Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Jessie Ashley, 1861-1919
By Thomas Wirth, Lecturer, State University of New York at Cortland
Treasurer, National American Woman Suffrage Association; President, National College Equal Suffrage League
Born in New York City in 1861, Jessie Ashley grew up in privilege as the daughter of Ossian Doolittle Ashley, a financier and railroad executive, and Harriet A. (Nash) Ashley. Both parents traced their ancestry to old stock Puritan families who were among the earliest settlers of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. In the 1870s, Ossian Ashley played an instrumental role in the consolidation of major American railroads, including the Wabash, Toledo, and Western. He was named president of the Wabash Railway Company in 1889. Ossian's success in business had its advantages for his children. Jessie and her three siblings, Mary, Clarence, and Anita, attended private schools in New York and spent time studying abroad in Germany. Jessie Ashley's upbringing anticipated a life of comfort among well-heeled peers, yet she harbored ambitions beyond the parlor rooms of the leisure class. She all but rejected her patrician background at the turn of the century for a career as a feminist lawyer and radical activist.
Ashley's transformation began well into adulthood, at age thirty-nine, with her acceptance to the Woman's Law Class at New York University in 1900. Her brother, Clarence D. Ashley, was appointed dean of the NYU law program in 1896, and the school opened admissions to women on equal terms with men during his tenure. Soon after enrollment, Ashley met aspiring feminist attorneys Ida Rauh and Madeleine Doty. The three women formed a bond around their mutual interest in women's issues and the law. Graduating in 1902, each took up residence in Greenwich Village and they immersed themselves in the culture of progressive activism rippling through the neighborhood. Ashley, Doty, and Elizabeth S. Pope—a 1906 graduate of NYU—formed a private law practice in 1905 with offices on Fifth Avenue. The firm struggled to attract the intended clientele: society women. Doty eventually left the practice in 1907. Ashley later cooperated with Ida Rauh and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger to establish the American Birth Control League.
In 1908, Ashley joined the New York County Lawyers' Association as a charter member. The association was among the first major American bar associations not to discriminate on the basis of sex. Ashley attacked gender inequality in the legal profession from a feminist perspective, making the argument that women should lead the reform of this male-dominated field in order to ensure the elimination of gender bias from its professional culture. In a 1912 article written for the Women Lawyers' Journal, she encouraged female lawyers to pursue change through their own resourcefulness rather than to perpetuate the status quo by indulging the expectations of male counterparts. "With pathetic eagerness to conform to all traditions and to be like men lawyers," wrote Ashley, women "bow to custom, conform to theory and go on uncomplaining in their brother's footsteps." Ashley, for her part, maintained a principled distance from the masculine world of the law in New York. From 1907 until her death, she practiced independently or in partnership with Elizabeth Pope as one of the few firms led by women attorneys in the city. She also regularly taught courses in the woman's law class at NYU.
Ashley's interest in reforming the legal profession to benefit women was a natural extension of an increasing commitment to both social justice and women's issues, including suffrage. She assumed her first leadership role in the suffrage movement in 1905 as treasurer of the National College Equal Suffrage League and was later elected president of that organization. After attending her first convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1908, just two years later she was elected to the position of NAWSA treasurer. Ashley quickly won praise for her administrative skill and for her generosity. Between 1910 and 1913 she provided the organization regular donations and loans that often exceeded one thousand dollars, yet she soon ran afoul of more conservative members in the NAWSA as she publicly expressed her support for socialism.
Ashley joined the Socialist Party in 1907 and her socialist sympathies were not unknown to NAWSA leadership. She published occasional articles in the Socialist Party daily, the New York Call, and lent critical support to striking garment workers during the 1909-1910 shirtwaist strike. Ashley first drew criticism from suffragists when she used the NAWSA's official organ, The Woman's Journal, to pen a series of letters addressing the overlapping problems of class and gender inequality. In June 1911, Ashley challenged elite women to develop a consciousness of class in the same way that they had developed a gender consciousness in the struggle for women's voting rights. She argued that the working classes were "crippled, maimed and cast aside unrewarded, while the wheels of industry roll on above them." Her attempts to link the aims of suffrage and socialism ruffled feathers within the non-partisan NAWSA. Following publication of the letters, several state suffrage organizations passed resolutions denouncing her iimplication that suffragists should unite in common cause with Socialists. Ashley was reprimanded by NAWSA leadership for appearing to use the organization to advance her political preferences. In the fall of 1912, after a two-year stint as NAWSA treasurer, she relinquished her post and declined to run for re-election to the position.
Ashley continued to fight for suffrage but devoted most of her energy after 1912 to supporting the Socialist Party and a variety of other radical causes. She was a frequent candidate for office on the Socialist ticket and served as a delegate to the national convention of the Socialist Party at Indianapolis in 1912. She ran for a seat on the bench of the New York State Court of Appeals that same year, garnering 63,000 votes in a losing bid. Ashley marched alongside striking workers in Lawrence (1912) and Paterson (1913), and later acted as counsel for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was arrested during the Paterson strike for her activities with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It was at Lawrence and Paterson that Ashley also grew acquainted with "Big" Bill Haywood, the IWW's foremost agitator. Ashley and Haywood were fast friends despite their obvious differences—Ashley an east coast Brahmin and Haywood a law-breaking spitfire from mining country. Ashley put Haywood up in her Manhattan apartment after his health failed in the wake of the Paterson Strike, and together they tramped off to France and England in the fall of 1913.
At the end of her life, Ashley was deeply involved in the birth control movement and the effort to free political and industrial prisoners. Ashley and Ida Rauh were arrested in 1916 for violating the Comstock Law after distributing contraceptive literature at a protest meeting headlined by anarchist Emma Goldman in Union Square. In 1917, she helped establish the Amnesty League and the Bureau of Legal Advice. When Goldman was arrested in the summer of 1917 with Alexander Berkman for "obstruction" of the recently instituted conscription law, Ashley put up ten thousand dollars toward her bond. Ashley, too, spoke out against American involvement in World War I and spent time in jail in the spring of 1917 for refusing to stand for an orchestral rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at Rector's restaurant in Manhattan. Her dining partner, Socialist journalist Frederick Sumner Boyd, sustained serious injuries when angry restaurant patrons turned on the pair for their apparent lack of patriotism. Ashley persevered in spite of the assault and won respect from fellow dissenters and radicals such as Goldman, who remembered Ashley in her memoir as a "valiant rebel."
Jessie Ashley died on January 20, 1919 shortly after contracting pneumonia.
Francis Bacon Trowbridge, The Ashley Genealogy: A History of the Descendants of Robert Ashley of Springfield, Massachusetts (New Haven, CT: Press of Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor), 204
Biographical Sketches of Representative Citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Boston: Graves & Steinbarger, 1901), 386, 667-670.
Railroad Gazette 37 (28) (December 23, 1904), 203.
Virginia Drachman, Sisters in Law: Women Lawyers in Modern American History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 133-135; and "The New Woman Lawyer and the Challenge of Sexual Equality in Early Twentieth-Century America," Indiana Law Review 28 (2) (1995), 227-257.
Joan Marie Johnson, Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and the Women's Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 172, 175-177, 181. https://books.google.com/books?id=5KIvDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=ashley&f=false
Gerald W. McFarland, Inside Greenwich Village: A New York City Neighborhood, 1898-1918 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 119-20.
"Firm of Women Lawyers," Law Notes (December, 1905), 175.
Phyllis Eckhaus, "Restless Women: The Pioneering Alumnae of New York University School of Law," New Yok University Law Review 66 (December, 1991), 1996-2013.
"Jessie Ashley Not Ousted: Simply Didn't Run—Shaw," New York Call November 28, 1912.
Jessie Ashley, "National Headquarters," The Woman's Journal, June 3, 1911, 172.
______. "Letter to the Editor," New York Call December 17, 1909.
______. "Editorial Comment," Birth Control Review (January, 1919), 2.
______ . Women Lawyers' Journal "Shall We Reverence the Law?," 1 (5) (May, 1912).
Ellen Chesler, Women of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).
Emma Goldman, Living My Life, Vol. 2 (1931, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1970), 676.
Frances H. Early, A World Without War: How US Feminists and Pacifists Resisted World War I (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 123-24.
Margaret Sanger, "Jessie Ashley—A Soul that Marches On," The Birth Control Review 3 (2) (February, 1919), 5.
"Jessie Ashley a Victim of Pneumonia," New York Call January 21, 1919.
"Miss Jessie Ashley Dead," New York Times January 22, 1919.