Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Emma Squire Olds, 1861-1943

By Beverly Wilson Palmer, Research Associate, History Department, Pomona College

Emma Squire Olds was born in Florence Township, Erie County, Ohio, in 1861. After attending Berea College for three years she taught school in nearby Birmingham, a small town in Erie County. On December 7, 1881, Emma married William H. Olds, a highly respected farmer, also from Florence Township. By 1900 she and William were living in Elyria, Ohio, where Emma was recorded as a housewife and William worked as a "weigh master." While in Elyria, then a city of about 15,000, the family lived on Middle Street, along with Emma's widowed mother and the Olds's adopted son, Harold. In 1915 the Olds family returned to William's birthplace in Florence Township, on the fruit farm, "Oldhurst," that his parents had established. William died in 1929, but Emma and her mother continued to live on the farm, while Harold Olds lived in Akron. Through the 1930s Emma Olds remained on the farm, dealing in antiques. In 1940 Harold Olds was listed as living in Elyria "seeking work." Emma died in 1943 in Birmingham, Erie County, Ohio where she and her husband are buried.

Emma Olds's involvement in the woman suffrage movement is intertwined with her position as Supreme Commander of the Ladies of the Maccabees (L.O.T.M) while she lived in Elyria. Olds was elected five times as Great - or Supreme- Commander of this organization, founded in 1886 in Michigan and, in the early twentieth century, the largest such women's society of its kind. This female counterpart of the Knights of the Maccabees offered low-cost insurance to women and a chance to assert their independence. According to David S. Beito (1998), unlike other fraternal organizations, the L.O.T.M. did not discourage participation in political causes, including women's rights. Even though the Maccabees emphasized women's potential, they also stressed domestic values; most members were housewives (594-97). As a leader in the organization, Olds traveled to Maccabees conventions throughout Ohio and elsewhere in the U.S. The Elyria papers, The Chronicle-Telegram, the Elyria Republican, and the Elyria Democrat recorded her many activities with the organization. Interestingly, for news coverage of that period, she was always referred to as "Mrs. Emma S. Olds" not Mrs. "William H. Olds" which was the custom with many women's leaders. And although various censuses list William as the head of the household, his name does not appear in the Elyria papers. Emma Olds must have been a prominent citizen of Elyria, for, besides her participation in the L.O.T.M., her trips to Toledo and Cleveland and her illnesses regularly noted in these newspapers.

A statement in a Lima, Ohio, newspaper best characterized Olds's twin interests: "an ardent suffragist, " Olds "gloried in the work fraternal orders have done in training women to take an interest in public affairs" (Allen County Republican-Gazette, September 8, 1914). Beginning as early as 1906, Olds became an officer in the Ohio Woman's Suffrage Association. In February 1908, representing the Ladies of the Maccabees, she traveled to Columbus arguing for women's suffrage and in October of that year she was elected vice-president of the OWSA. In May 1910 she was chosen to represent the National Council of Woman at the convention of General Federation of Women's Clubs in Cincinnati. At an Elyria suffrage event to recognize Susan B. Anthony's birthday in 1911, Emma Olds reflected on her acquaintance with the renowned women's rights leader "whom she knew for many years." (Chronicle-Telegram, February 15, 1911). Her photograph appeared in the July 12, 1911, edition of that same paper as "Emma Olds, Great Commander for Ohio, Ladies of the Maccabees of the World" in connection with the Maccabees World Carnival Week in Cleveland July 16-22. That year saw her election to the Elyria School Board as the first and only woman on that body, and she was reelected until she abruptly resigned in September 1914 -- but not without requesting that another woman be appointed to replace her. Notably at a meeting in May 1912, she refused to approve teachers' salaries because male teachers received $200-300 a year more than the women (Chronicle-Telegram, September 10, 1914, May 7, 1912).

As Ohio women pressed for an amendment to the state constitution in 1914, granting their right to vote, Olds spoke at a Toledo event along with such leaders as Carrie Chapman Catt and Harriet Taylor Upton. After Ohio rejected that amendment in November 1914 by nearly one third of its voters, Olds's interests apparently focused on Maccabees and charitable events. Then in August 1915, the Chronicle-Telegram described a delegation of lady Maccabees visiting Olds at the "beautiful country home in Birmingham" where she had retired. According to the August 5 article, Olds was "retiring from her position as the highest state office in Ohio to resume a position of national importance in the order." But even though Olds lived for another thirty-eight years, her name drops out of newspaper coverage. Had Emma Olds given up on women's causes? Had William pressured her to live a more conventional life on the farm in Florence Township? A 1916 article on Olds in A Standard History of Lorain County stated the hope that this energetic and accomplished woman would return to public life: "After a year of rest and recreation, her friends and admirers hope she will again be found among the workers for these helpful things for which her life has been dedicated" (p. 585). However, for the last decades of her life, Emma Olds appears to have lived the life of many Ohio women in small towns, away from public attention.


David S. Beito, "To 'Advance the Practice of Thrift and Economy,' Fraternal Societies and Social Capital, 1890-1920," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XXIX:4 (Spring 1998), 585-612

Elyria Chronicle Telegram, 1905-1920

Elyria Democrat, 1913-1914

Elyria Republican, 1906-10

"Emma S. Olds," A Standard History of Lorain County, Chicago, 1916, Vol. 2, 585-86

Sandusky Register, 1929-30, 1943

William H. Olds Obituary, Firelands Pioneer, N.S. Volume XXIV (April 1930), 815.

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