Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Mary Swain Wagner, 1864-1937

By Mikayla Strzok and Layna Zahrt, students, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and Emma McClure, student, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Lobbyist and member of Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association, organizer and member of Political Equality League, founder of American Suffragettes

Mary Swain Wagner was born in 1864 in Poughkeepsie, New York, to George R. Wagner and Mary Savage Wagner. Wagner lived and went to school in Oshkosh, Wisconsin for a period of time in her childhood. She never married or had any children, instead she dedicated her life to a variety of issues and vocations. She was a teacher in Minneapolis, MN for ten years, taught drawing to afford university classes, and sold insurance for three years. Wagner attended Vassar, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Wisconsin. Throughout her life, she wrote one book and a collection of poems, both illustrated with her own drawings.

From 1910 through 1912, Mary Swain Wagner worked in the storied campaign to pass the suffrage amendment in Wisconsin. She was assigned to Wisconsin from New York by the National American Woman Suffrage Association to organize the legislative aspect of the party. She worked as a registered lobbyist in the state and was known for her innovative tactics. When suffragists were barred from holding demonstrations in the parks, she acquired permits to hold demonstrations in the street. This effort was a success, large crowds gathered to hear suffragists speak from parked automobiles. She was also responsible for bringing well-known English suffragist Phillipa Snowden to speak in Wisconsin. In 1911, she wrote Valentine's Day cards to every member of the state legislature to remind them of their duty to Wisconsin women. During her short time with the Wisconsin Woman's Suffrage Association (WWSA), she found that she ardently disagreed with the president, Olympia Brown, and the other "doddering old fools" in charge of the organization. She publicly accused other suffragists of being apathetic and she blamed Wisconsin's inability to win suffrage on the "indifference" of women. In March 1911, she was let go by the Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association. They claimed that her temporary work in the state had come to a natural end, but many believed she was fired for her feuds with WWSA's leadership.

Wagner did not believe her time in Wisconsin was over. Later in 1911, Wagner and Ada James, the vice-president of the WWSA, created a second, more modern group for the younger women of the WWSA, called the Political Equality League (PEL). The PEL represented a major schism in the suffrage movement. Wagner fought for the presidency of the PEL, but she lost to James. Although she was instrumental in the formation of the PEL, she did not stay with the organization long after losing. Instead she created her own organization, the American Suffragists, strictly for members in the Milwaukee area. While leading the American Suffragists, Wagner took on a new crusade: dismantling the so-called "suffrage trust." She believed there was a trust held by the leaders of the WWSA that was holding back the suffrage movement. She wanted any woman, regardless of financial backing, to be able to organize for suffrage and she believed that the trust stood in the way of this goal. The WWSA denied the existence of any trust.

Wagner was known as a militant leader due to her outspokenness and heated temper. At a suffrage meeting in Chicago for the PEL, Wagner openly criticized its leaders, Ada James and Crystal Eastman Benedict. This caused half of the women at the convention to walk out and they refused to return until Wagner was sent out.

Wagner achieved little success with her American Suffragists group. After two years in Wisconsin, she moved back to Poughkeepsie and used the $300 she had in her savings to open the Wagner Inn right next to Vassar College. She went on to write a book about her experiences there entitled the Inner Life of an Inn.

Mary Swain Wagner died on August 12, 1937.


"In the Cause of Suffrage, Miss Mary Wagner Will Try." The Washington Herald (Washington, D.C.), Nov. 23, 1914, p. 6.

"Mary Swain Wagner." Find A Grave Memorial no. 61390786, citing Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, Hennepin County, Minnesota, USA; Maintained by Jerri Eoff Sudderth (contributor 46802678).

"Miss Wagner Tells Experiences." The Vassar Miscellany News, October 4, 1922, pp. 4, 6.

"Necrology - 1895." Vassar Quarterly, October 15, 1937, pg. 36.

"No 'Woman Suffrage Trust'; So Says The State President; Answers Mrs. Mary Wagner." Racine Journal, October 17, 1911, pg. 1.

"Of Interest to Women." The Cairo Bulletin. (Cairo, Ill.), Oct. 22, 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

"Part with Miss Wagner: State Suffragists Release Worker- Mrs. Hooper a Director." Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, March 15, 1911, pg. 11.

"Strives to Break Suffrage Trust." Times Dispatch [Richmond, VA], October 30, 1911, pg. 9.

"Suffrage Leader Who Declares War on Hatpin." Madison Wisconsin State Journal, April 13, 1912, pg. 2.

"Suffrage Meeting in Warlike Ending: Mary Swain Wagner Bitterly Assails Campaign Methods at Milwaukee." Racine Journal News, May 24, 1912, pg. 4.

"Suffragettes in Wisconsin." The New York Times, October 20, 1911, pg. 8.

"Wagner, Mary Swain." Jane Addams Digital Edition.

"Women's Column." The Labor World, March 11, 1911, pg. 8.

Youmans, Theodora W. "How Wisconsin Women Won the Ballot." Wisconsin Magazine of History, 1921-22, pp. 3-32.

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