The American suffragist Mary Winsor (c. 1869–1956) was a key figure in the militant demonstrations that preceded passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Participating in numerous protests, Winsor was arrested several times. Once her initial goal was achieved in August of 1920, she found other avenues for her energy and her enthusiasm for progressive causes.
Born circa 1869 (the exact date is unknown), Mary Winsor was a native of Haverford, Pennsylvania, a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia on the so-called Main Line railroad to the central city. Her father, James D. Winsor, was the owner of the Winsor Steamship Line, and the family was socially as well as financially prominent. The family was of Quaker background and Winsor would write that only the Quakers, who condemned violence in all forms, had the moral high ground in urging feminist demonstrators to avoid violent resistance. For the first part of her life, however, Winsor had little to do with violence: due to her family's social prominence, her travels and social excursions were chronicled in the society pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Winsor had two sisters, one of whom, Ellen, would also become a suffrage activist and be arrested for her beliefs.
Winsor was very unhappy in the role of debutante; to be born a girl in a genteel family, she was quoted as saying in the Wilmington, Delaware, Morning News, was “the greatest curse in the world.” When she traveled abroad, she felt so hemmed in by “chaperones and conventionalities” that she could see little of the countries she visited. Winsor looked forward eagerly to the day when decreasing attractiveness would remove her from the Philadelphia social whirl and let her find a wider range of experiences.
Winsor was an activist looking for a cause, and she quickly found one. At the turn of the 20th century, she could be found giving speeches in support of women's rights, and by 1910 she had founded the Pennsylvania Limited Suffrage Society and served as its president. An associate of birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), she also advocated in support of easily accessed birth control. Winsor attended classes at the Drexel Institute of Philadelphia (now Drexel University), Bryn Mawr College, Radcliffe University, and one or more schools in other countries, but she inevitably ceased attending classes in favor of actively pursuing activism. She spoke several foreign languages. Obituaries stated that Winsor had never graduated from college, but an exhibition about her at Bryn Mawr listed her as a graduating member of the class of 1918—by which time she was nearly 50 years old.
As its name implied, the Pennsylvania Limited Suffrage Society stopped short of demanding full national voting rights for women, but correspondence with suffragists from other countries quickly propelled Winsor to take a more-aggressive position. In 1911, she spoke at the annual meeting of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, where, according to a Washington Post writer, she “electrified” the crowd, endorsing militant methods and urging listeners to be “loud” and “vulgar” in their advocacy. “Yes, indeed,” she told the surprised crowd, according to the reporter. “This is a vulgar age. Be loud, be yellow, be anything to be picturesque. Better go to extremes than bore people.”
In 1913, Winsor experimented with propaganda techniques other than speechwriting, producing the short play A Suffrage Rummage Sale. Designed to be presented as an interlude during a fundraising auction, the play satirized common anti-suffrage types, represented by Mrs. Grundy, a defender of traditional female roles; the Mad Hatter, an anti-suffrage man who supports Mrs. Grundy's efforts; and Mrs. Partington, a cleaning woman who attempts to sweep away advancing feminism with her broom. The play was printed and was staged at a 1913 meeting of the Pennsylvania Limited Suffrage Association.
In both 1913 and 1914 Winsor made trips to London, England, in response to a request from the American Academy of Social and Political Science. She recounted her observations of militant British suffrage activism in an article for the Academy's Annals, in 1914, and this article is among the few pieces of her extended writing that have survived. Ostensibly in England as an observer, Winsor bolstered her own activist convictions as a result of encounters with British woman suffrage leaders like Sylvia Pankhurst, Nellie Hall, and Grace Roe, some of whom were imprisoned during Winsor's stay. She talked not only to leaders but to ordinary activists and demonstrators, remarking in her Annals article that “the street is a grand place to study politics, especially in England.”
During her London visit in 1914, Winsor had her first direct experience with street activism while confronting an anti-suffrage mob during one of her speeches at London's Hyde Park. Still greater dangers awaited as she prepared to return to the United States later that summer: World War I broke out and huge military mobilizations began. As a result, she had to beat a hasty retreat across central Europe, where she had traveled, reaching France and then returning to England before departing. The experience, she told a contributor to the Detroit Free Press, “made me all the more willing to do my bit in the peaceful struggle for democracy in America.”
In September of 1917, Winsor had the first of her several serious brushes with the law. Holding a sign that read “To ask freedom for women is not a crime. Suffrage prisoners should not be treated as criminals,” she was arrested together with other demonstrators during a march in Washington, D.C., where the group attempted to meet with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. At the trial, she argued that the right of peaceful petition was guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but the judge openly lamented in connection with another defendant that the option of corporal punishment was not available to him. The protestors received 60-day sentences at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia (now part of the D.C. Workhouse and Reformatory Historic District).
Undaunted by her visit to the Virginia workhouse, Winsor was arrested again on August 6, 1918, at a demonstration in Washington, D.C.'s Lafayette Square. She and other demonstrators, accused of holding a meeting on public grounds, refused to defend themselves at trial and were sentenced to ten days in the Washington, D.C., jail. The experience had the positive effect of raising Winsor's profile in the women's movement nationally; in 1919 she became part of a “Prison Special” speaking tour—during which she was arrested in Washington, D.C., in January for burning an effigy—and she was in demand as a pro-suffrage speaker in many cities.
Winsor's activism continued even after the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920. Under the auspices of the National Woman's Party (more an activist organization than a political party), of whose national board Winsor became a member, she gave speeches and devised policy and publicity initiatives. One was a proposed “woman's charter of rights,” written by Winsor in 1922 (with a hoped-for goal of implementation by 1932) and based on the charter of rights adopted by a women's rights meeting in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. As Winsor pointed out, of the rights enumerated in that foundational suffrage document, only one, the right to vote, had been firmly secured.
As late as 1949, Winsor traveled to Peru, drily recounting in a New York Times letter to the editor the discovery of the mummified corpse of girl who had been a victim of human sacrifice and had likely had all her bones broken prior to death. During her later years, she lived at the Warwick Hotel in central Philadelphia, and she died in that city on September 10, 1956. Winsor never married and had no children. In her will she endowed two scholarships at Bryn Mawr, one of them in memory of her mother.
Stevens, Doris, Jailed for Freedom, Boni & Liveright, 1920.
Winsor, Mary, A Suffrage Rummage Sale (one-act play), [Haverford, PA], 1913, reprinted in On to Victory: Propaganda Plays of the Woman Suffrage Movement, edited by Bettina Friedl, Northeaster University Press, 1987.
Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, November 1914, p. 134.
Detroit Free Press, May 5, 1918, p. B10.
Morning News (Wilmington, DE), September 11, 1956, p. 4.
New York Times, November 14, 1921, p. 1; January 21, 1927, p. 4; September 25, 1949 p. E8; September 11, 1956, p. 35.
Philadelphia Inquirer, September 11, 1956, p. 35.
Washington Post, October 27, 1911, p. 1; September 6, 1917, p. 7; September 15, 1927, p. 3; August 7, 1918, p. 3.