Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920

Biography of Betsy Graves Reyneau, 1888-1964

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By Kathleen Banks Nutter, Retired Archivist, Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, MA

 

Betsy Reyneau is on the far right in this image of White House picketing, April 2, 1917. Accessible online at http://digitalcollections.barnard.edu/islandora/object/islandora:193.

Betsy Bowen Graves, born in 1888, grew up in Detroit in a prominent family, which included her grandfather, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Benjamin F. Graves. Because her father, Henry B. Graves, also an attorney, thoroughly disapproved of her desire to study art, Betsy broke with her family and in 1904 moved on her own to Cincinnati to attend the Art Academy there. From there she moved on to Boston and studied at the city's School of Museum of Fine Arts from 1909 to 1914. A year later she married Paul Reyneau, an engineer, and while still estranged from her family, the young couple settled in Detroit. Betsy Graves Reyneau continued to pursue her art, particularly portrait painting, but signed her work with only her initials due to the continued disapproval of her family and of society in general of women working as professional artists. Frustrated by this, Reyneau turned to the more radical wing of the women's suffrage movement and joined the local chapter of the National Woman's Party (NWP) in 1917.

When the NWP put out a call for picketers to come to Washington, DC in the summer of 1917, Betsy Graves Reyneau answered that call and would be one of the sixteen women arrested on July 14th, Bastille Day. Sentenced to sixty days in jail, the sixteen would be pardoned by President Woodrow Wilson three days later but the fight was on and the actions of Reyneau and so many others would eventually lead to passage of the Nineteenth Amendment two years later. And there was a personal cost for Reyneau; although the couple welcomed the birth of their first child, Marie Duval Reyneau, in 1918, their marriage became increasingly strained by Paul Reyneau's total disapproval of his wife's activities, especially in the more radical NWP. The couple divorced in 1922 and Betsy Graves Reyneau moved to New York City, raising her daughter on her own while pursuing her work as a portrait painter. In 1927, she moved to Paris, wrote articles and did illustration work for The Bookman, a prominent London-based book review journal. Dismayed by the raise of fascism in Europe, Reyneau returned to the United States in 1939.

Upon her return, Reyneau was increasingly moved by the widespread discrimination against African Americans as the nation plunged into the war against fascism abroad and the portrait artist decided to do what she could to fight racism at home through her art. She first approached an ailing George Washington Carver and asked to paint his portrait which would become the only one done during his lifetime; he died three months later. Over the next several years, with the support of the Harmon Foundation, Reyneau would paint several portraits of prominent African Americans, including Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson (as Othello), and Thurgood Marshall, now held by the National Portrait Gallery. Betsy Graves Reyneau died in 1964, an activist-artist for women and people of color for decades.

 

SOURCES:

Ancestry (Library edition). https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/ (accessed Oct. 2, 2019)

Adams, Katherine H. and Michael L. Keene. After the Vote Was Won: The Later Achievements of Fifteen Suffragists. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2010).

Artists Collection and Suffrage Collection, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, MA

"Fighting Prejudice Through Portraiture with the Harmon Foundation Collection," National Portrait Gallery. https://npg.si.edu/blog/fighting-prejudice-through-portraiture-harmon-foundation-collection (accessed Oct. 14, 2019)

Ford, Linda G. Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman's Party. 1912-1920. Lantham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1991.

ProQuest Historical Newspapers. https://search.proquest.com (accessed Oct. 2, 2019)

Wikipedia contributors. "Betsy Graves Reyneau," Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betsy_Graves_Reyneau

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