Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Belle Harris Bennett, 1852–1922
By Randolph Hollingsworth, Ph.D.
Isabel "Belle" Harris Bennett, a powerful suffragist and missionary from Richmond, Kentucky, served a life of activism and empathy for all in a time of great divisiveness and violence. Born into a large family of land and wealth in central Kentucky, Bennett used her family connections and privilege to maintain her social position as she navigated the politics of women's rights – votes for Kentucky women and laity rights in the Southern Methodist hierarchy. Her passion for suffrage and missionary work stemmed from her conviction that the Gospels – as she read them in her Bible – supported the equality of men and women. While working on behalf of women missionaries and suffragists, she embodied the New Woman ideal in her actions, her dress (when recruiting younger members to her causes), and her struggle to provide higher education for a new professional class of social workers and community organizers. Her writings, imbued with the progressive notions of the Social Gospel movement in her time, encouraged and strengthened her allies and patrons. Her personal philanthropy showed how her beliefs stretched across the dividing lines of race, ethnicity, gender and class at the local level in her own community, the national organizations she led and international institutions she created.
Named after her paternal grandmother Isabel Harris, Belle was born at "Homelands," her family's estate near the township of Foxtown in Madison County, on December 3, 1852. She was the younger daughter of eight children of Samuel and Elizabeth Chenault Bennett. It was through her mother's family of Chenaults that she traced her lineage for acceptance into the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames. Her parents built a small chapel close by – the first Methodist Church in Madison County – named in honor of her paternal grandfather "Honest" John Bennett who was a Methodist circuit rider of early Kentucky. The whole family and numerous friends attended the church, where Belle sang in the choir and taught Sunday School. At 11 she began travelling the six miles to Richmond every day to attend a private school, boarding there during the winter months. The principal was Dr. Robert Breck, later the first chancellor of Central University of Kentucky. She lived with her brother John, a Kentucky Senator, in Frankfort as she attended parties and traveled to New Orleans for Mardi Gras balls where she met the best of Southern society. Her schoolgirl friend Kate Helm described Belle as being "very handsome, with tall graceful figure. She had blue eyes and ash blond hair (that unusual and very beautiful color). Her complexion was creamy white with delicate pink cheeks and lips – there was never a trace of anything artificial about it. This beauty, combined with her unusually fascinating manner of expressing herself, made her a rare personality (quoted in MacDonnell, 32)." At 23 Belle attended an evangelistic meeting in Richmond and took a vow of Church membership. She and her sister Sue began visiting poor families of Madison County and they organized a Sunday School in an abandoned building near a grist mill. In 1884 she attended a season at Lake Chautauqua, New York and attended a revival in Richmond by Rev. George O. Barnes. Both experiences combined to inspire her to take on a life of service for underserved populations at home and abroad.
Their farm bordered White Hall, and she knew the Cassius and Mary Jane Warfield Clay family well. She was friends with Laura Clay, the founder of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, who was only a few years older than herself; and, her older brother James married Laura's sister, Sarah Lewis "Sallie" Clay who founded the Madison County Equal Rights Association. Belle was strongly influenced by these powerful suffragists as well as by her older sister, Susan Ann Bennett (1843-1891) who was a leader in the Southern Methodist Woman's Parsonage and Home Mission Society.
In 1888 her father died, and Belle moved with her mother and sister into a new home on the main street of Richmond. The following year, Belle became a founding member of the Richmond Equal Rights Association led by her sister-in-law Sallie Clay Bennett and the oldest sister Mary Barr Clay.
In 1892, after the death of her sister Sue, Belle joined the Central Committee of the Woman's Home Mission Society and established a training school for missionaries in Missouri (later relocated to Nashville, Tenn. and named Scarritt College for Christian Workers). Using the British model for women deaconesses, Belle went against many traditions in the South and in her church to insist on high standards for education to professionalize women's social work. She took on a leadership role in the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (ERA), becoming 3rd Vice President in 1895. When the Fulton ERA in western Kentucky needed a treasurer as it started up in 1897, Belle took on that job too. At the same time, she undertook the fundraising and organizing effort to fulfill her sister's dream for a Christian school in the mountains of Kentucky, and with the support of the local community Belle established the Sue Bennett Memorial School in London, Kentucky, in 1897.
Belle's mother died in 1897 and she began living in a hotel so that she could focus on her writing, her organizational strategies and travel. Without the distractions of housekeeping, she could focus on her prayer life and Bible study, rising at dawn to pray, often joined by friends who knew her habits. Her strict observance of the Sabbath meant that she spent the whole day praying and reading the Bible. Even as she began traveling to churches around the South to fundraise for schools, she tried to keep to her routine of rest and reflection on Sundays. In 1900 a group of black preachers in Richmond invited her to start an interdenominational Bible Study class every Sunday at 3 p.m. at the St. Paul AME Church. Her work in making connections across racial lines in Madison County led to the creation in 1915 of the Madison County Colored Chautauqua in partnership with the county Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Agricultural Cooperative Extension Agent, Dr. Henry Allen Lane. She served as the Chautauqua's Board President for three years, drawing in such luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois and George Washington Carver. When a group set aside reserved seats for whites at the DuBois lecture, she removed the ropes herself so that all could attend equally. She also started a Bible Study circle for women in Richmond in 1906 with Mrs. Mary Roark, another suffragist and later President of Eastern Kentucky Normal School.
Bennett served as the President of the Southern Methodist Woman's Board of Home Mission Society from 1896 to 1910. That year, she was elected President of the Woman's Missionary Council of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. As part of her efforts to win full laity rights for women within the Southern Methodist Church she published in 1910 a 24-page pamphlet, "An Outline of the World-wide Movement for the Liberation of Women," that provided a chronological as well as geographical survey of the rights of women, globally. The end of the pamphlet quotes from James Russell Lowell's poem, "A Glance Behind the Curtain" with a powerful call for women's right to vote: "New times demand new measures and new men..." Her optimism derived from her reliance on allies and friends in whom she confided when all seemed hopeless. She wrote in 1912 about a conversation with her sister-in-law Sallie Clay Bennett, a suffragist whose speeches focused on a version of Christianity based on equality between men and women. Belle worried that while men who deny women their rights
honestly believe they are doing the right thing, the fair thing, as we [women] do not that troubles [me]. They [men] are not wholly to blame in believing that women are inherently inferior and incapable - women believe and act on that supposition themselves, and why should men think and treat them otherwise? We are in a hard [italics hers] pioneer field [end italics], and I have never been in any other kind until the last few years. I have never labored under any fear for the growth of the work. ... My fear has been, and is still, for the loss to the Church (universal) itself, through a weak and irresponsible womanhood. It's a great human body with one side paralyzed. Arousing and interesting the women at home has been the best form of mission work we have done. (quoted in McDonnell, 246)
However, due to her efforts and despite many setbacks by the male Church hierarchy and her more conservative colleagues in the women's missionary boards, women were finally admitted to full lay status in the Southern Methodist Church in 1919.
Bennett's leadership focused on urban missions, setting up nearly 50 segregated community houses serving the poor and educating women across the South. The first was founded in Nashville, Tennessee as a church settlement house located near the Woman's Missionary Board headquarters. Given the backlash from her conservative churchgoers that this initiative was too much like the Northerners work, Bennett suggested in 1906 that they name these social work organizations Community Houses: Wesley Community House for whites and Bethlehem Houses for blacks. She encouraged local activists in Florida, California, New Orleans and Galveston as they worked to build Community Houses and programming for immigrants. When she became President of the merged Woman's Mission Board, she began traveling to the Far East and South America to inspect and encourage expansion of the institutions built there by the Southern Methodists and allied projects across Protestant denominations – all the while insisting on the professionalization and adequate support for women missionaries and deaconesses.
Her leadership in working with Southern black communities was considered radical among her friends – including the initiative she spearheaded with the Woman's Home Mission Society to build a girls' dormitory at Paine College in Augusta, Georgia so that they could be trained in industrial disciplines. She spoke in 1901 about the need for the new program, entreating all on the Board to remember that "race prejudice is to be overcome only by divine grace, and that 'there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free: for ye all are one in Christ Jesus.' Be gentle, very gentle in dealing with those who do not regard this work as we do ourselves (quoted MacDonnell, 123)" She told her committee members how to deal with recriminations: tell no one but the Secretary at Nashville headquarters or the President at Richmond whenever they received letters condemning "the Negro work" of the Home Missionary Society.
Nothing so surely takes the wind out of sails like these as to absolutely ignore them. I used to get anonymous letters and various things of that kind concerning my work. After reading the letter, or generally just a bit of it, I would strike a match to it and promptly forget that I had ever received it. It helps the writer to believe that you never got it. To ignore a wrong is to pour ointment on a suppurating abscess. (quoted in MacDonnell, 124)
She usually kept her work for woman suffrage separate from her missionary work. As her friend Mrs. R.W. MacDonnell wrote: "Miss Bennett had always believed in the perfect equality of man and woman and from earliest youth had been an advocate of political suffrage, but had refrained from pressing this conviction among the missionary women, that she might not create antagonism to the specific work of the Missionary Society (236)." Her travels gained her new allies, some of whom were open to woman suffrage, and she would give contacts to Laura Clay as she recruited local leaders for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) for their campaigns in the South. She spoke in favor of school suffrage at the Kentucky legislative hearing for women's right to vote ("Concerning Women" The Woman's Journal, Vol 41, no. 10 (5 March 1910): 1. https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:53675988$43i). When she was interviewed for an article about "Women in the Churches" in The Woman's Journal (8 July 1911): 216. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:53675989$222i, she made a direct connection between raising consciousness about women's rights in the Southern Methodist church hierarchy and women's political rights. The reporter wrote: "Miss Bennett believes this agitation has greatly increased suffrage sentiment throughout the South. She uses The Woman's Journal, with other literature, for education in the campaign, and she finds that wherever readers of The Journal are secured, intelligent advocates of the cause are trained, who are bound eventually to have great effect in establishing suffrage principles among the 1,900,000 members of this evangelical church."
In 1912 she began a two year stint in serving on the KERA Executive Committee for the NAWSA, an important connection between the national and local suffragists during a time of great change in the movement. She sent in a news comment to The Woman's Journal in January 1912, "Much good work is being done in the South. Women and men are reading, thinking and talking in favor of woman suffrage as never before." ("Notes and News," Woman's Journal (27 January 1912): 27. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute. https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:53675987$33i) That year a Midwestern suffragists' conference was held in Chicago, and she was featured along with Laura Clay and Ida Harrison of Lexington – Belle spoke on "Church Work." The following year the Mississippi Valley Suffrage conference united with all the Southern states' suffrage leaders to meet in St. Louis at the Buckingham Hotel from April 2-4, 1913. Belle joined the KERA leadership, President Madeline McDowell Breckenridge and ex-President Laura Clay in speaking at the conference – this time her subject was on "Southern Women and the Ballot." ("South and West Unite in Call," Woman's Journal (22 March 1913), 91. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute. https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:53708534$95i #iiif)
Belle was commended in the NAWSA official History (Volume 5) for her leadership in gaining the full laity rights for women in the Southern Methodist Church. On May 28, 1916, the faculty at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro conferred upon her the degree of LL.D. (Doctor of Laws) – the first woman at that institution. Her open letter in the Atlanta Constitution (May 22, 1918) showed how in her own mind she conflated women's rights with missionary work and a global citizenship:
In this world-wide movement of women, for women, by women, the significant part is the [italics]new[/i] woman - [italics]new[/i] because schoolroom and college doors have been thrown wide open to her; [italics]new[/i], because the law has made it possible for her to receive, obtain, and hold property; [italics]new[/i], because the world has been opened to her; [italics]new[/i], because, above all, a trained mind and the open Word of God have made the [italics]will[/i] of God a real and personal thing to her. (quoted in MacDonnell, 250)
After a life of grueling work and many successes, Belle Bennett succumbed to a debilitating and painful disease that went for many months undiagnosed. She tried to convene a special meeting of the Woman's Missionary Council to address church policy in March 1922 but her speech was so garbled there was no consensus of the group. She returned to Richmond and lived with her niece Mrs. Annie Bennett Collins. She could not attend the Council annual meeting at San Antonio in April -- the first since she was president in 1896. She underwent an exploratory operation, but the surgeon was unable to determine the exact cause of the disease. Emily Olmstead, her deaconess secretary, was with Belle when she died 40 minutes past twelve midnight on July 20, 1922. The funeral service was held at the Collins home two days later, and she was buried beside her sister in the Richmond Cemetery.
Ancestry.com – census (1880, 1910); passport application (1916); Mauretania ship log from England to New York City (1919), Daughters of the American Revolution Lineage Book (Volume 165: 1921, DAR ID 164276)
"Belle Harris Bennett," FindAGrave.com Memorial. Available online at https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/73300391/belle-harris-bennett
Bennett, Belle H. "An Outline of the World-wide Movement for the Liberation of Women." Nashville, TN: Williams, 1910.
Bennett, Laura Marie. "Equal Privilege of Service: Women, Missions, and Suffrage in America, 1870-1934." PhD diss., Princeton University, 2009.
Blue, Ellen. St. Mark's and the Social Gospel: Methodist Women and Civil Rights in New Orleans, 1895–1965. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2011.
Chandler, Douglas R. "Bennett, Belle Harris," 132-134 in Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 2. Radcliffe College. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard U., 1971.
Knott, Claudia. "The Woman Suffrage Movement in Kentucky, 1879-1920." PhD diss., University of Kentucky, 1989.
MacDonnell, Mrs. Robert W. Belle Harris Bennett: Her Life Work. Nashville, TN: The Woman's Section of the Board of Missions, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1928. Available online at Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/belleharrisbenne01macd
McDowell, John Patrick. The Social Gospel in the South: The Woman's Home Mission Movement in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1886–1939. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
"Richmond Equal Rights Association," 4-5 in Minutes of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, November 19th, 20th, and 21st, 1889, Court House, Lexington, Kentucky. Lexington, KY: Will S. Marshall, Jr., Printer, 1890. Available online at https://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7v9s1km53j_1#page/4/mode/1up.
Turner, Elizabeth Hayes. Women, Culture, and Community: Religion and Reform in Galveston, 1880-1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.