Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Ella Bakewell, 1868-1960
Mary Ella Bakewell was born on July 5, 1868, into a prominent Pittsburgh glassmaking family. Her parents were Benjamin Bakewell, who was also director of the Dollar Savings Bank, and Ellen Frances Boardman Bakewell, the daughter of a Philadelphia clergyman. Thoughtful, eloquent, and intelligent, Bakewell employed her education and social position to advocate for children's and women's rights.
Bakewell began as a children's activist. She was a member of the International Kindergarten Union, an organization formed in 1892 to promote the establishment of early education programs in the United States. She was also as a longtime member of the Allegheny and Pittsburgh Free Kindergarten Association. In 1901, Bakewell published a book of fables, Stories for Kindergartners and Kindchen. Her first foray into women's advocacy began by lecturing on birth control to the mothers interested in kindergarten for their children.
After setting up an independent household with her younger sister, Euphemia, an artist, Bakewell became involved in the suffrage movement in western Pennsylvania. She co-founded the Allegheny County Equal Rights Association (ACERA) in 1904 and served as secretary, then served two terms as president of the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania. She represented the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association when the organization petitioned the state legislature in Harrisburg and acted as western district vice president for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
Bakewell, working in tandem with fellow activist Lucy Miller, developed the innovative "Pittsburgh Plan," which sought to teach suffragists how to advocate, lobby, and canvass. The School for Suffrage Workers, founded in 1914, offered women and men 12 two-hour classes on "practical politics" taught by University of Pittsburgh professors. These classes, in conjunction with events to attract the social elite - teas, juried art shows, and traditional arts and crafts exhibits with a suffragist slant - expanded interest in, and support of, the suffrage movement in western Pennsylvania.
After Pennsylvania ratified the 19th Amendment, Bakewell turned toward spiritual interests and new challenges. When she was 50, she enrolled in Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut; she completed a bachelor of divinity and sought ordination in the Episcopal Church. Denied a congregation because of her gender, Bakewell spent the 1920s giving sermons across the country to advocate for women in the pulpit. During this period, she received a special dispensation from the bishop of Wyoming to preside over a parish church there; her 18-month experience on the western plains became the seed of a later novel.
In the 1930s, Bakewell lived in Washington, D.C., where she was an active member of the Woman's National Democratic Club. She spent the next decade writing a fictionalized account of her tenure as parish minister, What Woman Is Here?; a memoir of her childhood, Of Long Ago: The Children and the City; and an unpublished novel of the suffrage movement, Ourselves the Suffragettes. Bakewell passed away in 1960 at the age of 92.
May Ella Bakewell, Stories for Kindergartners and Kindchen (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Printing, 1901).
Mary Ella Bakewell, Of Long Ago; The Children and the City (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1949).
Mary Ella Bakewell, What Woman Is Here? The Autobiography of a Woman Pioneer in the Rural West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949).
Papers of the Bakewell-McKnight Family, 1815-1990, Historic Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Library System, https://historicpittsburgh.org/islandora/object/pitt%3AUS-QQS-MSS272/viewer