A divine discontent; Mary Johnston and woman suffrage in Virginia

Hanmer, Trudy J, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Gaston, Paul M., Corcoran Department of History

On January 19, 1912, Mary Johnston, representing the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, spoke to the House of Delegates urging the passage of an amendment to the Virginia Constitution providing for the enfranchisement of women. It was, she wrote, "a moment in history." More elaborately, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, "For the first time since John Smith and his band set foot on the soil of the new world, there to found a great commonwealth, the women of Virginia came officially yesterday to the Capitol of the State, asking for political privileges and responsibilities."

Speaking before the Virginia House was a high point in Mary Johnston's brief, but fervid suffrage career. A prominent novelist, and a member of one of the South's "best families," she had led the secluded life of a chronic invalid until the fall of 1909. She returned then from a prolonged recuperative stay in Europe to find a number of her friends strongly interested in the suffrage movement and about to organize an Equal Suffrage League in Richmond. Although she did not immediately join the League, she soon became convinced of the need for woman's suffrage. The result was that "very quickly I threw in my lot with the women of this country who are striving to obtain political independence.î

Mary Johnston was part of the progressive mind of the early twentieth century. Although she saw the evils of the society in which she lived, she could still believe that "we are on the eve of a very great age in the world's growth, of a spiritual century, of a rise in the levels of the minds of men.î As did many other progressive reformers, she confused her belief in the ideals of the past with her search for a better future. Recognizing much of the harm done to women and children by the depersonalization of an industrial society, she could only offer as a solution the strengthening of the home through the further glorification of motherhood. Abhorring war, she asked only that women be allowed to vote on future conflicts, artlessly convinced of the power of motherhood to end armed battles. Envisioning a better race of people, she gave no indication that these Americans would include black or immigrant citizens.

But the reforms of a past era rarely seem far-reaching enough to subsequent generations. Mary Johnston at least spoke out against her society's wrongs. If her definition of the woman's role seems hopelessly outmoded to the Kate Millets and Gloria Steinems of 1972, her legacy to the women of Virginia was in her passionate belief that a woman could be a wife and mother and a responsible American citizen. In pre-World War I Virginia this was an important breakthrough.

MA (Master of Arts)
Women -- Suffrage -- Virginia

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

Thesis originally deposited on 2016-03-14 in version 1.28 of Libra. This thesis was migrated to Libra2 on 2017-03-23 16:34:13.

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