Ladies, Ladders, & Languages: Meet Maud Stalnaker

At age 26, in October 1896, Maud Stalnaker decided to take the civil service exam for a clerkship in the War Department in Washington, D.C. She chose a challenging job with a test to match. As the position announcement explained, applicants for this job in the Office of the Adjutant General

should be able to translate into English technical military works in French, German, Italian, and Spanish, to do typewriting in all of these languages; to do proofreading and prepare manuscripts for the press; and he should be familiar with modern library methods . . . He will also be tested in the use of the English language and literary composition.

Maud Stalnaker, Washington Times, 9 March 1902.

Maud Stalnaker, Washington Times, 9 March 1902

Despite the use of “he” in the text, the exam was open to women and men and, in the absence of a statement to the contrary, the job was open to women.

Two months later, Maud Stalnaker made headlines across the U.S.  In pursuit of work and quite by accident, she threw into sharp relief a serpent lurking in the ideal of a civil service system: could the system, designed to replace political patronage with demonstrated merit, trump such powerful, traditional standards as the sex of the applicant?

Maud’s name was also on the tongues of clubwomen and suffragists for whom she represented the quintessential self-supporting woman navigating an unequal job market. In the long, historic search for equal rights in work, Maud’s brush with fame offers a glimpse of a social movement in action.

Federal civil service was a relatively new way to do business. The Pendleton Act of 1883 created the Civil Service Commission and a process to classify jobs in federal employment. If it worked, hiring by merit had the potential to open well-paying jobs to women.

For that to happen, women needed to compete with men. This didn’t always go well. The New York Mail and Express described a civil service exam in Albany that twenty women failed “because of sheer nervousness, which incapacitated them for doing their best.”  (Reprint in Woman’s Journal, 14 Aug 1897)

Further, men needed to agree to work with women. According to the Topeka Daily Capital, the Civil Service Commission created the job title “male stenographer” because that was what departments wanted, “owing to the restraints the presence of a woman in an office places on the men.” Most important, the writer added, there would be no more smoking. (Reprint in Woman’s Journal, 30 Oct 1897)

Young Maud Stalnaker seemed immune to nerves. Nothing about her own experience of test-taking and its aftermath has turned up. We’re obliged to stand and view her from a considerable distance. After her mother died in the year of Maud’s birth, she and an older sister were raised by grandparents in Virginia, while their father, John William Stalnaker, moved to Texas. He had a college education, a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and service as a surgeon in the Confederate Army. Evidence on his daughter’s education is slim and unverified: by one account, Maud learned her languages in Germany and France as a young woman; according to her application for a passport in 1918, she spent 1892 and 1893 in Paris.

Man looking at State, War, and Navy Departments Building, 1891. Right half of stereoscope card. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Man looking at War, State, and Navy Departments Building, 1891. Right half of stereoscope card. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Maud Stalnaker not only passed the exam, she was the only person to pass it. After the Civil Service Commission reported results to the War Department, the proceedings got a little unorthodox. Job seekers customarily learned their test scores by letter. In this case, the adjutant general’s staff sent a messenger to the house where Maud lived with relatives, requesting that she report to the War Department. When she arrived at the appointed place, she was informed that no woman could have that job under any circumstances. As a reporter at the Washington Post opined,

It is certainly not good form . . . to summon a man or woman to appear in person for no other purpose than to be told that he is not wanted. (22 Jan 1897)


The news breaks. Washington Post, 22 January 1897

It did not take long for writers to speculate that the adjutant general meant to leave no paper trail, or in the words of the Milwaukee Journal, she was summoned “so that no record will be made of the matter.” (25 Jan 1897)

Maud’s rejection occurred at a time when the public could and did react, when the notion of equal treatment resounded in popular concepts of justice and righteousness. Surely her case drew attention in part because of the scale of her achievement, the marvel that anyone passed that test. What hope could there be for the average woman seeking a salary in Washington if this accomplished young woman could be denied work?

But that doesn’t explain how her story came to the fore. One gap in our understanding of events comes of not knowing what happened on the ground between Maud’s exam in late October and the news on January 22. Someone brought this story to the attention of the press, and someone decided to publish it on a day that the Civil Service Commission was to meet. Reporters tossed around phrases like “the friends of Miss Stalnaker” as if, by January, she had identifiable allies. Were these family members? Other women employed in executive departments? Washington’s many women’s clubs? Or did Maud serve as emblem for a protest that she did not actively join?

No official explanation for Maud’s rejection reached the press, though no one doubted that the adjutant general acted only on account of sex. But refusing to hire a woman could be colored in all kinds of ways. At the Civil Service Commission meeting on January 22, the excuse went like this, according to the Washington Post:

in actual duties of the position it would be found that military knowledge of a certain character would be necessary.

“Hence,” the reporter added, a successful candidate must pass the test and be a man. (23 Jan 1897)

The winning excuse involved ladders: could a woman climb a ladder many times a day? The earliest reference comes not from Maud’s case but from a letter in response to it, sent to the Post by another victim of War Department bias. F. Wilson (possibly Frederica, a clerk at Treasury) described her search for work as a translator. Forewarned about bias, Wilson tried a personal approach, called at the Office of the Adjutant General, and was referred to Lieutenant John R. Williams of the Military Information Division.

I was informed that a male translator was preferred because a great amount of ‘manual labor’ was involved. To emphasize this point he showed me a very tall series of filing cases, on the top of which were a number of books. These books were reached by means of a step ladder, and he said that it was one of the most important duties of the translator to climb this immense ladder a great many times daily. No attention was given to the suggestion that a messenger might do the climbing. (28 Jan 1897)

Editors seized upon this detail to deride the War Department and spotlight the fact that Maud’s exam omitted this critical skill.

How does Lieut. Williams know that young ladies cannot run up a step-ladder just as well as men can. How does he know they cannot do it better? . . . There ought to be some true relation of the test to the duties the applicant is expected to perform. (28 Jan 1897)

If anyone at the War Department ever linked ladders to Stalnaker’s ineligibility, the fact is lost in reporters’ enthusiasm to make the connection. It was a perfect symbol for the

Was he or was he not a "fossilized chestnut"? That was the question. Brig. Gen. George D. Ruggles, Adjutant General 1893-1897.

Brig. Gen. George D. Ruggles, Adjutant General 1893-1897. One woman asked, was he a “fossilized chestnut” or just opposed to civil service?

Lt. John R. Williams, creator of "the ladder objection" to employing women

Lt. John R. Williams, creator of “the ladder objection” to employing women











flawed system that ensnared Maud. And by the fall of 1897, the ladder carried an improbable meaning: the Post could refer to “the ladder objection” when remarking on discrimination against women in federal employment. (3 Oct 1897)

Once the press took Maud’s situation seriously, other women expressed their ideas about sexual bias in federal employment. One of the first to speak up was Frances Forshay Cougle, a widow and clerk in the Pension Office. After praising the Washington Post for its coverage of the “unprecedented injustice” dealt Stalnaker, Cougle was careful to add,

We are not of the woman’s rights association, but we believe in equal justice to man and woman in a case like the present.” (26 Jan. 1897)

In other words, one need not be at the extremes to stand with Maud Stalnaker.

Writer and outspoken activist Alice Lee Moqué, writing to the Post, took exception to Cougle’s term “unprecedented” and narrated her experience back when she had two children to support and sought government work as a topographer. In the final act of a complicated story, she could not take the civil service test because “You’re a woman.” In her opinion, the Civil Service Commission had a consistent record of discouraging women from competing for good jobs.

The ‘merit system’ seems to be, like citizenship, merely a masculine prerogative. (31 Jan. 1897)

The ranks of organized womanhood also protested, and local activists took the issue to national networks. Ellen Powell Thompson, president of the District of Columbia Woman Suffrage Association, asked the annual convention of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association to support Maud’s right to work in the War Department. Meeting in Des Moines the first week of February, delegates passed resolutions ranging from global to local: advocacy of a constitutional amendment for woman suffrage, endorsement of a treaty of arbitration with Britain, and support for Maud Stalnaker.

Whereas, it is stated that Miss Stahlnaker (sic) alone has passed the civil service examination for translator of modern languages in the office of the United States adjutant-general, . . .  and whereas, the adjutant-general refuses to appoint her because she is a woman; therefore,
Resolved, That we respectfully petition the national executive to enforce the principle of civil service reform in application to her appointment.

Word traveled quickly among women’s clubs too. According to the Chicago Times-Herald, members of the Chicago Woman’s Club met on January 23 and unanimously endorsed a letter to the adjutant general, resolving that as

the most perfect civil service can only be secured by placing the best qualified persons into public positions, we hereby protest against any unjust discrimination on account of sex of applicants, and request that Miss Maud Stahlnaker, by virtue of having passed the best examination for translator of modern languages, be appointed to the position. (24 Jan 1897)

Neither journalists nor activist women could overturn what happened to Maud, but the speed with which people rallied around her and spoke up for a vision of a just job market signaled progress in making women’s rights sound commonsensical. And maybe the protests did not accomplish nothing.

Maybe two key departures from the Office of the Adjutant General owed something to the protests. Lt. Williams of the ladders left on 29 July. Brig. Gen. George D. Ruggles retired from the Army in September.

Maybe the protests helped Maud. On 27 February newspapers announced that she had secured a job as a translator in the State Department. Jokes about ladders flourished again. In the Washington Evening Star, a headline reminded readers that she “Was Rejected by the Adjutant General Because She Couldn’t Climb a Ladder.”

Frederic Emory. Washington Times, 22 January 1905

Frederic Emory. Washington Times, 22 January 1905

Maud was hired by Frederic Emory, Chief of the Bureau of Statistics. Until his retirement in 1905, Emory kept Maud on his staff. In 1902, they worked together in the Bureau of Foreign Commerce. A feature story about Maud quoted a source that she was “well-nigh indispensable in the work relating to foreign commerce and translations in general.” She had prepared the bureau’s annual Review of the World’s Commerce. (Washington Times, 9 Mar 1902)

Two years later, on 11 January 1904, in New York City, Maud Stalnaker, age 34, married Frederic Emory, age 51. The marriage was short: Emory died at his rural home in Maryland in September 1908. His widow lived fifty years longer, still a self-supporting woman with remarkable skills.

Maud Stalnaker Emory's grave, Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Grave, Maud Stalnaker Emory, Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C., courtesy of Find A Grave


Katharine Lee researched Maud Stalnaker’s story when editors at the Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony found it mentioned in a letter by Anthony, 12 February 1897. After we dropped that letter from the volume underway, Lee’s excellent research sat idle, just begging for a second go and more digging.

For Maud’s father: “Stalnaker, John William,” Handbook of Texas Online (

For Frederic Emory as novelist and local historian,

For Emory at the State Department,
Richard Hume Werking, Master Architects: Building the United States Foreign Service, 1890-1913 (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1977), 67-87.

And if someone wants a project, the records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission at the National Archives might be checked for more pieces of Maud’s story..

Posted in Details | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It Depends upon What the Meaning of the Word “It” Is: Tilting at the Declaration of Sentiments

So, as a Washington Post headline would have it, “White House is searching for the origins of women’s rights.” Though the silly headline cannot be blamed on the White House, surely someone in Washington must know that “the origins of women’s rights” predate the founding of the United States of America. Behind the headline, where the White House speaks through the voice of Megan Smith, its Chief Technology Officer, there are other inflated claims, but the goal is more modest. Smith writes that the Declaration of Sentiments, adopted at a convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, is “the foundational document for women’s rights” and it is lost and it should be found. Smith coaches the American people, “Let’s see if we can find this thing.” (Links to Smith’s blog, press coverage, and the text of the Declaration appear at the end of this post.)

How the White House Imagines Women's History. (Adaptation by Dan Marketti.)

How the White House Imagines Women’s History. (Adaptation by Dan Marketti.)

The Declaration, like its model of 1776, spells out offenses that justify rebellion–in this case offenses against woman by the tyrant man. In number they are fewer than those counted against King George in Jefferson’s declaration, but they were potent indictments of men’s claims to govern women. Some of them have current pertinence.

He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.

Everyone should know the text. It focuses attention on how one group of white, northern women perceived the burdens of inequality. It also allows a quick overview of what has changed in women’s situation since 1848. Few American women would recognize their experience in this complaint:

He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.

Laws have changed.

Rhoda J. Palmer kept her copy of Report of the Convention she attended as teen-ager. (Library of Congress)

Rhoda J. Palmer kept her copy of the report of the convention she attended as teen-ager. (Library of Congress)

Conclusion of Declaration of Sentiments and start of signatures, as published in 1848.

Conclusion of Declaration of Sentiments and start of signatures, as published in 1848. (Library of Congress)

The fact is, the Declaration of Sentiments is not really lost at all. We know exactly what it says as printed within the month after its composition. The Declaration was launched into the world as a text within a 12-page pamphlet, Report of the Woman’s Rights Convention, Held at Seneca Falls, N.Y., July 19th and 20th, 1848. The names of women who signed to indicate their agreement appear in printed columns. I rather like the Declaration that we do have–our current original. I especially like the fact that this famous text in women’s history was printed on a press owned by Frederick Douglass at his North Star Office in Rochester. To me that lineage gives added respectability to these beginnings and hints at inclusive origins.

Because finding the historical records of this movement for women’s rights has been my profession for many decades, I’m curious about Megan Smith’s romantic quest for  something truer or more authentic. She imagines an object that might have once existed and assumes that it is simply hidden somewhere. But what is “this thing,” this “It” that she hopes her national treasure hunt will find? A big part of any document’s story is how it came into existence, and in this case, we need to look for evidence that the kind of holy writ chased by Smith ever existed. Let’s go to the details.

A version of “It” existed before the convention gathered on July 19 “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Seneca

Call to Seneca Falls Convention.

Call to Seneca Falls Convention.

Falls, wrote to her co-laborers in nearby Waterloo, “I intend to spend Sunday [July 16] with you that we may all together concoct a declaration.” Her solo efforts at a draft were “not as perfect” as they should be, she added. When the team of women planning this event reached agreement about what to present to the first day’s meeting of women alone, they prepared a manuscript. We infer that because they had something at hand to read aloud when their meeting began. No one has seen that first “It.”

But maybe “It” did not matter: by noon of Day One, the women changed “Its” wording. The minutes note that the Declaration was read aloud and “after much consideration, some changes were suggested and adopted.” A second “It.” Then, when the women reconvened in the afternoon,

The reading of the Declaration was called for, an addition having been inserted since the morning session. A vote taken upon the amendment was carried, and papers circulated to obtain signatures.

A third “It.” No doubt the task of writing down those changes fell to Mary Ann M’Clintock, secretary of the convention. But how did she record the emendations? Did she strike out and write new language in the margins? Substitute one page for another? Scribble the changes on a scrap to incorporate later? The “It” of late afternoon, twice altered since the day began, was likely a mess. An argument can be made that this marked up and altered text is the real treasure: what were they changing and adding? Wouldn’t you like to know?

An American ideal of what it means to "sign" a "Declaration."

An American ideal of what it means to “sign” a “Declaration.”

Nothing in the Report of the convention at Seneca Falls even hints at women stepping up like John Hancock to sign the Declaration of Sentiments. I see no evidence that a clean copy for their signatures existed at that moment when the minutes say they signed. No one seriously imagines that an emissary dashed off in the lunch break to find a calligrapher to prepare a copy worthy of the National Archives. Quite the opposite: we know that someone was busy in the lunch break amending what had just been approved. When it came time in the afternoon of Day One to gather the names of women, “papers circulated to obtain signatures.” I wager that means clean sheets of paper were circulated for signatures.

On July 20, men and women met together. The Declaration–form and format unknown–was read aloud again and adopted unanimously by the larger group without further changes. To the best of our knowledge, the text of “It” as adopted that day appears in the Report of the convention. Only on that second day could the names of men that appear in the Report be gathered, but it is not clear that they were asked to sign the Declaration. In the Report, women are actors, said to “affix our signatures to this declaration,” while men are observers, described as “the gentlemen present in favor of the movement.” There’s a distinction there, even if at this remove we cannot be sure what it is.

Before adjourning, participants appointed “a Committee to prepare the proceedings of the Convention for publication.” It consisted of the M’Clintock sisters from Waterloo (and thus the secretary of the event), Elizabeth Stanton, her friend and neighbor Eunice Foote, and Amy Post from Rochester. We don’t know whether they gathered at someone’s house to do the job or used the mails. And we don’t know what “It” looked like either at the start of the committee’s work, as one element in a record of the convention’s business, or at the conclusion, as a component of clean copy shipped to a printer. Would they have sent the actual signatures to the printer or made him a list of the names? No way to know.

Signing the Declaration of Their Independence, by S. D. Ehrhart (Puck, June 28, 1911) Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

History is not the study of why can’t a woman be more like a man.  “Signing the Declaration of Their Independence,” by S. D. Ehrhart, Puck, June 28, 1911. (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

If we imagine for a minute or two that there was something lovely to look at issuing from the convention at Seneca Falls on the summer day when material was sent to the printer at Rochester, where might it be? Printers did not usually return the copy from which they set type, and rarely did they keep it among their own papers. Evidence suggests that this is true not only for political tracts but even for fiction by popular authors. Of course there are exceptions. And that hope runs up against the very sad fact that on June 2, 1872, the house of Frederick Douglass burned to the ground. “I have only fragments now, of all the work accomplished during these twelve years,” from 1848 to 1860, he wrote. I doubt there ever was a lovely copy of the Declaration of Sentiments, but if you insist upon believing in its existence, that fire may mark the end of the hunt.

It’s not often that an historian ponders the question, how might the bully pulpit (or is it bully blog) of the White House be used to excite Americans about their history or women’s history in particular? How about: 1) Historians of women are a busy lot, and many of them find new evidence or “treasures” every day. Encourage them. Perhaps even read their work. 2) Two federal agencies–the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission–have awarded grants to search for the papers of women’s history since 1975. Fight to fund those agencies. Check out the editions that their grants underwrite. 3) Engaging citizens in the quest for more historical evidence is a terrific idea that numerous historians already practice, but sending them on what is very likely to be a treasureless hunt is not a winning plan.


Megan Smith’s blog:
Washington Post coverage:

USA Today coverage:

Declaration of Sentiments & resolutions:

Posted in Details | Tagged , , , , ,

“Set the wild echoes flying”: Helen Potter Impersonates

The letter’s dateline reads Hazleton, Sunday, October 21, 1877. “My dear Miss Potter,” the writer begins,

As you are to imitate Mrs Stanton here I thought I would tell you how I was dressed last night that you may come as near as possible.

Before she left this coal mining town of northeastern Pennsylvania for the next lecture on her own schedule, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that writer, advised Helen Potter, the woman who would pretend to be her later that week.

Helen Potter had created a career as an impersonator. She could imitate the acting styles of the best actors and actresses touring the country and deliver excerpts from the texts of the most popular speakers on the circuit, copying their styles, gestures, and attitude on stage. She was immensely popular, starting in the mid-1870s; as the Woman’s Journal put it, “In her peculiar line she is unapproached and unapproachable.”

Helen Potter in character as John B. Gough.

Helen Potter (1837-1922) on stage in character as John B. Gough, temperance lecturer, when in her forties.

That residents of Hazleton could hear the real thing one night and the impersonator a day or two later seems extraordinary. But it makes some sense, too: earlier in 1877, Helen Potter and another object of her talents, Susan B. Anthony, toured Illinois at the same time. After all, an impersonator’s artistry can only be appreciated if her audience is familiar with the real thing; it was in Helen Potter’s interest to know where the originals of her act were already known.

Most of what people know nowadays of Helen Potter comes from a how-to book about her career and technique, Helen Potter’s Impersonations, published in 1891. More details

Helen Potter as something close to herself, the frontispiece in Helen Potter's Impersonations

Helen Potter as something close to herself, the frontispiece in Helen Potter’s Impersonations

about her performances came to light with the advent of digital newspapers in which it is possible to search by word and name across many locations; queries about her uncover scattered advertisements and theatrical reviews from New York to St. Louis, though no one has yet reconstructed her travels. Another perspective is added through evidence, like the letter above, that Potter knew Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and no doubt others of her originals.

In her book, Helen Potter teaches how to observe an actress or lecturer and make useful notes about the performance. Instructions for her imitators, for anyone wanting to impersonate, say, John Gough as she did, include the kind of stage directions that result from observation of Gough at work.

Enter with an overcoat on your arm, place it over a chair, sit down and look about. Then rise, take a sip of water, wipe your mouth with a white handkerchief, replace it in the coat pocket (rear), straighten up, and begin your lecture.

With additional perspectives, the transaction between impersonator and her object becomes more complicated. For example, the New York Times noticed John B. Gough in the audience on November 12, 1877, while Potter impersonated him; once the observed performer, Gough was seen observing the observer’s performance. Another paper reported that Gough “has given her useful suggestions” about delivering his speeches. In practice, Potter’s art had curious elements of collaboration.

Susan B. Anthony’s diary reveals that on August 31, 1876, Helen Potter called on her at the home of Elizabeth Stanton in New Jersey.

At Tenafly– Miss Helen L. Potter came over & spent the day– She personates me in her entertainments this Season–my answer to Judge Hunt, Why Sentence should not be pronounced–

Associate Justice Ward Hunt of the U.S. Supreme Court had presided over Anthony’s federal criminal trial in 1873 and famously if misguidedly asked the routine question, “has the prisoner anything to say why sentence shall not be pronounced?” She answered with a forceful statement of equal rights. Anthony sometimes repeated it at the close of her own lectures, and now Potter would amplify her words.CpPotterasSBAAlthough the diary entry is silent about Potter’s plans for Stanton, it is likely the women settled that too. Potter selected the Declaration of Rights of Women of the United States, written that summer for the Centennial of 1876 and presented in Philadelphia on the Fourth of July. It was an odd choice: it was not one of Stanton’s lectures and lacked the cadence of oral performance. Stanton was not even the Declaration’s sole author. But it did condense the rights of women into a powerful message.

Attention to appearance, to hair, glasses, and clothing, was part of Potter’s art. She described how she and those who learned from her could look like John Gough and Susan Anthony. For Stanton, she prescribed

A rich, dark robe, plainly made, open at the throat, revealing a soft white kerchief or lace crossed underneath, and a tabbed head-piece of black thread-lace, complete the toilet.

She included a photograph of Stanton from which she had derived that costume but not of herself dressed to match. Stanton’s directions to Potter in Hazleton suggest that she had seen the impersonation somewhere; Potter’s description was not published until 1891, yet Stanton knew what needed to change. “Well, I did not wear a black lace on my head, simply my hair nothing more,” she began. With costume-designer’s detail, Stanton went on to describe what  fabrics she’d worn in what layers, ending with,

 a piece of soft blond lace round the neck & running to the waist with a large cameo pin, the lace puffed a little round the pin.

Potter’s real strength lay in elocution, habits of speech, and voice control. To preserve her art and allow imitators to learn her craft, Potter created a system of notation to record the sounds, pitch, and timing of her subject’s public speech. She later described it as a quest “to perpetuate, by diacritical marks and descriptions, what is now (in 1914) so marvelously and perfectly done by the phonograph.” In this opening paragraph of Anthony’s reply to the judge, some of Potter’s codes are put to use.

Helen Potter's codes remind her and instruct students how to sound like Susan B. Anthony speaking in federal court in 1873, from Helen Potter's Impersonations, p. 12.

Helen Potter’s codes remind her and instruct students how to sound like Susan B. Anthony speaking in federal court in 1873, from Helen Potter’s Impersonations, p. 12.

The judge’s voice is marked as a nasal monotone. The backward slashes that pepper the paragraph indicate “downward pitch, to the next bar or change,” and they capture a distinctive pattern in Anthony’s voice that is not so abundant in Potter’s marks for other speakers. The symbol (s<) indicates her voice should increase in force through the entire sentence that starts “My natural rights” or “Your denial.” The degree signs indicate that a word or syllable is uttered at a high pitch, so in the words “Re°publican form of government” the pitch rises on the second syllable. And so on.

Potter’s impersonation of Susan Anthony appears to have been second only to her John Gough character in popularity. In Philadelphia in April 1877, a theater critic was not at all impressed by Potter’s program until she performed Anthony.

Then followed the crowning triumph of the evening’s entertainment. We imagined it was the redoubtable Susan herself that was before us. For this personation she received a deserved call before the curtain.

At New York City’s Chickering Hall, in November 1877, Potter performed Anthony so well that a critic for the New York Times celebrated ideas that his newspaper disliked when the real Anthony spoke them.

Then Susan B. Anthony stood up for the rights of female citizens, proclaimed her title to the franchise, resented the tyranny of her lord and master, man, and proclaimed her unalterable determination of combatting it forevermore. The vraisemblance was undeniable, and the applause was hearty.

Did Susan B. Anthony ever see the performance of herself? In a lull in her demanding lecture schedule in March 1877, she traveled all day across Illinois, as she wrote in her diary,

to hear & see Miss Helen Potter–in her personalities–she gave Ristori, Charlotte Cushman–A. E. Dickinson & John B. Gough–she has marvelous powers of imitation–

A week later in St. Louis that program included Susan B. Anthony. Did Helen Potter decide not to perform Anthony in her presence? Did Anthony record everyone but herself in her diary? Summing up their encounter, Anthony wrote,

Had a good visit– Miss P. seems a very earnest soul for equality for women–

This visit of Potter and Anthony reveals one more kind of collaboration. According to her agent, Helen Potter earned the extraordinary sum of $20,000 from her performances in her second season on tour. At Peoria, she paid some of that money to Anthony. For immediate comfort, Potter insisted on paying for a room at the Peoria Hotel for her guest after the performance; for future ease, she made a gift to Anthony of $100,

said it was for S B A. personally–no society no committee–no cause but S. B. A.

Potter retired from touring sometime in the 1880s and prepared her book, convinced that she could teach what she had done. She was back on stage for the huge celebration of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s eightieth birthday on November 12, 1895 in the old Metropolitan Opera House. Stanton wrote a speech for the occasion but could not stay on her feet long enough to deliver it. She invited Helen Potter to stand in. Stanton introduced her and then sat on the stage to listen. No one recorded how Potter dressed for the occasion or whether she imitated Stanton’s voice and delivery. But one reporter, describing her role in the celebration, seemed to recall Potter’s heyday and the interplay between the real and the imitation on public platforms:

A Miss Helen Potter then read a most brilliant paper, which had been written by Mrs. Stanton, and contained all the statements that Mrs. Stanton would like to have said, but her health forbade the exertion.


Some useful books:
# Helen Potter, Helen Potter’s Impersonations (New York: Edgar S. Werner, 1891).
# Albert Milton Tennant, Genealogy of the Tennant Family, Their Ancestors and Descendants Through Many Generations (Dunkirk, N.Y.: Dunkirk Printing Co., 1915), 145, 229-231.
# James B. Pond, Eccentricities of Genius: Memories of Famous Men and Women of the Platform and Stage (New York: G. W. Dillingham Co., 1900), 170-171.
# National Protection for National Citizens, 1873 to 1880, vol 3 of Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, ed. Ann D. Gordon et al. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003)

Text of Susan B. Anthony’s answer to the judge:

Exhibit on Helen Potter:

Posted in Details | Tagged , , , , , , ,

“The Experience Married Life Has Given Them.” Really?

It’s no secret that men resisted woman suffrage. Over many generations, a majority blocked changes to laws that limited voting rights to males. Why all those individuals felt so strongly about controlling the ballot box is seldom asked. Biographers and political historians ignore the question, and after fifty years of the new women’s history, it is still intellectually respectable to omit from his biography a man’s opposition to women’s rights.

Samuel A. Foot was no ordinary opponent, muttering to his pals about keeping women in their place. While serving his first term in the New York Assembly in 1856, Foot fashioned himself the man to stem the tide of women’s rights. Installed as chairman of the Committee on Judiciary, Foot blocked modest reform bills and wrote an infamous report against women who dared to seek legal equality.

Samuel Alfred Foot (1790-1878), the man himself.  He chose this image to include in his Autobiography.

Samuel Alfred Foot (1790-1878) in the image he chose to include in his Autobiography.

Foot was and is, in some circles, an estimable man of his century. Lawyer, writer, district attorney of Albany, assemblyman, and judge of the Court of Appeals of New York, this “Eminent Jurist” was eulogized by the New York Times in 1878.

He passed through his life . . . without reproach, and honored for the manly qualities he exhibited. . . . Each good cause found in him a champion, each bad one a persistent opponent. He preached by example no less than by precept.

Not then and not since have accounts of Foot paid any attention to his extreme resistance to women’s rights. Neither have his admirers tried to understand that extremism in relation to his better deeds. Let’s consider the possibility that his attitude toward women mattered.

Foot’s chance to behave badly came in fall 1855. While he campaigned for office, the New York State Woman’s Rights Committee circulated a petition asking for voting rights. It put forth a simple argument: the women of New York are “recognized as citizens” and suffrage “cannot justly be withheld” from citizens.

We, the undersigned, do therefore petition that you will at once take the necessary steps so to revise the Constitution of our State that all her citizens may enjoy equal Political Privileges.

Petitions were returned to Susan B. Anthony and sent on to Albany during the legislative session which ran from January 1 to April 9, 1856.

Appeal and petition, Frederick Douglass' Paper, 26 October 1855.

Appeal and petition, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 26 October 1855.

When the first petition from the campaign, signed by residents of Saratoga Springs, reached the Assembly on January 19, members referred it to the Committee on Judiciary. On February 2, assemblymen introduced petitions from Ontario, Livingston, Rensselaer, Wyoming, Westchester, and Chemung counties; on February 4, petitions came from constituents in Onondaga, Yates, Erie, and Queens counties; and so it continued.

As petitions piled up, Samuel Foot ignored them until, in mid-March,  colleagues pressed him to report back from the committee. His Report on Women’s Rights was read aloud in the Assembly Chamber on March 14 and, according to local newspapers, “set the whole House in roars of laughter.”

Foot got right to the point: “The judiciary committee is composed of married and single gentlemen,” with married men in the majority. This non sequitur about marital status set up his joke. “The bachelors on the committee, with becoming diffidence,” he went on, “have left the subject pretty much to the married gentlemen.” And those husbands brought “the experience married life has given them” to the subject. From experience they knew,

that ladies always have the best piece, and choicest titbit at table; they have the best seat in the cars, carriages and sleighs; the warmest place in winter and coolest place in summer. They have their choice on which side of the bed they will lie, front or back.

The list goes on, peaking with this drollery:

if there is any inequality or oppression in the case, the gentlemen are the sufferers. They, however, have presented no petitions for redress, having doubtless made up their minds to yield to an inevitable destiny.

Playing petitioners’ plea for constitutional equality as if it were marital tension better left at home, Foot never conceded that these constituents deserved a real answer.

Charred remains of a petition sent to S. A. Foot’s committee in 1856.  New York State Archives. Damage occurred when the State Capitol burned in 1911.

Charred remains of a petition sent to S. A. Foot’s committee in 1856. New York State Archives. Damage occurred when the State Capitol burned in 1911.

What could be worse than women daring to trespass on political turf? Husbands who let them do it. Foot ended his report with some petticoat-shaming.

On the whole, the committee have concluded to recommend no measure, except that, as they have observed several instances in which husband and wife have both signed the same petition, in such case they would recommend the parties to apply for a law authorizing them to change dresses, so that the husband may wear the petticoats, and the wife the breeches, and thus indicate to their neighbors and the public the true relation in which they stand to each other.

Colleagues recognized the incivility of Samuel Foot’s performance. As laughter faded on March 14, Henry Northup observed that Foot said nothing about voting rights or political equality. He moved that the report be sent back to committee, “with instructions to submit a report touching the subject of the prayer of the petitions referred to them.” The Assembly rejected Northup’s motion, but in the very next item of business, a majority rebuked Foot in a related matter. They had sought his committee’s counsel on a bill expanding the property rights of married women. When Foot reported against taking any action, Andrew Warner moved that the bill be printed and taken up by members regardless of Foot’s opposition. The Assembly agreed.

In one last reprimand a week later, members took away Foot’s power to block women’s rights in committee: they referred the petitions to the friendlier Committee on Claims. According to William Hay, a distinguished lawyer and ally of the woman’s rights committee, Foot was quite angry; he “squealed out his angry opposition, in the old stupid slang (or Shakespeare perverted from ‘Macbeth’), about unsexing women with the right of suffrage.”

Undated photograph of Old Capitol, Albany. New York State Archives. Built in 1806, the building was razed in the late 1860's to allow for construction of a new capitol. (New York State Archives)

Undated photograph of Old Capitol, Albany. New York State Archives. Built in 1806, the building was razed in the late 1860’s to allow for construction of a new capitol.

In the short term, Foot stonewalled to prevent discussion of voting rights in that legislative session. In the long term, his report became a totem in the battle for woman suffrage. First, Foot included the report and an introduction to it in his Autobiography published sixteen years later. By then, by 1872, the topic of women’s political rights was not new, surprising, or confined to Albany. Campaigns were national in scope, and women of Wyoming and Utah enjoyed full voting rights. Time and social change, however, did not lessen Foot’s resistance. Indeed, he added a boast about his talent for obstruction.

The committee regarded the idea of changing the order of an infinitely-wise Creator in regard to the sexes of those created in his own image, as too absurd for serious consideration, and determined to make no report on the subject. . . . The result showed that it was just the right way of putting down such nonsense. . . . . It killed women’s rights for the time and for several years afterwards.

Then, nine years later, in 1881, Foot’s report surfaced in the History of Woman Suffrage, in a chapter about the agitation in New York. There historians of women controverted Foot’s arrogance and the euphoria of his obituary. The report was introduced as the work of a reputable man gone bad, in a damning crescendo of words likely written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (Odds are that Stanton knew Foot through her father, Daniel Cady.)

Mr. Foote (sic) was at one time a member of the bar of New York, associating with some of the first families in the State–a son, a husband, a father–and yet in his maturer years he had so little respect for himself, his mother, wife, and daughters as to present in a dignified legislative assembly the following report on a grave question of human rights–a piece of buffoonery worthy only of a mountebank in a circus.

In a stunning return, on May 23, 1915, the New York Times published Foot’s buffoonery again, as a message from “Mrs. J. Alex Mahon,” a leader in the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. New Yorkers were debating woman suffrage that season in advance of a state referendum in November. Mrs. Mahon, citing Foot’s Autobiography as her source, redeployed the report in her campaign to defeat woman suffrage.

Though Foot-the-reactionary was inscribed into women’s history within a few years of his death, his modern champions simply ignore that facet of the man and make no effort to explain how the views and tone of his report accord with the man they admire. Foot is classified today as a “luminary” by the New York State Unified Court System. His prominence as a champion of male-only government gets no mention. By historians, Foot is respected for his swift opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case in 1857. In his second term in the Assembly, he introduced resolutions condemning the decision. A year later, he wrote a widely circulated speech about how the decision threatened the Constitution. These are good deeds, but someone needs to explain how they coexist with the smug extremist who mocked women for expecting something from their government–and boasted about it later.

Who's extravagant now, Sam? A suite of furniture made by cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe for Samuel A. Foot, as displayed in the American Wing,  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Who’s extravagant now, Sam? A suite of furniture made by cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe for Samuel A. Foot, as displayed in the American Wing, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.


Autobiography: Collateral Reminiscences, Arguments in Important Causes, Speeches, Addresses, Lectures and Other Writings of Samuel A. Foot, LL.D., Counselor-at-Law, and Late Judge of the Court of Appeals, 2 vols. (New York: n.p., 1872). Available free on the web. Foot reminisces in vol. 1 about the writings included in vol. 2.

Journal of the New York Assembly, 79th session, 1856.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage et al., History of Woman Suffrage, (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1881), 1: 629-631.

Just another luminary:

Dred Scott decision:  The full text of Foot’s 1858 speech is also part of the same lessons.

A man of expensive tastes:

Posted in Details | Tagged , ,

“To Celebrate Worthily”: When Birthdays Are No Longer Your Own

Excerpt from "Save the Date" brochure issued by Anthony Birthday Celebration Committee.

Excerpt from “Save the Date” brochure issued by Anthony Birthday Celebration Committee.

Susan B. Anthony’s 80th birthday, 115 years ago today, coincided with her retirement from the presidency of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association at its annual convention in Washington, D.C.  Elaborate birthday celebrations kept returning to the topic of race in the nation’s past and present.

The party started in the afternoon of February 15 here, at Washington’s Lafayette Square Opera House, one of the largest halls in the city (left), where every seat was taken. The men and women arriving for this public event received a program (right), listing musical performances and speakers.

Lafayette Square Opera House, 1895, Inland Architect and News Record, 26 (January 1896)

Lafayette Square Opera House, 1895, Inland Architect and News Record, 26 (January 1896)

Program Cover for Birthday Celebration at Lafayette Square Opera House.

Program Cover for Birthday Celebration at Lafayette Square Opera House.










Festivities resumed in the evening at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where two thousand guests passed through a receiving line to shake Miss Anthony’s hand. Janet Jennings, a nurse during both the Civil and Spanish-American Wars and a nationally published journalist, wrote of this reception:

The great hall of statuary was brilliant with lights and fragrant with flowers. Among the paintings was the portrait of Miss Anthony presented to the gallery that day by Mrs. John B. Henderson of Missouri. Taking it all in all, no woman in the nation ever had such a tribute to her worth and and work as this celebration to Miss Anthony.

The local Evening Star noticed  that

A number of local organizations of women, among them almost the entire membership of the Washington College of Law, attended the reception in a body.

Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1897, 17th Street. Undated glass negative, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street. Undated glass negative, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Just having Susan B. Anthony in town prompted some unease about racial discrimination in the capital city. On the day the Washington Times covered her parties, a columnist collecting gossip “In the Hotel Corridors” revealed that African-Americans who called on Miss Anthony at her hotel were denied use of the elevator. He went on to complain not about the racism of hotel management but about female journalists/suffragists who reported the fact back to their hometown papers.

"In the Hotel Corridors" column, The Times (Washington), 16 February 1900.

“In the Hotel Corridors” column,  Times (Washington), 16 February 1900.

To Helen Pitts Douglass, the white widow of Frederick Douglass who lived in Washington, the more worrisome types attracted to the city by Susan B. Anthony were suffragists from the South whose states had already deprived black men of any right to vote. She attended a few meetings of the delegates ahead of the birthday and complained to a friend on February 12, “Sat. evening Louisiana spoke, and three times the little thing declared for ‘white supremacy’–apparently to no one’s discomfort.”

At the Opera House, both groups were in the audience when Joseph H. Douglass, the talented twenty-nine year old grandson of Frederick, stepped on stage to play a violin solo, the Hungarian Rhapsodie by Stjepan Hauser. Joseph also led an orchestra at the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s reception. After the music, at the Opera House, Coralie Franklin Cook rose to deliver what the program called, “Greetings from Colored Women.” Cook, who is thought to be the first descendant of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves to complete college, was a professor of English and Elocution at Howard University. Of the birthday girl, she had high praise:

Our children and our children’s children will be taught to honor her memory for they shall be told that she has always been in the vanguard of the immortal few who have stood for the great principles of human rights.

Cook then reminded her largely white audience that the premise of mobilization for woman suffrage had been the promises of equality, that

not till [woman] had suffered under the burden of her own wrongs and abuses did she realize the all important truth that no woman and no class of women can be degraded and all women kind not suffer thereby.

Coralie Franklin Cook (1861-1942)

Coralie Franklin Cook (1861-1942) spoke at Opera House celebration.

Joseph Douglass, age 29, played at both Birthday Celebrations. Here he plays for his grandfather, Frederick Douglass, prior to his death in 1895.

Joseph Douglass played at both Birthday Celebrations. Here he plays for his grandfather, Frederick Douglass, prior to his death in 1895.











Helen Douglass, again writing on February 12, was clearly disappointed in Susan B. Anthony’s record on race. They were acquaintances, perhaps friends, who had worked together planning Frederick Douglass’s funeral five years earlier. But Helen placed a very large burden on Susan and, indeed, on the woman suffrage movement. She expected them to champion universal voting rights—black and white, man and woman—against a tide running the other direction in southern states.

The colored people do not like Miss Anthony, and she has lost the chance of a life time, the chance to endear herself and her cause to thousands to whom suffrage is as important as it is to herself,–the chance to put the association on record as standing squarely for humanity and loyalty–the chance to stay the advance of a spirit that is encroaching upon the safety of our Republic and to lead and strengthen the moral purpose of the women of the land.

Susan B. Anthony’s retirement went into effect before her birthday. Maybe she was testing her new liberty when she rose to speak at the conclusion of the Opera House program. At age 80 and without office, she could not rise to Douglass’s challenge, but she could certainly show the white supremacists in the audience where she stood. She could strive to merit Coralie Cook’s high praise. Reports of her remarks differ. Emma Sweet, a skilled stenographer and occasional assistant to Anthony, probably filed this first passage with the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. Tired and a bit overwhelmed, Anthony expressed gratitude for letters and telegrams from around the world and continued:

but none has touched me so deeply as that which came from a little town in Alabama with a postal order for 80 cents. It came from a woman whose mother and father have clanked the chains of slavery, and those 80 cents are worth more than the wealth of the Indies to me, and as I have sat and heard from all these friends here, nothing has touched me so deeply as from her whose face is of a deeper hue, and no music has touched me like the music of Frederick Douglass’s grandson.

There the report slipped into paraphrase, but we can pick up the thread in the Woman’s Tribune. Anthony thought this was a good moment to talk about the importance of slavery and its abolition in sharpening the nation’s ideals of liberty and forging strong people.

Nothing speaks so strongly for freedom, for liberty in this nation as does the fact that descendants of families who went through that great agony are able to secure development and opportunities for education, and to stand on this platform and celebrate my half century of work for liberty–the peers of any Anglo-Saxon.

Almost as afterthought, she added:

I am glad of the development that has come to women of the Anglo-Saxon race too.

Happy birthday, Susan B. Anthony!

Printed reproduction of painting by Sarah J. Eddy, 1903, inspired by 1900 birthday party. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Printed reproduction of painting by Sarah J. Eddy, 1903, inspired by 1900 birthday party. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Updated February 2016 to add sources

Janet Jennings, “Susan B. Anthony—Story of a Life Devoted to an Idea,” unidentified & undated clipping, Susan B. Anthony scrapbook 1876-1903, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Helen Pitts Douglass to My dear friend, 12 February 1900, Emily Howland Correspondence, Box 5, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College.

On Coralie Franklin Cook,    and

Posted in Details | Tagged , , , , , , ,

“She is my goods, my chattels”: Hats, Marriage, and Possession

Mrs. Lovett of Troy, New York, needed supplies for her job making hats. Working from home, she had a millinery business “in her own name.” Though Troy, located at the eastern end of the Erie Canal along the Hudson River, was a thriving city, Mrs. Lovett traveled to New York City to buy her goods. It was 1851, and she could board a ship down the river or ride the brand new Hudson River Railroad from Troy to Manhattan’s West Side. Maybe the trip was also a quest for fashion, an opportunity to see the newest styles and bring back what she needed to copy them.

Hats of 1851. Godey’s Lady’s Book, 43 (November 1851).

Hats of 1851. Godey’s Lady’s Book, 43 (November 1851).

What began as creative economic activity by Mrs. Lovett crashed into the legal walls erected around every married woman in New York State–and most other states. When Mrs. Lovett returned to Troy, the millinery goods that she acquired “on her own credit” were seized by Abram Witbeck, sheriff of Rensselaer County, to settle a judgment against her husband. With the sheriff’s help, her goods paid off a Mr. Robinson to whom S. Porter Lovett, Jr., owed $402.80.

The Lovetts sued the sheriff and Robinson for wrongful taking of property. It is from the opinion in their case delivered by the New York State Supreme Court that we learn their story. The opinion, written by Justice John Willard, also spells out the stark terms governing property within marriage. Justice Willard wrote,

That the legal title to the goods after the purchase by the wife, became vested in the husband, and was thus amenable to the execution under which they were taken.

In other words, Mrs. Lovett never did own the supplies she purchased to earn a living. Lest there be any confusion, the court rephrased the fact: if a married woman purchases goods, the goods become the property of her husband “at the moment of the purchase.”

 Milliner and Daughter at Work, Springfield, Illinois, ca. 1854. Ambrotype, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Milliner and Daughter at Work, Springfield, Illinois, ca. 1854. Ambrotype, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The wife’s legal disadvantage arose from common law definitions of marriage that migrated from England to early America. Marriage erased a woman’s legal identity, and without that identity she could not own anything, including herself. In the famous passage by William Blackstone, an English jurist whose Commentaries on the Laws of England shaped American law:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything.

So the court reminded the Lovetts,

the husband, upon the marriage, becomes entitled to all the goods and chattels of the wife, and to all sums of money which she earns by her skill or labor; and these he has absolutely in his own right, and not in hers.

In an example favored by Susan B. Anthony when she lectured on women’s rights, a married woman did not own the false teeth in her own mouth.

A Milliner’s Shop. Unattributed, undated woodcut

A Milliner’s Shop. Unattributed, undated woodcut

Little attention has been paid to the variety of baneful effects this law of marriage had on families at every economic level. To modern ears, “married women’s property rights” sounds like a problem affecting the wives of landed gentlemen or other privileged couples. But in fact, even a married woman’s wages of labor were not her own. In the Lovetts’ case, the law disadvantaged husband and wife together: in seizing the raw materials with which presumably Mrs. Lovett could have earned a profit, the sheriff increased the husband’s debt.

By 1851, activists in New York State had opened a public conversation about how and why to change the laws affecting married woman’s property. The legislature enacted minor changes in 1848 and 1849 that allowed married women to possess property as their own under specific circumstances. The Lovetts had heard that conversation and recognized in it their own predicament. When they sued for wrongful taking of property, they argued that the new laws protected Mrs. Lovett’s millinery supplies, safe from seizure for her husband’s debts. There is no record of how an attorney built that argument; all that survives is Justice Willard’s dismissal of it. As he read the new law, a wife could possess her own property only if it came to her as a gift or bequest from someone other than her husband. Of Mrs. Lovett, Willard wrote,

The difficulty which the plaintiff has to encounter is, the goods in question did not come to her by inheritance, devise or gift.

I learned about this case and legal opinion from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who cited it in a speech she gave in 1854 about the laws of New York. To Stanton, already at the forefront of

Lovett v. Robinson

First page of opinion in Lovett v. Robinson and Witbeck (1852)

campaigns to rewrite New York’s laws, the ruling against Mrs. Lovett demonstrated that legislators in 1848 and 1849 had expanded married woman’s property rights only for women of privilege. Without an inheritance, Mrs. Lovett had gained nothing at all by new legislation. By suing for wrongful taking of property, however, Mrs. Lovett proved the point Elizabeth Cady Stanton hoped to impress upon legislators: women were not choosing to give up control of their wages or their business talent; they had not consented to such laws. Mrs. Lovett needed and wanted change.

Who was this married couple with the vision to make a claim that could have pushed the boundaries of the law? Curiously, nothing is known about them except the husband’s name, S. Porter Lovett, Jr. Mrs. Lovett’s given name appears nowhere in the court’s opinion. Working from his name, I think I have identified them; their story can be tentatively told. According to the federal census of 1850, Porter Lovett, merchant, and his wife, Susan, both born in Massachusetts, boarded at a house in Troy’s Third Ward. By 1860, two people of the right age, born in Massachusetts, and listed as S. P. Lovett lived in New York City. Again, they boarded. On this occasion, the census taker found them with a fourteen-year old son. When Samuel Porter Lovett, Jr., died in New York in 1861, his body was taken to Beverly, Massachusetts, for burial near his parents. Mrs. Lovett kept at her work in the city: S. P. Lovett, milliner, later Susan P. Lovett, milliner, doing business at 753 Broadway, appears in city directories late into the 1870s. On the marriage certificate of her son, Edward C. Lovett, in 1875, her name is given as Susan Palmer Lovett. When Mrs. Lovett died in 1901, she was buried in Beverly’s Central Cemetery next to her husband. Perhaps we might sing forth the honour of her name.

Grave, Samuel P. Lovett, Jr., Central Cemetery, Beverly, Massachusetts, courtesy of Find A Grave. Records indicate Susan Lovett's burial nearby.

Grave, Samuel P. Lovett, Jr., Central Cemetery, Beverly, Massachusetts, courtesy of Find A Grave. Records indicate Susan Lovett’s burial nearby.


Find the opinion of Justice Willard in Nathan Howard, Practice Reports in the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals of the State of New York, vol. 52, pp. 105-107. [Known in legal circles as Howard’s Practice Reports 52 (1852) 105.]

For Stanton’s lead to this case and her review of other laws in 1854, see In the School of Anti-Slavery, 1840 to 1866, vol. 1 of Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, ed. Ann D. Gordon, et al. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 240-260.

Title quotation from William Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew and used by Stanton in her speech of 1854.

Posted in Details | Tagged , , , , , ,

Rambles with Umbrellas

"What to Do with Our Ex-Presidents? Susan B. Anthony Knows" by C. L. Bartholomew, Minneapolis Tribune, 26 April 1905

“What to Do with Our Ex-Presidents? Susan B. Anthony Knows” C. L. Bartholomew, Minneapolis Tribune, 26 April 1905

This is my favorite cartoon–perhaps my favorite picture–of Susan B. Anthony. She was eighty-five years old when the artist Charles Lewis Barthomolew, or Bart, imagined her charging flat out after a chubby former president of the United States. He captured the vitality for which the public knew her over half a century, and she liked the cartoon enough to keep it in a scrapbook. There’s Uncle Sam in the background shaking with laughter, while Grover Cleveland runs ahead of his hat. To accent the chase, long strides, and speed, Bart dared to expose Miss Anthony’s ankles, though he covered them with spats. On a ceremonial sash, he supplied her name, though most readers of city newspapers in 1905 would recognize her anyway: the center part, hair pulled back over the ears into a loose bun, simple glasses, and chiseled jawline–these were essential elements used for decades by painters, cartoonists, even photographers to present Susan B. Anthony to the public.

Cleveland had written a foolish, condescending article for the Ladies’ Home Journal, imploring women to stay away from clubs and public life and focus instead on making their homes more comfortable. As if Cleveland stuck his hand in a beehive (as another cartoonist imagined the uproar), swarms of women replied. In this, the second of his cartoons about the flap, Bart spotlights the special sting of Susan B. Anthony’s response: alluding to Cleveland’s muddy sexual history and illegitimate child, she told an interviewer that he “is a very poor one to attempt to point out the proper conduct of the women.”

I want to understand the umbrella. Why is it here? There’s no evidence that Miss Anthony carried an umbrella more often than any other 19th century man or woman. Yet it appears in other caricatures of her. She did own an umbrella. Like everyone else who ever owned one, she occasionally left hers behind. We know that because she wrote letters to arrange for its return. Nothing in the drawing indicates bad weather, and the umbrella is tightly furled. This is not a tool for protection against rain. It is a weapon moving toward a target.

Umbrellas became fashionable in England and the U.S. late in the 18th century, and by the time of Anthony’s birth in 1820, they were becoming unisex accessories. In many 19th century cartoons, the symbolic functions of an umbrella don’t seem to be specific to men or to women.  Rolled up and secured, an umbrella just became a weapon disguised as an accessory.

Currier & Ives, 1876. Prints & Pholtographs Division, Library of Congress.

Currier & Ives, 1876. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Here, in a lithograph by Currier & Ives from 1876, two factions of New York’s Democratic party, differentiated by social class (check out their shoes), kick up dust in New York City. The working stiffs on the left fight with cudgels, a stubby blunderbuss, and what looks like a broken stool. The gentlemen on the right rely on weapons they have at hand–walking sticks, a few dueling pistols, and one umbrella. (Note that the sophisticated Democrat and Susan B. Anthony were schooled in different ways to grip the umbrella.)

Still Scolding, by John S. Pughe, Puck, 20 Jan 1904, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

“Still Scolding,” John S. Pughe, Puck, 20 Jan 1904, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

John S. Pughe complicates the idea of umbrella as weapon in this cartoon for Puck. He depicts Senator George F. Hoar (his name is inscribed on his bonnet) in the clothes of a woman, immobilized by his skirt and protecting child-sized leaders of Colombia and the Philippines. Pughe refers to a specific contest underway in the Senate. Hoar, Republican of Massachusetts and a well-known opponent of the new American empire, was trying to stop plans for the Panama Canal. His opposition is made feminine, more mothering than manly. His (or is it her?) raised umbrella is impotent: it cannot even reach, let alone endanger, Uncle Sam. In a good example of over explaining, someone added the title “Still Scolding.”

Election Day! copyrighted by Eugene W. Gustin, 1909, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

“Election Day!” copyrighted by Eugene W. Gustin, 1909, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Sometimes an umbrella is just decoration. Artists deploy it to complete a look or ensemble and indicate that a man or woman is out and about in public or ready to enter that wider world.  Here, in a cartoon copyrighted in 1909 by Eugene W. Gustin, an artist and art publisher in New York, comedy based on men’s anxieties about allowing women to vote works because of the umbrella. That is, we know, before she reaches the door, that this mother is stepping out with her umbrella hooked over her arm. It is the apron’s antithesis. All the elements of her costume are in place.

Rt. Rev. Thorold, Bishop of Rochester, by Leslie Ward, Vanity Fair, 10 Jan 1885

Rt. Rev. Thorold, Bishop of Rochester, by Leslie Ward, Vanity Fair, 10 Jan 1885

Rt. Rev. Ellicott, Bishop of Gloucester & Bristol, by Leslie Ward, Vanity Fair, 18 July 1885

Rt. Rev. Ellicott, Bishop of Gloucester & Bristol, by Leslie Ward, Vanity Fair, 18 July 1885


In caricatures of newsworthy Englishmen in the London journal Vanity Fair,  Leslie Ward, or Spy, dresses these bishops for strolling the city streets and adds their umbrellas.



Shut Out Again! And All Her Own Doing, Too!  Puck, 14 Nov 1894, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

“Shut Out Again! And All Her Own Doing, Too!” Puck, 14 Nov 1894, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In another cartoon about squabbles among Democrats, this time in 1894, the artist Charles Jay Taylor renders the losing faction as a tired woman tossed outdoors with her luggage. Unlike the bishops, she is not in control of the impression she makes. As an echo of her own situation, her umbrella lacks power or purpose.  Yet the artist thought she needed it for whatever journey awaits her.

Finally, in an early caricature of Susan B. Anthony, “The Woman Who Dared,” artist Theodore Wust gives her a furled umbrella that reinforces and literally supports her provocative pose; it is a prop for a bit of an attitude–a woman who still dares.

"The Woman Who Dared," by Theodore Wust, Daily Graphic, 5 June 1873.

“The Woman Who Dared,” by Theodore Wust, Daily Graphic, 5 June 1873.

This cover appeared ten days before she went on trial in federal court for the crime of voting “without having a lawful right to vote . . . being then and there a person of the female sex.” Around her on a public square a woman serves as a police officer, a man brings home the groceries, and another carries his baby. Behind them, two bands of women are about to meet, one marching for their rights and the other rallying around the slogan, “We favor union–to a Man.” It’s a topsy-turvy world, Wust suspects, and at its center is a monumental woman with an umbrella.

Six years after this cartoon appeared, Susan B. Anthony described it to an audience of activists in St. Louis in 1879. A writer for the Globe-Democrat paraphrased what she said:

she was represented as at least seven feet high, head and feet in proportion, wrapped in the stars and stripes, which came to the top of a very long and very large boot, carrying the proverbial blue cotton umbrella. She would never forget, she said, the casual remark she overheard of a lady who had just heard her lecture: “Why, I had no idea that Miss Anthony was a decent-looking woman.” [Laughter.]

What caught her attention? Her abnormal size, her ankles, and her umbrella. Her clothing comes only to the top of her boot, she recalls. Her umbrella is blue cotton. For a long time, this detail about fabric and color seemed to me unusually fanciful for Susan B. Anthony. Why say that? It turns out she was being literary. The “proverbial blue cotton umbrella” refers to a novella by Eliza Leslie, Henrietta Harrison; Or, The Blue Cotton Umbrella, published in 1838 and “Republished by request” in Godey’s Magazine in 1877. Henrietta Harrison’s uncle loses his silk umbrella, buys a sensible blue cotton one, and resists his niece’s admonition that it “is such an umbrella as no gentleman can possibly carry.” Henrietta’s acceptance of its simplicity tracks the next phase of her education. If Theodore Wust imagined himself placing a silk umbrella beneath Susan B. Anthony’s arm, she swapped it out for blue cotton. The rest of his representation she could accept.


Special thanks to staff at the Prints & Photographs Division who thought to index “umbrella” in images in their care.

Gustin’s 1909 image survives too as a postcard printed in color:

On the history of umbrellas, two sites get right to the point:

You too can read Henrietta Harrison. There are several sources on the web providing free access to the 1838 printing. One book, two stories: Eliza Leslie, Althea Vernon; or, The Embroidered Handkerchief. To which Is Added, Henrietta Harrison; or, The Blue Cotton Umbrella

Posted in Details | Tagged , , , , , , ,