Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Belle Grossman, 1879-1977
By Beverly Wilson Palmer, History Department, Pomona College
Mary Belle Grossman is chiefly known for her pioneering career as the second female judge in Ohio. As a young attorney, she also worked to secure the vote for woman in her native state. Born in Cleveland in 1879 of parents who had previously emigrated from Hungary, she was one of nine children. Educated at the Euclid Avenue Business College, from 1896 to 1912, she worked as a stenographer in the law office of Louis J. Grossman, her cousin. She then attended Cleveland Law School and in 1918 was one of only two Ohio women to pass that state's bar exam and become a member of the American Bar Association. Grossman engaged in private practice until 1923. Encouraged by the Nineteenth Amendment permitting women to vote, Grossman ran for the office of municipal judge (a non-partisan position) in 1921, but was defeated. In 1923, however, she was elected and continued to be reelected until her retirement at age 80. She never married. Mary Belle Grossman was known as a severe jurist, earning the epithet "hard-boiled Mary." Stories circulated in Cleveland that indicted individuals tried to avoid coming before her by obtaining court hearings on Jewish holidays, knowing that Grossman would not be presiding. The Cleveland Press once quoted Grossman as a "militant feminist ... bad news to wife beaters, gamblers" and the like.
Given her legal career, it's not surprising that Grossman would have been a part of Ohio's drive for women's suffrage. According to Marian J. Morton, Grossman learned about campaigning through local canvassing as Ohio women sought suffrage in 1914 and again in 1917. Grossman served as chair of the Women's Suffrage League as well as treasurer of the Woman's Suffrage Party of Greater Cleveland. In 1914 Ohio women became the first state east of the Mississippi to launch a women's suffrage campaign. Virginia Abbott describes how Grossman marched with the Wage Earners' Suffrage League in a parade in October of that year: "we all had yellow corsages and we thought we were swell." After a defeat by nearly one-third of Ohio voters in 1914, the suffragists were again unsuccessful in 1916. During World War I, with other suffragists, Grossman worked on Liberty Loan drives. Encouragingly, in 1917, the Ohio legislature passed the Reynolds Bill, granting women the right to vote in the next presidential election. A referendum in November, however, repealed that law albeit with a smaller margin of defeat than previously. Thus, it was not until the U.S. Congress passed the 19th amendment on June 4, 1919 that suffrage became a possibility for Ohio women. Two days later, on June 6, 1919, by overwhelming margins, the Ohio legislature ratified the amendment, one of the first states to do so. Subsequently, Grossman became a charter member of the League of Women Voters of Cuyahoga County. By 1923 the Ohio legislature had granted full civil rights to all Ohio women.
Marian Morton describes how in 1970, celebrating the 50th anniversary of women's suffrage, Grossman recalled, "It was a great day for women. We all went down to register." Grossman passed away in Ohio in January 1977 at the age of 97.
Abbott, Virginia C., History of Woman Suffrage and the League of Women Voters in Cuyahoga County, 1911-45, Distribution Committee of the Cleveland Foundation, 1949
Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, ed. David D. Van Tassel and John J. Grabowski, Indiana University Press, 1987
Morton, Marian J. "Mary Belle Grossman," Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, Jewish Women's Archive http://jwa.org/ency/article/grossman-mary-belle
Knepper, George W., Ohio and its People, Kent State University Press, 1989
Roseboom, Eugene H. and Francis P. Weisenberger, A History of Ohio, Ohio State Archeological and History Society, 1953