Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Nora Stanton Blatch Barney, 1883-1971
By Chelsea Currier and Jake Mulligan, Students, SUNY-Cortland
Executive Secretary, Women's Political Union; President, Women's Political Union; Chairman, Advisory Committee, National Woman's Party
Nora Stanton Blatch Barney was born in Basingstoke, Hants, England on September 30, 1883 to William Blatch and Harriot Eaton Stanton. Her father was the managing director of the May Brewing Company in Basingstoke. Her mother, Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch, and grandmother, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were prominent leaders in the women's rights movement. In 1854, her grandmother was one of two women to make an appeal before Congress for woman suffrage, while her mother was a key figure in both the British and American movement for women's political equality. These influential women encouraged Nora's activism from an early age. Raised partly in England and America, she studied Latin and mathematics at the Horace Mann School in New York during her teenage years. Beginning in 1896, Nora and her mother spent long periods in the U.S., returning to England in the summers until their immediate family settled in New York permanently in 1902.
Before making a name for herself in the suffrage movement, Nora Stanton Blatch pursued an engineering degree and a career as a civil engineer. She graduated from Cornell University in 1905 as the first woman in the United States to earn a degree in civil engineering. At Cornell, she focused her thesis on the field of hydrodynamics. After graduation she was hired as a draftswoman for the American Bridge Company and the New York City Board of Water Supply. She accepted a position as chief draftswoman for the Radley Steel Construction Company in 1909, departing after three years to accept a job with the New York Public Service Commission. While enjoying success as an engineer, Blatch chafed against the institutional environment of public and private sector work. As one historian wrote of her experience as a professional engineer, she "found government alienation and inefficiency no more tolerable than corporate greed." Blatch also faced gender discrimination in a male-dominated profession. She had joined the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 1906, becoming the society's first female member, yet her application for "associate" member status was denied thereafter. She took the ASCE to court in 1916, but ultimately lost her bid for full standing in the organization. In 2015, ninety-nine years after the society first snubbed her application, she was posthumously advanced to "fellow" status in the ASCE.
In 1906, Blatch met Lee de Forest, an inventor and pioneer in the American broadcasting industry. While still working as a civil engineer, Blatch took courses in electrical engineering and mathematics at Columbia University in order to acquire enough knowledge to work alongside de Forest in his electronics laboratory. She married de Forest in February 1908, and the couple honeymooned in Paris. Upon return to America, they worked briefly together at his company, De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company, but the partnership soon unraveled as Nora lobbied for a larger role in de Forest's capacitor factory. When Blatch became pregnant with the couple's daughter, Harriet, de Forest pressured her to give up work entirely. Nora, with Harriet in tow, left de Forest in 1909 and was awarded sole custody of the child upon the couple's divorce in 1912.
Despite this hardship in her personal life, Blatch returned to civil engineering and began to take an active part in the struggle for woman's suffrage. She was an important figure in the Women's Political Union (WPU), an organization founded by her mother in 1907, serving as an editor for the WPU newsletter, the Women's Political World, and as the organization's executive secretary. Upon her mother's resignation from the WPU in 1915, she assumed the role of president of the organization. After women gained access to the ballot, Blatch lobbied against sex-based labor legislation for working women on grounds that such legislation amounted to overreach by the state into women's lives. She aligned herself with the National Woman's Party (NWP), a successor to the Women's Political Union, and supported the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment.
Blatch married Morgan Barney, a marine architect, in 1919, and they had two children together - a girl, Rhoda, born in 1920, and a boy, John, born in 1922. The Barneys moved to Greenwich, Connecticut in the 1920s as Nora's interests gravitated toward architecture and real estate development. After the family built a permanent home in Greenwich in 1935, she fashioned a second career as a builder of luxury homes for wealthy suburban clients in Connecticut. She continued to work on equal rights for women through the NWP, chairing the organization's advisory committee in the mid-1940s. She also lobbied for world peace, authoring a pamphlet in 1944 entitled World Peace Through a People's Parliament. In 1950, Blatch-Barney drew the attention of the House on Un-American Activities (HUAC) for her participation in the Congress of American Women, a feminist organization that had ties to the Communist Party in America.
Nora Stanton Blatch Barney died at home of a stroke on January 18, 1971.
- Terry Kay Rockefeller, "Nora Stanton Blatch Barney," Notable American Women, The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1980), 53-55.
- Ellen DuBois, "Spanning Two Centuries: The Autobiography of Nora Stanton Barney," History Workshop 22 (Autumn, 1986), 131-152.
- Ellen DuBois, Harriot Stanton Balch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).
- "Woman Barred by Engineers," Syracuse Herald, January 22, 1916.
- Ben Walpole, "Nora Still Breaking New Ground," American Society of Civil Engineers News, Accessed June 18, 2019: https://news.asce.org/nora-still-breaking-new-ground/.
- Petition of Nora Stanton Blatch, Supreme Court Appellate Division - Second Department Vol. 2383 (New York: Ingle, Inc.) 1918.
- "Mrs. Nora S. Barney, Architect, 87, Dies," New York Times, January 20, 1971, 38.