Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Fairbrother, 1858-1947
By Robin Hurwitz. Family Historian
Mary Fairbrother's skills as a writer, parliamentarian, and leader made her a force to be reckoned with in multiple states, encouraging women to campaign for, and men to vote for, women's suffrage.
Born in Iowa on 15 December 1858, to newspaper editor and a homemaker, Mary's independence and strong family ties continued throughout her life. Her father moved the family to Nebraska, where Mary honed her skills.
The Nebraska Advertiser (12 June 1879, p.3) notes: "An essay, 'The Future Woman,' by Mary Fairbrother, was one of the best written parts of the evening. Miss Fairbrother began in an easy, graceful manner, and continued in the same way to the end. Her sentences were well rounded, and her reading excellent in every respect. The tone of voice was decidedly good, and her reflections and enunciation very pleasing. Her review of the position heretofore held by women was an excellent summing up of the facts, and that glimpse at a possible future was given with the earnestness of an absolute conviction. The young lady expressed her opinion in a very positive and convincing manners. We are much pleased with Miss Fairbrother's reading and her general appearance."
A prominent suffragist, she was a charter member of The Omaha Woman's Club, part of the Nebraska Federation of Women's Clubs, and an involved member of her community.
From March, 1894 - 1901, Mary created, owned and edited The Woman's Weekly in Omaha, Nebraska. The newspaper was the "official organ of the Omaha Woman's Club and other organizations." Described as "deeply interested in the movement as in all things pertaining to women, she conceived the plan of starting a paper devoted to the interests of women who think, paying little attention to fashion and society." She began The Woman's Weekly "with no capital but experience and a Nebraska woman's courage... the subscription list did not grow very rapidly, but Miss Fairbrother kept bravely at work and has made her paper very useful to the women of the State. Its reports of work done by the various organizations of women, its articles from the pens of representative women, and its vigorous, fearless editor policy have done much to keep the women in touch with one another." (Midland Monthly Magazine, Vol. 5-6) The Blue Book of Nebraska Women (author Winona Evans Reeves, p. 234) called Miss Fairbrother "a woman of splendid mind and ready pen," and noted that while The Woman's Weekly "was not a great success in a financial way, it was a great factor in the growth and development of the club movement." The Weekly Woman was also described as "an institution of the city" of Omaha. (http://hebronjournalregister.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/jan14a.pdf) In addition to her newspaper work, Mary encouraged the Omaha Exposition organizers to showcase women's work, which had not been included in the 1898 fair. "For Fairbrother, most women's work was confined to the home, which meant they were not paid. Their labor was not recognized as having monetary, or much of any, value, other than sentimental value... Exhibiting women's crafts in what she called a 'Greater American Home' would recognize their labor as an economic contribution, like the products made by men shown in the Manufacturing building." (https://unpblog.com/2018/02/15/from-the-desk-of-wendy-katz-the-surprising-history-of-the-everyday-american/
The earliest reference to Mary Fairbrother's suffrage activity seems to have been in the 1897 Proceedings of the NAWSA annual convention. She had been the leader in suffragists' efforts to defeat a Republican politician in the election of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
By 1903, she had moved to San Francisco with her brothers, Charles and Thomas, (San Francisco Directory, 1903, p. 651) where she served as Parliamentarian of the State Federation of Women's Clubs. She was described as a power of strength" and "a brilliant parliamentarian...born to her office and no question is so intricate as to puzzle her for a second." (Los Angeles Herald) Mary simultaneously served as co-chair of the Legislative Committee, Leader of the Parliamentary Law section, co-chair of the Outdoor Art League, and a member of the Department of Education section. A recognized suffrage speaker, Mary "urged that women were the thinking portion of America and for this reason she must have the elective franchise that she might evolve a new educational system to meet the needs of the new child." (San Francisco Call, Vol. 106, No. 11, 11 June 1909)
In 1910, Mary was a public school teacher. She lived in San Francisco's Mission District, on Valencia Avenue, with her brothers Thomas and Charles. (1910 US Census) The Nebraska State Journal published a note to her friends that "she is doing nicely in newspaper work in (San Francisco). At a recent meeting of the members of the parliamentary section of the Californian club of San Francisco, of which Miss Fairbrother is a member, the lady was presented with a handsome California club pin by her associates." (6 May 1910, p.4)
Mary spoke in favor of California's Amendment S in a "a number of street meetings," as well as at Masonic Hall. An active member of The California Equal Suffrage Association, Mary distributed literature during several street meetings, sharing the history of women's suffrage. (San Francisco Call, Vol. 110, No. 100, 8 September 1911) She also spoke before the group and in public, presenting her theory that "women should be trained in their work, not as inferior or superior beings to their brothers, but that they should have the difference in training that their womanhood demands. The speaker thought that the special training of women as homemakers was an argument in favorite of suffrage... Miss Fairbrother thought that an education in domestic science was indispensable for the intelligent home maker." (San Francisco Call., Vol 109, No. 177, 26 May 1911) Mary spoke in August at the Third Baptist Church, one of the first churches in San Francisco to invite suffrage speakers to conduct meetings. "We want women to vote because we need a woman's point of view in public life. We do not want women to vote as little men, as inferiors, but as women. The mother trait in women needs expression and is the thing which society needs most." (San Francisco Call, Vol. 110, No. 87, 26 Aug. 1911).
The San Francisco Examiner printed her article "Wyoming Suffrage State Held Up As Fine Example" (18 Aug, 1911, p. 9) on behalf of the California Equal Suffrage Association. She also interviewed Suffrage advocate Mary Simpson Sperry in an article titled "Pioneer Woman Pleads for Suffrage." Mary Fairbrother's actions...California Proposition 4, Women's Suffrage Amendment. It was approved by fewer than four thousand votes.
While President of the Woman's Political League in 1912, she addressed the organization on the topic "Are Women Less Developed, Mentally, Than Men?" The program was followed by debate. She publicly worked toward law reform and prison reform, demanding female officers and support of women along San Francisco's Barbary Coast (San Francisco Call, Vol. 114, No. 112, 23 Sept 1913). As President of the Women's Political League and the secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, Mary referred local commissioners to legislation providing refuge and support for women, which she and the society had proposed earlier via State Senator Julliard. She asserted that since women were one third of San Francisco's voting population, women were entitled to be recognized in appointed offices. She chaired a meeting "to protest against the discontinuance of the office of factory inspector for San Francisco and to insist that a woman factory inspector for San Francisco" be appointed. (San Francisco Call, Nov. 28, 1912. Image 7)
The Lincoln (Nebraska) Star (14 July 1914) continued to cover Mary's activities in far off California, noting, "Lincoln's aptitude for making its mark wherever it may send its people is illustrated by the fact that San Francisco is to have a new democratic daily paper, conducted by a suffrage woman, and that woman is a former resident of this city. Miss Mary Fairbrother is to be the managing editor of the suffragists' new daily newspaper...She was one of the potent factors in the fight for equal suffrage in California, and when she gets her new pen into action it may be safely predicted, it will be a hummer... The fact that Miss Fairbrother is to conduct a democratic daily during the campaign in California indicates that democracy and equal suffrage are not deemed hostile in that state. Hundreds of old Nebraska acquaintances will wish that Miss Fairbrother may make her campaign paper so much of a household necessity that children will cry for it and that it may become a permanent institution in the exposition city."
While campaigning for suffrage, "the strong and fiery utterances of Mary Fairbrother appealed to the radical element of her hearers...." (How We Won the Vote in California, p 46). Her public speaking skills were noted in coverage of suffrage debates, by the San Francisco Call (Vol. 100, No. 76, 27 Sept 1916), with the comment, "When feminine oratory, in public debate, directs its rhetorical shafts upon the 'powers that be,' let political parties tremble for their future stability." Speaking as President of the Woman's State Democratic League, the news coverage noted, "The main fact established by the debate was that the good, old fashioned, mob swaying, empire destroying. Variety of Marc Anthony speech making is not a lost art."
She served as a Director of the California Club, President of the Woman's State Democratic League, and Women's Political League, while also a member of the Business Woman's League. She was also a member of the Pacific Coast Woman's Press Association, serving as Parliamentarian 1918-1921. In 1942, she is listed in the city directory as a music teacher, and in 1944 as an author's agent, continuing to live with her brothers in the Treat Avenue home they occupied for over a decade.
Mary Fairbrother died in San Francisco on 15 September, 1947. She is buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California.
Nebraska Advertiser (12 June 1879, p.3 Nebraska Advertiser (12 June 1879, p. 3.
Midland Monthly Magazine, Vols. 5-6
Winona Evans Reeves, The Blue Book of Nebraska Women, p. 234.
Proceedings of the NAWSA annual convention, 1897, p. 86.
San Francisco Directory, 1903, p. 651
San Francisco Call, Vol. 106, No. 11, 11 June 1909
Lincoln (Nebraska) Star, 14 July 1914
Nebraska State Journal, 6 May 1910, p. 4.
Lincoln (Nebraska) Star, 14 July 1914.
San Francisco Call., Vol 109, No. 177, 26 May 1911.
San Francisco Call, Vol. 110, No. 87, 26 Aug. 1911.
Selina Solomons, How We Won the Vote in California: A True Story of the Campaign of 1911 (1912), p 46.
San Francisco Call, Vol. 100, No. 76, 27 Sept 1916