Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Florence (Mrs. Fred S.) Fenner, 1875-1937
By Elisa Miller, Associate Professor of History, and Richard Aitchison, Undergraduate Student, Rhode Island College, Providence, Rhode Island
Headquarters Chairman and Honorary Vice President of the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association; Founding Member and Elections Laws Chairman of the League of Women Voters, Rhode Island Division; Chairman and Legislative Chairman of the Providence League of Women Voters; Director of Political Information for the Democratic Women Voters of Rhode Island; President of the Ladies' Department of the G.A.R. in Rhode Island; Founding Member and Legislative Chairman of the Rhode Island National Woman's Party; Legislative Chairman of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Rhode Island; Legislative Chairman of the Daughters of the United States Constitution of Rhode Island
Florence Hopkins was born in Providence, Rhode Island on March 4, 1875 to Alonzo Hopkins and Mary Kenyon Hopkins. Her father worked as a grocer and a farmer. Her paternal family had historic roots in Rhode Island going back to Thomas Hopkins, one of the original English settlers in Rhode Island in 1636. Other notable ancestors include Stephen Hopkins, Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, a long-term governor of Rhode Island, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Esek Hopkins, member of the Rhode Island Assembly and Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy during the Revolution. Florence Hopkins married Frederick S. Fenner, a widower, on March 4, 1908. The couple settled in Providence and did not have any children. Fred Fenner worked as a shoe salesman and owned a shoe store. Florence Fenner worked as a dressmaker early in their marriage and belonged to the Westminster Unitarian Church in Providence. Her mother, Mary Hopkins, lived with the Fenners after she divorced her husband. Fenner became active at the end of the Rhode Island suffrage movement and subsequently became a leader in the League of Women Voters, the National Woman's Party, and local political parties, usually under the name, "Mrs. Fred S. Fenner."
A 1920 article from The Providence Journal reported that Fenner had been a part of the suffrage movement as a member of the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association (RIESA) since 1914. It is not clear if that information is accurate since no other documentation of her activity as a suffragist before 1917 could be located. If accurate, the organization would have been the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association as the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association was not founded until 1915 when local organizations amalgamated. Rhode Island suffragists had been advocating for presidential suffrage, the right for women to vote in presidential elections, since 1892. In 1917, the Rhode Island General Assembly finally passed a presidential suffrage bill. At the RIESA convention the following month, Fenner served as a hostess at a celebratory dinner that was attended by the governor and other leading Rhode Island politicians and Nettie Rogers Shuler, NAWSA secretary. Sara L.G. Fittz, a Rhode Island suffragist, wrote an article for The Providence Journal about the presidential suffrage bill. In it she reported that Fenner had helped interview and lobby politicians on the suffrage bill at the Rhode Island State House in 1917 and possibly 1916 as well. Following the presidential suffrage bill in 1917, Fenner presided at a couple of RIESA meetings at which Fittz taught classes on civic issues for new women voters.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) encouraged suffragists to participate in war voluntarism as a way of demonstrating women's patriotism and citizenship and gaining support for the suffrage movement. Fenner was an active participant in war work in Rhode Island. She worked with the American Red Cross and recruited over three hundred women to train as nurses during the war. She conducted the recruitment campaign in the RIESA headquarters since there was no official Red Cross office in Providence. Fenner also qualified as a Red Cross nurse's aide herself for overseas work although she never served. She led a Liberty Loan war bond drive in which she organized fifty women in a two-day period to raise money for the war effort and served as chairman of child welfare and acting ward chairman for the Council of National Defence in Rhode Island.
In August 1918, Fenner was elected headquarters chairman for RIESA, a position she held until the suffrage ratification. As chairman, Fenner was responsible for making decisions related to the organization's headquarters in the Butler Exchange building in downtown Providence. She also served on the RIESA executive committee and collaborated frequently with Mary B. Anthony, who became RIESA president in 1918. Under Fenner's leadership, the RIESA office was open every afternoon of the week, more frequently than it had been previously and was used in the mornings by a child welfare committee and a food conservation committee. She arranged for new office space in the Butler Exchange and supervised the move when RIESA unexpectedly had to vacate its original office at the end of 1918. She also served on the RIESA nominations committee in 1918. On May 5, 1919, a large parade was held in Providence to welcome soldiers returning from the war. Fenner arranged an open house at the RIESA headquarters during the parade. The RIESA minutes report that one hundred and fifty people attended the suffrage reception and that Fenner stated, "It was a pleasant occasion, proving also good propaganda for our cause."
Throughout 1919, RIESA leaders worked to get the woman suffrage constitutional amendment ratified in Rhode Island. Fenner and RIESA president, Mary B. Anthony visited numerous Rhode Island political leaders to lobby them on the amendment and the possibility of a special legislative session to ratify it. In the summer of 1919, RIESA hired a new field secretary, Marjorie Thayer, to work on the ratification campaign. Fenner was appointed to a committee to assist Thayer with organizing work throughout the state. Fenner and a large group of suffragists met with the Rhode Island governor, R. Livingston Beeckman, to lobby him to call a special legislative session in July 1919. She also represented RIESA at the NAWSA conventions in both 1919 and 1920 and was appointed an honorary vice president of RIESA.
The 1919 NAWSA convention made plans for the transition to a new organization, the League of Women Voters, after the successful achievement of woman suffrage. Soon after that convention, RIESA leaders established the League of Women Voters, Rhode Island Division in April 1919. Fenner was a charter member of the new organization and appointed the chairman of election laws and methods. She helped establish smaller branches of the league throughout the state.
The League of Women Voters nationally and in Rhode Island was a non-partisan organization devoted to civic issues. In addition to her league work, in the fall of 1919, Fenner was appointed Director of Political Instruction for the Democratic Women Voters of Rhode Island, a woman's organization affiliated with the Rhode Island Democratic Party and the national Woman's Democratic Bureau. In this position, Fenner became a prominent activist in the Democratic Party of Rhode Island as suffragists tried to capitalize on the political influence achieved through the presidential suffrage bill and the imminent woman suffrage amendment. Fenner traveled throughout Rhode Island helping establish women's Democratic clubs and created a civic education program that the Woman's Democratic Bureau in Washington, D.C. used in its work as well.
In January 1920, the Rhode Island legislature ratified the woman suffrage amendment. Following the vote, Fenner and several other suffragists served refreshments at a celebratory reception. Governor Beeckman signed an enabling act in April 1920, to bolster the suffrage amendment and provide women the ability to vote. Fenner attended the signing ceremony and was featured in a photograph of the event in her position as a leader of the Democratic women of the state. In June 1920, Fenner was elected one of three women delegates to represent Rhode Island at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. The Providence Journal called the election of the women delegates an historic event that "is regarded by the women of the party as adding a definite chapter to the history of the political emancipation of women, a 'date in history' which will be listed in the annals of equal suffrage by the women of generations to come." At the convention, Fenner wanted to introduce a resolution in support of the Woodrow Wilson Administration at the Women's National Democratic Committee.
Fenner established a school of citizenship for the Democratic Party in 1920 and brought in Nancy Schoonmaker, a former suffragist from Connecticut, to hold classes. The Providence Journal reported that Fenner said that:
She feels that the women of the State will take an active part in politics as soon as they link the facts of their daily life to their Government. A part of the work of her department is to show these women the multitudinous ways in which the activities of the Government touch the home circle and daily occupation.
Fenner also helped create a Democratic Women's Bureau in Providence as a "central place where women may gain necessary information regarding politics" and held a mock election in 1920 to familiarize new women voters on the mechanics of voters. She gave speeches on various political issues, including one on "Why I am a Democrat" and one to the Rhode Island Congress of Mothers on the "the duties and responsibilities of mothers in regard to the public welfare."
As she was working for the Democratic Party, Fenner continued her affiliation with the League of Women Voters, Rhode Island Division. In 1920, as chairman of election laws and methods, she gave speeches on these issues in "practically all the towns of the State." At the end of 1920, most branches of the League of Women Voters in Rhode Island amalgamated and became the United League of Woman Voters. The Providence League of Women Voters (PLWV) was led by Sara M. Algeo and had emerged out of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party, a competitor to RIESA. The PLWV decided not to amalgamate and to remain an independent organization in the state. In the 1920s, Fenner primarily worked for the PLWV. In 1921, she became chairman of citizenship for the PLWV and supervised a series of free citizenship classes for Rhode Island women, primarily on political and governmental issues, but also financial ones as well. She also served as legislative chairman and lectured and lobbied on legislative reforms the PLWV supported. Sara M. Algeo, PLWV chair, wrote in The Providence Journal that Fenner "seldom misses a session of the Legislature." Fenner had started her political lobbying as a member of RIESA for suffrage; now she continued doing so and became much more prominent and influential as a political advocate for the PLWV. An important issue for Fenner and the PLWV was the property requirement for voting in Rhode Island, which limited the ability for women to vote despite the Nineteenth Amendment. She spoke about the need to remove the property qualification and stated that this reform would demonstrate that "justice and democracy are not purchased for $121." In addition, in the 1920s, Fenner served as legislative chair for the Rhode Island Woman's Christian Temperance Union, in which she focused on efforts to enforce and maintain prohibition of alcohol.
By 1923, Fenner and Sara Algeo were active in the PLWV and became charter members of a new Rhode Island branch of the National Woman's Party (RINWP). Alice Paul had created the NWP originally to organize and create pressure for the woman suffrage amendment and after the suffrage ratification argued that an Equal Rights Amendment was needed to prevent legal discrimination against women and provide them full equality. As she had with the PLWV, Fenner served as legislative chair for the RINWP and fought for reforms for women's equality. Fenner and Algeo were leaders of the PLWV and the RINWP and operated the organizations in a complementary manner. Fenner and the RINWP/PLWV had a legislative agenda for 1923 that included issues such as equal pay for women teachers, equal guardianship for fathers and mothers, and jury service for women. She argued that these reforms were "a desire on the part of women, now that they are voters, to realize the fullness of the franchise by being made full-fledged citizens." In addition, her legislative agenda included enforcement of prohibition, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill against racial violence, mothers' pensions, abolition of the property qualification for voting, and the education of foreign-born women voters.
Fenner's most prominent legislative concern was a proposed bill that would limit women's working hours to forty-eight hours. She claimed that protective legislation to "help" women actually hurt them legally and financially and that the bill should instead limit working hours for ALL workers, including women, men, and children. Fenner argued "women, who are enjoying the same suffrage rights as men are entitled to the same rights in the matter of contracting for their labor." She met with the Rhode Island governor to lobby him on this bill. Fenner also testified before a Rhode Island senate hearing against a proposed protective legislation bill that would ban the employment of women four week before and after they had given birth. The bill was proposed by Isabelle Ahearn O'Neill, a former suffragist, League of Women Voters member, and the first woman elected to the Rhode Island legislature. Most of the bills supported by Fenner and the RINWP failed in 1923. Fenner angrily criticized Rhode Island legislators as acting in an "autocratic" manner and that they were "lawmakers" but "not law-abiding." She predicted that the woman's party reforms would be passed within the next three years, stating, "It will be a long time before we get the right kind of men and women in the General Assembly. I believe now we are in midst of a wonderful revolution."
Partners in the PLWV and RINWP, Fenner and Algeo attended the National Woman's Party convention in 1923, held in Seneca Falls, New York to honor the birth place of the women's rights movement. In 1924, though, a split in the organizations took place and two versions of the PLWV emerged, one led by Algeo and one by Fenner. Algeo's PLWV group voted to disband in 1924. Fenner held a PLWV meeting while Algeo was out of town in which Fenner was elected the new chairman with the goal of continuing the organization. Each woman claimed that they were the leader of the real PLWV and criticized the other's actions as illegitimate. Fenner ended up continuing as PLWV chair at least until 1927 in collaboration with her work for the National Woman's Party.
The controversy in the PLWV carried over into the RINWP in 1925. The RINWP had not held elections or an annual meeting in 1924. Emma Tucker Kenyon, a RINWP member, wrote to the National Woman's Party claiming that there were no current officers and that Fenner had resigned as legislative chairman and the position was vacant. The national board appointed Kenyon the new chairman of the RINWP and told her to pick a new board. Fenner refused to resign as legislative chairman and issued a statement that read:
I have received no notification form the National Woman's Party that I no longer am to be in charge of the legislative work in Rhode Island. I was elected by the Rhode Island branch of the party, I have not resigned. The national council has no power to appoint officers of a branch. They should be elected by the members of the organization.
Afterward, Kenyon and the new board resigned their positions and Fenner continued as RINWP legislative chair, at least until 1926. In the mid-1920s, she focused on legal reforms about marriage, divorce, and parenting to provide more rights to women.
Fenner had emerged as a Democratic political leader in Rhode Island starting in 1919. By 1925, though, she had changed party affiliation and became a prominent Republican. It is not clear why she changed parties but her strong support for the Eighteenth Amendment for the prohibition of alcohol may have played a part. In 1925, Fenner starting working for the Ladies' Department of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R), a Republican organization. By 1926 she was a vice president of the organization; in 1928 she was elected president and attended the national convention of the G.A.R. in Denver. She became the national press chairman for the Ladies' G.A.R in 1930
In 1931, Fenner became active in the Rhode Island branch of a newly formed organization, the Daughters of the United States Constitution (DUSC). The purpose of the organization was to "teach respect and loyalty for the Constitution and to combat 'radical propaganda;'" its slogan was "America First." Her activism with the DUSC replaced and mirrored her work with the PLWV and RINWP. Fenner served as legislative chair and vice president for the Daughters and continued working for issues such as the end of discrimination against women in education, employment, the law, and the government and reform of marriage, parenting, and divorce laws. She also continued her civic education efforts and led an all-day informational event for the DUSC on how to mark a ballot and other voting issues in preparation for the November 1934 election. In addition to her political work, during the 1920s and 1930s, Fenner was active in the community as a member of the Federation of Church Societies, president of the Women's Alliance of the Westminster Unitarian Church, chairman of the Providence Women's Committee on Schools, member of the Rhode Island YWCA, and an officer of the Rhode Island Sorosis club, a women's philanthropic organization.
Fenner became ill with stomach cancer around 1936. Her last public event seems to be a Daughters of the United States Constitution of Rhode Island event in March 1936 in which she dressed as and represented Julia Ward Howe, a famous Rhode Island suffragist and author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Florence Fenner died at her Providence home on May 18, 1937. She is most likely buried in Riverside Cemetery in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where her husband is buried. Fenner was active in the suffrage movement in Rhode Island for a few critical years right before the achievement of woman suffrage. Following the suffrage ratification, she emerged as a state leader in women's activism in Rhode Island in the Democratic and Republican political parties, the League of Women Voters, and the National Woman's Party.
Women's Bureau at the State Democratic Headquarters (1920), Fenner is second from right. Elizabeth Upham Yates and Sara Fittz (Mrs. Jerome Fittz) had also been prominent suffragists.
"How Rhode Island Women Are Sharing in the Campaign," The Providence Journal), October 3, 1920. John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.
"First Women of the State in National Convention," The Providence Journal, May 16, 1920. John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, RI.
"Mrs. Fred. S. Fenner," The Providence Journal, April 5, 1931. John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.
Harper, Ida Husted, et al.,eds. The History of Woman Suffrage. Vol. 6: 1900-1920. New York: J.J. Little & Ives Company, 1922. [LINK]
"Act Enabling Vote for Women Signed." The Providence Journal, April 23, 1920.
"A Half Century of Suffrage." The Providence Journal, June 1, 1919.
Algeo, Sara M. "Women Enlist in Registration Work." The Providence Journal, March 26, 1922.
"All Officers of R.I. Woman's Party Resign." The Providence Journal, January 28, 1925.
"Anti-State Police Groups Are Scored." The Providence Journal, February 4, 1925.
"Assembly Keeps Woman's Party Measures Alive." The Providence Journal, April 4, 1923.
"Auxiliary Delegations Which Called on G.A.R." The Boston Globe, April 17, 1929.
"Battle in Voters' League at Climax." The Providence Journal, December 20, 1924.
"Beeckman Favors Suffrage Session." The Providence Journal, July 18, 1919. "Providence" The Boston Globe, June 6, 1920.
"Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations." The Providence Journal, February 20, 1921.
"Daughters of U.S. Constitution to have Information Bureau." The Providence Journal, November 6, 1934.
"Delegates Tender Convention Report." The Providence Journal, August 1, 1923.
"D. of U.S.C. Seek Charter Today." The Boston Globe, November 30, 1931.
"Early Passage of 48-Hour Law is Urged by Woman." The Providence Journal, January 31, 1923.
"First Women of the State in National Convention." The Providence Journal. May 16, 1920.
"Family Relations Court Advocated." The Providence Journal, April 3, 1933.
Fittz, Sara L.G. "'How We Won Suffrage:' 'Inside Play' of Rhode Island's Long Campaign Described by One of its Leaders." The Providence Journal, April 29, 1917.
"Free Citizenship Courses." The Providence Journal, May 14, 1922.
"48-Hour Law Held Encroachment of Women's Liberty." The Providence Journal, March 14, 1923.
"G.A.R Auxiliary Urged to Vote." The Providence Journal, April 10, 1928.
"Governor Beeckman Signs Act Providing Machinery for Women's Participation in Elections after Ratification of Amendment." The Providence Journal, April 23, 1920.
Handbook of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and Proceedings of the Victory Convention, National American Woman Suffrage Association (1869-1920) and First National Congress, the League of Women Voters. Chicago, IL. February 12-18, 1920. New York: National American Women Suffrage Association, 1920.
"How Rhode Island Women Are Sharing in the Campaign." The Providence Journal, October 3, 1920.
"Lavander Explains Assembly's Work for Women Voters." The Providence Journal, April 26, 1922.
"Leaders in Ladies at the G.A.R Convention Here." The Providence Journal. April 8, 1930.
"Lecturer Praises President Wilson." The Providence Journal, May 21, 1920.
"Majority in Senate Forced to Yield, Mrs. F.S. Fenner Declares." The Providence Journal, April 25, 1923.
"McGrante and Dunne Speak before Democratic Rally." The Providence Journal, October 20, 1922.
"Mrs. Fitzsimons Irks Unit in Talk." The Providence Journal, June 21, 1934.
"Mrs. Fred. S. Fenner." The Providence Journal, April 5, 1931.
"Mrs. F.S. Fenner dead at her home." The Providence Journal, May 19, 1937.
"Mrs. F.S. Fenner Declines to Quit Legislative Job." The Providence Journal. January 10, 1925.
Proceedings of the Women's Industrial Conference, Called by the Women's Bureau of the United States Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., January 11, 12, and 13, 1923. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1923.
"Proposed 48-Hour Law Is Denounced." The Providence Journal, January 29, 1923.
Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association Records, 1868-1930. Rhode Island State Archives, Providence, Rhode Island.
"Rhode Island Women to Vote at Convention." The Boston Post, June 24, 1920.
"R.I. Folks are active: Several from this state have official duties important Capacities." The Providence Journal, August 27, 1930.
"Some of Newly Elected Officers of R.I. Department, G.A.R. and High Officials of Women's Relief Corps." The Providence Journal, April 10, 1928.
"Special Program Feature Will Honor Maud Ballington Booth." The Providence Journal, March 29, 1936.
"State Delegates in Disagreement." The Providence Journal, June 24, 1920.
"State House Brevities." The Providence Journal, April 2, 1919.
"Suffrage Leader Hails R.I. Victory." The Providence Journal, January 9, 1920.
"Temporary Officers of National Woman's Party Appointed." The Providence Journal, January 9, 1925.
"Ten Women Launch New R.I. Woman's Party on Its Course." The Providence Journal, March 7, 1923.
"Thrift Talk Given to Women Voters." The Providence Journal, December 7, 1921.
"Turning up for the Real Thing. The Woman Citizen 5, No. 16 (September 18, 1920), 436.
"W.C.T.U. Indorses State Police Plan; Mrs. F.S Fenner Sponsor." The Providence Journal, February 7, 1925.
"Westerly." The Norwich Bulletin (Norwich, Connecticut), October 14, 1920.
"Women Advocate 22 Proposed Acts." The Providence Journal, March 15, 1923.
"Women Democrats Enter Campaign." The Providence Journal, September 21, 1920.
"Women See Danger in 48 Hour Bills." The Providence Journal, February 5, 1923.
"Women Urged to Register Despite Year's Inactivity." The Providence Journal, May 9, 1923.