Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Lucy Randolph Mason, 1882-1959
Written by Jennifer Ritterhouse for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, a publication of the Library of Virginia. Reprinted with permission.
Lucy Randolph Mason (26 July 1882-6 May 1959), woman suffrage activist, labor activist, and social reformer, was born at Clarens, on Seminary Hill, in a part of Fairfax County that later became part of the city of Alexandria, Virginia. She was the daughter of Landon Randolph Mason, an Episcopal minister, and Lucy Jaquelin Ambler Mason, a supporter of foreign and domestic missionary work and prison reform. Her parents were third cousins once removed, and she was a direct descendant on both sides of her family of George Mason (1725-1792), author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Other prominent relations included James Murray Mason, former United States senator and Confederate ambassador to Great Britain, and his daughter Virginia Mason, who opened a girls' school at Clarens, her father's retirement home.
Despite her distinguished lineage, Mason grew up in a comfortable but not wealthy household. After serving in the Confederate States Army, her father studied for the ministry and served parishes in West Virginia and Georgia before settling in Richmond when he was called as rector of Grace Episcopal Church in 1890. Educated at home initially, Mason attended John Powell's exclusive Richmond Female Seminary but was unable to complete her studies because family finances could not support her tuition alongside her brothers' expenses at the University of Virginia. Mason later blamed lack of education for thwarting her adolescent ambition to become a foreign missionary. "There were obvious educational barriers in a family in which the girls could not attend college for financial reasons," she later wrote. Mason's gender barred her even more firmly from a ministerial career. She frequently explained her commitment to social justice activism by pointing out that, if she had been a man, she would have become a minister. Her untiring work for nearly half a century reflected her sense of calling.
Throughout her long career, Mason, who never married, had to balance her commitment to "live my faith in the way that is most vital to me" with her need to earn an income. She first worked as a stenographer, after teaching herself shorthand and typing in her early twenties. In 1914 the dissolution of the law firm where Mason worked prompted her to seek a paid position with the Richmond Young Women's Christian Association, where she had been a volunteer since at least 1911. Especially interested in the problems of working-class women and girls, she became industrial secretary of the Richmond YWCA, reportedly the first with such a position in the South. Mason's interactions with young women workers deepened her support for organized labor and industrial regulation. She joined the Woman's International Union Label League, which encouraged consumers to favor union-made products, and, in 1917 she answered the call of American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers to chair Virginia's Committee on Women in Industry for the Committee on Labor that advised the Council of National Defense during the first world war.
Mason's dedication to women workers also motivated her early woman suffrage activism, though, for her, linking pragmatic arguments to religious idealism was key to her advocacy. Early in 1911 she joined the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia after hearing New York intellectual Max Eastman lecture on female industrial workers' need for the ballot. As Mason explained to the league's president, Lila Hardaway Meade Valentine, Eastman's political analysis convinced her that voting could be "a potent agency in the divine plan for the growth and perfection of humanity on this earth." Mason soon became one of the Equal Suffrage League's most effective editorialists and public speakers. The league published two small pamphlets that Mason wrote, The Religious and Social Aspect of the Suffrage Movement, and The Divine Discontent, in which she advocated woman suffrage as a means to improve society.
Mason was able to devote much of her time to the suffrage movement after she quit her job with the YWCA early in 1918. The death of her mother that January had left her elderly father in need of a caregiver. "The family elected me to be the one to take over a domestic life," she recalled, "and a very generous brother (John Ambler Mason of Baltimore) put up the money to run our household." Mason accepted demanding volunteer positions as president of the Equal Suffrage League of Richmond and its successor organization, the Richmond League of Women Voters, which was established in 1920 after ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Serving in these roles between 1919 and 1923 taught Mason a great deal about politics and allowed her to contribute to significant legislative change. In 1922, while also serving as chair of the Virginia League of Women Voters' Committee on Women in Industry, she proudly and correctly claimed the Virginia General Assembly had "enacted more progressive legislation relating to the welfare of women and children than has been enacted in any preceding session." Yet a bill limiting women's workday to nine hours had failed, which spurred Mason to publish a widely distributed pamphlet, The Shorter Day and Women Workers (1922), to advocate gender-specific protective labor legislation, an advocacy she maintained in staunch opposition to the National Woman's Party's unsuccessful bid for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
Although Mason continued to volunteer with the League of Women Voters, in 1923 her career took another turn when the death of her father required her to find a paying job. She became general secretary of the Richmond YWCA, an executive position she held until 1932. Throughout this period, Mason supported numerous local reform efforts and participated in interracial work, including a Negro Welfare Survey that led to the formation of the Negro Welfare Council in Richmond. Her public stand against the city's segregation ordinance in 1929 earned her great respect from black leaders, and she went on to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People by the mid-1930s. Mason advocated civil rights for African Americans alongside the rights of white workers for the rest of her career.
Early in the 1920s, Mason met Katherine S. Gerwick, a national YWCA officer who became her soulmate. Gerwick's death from a sudden illness in 1927 plunged Mason into an extended period of mourning and resulted in her full embrace of spiritualist beliefs that she had also learned from her mother. Though notably lacking in personal correspondence, Mason's papers include scattered notes about séances she attended as well as a few letters she wrote to Gerwick, "Beloved of my heart," years after her passing.
As Americans confronted the Great Depression, Mason's expert knowledge of industrial conditions in the hard-hit South attracted the attention of national labor reform organizations. Early in 1931, she spent two months traveling across the South to advocate labor reforms at the behest of the new Southern Council for Women and Children in Industry, which resulted in her influential pamphlet Standards for Workers in Southern Industry (1931), published by the National Consumers' League. In 1932 Mason succeeded Florence Kelley as general secretary of the National Consumers' League and moved from Richmond to New York, but spent much of the next five years in Washington, D.C., as the league lobbied for and helped to draft New Deal labor legislation, including the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Eager to work in the South and convinced that the new Congress of Industrial Organizations offered fresh hope for transforming the region because of its commitment to organizing workers across race, sex, and skill-level divides, in 1937 Mason approached CIO president John L. Lewis to ask for a job. She devoted the remaining sixteen years of her career to the CIO, from its exciting early days, through World War II to the postwar conservative reaction and the disappointments of its late 1940s Operation Dixie organizing drive. In her own words, Mason worked primarily as a "roving ambassador" and publicist for the CIO, traveling more than 70,000 miles throughout the southern states from her new home in Atlanta to speak to college students and religious and civic groups. Drawing on her distinguished southern background and extensive connections to the white South's ministers, educators, newspaper editors, and liberal and moderate politicians, she tried to explain the CIO's goals and soften opposition to unionism. When antilabor hostility erupted in violence or threatened to do so, Mason often raced to the scene to meet with local leaders and law enforcement officials and urge them to protect workers' rights. She also used her friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her other contacts in Washington to mobilize federal actors such as the National Labor Relations Board and the Department of Justice. Mason's work to publicize civil rights and civil liberties violations made her a significant figure in the labor-based civil rights movement of the late 1930s and 1940s.
Mason was also important within the wider circles of southern liberalism. She was an early member of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and joined its successor, the Southern Regional Council. Mason attended meetings of the Southern Policy Committee and served on the all-southern advisory board that vetted the National Emergency Council's famous 1938 Report on Economic Conditions of the South. She was also instrumental in the organization of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and served for years in leadership roles for the Southern Summer School for Women Workers in Industry and Highlander Folk School (later Highlander Research and Education Center). Although much of the social change Mason hoped to see came about only after the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, her activism helped New Deal liberalism and a greater commitment to race and gender equality take root in the mid-twentieth-century United States.
In 1952 Mason published her memoirs, To Win These Rights: A Personal Story of the CIO in the South. Lucy Randolph Mason retired from the CIO early in the following year and died in an Atlanta-area hospital on 6 May 1959. She was buried in Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia.
Mason, To Win These Rights: A Personal Story of the CIO in the South (1952), seventh quotation on 29; biographies and career summaries in John A. Salmond, Miss Lucy of the CIO: The Life and Times of Lucy Randolph Mason, 1882-1959 (1988), with portraits; Landon R. Y. Storrs, Civilizing Capitalism: The National Consumers' League, Women's Activism, and Labor Standards in the New Deal Era (2000); and Susan M. Glisson, "Lucy Randolph Mason: 'The Rest of Us'" in The Human Tradition in the Civil Rights Movement, ed. Susan M. Glisson (2006); birth and death dates on gravestone; Lucy Randolph Mason Papers, including Lucy R. Mason to Natalie Bunting, 5 Mar. 1949, first, second, and fourth quotations, and [Lucy R. Mason to Katherine Gerwick], 25 Jan. 1931, sixth quotation, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, N.C.; Betsy Brinson Papers, including Lucy R. Mason to Lila Meade Valentine, 10 Jan. 1911, third quotation, Virginia Historical Society (VHS), Richmond; Mason letters in other collections at VHS and in Adele Goodman Clark Papers, James Branch Cabell Library, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond; Mason's suffrage work is documented in part in the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records, Accession 22002, Library of Virginia; Richmond Evening Dispatch, 9 Apr. 1921; Richmond Times-Dispatch, 23 Mar. 1922, fifth quotation; obituaries in Richmond News-Leader, 7 May 1959, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7, 8 May 1959, New York Times, 8 May 1959, and other newspapers.