Mabel Caldwell Willard

By Molly Bohner, SUNY Old Westbury. Faculty Sponsor: Carol Quirke; Librarian, Christa DeVirgilio.

Role in Women’s Suffrage: Chairman of House Hospitality, Washington D.C., National American Woman Suffrage Association; Director Social Activities, Washington D.C., National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Miss Mabel Caldwell Willard was a national leader active in grassroots movements across the United States. She was born on July 3, 1862 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Julia A. Willard and Charles Thomas Willard, a photographer. Her father died when Willard was four years old; her mother then taught in New Haven, Connecticut. According to a King family genealogy, Willard attended Wellesley College. Neither Mabel Willard nor her brother, Walter Charles Thomas, born just after her father’s death, ever married. Willard died on August 13, 1940, and is buried with her family in West Northfield, Massachusetts.

Records on Willard’s early life are slim. In 1887, Willard, then twenty-five, accompanied her mother to Europe; they returned to the U.S. to New York on the ship Servia. Willard is the likely author of an edited edition of James Longfellow poems, and in the 1900 census she is listed as living in Shenandoah, Iowa, with no occupation. However, the Iowa Library Quarterly lists her as a librarian in 1905. In 1909 she applied for a U.S. passport with the intent of traveling for two years. She and Maud Wood Park were funded by the president of the Boston Equal Suffrage Association for Good Government, Pauline Aggasiz Shaw, to travel around the world for an eighteen-month span. Park was a well-known suffragist who would ultimately become the League of Women Voters’ first president. The two women visited numerous countries, among them Burma, China, Korea, New Zealand, Turkey, and Finland. Willard’s photos from the trip are housed at the Schlesinger Library. Willard and Park observed suffrage activists in their campaigns and marched alongside militant suffragists in London.

One of the earliest mentions of Willard comes in a Boston Globe article about a suffrage rally held on the Common. The Globe claimed the rally was disorganized, and that in convening the rally, Willard in her “dauntlessly cheerful chirp,” announced that she was the “old maid” of suffrage stereotype. The rally introduced couples who had wed as a result of their suffrage commitments. One of those couples was famed author, economist and social theorist Stuart Chase and Margaret Hatfield. In 1916, Willard became an individual stockholder of the Woman’s Journal. This weekly periodical was founded by the suffragist Lucy Stone and was a key voice for the women’s suffrage movement. Later that year, she became a member of Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and was put in charge of all social activities. Willard assumed responsibility for running the Congressional Committee headquarters in Washington, called “Suffrage House,” at 1626 Rhode Island Avenue, smoothly (V, 604). Willard organized hospitality, receptions, and weekly teas. She secured hostesses and identified speakers to rally activists, and was responsible for linking local D.C. suffrage activities with visiting guests, including the Daughters of the American Revolution, Parent Teachers Associations and Daughters of the Confederacy. (V, 526)

In the winter of 1917, Willard stayed in Washington D.C. to assist Park with the Congressional Corps. She resided in the NAWSA headquarters with lobbyists and general suffragist guests. The NWSA sent her on a special mission to Delaware; she joined nineteen other women sent to 20 different states to work toward nationwide organization for a federal suffrage amendment.

In 1918, Willard remained in D.C. at the NAWSA headquarters, providing a variety of entertainment such as knitting, dancing, and cards for all women workers in government departments to enjoy at the headquarters, according to the Evening Star. She also prepared weekly teas on Wednesday afternoons for the wives of prominent politicians in the cabinet and Congress (V, 567). Later in 1918, Willard again traveled to Delaware under the NAWSA to organize outreach: canvassing, speakers, and other methods to reach voters. The History notes she developed 175 volunteers to canvass Delaware seeking out anyone who could influence Delaware’s U.S. Senators’ votes. Under Willard’s direction their petition obtained 11,118 “influencers.” (V, 556; VI, 92) The Delaware organization was successful in voting out the state’s Democratic senator, Willard Saulsbury, for his refusal to support women’s suffrage, according to the Bismark Daily Tribune. As Volume Five of The History points out, the NAWSA was regrouping after failing by two votes to get the federal amendment through the Senate during the 66th Congress. At this meeting resolutions for the Federal Suffrage Amendment were revised and sent to the United States Senate. (564)

In 1919, according to the History of Woman Suffrage, Willard was in charge of organizing frequent street meetings in Boston leading up to the vote. She arranged for mass weekly meetings every Sunday in the Tremont Theatre and on the historic Common(285). That November, Willard signed an NAWSA advertisement in the Reno Gazette addressed to the women of Nevada. The ad criticized the Woman’s Party as a “militant, Bolshevik fringe,” that purposefully distorted the record of the Nevada Senators. Willard joined Carrie Chapman Catt, the NAWSA’s president, in supporting the war to ensure women would receive the suffrage.

On June 4, 1919, Willard’s picture was featured alongside other Congressional Committee members of the NAWSA who presented the suffrage bill to the US House of Representatives. Following their victory that year, the NAWSA held multiple celebratory receptions. Willard and the Congressional Committee hosted a reception on June 10th at the NAWSA Washington headquarters to honor the members of the House and Senate that voted in favor of the amendment, and Willard directed the presentations.

In June of 1921, Willard became involved with the National League of Women Voters committee for reduction of armaments by international agreement. She also was a strong advocate for the League of Nations, writing letters to the New York Times in support in 1924.