Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Elizabeth Herndon [Bessie, Bess] Potter, 1871-1966
By Ashley E. Miller
This entry has been republished with special permission from the Handbook of Texas Women, a project of the Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association. <https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fpo84>. Accessed October 30, 2018.
POTTER, ELIZABETH HERNDON [BESSIE, BESS] (1871–1966). Elizabeth Herndon Potter, suffragist, clubwoman, and philanthropist, was born on January 19, 1871, in Tyler, Texas, to Col. William Smith Herndon (a lawyer, ex-Confederate, and U. S. congressman) and Mary Louise (McKellar) Herndon (a founding member of the Smith County Equal Franchise League and the Texas Woman's Christian Temperance Union). She was given the nickname "Bessie" or "Bess" as a child. She had nine siblings; eight children lived to adulthood. She earned a degree from Elmyra College in New York. She also completed the normal course in cookery at Chautauqua, New York, and won a diploma entitling her to teach in agricultural college. On June 3, 1891, she married John Edwin Potter, Jr., of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They had a daughter, Dorothy, in 1894 in Pennsylvania. The marriage ended in divorce, and by 1899 Potter and her daughter returned to her parents' home in Tyler.
When Potter arrived back in Tyler, her mother was already active in the local First Literary Club, and Potter became active in their executive committee. She was also active in the Tyler Federation of Women's Clubs and worked by leading the drive to bring to the city a Carnegie Library building (which stood as the Smith County Historical Society in 2016). By 1899 Potter was active in the woman's movement and traveling to Dallas to learn more.
As part of the revitalization efforts in 1913 of the Texas Woman Suffrage Association (renamed the Texas Equal Suffrage Association in 1916), Potter's mother, Mary Louise Herndon, arranged to start the Smith County Equal Franchise League for the women of Tyler. Potter became a part of the publicity committee which helped her become active at the state and eventually the national level in the movement. Potter's daughter Dorothy assisted her mother in hosting the important men and woman that met with Potter. Potter then became active in the Texas Equal Suffrage Association (TESA) and took on the rank of vice president. As vice president she went on to represent the women of Texas as the congressional chairman for Texas in Washington, D. C. Potter corresponded frequently with TESA president Minnie Fisher Cunningham and with the public on the views in Washington on woman suffrage. She also worked with U. S. Senator Morris Sheppard, who supported woman suffrage and facilitated correspondence between Potter and President Woodrow Wilson. Through written correspondence with Potter, Wilson addressed the Texas legislature in 1918 and urged the state legislators to pass a state bill to provide Texas women the right to vote in political party primary elections. The Texas legislature passed the law in the spring of 1918, and Texas women cast their first ballots that year.
After the suffrage movement succeeded in getting the Nineteenth Amendment of the United States passed in August 1920, Potter continued her public activities through a variety of volunteer activities and organizations. She remained active in the First Literary Club of Tyler, participated in the League of Women Voters of Texas, and wrote letters to the Dallas Morning News on her opinions against some of Franklin D. Roosevelt's policies. Potter also donated a portion of Herndon family land and additional funds to the city of Tyler to build its YMCA building, thus earning the nickname "Godmother of the Tyler YMCA Building Site." She became the last living child of William S. Herndon and lived to be ninety-five years old. She died on March 16, 1966, in Tyler and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery there.
Jessica S. Brannon-Wranosky, "Southern Promise and Necessity: Texas, Regional Identity, and the National Woman Suffrage Movement, 1868–1920" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Texas, 2010). Minnie Fisher Cunningham Papers, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library. James Smallwood, The History of Smith County, Texas: Born in Dixie (2 vols., Austin: Eakin Press, 1999). Vertical Files, Smith County Historical Society, Tyler, Texas (Herndon Family).