A Salem Suffragette

Well, today is Women’s Equality Day, designated in 1971 to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which finally granted women the right to vote after a long struggle for suffrage. I’m embarrassed to admit that I never knew this was a “day”, but it seems as good a time as any to shine a spotlight on a Salem suffragist (I’m an English historian, so I used my preferred “Suffragette” in the title, but the more appropriate American term is “Suffragist”). I’m certain that there was more than one fierce advocate of votes for women in progressive Salem, but Margery Bedinger of Forrester Street committed at a crucial time, and went on to lead a very interesting and independent life. And I have pictures! Margery was born in Salem in 1891, the daughter of the Rector of St. Peter’s Church (and the granddaughter of the Ambassador to Denmark). She matriculated at Smith College first, but graduated from Radcliffe in 1913. In 1914 and 1915, she was one of many members of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association campaigning actively in support of a state referendum to give women the right to vote. The suffragists and their supporters walked, ran, trolleyed, biked and drove all around the Commonwealth, distributing their colorful materials and holding open-air forums, and capped off their campaign with of parade of 9000 supporters (including Helen Keller) on October 16. Despite their efforts, the referendum failed, and Massachusetts women did not gain the vote until the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920. Margery was no doubt disappointed by the returns of 1915, but she moved steadfastly forward (and west–where suffrage had triumphed first), completing her graduate degree in Library Science and becoming the first female librarian at the United States Military Academy at West Point in the 1920s (and later publishing a “spirited” article about the Academy entitled “The Goose Step at West Point” in the New Republic), assuming a succession of library directorships at academic libraries in Montana, Washington, and New Mexico, authoring an authoritative book on Native American jewelry, traveling the world, and finally retiring to Hawaii!

Margery Bedinger was an incredibly accomplished woman but I only discovered her through another incredibly accomplished woman: Florence Hope Luscomb (1887-1985), the leader of the Massachusetts Suffrage movement and one of the first women to graduate from the distinguished architectural program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (this was just the beginning of a long lifetime of social and political activism). Luscomb’s papers are at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University, and while I was looking around for things related to her architectural practice, I found Margery, her comrade in 1915. And here is Margery at work and at play, in those interesting times a century ago.

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Margery Bedinger of Salem (front and center) and her Massachusetts suffragist colleagues on their “auto tour” across the state, 1915, & Margery and her horse somewhere out west a bit later and in close-up, from the Florence Hope Luscomb Archive at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. Below: a broadside and paraphernalia from the 1915 campaign–the back of the fan reads “keep cool and raise a breeze for suffrage”.

Suffrage Broadside 1915 MHS

Suffrage mementos MA


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