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Susan B. Anthony and Helen Barrett Montgomery: an intergenerational feminist partnership: the name of Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) is synonymous with the struggle for women's suffrage in America.

She worked tirelessly for numerous reform causes, but above all, she earned a place in American history as one of the foremost advocates of women's rights in her generation. Helen Barrett Montgomery (1861-1934) was equally committed to social reform, yet her name is hardly mentioned today, especially in feminist circles. Among those who do remember her, she is identified with the cause of missions and especially with the ecumenical woman's missionary movement, to which she devoted the greater portion of her adult life.

Conventional thinking about women's history would rarely associate two women whose lives seem to have had such different trajectories. Anthony was a Quaker who became a Unitarian; Montgomery was a middle-of-the-road Baptist. Anthony was a suffrage radical; Montgomery regarded the suffrage label with ambivalence. Nevertheless, for more than a decade, Anthony and Montgomery worked side by side as leaders of the women's movement in Rochester, New York. Even as they worked together and supported the same causes, the strategies they used and the rhetoric they employed reflected their different generations and priorities. Yet Anthony and Montgomery were able to forge an effective partnership because their aims were fundamentally the same. They both wanted to empower women for political engagement as women and as citizens, and they wanted to improve opportunities for women in education. (1)

Anthony and Montgomery: Clubwomen and Feminists

Apparently, Anthony and Montgomery became acquainted through the women's clubs of Rochester. Montgomery made a strong impression on Anthony and the other first-generation feminist leaders, and they turned to her to lead a key new organization--the Women's Educational and Industrial Union (WEIU). Montgomery's presidency of the WEIU (1893-1911) enabled her to exert broad influence in the city's social and political affairs.

Like the WEIUs in Boston, Buffalo, and other cities, the Rochester WEIU was instrumental in redirecting the domestic feminism of the women's literary clubs from their cultural focus to the political and social reform emphasis of "municipal housekeeping." (2) The members of the board were some of the most prominent women in Rochester. Most of them were not radicals. It would have been impossible for Anthony to unite them around the cause of suffrage; but with Anthony's support and under Montgomery's leadership, they built one of the most influential Progressive Era organizations in the city.

Sharing the Platform with Susan B. Anthony

On November 20, 1896, Montgomery spoke at a reception in honor of Anthony. At the head table, sponsored by the Rochester Political Equality dub, Montgomery sat with Anthony, the Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, Mariana W. Chapman, president of the State Suffrage Association, and other notable feminists. The event came at the conclusion of the state suffrage convention, which met in Rochester that year.

Montgomery spoke briefly on "Woman Suffrage in the Home," and her remarks offered clear insight into her views on suffrage and the woman's sphere. She noted that the misperception of most women "that those who are fighting for political equality are strong minded universally" was the movement's chief impediment. Against this misconception, she asserted: "Our conventions are made up of home women, and this movement is a woman's movement. One effect of the movement will be to bring the state into the home, and then again the home into the state." Montgomery's feminism was based upon the assumption, shared by many people of her day, that men and women were endowed with different but complementary physical, intellectual and emotional capabilities. While she agreed that a woman's first duty was to her home and family, she believed that it was a mistake to segregate the woman's sphere completely from the public world. "We need the influence and assistance [of the home] in our state affairs," she asserted. (3) What Montgomery articulated was domestic feminism. (4) She believed there was a difference between women's work and men's work, but she also believed there was women's work to be done outside the home. For the sake of home and family, the state needed the maternal gifts and skills that only women had to offer.

In 1898, Montgomery once again shared the platform with Anthony at the dedication of a new building for the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in Rochester. The YWCA movement began in Boston in 1866 and rapidly spread nationwide. Its goal was to protect and promote "virtuous womanhood" among country girls moving to the city--an evangelical response to the effects of industrialism and urbanization on young women who worked away from home. (5) The YWCA attempted to provide a wholesome, evangelical, homelike atmosphere where young, single women could find fellowship, recreation, self-cultivation, culture, and support.

Anthony used the occasion of the YWCA building dedication to give a rousing suffrage address. In her view, the essential problem for women was an absence of political power. "Women have not a single power to make the laws that govern these conditions to prevent these miseries among humanity," she said. She believed that women would purify politics. If women could vote, she said, they would "give us a clean, honest administration." In her view, the strategy of the YWCA was palliative but not remedial. The women of the YWCA were "busy repairing damages instead of going to the bottom and changing the social conditions that make the damages." Turning to the assembled clergy who shared the platform with her, she insisted that they should support women's suffrage because women were their best allies. Women's suffrage would shift the balance of power in their favor and give them a political advantage over the "saloon men" who helped create the social conditions that institutions like the YWCA sought to mitigate. (6)

In contrast to Anthony's demand for women's political power through the ballot, Montgomery emphasized the more traditional view that women's power rested in their moral influence. "We have been taught to think that men of wealth, the bankers, and the millionaires of the earth, the great statesmen and the politicians are the people who have the greatest influence in the world, but it is a mistake; the young girls are the great but unconscious power in the world." She reminded her middle-class audience that the YWCA offered a safe, home-like refuge for "thousands of girls who work on the miserable pittances, who have to live in dark, dingy boarding houses in a cheerless seven-by-nine room, many of them almost friendless and alone, and at last there is always the jewel of their womanhood to be cast down." (7)

While Montgomery agreed with Anthony's call for the ballot, she believed women already had a great wealth of unrealized power--the power of moral influence. For Montgomery, the YWCA was important because it offered working-class women protection from the corrupting powers of the male-dominated industrial world that would otherwise rob them of their moral purity and destroy the power of their moral influence.

Partners in the Struggle for Coeducation at the University of Rochester

A week after Anthony and Montgomery spoke from the YWCA platform, the trustees of the University of Rochester voted to make the university coeducational if the women of the city could raise the substantial sum of $100,000 for the university. (8) Characteristic of her aggressive approach, Anthony immediately pressed for more than the trustees had offered. She thought there should be women on the board of trustees and the faculty. Nevertheless, she and the other leaders of the WEIU immediately contacted the city's women's clubs and started plans to raise the money and prepare the women students for their entrance examinations. (9)

Representatives of twenty-five women's clubs appointed an executive committee of five to lead the fund-raising effort, including Anthony and Montgomery. Several of the women were concerned that female students would only be allowed into the university through the "back door." Anthony thought that the conditions of the women's entrance ought to be made clear by the trustees. (10)

The women's wariness was well founded. The University of Rochester came late to coeducation, and by the late 1890s there was a backlash against women in many other schools where women had been admitted. Most colleges and universities considered the education of men their real business and their first priority. The entrance of women was at first a distraction. Later, as women became successful scholars, they became a threat to male students, educators, and administrators. By the first decade of the twentieth century, many coeducational colleges found ways to segregate men and women. (11)

The Rochester women decided to call a mass meeting to "arouse a strong university sentiment throughout ... the city." Montgomery thought they had an opportunity to promote the university and help it to "unify the whole city intellectually." Anthony asked, "What will have more effect in making happy homes in this country than to educate the women?" (12) In characterizing their appeal to the community in those terms, they pursued two goals simultaneously. They worked for greater freedoms and educational opportunities for women, and they worked for the public good of the city--for happier homes and a more enlightened community. They wanted to expand the woman's sphere into higher education and at the same time improve the quality of life for their neighbors. It was the agenda of domestic feminism.

The fund-raising did not go well. The first deadline in 1899 came and went, and the women had not even come close to raising the money. The women persuaded the trustees to extend the deadline another year.

Montgomery Elected to the School Board As the Women's Candidate

Meanwhile, in November 1899, Anthony and all of the city's leading women's organizations supported Montgomery's bid to become the first woman ever elected to the school board in Rochester. (13) The passage of the Dow Law in 1898, which reformed the school board, created an opportunity for Rochester's women. Anthony invited representatives of seventy-three women's organizations to form a Local Council of Women. Forty-seven groups representing more than 4,000 women responded to the invitation, and thirty-four groups sent delegates to the organizational meeting. (14) Although the council initially declined to name a candidate or call for the election of a woman, they eventually did both, and they made Montgomery their candidate. (15) The council hoped to have both political parties nominate Montgomery because they believed that would ensure her election, but the Democrats failed to nominate her. Nevertheless, she stumped as a non-partisan representative of Rochester's women, who just happened to be nominated by the Republicans. She spoke at Republican ward rallies and at meetings with groups of teachers and mothers. (16)

Understandably, some people charged that Montgomery's candidacy was "an entering wedge in favor of woman suffrage." (17) The Political Equality Club met at Anthony's home on October 19, 1899, to "map out an informal plan of campaign to assist Mrs. Montgomery." The newspaper report noted that the parlors of Anthony's home were decorated with yellow bunting, "the color of the woman suffragists." There is no indication that Montgomery was present, but the association of her name with suffrage was clear. (18) Twelve days later, the Local Council of Women brought Anna Howard Shaw to Rochester to speak on behalf of Montgomery and the cause of electing a woman to the school board. (19) More importantly, Montgomery was on record in favor of women's suffrage. (20)

Of course, Anthony pressed the women's clubs to make Montgomery's candidacy a suffrage issue. The Local Council of Women met on the same day as the Political Equality Club meeting. Anthony was there, and she moved that the council thank the Democratic Party delegates who voted for Montgomery at their city convention and the Republican Party for placing her on their ticket. She thought it was appropriate because "it was the first time that a woman had been recognized in this city for a political office." The council voted Anthony's motion down "emphatically" because that endorsement of it would make a suffrage issue of Montgomery's nomination, an issue that was not intended or desired. Finally, a compromise resolution was passed thanking both parties for nominating several school board candidates, including Montgomery, from the list of candidates that the council had recommended. (21)

Montgomery arrived later, to the applause of the women of the council, and presented a statement, which the council adopted as its official platform in regard to her candidacy for the school board. Montgomery's speech epitomized the ideology of domestic feminism. She took the maternal values of "True Womanhood" and transformed them into reasons why women should become insurgents in the public sphere. She argued that women had a "special fitness" for the work that the school board demanded, a "gift of administration." Furthermore, in her view, caring for the "health, instruction, comfort, culture, and well being of children" was the "province of women." Domesticity and motherhood, she claimed, made women especially fitted for school administration. "Their home life, their intimate association with children, their sympathy with the child's needs and desires" made women particularly suited to the work of the school board. "The mother's point of view is too wise and comprehensive to be unrepresented on the school board," she said. (22)

Montgomery claimed that the candidacy of a woman would be apolitical and would "help to take the schools out of politics." Women were motivated by maternal rather than political values. A woman on the school board would not seek to "build up political power" because "her constituency will be the school children." A woman would not represent a political party; she would represent "the home." A woman candidate, she claimed, would not be chosen on a political basis; rather, she would be selected on the basis of her "education, general intelligence and special fitness." Consequently, her presence in the contest would raise the standard for all candidates and encourage the voters "to think of the good of the children and not the party" when they made nominations. (23)

Many of Montgomery's comments revealed her middle-class cultural assumptions. A woman on the board would promote economy because women know how to be thrifty, she said. Also, women, because of their role as homemakers, have more time to devote to public service than men. As "bread winners," men were forced to devote themselves almost totally to "private business" and had little time to develop the "thorough understanding of the needs of the schools" that was necessary for a school commissioner. Montgomery insisted that there were many educated women who had "large gifts of leisure" to devote to "the general welfare." (24)

Montgomery was elected by a substantial majority. Less than a week later, the clubwomen of Rochester welcomed the delegates of the New York State Federation of Women's Clubs to the city for their annual convention. The Rochester women's clubs distributed printed programs of the event to delegates and guests. The programs were distributed in envelopes, and the envelopes bore Anthony's picture in the upper left-hand corner and Montgomery's in the lower right-hand corner. (25) It was a tribute to Montgomery's growing stature among the women of Rochester.

Coeducation at the University of Rochester and the Death of Susan B. Anthony

The one nagging failure for Montgomery, as she entered the new century, was her inability to raise the $100,000 needed to open the University of Rochester to women. In January 1900, the fund stood at $33,000, and the Local Council of Women was divided over the best way to proceed. (26) On June 12, 1900, at the fiftieth annual meeting of the university board of trustees, the coeducation committee headed by Montgomery and Anthony informed the trustees that they had pledges and subscriptions for $40,000 and believed they could raise $50,000 but no more. The trustees decided to take what they could get. They told the women that $50,000 would be acceptable if they could raise it by the September board meeting. The women worked through the summer, but the large contributions they expected did not materialize, and they met resistance from the alumni. With the deadline looming, the fund stalled at $42,000. (27)

On Friday, September 7, Anthony, who had just returned from Wyoming, was informed that the fund was short by $8,000, and the time would expire by the end of the trustee meeting the next day. On Saturday morning, Anthony set out to complete the fund, which she was able to do at the very last minute by buttonholing some of her most reliable personal supporters. She met Montgomery at the trustee meeting late in the afternoon. When the trustees questioned one of the four $2,000 pledges, Anthony guaranteed it with her personal life insurance policy. The university became coeducational, but the effort cost the aging Anthony dearly. She suffered a malady that was probably a stroke, and it left her gravely ill for a week. She required a doctor's care for more than a month. (28) That illness was the beginning of the long decline that led ultimately to her death. Anthony passed away on March 13, 1906. Ida Husted Harper, Anthony's biographer, noted that Montgomery was "now the most prominent woman of the city." (29) Montgomery led the women's clubs to establish the Susan B. Anthony Memorial Building at the University of Rochester. (30)

Coeducation at the University of Rochester lasted from 1900 to 1909, although the women faced various forms of discrimination. They were prohibited from using the gymnasium, joining college societies, or working on the school newspaper. The men did not want the women's pictures in the same section as theirs in the yearbook. Rush Rhees, who became president of the university shortly after the first women were admitted, did not favor coeducation. In a move that would have greatly displeased Anthony, he finally succeeded in moving the women to a so-called "co-ordinate" College of Women in 1909. Rhees moved the College of Women into a separate building--the Susan B. Anthony Memorial Building. (31) The Men's and Women's Colleges remained separate until 1955.


Helen Barrett Montgomery and Susan B. Anthony were feminists and allies, yet they were different in many ways. Anthony, a veteran of the antebellum feminist movement and an architect of the liberal feminist strategy, believed that the ballot was the key to women's political power. She advocated for women's rights as citizens in terms of liberal democratic political theory, although she affirmed the Victorian values of True Womanhood and could articulate the feminist cause in the language of domestic feminism whenever the occasion required it.

Montgomery was a second-generation domestic feminist. In many respects, her more conservative approach was possible because of the victories achieved by Anthony's more militant generation. Montgomery's feminism was reformist rather than radical. While she supported women's suffrage and believed women had rights as citizens to share political power, she emphasized the value to society of women's moral influence. She did not question the validity of the idea of separate spheres for men and women. Instead, she argued that the limits of woman's sphere were too narrow, and in her theory and practice she conceptualized a woman's sphere that was in fact limitless. Like many other Progressives, she believed that the moral influence of True Womanhood and the values of the Victorian home ought to be extended throughout the state and the society.

Despite their different approaches, Anthony and Montgomery were fundamentally united in their aims, and it would be a mistake to imagine that they were farther apart ideologically than they really were. Their practical unity was more important than their ideological quibbles. While Anthony believed that women's suffrage was the key to the liberation of American women and the reform of American society, Montgomery ultimately embraced the Christian missionary enterprise as the key to liberal social reform and the emancipation of women for the whole world.

(1.) This essay is adapted from chapter six of Kendal P. Mobley, "Helen Barrett Montgomery, 18611910: From Progressivism and Woman's Emancipation to Global Mission" (Th.D. diss., Boston University School of Theology, 2004). Other biographical sources include Helen Barrett Montgomery: From Campus to World Citizenship (New York: Revell, 1940) and Louise Cattan, Lamps are for Lighting: The Story of Helen Barrett Montgomery and Lucy Waterbury Peabody (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972).

Biographies of Susan B. Anthony include Ida Husted Harper, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, 3 vols. (Indianapolis: Hollenbeck Press, 1898-1908); Rheta Childe Dorr, Susan B. Anthony, The Woman Who Changed the Mind of a Nation (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1928); Katharine Susan Anthony, Susan B. Anthony: Her Personal History and Her Era (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1954); Alma Lutz, Susan B. Anthony: Rebel, Crusader, Humanitarian (Boston: Beacon Books, 1959); and Kathleen Barry, Susan B. Anthony: A Biography of a Singular Feminist (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988). See also Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Ida Husted Harper, eds., History of Woman Suffrage, 6 vols (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1881-1922).

(2.) Karen J. Blair, The Clubwoman as Feminist: True Womanhood Redefined, 1868-1914 (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1980), 73-81.

(3.) "In Susan's Honor," Union and Advertiser, November 21, 1896, p. 13.

(4.) On domestic feminism, see Blair, The Clubwoman as Feminist.

(5.) Sheila M. Rothman, Woman's Proper Place: A History of Changing Ideals and Practices, 1870 to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1978), 74-77.

(6.) "The New Building Was Dedicated," Democrat and Chronicle, June 7, 1898, 8. Anthony realized the connection between suffrage and other reforms in 1852. See Barry, Susan B. Anthony, 69-70. (7.) "The New Building Was Dedicated."

(8.) "Way Open to Women," Democrat and Chronicle, June 15, 1898, p. 13.

(9.) "When a Woman Wills She Will," Democrat and Chronicle, June 17, 1898, p. 11.

(10.) "And Now for a Big Mass Meeting," Democrat and Chronicle, June 19, 1898, p. 16.

(11.) Barbara Miller Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 58-61.

(12.) "And Now for a Big Mass Meeting."

(13.) A Progressive coalition helped elect Montgomery. See Mobley, "Helen Barrett Montgomery," 225-32.

(14.) Blake McKelvey, Rochester: The Quest for Quality, 1890-1925 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), 194.

(15.) "The Women Will Name a Candidate," Democrat and Chronicle, October 4, 1899, 11; "Mrs. Montgomery Named," Democrat and Chronicle, October 6, 1899, 13.

(16.) "Meetings in Many Wards," Democrat and Chronicle, October 28, 1899, 13; "Meeting of Mothers," Democrat and Chronicle, October 29, 1899, 10; "A Womanly Speech," Union and Advertiser, November 1, 1899, 7.

(17.) "Openly Advocated from the Pulpit," Democrat and Chronicle, October 30, 1899, 4.

(18.) "Political Equality Club," Union and Advertiser, October 20, 1899, The Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony [microform], edited by Patricia G. Holland and Ann D. Gordon (Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, 1991), roll 40.

(19.) "Their Case Well Put," Democrat and Chronicle, November 1, 1899, 9.

(20.) Helen Barrett Montgomery, "Equal Suffrage," Harper's Bazaar 27, no. 18 (May 5, 1894): 354-55; "'Our Susan,'" Herald, November 21, 1896, 11; "In Susan's Honor," Union and Advertiser, November 21, 1896, 13.

(21.) "Platform of Women's Council," Union and Advertiser, October 20, 1899, The Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, roll 40; "Adopted a Platform," Democrat and Chronicle, October 20, 1899, The Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony [microform], roll 40.

(22.) "Adopted a Platform."

(23.) Ibid.

(24.) Ibid.

(25.) Letters and Papers from the Family of Storrs B. Barrett, TMs [photocopy], personal collection.

(26.) "Woman's Council and Coeducation," Democrat and Chronicle, January 13, 1900, 12.

(27.) "Opens Its Doors to Young Women," Democrat and Chronicle, September 9, 1900, 17; Jesse Leonard Rosenberger, Rochester: The Making of a University, with an Introduction by Rush Rhees (Rochester, New York: University of Rochester, 1927), 235-37.

(28.) Harper, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, 3: 1223-27.

(29.) Ibid., 1427.

(30.) Ibid., 1467.

(31.) McKelvey, Rochester, 236.

Kendal P. Mobley is the pastor of Enon Baptist Church, Salisbury, North Carolina.
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Author:Mobley, Kendal P.
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Date:Jun 22, 2005
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