The Bryn Mawr School and the Suffrage Movement

“What the Suffragists Are Doing.” 1913. The Sun, Jan. 19, 1913. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Amid the centennial celebrations for the 19th Amendment, you may have wondered about the Bryn Mawr School’s connection to the Suffrage Movement. It won’t surprise you that many of the women working to offer a rigorous education to girls were also drawn to the movement.

First, an important acknowledgment: The 19th Amendment was ratified at the time when the Bryn Mawr School excluded people of color and non-Christians. The suffragists associated with the Bryn Mawr School were part of the white suffrage movement. They became involved as the movement began to highlight elite and privileged white women as part of the “society plan” to “improve” the movement’s image. This white suffrage movement excluded the parallel work and contributions of black suffragists. Both movements worked to gain the vote for women. The white suffrage movement sought the right for white women to vote. The black suffrage movement sought the right for all women to vote.

Four of the Bryn Mawr School’s five founders actively worked for women’s suffrage, and some faculty and students at the school were clearly involved in the movement.

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The BMS Founders – (from left to right) M. Carey Thomas, Mamie Gwinn, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Julia Rogers, and Bessie King (standing) – photo courtesy of the Bryn Mawr College Archives

Here is an account of the connections between the school and the Suffrage Movement:

Mary Elizabeth Garrett:

Mary Garrett, heiress to her family’s B & O Railroad fortune, was one of the wealthiest woman in the country. After she and the other founders had, together, established the Bryn Mawr School, supported M. Carey Thomas as she shaped the developing Bryn Mawr College, and helped found the Johns Hopkins Medical School, the group of friends fragmented. Mary Garrett continued her strong support of the Bryn Mawr School and became increasingly involved in the Suffrage Movement. In the early 1900s, she had gone to live with M. Carey Thomas at the Bryn Mawr College Deanery, and during a visit from Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw, Garrett strongly encouraged them to hold the 1906 National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) convention in Baltimore. Baltimore was a conservative southern city, and Anthony hesitated, but Garrett assured her that if the convention was held in Baltimore, she would provide her full personal and financial support to make it a memorable event.

Garrett used her connections to promote the convention and encourage attendance among the wealthy and powerful white society. During the convention, she opened her Baltimore home to guests and events. She had Susan B. Anthony, Anna Howard Shaw, Julia Ward Howe, and Jane Addams stay at her Mt. Vernon mansion, and she entertained more than four-hundred guests for a reception on College Evening, when college-educated suffragists were celebrated. At the convention, Garrett committed to encouraging friends to donate to the NAWSA. The infusion of funds and publicity bolstered the NAWSA greatly. 

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“Invitation from Miss Mary Garrett to Dr. and Mrs. J. William Funk for Evening of Feb. 8, 1906.” Digital Maryland

Garrett  herself avoided publicity and public speaking, but her strong vision and powerful influence did much to give new life to the work of the NAWSA. Mary Garrett died in 1915, leaving her fortune to M. Carey Thomas.

M. Carey Thomas:

Until about 1905, M. Carey Thomas spent all of her energies on one cause, promoting women’s higher education. As Dean of the successful and rigorous Bryn Mawr College, she was looked to as a national leader in women’s education. During the visit to Bryn Mawr College by Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw, Garrett pushed Thomas to lend her voice to the white suffrage movement. Thomas agreed to plan a College Evening for the Baltimore NAWSA meeting. She invited women scholars to speak, making the evening the highlight of the convention. Thomas went on to head the National College Equal Suffrage League, which was part of NAWSA, arranging suffrage speakers at college campuses and encouraging college-educated women to support suffrage. Her involvement with suffrage waned after Mary Garrett’s death in 1915.  

Elizabeth (Bessie) King Ellicott: 

After the group of friends parted, Bessie King became an active progressive reformer. She formed the Arundell Good Government Club, a club organizing the many civic groups of women working to improve public health, education and welfare in Maryland. King believed that women could direct attention towards societal needs being neglected by a corrupt political system. Working to gain suffrage for women was an extension of this work. When women had the vote, government would do a better job tending to the needs of the citizens. 

Bessie King turned her full attention to women’s suffrage around 1906 and became one of the white suffrage movement’s foremost leaders in Maryland. She had married by that time and was known as Mrs. William M. Ellicott. Ellicott founded the Equal Suffrage League, a group that chose moderate tactics. Rather than engaging in protests, the group worked politically to inform and influence elected officials at the state and local levels. Ellicott most famously drafted legislation that went to the state house in 1910. The bill would have given women the right to vote in Baltimore and was accompanied by 173,000 signatures of support. The bill Ellicott wrote had stipulations, though. It required voters to own property and be able to read. This would have effectively disenfranchised black voters, male and female. In the Baltimore Afro-American, one can see that black suffragists actively campaigned against this type of legislation. 

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Ellicott’s bill went before the legislature but never was brought to a vote in the state senate.  Maryland was a conservative southern state that did not fully ratify the 19th Amendment until 1958.

Elizabeth King Ellicott died of pneumonia in 1914. She left some of her estate  to establish the Elizabeth King Ellicott Fellowship for the Political Education of Women at Goucher College. Interestingly, she left a much larger portion of her estate to establish the Elizabeth King Ellicott Fund for “the education and social advancement of the colored people of Maryland.” The Baltimore Afro-American lauded the gift as an example of the long-standing support of the Quaker community of Baltimore, of which Ellicott and her family were members. 

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“The Late Mrs. Ellicott.” The Baltimore Afro-American. May 24, 1914. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Aug. 21, 2020.   

Much of the fund ($110,000) ultimately went to build the Colored YMCA in Druid Hill in 1946. On the surface, the gift seems at odds with the racial exclusion implicit in her suffrage work. This fund might be an interesting subject for further exploration. 

Julia Rogers:

Julia Rogers tended to avoid publicity and public speaking. It is clear, though, from historical newspaper accounts, that she attended suffrage meetings and spoke occasionally. She also served as a delegate to an international suffrage convention in Europe.  Although she worked on suffrage, more of her efforts went to supporting college women in Maryland by establishing the College Club, where college educated women could gather and where women could find support for pursuing higher education. She left her fortune to Goucher College.

Edith Hamilton:

Headmistress Edith Hamilton was active in the Equal Suffrage League and a frequent speaker at meetings. 

Student Involvement:

Bryn Mawr’s yearbooks indicate that a Suffrage Club was started in 1911. In 1912, the club members switched to attending meetings of the Equal Suffrage League rather than holding meetings at school.

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The 1912 Bryn Mawrtyr, p.44.

Certainly suffrage was in the air at the Bryn Mawr School during the years leading up to the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Many from the community contributed to gaining women’s suffrage. It is important to remember, though, that while white women gained the vote in 1920, strong obstacles prevented blacks from voting at that time. These obstacles were not addressed until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In truth, full and fair enfranchisement remains a goal toward which we still need to strive.


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“Estate to Aid Negroes.” 1914. The Baltimore Sun, May 20, 1914. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. 

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“The Late Mrs. Ellicott.” 1914. The Baltimore Afro-American. May 24, 1914. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. 

“Negro Voters Active.” 1909. The Baltimore Afro-American, March 27, 1909. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. 

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