Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Luella F. Smith McWhirter, 1859-1952
By Geoffrey N. Pollick, Ph.D., Radford University, Radford, VA
At the turn of the twentieth century, Luella McWhirter worked as a prominent leader and organizer in Indiana's temperance and women's club movements, and became a central advocate of women's suffrage in the state.
Born in 1859 at Perrysville, Indiana, Luella Smith was daughter of Susan Davis Smith and Rev. Hezekiah Smith, Jr., whose family had settled in central Indiana in 1820. Luella Smith attended East Tennessee Wesleyan College (Athens, TN) and DePauw University (Greencastle, IN). At East Tennessee Wesleyan College, Smith met Felix T. McWhirter and the two were married in 1878. After marriage, they resided briefly in Indianapolis and then in Greencastle, where Felix served on the English faculty of DePauw University. The couple returned to Indianapolis in 1888, where Felix founded the People's State Bank, at which Luella later served as a director.
In Indianapolis, Luella McWhirter initially focused her energies on temperance. From 1893 to 1896, she served as treasurer of the Indiana Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and then served as the organization's president (1896-1900). Between 1897 and 1913, and later, between 1919 and 1945, McWhirter edited The Message, the Indiana WCTU's newspaper. These efforts expanded in the 1910s as advocacy for a federal prohibition amendment increased, evident in McWhirter's 1917 vice presidency of the Indiana Dry Federation. McWhirter's early efforts in temperance activism led to her appointment by Indiana's governor to serve as the state's representative at the 1908 National Congress of Mothers. This reinforced her position as an influential reform movement leader in Indiana.
During the 1910s, McWhirter expanded this role by helping to broaden the scope of interest among Indiana women's clubs, shifting from a traditional emphasis on discussing literature to a more varied repertoire of social and cultural concerns. In 1912, she founded the Woman's Department Club -- which organized women around many different topics and reform causes -- and served as the Indiana state president of the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Additionally, between 1911 and 1918, McWhirter served in various leadership roles within the Indiana Federation of Clubs. Not only an organizer and leader of women's clubs, among these various groups McWhirter participated in efforts to advance transportation systems, contributed to war support efforts during the First World War, and promoted general moral reform causes.
McWhirter's leadership in temperance organizations and women's clubs contributed to her simultaneous work as an advocate for women's suffrage. In 1911, McWhirter helped to establish the Woman's Franchise League of Indiana and in 1917, she assumed the presidency of the Legislative Council of Indiana Women, which had been formed in 1914.
The Legislative Council drew together McWhirter's general concern for women's participation in moral reform with her specific interests in temperance and suffrage. As a lobbying entity, the Legislative Council combined the efforts of at least eight different women's organizations to shape a shared policy agenda and engage in direct advocacy in the Indiana General Assembly on behalf of women's policy interests. Under McWhirter's leadership, the Council promoted a particularly aggressive platform, calling for a state constitutional convention to redefine citizenship and allow for women's full suffrage in the state. The Council also supported a more limited but immediate granting of partial suffrage, allowing women to participate in municipal and school board elections, as well as legislative prohibition of alcohol.
In advancing these causes, McWhirter staked out a fundamentally conservative strategy for the Legislative Council by relying on arguments that drew on perceptions of women's superior moral position over men. In this frame, McWhirter and similar thinkers posited the necessity of granting women the franchise as a means of ensuring social morality. The strategy proved momentarily successful, as the 1917 General Assembly approved a partial suffrage measure, amended the state constitution to allow women full suffrage, and called for a constitutional convention to redefine voting rights. These measures were subsequently overturned in court rulings, but their initial success represents the importance of women's organizing and lobbying efforts in pursuit of the franchise.
After ratification of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, McWhirter continued her work as an organizer, reformer, and philanthropist, supporting causes beyond temperance and suffrage. She presided over the Indiana Conference Deaconess Board of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1920s and 1930s, led a fundraising guild to support the Indianapolis Methodist Hospital from the 1930s to the 1950s, and worked from the 1920s to the 1940s to expand women's access to higher education in the United States and to construct women's colleges in India and China.
A central organizer of Indiana's turn-of-the-century suffrage movement and a prominent participant in the state's reform movements of that era, Luella McWhirter died in 1952. Her contributions reflect the interests and aims of the conservative branch of the women's suffrage movement, emphasizing moral reform as a justification for women's access to the vote, rather than promotion of women's social and political equality with men.
McWhirter, Mrs. F.T. mss., 1873-1974. Papers of Luella Frances (Smith) McWhirter (Mrs. Felix Tony McWhirter), 1859-1952. Lilly Library, Indiana University-Bloomington. http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/findingaids/lilly/InU-Li-VAD8315
Felix Tony McWhirter papers. Archives of DePauw University and Indiana United Methodism, DePauw University, Indiana. https://depauw.libraryhost.com/repositories/2/resources/389
Kalvaitis, Jennifer M. "Indianapolis Women Working for the Right to Vote: The Forgotten Drama of 1917." M.A. thesis, Indiana University, 2013.
Morgan, Anita J. "We Must Be Fearless": The Woman Suffrage Movement in Indiana. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2020.
Springer, Barbara A. "Ladylike Reformers: Indiana Women and Progressive Reform, 1900-1920." Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1985.
Wright, Martha. "McWhirter, Luella Frances Smith." In Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, edited by David J. Bodenhamer, 952. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.