Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Jessie D. [Mrs. R.H.] Lewis, 1879-1972
By Heather Townsend, student, and Molly P. Rozum, Associate Professor, University of South Dakota
New to the suffrage cause, Mrs. R.H. "Jessie" D. Lewis of Mitchell "left nothing undone" and helped put Davison County "over the top" in November 1918, according to National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) organizer Maria McMahon's account of the last South Dakota campaign. Jessie A. Davidson was born in Kentucky on 3 August 1879 and married Richard Herr Lewis on 27 Dec 1906. By 1910, the couple lived in St. Paul, Minnesota with her brother. They had moved to Mitchell, SD by 1916, where he worked as a furniture salesman and she participated in the "Child Conservation League." The couple had two daughters, Fielding born in 1908 in New Orleans, Louisiana and Carolyn, born in Mitchell in 1917.
South Dakota Universal Franchise League (SDUFL) president, Mamie Pyle, hoped Lewis would lead a group of women "young and progressive in spirit" into the Mitchell Suffrage Club. In 1918, Lewis chaired the club's membership committee and the Davison County Franchise League. She helped organize a "school of methods" in Mitchell, at which NAWSA representatives spoke on strategy and the "new" aspects of advocating for South Dakota's Amendment E or "Citizenship Amendment," which combined woman suffrage with new restrictions on immigrant voting. Lewis also made sure to distribute ample suffrage leaflets, buttons, and posters during Mitchell's annual fall Corn Place Week, an important suffrage propaganda event "for the whole state," not only Davison County. SDUFL suggested the city club devote an entire committee to placing "little Amendment E window cards" on the windshields of hundreds automobiles that would pack the downtown. A huge banner 40 feet in the sky would also advocate suffrage to Corn Place Week crowds. As the campaign wound down, SDFUL president Mamie Pyle pleaded with Lewis to find fundraisers. Over 65% of Davison County voters supported woman suffrage in 1918. After the victory, Pyle encouraged Lewis to send a delegation to NAWSA's 1919 convention in St. Louis so, as "one of the Voting states," South Dakota would be well represented.
The newly organized in 1919 South Dakota's League of Women Voters (LWV) appointed Jessie Lewis as one of several state auditors. Lewis also ran in 1920 to serve as a presidential elector for the Democratic Party. Showing the diverse political affiliations of South Dakota suffragists, Lewis appeared on the ballot against former SDUFL and by then, LWV president Mamie Pyle, running for Republican elector, and Mitchell Suffrage Club member Myra Weller seeking the same role in the Nonpartisan League (Farmer-Labor) Party. Lewis appeared on the ballot for the same Democratic Party position in 1924.
In the mid-to-late 1920s, Jessie Lewis and her husband moved back to Louisville, Kentucky. She had worked as a Kindergarten teacher before marriage and taught again in the 1930s. Lewis also became active in the P.E.O. women's club. Jessie Lewis died on 28 July 1972 and was buried in Louisville.
No photograph of Jessie D. Lewis was located.
Almlie, Liz. "Women Suffrage in South Dakota," https://historysouthdakota.wordpress.com/womens-suffrage-in-sodak/biographies-of-womens-suffrage/.
"Child Conservation League." Mitchell Capital, 16 Nov 1916, p 2.#x200e
Easton, Patricia O'Keefe. "Opposition to Woman Suffrage in South Dakota." (MA thesis, University of South Dakota, 1982), pp. 133-135.
Easton, Patricia O'Keefe. "Woman Suffrage in South Dakota: The Final Decade, 1911-1920." South Dakota History 13, no. 3 (1983), pp. 206-226.
Egge, Sara. "Ethnicity and Woman Suffrage on the South Dakota Plains." In Equality at the Ballot Box: Votes for Women on the Northern Great Plains, edited by Lori Ann Lahlum and Molly P. Rozum, 218-239. Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2019, 219-222, 233-234.
Find a Grave, database and images, www.findagrave.com; see Jessie D. Lewis and Richard H. Lewis.
Harper, Ida Husted, ed. History of Woman Suffrage: 1900-1920, vol. 6. New York: Fowler & Wells, 1922, p. 594. [LINK]
Kentucky County Marriage Records, 1873-1965, database on-line, Ancestry.com; see Jessie D. Lewis and Richard H. Lewis.
McMahon, Mrs. Albert [Maria]. "How to Win a State." The Woman Citizen (Nov 16, 1918), p. 509.
New Orleans, Louisiana, Birth Records Index, 1790-1915, database on-line, Ancestry.com.
Mamie Shields Pyle Papers, Richardson Collection, Archives and Special Collections, The University of South Dakota; https://archives.usd.edu/repositories/2/resources/19. See correspondence: Lewis to Pyle, 10 Jun 1918; 21 Jan 1919; Pyle to Lewis, 18 Mar, 16 Apr, 14 Jun, 31 Jul, 28 Aug, 19 Sep, 5, 10, 20 Oct, 1918; 6 Feb 1919; Pyle to Baisch, 12, 13 Jun 1918; Pyle to Catt, 11 Jun 1918; Pyle, LWV letter, "Correspondence, M-Z, no date; https://explore.digitalsd.org/digital/collection/richardson/search/searchterm/Mamie%20Shields%20Pyle%20Papers/field/collec/mode/exact/conn/and
"Sample Ballot." Sisseton Weekly Standard, South Dakota, 22 Oct 1920, p 4.
"Shoot Straight and Hit the Mark for a Democratic Progressive Victory." Argus-Leader, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 22 Mar 1924, p. 20.
South Dakota Birth Index, 1856-1917, database on-line, Ancestry.com. see Jessie D. Lewis and Richard H. Lewis
"Suffrage Club to Meet." Mitchell Capital, South Dakota, 7 Mar 1918, p. 4. See also, Mitchell Capital, 7 Feb 1918, 11 Apr 1918.
U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995, Louisville, Kentucky City Directory, 1960, database on-line, Ancestry.com; see Jessie D. Lewis and Richard H. Lewis
U.S. Federal Census, 1880, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940, database on-line, Ancestry.com; see Jessie A. Davidson and Jessie D. Lewis, as well as Richard Herr (H.R.) Lewis.