Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Alice E. Wakefield, 1858-1939
By Kailey Loughran, student, University of Vermont
Alice E. Wakefield was born on September 23, 1858, in Lyndon, Vermont, to Orenzo and Philura Wakefield. Alice Wakefield attended school at West Concord and was recognized for being a stellar student: her local newspaper mentioned her for achieving the honor roll and never being tardy or absent. Orenzo Wakefield, a farmer at the time of Alice's birth, moved the family from Concord to St. Johnsbury, where Alice lived most of her life. In 1873, she became a teacher at West Concord, an experience that inspired her future work advocating for child welfare in schools.
After graduating from the Women's Medical College of New York in 1889, Alice Wakefield became an assistant demonstrator and clinical instructor in New York City. She called for a federal Bureau of Physical Welfare to require mandatory health inspections in public schools. By 1900, she was an accomplished physician working in Manhattan, listed as an orthopedic pediatrician who specialized in diseases of the eyes, ears, nose, and throat. Wakefield became a well-known and outspoken defender of medical school graduates and the authority of medical science, something that was routinely questioned at the time.
Alice Wakefield was the first woman in St. Johnsbury to cast her ballot at the Town Meeting Day in October 1908. That same year, she and her younger sister and fellow suffragist, Kate Wakefield, joined the St. Johnsbury Woman's Club, both active members who gave lectures on school hygiene. Alice Wakefield openly supported the equal suffrage movement as well as the prohibition movement. On August 18, 1920, the St. Johnsbury (VT) Caledonian interviewed her for the article "St. Johnsbury Women Pleased Over Victory." In discussing her reaction to the suffrage victory, Wakefield stated: "The women hve [sic] been instrumental in bringing about two great movements in our national life, the defeat of the power of the saloon and the passage of the amendment granting equal suffrage." She supported both prohibition and suffrage.
By 1910 Alice Wakefield had moved back to St. Johnsbury to start her own practice. That year, she strongly emphasized the importance of competent physicians in early childhood health, presenting her case on school hygiene at a schoolmistresses' club in St. Johnsbury. During a public forum in May 1911, Wakefield argued for the need of medical inspections in public schools, the cause for which she would become best known. By June 1914, Wakefield was recognized for her work as a physician and was elected a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Founded in 1913, the society had only admitted six women prior to Wakefield becoming a fellow. Wakefield served as president of the Women's Medical Association of the City of New York in 1916 and alternated between her New York City residence and her St. Johnsbury home. She was most socially active in St. Johnsbury and was known to consider it her true home.
Alice Wakefield made many public statements in support of medical inspections in public schools, exposing the facts behind the poor state of health that most Vermont school children suffered. She collaborated with Middlebury College Professor Raymond McFarland on a presentation about detecting tuberculosis in schools, raising awareness of this public health issue for all of Vermont. From 1911-1920, Wakefield educated Vermonters on the serious concerns of childhood health by leading various public discussions and lectures at the St. Johnsbury Woman's Club, the Women Teachers' Club, the Farmers' Club, and the Parent-Teacher Association.
A highlight of Alice Wakefield's career as a physician was in October 1916, when she was a featured speaker at the joint conference of the Vermont branches of both the National Congress of Mothers and the Parent-Teacher Association. At other conferences held by the Parent-Teacher Association, Wakefield led discussions on the relation of women to a community's health.
The Burlington (VT) Free Press covered the annual conference on October 12, 1916, and summarized Wakefield's speech in the article, "Parent-Teacher Asso'tions." Concerning the high infant mortality rate in Vermont and the country, Wakefield emphasized that women "hold the key to solve this great problem, which is caused principally by ignorance, and it will never be settled until the women gain wisdom concerning heath."
Once the United States entered World War I, Alice Wakefield made public speeches on both the importance of American citizens in the war effort as well as equal suffrage. In September 1918, Wakefield spoke at the YWCA of Vermont to promote a campaign led by the Women Physicians for the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. She sponsored this campaign to raise money to tackle the strains of war conditions. Wakefield supported the YWCA's measures towards raising funds towards the war effort, applying her strong stance on equal suffrage to the cause. On July 12, 1918, the Burlington (VT) Free Press covered the Vermont Equal Suffrage Association meeting, where Wakefield spoke on the question of suffrage war service. Her speech was summarized in the article, "Vermont Suffragists and the Amendment." She was credited with claiming that the support for woman suffrage was equivalent with support for the war, highlighting that "the suffragists of this country have almost entirely financed the American overseas hospital." She advocated for the continued support of women in war torn areas "because the women of the world are the reserves."
Arguably the most prominent female speaker in St. Johnsbury at the time, Alice Wakefield gave speeches at state conventions for the Vermont Equal Suffrage Association. After the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, Wakefield continued to play an active role in the League of Women Voters, speaking on broad topics including conservation, food production, and child welfare in the state of Vermont.
Alice Wakefield was an outspoken supporter of women teachers. In 1921, she published an article in the Journal of Education encouraging women teachers to organize politically, to fight for their civic power, and to utilize their newly secured suffrage rights. Having never married, Wakefield lived with her sister Kate throughout her entire adult life. Alice Wakefield died on February 19, 1939, in St. Johnsbury at the age of 80. She was buried in Lyndon Center Cemetery in Lyndon, Vermont.
Burlington Free Press, various articles, 1909-1937. Newspapers.com.
"Directory of Women's Medical Societies," Women's Medical Journal 26, no. 3 (March 1916): ix. HathiTrust.
Find a Grave. Alice E. Wakefield. Posted March 2, 2016. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/158825010/alice-e-wakefield.
Harper, Ida Husted, ed. "Vermont," chapter 44 in History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 6: 1900-1920. New York: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922, pp.667-80. [LINK]