Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of May Wright Sewall, 1844-1920


SEWALL, Mrs. May Wright, educator and woman suffragist, was born in Milwaukee, Wis. She is descended on both sides from old New England stock, on the father's side from the Montagues, of Massachusetts, and on the mother's side from the Bracketts, of New Hampshire. Her father, Philander Wright, was one of the early settlers of Milwaukee. Miss Wright entered the Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., and was graduated in 1866. She received the master's degree in 1871. After an experience of some years in the common schools of Michigan, she accepted the position of principal of the Plainwell high school, and later was principal of the high school in Franklin, Ind. From that position she was called to the Indianapolis high school as teacher of German, and was subsequently engaged to work in English literature. That was in the year 1871, and since that date she has resided in Indianapolis. In 1872 she became the wife of Edwin W. Thompson, of Paw Paw, Mich., a teacher by profession, but an invalid. Mr. Thompson died in 1875. In 1880 Mrs. Thompson resigned her position in the Indianapolis high school, receiving the unprecedented compliment of a special vote of thanks from the school board for her conspicuously successful work. In October of the same year she became the wife of Theodore L. Sewall, a graduate of Harvard, who had opened a classical school for boys in Indianapolis in 1876. In 1883 Mr. and Mrs. Sewall opened a classical school for girls, making the course identical with the requirements of the Harvard examinations for women. A private school for girls which made Latin, Greek and mathematics through trigonometry a part of its regular course was then a novelty in the West, but the immediate success of the girls' classical school showed that the public was quick to appreciate thorough work in the education of girls. The labor of carrying on two separate schools and a large boarding department becoming too great for one management, Mr. Sewall disposed of the boys' school in 1889. and since that time Mr. and Mrs. Sewall have given their whole attention to the school for girls. The school now has an annual enrollment of one-hundred-ninety pupils, including thirty in the boarding department. It has graduates in -ill the prominent colleges for women. About the time of her removal to Indianapolis, Mrs. Sewall became prominent in various lines of woman's work. Her varied powers found employment in the organisation of literary, social and reform movements. She soon became known as a lecturer and as a delegate to conventions called in the interest of the higher education of women and the promotion of the cause of woman's equality before the law. She inherited a passion for human liberty in all its phases, and she can not remember the time when she did not feel that men and women were not treated alike, and that the discrimination was in favor of men. One of her earliest griefs was that she could not enter Yale College, as her father had done. Her life-work has been founded on the conviction that all avenues of culture and usefulness should be open to women, and that, when that result is obtained, the law of natural selection may safely be trusted to draw women to those employments, and only those, fur which they are best fitted. She edited for two years a woman's column in the Indianapolis "Times," and she has written largely in the line of newspaper correspondence. She has prepared countless circulars, calls, programmes of work and constitutions, and carries at all times a very heavy personal correspondence. She is the author of the Indiana chapter in the "History of Woman Suffrage" edited by Miss Anthony, Mrs. Stanton and Mrs. Gage and of the "Report on Woman's Industries in Indiana" for the educational department of the New Orleans Exposition; of the chapter on the "Work of Women in Education in the Western States" in "Woman's Work in America," and of many slighter essays. Her first public appearance in reform work, outside of local efforts, was as a delegate from the 'Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society to the jubilee Convention in Rochester, N. Y., in 1878. Since that time she has been one of the mainstays of the cause If woman's advancement and has enjoyed the fullest confidence and the unqualified support of its leaders. Her writings and addresses are characterized by directness, simplicity and strength. Her extemporaneous addresses are marked by the same closeness of reasoning, clearness and power as her written ones, and they display a never-failing tact. She is conspicuously successful also as a presiding officer, a position in which she has had a long Red varied experience. Her work in various organizations: has been so extensive that its scope can hardly be indicated in a brief notice. She early organized conversation clubs and history classes in Indianapolis. She was one of the founders of the Indian apolis Equal Suffrage Society, the Indiana National Woman Suffrage Association, the Indianapolis Art Association, the International Council of Women, the National Council of Women, the Indianapolis Woman's Club, the Indianapolis Propylæum, the Indianapolis Ramabai Circle, the Indianapolis Contemporary Club, the Western Association of Collegiate Alumnæ and the Indiana University Extension Association, and she has held high offices in each. She was for seven years chairman of the executive committee of the National Woman Suffrage Association, is a member of Sorosis, the Association for the Advancement of Women, the American Historical Association and the Executive Hoard of the Federation of Women's Clubs. At the present time she holds the office of president in the following organizations: The Indianapolis Cotemporary Club, the Indianapolis Ramabai Circle, the Indianapolis Propylæum, and the Woman's National Council of the United States. She is now a member-at-large of the Indiana Board of Commissioners of the World's Fair, by appointment of Gov. Hovey. She has delivered addresses before most of the organizations above named, and also before committees of the Indiana legislature, committees of the United States Senate, the National Teachers' Association, the educational section of the New Orleans Exposition, high schools and colleges in all parts of the country, and the Century Club of Philadelphia, all she has appeared in many lecture courses. She always has more invitations to speak than she can accept. The work done by her in the lines indicated has been the work of her spare lime. Her profession is teaching, and to that she gives the ordinary working hours of the day. Her special work for several years has been in English literature and rhetoric, and in addition to that class-room work several hours daily of her time are given to the details of supervision in the Girls' Classical School, an institution which is her special pride The girls in that school are taught to dress plainly and comfortably, to which end they wear a school uniform, to practice gymnastics daily in the spacious and well-equipped school gymnasium, and to believe that all departments of knowledge are worthy of their attention and of right ought to be open to them. In addition to all those occupations, she attends to every detail of her housekeeping and has the oversight of the large boarding department of the school. To keep in hand that mass of heterogeneous work evidently implies the possession of great executive ability, good health and endless industry. The home of Mr. and Mrs. Sewall is ordered on the basis o( the largest hospitality. A side from the ordinary uses of social intercourse, it has entertained many a well-known guest, and literary "tramps" from all quarters have slept under its roof, including Baroness Gripenberg, from Finland. Pundita Ramabai, from India, and others from all parts between, as an inspection of its "tramp" register shows. Mr. and Mrs. Sewall have been abroad during three summers. In 1889 Mrs. Sewall was the delegate from the National Woman Suffrage Association and from the Woman's National Council of the United States to the International Congress of Women, assembled in Paris by the French Government, in connection with the Exposition Universelle. In that congress she responded for America, when the roll of nations was called, and later in the session gave one of the principal addresses, her subject being "The National Woman's Council of the United States." Her response for America, which was delivered in the French language, was highly praised for its aptness and eloquence by M. Jules Simon, who presided over the session.

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