Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Augusta Cooper Bristol, 1835-1910

By Karen Seehausen, independent historian

When Augusta Cooper Bristol died in 1910, she was recognized as one of the most popular and eloquent public speakers in America. Although she made clear in her speeches and writing that women had always been entitled to full citizenship, it wasn't until the last years of her life that she applied her oratorical skills to advocating for passage of the 19th Amendment.

Augusta's story begins in the mountains of New Hampshire. The youngest of ten children, she was born on April 17, 1835 in Croydon. Lively and precocious, she wrote poetry as a child, attended public and private schools demonstrating an aptitude for math, and began teaching at the age of 15. In 1857, Augusta married New Hampshire publisher Gustavus Kimball. The couple moved to Chicago. Augusta was not happy in the mid-West and the marriage deteriorated. In 1861 Augusta returned to New Hampshire with their daughter Annie and the couple divorced. To support herself and Annie, Augusta found work writing articles for regional publications. Her writing attracted the attention and admiration of New Haven lawyer Louis Bristol. She and Louis married in 1866. Following the birth of their son Otis, Augusta's first book, Poems, was published. At a neighborhood gathering, Bristol gave a speech which was very well-received. News of her presentation spread and she was invited to speak elsewhere. The topic of the speech is not known but it is likely she spoke on themes introduced in her second book, Enlightened Motherhood. (In 1873 at the Union League in NYC, she delivered the first paper at the meeting of the Women's Association for the Advancement of Women. The address was based on this book).

In 1871, the Bristol family moved to Vineland, NJ. Margaret "Bessie" was born in 1872. Two years later, Otis died in an accident. To help cope with her grief over her son's death, Bristol immersed herself in writings on social theory. She concentrated on the work of Herbert Spencer and August Comte and adopted their approach to the study of behavior through scientific analysis known as positivism. She published three books between 1876-1878 including The Relation of the Maternal Function to the Woman's Intellect and Science and its Relation to Human Character. Her reputation as a social scientist was established and she was invited to give a series of lectures in New York City for the Positivist Society. In the 1880s, Bristol toured the West urging better working conditions and improved relations between labor and management. She gave speeches entitled "The Scientific Basis of Morality' and "The Farmer's Relation to Society and His Duties as a Citizen of the Republic". In 1893, she was one of 150 white women from the US and countries around the world who presented papers in their areas of specialization at the World's Congress of Representative Women at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In her paper "Woman, the New Factor in Economics," Bristol proposed that women are at the same time "the oldest, as well as the newest factor in economics." She went on to explain that historically women served as managers of the household playing the principal role in the economic well-being of society and that with the industrialized economy of the 19th century women had progressed from their oldest and original position as consumer to that of producer of wealth. In June 1896 in a letter to the editor of the Reading Times, Bristol expanded upon women's place in the economic scheme. She argued that the right to vote was imperative to leveling the playing field in an idustrialized society driven by competition. In a concluding paragraph she wrote: "How little the opponents of woman suffrage perceive and understand, that in the final analysis this is a question of self preservation in an arena of conflicting forces; and that it is unrelated to personal ambitions as was the cry of Peter to his Master, when he found himself sinking."

In addition to life on the lecture circuit, Bristol was active in groups closer to home that supported universal suffrage. Although she herself was ineligible to vote, she placed the name of Col. Benjamin Franklin Butler in nomination as the Greenback Party candidate for President in 1884. The Greenbacks had included a suffrage plank at the convention in 1880. She also campaigned for her husband when he ran for Congress on the Greenback ticket in 1882. At the request of Frances Willard, the second president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Bristol managed the organization's Department of Labor and Capital for two years. The WCTU was the first large organization of women to publicly support woman suffrage.

During the thirty years Bristol spent delivering speeches and lectures, she shared the stage with the most prominent American suffragists. Why had she never used the speaker's platform to rally support for passage of the 19th Amendment? In a newspaper interview in 1960, her daughter Bessie Bristol Mason provided an answer, saying that her mother "never directly campaigned for woman suffrage, deferring to women 'with a larger aptitude for that work,' but believed that her work for general social advancement might have helped convince men of women's capability for 'taking a practical hand in the social machinery.'" However, in an earlier interview in 1955, Mrs. Mason recalled that in 1908 her mother had received an urgent request from Susan B. Anthony asking her to come to California to speak on behalf of the suffrage movement. She described her mother's reaction: "She had never spoken on that subject and felt that it was entirely out of her line, but a request coming from such a quarter could not be disregarded." Her mother did go to California. Her daughter Annie who lived in San Diego met her. This trip, during which Augusta Bristol would for the first time take the platform to argue in favor of the passage of the 19th Amendment, would be her last speaking tour. Augusta Cooper Bristol died at home in Vineland on October 3, 1910.

Sources: The information contained in this biography is substantially accurate; note however that the date for the year of the ratification of the 19th Amendment (1920) is erroneously reported as 1910.

Willard, Frances Elizabeth. A Woman of the Century: fourteen hundred-seventy biographical sketches accompanied by portraits of leading American women in all walks of life. 1893. [LINK]

"The Women's Convention". The Herald and Mail (Columbia, Tennessee). 14 Nov 1873; p. 6.

Wells, Ida B. Crusade for Justice, ed. Alfreda M. Duster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970: pp. 115-19.

"Congress of Women". The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois) 15 May 1893; p. 1.

Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition Chicago, USA. Chicago: Monarch Book Company, 1894: pp. 80-86.

Bristol, Augusta Cooper. Letter. Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania). 09 June 1896: p 1.

"The Greenbackers." The Morning Post (Camden, New Jersey) 13 July 1882: p 1.

"The Greenback Party".

Cotton, A.C. Evening Journal (Vineland, New Jersey). 16 Oct 1882: p. 1.

"History of Women's Movement: Part I".

Stuges, Cicely. "Vineland is 99 Years Old." The Daily Journal (Vineland, New Jersey) 08 Aug 1960: p. 2.

Slome, Stan. "Mrs. Bristol, Vinelander Who Died in 1910, Gained Fame as Lecturer, Fighter for Labor." The Daily Journal (Vineland, New Jersey). 06 Oct 1955: p. 8.

"Mrs. Bristol Dead." Asbury Park Press (Asbury Park, New Jersey) 07 Oct 1910: p. 2.

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