Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Edwards Sullivan (Stanaland Roberts), 1883-1970
By Debbie Bloom, Walker Local and Family History Center, Richland Library, Columbia, South Carolina
Prior to her role in the Nashville Women's Suffrage Association Mary Edwards Sullivan was an active member of the Tennessee State Federation of Women's Clubs. Her role in the Federation led to leadership positions statewide and in the Nashville Women's Suffrage Association.
Raised in Centerville, TN Mary was the daughter of prominent businessman, B. W. Edwards (Burrell Wilburn). B. W. owned a successful retail business and became a respected leader in Centerville community affairs. Soon after her marriage to Claude D. Sullivan in 1903, Mary, a college graduate, also took part in Centerville civic and social affairs.
Among the many organizations Mary Sullivan joined in Centerville was the State Federation of Women's Clubs. In 1910, when Claude and Mary relocated to Nashville, Mrs. Sullivan was offered the opportunity to take a greater role in the Federation's executive board and at the 1913 state-wide convention she was appointed the Public Health Chairman for the state-wide federation. An enthusiastic leader, Sullivan endorsed several preventative health campaigns including: food sanitation, hygiene and sex education. In other roles, Sullivan organized a statewide extension program for the Federation allowing local clubs to stay better connected to the statewide entity with Sullivan appointed as the Federation's first Chairman of Extension.
Through her club work Sullivan developed into a passionate advocate for rural women and children. At the 1916 Southern Conference for Education and Industry in New Orleans Sullivan pled for measures to ease the drudgery of farmwomen. She called for greater availability of modern conveniences, "which will save their strength and health". She spoke statewide and regionally on health and education related topics. Sullivan's position also brought her into contact with state legislators whom she lobbied for the creation of a vocational rehabilitation facility for girls, a bill allowing women to serve on educational and charitable boards and the reorganization of the Tennessee Children's Home Society. Mary Sullivan's club work and passionate voice for rural poor families led the board of directors of the Tennessee Children's Home Society to offer her the position of state superintendent. In September 1918, Mary Sullivan, the first woman to hold the position, hesitantly accepted the appointment.
World War I and the Spanish Influenza Epidemic put an enormous strain on the Tennessee Children's Home. The increased hardships for orphaned children led the state legislature to reorganize the institution allotting $75 per child for their care. Initially, the Tennessee Children's Home Society operated a receiving house in Nashville that accommodated white-only children from each county at no cost to the county. At this facility, children received health care and boarding and were sent to public schools until they could be placed in a home. Under Sullivan's four years of leadership, the Children's Home's annual budget grew from $8,000.00 to $42,000.00, three new branch-receiving homes were built, and accommodations and health facilities at the Nashville, Acklen Avenue facility were improved. Sullivan's goal was to provide a "healthful, moral environment for all children." She held the position until 1922 when she resigned due to her upcoming move to Texas.
Mary Sullivan's keen interest in women and children also led to her interest in the Nashville Women's Suffrage Association. Sullivan first appears as a member of the Nashville Suffrage Association in November 1916 when suffragists across the nation planned a series of political banquets for legislators returning to Washington, DC. The banquets were a reminder to the newly elected representatives that there was strong support for suffrage in their districts. In Nashville, suffragists planned a dinner for Rep. Joseph W. Byrns at the Hermitage Hotel. Popular comic actress May Irwin was the main speaker. Scores of prominent Nashville women were associated with the banquet, including Mrs. Claude D. Sullivan.
Mary Sullivan's prominence and statewide exposure made her the perfect chairman for the Nashville Women's Suffrage Association Liberty Loan Committee. Announced by the federal government in January 1918, the third Liberty Loan Act allowed US citizens to support the war effort. Mrs. Sullivan's committee successfully raised just under $120,000 to purchase bonds (over 2 million in 2019 dollars).
Mary Sullivan's organizational skills were required again by the suffragists during the state-wide suffrage convention in May 1920. Sullivan was appointed Chairman of the Hospitality Committee. Little did the suffragists know that in a few short months Tennessee would be at the apex of the Nineteenth Amendment's constitutional vote. With one state's vote needed to ratify the equal suffrage amendment Tennessee Gov. Albert H. Roberts called a special session of the Tennessee General Assembly, ultimately ratifying the amendment and giving women the right to vote.
Following the passage of the voting rights amendment Sullivan put her efforts behind voter registration through the League of Women Voters. She was soon appointed chairperson for the Democratic Women's Committee and supported the James Cox/Franklin Roosevelt ticket in November 1920. Of course, she still maintained an important role in the Tennessee Federation of Women's Clubs.
In 1925, soon after Sullivan moved to Texas, her husband Claude died. Mary returned to Centerville and married banker, Rufus P. Stanaland, in 1928. The couple divorced in the spring of 1934. During this time Mary retired from club activities but stayed active in the Democratic Party, so perhaps it is no surprise that on September 9, 1935 Mary Edwards Sullivan Stanaland married the former Tennessee governor Albert H. Roberts who was instrumental in passing the nineteenth amendment. After Roberts 'death in 1946 Mary lived with her sister Estelle and Estelle's immediate family in north Florida. Mary, or Mamie as her family called her, died just six weeks before her sister.
Tennessee Encyclopedia Tennessee Federation of Women's Clubs
Ancestry: Social Security Death Index, Mary Roberts, Sep 1970, Gainesville, FL.
"State Fair Notes", 28 June 1913.
"Fine public health work of State Federation of Women's Clubs", 01 Nov 1913.
"Committee to meet", 10 March 1915.
"Mrs. Sullivan appeals to Tennessee Club Women", 15 Dec 1918.
"Resigns position of superintendent", 10 October 1922.
"Suffragists complete plans for dinner to Jos. W. Byrns", 05 Nov 1916.
"943,000 in bonds raised by local women", 05 May 1918.
"What the Tennessee Children's Home Society does for the child and community", 15 Dec 1918.
"Democratic Votes", 07 Oct 1920.
Chattanooga Daily Times:
"Federation Extension Plan", 15 Oct 1915.
Children's Home Society no on better basis", 18 Aug 1919.
Journal and Tribune (Knoxville, TN):
"Tennessee Woman's Speech is a feature of Southern Conference in New Orleans", 20 April 1916.
"Find homes for many children", 07 Dec 1917.
Interview with grand-nephew, Bill Harlan Jr.