Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Agnes M. Bacon, 1876-1936
By Elisa Miller, Associate Professor, Rhode Island College, Alexandra Bohenko, Lily Kinney, Clayton Parr, Drew Pian, Jakob Simas, and Shannon Tierney, High School Students, Westford Academy, Westford, MA
Committee Chair, Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association; Chair of American Citizenship, Rhode Island League of Women Voters; Officer; National Council of Catholic Women; Director of Americanization, Rhode Island Board of Education; Teacher and Principal
Agnes M. Curran was born in Central Falls, Rhode Island in 1876 to Michael Curran and Bridget (Conroy) Curran. Michael and Bridget Curran had both emigrated to Rhode Island from Ireland. Central Falls was an industrial, working-class city with many immigrants and Michael Curran made a living as a laborer. The family was Catholic and belonged to the Sacred Heart of Jesus church in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Curran was one of four students in the first graduating class at Central Falls High School in 1891. After graduation, she began a long career in public education. In the 1890s, she worked as a teacher at the Hedley Avenue Grammar School in Central Falls. In 1901 she was appointed the acting principal of the school and then appointed the principal the following year. She later became principal of the Broad Street Evening School. On June 25, 1900, Curran married Dr. Walter A. Bacon, a physician from Central Falls. The Bacons lived in Central Falls, had no children, and Agnes M. Bacon continued her career in education. In 1908, Walter Bacon died at age thirty-five of the effects of heart disease and Bright's disease. Following his death, Agnes Bacon resided with her parents, continued her professional work, and became active in a wide variety of community service.
Much of Bacon's community activism focused on issues related to education and Catholicism. In the early twentieth century, she was a member of the Providence Queen's Daughters, a Catholic social services organization that provided resources such day nurseries, millinery and dressmaking classes, sewing guilds to make clothing for poor women and families and was the president and an officer of the Catholic Women's Benevolent Legion in Pawtucket. She also served as president of the Central Falls Teacher Association for two years.
Beginning in 1914, Bacon led an experimental program in Central Falls to teach foreign-born students English. She led the "Special School for Foreigners" within the Hedley Avenue School. In that first year, she taught twenty-eight students in the class, primarily French-Canadians, but also Russian Jewish, Syrian, and Polish students. The Central Falls superintendent explained that "The sympathetic spirit and helpfulness of the teacher plays a large part in a room of this kind. Mrs. Agnes M. Bacon, whose long and successful experience in our evening schools makes her especially fitted for this work, was placed in charge of this room." Bacon referred to the first year of the program as "arduous." In addition to her teaching work, she gained additional education on Americanization by taking summer courses at Columbia University in New York. Her experience working with foreign-born students influenced the direction of her professional and community work for the next two decades.
Bacon's first documented involvement with the woman suffrage movement was in 1919 as a member of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party (RIWSP), an organization affiliated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In addition, she served as co-director of the Central Falls branch of the RIWSP. She was a leader in the RIWSP in 1919 so it is likely that she was a member prior to 1919. Her involvement and leadership within the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party and later the Rhode Island League of Women Voters—two organizations that were predominantly middle-class and Protestant--was unusual given her working-class and Catholic background.
In 1919, Bacon served on the Rhode Island Woman's Americanization Committee, which was connected with the NAWSA national committee on Americanization. Americanization efforts increased as backlash and concern about foreigners heightened during World War I. Suffragists also wanted to reassure Americans that foreign-born women could be trusted as voters if woman suffrage passed. In Rhode Island, the Woman's Americanization Committee formed after the legislature passed presidential suffrage for women in 1917. The Americanization committee worked to get foreign-born women naturalized and prepared to be voting citizens. The committee also lobbied for an Americanization bill that would make English education mandatory for foreign-born residents and appoint a state director of Americanization. The Americanization bill was passed in Rhode Island in 1919 and Governor R. Livingston Beekman appointed Agnes M. Bacon to be the first State Director of Americanization, a position that was housed in the Board of Education. Bacon served as Americanization director until 1930.
As director, Bacon led a wide variety of activities related to Americanization. She distributed a pamphlet detailing the Americanization process that outlined plans for school superintendents, committees, and teachers to learn about and implement assimilation policies and curriculum for new immigrants. She supervised educational classes and programs designed to teach English to foreigners throughout the state. Under the law, these courses were mandatory for foreign-born residents up to age twenty-one and voluntary courses were available to adults older than twenty-one. Bacon also taught extension courses on "methods of teaching English" and "racial background study" at the Rhode Island College of Education (now Rhode Island College) and the Rhode Island State College (now University of Rhode Island). She frequently gave speeches on Americanization and teaching English in the community, including one at the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association. In 1919 and 1920, Bacon attended Americanization conferences in Washington D.C. that brought together representatives of boards of education from across the country.
Bacon was the child of immigrants and emphasized that Americanization programs should not be punitive or derogatory towards foreign people, languages, and cultures. She explained that teachers in the Americanization classes had critical roles in the process and that "the teacher who takes up this work should be sympathetic and a humanitarian. Race prejudices and religious antagonism should be banished from her mind." The teacher, Bacon stated, should "study the racial psychology of the peoples she assumes to teach" and "get in heart contact with the foreign born if she expects to make a success of her work." Bacon also explained that "foreign-born people must be made to feel that the English language is a commercial asset; that there is no idea or intention of taking their own language from them."
Bacon also stressed the specific importance of Americanization programs for foreign-born women, an issue that related to her suffrage activism. "If full suffrage is granted to women, as seems now probable," she said, "they should be fully prepared for their sacred privilege by education in American ideas of citizenship, which knowledge is only possible through their attainment of the English language." She worried that foreign-born women assimilated at slower rates than their children and husbands because they were sheltered in the home and not as active in American society. As a result, Bacon claimed that foreign women were "far from being aids in Americanizing their families, [and instead] they often became reactionary forces." She hoped that future legislation would force immigrant women to pass a citizenship test before gaining the full rights of citizenship. She also emphasized different ways of teaching English to foreign-born women, such as using home economics classes and domestic activities as a way of reaching and appealing to those women. In 1922, after woman suffrage had been passed, Bacon spoke at the Rhode Island Home Economics Association. The Providence Journal reported that "Mrs. Bacon reminded the teachers that the foreign women of the State become citizens when their husbands are naturalized and so have the power to vote..."
Bacon participated in other civic activities for the woman suffrage movement. In 1919, as chair of the RIWSP education committee, she organized a "suffrage school" that consisted of a series of lectures on citizenship offered by Nancy Schoonmaker of Connecticut. The courses were designed to help prepare women to be active and prepared voters and citizens once full suffrage was granted. Rhode Island women had gained the right to vote in presidential elections in 1917. 1920 was the first year that they could exercise that right. The woman suffrage organizations planned a "Rhode Island Women's Independence Day" celebration for July 1, 1919. This was the first day that women could register to vote in the 1920 election. Bacon served on the committee to organize the activities and was responsible for the Central Falls "Women's Independence Day" event.
The Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party was often a contentious organization. It was founded in 1913 as an organization led by Sara Algeo. It merged with the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association and College Equal Suffrage League to become the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association in 1915 against Algeo's wishes. Later in 1915, Algeo resurrected RIWSP as a separate organization. In 1919, Bacon served on the RIWSP nominating committee that recommending voting out Algeo as chairman of the organization and replacing her with Leila Andrews. At the organization's annual meeting in November 1919, the RIWSP membership voted to elect Andrews chairman and ousted Algeo, the organization's founder and long-time leader. The Providence Journal referred to the election as "a contest between the old and the new elements of the organization" with Agnes M. Bacon and Mabel E. Orgelman as the leaders of the "insurgents" against Algeo. Due to the tense nature of the meeting, Bacon handed the reporters present a note requesting that they leave the event and promising that they would be given a full account by the suffragists later.
In 1919, in anticipation of the woman suffrage amendment passing, NAWSA began the transition to become the League of Women Voters, an organization to promote civic education and activity by women. In November 1919, Bacon was a charter member of a new organization in Rhode Island, the Rhode Island League of Women Voters. The organization was created by members of the RIWSP and described its goals as "securing the ratification of the Federal Suffrage amendment; to further the education of women politically, socially and otherwise; to support a programme of legislation which aims to improve the electorate so that all voters of our State shall speak English, read their own ballot and honor the American flag." The English language component directly related to Bacon's work as Americanization director. Bacon and a group of Rhode Island suffragists attended NAWSA's 1920 "Victory Convention" in Chicago as the woman suffrage amendment was being ratified by the states. After the suffrage amendment, she served as chair of American Citizenship of the Rhode Island League of Women Voters in 1920 and remained a member of the organization throughout the 1920s.
Bacon's activism in the 1920s and 1930s focused on Catholic social service organizations both nationally and locally. In the 1920s, she served on the board of directors for the National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW) and as treasurer of the organization from 1926-1930. A 1929 article from The Tablet, a Catholic newspaper from Brooklyn, referred to her as "one of our leading Catholic women." In addition to these leadership positions, Bacon served chair of the NCCW's immigration committee. The Tablet article also referred to her as "recognized as a leading authority in this field of endeavor [Americanization]." The purpose of this committee was to study the issues facing Catholic immigrants and assist them. As chair, Bacon led a roundtable session on immigration at the National Catholic Welfare Conference in 1927. Historian Evelyn Savidge Sterne describes Catholic Americanization efforts such as the NCCW's as a "kinder, gentler approach to assimilation" than was the norm in the United States in the 1920s. They lobbied against laws that limited immigration, especially from Catholic countries, helped immigrants learn English and gain citizenship, and sought to involve them in Catholic churches in the United States. Sterne also argues that Bacon's work with NCCW was designed to provide a Catholic alternative to citizenship activities offered by the League of Women Voters, a predominantly Protestant organization that had a program that paired immigrant women with a native-born woman mentor to teach them "the real spiritual meaning of American citizenship."
In addition to her national leadership, in the 1920s and 1930s, Bacon was involved in local Catholic organizations. She served as the president of the Providence Diocesan Council, a branch of the NCCW that included all of the New England states. She gave local speeches on Catholic and immigration issues, including a 1929 speech she gave to members of the Blessed Sacrament Church in which she gave "a rebuke to proponents of birth control." Bacon remained active in her childhood parish, helping raise money for it, and using her musical skills as assistant organist and as director of the church choir. She also became an officer numerous Catholic social service organizations, including the Catholic Woman's Club, the Shepherdess Association, the Welfare League of Pawtucket, the Quota Club of Pawtucket, and the Catholic Woman's Realty Club.
Bacon also emerged as a national educational leader in the 1920s, drawing on her experience in Americanization education. In 1926, she was elected to the board of directors of the National Educational Association (NEA), on which she served for four years, and to the board of the NEA's publication, Adult Education Quarterly. She attended national conferences of the NEA, including a 1927 conference in Washington, D.C. where she was seriously injured in a car accident while riding in a taxi. She published articles in education publications, including an essay titled, "How Are We Getting the Adult Immigrant?," in Adult Education Quarterly and a chapter on "Helpful Suggestions on Racial Background" in a U.S. Bureau of Education manual, Methods of Teaching Adult Aliens and Native Illiterates.
In 1933, Bacon took on a new job, working as a librarian at the Adams Memorial Library in Central Falls. After an illness of several months, Agnes M. Bacon died at the age of sixty-one on December 16, 1936 at her home in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She is buried in the St. Mary's Cemetery in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Newspapers across New England ran obituaries touting Bacon's leadership in the National Educational Association and the National Council of Catholic Women.
"Mrs. Agnes M. Bacon New State Director of Americanization," The Providence Journal, August 1, 1919, The John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, RI.
"Solving the Immigrant Aid Problem," National Catholic Welfare Conference Bulletin 9, No. 7 (December 1927), 17.
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).
Evelyn Savidge Sterne, Ballots and Bibles: Ethnic Politics and the Catholic Church in Providence (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).
Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at theJanuary Session, A.D. 1920 (Providence, RI: E.L. Freeman Company, Printers, 1920), 912.
Annual Report of the School Committee of the City of Central Falls, R.I. for the Year Ending June 30, 1914 (Central Falls, RI: E.L. Freeman Company, Printers, 1914).
Annual Report of the School Committee of the City of Central Falls, R.I. for the Year Ending June 30, 1915 (Central Falls, RI: E.L. Freeman Company, Printers, 1915).
Rhode Island College of Education Bulletin, 1923, 7, 35, 36, 41, https://issuu.com/digitalinitiatives/docs/1923catalog.
Agnes M. Bacon, "How Are We Getting the Adult Immigrant?," Adult Education Quarterly 5, No. 1 (September-October 1929): 36-37.
"Solving the Immigrant Aid Problem," National Catholic Welfare Conference Bulletin 9, No. 7 (December 1927): 17, 20.
Bureau of Education, Department of the Interior, Methods of Teaching Adult Aliens and Native Illiterates, Bulletin No. 7 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1927).
"Central Falls," The Pawtucket Times (Pawtucket, RI), May 22, 1911.
Kathleen Atkins, "Women in the News," The Tablet (Brooklyn, NY), August 3, 1929.
"Bacon-Curran," The Providence Journal, June 27, 1900.
"Dr. Walter A. Bacon," The Providence Journal, November 24, 1908.
"Mrs. Curran Dead," The Providence Journal, July 30, 1915.
"Suffragists Plan Observance Here," The Providence Journal, May 17, 1919.
"W.C.T.U. Wants Special Session," The Providence Journal, July 19, 1919.
"Mrs. Agnes M. Bacon New State Director of Americanization," The Providence Journal, August 1, 1919.
"State Americanization Supervisor is Selected," The Providence Journal, August 1, 1919.
"Rhode Island Woman Appointed to Unusual Position," The Providence Sunday Journal, September 14, 1919.
"Charter Granted to Women Voters," The Providence Journal, November 4, 1919.
"Suffrage Party Elects New Head," The Providence Journal, November 6, 1919.
"Local Delegates to Victory Convention," The Providence Sunday Journal, February 8, 1920.
"Americanization Schools," The Providence Sunday Journal, January 30, 1921.
Ashmun Brown, "Mrs. Agnes M. Bacon Hurt in Washington," The Providence Journal, February 24, 1927.
"Mrs. Bacon Writes on Races," The Providence Journal, June 28, 1927.
"New Catholic Council Honors for Mrs. Bacon," The Providence Sunday Journal, October 2, 1927.
"Olneyville," The Providence Journal, Friday, March 22, 1929.
"Mrs. Agnes M. Bacon Dead in Central Falls," The Providence Journal, December 17, 1936.
"Mrs. Agnes M. Bacon," The Boston Globe, December 17, 1936.