Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Clara Brownell May (Mrs. Oscar) Miller, 1866-1953
By Bailey Young, Undergraduate Student, Rhode Island College
Vice President, Newport County Woman Suffrage League; Vice President, Newport County Women's Republican Club
Clara Brownell May was born on January 13, 1866 in Apalachicola, Florida to Joseph and Floride (Mitchel) May. Her father was originally from Illinois and worked as a merchant and cotton buyer with his father-in-law, Joseph Mitchel. Her mother was a member of a prominent Bristol Ferry, Portsmouth family; the Mitchel family first settled in Portsmouth, Rhode Island in 1638. The Mitchels owned land and a house there that they visited in the summers and spent the remainder of their time in Apalachicola. Floride May's parents and siblings escaped Apalachicola, Florida early in the Civil War, after her brother was conscripted into the Confederate Army, and relocated to Rhode Island. In 1868, the Mays left Florida and split their time between Columbus, Georgia and Bristol Ferry, Rhode Island. According to the U.S. Census, the family had officially moved to Rhode Island by 1880 to live with Mrs. May's family.
In 1891, Clara May was one of the founding eleven members of the Bristol Daughters of the American Revolution and was elected treasurer of the chapter. The Bristol DAR is prided as the third chapter in the national society, the oldest chapter in Rhode Island, and the first in New England. She became active in the community of Bristol Ferry through her aunts. The Mitchel Sisters—Cora, Sophie and Floride –were prominent in Portsmouth cultural and social organizations and May joined many of those organizations as well. Cora Mitchel was a poet, musician, and music teacher and Sophie Mitchel was an artist. Her aunts provided her entry to the Bristol Ferry Art Colony, where she met her husband, Oscar Miller.
Miller was a nationally-known artist from Manhattan, New York who had traveled to Bristol Ferry on the advice of Sarah J. Eddy, an icon in the Portsmouth art scene and a suffragist. Eddy introduced Clara May and Oscar Miller around 1896-1897. May believed that if she was to marry an artist, it should be one who could put a roof over her head, so Miller began to build a cottage in 1897 for his soon-to-be wife on Mitchel land that had once been an asparagus farm. He created an art studio for himself in the living room of this cottage in addition to his studios in New York and Paris. Clara Brownell May married Oscar Miller on September 12, 1899 in Bristol Ferry, Rhode Island. The couple traveled frequently between Rhode Island, New York, Florida, and Paris over the years, usually spending the summers in Bristol Ferry. The Millers had one child, a son, August Brownell Miller, who was born in Paris in 1902.
Miller and her aunts were members of an active woman suffrage community in Bristol Ferry and the East Bay of Rhode Island. Cora Mitchel was founder and president of the Newport County Woman Suffrage League and Miller was a member and later a vice president of the organization. The Newport League was affiliated with the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association (renamed the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association in 1915) and the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The History of Woman Suffrage referred to this group as one of “the nerve centers of suffrage activity in Rhode Island” and that its “work was at first largely carried on by an active group of philanthropic women of Bristol Ferry, Miss Mitchel's friends and neighbors.” In addition to Mitchel and Miller, notable members of the Bristol Ferry suffrage group included Emeline Eldridge, Sarah J. Eddy, Julia Ward Howe and her daughters Maud and Florence, Mrs. Bertram Storrs, and Mrs. Barton Ballou. These women were credited with being an important initial force that helped “the suffrage agitation spread over the entire island, which includes the three townships of Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport.” The History of Women Suffrage also praised the women for their “priceless service to what was then an unpopular and unfashionable cause...It took some courage in fashionable Newport to ‘come out' for woman suffrage.”
The earliest record of Miller's suffrage work was attending a 1914 Newport County Woman Suffrage League meeting, where she was responsible for selling suffragist publications. She was elected as a vice president of the league in 1917. The Newport League passed a resolution in 1919 about the woman suffrage constitutional amendment. It read:
Resolved, That the Newport County Woman Suffrage League earnestly urges His Excellency the Governor of Rhode Island to call a special session of the General Assembly at the earliest possible date for the sole purpose of ratifying the proposed amendment to the United States Constitution enfranchising women.
Following the league's resolution, Miller, her aunt, Cora Mitchel, and another suffragist, met with a Portsmouth representative to encourage him to support the special session for the suffrage amendment. In addition, Miller attended a 1919 meeting with the Rhode Island governor with a large group of suffragists to lobby him about the special session and the group was photographed with the governor on the steps of the Rhode Island State House. (It is not clear in the photograph which woman is Miller or if she is visible.)
As ratification neared, Miller became active in Republican politics. She helped organize the Newport County Women's Republican Club in 1919 and served on the executive board and as a vice president of the organization. Miller was a delegate to the state Republican convention in 1920. She was also involved in local politics and served on the Portsmouth town committee.
In addition to her political activism, Miller supported many cultural and social organizations in Rhode Island with her time and money. She sang as a soloist in church, was a member of the Bristol County Festival Chorus, and served as a patroness for the Swanhurst Choral Club in Newport. In 1922, she canvased in Bristol to support a new maternity ward. In the same year, she was on the soliciting committee and cutting committee that helped make and sell aprons to raise money for Rhode Island Hospital. In 1923 she helped her church create and distribute Thanksgiving baskets. She donated to help beautify Bristol after the New England Hurricane of 1938, helped with the war efforts during both World Wars, and was appointed district captain of the local Red Cross, in honor of her many years of service to the organization.
Clara Miller's husband, Oscar Miller, died suddenly in December 1921. She moved to Bristol, Rhode Island the following year and continued her political, social, and cultural activities until her own death at eighty-seven years old on October 11, 1953 in her home in Bristol.
“Suffrage Workers Visit Governor Beeckman at State House to Urge Early Ratification of National Enfranchisement,” The Providence Journal, July 15, 1919
Harper, Ida Husted, ed. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6: 1900-1920. New York: J.J. Little &Ives Company, 1922. [LINK]
Mitchel, Cora. Reminiscences of the Civil War. Providence, Snow & Farnham, 1916.
Schmidt, Gloria. “Portsmouth People: Emeline Eldredge, Suffrage Agitator.” Portsmouthhistorynotes, 8 Sept. 2018, portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2017/09/08/portsmouth-people-emeline-eldredge-suffrage-agitator/.
Schmidt, Gloria. “Portsmouth Women.” Portsmouthhistorynotes, 2018, portsmouthhistorynotes.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/portsmouthwomen.pdf.
Schmidt, Gloria. “Oscar Miller: Bristol Ferry Artist.” Portsmouthhistorynotes, 5 May 2017, portsmouthhistorynotes.com/2017/04/07/oscar-miller-bristol-ferry-artist/.
“Oscar Miller (1867-1921).” AskART, www.askart.com/artist_bio/Oscar_Miller/10086/Oscar_Miller.aspx#.
“Clara Brownell May Miller (1866-1953),” Find A Grave. www.findagrave.com/memorial/193081710/clara-brownell-miller.
“LATEST INTELLIGENCE,” New York Daily Herald, November 5, 1845.#x200e
“Bristol Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution,” The Bristol Phoenix, December 19, 1891
“Married,” The Providence Journal, September 15, 1899.
“WORK FOR SUFFRAGE,” Newport Daily News, September 24, 1914.
“Women Suffrage League Elects,” Newport Mercury, November 24, 1917.
“Governor To Try Again This Session,” The Providence Journal, July 15, 1919.
“Suffrage Workers Visit Governor Beeckman at State House to Urge Early Ratification of National Enfranchisement,” The Providence Journal, July 15, 1919.
“Suffragists Meet Governor To-Day,” The Providence Journal, July 17, 1919.
“Women Organize,” Newport Mercury, November 22, 1919.
“One Contest Develops at Portsmouth Caucus,” The Providence Journal, October 1, 1920.
“Committees for Block-Aid,” The Bristol Phoenix, March 17, 1922.
“Campaigners for Lying-In Hospital Renew Their Activities To-morrow,” The Providence Journal, December 10, 1922.
“The Lying-In Hospital,” The Bristol Phoenix, December 12, 1922.
“Committees,” Newport Mercury, August 31, 1928.
“Over 300 To Take Part In Concert Sunday Afternoon,” The Bristol Phoenix, September 19, 1930.
“Gigantic Community Revue For Local Unemployed To Be Given This Evening,” The Bristol Phoenix, December 22, 1931.
“Mrs. Clara Miller,” The Providence Journal, October 12, 1952.
“Clara Brownell (May) Miller,” The Bristol Phoenix, October 13, 1953.
“DAR History of Seventy Years Is Reviewed by Miss Alice B Almy,” The Bristol Phoenix, January 16, 1962.
“August B. Miller,” The Bristol Phoenix, January 24, 1985.