Biographical Sketch of Clara Bewick Colby

Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Clara Bewick Colby, 1846-1916

By John Holliday, author of Clara Colby: The International Suffragist.

We may never know why three-year-old Clara Dorothy Bewick was left behind in England when her parents and three brothers departed for a new life in America. Her parents Thomas and Clara Bewick were migrating to America, and the family had been talking about little else in the months leading up to their departure. They were leaving on the sailing ship Olympus from Bristol, and little Clara was in tears when she found that she could not join them. She later wrote an essay that revealed how she felt on that day.

The very earliest recollection of my life is kissing my mother 'goodbye' at someplace, and then riding off with my father somewhere in a great dark house, which afterward I learned was a railway train.

The year was 1849, and one possible reason why Clara was left behind could be that she showed symptoms of an infectious disease. If that were the case, there was no option but to arrange for Clara to stay with her grandparents until she was well and arrange for her to make the journey later. Hence the trip by railway to London, where the grandparents lived.

Although this was a painful experience for Clara, it may have been an event that helped to shape the smart and tireless woman that she became. Raised as the beloved only grandchild in London, she had a substantial emotional and intellectual foundation by the time she arrived at the Wisconsin frontier in 1855, which sustained her through a hectic and often stressful life. The advantage she achieved helped her become the valedictorian for the first class of women to graduate from the University of Wisconsin and enjoy a career as a teacher, a writer, a prominent suffragist, and a newspaper editor. After teaching at the university, she married the dashing civil war veteran, Leonard Colby. This would prove to be a rare misstep as Colby was persistently unfaithful to her, duplicitous and dishonest, even though Clara continually believed his expressions of regret and continued to declare her love for him. After Colby graduated from the law department, they moved to Nebraska in 1872.

It was in Beatrice, Nebraska that Clara Colby first became involved in support of woman suffrage. In 1876 she wrote articles for the Western Woman's Journal, published by Erasmus Correll. Correll's wife Lucy was instrumental in establishing the first suffrage association in Nebraska and she persuaded Clara to join her. Lucy Correll invited Susan B. Anthony to make a lecture tour in Nebraska, and Clara planned an address by Miss Anthony in Lincoln and she invited her to stay with them in Beatrice. From the railroad station, Miss Anthony wrote Clara a letter praising her and encouraging her to become involved in the national movement. Eighteen months later, Elizabeth Cady Stanton came to stay at Beatrice and by 1880, Clara Colby was a speaker at the eighth congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women in Boston, at which the New York Times reported Clara Colby as one of the most impressive speakers.

Building on this foundation, Clara launched the Woman's Tribune in 1883, a newspaper that was in continuous publication for 26 years, becoming one of the nation's leading woman's suffrage publications. She served as the President of the Nebraska Woman Suffrage Association, and she was the corresponding secretary of the Federal Suffrage Association, among her many other offices. From 1888, Clara spent the first half of each year in Washington DC, attending suffrage conferences and lobbying members of Congress.

By 1890, her husband had become General Leonard Colby of the Nebraska National Guard, when his troops served at the Battle of Wounded Knee. It was here that General Colby adopted the native-American baby girl, Zintka Lanuni, found under the body of her dead mother. Colby did so without discussing the situation with Clara and then left her to bring the child up, frequently without financial support. Clara's response was to plan to bring her husband to Washington, so she lobbied her Washington friends and succeeded in getting her husband appointed as the United States Assistant Attorney-General.

Eventually, a divorce was unavoidable, and as a result, many leading suffragists shunned Clara from then on, diminishing her legacy as a suffragist. Clara made four trips to Europe, attending the International Congress of Women (Amsterdam 1908, Stockholm 1911, and Budapest 1913) and the Universal Peace Congress in London in 1908 and The Hague in 1913. She also supported the suffrage cause in England, making speaking tours of England, Ireland, and Wales.

Back home, she campaigned throughout the country on behalf of state suffrage organizations, helping to increase the number of states that supported women's votes. During her career as a suffragist, twelve states and the Alaskan Territory had given women the vote. Another fifteen states had advanced legislation, which would result in those states giving women the vote before the Nineteenth Amendment. She visited Washington state in 1910 and supported their successful referendum vote on woman suffrage. NAWSA sent a large contingent of speakers to support the Michigan campaign in the spring of 1913, including Clara Colby. She also gave a major speech in Baltimore in 1914 at the Maryland state suffrage meeting. Her final state campaign was in October 1915 in New Jersey, where President Woodrow Wilson voted in favor of woman suffrage in his home state. His support was a good omen for a federal amendment prohibiting both states and the federal government from denying the right to vote based on sex.

In 1915, Clara was the organizer of the Federal Suffrage Congress to be held at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Organizers declared July 12 Federal Suffrage Association Day, which achieved the largest attendance of the special convention days with 56,255 people entering on that day. That evening, visitors could view a pageant to illustrate "Women in the Building of America," where Clara and her adopted daughter Zinka Lanuni worked together as a team. In the Court of Abundance, Clara gave a recitation standing on the pedestal of a towering column. In contrast, Zintka stood on another pedestal representing Sacajawea, the Native American girl who safely guided the Lewis and Clark expedition across the continental divide to the Pacific Ocean in 1805.

By this time, she was living in Oregon, but she continued to spend several months each year in Washington, and the last big event of that winter was the hearing on the two suffrage bills, which came before the House Committee on March 27, 1916. The following letter from the Chairman of the Committee on Woman Suffrage shows the respect she received from the members.

Mrs. Colby's presentation of the Federal Suffrage law to these committees was such as to receive the unstinted praise of the Senators and Representatives. They heard her strong and logical arguments irrespective of the individual views held.

During that winter in Washington, Clara Colby suffered badly from influenza. As soon as these hearings were over, she left for Eugene, Oregon, where the climate would be more favorable. Unfortunately, her health did not improve, and the flu became pneumonia. Clara's sister Mary, a medical doctor, drove up from her home in Palo Alto to care for her but soon decided to take her back to California to recoup. They arrived in Palo Alto on September 1, where Clara struggled to overcome her sickness. This fight for life was to be her last campaign, however, and she passed away on September 7, 1916.

 

Clara Bewick Colby circa 1880s.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clara_Bewick_Colby2.jpg

Sources:

1. Riding the Cars , an essay by Clara Bewick. Clara Bewick Colby Papers, Archival Resources, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI.

2. "The Advancement of Women," New York Times, October 15, 1880, p. 3.

3. "Indian Woman Will be Squaw in Pageant," San Francisco Chronicle, July 11, 1915, p. 35.

4. Letter from John E. Raker to Olympia Brown, October 9, 1916, Clara Bewick Colby Papers, Archival Resources, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI.

5. John Holliday, Clara Colby: The International Suffragist (Gold Coast, Australia: Tallai Books, 2019)

6. Ida Husted Harper, ed., The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, vol. 1 (Indianapolis, IN: Hollenbeck Press, 1898), p. 493. [LINK]

7.Ida Husted Harper, et al., eds., History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 6 (1922), Pages 248, 251, 254, 309, 679, 700 and 701. [LINK]

back to top