Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Alice Worden Cooper, 1880-1961
By Carol Shelton, Professor Emerita of Nursing and Elisa Miller, Associate Professor of History, Rhode Island College, Providence, Rhode Island
Member, Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party; Auditor and Member, Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association; Member of the Board of Directors, Vice President, and Director of the Italian Department for the Sprague House and Federal Hill House; Member, Board of Directors of the Rhode Island Consumers' League; Cousin of suffragist Inez Milholland
Alice Jane Worden was born in Paterson, NJ on March 30, 1880 to Peter Worden and Emily Milholland Worden. The family had three daughters and one son. Her father had served in the Civil War for the Union and later worked as a machinist. Her mother's family was from the town of Lewis in Essex County, New York and was prominent in activism. Emily's brother, Elmer Milholland, was an editorial writer for the New York Tribune, a wealthy businessman, and an activist for civil rights. He helped to fund the NAACP and became its first treasurer. He also was the father of famous suffragist, Inez Milholland, best known as the leader of the suffrage parade in Washington D.C. on the eve of Woodrow Wilson's presidential inauguration in March 1913.
Worden graduated from Teachers College at Columbia University with a degree for teaching kindergarten in 1902. After graduating, she lived with her family who had moved from Paterson, NJ to Lewis, NY, where they were neighbors of the Milholland family. In the 1905 New York Census, she was listed as working as a principal of a school. On September 7, 1908, at her uncle's house in Lewis, NY, she married George A. Cooper, a graduate of Brown University who was a businessman in Rhode Island. Their only daughter, Ruth, was born in Providence in August 1909. The family resided in Providence's East side neighborhood, initially with Gerald Cooper's parents, close to Brown University and known to house middle- and upper-class professionals and businessmen. At some point before 1920 they moved to Seekonk, Massachusetts near the Rhode Island border but she moved back to Providence by 1928.
Alice Cooper first became an activist in Providence around 1910 through the settlement house movement that served poor and immigrant families. She served as a board member of the Sprague House, later renamed the Federal Hill House, and as director of the Italian Department that was created in 1910. Alida Sprague Whitmarsh founded the Sprague House in the 1880s to serve the immigrant Irish community in the Mount Pleasant area of Providence. Later in the century, Italian immigrants began to settle in the Federal Hill area of the city and Sprague House focused its efforts on the Federal Hill neighborhood to support the needs of the Italian American community, many of whom were illiterate and poor. Settlement house workers and supporters often believed that immigrants needed to assimilate to American culture and abandon their ethnic traditions. Cooper supported this idea, explaining in 1914, "This is America and life is not the same as in sunny Italy. We have different standards of living and different social attitudes." Settlement workers also believed that an important part of assimilation for immigrants was learning appropriate gender roles and skills. Accordingly, settlement houses often offered domestic education for women and girls in the community. Cooper's Italian Department provided domestic education in the form of "sewing, mending, darning, and housekeeping classes," as well as courses on personal hygiene and cooking. Relations between the middle-class reformers and working-class immigrants were often strained and immigrant women at times felt condescended to and judged by the settlement reformers. In Providence, Carmela Mastronardi, a Federal Hill Italian woman, complained, "Why should I go to a house-keeping class? Nobody has to tell me how to keep my house."
Cooper participated in numerous fundraising efforts for the Federal Hill House, became a vice president in 1917, and served on its board of directors into the 1920s. In 1917, she served on a special committee for the Providence Chamber of Commerce that investigated tenement housing conditions for a bill that was being considered by the Rhode Island legislature. Related to her settlement house work, in the 1910s Cooper became active in the Rhode Island Consumers' League (RICL), an organization focused on improving and raising awareness about working conditions and labor issues, especially those related to women and children. In 1914, she served as chair of the nominations committee of the RICL and gave a speech at a 1915 RICL rally where national leader, Florence Kelley, and RICL leader and Rhode Island suffragist, Mrs. Carl Barus also spoke.
Nationally there were strong connections between the woman suffrage movement, the settlement movement, and the Consumers' League. It is likely that Cooper became active in suffrage through her social reform work. As early as 1908, she socialized with women who were prominent in the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association, such as Mrs. George Gladding, the acting president of the organization and Ardelia Dewing, its former president. The first documented suffrage activity for Cooper was in 1913. In 1911 and 1912 there are reports of a "Mrs. George Cooper" attending meetings of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association that are likely her; however, it was also the name of her mother in law and she typically went by "Mrs. George A. Cooper." Cooper served as a "principal worker" for a three-day suffrage bazaar held by Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party (RIWSP) in 1913, an event that raised money and awareness for woman suffrage. In 1914, Cooper also worked at the suffrage bazaar and helped raise money for RIWSP by serving as a patroness for its fundraising ball. In 1915, RIWSP merged with the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association and the College Equal Suffrage League to become the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association (RIESA). Cooper was appointed as an auditor of the new organization in 1915, a role she continued in 1916. In 1916, she also was a patroness for a RIESA event where Carrie Chapman Catt gave a lecture and participated in other suffrage fundraising events such as a dance and play.
After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, Cooper became active in the League of Women Voters, the organization that grew out of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1921, she was appointed one of the chairs of the housing committee of the United League of Women Voters of Rhode Island. Also in 1921, she served as hospitality chairman for the 1921 annual meeting of the United League of Women Voters and helped organize a League lecture series. In addition, in the 1920s she remained an active member of the Rhode Island Consumers' League and the Federal Hill House, serving on the board of directors of both organizations. She attended the 1921 national Consumers' League convention in Washington, D.C. and hosted a Rhode Island Consumers' League event that honored Jeannette Rankin, a famous suffragist and the first congresswoman in the United States. In 1921, Cooper also helped reorganize the Volunteer Service Bureau, an agency that provided volunteer workers for social service organizations in Providence. She served on the executive committee of a fundraising drive for the Homeopathic Hospital of Rhode Island in 1927. In 1929, she was a member of a committee that arranged furnishings for a demonstration house in Providence for the Rhode Island State Federation of Women's Clubs' "Better Homes' Week" campaign. In 1930, Cooper was a member of the Rhode Island Committee on the Cause and Cure of War.
Alice and George Cooper divorced in Reno, Nevada in 1933. In 1934, she married David Phemister, a salesman with the Pocahontas Fuel Co. of Boston, and they lived in the Massachusetts towns of Belmont, Lincoln, and Needham. David Phemister died in 1943 and she moved back to New York to Hammondsport where her daughter lived. Alice Phemister died on April 16, 1961 in Hammondsport, NY. She was buried in the Lewis Cemetery in Lewis, NY.
"Mrs. G.A. Cooper," The Providence Journal, May 18, 1923
Ida Husted Harper, ed. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6: 1900-1920 (New York: J. J. Little & Ives Company, 1922). [LINK]
"Alice Jane Worden Phemister," Find a Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/115107592/alice-jane-phemister.
"Army of Workers to Aid Nurse Fund," The Providence Journal, October 24, 1914.
Columbia University Teachers College Bulletins, Teachers College Announcement, 1903-1904 (Teachers College Columbia University: Morningside Heights, NY, 1903).
"Consumers' League Rally Workers Have a Luncheon," The Providence Journal, October 22, 1915.
"Consumers' League Starts a New Year," The Providence Journal, December 1, 1914.
"Decrees Granted," Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), December 8, 1933.
"Emily Ann Milholland," Find a Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/115152677/emily-ann-worden.
"Have an 'At Home': Mrs. Gerald and Mrs. Gerald A. Cooper Entertain," The Providence Journal, December 4, 1908.
J. Ellyn Des Jardins, "Federal Hill House: Its Place in Providence and the Settlement Movement," Rhode Island History 54, No. 4 (November 1996): 99-121.
"Mrs. Alice Phemister," Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY), April 18, 1961.
"Mrs. G.A. Cooper," The Providence Journal, May 18, 1923
"Personal and Social," The Paterson Morning Call (Paterson, NJ), September 21, 1908.
"Proposed Housing Law," Providence Magazine (February 1917): 86-88.
Sara M. Algeo, The Story of a Sub-Pioneer (Providence, RI, Snow & Farnham Company, 1925).
"Suffragists Open Three-Day Bazaar," The Providence Journal, December 4, 1914.