Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Mary "Margaret" Laughlin, 1863-1934

By Dr. Shannon M. Risk, Associate Professor of History, Niagara University

Maine Suffragist and Homemaker

Mary "Margaret" Laughlin was born a first-generation American on February 25, 1863, in Robbinston, Maine, near the border towns, Calais, Maine, and St. Stephens, New Brunswick. Her parents were Robert Clark Laughlin, a blacksmith and ironworker, born in Ireland, and Elizabeth "Bessie" Porter Stuart Laughlin, born in New Brunswick, Canada. Robbinston's location in the marshy wetlands of Northeastern Coastal Maine, near several lakes, supplied lumber mills, shipbuilding, as well as shoe and carriage factories, and fish canneries, with a population over 900 people. It was, like the other border towns along the St. Croix River, one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad, providing a network of those sympathetic to enslaved African Americans, that aided in their trek for freedom in Canada. The Civil War acted as a catalyst for change all along Coastal Maine, as steam-powered ships began to replace the old-masted ships. While innovations of the industrial era brought new opportunities, girls still lacked the same options in life that boys had. Out of this environment came two sisters with vastly different life trajectories. They rode the cusp of the second-to-third generation of women's suffragists, demonstrating the possibilities for women in the future. Margaret Laughlin's work in adulthood as a suffrage reformer was greatly overshadowed by her famous younger sister, Gail Laughlin, who achieved academic excellence, passed the bar exam, and argued a case in front of the Supreme Court. Gail rose through the ranks of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, and the National Woman's Party. Margaret's story, however, is a reminder that reformers came from all aspirations, including homemakers, who worked in their local communities, without much fanfare, to advance the cause of the women's vote.

From at least 1860 through 1876, Robert and Bessie Laughlin shared their home in Robbinston, with a large family, which included their children: Agnes (b. 1855--?), Alexander Thomas. (b. 1856), Elizabeth A. (1858-1864), Robert Stuart (b. 1860), Mary Margaret (b. 1863), Louis Brainerd (b. 1865), and Abbie H. (b. 1868, later known as Gail), and Frederick Joseph (b. 1872). Robert, Sr. did not seem to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War. Perhaps his ironworking skills were needed in place of military service for the North's cause.

The bustling Laughlin household thrived until disaster struck. The patriarch, Robert died in January 1876, and the large family soon became destitute. As a woman, Bessie lacked access to income, so she moved the children back to her hometown in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, where she could lean on her extended family. St. Stephen had been settled by white refugees from the American Revolutionary War in the 1780s. St. Stephen residents and those of Calais, Maine, often crossed the St. Croix River to conduct business, attend church services, and visit friends and family. St. Stephen was founded on lumber sources, shipbuilding, and various mills. When Bessie and her children arrived in St. Stephen, the province had joined the new Canadian Confederation nearly ten years prior and with this union, there were schemes to strengthen the system of railroads and shipping in the region. By 1871, St. Stephen had 3,000 people. Its major employer was the Ganong chocolate factory, but it shared similar industries to those in Robbinston and other towns in the area. Bessie's ancestors were some of the early white founders of the town--the Porters.

By 1880, the Laughlin family relocated to Portland, Maine, to be closer to the eldest son Thomas, who was employed as a clerk. His salary was enough to restore the family fortunes and allow the younger siblings to earn an education. Biographers wrote that the youngest daughter "Abbie," who later went by the first name Gail, observed her widowed mother's struggles to raise a large family, and vowed to help women improve their lives when she came of age. Gail worked to afford to attend Wellesley College and later to study the law at Cornell University. She passed the bar and sought opportunities in New York, Denver, and San Francisco, while engaging in the flurry of women's clubs in the 1890s and early 1900s that sought to promote women's professional options and access to political power. As the eldest surviving daughter, Margaret was expected to remain in Portland to assist her siblings, especially since she never married. Older daughters often helped their parents in old age, and when Bessie was widowed with a large household, no doubt Margaret had to step in to help, putting her own options aside. While we have few details, we know that throughout her life, Margaret usually resided with one of her siblings, it seems, to help them domestically. That did not keep Margaret from showing her support for various causes when there was a pause in her busy domestic life. Bessie Laughlin died on October 19, 1899, at the age of 70 and was buried in the family plot in Brewer Cemetery in Robbinston. After a period of mourning, this event freed Margaret to find full-time employment outside the home.

By 1900, Margaret was living on Winter Street in Portland with her older brother, Robert, his wife, Edith C., and their children, Curtis (b. 1898), and Robert (b. 1900), and a servant from Norway, Alba J. Nelson. Margaret worked as a bookkeeper during this time--a trade her younger sister Gail had pursued early in her own career--while Gail spent the years between 1902-1906, traveling the country, advocating for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Margaret stayed close to home while Gail built an impressive career as a lawyer and reformer, eventually moving from the NAWSA to the National Woman's Party, as well as campaigning for the Republican Party.

Margaret changed households by 1910, lodging at 118 Spring Street in Portland with another woman, Dr. Harriet Lewis, a physician, and graduate of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, along with Harriet's stepmother, Achsa Lewis, aged 70. In 1909, Lewis had collected 111 signatures on a women's suffrage petition from Portland and sent it to the Maine State Legislature. It is not known why Margaret lived in the Lewis household, but it did afford her some time to participate in the last decade of the Maine women's suffrage movement. In the years 1912-1914, Margaret served as the Superintendent of Enrollment for the Maine Woman Suffrage Association. The MWSA had been founded in 1873 in Portland, Maine, but drew strength from earlier suffrage movements in Bangor, Augusta, Portland, Belfast, and Ellsworth.

In 1916, Margaret's brother, Louis became a widower, after his wife Eva Augusta Sterling Laughlin passed away on July 20. While Louis managed his business, Maine Hardware Company, Margaret moved in with him and his children, daughters Esther, age 1, and Lucille, age 15, at 464 Deering Avenue in Portland. The home was two stories tall with mansard roofing, an upper-middle-class dwelling with generous grounds.

In the 1920s, the Laughlin family also had a property on Great Diamond Island in Casco Bay near Portland, owned by older brother Robert, a grain dealer in Portland, consisting of a small summer shack. The Island was incorporated into Portland but was only accessible by boat. It once housed a military base called Fort McKinley and later an artist community. The Laughlin family continued to own the property into the 1930s and 1940s.

Meanwhile, in 1923, Gail had returned to Portland from San Francisco with the ashes of her deceased life partner, Dr. Mary A. Sperry (d. 1919, during the influenza pandemic), and opened a law office with her brother Frederick Joseph. Gail supported the Prohibition movement, which resulted in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and Volsted Act, enacted in 1920. She ran for the Maine State House in 1929 and won several terms before successfully campaigning in 1935 for the Maine Senate. By the 1930s, Gail had secured fame as a major reformer, backing the Equal Rights Amendment, believing women and men should be treated equally in the eyes of the law instead of instituting special rules to protect women and children in the workplace. Twenty years before, she had written an expose on the working conditions of women and girls, so she understood what those groups faced on the factory floor--but she felt protection legislation would not cure the problem. She readily opposed the New Deal as well, believing in fiscal prudence. During this time, Margaret remained in the household of her brother, Louis, as noted in the 1930 census.

While Gail's career had blossomed into formal politics in the 1930s, many of her older siblings had reached the end of their life cycle. Margaret died on March 6, 1934, at the age of 71. She was buried in the family plot in Brewer Cemetery in Robbinston. Her older brother, Alexander Thomas Laughlin, died on April 4, 1935, and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Portland next to his wife, Helen Sarah Emory Laughlin (d. 1940). Another brother, Robert S. Laughlin, passed away on November 4, 1947, and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery as well.

Gail transitioned from Maine state senator into a new position as the first woman recorder of court decisions for the state, while continuing her law practice. She was forced to retire after a stroke in 1948. She outlived all but two of her siblings, passing away on March 13, 1952, in Portland. She was buried in Brooklawn Memorial Park in Portland, sharing a tombstone with her partner, Dr. Mary A. Sperry. Her obituary was carried by the New York Times, which noted her national leadership role in the American women's suffrage movement as well as her status as one of the early women permitted to bring a case to the Supreme Court. Margaret and Gail's brother Louis Brainerd Laughlin, passed away shortly afterwards on May 1, 1952, and was buried in Brooklawn Memorial Park in Portland. His wife, Eva, had been buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Portland after her death in 1916. Louis and Eva's daughter Esther (1905-1979), for whom his sister Margaret cared, remained single, served in the Army during WWII, and was buried in the Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Augusta, Maine. Esther, the niece of Margaret and Gail, lived a life that seemed to allow for the choices that her aunts struggled to access a generation earlier. Esther was nurtured and inspired by her single aunts to follow her aspirations. Frederick Joseph Laughlin, the youngest of the Laughlin children born to Robert and Bessie, was the last survivor of that generation, dying on May 26, 1952, and buried at Brooklawn Memorial Park in Portland.


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