora, she replies, ‘First of all, I am a human being!'” In the essay, von Klenze made a strong case for woman suffrage based on the concept of maternalism, the idea that women think, feel, and act differently from men and that these differences would make them moral and nurturing as voters, benefiting politics and American society. She stated that it is “natural that woman should seek participation in the one activity that primarily affects the life and happiness of every human being: the framing and carrying out of the laws which are to make for a decent, humane, uplifting communal life for herself, her children, and her mate.” And that women would bring to voting “those idealistic traits which have their roots deep in maternal instincts and make her reach out into any byways overlooked by man. She wants to vote to make life more livable herself and her fellow creatures.” In addition to being good for American society, von Klenze argued that women would be improved by political participation. She claimed that voting had a “broadening and deepening effect on herself” and an “intellectual sweep that comes from participation in the affairs of the world.”

In her 1925 memoir, Sara Algeo lauded von Klenze's contribution to the Rhode Island movement. She wrote:

Mrs. Camillo von Klenze, an indefatigable worker, a clear thinker, and a popular speaker, as President of the College Equal Suffrage League, wielded a great influence in winning over the academic world. I gladly render this able co-worker my honest tribute for her willing efforts in behalf of the women of Rhode Island when her aid was most welcome.

She stepped down as league president in May 1912 but remained active in the organization and movement. von Klenze rose to national prominence with her woman suffrage activism in Ohio in 1912. The state of Ohio had a public referendum for an amendment to the state constitution granting women's suffrage scheduled that fall and suffragists were waging a strong campaign in support of it. There had been a suggestion from the National American Woman Suffrage Association to send von Klenze to assist with the campaign in order to sway the German population in Ohio. At a 1912 College Equal Suffrage League meeting, Algeo reported that NAWSA president Anna Howard Shaw was delighted by this plan and quoted Shaw as saying, “Rhode Island could make no more greater contribution.” The NAWSA publication, The Woman's Journal highlighted von Klenze's role in the campaign, writing that “Mrs. Klenze speaks German fluently and her plans are to go among the Germans and speak to them in their mother tongue and tell them why women should vote.”

In Cincinnati in June, von Klenze addressed a group of German women in German at the headquarters of the Women's Suffrage Party. She also held street meetings in the German quarter every night and meetings at the factories during the day. In July, von Klenze traveled to Dayton, where she claimed that enfranchising women would not disenfranchise men. In late August, she spoke before another German audience in Toledo, assuring the men that if women got the vote their beer would not be taken away. von Klenze's efforts in Ohio gained her media attention locally and nationally. The Dayton Herald referred to her as “one of the most effective speakers in the campaign for women's suffrage.” In Coudersport, Pennsylvania, The Potter Enterprise detailed the efforts of von Klenze and Clara Ladday, president of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association with the German residents, reporting that the “tact and persistence and charm evidenced by them amid discouraging circumstances call for unstinted praise.” There are some conflicting reports about von Klenze's campaigning in Ohio. She was a fluent speaker in German and national leaders hoped that she could reach German residents in Ohio in their native language. Some of her speeches were given in German; others, though were given in English. Historians Cynthia Wilkey and Michelle Schweickart report that local suffragists in Dayton were disappointed that she was “unable to deliver her speech in German.”

In her speeches in Ohio, von Klenze elaborated on her beliefs about woman suffrage, especially the maternalist ones, trying to assuage women and men that voting would not overturn gender differences. The Dayton Herald quoted her as explaining, “We are often told that women ought not be permitted to vote because they contribute nothing to society. When a woman through pain and suffering, yet love and tenderness, contributes a child to the community, she makes the greatest contribution.” She explicitly connected voting to woman's perceived roles in the family and home. The Dayton Daily News reported that von Klenze stated that, “Politics is simply the managing of one's household and why woman has shown herself competent to carry on work of this kind.” She continued, “Government of the child falls to women and pretty soon our children will be men and the task of government will be their's in part, why shouldn't mothers of the country have a voice in this great American life.”

In addition to maternalism, von Klenze also appealed to supporters of progressive reform, stating that if “women of this state were given the right to vote the troubles of the child laborer in the factories and shops would soon be overcome and in the course of time would be entirely eliminated.” von Klenze argued that women voters would also improve conditions for women in industrial, urban America. In modern society, she stated, “over seven million women of the United States had been forced to become wage-earners” and that the only “the protection they had against the owners of these plants was through legislation; that women needed the ballot just as their brothers needed it in their industry.” Von Klenze claimed that besides being mistreated as industrial workers, women were also being forced into prostitution. With the right to vote, she explained, “Instead of over 600,000 fallen women, of whom 95 percent were victims instead of criminals, there would be hundreds of thousands of good and healthy mothers.”

von Klenze also used wit in her speeches to rebut the claims of antisuffragists. At one speech in Dayton, she mocked the idea that government was not a woman's concern, stating, “We have no objection to being relieved of the cares and responsibilities of government if the men can give us any satisfactory assurance that we will also be relieved of the burdens and sorrows that misgovernment by them entail.” Despite the strong campaign mounted by the suffragists, the referendum in Ohio did not pass that year.

Following the Ohio campaign, von Klenze played a prominent role at the NAWSA national convention in Philadelphia in the fall of 1912. She served as one of five chairman of an outdoor suffrage rally at Independence Square with speakers including Alice Paul, Anna Howard Shaw, and Harriot Stanton Blatch. The History of Woman Suffrage described this event as a “great out-door rally in Independence Square...such as had been witnessed many times on this historic spot conducted by men but never before in the hands of women.”

Camillo and Henrietta von Klenze spent a sabbatical year in Germany in 1913. In Germany she spent time studying its women's movement and gave a talk to the members of the College Equal Suffrage League about her findings when she returned to Rhode Island. She also continued giving speeches about woman suffrage. In early 1914 at the invitation of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party, she spoke to an audience of 150 and discussed the troubles in the Providence school system suggesting that had women had the right to vote, the schools would be in better shape. She also noted that in states that had granted women's suffrage the divorce rate was down and the birthrate up. In addition to her speaking engagements, von Klenze served as a vice president of the New England Woman Suffrage Association from 1913-1916. In 1915, she became a member of newly-formed Rhode Island branch of the Congressional Union in order to advocate for a federal suffrage amendment. The new organization had much overlap in leadership and membership with the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association, which had been created in 1915 from a merger of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association, the College Equal Suffrage League, and the Woman Suffrage Party.

von Klenze participated in a high-profile suffrage event in Rhode Island when she appeared as a pro-suffrage speaker at a three-hour debate convened by the Judiciary Committee at the State House on March 9, 1915. The question of the day was “Should women vote in Presidential Elections?” and the event drew a standing room only crowd. She addressed fears that “uneducated women” would misuse the vote, arguing that the National Education Association endorsed enfranchising women. She continued suffrage activities during the rest of the year, including marching with other Rhode Island suffragists in a Massachusetts suffrage parade, but the war in Europe drew her in another direction.

During World War I, Camillo von Klenze was a leader of the Rhode Island branch of the American Independence Union, serving as its honorary president. The organization aimed to keep the United States neutral during the early years of the war and Professor von Klenze gave speeches defending Germany's militarism and actions leading up to the war. Henrietta von Klenze gave a talk at the American Independence Union reporting on her attendance at the 1915 Women's Peace Congress in the Netherlands. The organization and Camillo von Klenze's role in it were controversial and The Providence Journal accused “Professor von Klenze and all other true hearted Americans” in the Union were “doing everything they can to stir up hatred in this country against Great Britain and its allies.” The newspaper claimed that the organization was being funded and used as propaganda by the German nation.

In 1915 Henrietta von Klenze helped found a similar organization in Rhode Island, the American Women's German Aid Society, and served as one of its honorary presidents. The mission of the society was to represent the German point of view on the war and to support the wives and children of German and Austrian soldiers killed or taken prisoner. She gave a lecture at a meeting of the College Equal Suffrage Association, in part about the war and Germany, titled “Feminism and War.” She praised how organized women can get things done, but how their efforts, especially economic contributions, are never really acknowledged except in times of great catastrophe.

Her commitment to suffrage continued in 1916. One talk she gave explored the progressiveness of the western states, which had granted women's suffrage, to the conservatism of the eastern states, which had not. Her last recorded connection to Rhode Island suffrage activism occurred when she served as a Rhode Island delegate to the 1916 NAWSA Atlantic City convention, representing the College Equal Suffrage League. By that time, she and her husband had moved to New York City, where he had accepted an academic position at City College of New York. During her years in New York, she taught high school and worked on behalf of education reform. It is not clear if she was active in the woman suffrage movement in New York. She continued speaking out on behalf of Germany. After the Ruhr Crisis in 1923, she suggested that conditions for families in Central Europe were so grave, it could lead to another war.

In the early 1930s, she published several articles on German literature which appeared in the Saturday Review and Books Abroad. She and her husband were instrumental in establishing the first study abroad program for American students in Munich. Camillo von Klenze retired from City College in 1927 and held visiting academic appointments in the United States and in Germany afterward. They fell in love with northern California while he was teaching at Stanford University and spent their last years in Palo Alto, where he died in 1943 and she passed two years later.

 

“Both Sides of Woman Suffrage”: Mrs. Henrietta von Klenze, “Beneficial,” The Providence Sunday Journal, January 7, 1912.

Sources:

Ida Husted Harper, et al., eds. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6: 1900-1920 (New York: J.J. Little & Ives Company, 1922), 568. [LINK]

Ida Husted Harper, et al., ed. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 5: 1900-1920 (New York: J.J. Little & Ives Company, 1922), 333. [LINK]

Sara M. Algeo, The Story of a Sub-Pioneer (Providence, RI: Snow & Farnham Co., 1925).

“Henrietta von Klenze,” Woman's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary 1914-1915, ed. by John William Leonard (New York: American Commonwealth Co., 1914), 841. [LINK]

Forty-fourth Annual Report of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association Given at the Convention Held at Philadelphia, PA. November 21 to 26 (Inclusive), 1912 (New York: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1912), 5.

Michelle Schweickart, “Through the Eyes of Pioneers: Accounts of the Women's Suffrage Movement in Dayton, Ohio (1890-1920),” (Master's thesis, Wright State University, 2015).

Cynthia Wilkey, “Diversity and Woman Suffrage: A Case Study of the Dayton Woman Suffrage Association in the 1912 Referendum Campaign,” Ohio History Journal 112 (Winter-Spring 2003): 27-37.

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