Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Margaret A. Watts, 1832-1905

By Alexis Doerr, research assistant at the Filson Historical Society, M.A. Critical & Curatorial Studies, University of Louisville

Margaret A. Watts was born in 1832 in Garrard County, Kentucky. Her father was Kentucky-born Congressman Simeon Anderson, and her mother was Amelia Owsley, making Margaret the granddaughter of Governor William Owsley. Her father practiced law before serving three terms in the State House of Representatives between the years of 1827-1837. Upon Simeon's death in 1840, his successor Mr. Thompson, remarked, "...his death was a public calamity, because the country...had been deprived of one of her most promising sons." Her family's social position and prominence provided Margaret with unique opportunities. Her obituary says it best, "By inheritance and environment she was fitted for life's highest spheres, and how keenly she recognized this fact, and how faithfully she honored this call to all that was noblest and best..." Margaret had three siblings. Her brother William Clayton Anderson became a Congressman like their father.

In 1860, Margaret married Robert A. Watts, who was born in Shelby County, Kentucky in 1825 to parents originally from Virginia. His father was a prominent teacher in Kentucky, and Robert studied under him, receiving little outside education while growing up. At the age of 20 Robert made a start in the drug business in Shelbyville, KY without any higher education. He was successful, but decided in 1852 at age 27 to pursue a secretary and treasurer position with the Lexington and Danville Railroad. The railroad industry is where he would stay; he rose to the position of chief clerk in the auditor's office and in 1878 he became secretary and treasurer of the City Railway Company. He held this position for the remainder of his life. Robert was also active in a wide range of civic activities. He was a member of the school board, and a life-long member of the Filson Club. Robert and Margaret were dedicated Presbyterians. Together, they raised two children: Julia and Robert.

Prior to joining the Louisville Equal Rights Association, Margaret Watts was on the Board of the Home for Friendless Women. In 1886, at the age of 54, she formed another community organization, The Louisville Ethical Symposium. It focused its efforts on "earnest, faithful work for mankind in general, but for women more especially." Members were encouraged to pursue "useful knowledge, self- culture by individual effort and the building of individual character."

According to the Louisville Equal Rights Association (LERA) Meeting Minutes, Margaret A. Watts was the first president of LERA. Although Susan Look Avery called together the first members at her house, Margaret Watts held the role of president from March 1889 to November 6, 1891. At the beginning of her presidency, she was 57 years old, making her one of the older members of the organization. In 1891 the meeting minutes read that Margaret Watts offered her resignation as President, being unable to give sufficient time to the work.

Watts continued to play an active role in state and national suffrage work throughout the 1890s. She served on KERA's "Committee of Six," which lobbied the legislature to pass laws that would benefit women. She was a delegate to the NAWSA convention in 1891. She became superintendent of KERA's Legislative Work in 1898.

Watts also continued her leadership and participation in community organizations. From 1891-1894 she served as the president of the Ramabai Circle in Louisville, which was introduced to the area by fellow LERA member Mrs. Caroline A. Leech. Many LERA members were also active in the Ramabai Circle; named after Pundita Ramabai, a high caste Brahma of India whom strived to raise money to endow a school for child-widows in India. Members of the Louisville Ramabai Circle took a pledge to remain members for ten years and give $1 each year. Margaret Watts is credited as being "untiring in her efforts toward keeping up the circle."

In 1894, at the age of 62 Margaret Watts was also president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Her interest in women's rights remained a constant: during an 1898 Kentucky Society of Dames meeting she asked whether the new National University was "intended for men only or for both sexes, and whether the various chairs were to be filled by men or by both men and women."

Robert Watts passed away in 1896, and Margaret passed in 1905 at the age of 73, due to pneumonia. She is buried in Bellevue Cemetery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the city where her daughter lived at the time. Her obituary reads, "not only the city of Louisville but the state has sustained a great loss, for she was truly a woman of deep thought, high aspiration and noble endeavor, lending helping hands to all who crossed her path..."


"A Tribute to Mrs. Margaret Anderson Watts." Danville Kentucky Advocate, May 5, 1905.

"Church Affairs." Stanford Interior Journal. October 19, 1894.

"Colonial Dames Talk Business and Pleasure," Louisville Courier-Journal. November 3, 1898.

"Ethical Symposium Finishes Year's Work." Louisville Courier-Journal, June 17, 1899.

Journal of the Tenth Annual Convention of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, December 1, 1898, University of Kentucky Special Collection, Lexington, Kentucky.

Kentucky, Compiled Marriages, 1802-1850; Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-2005; Kentucky, Death Records, 1852-1953.

KERA Minutes of the Third Annual Convention, 1890, 3, UK Special Collections.

Kentucky Equal Rights Association, Minutes of the Third Annual Convention, 1890, University of Kentucky Special Collections, Lexington, Kentucky.

"List of Members April, November 10th, May 6th," in "Minutes: Louisville Woman Suffrage Association, 1890-1915." Handwritten manuscript, Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky.

"Mrs. Margaret Anderson Watts," Daughters of the American Revolution (112). website.

"R.A. Watts Dead." Louisville Courier-Journal, March 7, 1896.

"Ramabai Circle." Louisville Courier-Journal, February 25, 1891.

"State Equal Rights Convention." The Richmond Climax. December 3, 1890.

"The Kentucky Senators." Louisville Courier-Journal, February 23, 1883.

"Twenty-Sixth Congress. Second Session. House of Representatives." Madisonian. December 17, 1840.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. Year: 1860; Census Place: Louisville Ward 6, Jefferson, Kentucky; Roll: M653_376; Page: 365; Image: 365; Family History Library Film: 803376. website.

"Watts." Danville Kentucky Advocate. May 3, 1905.

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