Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920
Biography of Mary D. Brite, 1869-1952
By Kathleen Nutter, Retired Archivist, Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, MA
Mary Davis was born in Toledo, Ohio in December, 1869, the daughter of Perley B. Davis and Leana Ball Davis. After attending Columbus public schools, she attended the University of Cincinnati, though she did not earn a degree. She married Dr. Jacob R. Brite on November 21, 1893 and together they would have three children, all born in Cincinnati where the Brites resided: Hector L. Brite (1897-1984); Helen M. Brite (1899-1952); and James R. Brite (1904-1970). They divorced in 1914 and Mary D. Brite became increasingly active in the women's suffrage movement, often serving as an elected committee member such as in 1915 when she was elected corresponding secretary for the West End Political Equality League, Cincinnati.
Brite was also active in the more radical suffrage organization, the National Woman's Party (NWP), on the local and national level. In 1918, as the NWP Cincinnati District chair, she organized an emergency committee of 100 to solicit appeals to Ohio's senators on behalf of women's suffrage. Brite also served on the Circulation Committee for the NWP's newspaper, The Suffragist, in 1919. After the 19th Amendment became law in 1920, her activism seemed to accelerate even more, as she supported and spoke out for a number of leftist causes over the next two decades.
In 1921, Mary D. Brite joined the newly created Women's Committee for World Disarmament, serving as the Ohio state chair. A year later, in 1922, she was one of thirteen delegates to the first annual convention of the Federated Press League, formed to provide financial support to the Federated Press, a radical news service that began in 1920. A longtime advocate of free speech, Brite wrote in The Nation of her frustration when her attempt to organize an event featuring the prominent American socialist Eugene V. Debs in 1923 was seemingly challenged at every step. Nonetheless, "the meeting was held; many people heard Mr. Debs speak." However, three years later when she attempted to organize a street meeting in Cincinnati for the radical Ella Reeve "Mother" Bloor to speak about the then on-going Passaic, New Jersey textile workers strike, Brite was denied permission, as she also noted in The Nation.
An active supporter of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, Brite personally corresponded with the imprisoned Bartolomeo Vanzetti during the 1920s. Affiliated with the Farmer-Labor Party, she was nominated to run as a candidate for Ohio's lieutenant governor in 1924 and was elected a delegate to the party's national convention that same year where she, as an active member of the NWP still, spoke in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Brite was also a founding member of the Cincinnati branch of the League to Abolish Capital Punishment in 1928.
She supported peace efforts during World War I and joined the Women's International League for Peace of Freedom from its founding in 1919. In 1937 she served as chairman of the Cincinnati branch.
In 1922, Mary D. Brite was appointed the first secretary of the Cincinnati chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a position she held for the next seventeen years. Her work there would earn her mention in The Red Network" A "Who's Who and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots, published in 1934. One of the last campaigns she worked was in 1936 as part of the Fair Trial Committee, seeking justice for a twenty-year-old African American man from Kentucky, sentenced to hang for attacking a white woman. Brite retired from her position with the ACLU in 1939 and moved to New York City to be with family. She died in 1952 after a long life of activism which, as it was for so many others, was ignited by her involvement in the fight for women's suffrage.
American Civil Liberties Union. How Goes the Bill of Rights?: The Story of the Fight for Civil Liberty, 1935-1936. New York: American Civil Liberties Union, 1936.
American Civil Liberties Union, and Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee. "Mary D. Brite (American Civil Liberties Union), typed letter signed to Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, Cincinnati, Ohio, February 24, 1924 [Correspondence]. Digital Commonwealth, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/hx11zh180 (accessed Ap. 22, 2021).
Brite, Mary D. "Anyhow Debs Spoke in Cincinnati." The Nation, Vol. 117, no. 3029 (July 25, 1923): 87.
Brite, Mary D. "Free Speech (?) in Cincinnati." The Nation, Vol. 123, no. 3197 (Oct. 13, 1926): 344-345.
Dilling, Elizabeth. The Red Network: A "Who's Who" and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots. Kenilworth, IL.: published by the author, 1936.
FamilySearch. https://ancestors.familysearch.org/en/L7F4-C3L/mary-davis-1869-1952.com (accessed Apr. 22, 2021).
Leis, Betsy. A History of ACLU in Ohio. Cleveland, OH.: ACLU of Ohio, 1995.
Sketch of Mary D. Brite, in "Women of Ohio; a record of their achievements in the history of the state," published by the Allen County Public Library and accessible online at https://archive.org/stream/womenofohiorecor02neel/womenofohiorecor02neel_djvu.txt