Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Clara Somerville (Withee), 1892-1960
By Chesney Thielman and Emily Tillman, undergraduate students, Northwest Missouri State University. Edited by Dr. Elyssa Ford, Northwest Missouri State University.
Clara Somerville Withee was born in St. Louis County, Missouri, on October 8, 1892. She was the daughter of William and Harriet Somerville and was one of six children. Clara was a journalist and used that platform to promote her interest in women's suffrage.
Clara began to work as a reporter for St. Louis newspapers in the 1910s and soon used her voice to speak publicly for women's suffrage. In 1913, she wrote an article for the St. Louis Star and Times that called for women to fight for their right to vote in light of a recent ruling from a judge in Kansas City. A woman had attempted to sue the Kansas City Terminal Railway after her husband was injured. The courts denied her case and ruled that, as property of her husband, a wife has no claim to compensation if he is injured. Clara used this case to bring attention to the lack of women's rights in the country. Many Missouri newspapers refused to publish works written by suffragists. Clara led the campaign for publication in St. Louis newspapers, and in 1914 a special suffrage edition of the St. Louis Times was printed. Clara's work as an activist-journalist ensured suffragists would have a wider audience.
Beyond her work as a journalist, Clara also was active in suffrage organizations. She was a member of the Equal Suffrage League of St. Louis, following in the footsteps of her older sister Althea who was a founding member of the League. In August of 1913, Clara traveled 102 miles to Gascondy, Missouri, to distribute suffrage materials. In 1914 Somerville made a "horse and shay" trip along with other suffragists to speak at county fairs throughout the state. One of the more unique events was a berry picking day in Sarcoxie, Missouri. In May 1918, hundreds of women, 500 of whom were from St. Louis, took to the strawberry fields in the Ozarks to pick berries. An article from the St. Louis Star and Times claimed that the women found it too hard to do "a man's job." Despite opposition like this, women like Clara Somerville remained committed to their goal until the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920.
Following the passage of women's suffrage, Clara travelled frequently and lived in several states. She married later in life in 1937. She and Theodore Owen Withee married in South Dakota and later settled in Montana, where her husband was from. Even though they divorced within a decade, Clara remained in Montana. She served for many years as the juvenile probation officer for Conrad, Montana, and died there on April 11, 1960, at the age of sixty-nine.
Photograph of Clara Somerville. St. Louis Star and Times, 17 August 1913, 3.
Information about Clara Somerville Withee and her contributions to the women's suffrage movement can be found in newspapers such as the Independent Post-Dispatch, St. Louis Post Dispatch, St. Louis Star and Times, and St. Louis Daily Globe Democrat. More mentions of Clara's work on suffrage can be found in Anne Johnson's Women of St. Louis, 1914 (St. Louis: Woodward, 1914), the National American Woman Suffrage Association's The History of Woman Suffrage (New York: J.J. Little & Ives Company, 1922) [LINK], and "History of Woman Suffrage in Missouri," edited by Mary Semple Scott, Missouri Historical Review XIV:3-4 (April-July, 1920), and Lynn Josse's "Organizing for Power: Edna Gellhorn and the Equal Suffrage," Preservation Issues 7:2 (March-April 1997): 1-3. Material about Clara's life in Montana appeared in the Conrad Independent-Observer and Great Falls Tribune.