Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Gertrude Foster Brown, 1867-1956
By Jon Eppler (student) and Matt O'Brien (student)
State University of New York at Cortland
President, New York State Woman Suffrage Association; author, Your Vote and How to Use It
Gertrude Foster Brown was born on July 29, 1867 in Morrison, Illinois. Brown's parents, Charles Foster and Anna (Drake) Foster, nurtured her musical talent on the piano. In 1883, Brown entered a four-year program at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She finished the program in just two years and went on to teach piano in Dayton, Ohio before traveling to Europe, where she studied under Xaver Scharwenka in Berlin and with the French virtuoso, Delaborde, in Paris. On January 25, 1889, Brown made her debut as a concert pianist with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Berlin. She soon returned to the United States, continuing her career as a concert pianist at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. She married Arthur Raymond Brown in August 1893, and the couple moved to New York City in 1896. Ray Brown was an artist and advertising executive at the Chicago Evening Post. He later oversaw the art department at Everybody's magazine.
Gertrude Brown's career as a suffragist began in 1909 when she organized the Woman Suffrage Study Club in New York. The club sponsored parties that featured an array of New York actors, artists, and musicians. The chance to meet a favorite celebrity drew women from all over the city to club events. Brown observed that the "leading theatrical stars [also] loved the publicity these occasions gave them" and were quick to support the club's objective of spreading suffrage ideals. Brown attended the forty-second National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in 1910 and by 1913 had ascended to the presidency of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association (NYSWSA).
Following her election as president of NYSWSA, Brown became a critical voice for woman suffrage in New York, organizing suffrage parades and delivering speeches around the city. She attacked the city's newspapers for neglecting pro-suffrage arguments in their coverage of women's issues. In 1914, she wrote to the editors of the New York Times to argue that suffragists were different from their opponents because they focused on the idea that men and women would be better off working together, rather than apart, and that women were the complete equals of men in "common affairs."
In 1915, acting in her capacity as president of NYSWSA, Brown called upon suffragists to do more work in winning men to the cause. In a 1915 letter to the editor entitled, "Women Need the Vote," Brown stated that throughout the country's history, men of different races were never questioned as they pursued the right to the ballot. She claimed that former slaves, Native Americans, and Filipino men were all granted the right to vote without a question of their political fitness. Brown noted further that women had the right to vote in twelve states in 1915 and that the franchise for women would put an end to child labor and other social evils. Perhaps her most powerful argument was that without woman suffrage there was no true democracy: "Do you believe in a democracy? Do you believe taxation without representation is tyranny? Or is it tyranny only for men? Do you want a government of the people, for the people and by the people? And aren't women people?, Brown stated.
Such tactics proved effective, and woman suffrage passed in New York State in 1917. In response to this success in New York, Brown published Your Vote and How to Use It in 1918. The pamphlet sought to teach women in New York about their new political rights. She outlined the different divisions of government, the proper way to cast a ballot, and most importantly, the kinds of political conversations that women needed to concern themselves with.
Brown remained a committed activist through the League of Women Voters and the Women's City Club of New York after the nineteenth amendment passed giving women the right to vote.
Gertrude Foster Brown died on March 1, 1956 in Westport, Connecticut.
- Gertrude Foster Brown Papers, 1822-1978; item description, dates. MC 281. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
- Gertrude Foster Brown Papers, 1732-1956; item description, dates. 81-M48--81-M251.
Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
- Margaret Mary Finnegan, Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture & Votes for Women (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 88.
- Gertrude Foster Brown. "Secured by Canvassing Men in Various Parts of the State," New York Times December 10, 1914.
- Gertrude Foster Brown. "Secured by Canvassing Men in Various Parts of the State." New York Times, December 10, 1914. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9D06EEDE1438E633A25751C1A9649D946596D6CF
- Gertrude Foster Brown. "Women Need the Vote." New York Times, March 3, 1915. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archivefree/pdf?res=9F03E3DE153BE233A25754C0A9659C946496D6CF
- Gertrude Foster Brown. Your Vote and How to Use It (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1918.)
- Hannan, Caryn. Illinois Biographical Dictionary. State History Publications, 2009. https://books.google.com/books?id=8AM4zQiGAxkC&pg=PA95&lpg=PA95&dq=gertrude+foster+brown+piano&source=bl&ots=xJH_pvFzFK&sig=zwwMphRIPkvHXMVCSw0JJTyYu4I&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjS992g2unTAhVH6SYKHWlnAf0Q6AEITzAJ#v=onepage&q&f=false.
- Leonard, John. Who's Who In America. Albert Nelson Marquis, 1920, vol. 11. https://books.google.com/books?id=aHUEAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA922&dq=gertrude+foster+brown+john+leonard&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjEypuZ25nbAhXBxFkKHRBeCyoQ6AEIJzAA#v=onepage&q=gertrude%20foster%20brown%20&f=false
- Lanset, Andy. "Listen to a 101-Year-Old Clarion Call for Women's Suffrage Preserved in Shellac." http://www.wnyc.org/story/rare-call-womens-suffrage-new-york-preserved-shellac/