Biographical Sketch of Mary McHenry Keith

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Mary McHenry Keith, 1855-1947

By Barbara Babcock, Judge John Crown Professor of Law, Emerita, Stanford University

Mary McHenry was born in San Francisco, California on November 20, 1855 to John McHenry (1809–1880) and Ellen Josephine Metcalfe McHenry (1827-1922). Mary had three siblings, Elizabeth Harris McHenry Lamare (1850-1907), Emma McHenry Pond (1857-1934), and John McHenry (1858-1935). Well-born (her father was a distinguished San Francisco judge), well-married and beautiful, Mary McHenry Keith did not fit the standard image of the iron-jawed, nineteenth-century suffragist. Yet without looking the stereotypical part, Keith was deeply engaged with the suffrage movement. She received a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley in 1879 and in 1882 became the first California woman law graduate and was valedictorian of her class of Hastings College of the Law, the state's first law school.

Keith's path to these accomplishments was paved by Clara Foltz and Laura Gordon, two women who in 1878 had wanted to be lawyers but faced a statute requiring that only white men of good character join the Bar. Foltz, Gordon and other suffragists successfully lobbied through a change that opened the law and other professions to women. But even after passage of the "women lawyers' bill," they were forbidden entry to California's first and only law school, allegedly because their rustling skirts disturbed the male students.

Foltz and Gordon fought their way into the school through the courts, winning their own first case and gaining nationwide publicity. That history makes it particularly significant and touching that Clara wrote to Mary congratulating her on the very achievement she had sought for herself. "[Y]ou scored one for your sex in carrying off the honor of an institution that but recently scanted the idea of a woman aspiring to be a lawyer. As a sort of mother of the institution [citing her own legal battle with Hastings], I rejoice in your success . . . that at the first public graduating exercises of Hastings College of Law, a bright and beautiful young girl comes off with the honors of the class."

Only a few years after joining the Bar and opening her own law office, Mary McHenry fell in love with a Scottish landscape artist, William Keith, left active practice, and instead supported her husband's ultimately prosperous artistic career. Mary continued to contribute money and expensive paintings to the cause, to make speeches, and march and write regularly for suffrage.

While she left the law, Keith did not abandon public suffrage activities such as speech making and writing. She was also an excellent organizer; for instance, she urged bringing into the cause wealthy society women, and often urged Phoebe Hearst and Jane Stanford, two of the richest women in California to join the movement.

Throughout her adult life, she was involved in many social causes, including co-education, She served as president of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae. She also worked for animal rights, and opposed the white slave trade and prostitution. Suffrage drew her attention in the early 1890s and in 1902 she served as President of the Berkeley Political Equality Club. In 1895 she was one of the organizers of the Women's Congress held in Berkeley. She knew and corresponded with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and other national leaders of the women's suffrage movement. She was a member of both state and national suffrage organizations, including the National Equal Suffrage Association, National Women's Party, Club Women's Franchise League of California, the College Equal Suffrage League, the California Equal Suffrage Association (elected as second vice president in 1909), and the Berkeley Women's City Club.

Keith rented the house that served as the headquarters of the Equal Suffrage League that spearheaded the fight for the California vote in 1911. She worked tirelessly for this effort, writing a weekly column for the Oakland Inquirer, speaking and financially supporting the cause. After women won the vote in California, she helped work for the vote in other states and worked for animals rights, supporting the Humane Society, Humane Society, the California Audubon Society, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), as well as other organizations.

Mary McHenry Keith was an important figure in the Western part of the movement and deserves memory and recognition for her contributions. She died in Berkeley, California, 13 October 1947, at the age of 91.

Sources:

Babcock, Barbara, Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.

Letter from Clara Foltz to Mary McHenry (June 1, 1882)quoted in Babcock, Woman Lawyer

Ida Husted Harper, et al., eds., History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 6 (1922) [LINK].

Mary McHenry Keith, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_McHenry_Keith

Wise, Noel. An Uncommon Journey: Reflections on the Life of Mary McHenry Keith, Women's Legal History Website, http://womenslegalhistory.stanford.edu (2002).

back to top