The 1906 NAWSA Convention in Baltimore: Mary Elizabeth Garrett Brings Suffrage ‘Straight into the Heart of Conservatism’

Mary Elizabeth Garrett

by Kathleen Waters Sander

August 26, 2020 marks “Women’s Equality Day,” the centennial of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote. Baltimorean Mary Elizabeth Garrett and other Maryland suffragists played an important role in the long-fought battle for woman suffrage.

The 1906 NAWSA Convention in Baltimore: Mary Elizabeth Garrett Brings Suffrage “Straight into the Heart of Conservatism”

In the fall of 1905, Baltimore women’s rights activist and philanthropist Mary Elizabeth Garrett suggested a preposterous idea to the venerable suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Mary proposed to hold the next year’s NAWSA convention in Baltimore. She already had proven herself to be a successful champion of women’s advancement by founding Baltimore’s Bryn Mawr School, giving the money to start the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (with many caveats) and continuing to help the financially vulnerable Bryn Mawr College (more caveats!). And now she focused her well known determination on suffrage and the fight for women to cast their votes.

Women had not always been excluded from participating in the democratic process. Prior to the American Revolution, several colonies allowed women to vote, but by 1807, most state constitutions in the newly formed nation limited voting by women. Women did not take this critical exclusion without a fight and soon women’s rights organizations began forming around the country. The grassroots movement coalesced in 1848 at the now-famous Seneca Falls Convention.

By 1905, the thought of holding such an important suffrage convention in the tradition-bound South meant that “the movement would march straight into the heart of conservatism,” suffrage historian Ida Husted Harper chronicled in the multi-volume History of Woman Suffrage. Anthony had similar doubts, expressing “some anxiety as to the reception in so conservative a city.” Emma Maddox Funck, president of the Maryland Suffrage Association, did not mince words. Baltimore, she wrote, “is a Southern city so steeped in conservatism that while its citizens mean well, metaphorically, it had never discarded its ruffles and silver buckles.”

Despite the naysayers, Mary—who had talked down the trustees of the Johns Hopkins University in 1892 to agree on her unprecedented conditions to open the medical school at the graduate level and to accept women applicants “on the same terms as men”—prevailed in her insistence to hold the suffrage convention in Baltimore. During the first week of February 1906, NAWSA  delegates began arriving in Baltimore. One by one, they marched into the heart of conservatism to make their issues known. Mary threw open the doors of her elegant 30-room mansion on Baltimore’s Mount Vernon Place to host gala dinners and to house VIPs. Eighty-six-year-old Susan B. Anthony, already in failing health, had caught a cold on her trip down from Rochester. When she arrived at Mary’s mansion, Mary wanted to call in doctors to tend to the renowned suffragist. Anthony would have none of it. Instead, Mary surreptitiously enlisted doctors and nurses from Hopkins medical school, insisting that they dress as butlers and maids while they kept watch over Anthony. Julia Ward Howe, now 87 and whose “Battle Hymn of the Republic” had made her a national icon, soon made her way to Mary’s, as did the Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, who held dual degrees in divinity studies and medicine; and Hull House founder Jane Addams. Other delegates stayed at Baltimore’s fashionable Belvedere Hotel and held their daily presentations at the nearby Lyric Theater.

The press clamored to see the famous suffragists, writing daily columns and special editions about their comings and goings. The Baltimore Sun remarked that Anthony “had the same air of some queen who has held sway for a long time…there is something which suggests comparisons with the late Queen Victoria.” The convention’s agenda was packed with timely issues. In addition to suffrage, the delegates addressed child labor, prostitution, and pay and working conditions for wage-earning women. The delegates walked a fine line, careful not to tread on the prevailing image of women as “Queens of the Home,” as one commentator noted, while still asserting that women were more than capable of becoming politically enfranchised and active participants in the democratic process. This was an especially sensitive issue for Mary. Her sister-in-law, Mary Frick Garrett (wife of Mary’s brother Robert), served as president of Baltimore’s Association Opposed to Suffrage League. The “anti’s” worked as diligently to defeat suffrage as Mary and her cohorts fought to pass the amendment.

Mary attended most of the presentations, sitting in her box seat at the Lyric, but forbidding the newspapers to take photographs of her. Despite being nationally known for her groundbreaking philanthropies and activism, the quiet, publicity-shy railroad heiress chose to avoid the spotlight. “Everyone had heard of Miss Garrett, but few had seen her,” the Baltimore Sun observed.

The 1906 convention proved a great success and marked a turning point in the suffrage movement. It provided the panache needed to reinvigorate the movement and temper its militant image. By the late 1890s, the movement had begun to fade; it needed a jolt of excitement—and an infusion of middle-class women formerly disinterested in the issue. Anthony had come up with a strategy, what she called the “society plan” to attract women of wealth and influence—and having Mary Garrett, one of the country’s most publicized women, as a convention organizer proved a great advantage. The convention also hosted a “college evening,” in which students from women’s colleges attended the convention and endorsed the movement. It was a hit. After the college evening, Mary hosted a gathering at her mansion for 400 guests, “one of the largest and most brilliant receptions of the season,” the Baltimore American enthused. The “showstopper” of the evening was “Miss Anthony and Mrs. Howe sitting side by side on the divan in front of the large bay window. At their right stood Miss Garrett.”

Of great importance, the subject of money—or lack of it—made its way into many of the presentations. After fighting the battle for years, NAWSA counted only $28,000 in its war chest. As the convention came to a close, Anthony spoke privately to Mary and her companion, Martha Carey Thomas, about the dire need to raise money to keep the movement going. Mary and Carey thought they could recruit several women to contribute $500 annually, an amount Anthony thought was impossible. But within three months the campaign raised an astounding $60,000.

The 1906 convention represented a passing of the torch. Longtime veterans of the movement –Anthony, Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt– were getting older. Anthony died shortly after returning to Rochester from the convention, instructing that “when I pass out of this life every cent I leave should be given to the fund which Miss Garrett and Miss Thomas are raising for the cause.”

Anthony did not live to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which took another 14 years to become law in 1920. Neither did Mary Garrett see woman suffrage become a reality. She died in 1915. But in her last years, suffrage became the focus of her activism. She continued to host events at her Baltimore mansion during the annual Maryland suffrage meetings, earning the moniker “the Fighting Bob of Woman’s Suffrage.” In 1912, Maryland’s suffragists held their largest parade to date. Donning Joan of Arc costumes and riding in Roman chariots, thousands of protestors marched through the streets of Baltimore.

The flamboyant parades and endless petitions did little to impress the Maryland legislature, which did not pass the amendment until 1941. The state had made good on Emma Funck’s description that Maryland had never discarded “its ruffles and silver buckles.” Fortunately, through the late 1910s, the required three-fourths of states—36 in all– did pass the amendment. On August 26, 1920, eight days after the U.S. Congress ratified the amendment, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed into law the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It had taken a 75-year, agonizingly slow, contentious and often tumultuous struggle by women to gain the right to vote. The amendment enfranchised 26 million women, who could finally cast their votes in time for the 1920 presidential election.

Mary Garrett’s dedication to suffrage came at a critical time in the movement’s history. Her status as a well-publicized railroad heiress gave the movement the cache it needed to attract a whole new class of women and her wealth and society connections helped to fill the movement’s near-empty coffers. As in her lifetime of activism and philanthropy, with suffrage, she had but one goal: “to make women equal on the same terms as men.”

Kathleen Waters Sander teaches history at the University of Maryland Global Campus. She is author of The Business of Charity: The Woman’s Exchange Movement, 1832–1900 and John W. Garrett and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.  A paperback edition of her biography, Mary Elizabeth Garrett: Society and Philanthropy in the Gilded Age, with a new foreword by Senator Barbara Mikulski, was published in 2020 to mark the Centennial of Women’s Suffrage.