Biographical Sketch of Avis A. Hawkins

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Avis A. Hawkins, 1857-1951

By Hailey Harrop, Undergraduate Student, Rhode Island College

Teacher; Schools Chair, Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association; Officer, United League of Women Voters; Officer, Rhode Island State Federation of Women's Clubs, Officer, Federation of Women's Church Societies of Rhode Island; Officer, Providence Woman Christian Temperance Union

Avis Amanda Hawkins was born in Gloucester, Rhode Island, on October 5, 1857 to Ara and Amey Hawkins. Ara Hawkins descended from individuals including William Hawkins, Chad Brown, and Thomas Angell, who ventured to Rhode Island with Roger Williams in the early 1600s. She also had ancestors who fought in the American Revolution. Her family was a farming family in rural Rhode Island. Amey Hawkins died in July 1858, less than a year after Avis was born. Ara Hawkins remarried in 1860 to Mary Owen Knapp.

During her childhood, Hawkins was educated at home because the school was too far from their home. In 1866, the family moved to North Providence, Rhode Island, to a house that had been built in 1778. (She lived in this house for most of her life, except for a number of years while she was working as a teacher when she lived as a boarder in houses closer to the schools.) The move allowed Hawkins to start attending school at age nine. In 1879, she graduated from Providence High School. At her graduation, Hawkins read a paper titled "Representative Women" that celebrated famous women including Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charlotte Brontë. After high school, she received additional education at Kingston College (probably the University of Rhode Island which is located in Kingston, Rhode Island) and the Berlitz School.

Before their marriages, both Hawkins's mother and stepmother had worked as teachers, a career that Avis Hawkins also pursued. She never married and devoted her life to her career and extensive community activism. In 1881, Hawkins began teaching at an elementary school in Johnston, Rhode Island. It was the beginning of a long career in education, primarily as a teacher but also as serving as principal or assistant principal several times. For next thirty-five years, until 1916, Hawkins worked at several different elementary schools in Johnston, North Providence, and Providence, Rhode Island. Besides teaching, Hawkins was a leader in Rhode Island organizations that advocated on behalf of teachers and public education. She served as an officer for the Providence Teachers' Retirement Fund Association and Providence Federation of Women Teachers. In addition, to her educational activism, Hawkins was an active member of the Congregational Church and an officer in numerous community organizations. Many of the organizations were affiliated with the Rhode Island Federation of Women's Clubs. She also served on the board of directors of the Rhode Island Federation of Women's Clubs. Hawkins also was an officer in local branches of the Daughters of the Revolution and the Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims.

Avis A. Hawkins first became active in the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association (renamed the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association in 1915) when she joined in 1908. In 1910, RIWSA created a teachers' branch that Hawkins chaired, in order to provide suffrage outreach to women teachers. She also briefly served as the RIWSA's press representative. In 1916, Hawkins assisted at the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association (RIESA)'s booth at the Pure Food Fair in Providence. The annual helped distribute suffrage material and raise awareness about the organization and cause. Also, in 1916, Hawkins signed a petition to the Rhode Island legislature, in support of woman suffrage. In 1919, she chaired the RIESA committee on credentials. On numerous occasions, she hosted RIESA meetings at her house.

Hawkins's most notable contribution to the suffrage movement, though, was related to her education. By 1916, she became the chair of the schools committee for RIESA. In 1919, Mary B. Anthony, RIESA president, praised her work as chair, stating that she had "perfected an organization whereby a committee exists in every district to study school needs and sanitation and to work for the welfare of school children and teachers." One component suffrage work was trying to get women onto local school boards. Hawkins argued that women would be valuable leaders on educational issues because of their experience, concern, and caring about children. As part of this effort, she gave speeches about the topic to RIESA and in the community; she led public forums on the issue that were attended by political leaders. In 1918, Mrs. Carl Barus, a prominent member of RIESA and women's clubs, was elected to the Providence school committee, the first woman to serve on it in many years. The Providence Journal attributed Barus's win to Hawkins's activism.

In addition to her teaching career and community service, Hawkins had many artistic hobbies. She enjoyed photography and had considered pursuing it as a career. She took photographs of people and landscapes throughout Rhode Island and in Europe. Her photographs were published occasionally in The Providence Journal. She also wrote poetry, songs, essays, and painted. In 1910, she used her artistic talents to write a suffrage song titled "Patriotic Song" was published in the suffrage newspaper, The Woman's Journal.

The Rhode Island legislature ratified the constitutional amendment on woman suffrage in January 1920. On that occasion, Hawkins was interviewed by The Providence Journal and said, "As a loyal Rhode Islander, a descendant of the earliest settlers of the State, it is cause for rejoicing when the representation of the people stand fearless for freedom, justice, equality and right." With the victory on woman suffrage, Hawkins continued working to promote women's citizenship. She gave a speeches on topics such as "The Duties and Benefits of the Woman Voter" and "The Education of the Woman Voter" to local women's groups. As with RIESA and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Hawkins transitioned from woman suffrage to the League of Women Voters. There were two competing League of Women Voters' organizations in Rhode Island and in 1920 she served on a committee to amalgamate them into the United League of Women Voters. She was elected to the board of directors of the new organization and chaired committees on education, registration, and membership throughout the early 1920s.

As an officer of the United League of Women Voters, Hawkins led important outreach efforts. At a RIESA meeting, she gave a speech about "Why the League of Women Voters" and wrote a long editor to the editor that was published in The Providence Journal several days after Rhode Island had ratified the suffrage amendment. In her letter, "The Political Ideals of Women Voters," Hawkins explained important principles of the League of Women Voters. She urged women to remain nonpartisan, stating, "We do not believe in the women at present aligning themselves with any party. One of the strong objections urged by anti-suffragists against granting the franchise to women was that it would simply double the [male] vote. Is there not danger that if the women line up with the parties, and have no initiative of their own, that is very thing will happen?" She hoped that men and women would collaborate in politics to improve American government and society, writing that "Men and women should work together in the political arena as in the home."

At the same time, though, she noted that the LWV had a special interest in women voters, in order to hold "voting women together for constructive legislative programmes" and "to awaken the women to the privileges and responsibilities of the franchise." Hawkins hoped that woman suffrage and the League of Women Voters could make important improvements in American politics,

In her League of Women Voters' work, Hawkins strongly connected it to the history of woman suffrage. The Rhode Island League of Women Voters held an event in 1920 to celebrate suffrage leaders and Hawkins wrote and read a tribute to former NAWSA president, Carrie Chapman Catt. She also highlighted the foundation of woman suffrage in an essay to The Providence Journal writing that the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association, "with its galaxy of brave, intrepid leaders, has for more than half a century maintained a solid front against opposing forces in its struggle for the emancipation of women." Hawkins helped encourage women's citizenship in numerous ways, in addition to giving speeches or writing essays about it.

Right before the fall elections in 1920, Hawkins worked at a LWV booth that was held in a company restroom, where women were shown sample ballots and how to use them. As chair of the registration committee, in 1921, she supervised a committee of hundred women in a campaign to get two thousand members registered to vote. She also created a "Registration Primer" that contained important information to who was eligible to vote and how to register. In 1923 she served as a district captain during another membership drive.

Hawkins had argued that new women voters should not become beholden to any political party. However, in the 1920s, she became aligned with the Republican party. She was a member of the Women's Republican Club and the Hoover Republican Club and was listed as a speaker on the Republican speakers' bureau list.

In addition to her work with the LWV, Hawkins remained chair of the Providence Women's Committee on Schools. It had started as a RIESA committee but now continued as its own organization. Hawkins believed that women's involvement with the schools was all the more important and possible now that they had the right to vote. She also ran for election to the North Providence school board in 1930 on the Democratic ticket but lost the election.

In the 1920s, Hawkins remained active in various women's clubs, usually focusing her efforts on citizenship issues. She chaired the citizenship committee of the Rhode Island Council of Women, the American Citizenship committee of the Rhode Island State Federation of Women's Clubs, the citizenship committee of the Federation of Women's Church Societies, and the Christian citizenship committee of the Providence Woman's Christian Temperance Union. In 1921, Hawkins served as chair of the thrift department of the Rhode Island State Federation of Women's Clubs. She saw the issue of thrift as a broad one that could be used to improve government and society. She explained the goal was to reach out to young people and adults about not wasting "health, time, money, or materials." Hawkins argued that thrift was necessary for "right living, good citizenship and national prosperity." By instilling it in the population, she hoped that "we may prevent a future recurrence of the tremendous extravagance, waste and dishonesty of government officials, guard against graft and profiteering, lessen the number of strikes, foster a community spirit and a desire for unselfish service for their constituents among the representatives in our legislative assemblies, both state and national." As chair of American citizenship for the State Federation of Women's Clubs, she led a "clean-up" campaign aimed at "civic ugliness."

Hawkins had been active in suffrage and citizenship efforts for many years and was frustrated when Americans did not use the right to vote. In 1926, as chair of the Rhode Island Council of Women's citizenship committee, Hawkins wrote a forceful letter to the editor in The Providence Journal in which she urged people to vote and criticized those who did not. As a descendant of Pilgrims and a member of the Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims, she stated, "Our Pilgrim ancestors laid a solid foundation of government by honesty, integrity, religious faith and invincible courage. Shall we not do our part to preserve this legacy for which they struggled and fought?" She echoed these themes in a 1928 letter to the editor, writing that "It is appalling to note that less than 50 per cent of our State's population eligible to the franchise exercise that right."

Hawkins was a lifelong member of the Congregational Church and believed that religion and citizenship were firmly intertwined. When she gave speeches about Christian citizenship at WCTU, Hawkins urged members to register to vote and use their votes to support issues and candidates that reflected their values. Before the elections in the fall of 1928, she produced a circular for the Federation of Women's Church Societies urging women to vote. In it, she criticized women who wanted "to stay out of politics" and did not vote.

Throughout the 1920 and 1930s, Hawkins was very active in prohibition efforts and politics involving the ban on alcohol. In a 1950 interview she explained that "that liquor and tobacco are two of the worst evils." She served as an officer of the Providence WCTU and and was especially active in the 1928 election in which prohibition was a contentious political issue. At the annual convention of the Rhode Island State Federation of Women's Clubs. Hawkins warned the audience that prohibition was under attack and urged them to exercise their right to vote. She asked, "Do you want a President who believes in the modification of the Volstead law, a man avowedly wet, or men pledged to prohibition and its enforcement?" She also wrote a letter to the editor in The Providence Journal on prohibition. She stated that prohibition laws were being ignored or weakened. She argued that prohibition was in the best interest of the public and that "it is essential to all the persons living in a community that there be laws for their welfare and protection. Personal liberty must often be abridged for the good of the many...." She ended her essay by urging Rhode Islanders to register to vote and vote for politicians who would create and enforce laws to protect the public. In the 1932 election, at 75, Hawkins took her prohibition politics to the next level and ran for RI secretary of state on the Prohibition party ticket. She did not win the election.

In the 1930s and 1940s, during her seventies and eighties, Hawkins remained active in the community and in politics. In 1950, The Providence Journal published a feature story about Hawkins that included an interview and many photographs of her over the years. She discussed her political beliefs, such as the dangers of alcohol, and expressed concern about the state of young people in society. She claimed that "there would be a better crop of young folks if it weren't for a laxity in the home." In her many years as an activist and reformer, Hawkins had argued that society would benefit from women using supposedly superior traits of morality and nurturing in the homes, in the community, and in politics. Here at the end of her life, she feared that American women were not living up to those responsibilities. Avis A. Hawkins died on June 11, 1951 in Providence, Rhode Island at ninety-three years old. She is buried at the Acotes Hill Cemetery in Chepachet, Rhode Island.

 

Photograph of Avis Hawkins at a teacher at the Veazie School (n.d.) G.Y. Loveridge, "Album of Yesterday," The Providence Sunday Journal, May 21, 1950. Published with permission of The Providence Journal.

 

Photograph of Avis Hawkins on her horse at her home (n.d). G.Y. Loveridge, "Album of Yesterday," The Providence Sunday Journal, May 21, 1950. Published with permission of The Providence Journal.

 

Photograph of Avis Hawkins at age ninety-two. G.Y. Loveridge, "Album of Yesterday," The Providence Sunday Journal, May 21, 1950. Published with permission of The Providence Journal.

Sources:

Ida Husted Harper, ed. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6: 1900-1920 (New York: J.J. Little & Ives Company, 1922). [LINK]

Justina Everett Wilson, ed., Handbook of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and Proceedings of the Jubilee Convention (1869-1919) Held at St. Louis, MO. March 22-29, 1919 (New York: National American Women Suffrage Association, 1919).

John William Leonard, Woman's Who's Who in America 1914-1915 (New York, The American Commonwealth Company, 1916). [LINK]

Rhode Island State Federation of Women's Clubs Yearbook 1921-1922 (Providence, RI: The Federation, 1921).

Representative Men and Old Families of Rhode Island: Genealogical Records and Historical Sketches of Prominent and Representative Citizens and of Many of the Old Families, Volume III. (Chicago: J.H. Beers & Company, 1908).

"Avis A. Hawkins." Find A Grave. Accessed February 15, 2019. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/12385806/avis-a-hawkins

"Benefits of National Prohibition," Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.prohibitionists.org/history/votes/RI_can.html.

Journal of the Senate, State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations 11, No. 51 (March 29, 1917), 3.

Avis A. Hawkins, "Patriotic Song," The Woman's Journal 41, No. 25 (June 18, 1910), 100.

"Rhode Island," The Woman's Journal 41, No. 46 (November 12, 1910), 202.

"Providence High School," The Providence Journal, June 26, 1879.

"Teachers Tell Why They Should Get More Salary," The Providence Journal, December 17, 1917.

"Women on School Board Discussed by Speakers," The Providence Journal, May 23, 1918.

"North Providence," The Providence Sunday Journal, September 29, 1918.

"Reception to Mrs. Barus Planned in Second Ward," The Providence Journal, November 8, 1918.

"Rhode Island Assembly Ratifies Woman Suffrage Amendment; House Votes 89-3, Senate 38-1 on Resolution," The Providence Journal, January 7, 1920.

Avis A. Hawkins, "Political Ideals of Women Voters," The Providence Sunday Journal, January 11, 1920.

"School Activities in City and State," The Providence Sunday Journal, February 15, 1920.

Avis A. Hawkins, "Favors Bible in Schools," The Providence Sunday Journal, April 25, 1920.

"Women Voters' League to Hear Mrs. Schoonmaker," The Providence Journal, May 17, 1920.

"W.C.T.U. Members Anxious to Vote," The Providence Journal, June 5, 1920.

"Women to Encourage Interest in Good Citizenship," The Providence Sunday Journal, October 3, 1920.

"United League to Register Members in Intensive Drive," The Providence Journal, June 1, 1922.

"Thrift Work Urged by Women's Clubs," The Providence Journal, January 14, 1922.

Avis A. Hawkins, "Vote Slackers Can't Criticize," The Providence Sunday Journal, October 31, 1926.

"Women's Clubs," The Providence Sunday Journal, February 19, 1928.

Avis A. Hawkins, "As to Proposed Enforcement Act," The Providence Sunday Journal, March 18, 1928.

"Women Warned of 'Crisis' in the U.S.," The Providence Sunday Journal, July 1, 1928.

"Women's Clubs," The Providence Sunday Journal, October 14, 1928.

"W.C.T.U. Leader Favors Metcalf," The Providence Journal, November 1, 1930.

G.Y. Loveridge, "Album of Yesterday," The Providence Sunday Journal, May 21, 1950.

"Miss Avis A. Hawkins," The Providence Journal, June 12, 1951.

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