Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Clara Eastman Smith, 1856-1950
By Kailey Loughran, student, University of Vermont
Vermont Woman Suffrage Association: Vice President; Executive Board
Clara Eastman was born on June 7, 1856 in Newbury, Vermont to Charles W. Eastman and Elizabeth C. Abbott. Clara's father was a farmer born and raised in Newbury. He left Vermont to work in an iron mill in New York and construct railroads in North Carolina, returning to his hometown to farm. He met Elizabeth, another Newbury native, whom he married in 1855 after farming with her father, a Methodist deacon. Elizabeth's family history in Newbury goes deep, starting with her grandfather, who served as one of George Washington's bodyguards during the American Revolution. Elizabeth and Charles had three children, Clara being the oldest. In 1869, Charles bought his own farm and moved Clara, 13 years old at the time, and the rest of his family from Newbury to Wells River, Vermont. Charles was an active community member in Wells River, serving as a village trustee for over seven years. He was widely known for having the first lawn mowing machine in Wells River, "tending the machine like a close relative."
Clara began working after moving to Wells River, becoming a servant in a household in town when she was fourteen years old. In 1877, she graduated from Montebello Ladies' Institute, a school founded in Newbury in 1872 that sought "young ladies who desire thorough instruction, and the gentle influence of a cultivated home." Clara became a teacher when she was 21, teaching at the Avery Normal Institute in Charleston, SC, the first accredited secondary school for African Americans in the city. Founded in 1865, many northern white teachers like Clara taught along with the city's educated black community who were mostly banned from teaching at any of the other high schools in Charleston. It became one of the city's most prestigious schools and its students and teachers continued to be leaders in the city's civil rights movement even after the school was closed in 1954.
Clara taught in South Carolina for a few years before returning to Vermont in 1880, where she boarded with her aunt and uncle in Bradford and taught at one of the local public schools. She was considered an excellent teacher whose "scholars have taken great interest in their studies." It was around this time that Clara became involved with Vermont Woman Suffrage Association (VWSA). Clara was active since the birth of the movement in Vermont, attending the first annual meeting of the Vermont Woman Suffrage Association on January 14, 1885 in Barton Landing. She was elected as one of the Vice Presidents of the organization and continued to serve on the executive board until the amendment was passed. Although never moving to a higher position due to her full-time teaching career, she was credited with rendering excellent service to the cause.
Clara married Sheridan Irving Smith on June 20, 1888. A Lyndonville native, Sheridan was a railroad mechanic who operated a lathe. Like Clara, Sheridan was also an active member of the Lyndonville community, becoming a leader in his workers' union. In 1892 Clara gave birth to their son, Wendell Phillips Smith. Wendell became an ecologist and studied mammalogy in Vermont, publishing his research in academic journals during the 1930s.
Clara taught English at the Castleton Normal School from 1909-1912 before teaching in Lyndonville in 1912. Clara was also heavily involved with missionary work done through the Evangelical Church. Besides teaching for several years, Clara wrote for various educational and religious periodicals, becoming the editor of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union's state paper, the Vermont Home Guards in 1912. Sheridan died in 1918 from an illness, and Clara remained a devout Christian activist and suffragist, leading prayer exercises at annual Vermont Christian Temperance Union conventions and attending Vermont Equal Suffrage Association meetings. After the Nineteenth Amendment passed, Clara fully committed to the temperance cause. She was elected secretary of the Vermont Women's Christian Temperance Union in 1921, reporting as a credentialed committee member for VWCTU until 1922.
In her later years, Clara was known to enjoy painting and studying nature. Clara Eastman Smith died on August 26, 1950 in Bradford, Vermont, and is buried in the Wells River Cemetery, near her husband and her parents.
Elizabeth Chastina Abbott. North American Family Histories. 1500-2000. Ancestry Library Edition.
The Bethel Courier, 1891-1922 (Bethel, Vermont), Newspapers.com
The St. Johnsbury Caledonian, 1837-1920 (St. Johnsbury, VT), Newspapers.com
The Burlington Free Press, 1848-2019 (Burlington, VT), Newspapers.com
The Barre Daily Times, 1897-1947 (Barre, VT), Newspapers.com
Who's Who In New England. Eds. Albert Nelson Marquis. Second edition, 1916. A. N. Marquis & Company Publishers: Chicago, IL.
North America, Family Histories 1500-2000. Ancestry Library Edition, Ancestry.com. University of Vermont.