Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Charlotte M. Rumbold, 1869 - 1960

by Erika Davidson Gottfried, Independent Historian

Charlotte M. Rumbold was born on December 28, 1869, in St. Louis, Missouri. She was the oldest of four daughters of Dr. Thomas Frazier Rumbold, an internationally-known ear, nose and throat physician and inventor of medical devices, with his second wife, Charlotte Engelmann Lederberger.

Charlotte Rumbold graduated from Central High School, a public school in St. Louis, in 1886; the title of the essay she composed and read aloud at her commencement ceremony was (perhaps presciently) "Self Confidence." Two years later she completed St. Louis Public Schools' Normal course and received a teaching certificate. She taught briefly in at least one St. Louis elementary school. In 1899, she began to participate in a local art education organization. By 1901, she had become active in a local women's club's philanthropic "social uplift" projects, including advocating for, and then helping to manage privately-funded municipal playgrounds (there were none in St. Louis at the time).

In 1904/1905, after moving to New York, she made the transition from philanthropy to professional social work when she took sociology courses at Columbia University in New York. In May 1905, she completed a year-long certificate course at the [New York] School of Philanthropy. After graduation she spent a year "stud[ying] sociology in Europe cities [and] German municipalities."

The woman suffrage movement in Missouri had been moribund for many years when Rumbold joined a new generation of women responsible for its resurgence upon her return to Missouri. Throughout most of the decade before the adoption of the 19th Amendment, Rumbold served the Missouri suffrage movement in a wide range of capacities, including officer and committeewoman, speaker, organizer, lobbyist, publicist and promoter.

Rumbold was a well-known civic activist. She was the author of a ground-breaking report on housing conditions in St. Louis, she was appointed Secretary of the St. Louis Public Recreation Commission in 1907 and then Superintendent in 1908, and she was a leader in the national playground movement, serving as an officer in the Playground Association of America, along with Jane Addams. Rumbold's first public association with the woman suffrage movement began with the formation of the St. Louis Equal Suffrage League in April 1910. Rumbold was one of its founders and served on its Board. Two years later she was instrumental in founding the St. Louis Businesswomen's Equal Suffrage Association. The League had grown out of St. Louis's socially elite Wednesday Club, perhaps because the Club refused to publicly support suffrage. The Association, in turn, grew out of the League, to reach a different, broader membership?employed women, including business owners, white collar workers, and professionals like Rumbold herself. One of the Businesswomen's Equal Suffrage League's first actions, besides producing and distributing suffrage literature, was to invite milliners on their annual buying trips to St. Louis to a dinner held in their honor (at which Rumbold spoke) to persuade them to join the suffrage movement. Like so many organizations in St. Louis at the time, however -- even progressive ones -- the Association did not accept women of color as members, and few, if any, working-class women seem to have belonged.

Also, as part of promoting itself, the Businesswomen's League strove to reassure the public that the organization rejected the highly-publicized militancy and violence of the radical wings of the movement in the United States and England. Rumbold took a lead in this effort. "There are no martyrs in our organization ...There will be no window-smashing or demonstrations of force," she told a reporter. "It is a business proposition with us. ... We want to vote. Each politician will be given an opportunity to put himself on record on the suffrage movement before the fall elections."

Pursuing this goal, Rumbold was one of a small group of women in charge of the drive to collect the thousands of signatures necessary for a petition requesting state legislators to present voters with a proposal that the state constitution be amended to allow woman suffrage in the upcoming election of 1914. She was also one of two suffragists sent to lobby the Legislature in favor of the measure.

When the Legislature declined to act on the measure, suffrage organizations decided to bypass the legislature and instead use the newly-available initiative process to put the proposal directly before the voters. Once again, Rumbold was a leader in this petition campaign--this time to obtain enough signatures to place the measure on the ballot. She also belonged to the delegation that brought the petition to the state capitol in June 1914 for formal certification. Having surmounted the struggle to placing the measure on the ballot, Missouri suffragists now had another fierce battle on their hands: getting voters to pass it. Rumbold served as director of publicity for this campaign. Some of the tactics she employed during the steamy summer of 1914 included setting up "Women's Headquarters" tents at county fairs and "chatauquas" throughout the state, offering women visitors rest, fans, cold lemonade, and cribs for their babies, along with suffrage literature and lobbying. She also employed the tactic suffragists had dubbed "voiceless speech." In what one St. Louis reporter described as a "form of silenced oratory," two young women, would silently unroll a speech, in large letters, sentence by sentence, dramatizing at the same time the suffragists' demands and their lack of a political voice.

With its end near, the campaign became ever more intense. Although described by one reporter as "[an] inveterate statistician" with card indexes... to figure out which districts may carry," who "[preferred] to be called an 'efficiency engineer,'" Rumbold also made numerous public appearances where she spoke to audiences as diverse as the St. Louis League of Electrical Interests, The Council of Mothers' Clubs, and Parent Teachers Associations. Nor was she averse to "turn[ing] social butterfly for the cause" when the occasion demanded, "[permitting herself] to be dined and tangoed and made much of in country clubs and smart houses." Several years earlier she had already shown herself willing to resort to even more popular approaches to reach a wider audience keenly interested in suffrage, when she served as a judge in a contest sponsored by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for the "cleverest" answers to the question, "Should Women Vote?" More than 1,900 answers were submitted. It should be noted that at the same time Rumbold was working on this campaign, she conceived of, organized, and oversaw the production of a gigantic civic pageant to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis--a monumental undertaking that has been characterized as "the most celebrated historical spectacle of the era."

While operating ably within the narrowly-focused perimeters of the suffrage movement of the 1910s, Rumbold's interest in the women's movement was not limited to obtaining voting rights. Invited to speak on feminism at St. Louis's progressive-left Open Forum, she told her audience she recognized the "feminist movement as a much broader manifestation than the suffrage movement, and of the fact that the plea for a vote being such a live issue, seem[s] to have obscured the more radical phase of the subject in America." Rumbold added that "the suffragists want to alter a law and the feminists are striving to alter conventions, and everybody knows it is more difficult to change conventions than it is to change laws."

Rumbold was recognized on the national, as well as the local, level as a respected professional woman. This can be seen by the inclusion of an article of hers, alongside such prominent women as Jane Addams and Carrie Chapman Catt in the 12-volume Woman Citizen's Library (1913) (advertised as containing "reliable, up-to-date information on the many political and social subjects now attracting wide public attention" contributed by "over fifty experts").

Dubbed by a local newspaper as the "best-known young woman in St. Louis," it was perhaps not surprising that Rumbold frequently received threatening letters demanding that she drop her suffrage work. But she appeared to take it in stride. "I thought it just went with the job,' she told a reporter.

Nor was she unfamiliar with setbacks. Despite Herculean efforts and support and resources both from within and outside the state, in November 1914, voters roundly rejected the woman suffrage amendment. In the wake of this second stinging defeat, and advised by the National American Woman Suffrage Association to move from state action to focus on a federal amendment, Missouri suffragists turned their attention to a great opportunity to present their case on a national level--the upcoming Democratic National Convention, which was to be held in St. Louis in June 1916. Their goal was to persuade the Party to include a suffrage plank in its national platform. Rumbold was made vice-chair of the St. Louis Equal Suffrage League's convention committee. She was responsible for staging the centerpiece of the League's attempt to sway the delegates: the "Golden Lane," a huge demonstration held on the first day of the convention. In it, Democratic delegates were confronted with thousands of suffragists?two-deep, clad in white dresses with yellow sashes and holding yellow parasols--silently lining the ten-block route between the delegates' hotel and the convention hall. This spectacle was remembered vividly and celebrated long after the passage of the 19th amendment.

It was also Rumbold's last active involvement with the woman suffrage movement. The year before, amid public controversy, she had resigned her position as Superintendent of Playgrounds and Recreation when the city's Board of Aldermen denied her a salary increase because she was female. By 1917 she had resumed her full-time career as a social worker and civic reformer, and by 1918 moved to Cleveland, where she had been offered a job as assistant secretary of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, and secretary of its City Plan Committee. Rumbold continued in these positions until her retirement in 1938, and lived and worked in Cleveland for the rest of her life. She died on July 2, 1960, and was buried in Engelmann Cemetery, in Shiloh, Illinois. She never married.


Rumbold's suffrage work, civic commitments, and personal life are well documented in St. Louis newspapers including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and the St. Louis Star and Times.

Additionally, much can be gathered about Rumbold from journals and magazines such as The Missouri Historical Review published by the State Historical Society of Missouri, Woman's Journal, an American women's right periodical published from 1870 to 1931, the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, and Gateway, the magazine of the Missouri Historical Society.

Online information on the Rumbolds can be found in the St. Louis Social Register and the St. Louis City Directory available on Additionally, Rumbold's report on housing conditions in St. Louis is freely available online on Google Books.

Katharine T. Corbett's book In her place: a guide to St. Louis women's history includes an essay about Rumbold and her civic work.

Although Charlotte Rumbold left no personal papers related to her work in St. Louis, further information about her is available in the vertical files at the Missouri Historical Society.

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