Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Jeannette S. French, 1847-1918
By Elisa Miller, Associate Professor of History, and Lindsey Reinhart, Undergraduate Student, Rhode Island College, Providence, Rhode Island
President, Vice President, and Legislative Chair of the Rhode Island Women Suffrage Association, President of the Pawtucket Women Suffrage League, Editor and Publisher of The Woman Citizen (RI), Rhode Island Vice President of the New England Woman Suffrage Association, Member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Daughters of the Heather.
Jeannette Elizabeth Schouler was born on March 25, 1847 in Billerica, Massachusetts to William Schouler and Susan Wormwood Schouler. She was named after her paternal grandmother. Her father had emigrated from Scotland and worked as a printer. Her mother died of tuberculosis in 1852, when Jeannette was five years old. In addition to her mother's death, two of siblings died during her childhood. She primarily lived in South Acton, Massachusetts but moved to Chelsea, Massachusetts by 1870; both towns are on the outskirts of Boston. At some point, she worked as a public schoolteacher.
Schouler's earliest known involvement in the suffrage movement was in 1873, when she sent a letter with a donation or membership fee to the American Woman Suffrage Association, the predecessor to the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She wrote, "I feel great interest in the cause of Woman Suffrage." In 1911, The Woman's Journal, the suffrage newspaper, referred to her as having been "identified with the movement for 41 years," which would date 1870 as the beginning of her suffrage activism. In the 1880s, Schouler was listed as a member of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association.
On July 11, 1888, at the age of forty-one, Schouler married Benjamin S. French, a marble cutter who was fifteen years older than her. They settled in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Benjamin French died of bronchitis on November 4, 1893; the couple had no children and only been married for five years. As a widow, Jeannette S. French became increasingly active in the woman suffrage movement. She also was active in the local Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Daughters of the Heather, a philanthropic organization of women with Scottish ancestry.
Once she moved to Pawtucket, French continued her woman suffrage work. (Note: her name was frequently misspelled as "Jeanette," Jenette," or "Janet.") By 1888 she was secretary of the Pawtucket Woman Suffrage League (PWSL), a new organization that was affiliated with the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association (RIWSA). She eventually served as the long-term president of the PWSL. Her sister, Susan O. Schouler, lived with her in Pawtucket after French's husband died and was active in the PWSL until her death in 1899. In addition to her Pawtucket suffrage work, French served on the executive committee for RIWSA by 1890. During her long history with RIWSA, French served as its president, led an extensive effort for a presidential suffrage bill that would give women the right to vote in presidential elections, and created a suffrage newspaper. French also gave speeches about suffrage at meetings of the Pawtucket and state associations and in the community. She attended numerous NAWSA conventions and served as a vice president from Rhode Island of the New England Woman Suffrage Association. In 1890, French supervised the Rhode Island booth at the NAWSA "National Suffrage Bazar" in New York City in 1900. In 1894, French spoke before the United States Judiciary Committee on woman suffrage with a delegation of suffragists led by Susan B. Anthony.
French was a pioneer in RIWSA and NAWSA for her presidential suffrage work. In 1892, she wrote the draft of the bill that was introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly. She explained that presidential suffrage was the goal because it was easier to accomplish, not that she did not support full suffrage for women, saying, "We are asking for the power to vote for presidential electors, not because we are too modest to ask for full suffrage, but because that cannot be given to us without an amendment to our state constitution." French and RIWSA worked tirelessly for the presidential bill for many years as it was repeatedly postponed, killed in committees, and denied a full vote. She lobbied politicians, created new kinds of outreach to political leaders and the public about woman suffrage, and testified at numerous legislative hearings. The presidential suffrage bill was finally passed by the legislature in April 1917, twenty-five years after French had first introduced it. Her work over a long period of time was critical in keeping the presidential suffrage issue active and enabling its ultimate success.
During the bill's first year in 1892, French testified at a House hearing on presidential suffrage. In her testimonies, she revealed many of her ideas and strategies for suffrage, including comparing the treatment of women to that of male voters. Henry B. Blackwell was a prominent woman's right activist and helped initiate the presidential suffrage issue in Rhode Island. According to his account, at the hearing, French presented statistics that showed that half of legal male voters in Pawtucket failed to register or vote in the previous election. "Yet," French claimed, "no one proposed to disfranchise these men." In a letter to the editor in The Providence Journal, she also challenged arguments against woman suffrage, writing, "Military service is not a qualification for the suffrage. If it were...[many] excellent men would not be voters." The Woman's Journal praised her efforts, reporting, "Mrs. Jeannette S. French lately scored a brilliant success as a political speaker in Rhode Island." Besides lobbying politicians, French served on a RIWSA committee that spoke with various labor organizations in the state to try to secure their support for woman suffrage.
At an 1895 hearing, French claimed that women wanted the vote as a sign of their humanity and loyalty to the country. She explained, "It is humiliating to belong to a class the opinions of which are never counted. Both the individual and the State suffer material loss because of the disfranchisement of women." In addition, she complained:
The woman question is continually changing. It used to be 'Can women be educated?' then, 'Shall they be educated?' then, 'Can married women be allowed to hold property?' then, 'Can a married woman be safely allowed to sell her own personal property?' All these questions you have answered in the affirmative. Can you not trust us further?
In a speech at a RIWSA meeting, French continued on the theme that it was dehumanizing to exclude women from voting. She stated, "It is an indignity to class he[r] with minors, aliens, paupers, idiots, criminals and lunatics." At a RIWSA meeting in 1900, French expressed the idea that all races of men should have the vote. She said that she hoped that the anti-imperialism movement would lead people to realize that it was wrong "to disfranchise a man be he Fillippino [sic], Cuban or Mexican and that the ignoring of the humanity of woman by disfranchising them has had a tendency to lower our idea of justice in relation to men of other races." In testimony before a commission on revising the Rhode Island state constitution in 1897, French drew on American political principles. She pleaded with the commission to add woman suffrage to the constitution, stating, "We ask you to help us obtain equal political rights with men. We do this in order to establish a republican form of government - that form guaranteed by the national constitution."
At other times, French stressed the ideas of maternalism, that women were naturally more moral and nurturing than men and would bring these traits to politics. In one hearing, she argued that politics needed "voting mothers." At another hearing, she opposed a suggestion to eliminate one branch of the General Assembly and stated, "I propose that we have two bodies of equal power, one made up of men and the other of women. You know we have a duality of human nature, and the consideration by both men and women would bring about right conclusions on important subjects."
French continued working on presidential suffrage throughout the 1890s and into the 1900s. By 1903, French was elected first vice president of RIWSA and served on a committee that wrote a letter to be sent to prominent men and women in the state asking for their opinion on presidential rights for women. Later they submitted petitions with many signatures on woman suffrage to the legislature. In front of a full gallery, French spoke again before the committee. She argued that "with the exception of those in several Western states, women are practically the same as children, and they wanted to be recognized as being of rather more importance." Evoking the history of the Civil War, French noted that when Confederate General Jefferson Davis was captured at the end of the war, "the Government could think of no worse punishment than to disfranchise him, or reduce him to the level of womanhood." In 1903, it seemed that the bill had the possibility of getting a full vote. Governor Lucian Garvin supported the bill and testified at the hearing, as did Henry B. Blackwell. The committee granted the suffragists a second hearing, but then adjourned before that occurred.
By 1904, French served as the legislative chair of RIWSA and continued her political lobbying on the presidential suffrage bill. She drew up another version of the bill, which she provided to a Representative Benjamin Wilbour to present, collected additional petitions, created suffrage leaflets to distribute, and hired a judge to assist RIWSA by writing a legal brief for publication and answering their legal questions. She urged RIWSA members to contact their state representatives and try to convince them about the suffrage bill. French was a frequent visitor at the State House. In The Woman's Journal, she wrote that she overheard two men talking at the Rhode Island State House. One said, "We are going to have woman suffrage to-day." His friend replied, "We have it every day." French noted, "Yes, they do have it often, in oral or written form, and we hope that by and by we shall get the favor of the floors as well as of the committees." The bill did not pass in 1904, but the RIWSA member issued French "a hearty vote of thanks from the association for her untiring labors during the campaign for Presidential Suffrage for Women."
In addition to her work in Rhode Island, French lobbied national politicians on suffrage. In 1905, the U.S. Congress was considering legislation that would admit Arizona and Oklahoma as new states. French and two other Pawtucket suffragist wrote a letter to every member of the Congressional Territorial Committee and Rhode Island representatives and senators in the House and Senate. They urged the politicians not to admit these states with restrictions on women voting, writing, "We believe that Congress should not pass an act that will make it difficult for the women of the new States to obtain enfranchisement..."
In the October 1905, French was elected as RIWSA president, replacing Ardelia C. Dewing who had resigned. French served until October 1907, when she refused a renomination. Her legislative work on presidential suffrage continued during and after her two years as president. Henry B. Blackwell praised French's leadership, writing in The Woman's Journal:
The steady growth of opinion in the Rhode Island Legislature is largely due to the singular energy and ability of Mrs. Jeannette S. French of Pawtucket, the president of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association. Her tact and persistency and won enthusiastic appreciation from Rhode Island suffragists, and have commanded sympathy and respect even from opponents. No wiser or more efficient leader could have been selected to conduct the campaigns of the two past years.
Blackwell's account explained that French and another suffragist had visited the capitol every day, met with legislators personally, and that because of their efforts, the bill would have passed, "had it not been held back by a single vote in the committee on special legislation."
During her lobbying efforts, French often came up against resistant politicians. She met with the chair of the house committee on special legislation about the presidential suffrage bill in 1907. When he told her that the bill would die in the committee and not get a vote from the Assembly, French commented to him that women would have to continue their struggle to break their chains. She remembered that the male politician "looked very much surprised and said, 'Break your chains, Mrs. French? They are chains of roses.'" In a letter to the editor, French criticized the ability of legislators to kill bills in committees instead of allowing them to receive a full vote. She argued, "Acts for which thousands of citizens have petitioned may be refused consideration by the will or vote of three or four men. Is this the intent of our Constitution?" She accused Charles R. Brayton, the leader of the Republican political machine in Rhode Island, of wielding too much power over the General Assembly and legislators were sympathetic to the suffrage bill but afraid of disagreeing with Brayton. French recalled an interaction she had with Brayton when she asked him about woman suffrage. Brayon said to her, "I am working for the Republican party. I think that woman suffrage would help the Democrats, particularly in Pawtucket." French noted, "We might as well have addressed the marble wall."
To complement the legislative efforts, French implemented a new tactic in 1905, a pamphlet titled The Woman Citizen. It was meant as a one-time political measure, highlighting the presidential suffrage issue, and copies were placed on the desk of every Rhode Island legislator. Afterward, though, French decided to continue it as a monthly newspaper and it became the official publication of RIWSA. The paper ran for ten years, with French serving as editor and publisher, and funding the effort herself. NAWSA's History of Woman Suffrage referred to French's newspaper as "a valuable contribution to the movement for woman suffrage." The Woman's Journal called it "an exceedingly bright and attractive little campaign paper" and noted that it was an important rejoinder to The Remonstrance, anti-suffrage journal that opponents of suffrage in Massachusetts were distributing in the Rhode Island Assembly.
The newspaper contained a variety of information about suffrage issues, leaders, and meetings in Rhode Island and nationally, as well as occasionally covering related issues such as child labor legislation. In The Woman's Journal, French explained that the Rhode Island newspaper was not meant as competition for the national suffrage newspaper but instead as "a feeder for that paper." An advertisement for The Woman Citizen stated that it was an effort to convince legislators that a "flourishing civil State may stand and be best maintained with political power in the hands of men and women" and urged people to subscribe.
French did the bulk of the work for The Woman Citizen, collecting news stories and writing editorials and articles. On a couple of occasions, she published original songs and poems that she wrote, including one titled "The People" that read, in part:
On election day you are overlooked
Though by tax assessors you're always booked
The opinions of women, though greatly needed
In affairs of State, are seldom heeded...
Surely the time is coming when
"The people" will be the women and men
The largest goal of the newspaper was transmitting information and ideas about woman suffrage to supporters, legislators, and the public. In 1906, however, RIWSA was facing a large budget shortage and some RIWSA members feared that the organization might die. French reassured them that the organization would survive and noted that "the best way to get money was to get new members and new subscribers to the Woman Citizen."
After resigning as RIWSA president in 1907, French continued to work on legislative lobbying for presidential suffrage and editing The Woman Citizen. Emmeline Pankhurst, the noted and controversial British militant suffragette, conducted a lecture tour in the United States in 1909. French traveled with Pankhurst to Boston. She later told The Providence Journal that, "I don't propose militancy. I think the spirit of the men here is different from what it is in England, but if I were in England I would be with Mrs. Pankhurst." In addition to her suffrage activism, French worked on behalf of other social reforms. In 1907 she was a delegate at the national convention of the United Textile Workers of America. At the meeting, she presented a resolution that was adopted by the union that called for limiting women and children's working hours to fifty-four hours a week. This type of legislation was known as "protective legislation" which looked out for the well-being of women and child workers. French also went directly to the House and Senate to request three plans of legislation. She also advocated for legal changes including providing equal guardianship over children to fathers and mothers. She also served on the Rhode Island Board of Female Visitors to Penal Institutions. Later, in 1914, she was nominated to run for the Pawtucket School Board by the Democratic Party but it does not seem that she ran or won.
Despite her efforts, French saw setbacks in the suffrage movement. In 1909, the Rhode Island House recommended postponing the presidential suffrage bill once again. French stated that "Woman suffrage in the State of Rhode Island has never in its history had so much strength, as applied to the number of women enlisted in the cause" as they did in 1909. "Yet," she bemoaned, "never in its history has [the Rhode Island suffrage movement] been so little effective as it is at the present day." She claimed that various suffrage organizations were had different strategies and that they needed to work together more effectively and probably amalgamate their supports. As the suffrage movement expanded in size and scope in the 1910s, French saw hopeful signs. RIWSA started doing open-air suffrage rallies in 1912 and French participated in some of them. She claimed the outdoor rallies aroused "intense interest" and were similar to Jesus Christ's open-air preaching. French collaborated with some of the new suffrage organizations in Rhode Island. With the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party (RIWSP), French worked at a table for suffrage literature at their annual suffrage bazaar in 1913; in addition, French allowed RIWSP to publish a special issue of The Woman Citizen in 1914. In 1915 and 1916, French attended meetings and gave a speech at Rhode Island branches of the Congressional Union, Alice Paul's splinter organization from NAWSA. In 1914, she marched in a suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., carrying an American flag that emphasized the twelve states that had woman suffrage.
During the years 1914-1916, RIWSA and RIWSP increased their efforts for the presidential suffrage bill. (RIWSA was renamed the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association in 1915 when the Rhode Island organization amalgamated). In 1917, the Rhode Island legislature finally passed the presidential bill. French was not active in these lobbying efforts and her health may have started to decline by then. The presidential suffrage bill made Rhode Island the first East Coast state to pass such a bill and was the culmination of the campaign that French started in 1892. The 1917 success would not have been possible without French's twenty years of ongoing lobbying and persistence. Sara L.G. Fittz, a RIESA suffragist, published an article in The Providence Journal about the passage of the presidential suffrage bill. She opened the article by writing, "It seems a far cry from the day, many, many, years ago, when Mrs. Jeannette French, a Rhode Island suffragist, seeing the advantage of getting partial suffrage in a State whose Constitution is very difficult to amend, framed a Presidential Suffrage bill, based on the Constitution of the United States."
Less than a year after the presidential suffrage victory, on January 31, 1918, Jeannette S. French died at the State Hospital for Mental Disease in Cranston, Rhode Island. She had been suffering from dementia. She was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in her childhood hometown of Acton, Massachusetts. As the woman suffrage constitutional amendment drew near and was ratified, French's efforts received recognition. In an article titled, "Rhode Island's Suffrage Pioneers," The Providence Journal reported:
by the persistent efforts of Mrs. French, the able chairman of the committee on legislative work, the measure giving presidential suffrage to women, was brought before the General Assembly. The act was defeated...but the agitation and education were continued by appeals for the same measure to subsequent legislatures till the measure finally passed..."
The article also referred to French as "a woman of vigorous convictions." When the RIESA organization celebrated its fifty-first anniversary in 1919, the suffragists paid tribute to former leaders, including French, who "helped to build up public sentiment which has crystallized into many a victory." Sara M. Algeo was a leading Rhode Island suffragist who published a memoir in 1925. In it she praised French and her predecessor, Ardelia C. Dewing, as "Broad in their understanding, keen in their love for the cause of womanhood, they welcomed with cordiality the younger workers" and that they were significant in "the long journey toward the desired goal marked 'Votes for Women.'"
Jeannette S. French had been a suffragist for forty-five years of her life when she died. Her leadership in Rhode Island in the 1890s and 1900s were critical for keeping the movement going during a challenging time until membership and interest in woman suffrage increased in the 1910s. She also established important foundations for political lobbying and presidential suffrage that helped make possible the later successes in presidential suffrage and the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in Rhode Island.
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