February 20, 2020

Meet the Suffragettes

Kate Gordon, Suffragette and philanthropist, also sister of Jean Gordon.


b.1861 (in New Orleans), d.1932


Background: She joined the Portia Club in New Orleans in 1892, a club formed to promote women’s rights. She also helped established the Equal Rights Association Club in 1892, and later headed the Louisiana State Suffrage Association from 1904-1913 when the two clubs merged.


Most Significant Contributions: She served as the corresponding secretary of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association from 1901-1909. She also advocated for child labor reform, flood control, admittance of women to the Tulane University School of Medicine, and several other important social causes.


Historical Legacies: She helped to establish the Women’s Sewerage and Drainage League and helped turn out the vote for women in New Orleans in 1899 when female property owners were allowed to vote in a special bond election for sewage and drainage issues.


Dark History: She was an advocate for states’ rights and suffrage but only for white women, and she expressed racist views against African Americans and opposed enfranchisement for African Americans. 


Later Work: Helped New Orleans Anti-Tuberculosis Hospital in 1926. She also served as its Vice-President. 


Jean Gordon (sister of Kate Gordon)


b. 1865 (New Orleans), d. 1931


Background: She was an advocate of woman’s suffrage and a social reformer who focused on child labor laws, and she also advocated for the mentally disabled young women.


Most Significant Contributions: Her work led to the passage of the Child Labor Act of 1906, and a 1908 Act prohibiting the employment of children (under 14).


Historical Legacies: She was Louisiana’s first female factory inspector from 1906-1911. She also helped to develop the Alexander Milne Asylum for Destitute Orphan Girls, a group home devoted to girls with mental disabilities.


Dark History: She is associated with the eugenics movement, and she believed there should be sterilization laws for the disabled. Ironically, she also worked to defeat the federal suffrage amendment in 1919, believing a state constitutional amendment would help preserve Jim Crow laws.


Later Work: She was the president and superintendent for the board of Alexander Milne Home School for Girls. This school provided housing, education, and job training for disabled girls. She served as vice president of the National Consumers’ League from 1909-11, and she later organized the Louisiana branch in 1913.

Caroline (Thomas) Merrick


b. 1825 (Louisiana), d. 1908


Background: She was an advocate for suffrage, women’s rights, prison reform, labor reform, and temperance. She founded the Portia Club, a women’s rights club, in 1892.


Most Significant Contributions: She is largely credited for starting the suffrage movement in Louisiana that was sparked in 1878 over a lawsuit regarding a bequest left to the St. Anna’s Asylum, a home for women and children. Because the female witnesses of a deathbed will were not recognized as competent witnesses, the state received the bequest. She helped petition for suffrage and the right of women to serve as witnesses and serve on boards at the 1879 Constitutional Convention, and she spoke at the convention and was recognized as an accomplished orator.


Historical Legacies: She served as president of both the New Orleans and Louisiana branches of Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). 


Dark History: Some people believe that the temperance association undermined suffrage efforts and used a rhetoric that limited women to the domestic sphere.


Later Work: Throughout her life, she published stories and sketches, and was a valued correspondent of several leading woman’s journals. She also wrote Old Times in Dixie Land: a Southern Matron’s Memories (New York, Grafton Press, 1901)



Frances Willard


b. 1839 (New York), d. 1898


Background: She was an educator, reformer, and suffragette who is best known for her work with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. 


Most Significant Contributions: An educator and college president, she helped found the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874, serving first as secretary and then as president in 1883.  She also founded the World’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1883. She expanded the WCTU’s platform to include several women’s rights concerns such as labor reform, prison reform, marriage and divorce law reform, and a plethora of women’s and children’s social and educational issues.


Historical Legacies: In 1871, she became the first female president of a college granting degrees to women – the newly-formed Evanston College for Ladies. After the college merged with Northwestern University, Willard became the first Dean of Women and Professor of Aesthetics. In 1873, she helped found the Association for the Advancement of Women.


Dark History: While she promoted suffrage, she wanted limit the vote to those who could pass an educational test: rhetoric limiting the vote was sometimes viewed as a thinly-veiled attempt to restrict the African American and immigrant vote. She also promoted a rhetoric limiting the role of women to the domestic sphere. While some historians argue that this is a compromise position intended to increase women’s rights in a non-radical manner, such rhetoric reinforces a separate sphere ideology. Lastly, the association of temperance and prohibition with the suffrage movement also seemed to undermine enfranchisement efforts.


Later Work: Well-educated and highly influential, Willard was a founding member of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association, one of the first five women elected to the Methodist General Conference, and a founder and first president of the National Council of Women. She promoted higher education, job choice, suffrage, and temperance, and she advocated for women and children across a variety of platforms and was considered part of the Christian Socialism ideology.


Elizabeth Lyle Saxon


b. 1832 (Tennessee), d. 1915


Background: She was a union-sympathizer but considered herself a Southerner and she remained in Alabama and Tennessee during the Civil War while her husband fled north. While living in Memphis near the end of the Civil War, she was accused of being a spy for the Confederacy but was not formally charged. She moved to New Orleans with her husband after the Civil War. She was a writer, reformer, and suffragette who divided her time between Memphis and Louisiana, advocating for women’s rights in both states.


Most Significant Contributions: She spoke at the 1879 Louisiana Constitutional Convention petitioning for suffrage, and she was the first female to speak before the Louisiana Legislature. She was an eloquent orator as well as a writer and philanthropist.


Historical Legacies: Saxon served as the state president of the Tennessee Suffrage Association and vice president of the Women’s National Suffrage Association. She is considered to be one of the most influential suffragettes whose work was pivotal in the passing of the 19thAmendment.


Dark History: Her focus on the federal amendment seems to have removed her from the association with White Supremacy accusations that some of her peers invoked. 


Later Work: In 1905, Saxon published A Southern Woman’s War Time Reminiscences