Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890–1920
Biography of Florence Garvin, 1876-1968
By April M. Kiser, Assistant Professor of History, Rhode Island College
President, Rhode Island College Equal Suffrage League; Press Superintendent and Auditor, Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association; Rhode Island Executive Committee of the New England Woman Suffrage Association; Vice-presidential nominee, the National Party; Vice-presidential nominee, the National Greenback Party
Florence Garvin, the youngest daughter of Dr. Lucius F.C. Garvin and Dr. Lucy W. Southmayd Garvin, was born February 27, 1876 in Lonsdale, Rhode Island. Both sides of her family had historic roots in New England. A maternal ancestor immigrated to Plymouth on Mayflower in the early 1600s and a paternal ancestor was a major in the American Revolution and fought at Bunker Hill. Both parents were physicians; her mother was a graduate of the New England Female Medical College and worked as a physician at the South Hadley Ladies Seminary until her marriage. Garvin attended Providence Girls' High School and the Women's College at Brown University as a special student, developing an interest in journalism there. She reportedly had health problems that led her to enroll as a special student instead in of the traditional degree program. When her father was elected governor of Rhode Island in 1902, an office that he held until 1905, the Providence Journal praised the intellects and accomplishments of the Garvin daughters— Ethel, Norma and Florence. All three attended the Women's College. As an adult, Florence Garvin emulated important aspects of her father's political philosophies and career as she advocated progressive reforms, pursued elective office, and worked for woman suffrage. She was also inspired by her mother and noted that "she was "proud of being the daughter of one of the pioneer woman physicians."
Lucius Garvin was a leader in Rhode Island politics for many years at the turn of the century. He served in the Rhode Island House and Senate in the 1880s and 1890s as a member of the Democratic Party and was an advocate for numerous progressive reforms. He was elected governor of Rhode Island in 1902 and served in that position until 1905. One of his core political principles was the importance of the franchise in a democracy. As a representative in the 1880s, he worked successfully to get Rhode Island to extend suffrage to foreign-born men.
Lucius Garvin also was a staunch supporter of the woman suffrage movement. When he was re-elected governor in 1903, The Woman's Journal, a suffrage publication, reported that "The electorate of Rhode Island has again done itself great credit by reelecting that true and tried advocate of woman suffrage." Sara M. Algeo, a prominent Rhode Island suffragist, called him, "one of the warmest friends of woman's rights for more than thirty years." In 1887, Garvin gave an address in support of a proposed woman suffrage amendment to the Rhode Island constitution that failed. Several times in the 1890s, 1900s, and 1910s, Garvin testified before the Rhode Island legislature in favor of a presidential suffrage rights for women. He served as an honorary member of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association (RIWSA) and as a Rhode Island Vice President for the New England Woman Suffrage Association (NEWSA) throughout the 1900s and 1910s. At the 1905 NEWSA convention, Garvin gave a speech titled, "How Woman Suffrage May Be Won." Speaking at Faneuil Hall in Boston, the site of famous American Revolution rallies, Garvin argued, "Whoever accepts the doctrine of the Declaration of Independence must believe in the right of women to vote. If taxation without representation is tyranny; if governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, then the suffrage must be exercised by women upon the same terms as men." When the woman suffrage amendment was ratified in Rhode Island in 1920, the former governor attended the celebratory dinner and gave a speech at the event.
Florence Garvin followed her father's lead in working for the woman suffrage movement in Rhode Island. Her earliest reported activity for the woman suffrage movement was in 1904, when she was appointed auditor for the RIWSA, a position she held until 1908. She served on the legislative committee of RIWSA in 1904 as they 1904 as they worked on legislative goals including presidential suffrage, an amendment to state constitution for full suffrage for women, and equal guardianship for fathers and mothers. Garvin and two other members of the Pawtucket Suffrage League, a group affiliated with RIWSA, wrote a letter in 1904 to members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate protesting a plan to restrict the right to vote by women in the proposed new states of Arizona and Oklahoma. Their letter stated, "We believe that Congress should not pass an act that will make it difficult for the women of the new States to obtain enfranchisement." In 1905, she chaired the nominations committee of RIWSA.
One of Garvin's most significant contributions to the Rhode Island woman suffrage movement was as president of the College Equal Suffrage League. At the 1906 NAWSA convention in Baltimore, Dr. M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr College, chaired a meeting of suffragists about establishing a national suffrage organization for college women. In December 1907, Garvin and several other suffragists founded the College Equal Suffrage League in Rhode Island. She was elected its first president, a position she held until 1911, and attended the NAWSA convention in Buffalo, NY in October 1908 to participate in a council to establish goals and coordinate plans for the League nationally. Sara Algeo, a close suffrage colleague, described her as a "dreamer and poet by nature [and] a born reformer like her good father" and that she succeeded in "coercing the academic world to a recognition of the advancing march of womanhood."
Education played a central role in her political thinking and she took a special interest in appealing to female college students. College women, she believed, could perform indispensable roles in achieving suffrage and advancing democratic society. She explained that the goal of the College Equal Suffrage League was to "(I) To bring the subject to the attention of women students during their college course; [and] (II) to bring the trained mind of the college graduate to propaganda and investigation along this line." Garvin wrote a letter about the College Equal Suffrage League to be included in Sara Algeo's memoir. In the letter she wrote:
The tendency of the College Equal Suffrage League was to turn and dignify the experimental nature of the higher education of woman into a permanent foundation. History repeats itself. The original political ideal of America, as reviewed by its Fourth of July celebrations, was democracy and the idea that freedom is based on education. This ideal as a practical motive has become worn and damaged by commercialism. Now the movement for suffrage for women harks back to the same ideal. It is connected with education, not elementary this time, but academic, and it takes democracy as a serious purpose.
As president of the College Equal Suffrage League, Garvin gave speeches and arranged for speakers to give talks to female college students. At an event celebrating the fortieth anniversary of RIWSA, Garvin gave a speech in which she argued that it was important to unite college women and working women in the suffrage movement. In that speech, she also "spoke of the debt of the young women to the pioneer suffragists," according to the History of Woman Suffrage.
Although Garvin supported higher education for women, she also argued that education alone would not be sufficient for women's advancement. Instead, she claimed, women needed the opportunity to put their education to use in practical ways, such as exercising the vote. She explained, "women are already walking encyclopaedias, carrying more in their brains than is good for them." She continued, "Their great lack is, and has been for centuries, experience." The best way for women to learn, she believed, was by doing.
Like her father, Garvin was active in the campaign to pass a presidential suffrage law in Rhode Island. In 1907, Garvin and Jeannette French, another suffragist, met with the chair of the house committee on special legislation about the presidential suffrage bill. When he told them that the bill would die in the committee and not get a vote from the assembly, French commented that women would have to continue their struggle to break their chains. She remembered that the male politician "looked very much surprised and said, 'Break your chains, Mrs. French? They are chains of roses.'" When two women were alone, Garvin said to French, "Chains of roses! Continual hay fever...We do not want any chains." Henry B. Blackwell, a noted suffragist, described the French and Garvin's presidential suffrage work in a letter to The Woman's Journal. He explained that French and Garvin "visited the capitol daily, made the personal acquaintance of legislators, and as a result, the Presidential Suffrage bill passed the Senate, and would have passed the House had it not been held back by a single vote in the committee on special legislation." The bill failed in 1907 and was reintroduced numerous other times; Garvin addressed a Rhode Island House of Representatives Committee on Special Legislation in 1909 in support of suffrage, arguing that the government owed women the vote and that it cannot ignore the important contributions of half the country. The presidential suffrage bill in 1909 bill failed as well but was finally passed successfully in 1917.
In 1907, Garvin was appointed press superintendent of RIWSA, a position that the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) encouraged state associations to implement in order to raise awareness about woman suffrage. According to the 1908 NAWSA report, Garvin was successful in promoting woman suffrage in newspapers. The report noted that "Miss Garvin sent out 6 of the National articles weekly and an average one original article for each month, all of which have been published. Miss Garvin contributed a special article for religious papers to the National Department, and is at all times helpful." Garvin frequently wrote letters to the editor that were published in The Providence Journal. These essays appeared weekly or monthly in the newspaper; most were on woman suffrage but occasionally on other political, economic, or social issues. At the 1908 NAWSA convention in Buffalo, a meeting of the press committee was held. Garvin explained that the letters to the editor were a valuable suffrage strategy. The report quoted her as saying, "she had found that the surest thing to be accepted by an editor, was a letter signed with the writer's name and address."
In her frequent essays in The Providence Journal, Garvin elaborated on her philosophies of woman suffrage and tried to convince readers of its merits. While her writing was extensive, a few key themes united her work: women were educated enough to vote, they wanted to vote, they needed the incentive to develop their talents, and as the social sex, they were attentive to important social issues. Her essays commonly tackled arguments offered against woman suffrage and debunked them with logic and evidence. One letter, titled "Do Men Want to Vote," Garvin criticized opponents who claimed that women did not want the right to vote by demonstrating how many men did not take advantage of the vote despite many inducements to do so. This letter was picked up by newspapers across the country. In another letter, she explained that the argument against woman suffrage based on military concerns was also misguided, because war was temporary, not the norm in society, and that increasing international arbitration would help limit wars in the future. She also wrote essays detailing and celebrating victories for woman suffrage throughout the United States and in foreign countries.
In many of the essays, Garvin argued that denying women the right to vote had hindered their progress as well as the progress of the nation. She claimed that society had created false divisions between men and women that undermined marriage, writing, "Woman suffrage would go a long way toward curing the divorce evil...The absolute separation of the activities of men and women into two unconnected spheres has brought about a chaotic social condition. Woman is completely out of touch with man's interests, and vice versa." Suffrage, she stated, would help resolve the problem, writing "A unifying principle is needed. The building up of a great nation and a great world civilization, with one common instrument, is the great aim upon which men and women can and ought to unite."
Garvin stated that because women had been kept ignorant and sheltered in the home, that "The influence of women...has been largely to retard progress." Because women were largely responsible for the raising of children, including sons, she claimed, they passed on their ignorance and backward thinking on issues such as politics and religion. She argued that the American society would be best served by having women be full participants in public affairs, writing, "It is a mistake for the United States to lose the valuable service which could be rendered by the women of the nation—half of its population." She criticized the founding fathers for not providing the principle of representative government to women. Instead, she argued, "They applied the principle to only half the population, the male half, and corruption and stagnation have followed." She claimed that woman suffrage would help revitalize American democratic principles and restore people's faith in the representative government. In addition, she claimed that women would benefit from suffrage, writing that "suffrage would furnish a short cut to those things in life that women most value, and would ease their present burdens. The argument for woman suffrage which should weigh most with women is that it would keep them young. If women generally understood this, they would be unanimously in favor of suffrage."
Garvin's philosophies about women and suffrage diverged from many supporters of the movement, including NAWSA leaders. A common argument by suffragists in the early twentieth century was based on ideas about women's differences from men, that women were more naturally moral, religious, and maternal than men and these traits would be beneficial for American politics and society if women could vote. In her essays, Garvin rejected these claims about womanhood and called them artificial and harmful for women and society. In one article, she criticized the idea that "the future of morality lies in woman's hands, that woman is the moral and spiritual sex and that man is the materialistic sex." Instead, she wrote, "Facts do not bear out this line of idealism." In another essay, she criticized a politician who advocated that women should have the right to vote on school issues but not in broader elections. Garvin stated:
School suffrage in Massachusetts and elsewhere was founded on the mistaken idea that the bringing-up of children is and always will be the supreme interest of women. The complete, almost pathetic, absorption in her children, which is a familiar phenomenon in many women, is a product of the ages which have given women no future and ambition except as her children should attain success in the world.
She frequently expressed the idea that sentimentality about women's roles as mothers was dangerous—for women, the family, and society. In one essay she bemoaned "the glorification of motherhood, which has been preached ad nauseam" and that "The domestic system, like an absolute monarchy, is calculated to ruin both sides. The evil to the mother is the diversion of her efforts from ends that would be of lasting and increasing value to her." She blamed churches for placing "woman artificially on a pinnacle of moral superiority over man."
Garvin also criticized women's involvement in clubs and private charity. She wrote that, "The women of the well-to-do class of this country are morally lazy...They talk unendingly of public affairs, but will not turn a hand to do anything for their country." She explained that numerous problems were facing the country, including immigration, corruption, trusts, the position of the negro, imperialism, among many others. Garvin claimed, that with all these problems, "the women are giving no help in solving. They discuss them continually in clubs and their brains are stuffed nearly to bursting with information on current events. The only possible way of affecting public issues is through a vote. No other way has ever been discovered. The intelligence and energy of women is running to waste."
All women should want and demand the right to vote, according to Garvin. She wrote that every woman in Rhode Island "ought to petition the Legislature this session for suffrage and if refused to know the reason why." Demanding the right to vote, Garvin claimed was American women's duty "to the girls growing up and to the less fortunate woman who emigrates here from Europe. It is her duty to do her utmost to affect her country's affairs in order to make it a better country for the girls growing up. Patriotism and suffrage should be considered synonymous and unless a woman has done her duty she has no right singing the national hymn beginning 'My Country.'" Garvin's forceful and challenging ideas against popular conceptions of women's charity, morality, and maternalism in the family and society were unusual in American society and the women's movement at the turn of the century.
In 1912, Garvin moved to Arden, Delaware, a community based on single-tax ideology. She lived in Arden until 1927 and made frequent visits to Rhode Island. The single tax was a progressive movement created in the late nineteenth century by political theorist Henry George and his followers. Its supporters argued for doing away with taxes except for those on land based on the idea that land create wealth that should benefit the public instead of enriching private individuals. Garvin's father was a long-time supporter of the movement and she had served as vice president of the Women's Single Tax League in 1909. She wrote numerous articles and booklets about Arden and the single tax philosophy.
After the move, Garvin remained active in the woman suffrage movement. Although she was living in Delaware, she represented Rhode Island with Sara Algeo at the famous woman suffrage march in Washington, DC in 1913. In 1914, she participated in a more low-key suffrage parade with a group of Arden suffragists in Wilmington, Delaware. There is little information about her activism while living in Delaware, although The Evening Journal, a Wilmington newspaper, later called her "prominent in the Delaware women's suffrage movement." In 1917, when the Rhode Island legislature finally passed a presidential suffrage bill, she wrote a letter to the editor congratulating the local suffragists and politicians. She reported that, "the action has caused a sensation in Delaware." In addition to her suffrage work, Garvin managed the Arden Craft Shop, which sold goods created by local artists and craftsmen, and later became clerk of the Arden post office.
In the 1920s, following the ratification of the woman suffrage amendment, Garvin became a supporter of the National Woman's Party. The National Woman's Party advocated for an equal rights amendment in the 1920s based on the idea that despite suffrage, women were unequal due to discrimination in laws. Garvin strongly echoed the need for legal reform, writing in a letter to Sara Algeo, "that the woman has escaped from the house into the automobile is due to her own personal intelligence and unaided efforts, as the law retards and trips her up at every step. To push the National Woman's Party should at the present time be the effort of every feminist." As she had with woman suffrage, Garvin wrote letters to the editor in The Providence Journal in support of legal equality for women arguing that the equal rights amendment was needed because "in legal status woman is very backward" and advocating that women file test cases in the legal system to challenge discriminatory laws. She served as chairman of the National Women's Party branch in Arden. Although she does not seem to have been a supporter of the National Woman's Party during its peak in World War I and had worked extensively with NAWSA and its affiliates, Garvin claimed in a 1922 essay that, "It was chiefly through the [National] Woman's Party that the Federal amendment for woman suffrage, which had lain in committee pigeon-hole for a generation, was brought to light and air."
During the 1920s and 1930s, most of Garvin's attention was spent as an activist and political candidate for independent political parties. These parties supported progressive political and economic reforms including the single tax platform. In 1924, Garvin ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Congress representing the Forward Party, a progressive political party in Delaware that was affiliated with Robert LaFollette, a political leader who ran for president in 1924. The National Woman's Party endorsed her congressional run as part of its "Women for Congress" campaign. During her candidacy, Garvin returned to themes she had written about earlier about the importance for women to be involved in and educated about politics. In a letter to the editor in a Delaware newspaper, she argued, "It is women's job to catch up with the needs of the times." She explained that, "It cannot be said too often that the long-time disfranchisement of women with the consequent lack of office-holding by women, and the absence of civic instruction in homes and schools by mothers and teachers are the real causes of the lapse of the democratic republic from the standard that was originally set."
In the 1930s, Garvin gained national attention when she ran for vice president of the United States during the 1932 and 1936 elections. In 1932 she represented the National Party on a ticket with John Zahnd; in 1936 she ran with Zahnd again under the renamed National Greenback Party. The party was a single-issue one devoted to concerns about currency and abuses in the U.S. Federal Reserve and Treasury. She believed that third parties served an important role in American politics and both she and her father had supported Theodore Roosevelt for president in 1912 when he ran as the candidate of the Progressive Party. When she was running for the vice presidency in 1932, she was asked if she expected to win. She replied, "Of course I don't." She explained, "It is the function of a third party to cut out the work of the regular party for the next four years." In addition to running for office, Garvin served on the National Party's executive committee and as president of the party's league of women voters.
Garvin moved back to Rhode Island in 1927, first to Lonsdale and later to East Providence. She moved to Pasadena, California in 1958, where she lived with her stepmother, Sarah Garvin, who had moved to California earlier. Sarah Garvin died in 1960; Florence Garvin remained in Pasadena until her death on July 10, 1968 at age 92. She is buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, RI.
Sara M. Algeo, The Story of a Sub-Pioneer (Providence, RI: Snow & Farnham Co., 1925), 99.
Susan B. Anthony and Ida Husted Harper, eds. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 4: 1883-1900 (Indianapolis: The Hollenbeck Press, 1902). [LINK]
Ida Husted Harper, ed. History of Woman Suffrage, Volume VI, 1900-1920 (New York: J.J. Little & Ives, 1922). [LINK]
Harriet Taylor Upton, ed. Fortieth Annual Report of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association, 1908 (Warren, OH: The Association, 1908), 51.
Sara M. Algeo, The Story of a Sub-Pioneer (Providence, RI: Snow & Farnham Co., 1925).
Glenn Laxton, Hidden History of Rhode Island: Not to Be Forgotten Tales of the Ocean State (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009).
Emma C. Brewster Jones, ed. The Brewster Genealogy, 1566-1907, Volume 1 (New York: The Grafton Press, 1908), 309. Ancestry.com
"About and For Women" The Providence Journal, December 13, 1902.
"Want Word Sex Removed" The Providence Journal, November 23, 1904.
"Request Complied With" The Providence Journal, December 17, 1904.
Florence Garvin, "Family Training of Children," The Providence Sunday Journal, September 23, 1906.
Florence Garvin, "Women's Intelligence Running to Waste," The Providence Sunday Journal, January 6, 1907.
Jeannette S. French, "Killing in Committee," The Providence Journal, January 13, 1907, 5.
Florence Garvin, "Woman Suffrage vs. Divorce" The Providence Journal January 13, 1907.
Florence Garvin, "Progress of the Race Retarded," The Providence Journal, February 10, 1907.
Florence Garvin, "Poor Weak Man," The Providence Journal, February 18, 1907.
Florence Garvin, "Suffrage Keeps Women Young," The Providence Sunday Journal, February 24, 1907.
Florence Garvin, "Do Men Want to Vote?," The Providence Journal, March 24, 1907.
Florence Garvin, "Woman Suffrage to Cure the Social Evil" The Providence Journal, March 31, 1907.
Florence Garvin, "The Maternal Instinct" The Providence Journal, May 5, 1907.
Florence Garvin, "No Credit to Christianity Allowed," The Providence Journal, June 7, 1906.
"For Equal Suffrage" The Providence Journal October 18, 1908.
Florence Garvin, "A Woman on the Political Situation," The Providence Sunday Journal, October 20, 1907.
"Rhode Island Women Attend, Miss Garvin and Mrs. Tingley Speak at Boston Suffrage Convention," The Providence Sunday Journal, May 10, 1908.
"Suffrage Workers Have Celebration," The Providence Journal, December 12, 1908.
"Reveal Woman's 'Slavery," The Providence Journal, January 11, 1909.
"Argue for Granting of Woman Suffrage" The Providence Journal, February 11, 1909.
Florence Garvin, "Why Women Want to Vote," The Providence Journal, April 18, 1909.
Sara Algeo, "Equal Suffrage Notes," The Providence Sunday Journal, June 25, 1911.
Florence Garvin, "Sex and Suffrage," The Providence Sunday Journal, December 17, 1911.
Florence Garvin, "Third Party as Means of Voicing Protests," The Providence Sunday Journal, October 22, 1912
Florence Garvin, "Delaware Takes Notice of Rhode Island," The Providence Sunday Journal, April 29, 1917.
Florence Garvin, "Sees Need of Homestead Laws in Rhode Island," The Providence Sunday Journal, September 23, 1923.
Florence Garvin, "Legal and Social Status of Women Here and Abroad," The Providence Sunday Journal, September 7, 1924.
Florence Garvin, "Favors Pending Legislation Affecting Status of Women, The Providence Sunday Journal, February 20, 1927.
"Lonsdale Woman Seeks Office But Doesn't Expect Victory," The Providence Journal, July 13, 1932.
Florence Garvin, "Land Annuities and the Single Tax Idea," The Providence Journal, August 1932.
"Florence Garvin, Greenback Choice," The Providence Journal, April 6, 1936.
"Miss Florence Garvin, 92, Suffragette, Politician, Dies," TheProvidence Journal, July 12, 1968.
"Rhode Island," The Woman's Journal 34, No. 12 (March 21, 1903), 96.
"State Correspondence, Rhode Island," The Woman's Journal 34, No. 47 (November 21, 1903), 374.
"Men of the Month," The World To-Day 5, No. 5 (November 1903): 1482-1486
F.G. "Our Remonstrants in Error, "The Woman Citizen (Rhode Island) 1, No. 3 (March 1905), 4.
"Shall the Act Pass? Part II," The Woman Citizen (Rhode Island) 2, No. 4 (April 1906), 3-4. Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association records, 1868-1930. Rhode Island State Archives, Providence, RI.
H.B.B," The Lesson of Wisconsin," The Woman Journal 38, No. 27 (July 6, 1907), 110.
Lucius F.C. Garvin, "Essentials of An American State, The Woman Journal 38, No. 31 (August 3, 1907), 123).
"Suffrage Hearing," The Woman Citizen (Rhode Island) 5, No. 1 (February 1908), 4. Rhode Island Historical Society, Providence, RI.
"Press Conference," The Woman Journal 39, No. 49 (December 5, 1908), 194.
"Ardenites to Parade," Every Evening (Wilmington, DE), April 30, 1914.
"Rhode Island Ratification Day," The Woman Citizen 4, No. 27 (January 24, 1920), 763.
"Mrs. Hilles Argues for Equal Rights," Wilmington Morning News (Wilmington, DE), July 18, 1924.
Florence Garvin, "Urges Political Education, Wilmington Morning News (Wilmington, DE), October 17, 1924.
Florence Garvin, Land Rent (Arden, Delaware, 1925).
Florence Garvin, Americanism (Arden, Delaware, 1925).
Florence Garvin, "The Village of Arden," The Libertarian 4, No. 4 (April 1926), 222-225.
"Miss Garvin V.P. on National Ticket," The Evening Journal (Wilmington, DE), September 6, 1932.
"Florence Garvin Heads National Party Women," The Indianapolis Star, July 5, 1934.