Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Julia Slocum Walker Ruhl, 1861-1956
By Suronda Gonzalez, Historian
Julia Slocum Walker was born in Groton, Connecticut on June 17, 1861, the oldest of four children of David and Mary Walker. Her father was a farmer, and her mother a homemaker, according to the 1880 Federal Census. She graduated from Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts and came to West Virginia in 1881 where she began teaching at Broaddus College in Clarksburg, WV. In 1890 she married John Luther Ruhl (1846-1921) a wholesale merchant and banker. Julia and John were the parents of three children, Rebecca Louisa (1892), Mary Latimer (1893), and Henry Walker (1895).
In the early decades of the 1900s, Julia Ruhl was active in a variety of civic and social organizations. With her children grown, she took an active leadership role in a variety of women's organizations. In 1911, she was elected president of the West Virginia State Federation of Women's Clubs (WVFWC) which supported an array of "wholesome" laws focused on civic improvement, including the creation of a State Library Commission and a juvenile court system. While the General Federation of Women's Clubs advocated for a variety of municipal issues, it steered away from suffrage which it feared would divide the membership. Still, many women, including Ruhl, were ardent suffragists.
By the time the Biennial Convention of the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC) kicked off in Chicago in 1914, the issue could no longer be eschewed. Ruhl, then state secretary of the WVFWC, attended the convention with her daughter Rebecca, a representative from the Civic Club. Delegates that year passed a resolution supporting the "political equality of men and women." Although she was a vocal supporter of suffrage, she explained that many women in WV "learn[ed] to be suffragists through women's clubs. But they don't realize they are." Perhaps a caution about foregrounding suffrage over other concerns, she quipped, "Now, please be careful whose head you hit."
In 1914, with her WVFWC presidency ending, Ruhl joined the Ratification Committee of the West Virginia Equal Suffrage Association's (WVESA). The organization followed in step with the National American Women's Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and pursued a broad, non-partisan agenda and a state-by-state approach to securing woman's suffrage. Pressure for a state suffrage amendment had pushed the WV Legislature to authorize a referendum for the fall of 1916. Suffragists in the State rallied supporters at the Woman Suffrage Convention in Fairmont, WV in April 1915. Ruhl and her husband attended.
The local paper declared that woman's suffrage was "the paramount issue before the state" and the campaign would have to overcome "[i]gnorance of the cause which suffrage represents, indifference as to the ballot, and prejudice which comes through lack of knowledge." In the year prior to the vote, the NAWSA sent in reinforcements, both organizers and money, to bolster WVESA efforts. As the referendum neared, Ruhl remained confident that woman's suffrage in West Virginia was a foregone conclusion. She called for the State to "honor herself by being the first among the conservative eastern states to grant full citizenship to her women." The battle in West Virginia, however, was far from over.
In November 1916, the WV referendum suffered a crushing defeat with only two of the fifty-five counties passing the measure. In the wake of the failure, the WVFWC's in which Ruhl was an active member, put its support behind a federal amendment. The WVESA, however, struggled to recover. When the group finally convened later that year, attendance was disappointingly low. Ruhl remarked that it had been difficult to recruit committee chairs since many had dedicated their volunteer time to the war effort. With the U.S. entry into World War I that spring, the WVESA pledged itself "anew to every form of service possible to make the world safe for democracy." Outgoing president Lena Lowe Yost underscored the contributions of suffragists "to patriotic war service" being sure to add that "they are not making this service a matter of bargain." As the convention closed, Ruhl assumed the presidency of what she described as a "demoralized" WVESA.
In April 1918, Ruhl attended a special meeting of NAWSA state presidents and executive leadership in Indianapolis to develop a comprehensive plan for ratifying a federal amendment and for ousting unsupportive congressmen if the amendment failed. Less than a month later, she was in Hot Springs, Arkansas listening to Jane Addams and Julia Lathrop as they addressed the national convention of the GFWC. Many delegates at the meeting, led by the Illinois contingent, argued that no member of the national leadership should be opposed to full suffrage. Ruhl was nominated for the recording secretary position.
The campaign for suffrage intensified across the nation with a federal amendment scheduled for a vote in 1918. The more radical National Woman's Party (NWP) had gained a foothold in West Virginia, albeit small. NAWSA members worried that potential suffrage supporters might be alienated by the NWP's aggressive strategies. Prior to the 1918 vote, Ruhl wrote an impassioned letter to Senator Howard Sutherland urging him to support the measure, underscoring the fact that West Virginia suffrage supporters were "not notoriety seekers, nor could they be induced at this time to add to the perplexities and burdens of the hour by acts which are both illegal and unbecoming." She characterized the NWP actions as deplorable and added that "we see no reason why their lack of judgment should cause any rational man to class all women with them, or to vote against what is fundamentally right and just." Although Sutherland supported the amendment, it did not pass. It failed again in 1919.
In January 1919, NAWSA sent a representative to support WVESA leadership as they organized for the eventuality of ratification. Ruhl attended the spring Jubilee Convention of the NAWSA marking its fiftieth anniversary and celebrating the many achievements of enfranchised states. Looking to a future with full suffrage for women and an array of important legislation, the League of Women Voters was born at the Convention.
Now fully back on its feet, the WVESA held its convention the following month with Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the NAWSA as the featured speaker. In addition to a broad agenda supporting passage of a "Mother's Pension Law," and arguing for a woman's constitutional right to serve as notary publics, members of school boards, and as probation officers, the WVESA endorsed the League of Women Voters, the League of Nations and nation-wide prohibition.
When the U.S. Senate finally approved the 19th Amendment in June 2019, Ruhl drew on the talents of the "plucky, able, and ever tactful" past WVESA president Lenna Lowe Yost to chair the West Virginia Ratification Committee. The duo worked closely together and successfully navigated many challenges to make West Virginia the thirty-fourth of thirty-six states to ratify the Amendment. Ruhl described the work as "the bitterest factional struggle which has ever been waged within the borders of the state" as they battled an "adversary which contested every foot of the field of combat, and yielded only when the last faint ray of hope for the defeat of the Federal Amendment had vanished." West Virginia women voted for the first time in the fall of 1920. The victory, however, was bittersweet as during the same month Ruhl's oldest son, then twenty-five years old, died during a hunting trip.
As the WVESA dissolved, Ruhl became the first-ever chair of the state League of Women Voters, serving in that role from 1920-1922. The first meeting produced a broad range of reform work including expanding the rights of married women, raising the age of consent, and making mothers and fathers equal guardians of minor children, equal inheritance laws, and the creation of a Child Welfare Commission. Ruhl worked with a Joint Legislative Committee comprised of leaders from the State Federation of Women's Clubs, the State WCTU, and the League. Ruhl continued to work directly with the WVFWC delivering a plan for organizing Americanization work among the State chapters. In 1924, now in her early 60s, she became the first woman in the state to be elected to a city council when she won her bid for a seat in Clarksburg.
After the mid-1920s, details about Ruhl's life and work are limited. She continued to reside in Clarksburg, West Virginia, and lived part-time in St. Petersburg, Florida. She died in Clarksburg in 1956 at the age of 94 and is buried at Elkview Masonic Cemetery.
"Mrs G.T. Watson Vice President First District," The Fairmont West Virginian (Fairmont, WV), 13 October 1911, p. 1.
"Federation Of Women's Club Will Ask for Several Wholesome State Laws," The Daily Telegram (Clarksburg, WV), 31 December 1912, p. 2.
Cooper, J.E. "The West Virginia Convention," General Federation Bulletin, Vol IX, No. 3, (1911), p. 172-174.
"Woman's Biennial Votes Today on Equal Suffrage," Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL), 13 June 1914, p. 17.
"Suffrage Plea is Made by W.VA. Woman," Hinton Daily News (Hinton, WV) 15 June 2014, p. 2
"Equal Suffrage Victory Is Predicted," Fairmont West Virginian (Fairmont, WV) 9 April 1915, p. 1.
"The Governor of West Virginia Recommends Suffrage," The Suffragist Vol. 3, Issue 4, 1915, p.2.
8 June 1914, p. 5, "Goes to Chicago, The Daily Telegram
8 April 1915, "Personals," Clarksburg Daily Telegram
9 April 1915, "Suffragists Hold Conference; Campaign Outlined at Banquet," Fairmont West Virginian, (Fairmont, WV), p. 1.
2 August 1916, "Noted Local Woman Sends Cheering Message," The Daily Telegram (Clarksburg, WV), p. 14
04 August 1916, "Equal Suffrage Ably Expounded" Daily Telegram (Clarksburg, WV), p. 15.
20 November 1917, "Open Suffrage Convention in Confident Mood," The Fairmont West Virginian (Fairmont, WV), p. 1.
21 November 1917, "Suffragists for Conservation in all its Phases," The Fairmont West Virginian. (Fairmont, WV), p. 4
5 May 1921, "Added Meaning for the Fourth is Suggested," The Fairmont West Virginian (Fairmont, WV), p. 1
"West Virginia Convention," The Woman's Journal, (Vol 3, Iss 48: 1919), p 1022-1023
"Righting Old Wrongs," The Woman Citizen Vol 5, Issue 42 (1921), 1088-1089
Effland, Anne Wallace. "The Woman Suffrage Movement in West Virginia, 1867-1920," MA Thesis, West Virginia University, 1983.
Effland, Anne Wallace, "Exciting Battle and Dramatic Finish: The West Virginia Woman Suffrage Movement, Part I," West Virginia History, Vol. 46 (1985-86), p. 143-144.
Ruhl, Julia. "The Story of Ratification by West Virginia," The Woman's Journal (Vol 4, no. 35: 1920), p. 1014-1015.
Thurston, Karina. "Lenna Lowe Yost, temperance, and the ratification of the woman suffrage amendment by West Virginia". (WVU: Morgantown, WV), dissertation 2009, p. 66.