Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Elizabeth Burrill Curtis, 1861-1914
By Maggi Smith-Dalton, Independent Scholar, Institute for Music, History, and Cultural Traditions/Singing String Music, Salem, Mass.
Curtis: Founder of Political Equality Club of Staten Island, Vice-President at Large for the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, delegate to state and local suffrage conventions, speaker at NY State Constitutional Convention 1894
“How dare any woman happy in the affection of a good husband or father, say that ...”she has all the rights she wants?" To rest on roses, knowing that thousands lie on thorns, and yet to lift no finger for their relief, seems a strange attitude for followers of Jesus of Nazareth, but this is the position of many women to-day.
The demand for woman suffrage is founded on the necessity for self-protection.... The demand is simply grounded on the fact which has been proved again and again in all history, that no one class can be trusted to legislate for another,-not necessarily from wickedness or selfishness, but simply from inability to understand the other's point of view....”
With a brief 1894 paper, Elizabeth Burrill Curtis embarked fully on her activist career, faithfully following in the footsteps of her late, famous father, George William Curtis (1824-1892). The familial torch had passed from father to daughter, and this proved an important motivation for her efforts.
George William Curtis was best known for penning the Harper's Weekly magazine literary column, ”Easy Chair,” and, especially after 1863, as a political lecturer and editor for Harper's. He was a passionate advocate for social justice: the abolition of slavery; restraining corporate power; securing women's rights, including the right to vote; and civil service reforms.
In 1856, he married Anna Shaw Curtis (1836-1923). Like the Curtis family, the Shaw family was prominent and socially active in causes of the day. Anna's sister, Josephine Shaw Lowell (1843-1905) was appointed in 1876 by Governor Tilden of New York State to be the first woman commissioner of the NYS Board of Charities. Anna's brother, Robert Gould Shaw (1837–1863) recruited, and died commanding, the 54th Massachusetts regiment, the first regiment of black troops organized in a Northern state during the Civil War.
Shortly after George's death, Elizabeth emerged as a leader in the fight for women's suffrage. After her initial forays, she founded the Political Equality Club of Staten Island (1895). The club was “conducted as a reading and discussion group...and eventually evolved with the movement, seeking to unite women from the various towns on Staten Island in an active campaign for the vote.” A patrician both by birth and inclination, consistently listed in the Social Register, Elizabeth was unfailingly genteel and charitable in social or community relationships, and her lineage was noted often in bylines or descriptors.
Despite protesting, in private letters, that she “never wanted a public life,” she was elected to prominent public positions including Vice-President at Large for the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, wrote articles for publication, and made several of her speeches at large gatherings.
Her father's speech “Equal Rights for Women” for New York's 1867 Constitutional Convention found echo in her 1894 New York State Constitutional Convention address, though his argument was the more radical and hers couched in somewhat softer tones. She made an impact as “one of the most impressive speakers” according to a contemporaneous newspaper clipping, and her “masterly” efforts drew applause at conventions. Curtis testified before the Senate Select Committee on Woman Suffrage in 1898 (“Are Women Represented in Our Government?”) and she represented New York State at state and national suffrage conventions as a delegate as well as a frequent featured speaker.
Her views evolved on the subject of “universal” suffrage to a strong preference to seeing the vote given only to “qualified,” (educated, even “virtuous”) citizens—men and women alike. She often privately expressed worry about coming out too strongly for this, however, describing herself as no “propagandist.” Elizabeth's torch gave much light, but she shied from setting fuses.
An 1896 Ladies' Home Journal article described blue-eyed Elizabeth as having a “strong personality” and precociously reading Shakespeare as a child; a “scholar” of French and German; lover of history; and possessing “energy of character and executive ability.... the mind of a man, with a woman's heart and tenderness.”
Musically talented, as her father had been, she served as President of the St. Cecelia Society of Staten Island, an organization which gives otherwise ordinary women an outlet for musical study and performance. Her many charities included the presidency of the Samaritan Circle of Kings' Daughters and the founding of “working girls clubs.”
Born on the day Lincoln called for militia volunteers after the firing on Fort Sumter, Curtis died, unmarried, at her family home on Bard Avenue, March 6, 1914. She left life on the brink of yet another war, this one bound to engulf the world.
At her eulogy, her friends remembered her caring, confident—yet modest—demeanor. Colleagues praised her “breadth of view and unusual capacity for seeing all sides of a question” and lauded her efforts for “the uplift of the women of the world...one more step in the progress of Civilization.”
Credit: Wikimedia Commons, accessed online at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_Burrill_Curtis.png.
Original was published as part of the article in Ladies' Home Journal article, “Three Daughters of Famous Men.” (see full citation below)
The Library of Congress has a small collection of Elizabeth Burrill Curtis speeches. Access at: https://www.loc.gov/search/?in=&q=Elizabeth+Burrill+Curtis&new=true
Some of Curtis' letters can be found at: Mariana Wright Chapman Family Papers, SFHL-RG5-260, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College. Part of the project: “In Her Own Right:Women asserting their civil rights, 1820-1920.” http://inherownright.org/catalog?q=Curtis%2C+Elizabeth+Burrill%2C+1861-1914&search_field=creator
Special thanks to Gabriella Leone, History Archives Manager, The Staten Island Museum, Staten Island, NY, for sending me a copy of the Curtis memorial service eulogies, given March 15, 1914, Church of the Redeemer, New Brighton, NY, and other materials. http://www.statenislandmuseum.org/collections/history-archives
Curtis, Elizabeth Burrill. “The Demand for Enfranchisement by Elizabeth Burrill Curtis.” [May ?, 1894] Online Text. https://www.loc.gov/item/rbcmiller001308/. Accessed April 2019. Web Page.
Curtis, Elizabeth Burrill. Letter to Mariana Wright Chapman, 11-11-1897. Mariana Wright Chapman Family Papers, SFHL-RG5-260, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College. Item, A00180096. http://tricontentdm.brynmawr.edu/cdm/ref/collection/InHOR/id/1429. Accessed April 2019. Web Page.
Curtis, Elizabeth Burrill. “Elizabeth Burrill Curtis Address to New York State Constitutional Convention. August, 1894.” Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/rbcmiller001307/. Accessed April 2019. Web Page.
Leone, Gabriella. “Where Suffrage Took Flight: Staten Island and the Woman Suffrage Movement.” The Gotham Center for New York City History. https://www.gothamcenter.org/blog/where-suffrage-took-flight-staten-island-and-the-woman-suffrage-movement. Accessed June 2019. Web Page.
Matteo, Thomas. “Women Who Made A Difference.” The Staten Island Advance, April 10, 2011. https://www.silive.com/memories_column/2011/04/women_who_made_a_difference.html. Accessed July 2019. Web Page.
McAnanama,Susan. “Josephine Shaw Lowell 1843-1905 & Anna Shaw Curtis 1838-1927 Staten Island True Women - Social Reformer and Church Lay Leader.”
Women in New York City, 1890-1940. The Department of History and The Program in Women's Studies, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Catherine Lavender, PhD, supervisor.
New York State Woman Suffrage Association. “Report of the Annual Convention. 1894.” Rochester, N.Y. HathiTrust. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.b000982069&view=1up&seq=174. Accessed June 2019. Web Page.
The New York Times. “Elizabeth Burrill Curtis” (Obituary). March 7, 1914, Page 11. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1914/03/07/100301962.html?pageNumber=11
United States Congress. Senate. Committee On Woman Suffrage, Anna Howard Shaw, United States Congress ). Senate, National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, and Susan B. Anthony Collection. Report of hearing before the Committee on Woman Suffrage. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1898. Pdf. https://www.loc.gov/item/07039905/. Accessed June 2019. Web Page.
Wyeth, N. C. (Newell Convers). 1882-1945. The Ladies' Home Journal. “Three Daughters of Famous Men.” Philadelphia: [s.n.], 1888. Volume 13, No. 10, pp. 10-11. HathiTrust.
Page: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015012341619. Accessed April 2019. Web Page.