Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mary Borden Anthony, 1863-1947
By Aisha Pierre, Undergraduate Student, and Elisa Miller, Associate Professor of History, Rhode Island College, Providence, Rhode Island
President of the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association; Auditor and Treasurer of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Society; Member of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party; President of the League of Women Voters, Rhode Island Division; Vice Chairman of the United League of Women Voters of Rhode Island; Officer of the Girls' Friendly Society; Vice Chairman of the National Woman's Party of Rhode Island
Mary Borden Anthony was born on June 19, 1863, in Providence, Rhode Island. She was the daughter of John Brayton and Ellen DeForest (Miller) Anthony and the oldest of five sisters; two brothers died as young children before she was born. Her father was a prominent businessman in Rhode Island and served as treasurer and president of the Providence Tool Company, president of the Household Sewing Machine Company, and treasurer of the Cranston Print Works. The Anthonys were one of the oldest European families in Rhode Island; their earliest ancestor emigrated from England to New England in 1634 and settled in Rhode Island by 1641. Her family also had an ancestor who fought in the American Revolution. Mary's family was Episcopalian and active in the Grace Church in Providence. As a young girl she attended Miss Abbott's private school and later became the treasurer of the school's alumnae association and helped write the school's history. Anthony never married and as an adult lived with her parents and later a couple of her unmarried sisters.
Mary B. Anthony was active in the Grace Church throughout her life. She became active in social reform through the Church. In 1889, she organized and chaired a Girls' Friendly Society branch at the Church; she served as chair for the next twenty-three years. The Girls' Friendly Society was an Episcopalian organization in which middle-class women tried to provide protection and uplift for working-class girls and women in industrial and urban America at the turn of the century. The organization provided services such as leisure activities, education in Christianity, morality, and womanhood, and boarding houses. In addition to the Grace branch, Anthony served president of the Girls' Friendly Societies for the diocese from 1902 to 1918 and as treasurer of the national board of the Girls' Friendly Society from 1910 to 1923. Both in Rhode Island and nationally, many woman suffragists belonged to the Working Girls' Club movement. In addition, Anthony served on the board of the Providence Day Nursery Association which provided services to working-class mothers and the board of St. Mary's Orphanage. She was a member of the Women's Auxiliary to the Board of Missions and was active in historical organizations including the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames.
Anthony's earliest known involvement in the Rhode Island suffrage movement was 1911. She attended a high-profile speech by Emmeline Pankhurst, the infamous militant British suffragette and then a small reception following the speech, attended mostly by members of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association (RIWSA) and the College Equal Suffrage Association of Rhode Island (CESL). By 1912, she was an active member of RIWSA. She served as RIWSA auditor, and later treasurer and hosted Anna Howard Shaw, president of National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), when she came to Providence to give a speech. Anthony represented RIWSA at the 1912 NAWSA convention and went on to attend most of the NAWSA conventions through 1920. At the 1913 NAWSA convention, Anthony was one of fifty suffragists who met with President Woodrow Wilson to lobby him about a woman suffrage constitutional amendment. Decades later, she remembered attending an anti-suffrage meeting and leaving it "hot and mad" by the statements she heard against woman suffrage. In addition to her suffrage work, Anthony became active in the Progressive Party of Rhode Island in the 1912 election, an effort that many Rhode Island suffragists joined.
Besides being a member of RIWSA, Anthony also belonged to the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Party, also a NAWSA-affiliated organization, which emphasized political organization and public events on behalf of suffrage. In 1914, Anthony participated in a RIWSP political effort at the Rhode Island State House led in which "woman suffragists stormed the State House...and made a verbal assault upon the members of the General Assembly" in support of a presidential suffrage bill. The suffragists "buttonholed" members of the legislature, confronting them in the State House's corridors, stairs, and elsewhere to promote the bill. Similarly, She and other suffragists "invaded" the Rhode Island Republican convention in 1914 to urge the party to include suffrage on their party plank. Anthony worked at the RIWSP suffrage bazaar in 1914, which raised money and awareness for the suffrage cause. In 1915, Anthony testified before a Rhode Island Senate hearing on woman suffrage, stating that she "was convinced that suffrage was absolutely right, and saw no reason why women should be kept from voting."
In addition to her work with the NAWSA organizations, Anthony was listed as a member of the Congressional Union (CU) in Rhode Island. The CU was Alice Paul's splinter organization from NAWSA that emphasized the need for a federal amendment on woman suffrage. The CU in Rhode Island was not that active and there was much overlap in membership between it, RIWSA, and RIWSP. Later, in 1918, Anthony served as a hostess at a National Woman's Party event in Rhode Island.
RIWSA, RIWSP, and the CESL joined forces and amalgamated into the new organization, the Rhode Island Equal Suffrage Association (RIESA), in 1915. (The RIWSP was later reestablished as a separate and competing suffrage organization). In the new organization, Anthony served as chairman of the committee on church work. In 1915, Anthony's committee issued the "Suffragists' Christmas Prayer that said, in part, "O, God, Heavenly Father...Teach us so to work that women may attain to their greatest usefulness, untrammelled by prejudice or error, and grant that men and women may work together for the good of humanity and the glory of God." In the previous year, Anthony had also made the connection between her Christian and suffrage work, giving a speech on "Equal Suffrage and the Church" at a RIWSP meeting. Anthony's suffrage work, in turn, influenced her church work and she advocated that women have more right to participate in the administration of the her Episcopalian parish and diocese. She secured for women the ability to serve on the board and vestry of Grace Church.
In 1915, Anthony, her cousin, Loraina C. Beckwith, and another woman made a road trip from Providence to San Francisco to attend the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world's fair that celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal. Beckwith wrote a short book about their adventures, titled The Time of Our Lives: From East to West by Automobile.
Anthony opened a "suffrage shop" for RIESA in Providence in 1916. The shops were a source of suffrage information, attracted people on the streets to venture inside, and sold suffrage merchandise such as buttons and dishes that read, "Votes for Women." The History of Woman Suffrage called Anthony's shop "an active center of propaganda." By 1917, Anthony also chaired the RIESA committee on civics that offered lectures and courses to help educate women on politics and government and get them ready to be voters. She also served on the Rhode Island executive committee of the New England Woman Suffrage Association.
Since 1892, Rhode Island suffragists had been advocating for a presidential suffrage bill that would allow women to vote in presidential elections. In 1917, the Rhode Island legislature finally passed the bill. After the suffrage bill passed, RIESA officer, Sara Fittz, wrote an article in The Providence Journal detailing the success. In it she thanked Rhode Island suffragists who were important to the victory, including "Miss Mary B. Anthony, who has crystallized church support" for suffrage.
In May 1918, Mary B. Anthony was elected president of RIESA, replacing Agnes M. Jenks who had resigned as leader. She served as president until the fall of 1920, making her the last president of RIWSA/RIESA, an organization that had been founded in 1868. As president, Anthony was responsible for the RIESA effort to get the Nineteenth Amendment for full woman suffrage ratified and the transition to the League of Women Voters' organization. As president, Anthony kept a personal calendar which she documented her daily activities on behalf of suffrage. This document, housed in the Rhode Island State Archives, contains a wealth of information about local efforts for the suffrage amendment in 1918 and 1919. Anthony detailed extensive meetings with RIESA committees and suffragists and correspondence and meetings with NAWSA leaders such as Carrie Chapman Catt and Maud Wood Park. She also documented her political lobbying of state and federal leaders including the Providence mayor, Rhode Island state legislators, the governor, U.S. Congressmen and Senators from Rhode Island, and political party leaders and members.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, NAWSA leaders urged suffragists to participate in the war effort. They hoped that war voluntarism would increase support for the suffrage movement by demonstrating women's patriotism and citizenship. In 1917, Anthony was a member of the Peace Party of Rhode Island and attended a peace demonstration in Washington, D.C. As the new RIESA president, though, Anthony embraced the war effort. In a statement to the RIESA executive committee soon after becoming president, Anthony declared, "the war is the immediate issue and we gladly give unstintingly of our powers and abilities to bring about a successful and righteous conclusion, and we declare our wholehearted loyalty to our nation." She went on to claim that the war was being fought for "democratic principles" and that equal suffrage was "of even more vital necessity than ever before...[and a] measure of democracy and justice."
Later in 1918, Anthony and RIESA hosted an event in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association. The mayor of Providence attended as well as prominent suffragists, including Alice Stone Blackwell and NAWSA president, Carrie Chapman Catt. Catt stayed at Anthony's home. As the suffrage amendment drew nearer in 1919, NAWSA made plans to transition its organization to the League of Women Voters, to continue its political and social advocacy. In Rhode Island several different organizations were created. In April 1919, Anthony and RIESA members founded the League of Women Voters, Rhode Island Division with Anthony as its first president. She explained that the goal of the league was "the education of women in civics and the advancement of better government." In addition, she attempted to contradict misinformation about women's voting, explaining "there is absolutely no foundation in the rumor that this new organization is attempting to pit the women against the men" and that women needed their own political organization, at least initially, for the "training and experience" and "their development and self-expression" as new voters.
Throughout 1919, RIESA and RIWSP worked to get Rhode Island political leaders to support and vote for ratification of the suffrage amendment. RIWSP leaders pushed Governor Livingston Beeckman to call for a special legislative session in 1919 to ratify the amendment. Anthony requested a private meeting with the governor in June 1919 and afterward issued a statement that she agreed with Beeckman that a special session for ratification was not necessary. One week later, Anthony reversed her position and met with Beeckman with other Rhode Island suffrage leaders to lobby for the special session. She explained that she had been wrong about her initial rejection of the special session and now she recognized that "it is extremely important that [Rhode Island] should do its part in the enfranchisement of all as speedily as possible. We shall surely hold the Governor and his advisers responsible for refusing us." It is not clear what exactly changed her mind on this issue or led her to adopt a more assertive position with the governor.
Anthony sent out a letter to Rhode Island legislators from RIESA before the Assembly's first session in January 1920. She urged them to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment soon, writing:
Rhode Island was the first eastern state to break through the prejudice obtaining against suffrage for women [with the 1917 presidential suffrage bill], and we believe that our men will live up to their traditions and make ratification unanimous. It would be a high compliment to the women of the state if this could be done on the first day of the session and anything which you personally can do to help will be greatly appreciated.
On January 5, 1920, the day before the opening session of the Rhode Island Assembly, Anthony noted in her calendar that she spent "all day at work on suffrage. At desk, at telephone." The next day, General Assembly voted to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. Anthony sent a telegram to Carrie Chapman Catt to notify her and received back telegram from her that read, "Congratulations upon splendid victory. Hurrah for Little Rhody."
On January 7, Governor Beeckman signed the ratification; Anthony attended the signing with other prominent Rhode Island suffragists and was featured in a photograph of the event. Later the governor awarded Anthony one of four pens used in the ceremony. The Woman Citizen, the NAWSA newspaper, reported:
Governor Beeckman handed out 4 pens from ratification: "He handed the first in a silver handle to Miss Mary B. Anthony who represented the Old Guard among the suffrage workers. The second in a black handle he passed to Mrs. James W. Algeo who stood for the newer elements in the suffrage work in the state." Later Mrs. Barton P. Jenks and Miss Mabel E. Orgelman were given pens.
(Note: it was incorrect to call Anthony a member of the "old guard" of the movement since she did not join until the early 1910s). In a statement to The Providence Journal, Anthony stated, "It is with a feeling of profound satisfaction that I realize that Rhode Island has ratified. 'Little Rhody' is a fine State and here's the proof."
A month after the Rhode Island ratification success, Anthony and other leading Rhode Island suffragists attended NAWSA's annual convention in Chicago. The convention was intended to celebrate the progress made toward the suffrage amendment, mark the transition of the national organization to the League of Women Voters, and set goals and strategies for continued activism. In May 1920, Anthony led a RIESA event that marked the organization's "demise" after the suffrage ratification. RIESA members marched from the headquarters to the Rhode Island State House where they deposited their organizational records in the state archives to preserve them for posterity. At the event, Anthony gave a speech in which she said, "Aspirations, hopes and disappointments are all written in these records...All are recorded upon the hearts of those who took part." That same month, Anthony wrote her final report as RIESA president. She reflected on the suffrage movement, writing, "Fifty-two years of constant, consecrated work for an ideal is an achievement and surely brings blessings to the cause and to those who work for it. Many noble women in Rhode Island have devoted themselves to the enfranchisement of women because they realized its tremendous significance..." She also discussed the ongoing goal of the new League of Women Voters organization, writing,
Our continual aim, during the entire year, has been to try to arouse women to interest in an intelligent way in governmental affairs...The League of Women Voters is the logical outgrowth of the suffrage work and we greatly desire an effective state-wide league....If the work of the many fine women brings to this beloved state of Rhode Island better citizens and mothers of good citizens we may feel we have performed a God given task.
She ended by expressing her goal for the suffrage movement of the past and league of the future was that, "Our dearest hope is that we have done a good work which will be the foundation to build a better state with human welfare its one object."
In the fall of 1920, the various branches of the League of Women Voters decided to merge into the United League of Women Voters of Rhode Island. A new chairman was elected to replace Anthony as leader and Anthony became the first vice chairman of the new organization. As she had in RIESA, Anthony offered lectures and classes on civics for the League. She helped raise money for the Anna Howard Shaw Fund, a national effort by the League of Women Voters to establish a women's political institute at Bryn Mawr College and one in preventive medicine at the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania in honor of Shaw. In 1930, Anthony presided at a celebration of the organization's tenth anniversary. She remained active in the Rhode Island League of Women Voters into the 1940s.
In the 1910s, Anthony had expressed interest in Alice Paul's Congressional Union and National Woman's Party. After the suffrage ratification, Paul shifted her focus to attempting to pass an Equal Rights amendment that would ban legal discrimination against women. In 1923, a new branch of the National Woman's Party was founded in Rhode Island, with Anthony as one of the founding members. The Rhode Island branch later declined and Anthony and her sister, Jane, hosted a meeting at their home in 1938 to reestablish a National Woman's Party branch in Rhode Island. The members pledged to work for the Equal Rights Amendment and Anthony served as the third vice chairman of the organization.
Besides her work for the National Woman's Party, Anthony became active in the Republican Party in the 1920s. In 1928, she helped create a women's club in Rhode Island to organize and campaign for Herbert Hoover's successful presidential effort and led a symposium titled, "Why I Am Going to Vote for Hoover." She continued her early peace activism in the 1930s and was a member of the Committee on the Cause and Cure of War and lobbied politicians on peace issues. She published a booklet on the topic for the Rhode Island League of Women Voters in 1936.
On election day in 1946, a reporter from The Providence Journal interviewed Anthony when she went to vote. In the interview, she discussed women's political impact after suffrage, stating, "A span of 25 years when measured against the centuries-old diehard tradition that women are inferior to men, is still too small a space of time to judge completely the full contribution women have made to the progress of the United States." She went on to express her support for the Equal Rights Amendment, arguing that "Granting women political equality is only one part of the complete enfranchisement of women" and that the Equal Rights Amendment was needed to ensure full equality for women. Her equal rights work also helped Anthony recognize discrimination against women in Christianity and the Episcopal Church and that her plan for female pastors and bishops would never be realized.
Mary Borden Anthony, at age 83, died at Rhode Island Hospital on May 21, 1947 after a short illness. She was buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence. In her obituary, The Providence Journal referred to her as a "one of the leaders in the fight for women's suffrage.
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Rhode Island Governor signs the Nineteenth Amendment for woman suffrage, January 7, 1920. Sara M. Algeo, The Story of a Sub-Pioneer (Providence, RI: Snow & Farnham Co., 1925), 7.
Left to Right: Mrs. Clarence Fuller, Miss Mabel E. Orgelman, Mrs. George D. Gladding (behind Miss Angell), Miss Mary Angell, Mrs. Jerome M. Fittz, Mrs. Barton P. Jenks, Mrs. Frank H. Hammill, Mrs. Edward S. Moulton, Governor Livingston Beeckman, Miss Adelaide Esten, Mrs. Edwin C. Smith, Miss Mary B. Anthony, Mrs. Sara M. Algeo, Miss Sarah E. Doyle, Miss Ellen Hunt
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