Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Ellen M. Bolles, 1847–?
By Samuel Layton, Undergraduate Student, Rhode Island College and Elisa Miller, Associate Professor, Rhode Island College
Recording Secretary, Organizer, and Vice President, Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association; Corresponding Secretary and Executive Committee Member, New England Woman Suffrage Association; Labor Activist
Ellen M. Bolles was born around 1847 in Coventry, Rhode Island to Solomon Willis Kenyon and Elizabeth (Wilbur) Kenyon. The Kenyons were Quakers and the mother, Elizabeth Kenyon, was the daughter of John Wilbur, a noted Quaker leader whose followers were known as "Wilburites." The Wilburs had historic roots in Rhode Island going back to the 1600s. The Bolles family made a living farming and was devoted to social reform, as was common with Quakers. Her parents were active in the antislavery movement; Solomon Kenyon became an abolitionist in the 1830s at the beginning of the movement. Abolitionists were frequent visitors to the Kenyon house. By 1860, the family moved to North Providence, Rhode Island and continued farming.
Ellen Kenyon married James C. Bolles, a Civil War veteran from New Bedford, Massachusetts, at some point between 1865 and 1870. The couple lived in Providence, Rhode Island and James Bolles worked as a traveling salesman. Their only child, a son named Walter, was born in 1872. The history of their marriage is unclear. In the 1880 census, Ellen Bolles was listed as widowed and living with her son and parents in Providence. However, other census and biographical records from Ancestry.com suggest that after 1880 James C. Bolles was living in California, with a new wife, until his death in 1906. If these records are correct, the couple may have divorced or James Bolles may have abandoned his family. Bolles lived with her parents and supported herself as a single mother. At various times she earned money as a dressmaker, a clairvoyant, and a lecturer on suffrage and spiritualism.
Ellen M. Bolles first reported involvement with the woman suffrage movement when she joined the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association (RIWSA) in 1874, only six years after its founding. She remained active in the movement for over four decades. Woman suffrage ran in the family. The Woman's Journal called Elizabeth Kenyon, her mother, "an ardent advocate of equal suffrage for women." Bolles's sister, Elizabeth D. Bacon served as president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association in the early twentieth century. A cousin, Mary K. Wood, was an officer in the RIWSA.
Over the years, Bolles gave many lectures on suffrage and other topics. The first of these seems to be a speech to RIWSA in 1876 titled "A Woman's Plea for the Ballot." The Providence Journal referred to it as a smoothly-written, candid and strong essay" and wrote that Bolles "quoted from the law, showing its inequality regarding the willing of property, and ridiculed the idea that woman was inferior to man, either intellectually or morally." By the 1890s, Bolles was listed on the speakers list for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and could be hired to give lectures on topics such as "The Practical Results of Woman Suffrage," "Why Women Are Needed in the Practice of the Law," and "A Crime against the Republic." The lecture that she gave most frequently, though, was "Anna Ella Carroll, the great unrecognized member of Lincoln's cabinet." Carroll served as a political and military advisor to President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. National suffrage leader, Carrie Chapman Catt, called Bolles's Carroll lecture, "intensely interesting from beginning to end" in 1896. The Providence Journal reported that Bolles "invested the [Carroll] story with a vivid human interest and received close attention for a recital of a remarkable record and services." This historical lecture also provided support to suffrage by recognizing the important role of a woman in the government during a critical time for the nation.
Along with her suffrage work, Bolles was active in the labor movement in the 1870s. Concerned about the impact of industrialization on American society and workers, Bolles became a supporter of Socialism and the Knights of Labor organization. In the late-nineteenth century, she wrote a column called "Working Woman's Corner" for People, a Providence Socialist newspaper. In an 1888 column, she advised working women that they should prepare themselves to be "neither more nor less than a man's equal...a self-respecting and self-reliant individual." Bolles wrote poems called "The Hour's Watchword" and "Hero of To-Day" advocating for the rights of workers that were published in the Wichita Labor-Union in 1887. She was a principal speaker at the Central Trade Union of Rhode Island's memorial meeting in 1887 for Chicago anarchists who had been executed for supposed crimes during the Haymarket Riot in Chicago the previous year. She also connected the issues of women's rights and labor rights in lectures such as "The Relation of Woman Suffrage to the Labor Question." In 1892, Bolles was also a founding member of the Rhode Island Co-operative Association, designed to buy and sell groceries and general merchandise to its members. Co-ops were an important component of the Knights of Labor platform to create alternatives to capitalism.
Throughout the late 1870s and early 1880s, she attended conventions of the New England Labor Reform League and became an officer of the organization and its national counterpart, the American Labor Reform League. She also served as an officer of the New England Free Love League, that advocated marriage and sex reform, and the Anti-Death League, a spiritualist organization. These various radical organizations and movements shared many members and issues in the late nineteenth century. In 1881, she was one of the vice presidents of the Union Reform League, which supported a broad range of issues including suffrage, temperance, and workers' rights.
Bolles also was a temperance supporter in Rhode Island, a cause that was closely related to her suffrage and labor work. During the 1890s and 1900s, she served as chair of the legislative and franchise committee for the Providence Woman's Christian Temperance Union. In 1896, Bolles was selected as a member of the committee responsible for recommendations regarding the sale of liquor in Providence, Rhode Island on behalf of the Union for Practical Progress, which recommended limitations on saloons hours, location, and licensing, among other laws. She gave speeches at various organizations on the importance of anti-alcohol legislation. As she explained at an 1896 meeting of the Union for Practical Progress:
Vice is organized, hence it gets better of virtue in their struggles against each other. The object of the temperance work of the Union for Practical Progress is to crystallize the sentiments of the people against the present liquor traffic... To the liquor system we may trace an immense amount of crime and an immense expense to the State.
Both in Rhode Island and nationally, the suffrage and temperance movements shared great overlap in membership and issues.
By the 1890s, Bolles emerged as a leader in the Rhode Island suffrage movement. She was appointed as the recording secretary and organizer of the RIWSA in 1891. She served in these two positions until 1900. In 1900, she became a vice president of the organization. As recording secretary, Bolles was responsible for creating reports about the organization's meetings and activities. She also conveyed these reports to the New England Woman Suffrage Association, NAWSA, and The Woman's Journal.
In her frequent reports and letters to the editor to The Woman's Journal, Bolles often discussed the trajectory of the woman suffrage movement, usually juxtaposing the presence of frustration and difficulty with hope and persistence. Her reports to The Woman's Journal includes statements such as "we are confident the while that justice will triumph soon or later, however dark the prospect now," "We will go forward with the work with ever-increasing courage, for we know that the consummation of our hopes will come in time, and that relaxation of our labors will only serve to delay the long-desired result," and "The cause of woman's political emancipation is advancing very materially, though we may not be able to realize the fact from day to day." In an 1893 report, she noted that suffrage pioneer Lucy Stone had recently given a talk at the RIWSA. Bolles explained, "The progress of our movement is not as rapid as it ought to be, and we sometimes grow discouraged. It does us good, therefore, to have our veterans come among us and tell how much has really been accomplished."
As organizer, she traveled throughout the state meeting with suffrage leagues and giving speeches. She also became active in Rhode Island state politics lobbying for woman suffrage. She urged RIWSA to petition the Rhode Island government in 1891 for presidential suffrage, which would give women the right to vote for presidential electors. Bolles was hopeful that this new strategy would have a positive effect on the Rhode Island movement. She wrote to The Woman's Journal that she hoped that it "will arouse a more active interest in the cause than has been felt for several years, and that new Leagues, increased membership, and a further advance towards women's enfranchisement will be the result." Bolles also asked for suffragists from other states to help the Rhode Island movement achieve presidential suffrage, writing "We are in great need of the sinews of war for the carrying forward of our new campaign."
Bolles spoke in support of presidential suffrage at a couple of legislative hearings in the Rhode Island House in 1892 and 1893. She summarized her remarks to The Woman's Journal in a letter, saying that in her testimony she:
called attention to the general principles of the Federal Constitution, which guarantees equal rights to all the people without distinction of sex, and urged that, in fulfilling its function to direct the manner in which presidential electors may be appointed, it is the duty of the Legislature to do so in accordance with those principles, which, logically carried out, would enfranchise women.
She ended the letter noting that she did not know whether their campaign would be successful. As she noted, "Law-makers are timid and conservative, and our Legislature may not prove braver and more radical than other bodies of the kind." After the campaign for presidential suffrage in the early 1890s failed, Bolles testified before Rhode Island legislative committee several times in future hearings in the 1890s and 1900s. The Rhode Island Legislature finally passed legislation for presidential suffrage for women in 1917.
In addition to the issue of presidential suffrage, RIWSA and Bolles advocated for a woman suffrage amendment to be included in a new Rhode Island state constitution in the 1890s. They lobbied political leaders and created a petition on woman suffrage. In 1897, she read a letter at a hearing held by the commission charged with making recommendations for the constitution. She wrote:
The constitution of Rhode Island is far behind the spirit of the age in its treatment of women, as only one other State makes it equally difficult for them to obtain even the simplest form of political rights. In revising the fundamental law this fact ought not to be overlooked and the instrument should be so constructed as to bring it up to date in this respect.
When the suffrage amendment was not included in the revised constitution, Bolles sent a protest letter about this decision to the Rhode Island House of Representatives in 1898.
In addition to her work with the RIWSA, in the 1890s Bolles became active in the suffrage movement on a regional and national level. In 1894, she was appointed the corresponding secretary of the New England Woman Suffrage Association (NEWSA), a position she held until 1902. From 1901-1907, she served on the Rhode Island executive committee of the NEWSA. At a convention, the NEWSA director, William Lloyd Garrison (note: not the famous abolitionist) referred to Bolles by saying, "Rhode Island sends us one of her most persistent and faithful workers for the cause."
On a national level, Bolles attended numerous NAWSA conventions as a delegate from Rhode Island. In 1892, she was appointed to a new NAWSA committee on presidential suffrage and served on it for several years. Her colleagues on this committee were Isabella Beecher Hooker and Henry B. Blackwell. She also served on NAWSA's federal suffrage committee in the 1890s. In 1899, Bolles worked as a sales agent selling Ida Husted Harper's biography on Susan B. Anthony throughout New England.
In 1892, Bolles attended the NAWSA convention in Washington DC. While there, she gave testimony before the House Judiciary Committee of the United States House of Representatives. In her statement, Bolles told the committee:
The conditions surrounding women today are quite different from what they were in the days of our grandmothers. Women are becoming property earners and owners, as they were not in those former times before they began asking for the ballot. Twenty-five per cent or more of the women of this country are property owners. Nearly nine-tenths of the laws are made for the protection of property and of those who own it and who earn wages. Now it seems to me that this twenty-five per cent of the women should have a voice in the making of laws for the protection of their property and of their right to earn a living.
The impact of industrialization on changing women's role in the family and society was a theme that she frequently emphasized in her addresses.
In her speeches and writing, Bolles declared that suffrage was a basic right and responsibility of citizenship. In a letter to The Woman's Journal in 1892, she stated:
The more I read and think concerning it, the more firmly am I convinced that suffrage...is an inseparable right of citizenship. Were this not so, our whole theory of government is false, and our national Constitution a lie. The conditions under a citizen may vote must be equal for all. To make sex a qualification disenfranchises half the citizens of a State in a manner impossible to overcome, and is a discrimination utterly unwarranted by any word or syllable of the U.S. Constitution.
She urged suffragists to work to convince the public of this interpretation of the constitution. Some other suffragists advocated using a test case before the U.S. Supreme Court but Bolles advised against that tactic because she feared that the court would rule against woman suffrage in such as case and set back the movement. She explained that if the public viewed the constitution in a way that was favorable to woman suffrage, it would then reach the legislators and Supreme Court justices and have a positive outcome. Following this strategy, she claimed that "women as well as men will ere long be protected in their rights as citizens, under a broad and enlightened construction of our National Constitution." She also used the example of Northern women's voluntarism during the American Civil War to demonstrate that women could and would serve as valuable citizens to the nation. However, she pointed out that women wanted to serve the nation but "she must have the power to help decide upon the policy of the Government under which she may be forced to serve."
Because she believed that voting was an essential political right, Bolles criticized proposal to limit voting to educated women, in order to allay concerns about women being ignorant voters. At the 1896 NEWSA convention, she gave a speech which she argued:
For several years I have been pained by the attitude of some of our prominent women suffragists upon the question of an educational qualification for voting...Let us help make democracy successful rather than aim a blow against it...We must not urge any step that would deprive another of rights not easily regained...Let us labor to make the popular government a success by helping educate the people, so that none shall be illiterate.
She was unwilling to restrict the right to vote even if it might have helped some women achieve the franchise.
Bolles also frequently emphasized the concept of maternalism, that women had different traits and ideas than men did and that these feminine qualities would benefit politics, the government, and the nation. At a NEWSA convention, she gave a speech in which she stated:
It is plainly every woman's duty to grasp for that power of sovereignty, the ballot, which will aid her in making virtue more enticing than vice, and morality more to be desired than debasing self-indulgence...Women are acknowledged to be stronger than men on the moral side, and they abhor filth in their households. Let them understand the acccumulations of filth in the household of the body politic and their moral responsibility in the matter; then they will soon insist upon entering and cleansing it out, as men alone will never be able to do.
She believed that men and women thought and acted in different and complementary ways in society and that "the union of the two sexes in the conduct of government would be beneficial." In addition, she believed that giving women the right to voter would lead to a higher quality of government officials. As she explained, "experience had taught that woman suffrage tended to purify politics" because "no morally bad man can ever be elected when women have a voice."
In addition to voting rights, Bolles fought for representation by women on school committees. At a meeting of the Woman's Suffrage League in Providence in 1898, Bolles gave a speech entitled "Women upon the School Committee and How to Get Them There," in which she argued in favor of a law requiring a certain proportion of women to be on school boards. Her educational politics also reflected the idea that women should have more say in public issues related to children. Bolles urged that women to join her in working to reform the current system that excluded women. She told the audience members, that "The only way that we can advance this work is by personal effort" and that "some work must be done and done determinedly to influence those who make up the slates at the caucuses."
Bolles remained a member and officer in the RIWSA in the 1900s. In 1905, she testified once again on woman suffrage before the Rhode Island House Committee on Special Legislation and the RIWSA legislative committee gave her responsibility for overseeing a proposed bill giving fathers and mothers equal guardianship over minor children. By the mid 1900s, though, Bolles became less active in the movement because her mother was in declining health and she served as her caretaker. Elizabeth Kenyon died in 1908 and the next year, Bolles moved to Lumberton, New Mexico where she received a land grant for 160 acres under the Homestead Act. In New Mexico, she worked as a notary and postmistress. In 1923 and 1924, newspapers across the country ran a story (apparently erroneous in its claims) about Bolles being the oldest postmaster in the United States at age 75. She explained that she still worked in her seventies because "I enjoy being of use in the world at my time of life and am glad to help along the work our country is doing, though it is a small part I can do."
Bolles continued her suffrage activism in New Mexico. In 1909, The Woman's Journal stated that "Suffrage for New Mexico is looking up" because of Bolles's arrival. She started a woman suffrage campaign there and "succeeded in securing the co-operation of fourteen newspapers, whose editors have agreed to publish articles in advocacy of the movement." The article praised Bolles as "a woman of integrity and capacity, a well-informed speaker and an experienced organizer" and that "she is a loss for Rhode Island, but will be a valuable acquisition in her western home." In 1918, TheWoman Citizen suffrage publication described her as having "the indomitable spirit of the pioneer suffragist." Bolles also praised the journal, writing that "I could not get along without the Woman Citizen and shall take it as long as I have a dollar to pay for it."
In that 1918 Woman Citizen letter, Bolles explained to the editors that she was feeling optimistic about success for woman suffrage. She believed that the conditions of World War I had improved the chances for suffrage. In her letter, she said, "What wonderful progress the world is making under the stimulus of the Hun's barbarian warfare!...Who could have believed five years ago that emancipation of the masses, including women, was destined to come through the shedding of rivers of blood." It is unclear when Bolles died, although it was some time after 1923. She had been an active supporter of the woman suffrage movement for almost fifty years and lived to see the achievement of the suffrage amendment in 1920.
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