Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Caroline Dowell, 1855-1921
By Hailey Harrop, Undergraduate Student, Rhode Island College
Member, Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association; District Captain and Committee Chair, Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party Member; Member, Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Council
Caroline A. Travers was born in April 1855, in England. No information is available on her parents or childhood in England. She married John Dowell in England in 1886. He emigrated to the United States on his own in 1888, while she remained in England. The following year she joined him in the United States. They moved frequently in the United States and had five children who were born in three different states. Their first child was born in Colorado in 1889. Their second and third children were born in Utah in 1890 and 1891. And lastly, their fourth and fifth children were born in Smithfield, Rhode Island in 1897 and 1898.
By 1892, the family moved to rural Rhode Island and John Dowell worked as a farmer and owned a property called "Dexter Farm" in Smithfield. The census information on the family is unclear at the turn of the century. According to this information, the Dowells settled in Rhode Island as early as 1892. However, the 1900 federal census lists them as residents of Scottsville, Virginia. According to real estate transactions, they were in Rhode Island again by 1907. In the 1910 U.S. census, Caroline and John Dowell were divorced and she rented a home in Providence with her children. The census lists her as supporting herself with her own income but it is not clear how she earned it. Her son, Ian, worked as a salesman and may have helped support the family. Another son, Ralph, died in 1912 at fifteen years old.
Caroline Dowell was active in the Rhode Island woman suffrage movement from 1912 to 1915. The earliest report of her activism was in May 1912. The Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association (RIWSA) engaged in a large publicity campaign and secured a booth for the first time at the Pure Food Fair held by the Retail Grocers' association. This was a prominent event in the community and RIWSA wanted to use it to raise awareness about woman suffrage. Dowell was one of the RIWSA members who worked at the booth and the event was very successful for the organization. The History of Woman Suffrage praised Dowell and the other volunteers as "unselfish workers" who did "arduous work" and noted that at the event:
thousands of new members were enrolled, tens of thousands of leaflets were distributed, and publicity work was done. The "suffrage map" was in evidence, showing the many States that had been won, an irrefutable argument against the emanations of the anti-suffrage booth. At no other time and place could so many classes of people be reached.
In April 1913, a group of women held a meeting to form a new suffrage organization, the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party. A local woman had been studying woman suffrage campaign methods in other states and wanted to spread the tactics to Rhode Island. The group elected officers and laid plans for an extensive campaign for woman suffrage. However, they faced difficulty in obtaining leaders required for the new organization and chose to appoint temporary leaders to fill the positions. Dowell was chosen as a temporary official for the Woman Suffrage Party and was assigned small duties such as to announce to other members where the upcoming suffrage meetings were going to be held.
In December 1914, the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Council was created and held its first meeting. The council's purpose was to bring together eighteen delegates who represented the four leading suffrage organizations in the state; Dowell served as a delegate representing the Woman Suffrage Party. After that initial meeting, she attended monthly meetings of the council to help coordinate the work of the different suffrage associations, which eventually merged their organizations into the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association in 1915.
By 1915, Dowell served on the state committee and as a district captain in Providence for the Woman Suffrage Party. The committee developed plans for outdoor meetings for the cause of women's suffrage. The purpose of these plans was to "bring votes for women more strongly before the public." In addition, Dowell was elected chairman of the Party's enrollment committee.
In addition to these leadership positions, Dowell participated in a Labor Day protest organized by the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party in 1915. They planned "to have several automobiles in the streets...Further, it is planned to have a large number of young girls wearing white capes trimmed with yellow pass out literature on the streets." Dowell was in charge of arranging for suffrage literature to be distributed at the protest. The purpose of this demonstration was to try to obtain more support for woman suffrage from men in Rhode Island. Dowell also participated in political lobbying and attended a reception hosted by Rhode Island Governor R. Livingston Beeckman for suffragists in November 1915. She signed a woman suffrage petition that was sent to the United States House of Representatives in both 1914 and 1915. Also in 1915, Dowell and several other suffragists arranged a theatre party to watch "Your Girl and Mine," a suffrage film that had been endorsed by NAWSA. That same year, she was part of group of suffragists who lobbied the Providence mayor to appoint a woman to the censor commission; they were concerned about burlesque shows that they felt were immoral.
Dowell's last recorded act in suffrage work was in December 1915. She helped supervise a sale to raise money for the suffrage headquarters. The Woman's Journal, a suffrage publication, reported that it was "a successful rummage sale." The article also noted that "while one large division of the members were dining at the suffrage banquet and another was enjoying a suffrage bridge whist, these two women [Dowell and her partner] were vending cast-off clothes in a poor section along the river front." (Note: the sale was held at the house of Enid Pierce, an officer of the Providence Woman Suffrage Party, and was not actually "in a poor section.") After 1915 there is no other information about Caroline Dowell's life or suffrage work, except for a gravestone in Springfield, Massachusetts for her and her son Ralph that lists her date of death as 1921. She died the year following the successful ratification of the woman suffrage amendment to the United States Constitution.
Ida Husted Harper, ed. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6: 1900-1920 (New York: J.J. Little & Ives Company, 1922). [LINK]
Sara M. Algeo, The Story of a Sub-Pioneer (Providence, RI: Snow & Farnham Co., 1925).
"Caroline Dowell," https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/154581393.
"City Hall Records," The Providence Daily Journal, September 25, 1907.
"Suffragists Here Meet to Organize," The Providence Daily Journal, April 12, 1913.
"Suffragists Plan Big Meeting," The Providence Daily Journal, April 19, 1913.
"Equal Suffrage Council Holds Its First Meeting," The Providence Daily Journal, December 19, 1914.
"Men's League to Further Suffragists' Aims Planned," The Providence Daily Journal, June 24, 1915.
"R.I. Suffragettes Plan Labor Day Demonstration," The Providence Daily Journal, August 25, 1915.
"Committee Asks for Woman Censor," The Providence Daily Journal, September 16, 1915.
"Other Affairs," The Providence Daily Journal, November 28, 1915.
"Suffrage Sale is Held.," The Providence Daily Journal, December 3, 1915.
"Rhode Island," The Woman's Journal 46, No. 51 (December 18, 1915), 406.
Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Sixty-Third Congress, Third Session (Washington, D.C. 1915), 549.