The passing of the 19th Amendment, celebrating its centennial this year, seems inevitable to a 21st-century American, but it was, in fact, the culmination of decades of contentious public battles, with men and women on both sides of the debate. Many people assume that the trailblazing members of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association were outspoken advocates for women’s suffrage, but this is not the case. Although several Vice Regents individually supported the right to vote, the MVLA followed a long tradition of remaining neutral in matters of politics and never made a public declaration for or against women’s suffrage. The Association’s struggle to endure as a unified and cohesive group over long distances while continuing its fundraising efforts for Mount Vernon’s restoration proved difficult enough without adding political strain to the mix. It’s a fascinating story that gives rich context to suffrage and the women’s rights movement.
From its inception, the mission of the MVLA focused solely on the preservation of George Washington’s home as a sacred and patriotic duty. Founder Ann Pamela Cunningham viewed the organization’s goal as one suited to a woman’s conventional role as domestic caretaker, saying, “It is woman’s office to be a vestal; and even the ‘fire of liberty’ may need the care of her devotion, and the purity of her guardianship.” Cunningham, however, was also well educated and frustrated with the limitations placed on her gender. She strongly believed men and women to be of equal intelligence. In searching for a purpose or cause to which she could devote her own skills and abilities, she chose patriotism and preservation of an important American landmark. She repeatedly criticized the men of America for neglecting to care for Mount Vernon and prided herself that women “triumphed where he failed.”
The Association was originally meant to be a Southern enterprise. When Miss Cunningham discovered the profound interest Northern citizens also had in their work, she opened membership to include women from all over the country. This proved to be immensely beneficial in garnering much-needed influential and financial support, but difficult to manage, considering the opposing viewpoints of those involved.
With the tumultuous period of the Civil War approaching, the Association’s advisers suggested adding the words “of the Union” and making its official chartered name the “Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.” This would send a message to the world that the MVLA stood together for a common goal of unity despite the divisive political climate. The Ladies understood that Americans on both sides, despite their differences, treasured Mount Vernon and George Washington. The preservation of Washington’s estate, which needed public support, was more important to them than officially siding with the North or the South. The MVLA maintained its precariously neutral position throughout the Civil War and afterward, although several Vice Regents parted ways with the Association during this time. The precedent was set. When other public conflicts arose, such as the issue of suffrage, the Ladies followed the same policy and remained impartial.
The national suffrage movement had internal struggles of its own to contend with. After presenting a unified front during the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, the active participants in the movement began to disagree on the best strategy to win the vote. Conservatives, under the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), preferred advocating for changes to each state’s constitution. More radical activists formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and worked to pass a federal constitutional amendment. Progress began advancing more for the conservatives, with several western states granting full or partial voting rights to women. By 1890, the two groups merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Another division in the ranks of suffragists was the inclusion of minority women, which inspired African American women to establish the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs to promote the rights of those who had been largely ignored by the suffrage associations. The final two decades of the suffrage movement, culminating in the victory for the 19th Amendment, were led by a new generation of activists who took a more militant approach. Young suffragists like Alice Paul picketed the White House, organized large-scale parades, and staged prison hunger strikes to bring attention to the cause.
Suffragists used many of the same tactics employed by the MVLA to gain support and disseminate information. The Association depended on grassroots organizing to raise funds for the purchase and restoration of Mount Vernon. Each state’s Vice Regent worked with a standing committee and “Lady Managers” to collect subscriptions in different cities and counties. Any amount of money was accepted, with donations ranging from a few cents to several thousand dollars (or tens of thousands of dollars in today’s money). State and local suffrage groups likewise strengthened the national suffrage organizations by recruiting new members and paying dues to fund annual conventions and publications.
Both the MVLA and suffragists had strong male advisers and allies. Orator and politician Edward Everett spoke to audiences around the country on the merits of George Washington, donating all proceeds to Mount Vernon. By the end of his life, Everett had raised almost $70,000 for Mount Vernon. Other men helped the Association with legal advice, financial transactions, public advocacy, and legislative influence. Female suffrage leaders often gave public speeches, a taboo in the 19th century. But male supporters such as abolitionist Frederick Douglass and social reformer Henry Browne Blackwell also spoke on behalf of the cause, and provided political and financial aid when needed. Businessman George Francis Train helped develop The Revolution newspaper for Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Another suffrage publication, Woman’s Journal, was printed from 1878 to 1931 and included updates from conventions, speeches, debates, poetry, and short stories. The Mount Vernon Record, the newsletter for the MVLA from 1858 to 1860, served a similar role for the Association by reporting on the Association’s efforts and publishing articles on Washington and other founding fathers. The Ladies also set aside a section of the newsletter to list names of donors, with the amounts given.
The number of women’s clubs and associations grew rapidly throughout the mid-19th century. Emboldened by the achievements of organizations such as the MVLA, women became more publicly involved in social reform and in tackling important issues, including temperance, abolition, education, and labor laws. While the MVLA focused solely on the first president’s estate, the individual women who served as Vice Regents participated in many other organizations and causes. We will likely never know how many members of the Ladies’ Association were pro-suffrage. It is impossible to look into the private thoughts of past Vice Regents to discern their feelings on the subject, so we extrapolate from the historical record of those who pursued related activities or left personal accounts. It can also be difficult to determine who should be assigned the title “suffragist.” Those who joined suffrage associations, attended rallies, and wrote editorials in support of women’s rights may readily be given this designation, but it is less clear if the term should be extended to a person who simply stated their opinion in favor of women’s suffrage.
There are several MVLA Vice Regents who stand out as suffrage advocates. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, Vice Regent for California from 1889 to 1918, publicly announced support for her state’s suffrage amendment in 1911. She also served as a vice chairwoman for the National Woman’s Party for a year until she became uncomfortable with its more progressive methods, at which time she resigned, but continued offering monetary contributions. Her son, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, agreed to publish pro-suffrage articles under her recommendation. Before her appointment as the Vice Regent for New York in 1922, Edwine Blake Danforth fought successfully alongside Susan B. Anthony to force the University of Rochester to enroll female students. The school later named buildings after them, the Danforth Dining Hall and the Susan B. Anthony Residence Hall. As a resident of Colorado, Alice Hale Hill, who served as Vice Regent from 1889 to 1908, could legally vote before many of her fellow MVLA Board members. Five years after women in her state earned the right to vote by referendum in 1893, Hill and other influential Coloradans signed a public letter to declare the benefits experienced from equal suffrage. The letter advocated for women as a positive influence to bring significant change. In her memorial at the MVLA’s biannual Council meeting in 1953, Lucy Ramsay Taliaferro, the Vice Regent for Wyoming from 1936 to 1950, was said to have “worked hard for the ratification of the 19th amendment.” She held a strong interest in politics and was vice president of her local National Women’s Democratic League. Other MVLA Vice Regents who have thus far been linked to pro-suffrage or women’s rights activities include Alice Longfellow, Mary Frances Maxey, Harriet Cole Towner, Harriet Lane Huntress, Margaret Busbee Shipp, Charlotte Woodbury, Pauline Revere Thayer, and Margaret Sweat
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association not only ushered in the national historic preservation movement, but also demonstrated that women had capabilities beyond what society had deemed appropriate for them.
And who were the women who didn’t want women to have the right to vote? Anti-suffragists formed their own associations, and printed pamphlets, articles, and speeches to support their arguments. They claimed a majority of women did not want to vote or were indifferent to voting. Many feared radical change and how it would affect the economy or society at large. Others asserted a wife’s voice was already represented in her husband’s vote. The common thread throughout was the distinct roles of the sexes and that allowing women to vote would upset the natural order of things. It was not uncommon for women to favor some aspects of women’s rights, but then clash with suffragists over the right to vote. The MVLA had at least one ardent anti-suffragist in its ranks. Annie Burr Jennings of Fairfield, Connecticut, who served as a Vice Regent of the MVLA from 1915 to 1939. She donated land for public use and helped establish the local historical society and public library. She also joined the Fairfield chapter of the Connecticut Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage and hosted its meetings in her large estate, Sunnieholme. She later became the chapter’s chairwoman.
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association not only ushered in the national historic preservation movement, but also demonstrated that women had capabilities beyond what society had deemed appropriate for them. What the Association was able to accomplish given the constraints of the time period is remarkable. Suffrage did not fit into the Association’s mission, but the MVLA is made up of individual women who have their own interests and pursuits. Considering the Association as a group of independent women, whose devotion to Mount Vernon is only a part of their story, fosters a better understanding of the MVLA’s role within the greater context of women’s rights and the suffrage movement.
is the archivist of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Mount Vernon Associate Curator Jessie McLeod also contributed to this story.