Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Eleanor Tarrant Little, 1872-1917
By Dr. Ann Allen, Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky
Mary Eleanor Tarrant was born in 1872 in Macon, Mississippi. Her father, Samuel Tarrant, was a Civil War veteran and worked as a merchant (in what business is not recorded). Her mother, Eliza Watkins Selleck Tarrant, seems to have had no paying job when Eleanor was born. When the family moved to Louisville sometime in the 1880s, however, Eliza Tarrant kept a boarding house, and when she and her husband moved to Chicago around 1900, she pursued this occupation there.
Eleanor Tarrant graduated from Louisville's Female High School. According to the Annual Register of the University of Chicago, she then studied botany at Indiana University from 1892-93; continued her studies at the University of Chicago in the summers of 1894-1902; and worked as a teaching assistant in summer courses in botany in 1902 and 1903. While studying and teaching in Chicago in the summers, she held a position teaching Latin at Female High School in Louisville from 1893-1902. The fact that Tarrant combined her studies with a full-time job suggests that she did not come from a privileged background like many other Louisville suffragists.
Tarrant may have found her vocation as a social worker in Chicago, which during these years was a vibrant center of reform activities. Among the many Chicago women engaged in urban reform, the most famous was Jane Addams, who had founded a settlement house known as Hull House in 1889. Settlement houses were communities of educated young people who lived in poor, usually immigrant neighborhoods, where they offered education and social services and studied the social problems of the inhabitants. In Louisville, the Presbyterian minister Archibald Hill, who had worked with settlements in Chicago, founded a settlement house known as Neighborhood House in 1897, and in 1902 Eleanor Tarrant became its Head Resident (or Director).
As Head Resident, Tarrant combined administrative work with outreach to a neighborhood that during these years was inhabited largely by Jews fleeing anti-Semitic violence in Russia. In her annual report for 1904, she informed supporters that much of her time was spent in making home visits, often as many as fifty in a morning. She also managed a wide array of community services—a kindergarten, a nursing service, a public bath house, a circulating library, a "penny savings bank" for children, classes in vocational skills and English, and tutorials for children who were falling behind in school.
In addition, Neighborhood House was the center of many civic initiatives, in which Eleanor Tarrant played a leading role. She was active in the Consumers' League of Kentucky, a branch of a national organization that was founded in 1899 by a colleague of Addams, Florence Kelley. Kelley, a Hull House resident for a period, urged women to use their power as consumers to pressure manufacturers and businesses to improve wages and working conditions for women and to restrict child labor. Eleanor Tarrant followed her example. At the State Conference of Charities and Corrections in 1905, a colleague introduced Tarrant as "the one who has maintained a lighthouse in the darkest district of Louisville." In her speech, Tarrant accused even her fellow social reformers of complicity in the abuse of children. "Every man and woman in this audience," she declared, "is clad in garments which in some way have passed through the hands of little children." She was also active with other charitable organizations and the Louisville Woman's Club.
In 1905, Eleanor Tarrant married John Little, who was born in 1874 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, attended the University of Alabama, and studied for the ministry at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1899. While still a student at the Seminary, John Little began a Sunday-school class for African American children, and other volunteers soon joined in the work. He went on to establish the Presbyterian Colored Missions, which provided educational and health services to African Americans—a group that was often excluded from community services and charitable agencies. Eleanor and John Little had two children.
After her marriage, Eleanor Little left her job at Neighborhood House, but continued to be very active with the Consumers League, the Woman's Club, and other civic organizations. Eleanor Little did not let her fellow clubwomen forget the needs of working-class and African-American women. In 1910, for example, the Consumers League held a meeting at the Woman's Club to demand a ten-hour day and a "minimum living wage" for female factory workers (most of whom were white). Eleanor Little proposed extending the same protections to domestic servants (most of whom were black), but the response of the meeting was negative.
Eleanor Little probably joined the suffrage movement because she expected women to use their voting power to bring about improvement in areas for which the social mores of the time assigned them a special responsibility. Foremost among these was the improvement of schools and education. By 1900, many states had granted women the so-called "school suffrage"—the right to vote in elections for school boards and on other educational issues. In Kentucky, in fact, women who were household heads had been allowed to vote for school boards and on other matters related to education in some rural districts since 1838, but the right was little used. In 1894, the Kentucky General Assembly gave women the "school suffrage" in second-class cities (Lexington, Covington and Newport). In 1902, however, the General Assembly repealed this law because an unexpected number of African American women had registered to vote in the school elections of 1901, and the high number of Republicans among them threatened Democratic control of state government.
The Kentucky Equal Rights Association then proposed another law that reserved the "school suffrage" only for literate women—a requirement that was clearly intended to disfranchise many black women and thus to allay white fears of African American empowerment. In 1907, Louisville women's clubs moved the passage of this law to the center of their agenda, and Little was one of its most fervent supporters. In 1912, the state's General Assembly passed a law granting the school suffrage to all Kentucky women who could read and write English.
As leading member of Campaign Committee of the School Suffrage Association, Little played a leading role in a campaign to register eligible women and to persuade them to vote in the school board elections of 1912. She was among a small group of suffragists who made an effort to reach out to literate African American women, who were qualified to vote. Shortly before the election, Little and a colleague, Adelaide Whiteside, spoke to a meeting at the Colored Branch of the Louisville Public Library and handed out registration forms, pink for women and white for men. Little also urged the textile workers of the Women's Union Label League to go to the polls. Partly due to Little's leadership, the 1912 school elections provided an opportunity for cooperation across lines of race and class.
Unlike most white suffragists, who avoided any endorsement of political rights for African Americans, Little continued to urge African American women to exercise their right to vote. Shortly before another school-board election in 1914, she once again addressed a meeting at the colored branch of the Louisville Public Library. It was the duty of "the colored people of Louisville," she said, "to see that the number...of negro children [in the schools] be increased, and that the colored high school be filled to overflowing. I don't care whom you vote for," she declared, "as long as you vote."
Little was a passionate suffragist who was enraged at men who did not allow their wives to vote. "I know this type of man," she declared to a newspaper reporter in 1912. "I once saw this type of man kick his 15-year-old son down a flight of stairs. I don't think the same man would hesitate at all to treat his wife in the same manner." She was an active member of the Louisville Woman's Suffrage Association, which chose her as an alternate delegate to the convention of the National American Woman's Suffrage Association in 1911.
Little was not able to participate in the final push to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, however, for she died suddenly of pneumonia in 1917. In her memory, her friends established the Eleanor Tarrant Little Foundation, which provided health services to children, both black and white. Among these was the Eleanor Tarrant Little Ward of the Red Cross Colored Hospital, a ward for African American children.
Mary Eleanor Tarrant
Eleanor T. Little
Samuel A. Tarrant
Louisville Municipal Reports for the Fiscal Year Ending August 31, 1896 (Louisville: Sowle Printing Company, 1897).
"Mary Eleanor Tarrant: Assistant in Botany," Annual Register, July 1902-July 1903, University of Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1903), 39.
Nov. 1, 1899; March 2, 1902; Dec. 14, 1902; Feb.7, 1903; Nov. 10, 1903; Dec. 23, 1904;June 5, 1903;Sept. 30, 1905; Nov. 18, 1909; June 4, 1910; Oct. 4, 1911; April 19, 1912; Sept. 24, 1912; Sept. 26, 1912; Sept. 27, 1912; Oct. 2, 1912; April 30, 1913; Dec.11, 1913; Sept. 29, 1914; Nov. 1, 1917; Sept. 7, 1919.
Mary Bryson, "Kentucky's Unique Conference Plan," Charities: A Weekly Review of Local and General Philanthropy 8, no. 25 (October 1904-March 1905):571-672.
Notes: Neighborhood House, 1904 (Louisville: Carton Printing Company, n.d.)
"Little, John," in Thomas McAdory Owen, History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography (Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1921), 1053-1054.