Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Susan Look Avery, 1817-1915

By Margaret Young, Archivist, The Woman's Club of Louisville

Susan Look Avery was a woman ahead of her time. Living until she was 97, she spoke, wrote, and advocated for a variety of unpopular causes, including abolition, woman suffrage, free silver, and racial justice. She founded several Louisville organizations that long outlived her. As Lydia Avery Coonley Ward wrote, celebrating her mother's willingness to go against the grain: "She had faith that in time, if not immediately, her opinions would be vindicated."

Susan Howes Look was born in Conway, Massachusetts on October 27, 1817 to Samuel and Polly Loomis Look. When she was a young girl, the family moved west to Utica, New York, located in the state's so-called Burned-Over District for its many religious revivals. Along with her sister, she attended the Utica Female Seminary, one of the earliest secondary schools in the nation for girls. Susan stayed on as a teacher there, while her sister taught in Wyoming, New York. On a trip to visit her sister, Susan met Benjamin Franklin Avery, whom she married in 1844. B. F. had trained as a lawyer, but found the work did not suit him, so he purchased an interest in a foundry in Meadville, Virginia where he designed his first plow in 1825. The family moved to Louisville, Kentucky in 1848 and he founded Avery Plow Works. Both B. F. and Susan were abolitionists and dedicated Unionists, reputedly the first to raise the Union flag when Confederates threatened to invade their city in 1862. The Civil War decimated the market for plows, and the factory at the corner of Preston and Main Street became a military hospital during the conflict. Susan was a frequent visitor there, and often brought the critically injured home to personally nurse them. In 1863, Benjamin created B. F. Avery & Sons, bringing his sons and son-in-law into the business. By 1890 it was the world's largest producer of plows, producing over 200,000 each year, and providing the growing family a sizable income. The Averys purchased a mansion on Fourth Street and Broadway in Louisville and kept a summer home, Hillside, in Wyoming, New York.

Susan raised six children: Lydia Avery Coonley Ward, Samuel Look Avery, Gertrude Avery Shanklin, George Capwell Avery, Helen Avery Robinson, and William Sidney Avery. "She was a devoted mother and housekeeper, living very quietly until her six children were old enough to do without her constant care. Then she began to interest herself in public questions," her daughter recalled. Her husband's death in 1885 propelled her to take a more public role when she was in her late sixties. She took up a wealth of causes, including temperance, woman suffrage, tax reform, free trade and currency reform, pacifism and anti-imperialism, and denounced capital punishment. She published her ideas in national outlets such as Harper's Weekly, Figaro, and The Woman's Journal. She also became a sought-after speaker at meetings, sending pamphlets or a letter to be read if she could not attend in person.

Louisville residents had considered woman suffrage as early as 1853, when suffragist Lucy Stone made a stop there, but no local suffrage club existed until Avery called for the formation of the Louisville Equal Rights Association in her parlor in March 1889. She also established the Warsaw (New York) Equality Club, which was later renamed the Susan Look Avery Club in her honor. She served as president of the Louisville suffrage local in 1895 and 1897. She also participated in suffrage work on the state and national levels. She frequently attended the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) annual meetings. In 1892, she became superintendent of KERA's literature department. She also served on KERA's Frankfort Committee, which oversaw the organization's efforts to pass legislation benefitting women. The National American Woman Suffrage Association named Avery an honorary vice president in 1889, and her financial support helped the organization expand its work in the South. National suffrage leaders, including Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw, visited Hillside to help Avery celebrate her eightieth birthday. After Anthony died in 1906, Avery contributed $1200 to construct a building in her honor at the University of Rochester.

Avery wanted women to vote, but she believed they should not wait until they won those rights to begin improving their communities. To that end, she invited 38 other Louisville women to form The Woman's Club of Louisville in March 1890, which affiliated with the General Federation of Woman's Clubs (GFWC). Many women's clubs focused on intellectual enrichment and encouraged discussion of literature, art, and music. The Louisville club was interested in political matters and encouraged action. It lobbied delegates to Kentucky's 1890 constitutional convention to make lotteries illegal. It petitioned the Louisville mayor and city council to appoint matrons to staff jails. It collected signatures to pressure businesses to provide seats for "shop-girls," and it pushed for the state's age of consent to be raised from twelve to eighteen.

Avery's influence in Louisville was magnified by the fact that two of her daughters and a daughter-in-law also participated in suffrage and club work. Her oldest daughter, Lydia Avery Coonley Ward, lived in Chicago, home to one of the nation's oldest women's clubs and an incubator for exciting and innovative reform projects including Jane Addams's Hull House. Avery's connection to Chicago meant that some of these ideas flowed eastward to the Derby City. Following the example of their Chicago associates, the Avery women helped establish an Emergency Association in Louisville to act as a "standing army" of women to address sudden crises. The assassination of Governor Goebel in 1900 prompted the Emergency Association's three thousand members to protest gun violence and to demand laws prohibiting concealed carry. Susan's daughter Helen Avery Robinson also became a founding member and the first president of the Kentucky branch of the National Consumers' League.

Perhaps the most controversial issue that Susan Avery championed was the race question. At a moment when lines of segregation were solidifying in the Jim Crow South and when women's clubs were adopting policies of racial exclusion, Avery encouraged interracial cooperation. In 1900, a controversy erupted in the GFWC over whether to admit black clubs. Heated debate ensued in the organization's journal, The Club Woman, and Avery became one of only two white women, and the only one from the South, to publicly argue that all women, regardless of skin color, should be welcomed in. She also urged the Kentucky Federation of Woman's Clubs to adopt inclusive policies. When she could not attend its June 1902 meeting herself to argue for equality, she arranged to have another woman deliver her protest, but according to one source, her envoy was so scandalized by the issue that she refused to read Avery's letter. Avery refused to let the issue lie. In 1903, she wrote a pamphlet titled, "Justice to the Negro." She protested not only African American disfranchisement but also America's poor treatment of people of color across the globe. She could not shake her paternalism entirely, but she condemned the arrogance her fellow white Americans displayed.

Avery was often quoted as saying, "If it is bad for the ignorant and vicious to do ill - it is worse for the educated and the honest to do nothing." These were words she took deeply to heart. She worked to the end of her long life, keeping two secretaries busy even after she became blind and nearly deaf during her last 5 years.

Susan Avery died at the age of 97 on February 1, 1915 at Hillside, where she lived most of her last decade. Always one to challenge convention, even to the last, she requested that her body be cremated. Her ashes were later buried at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.


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