Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Caroline Seymour Severance, 1820-1914

At age 91, Caroline Seymour Severance deserved the honor of becoming the first woman in California to register to vote in Los Angeles following the passage of state suffrage in 1911. She was instrumental on several fronts in facilitating the suffrage movement both nationally and in her adopted state. Similar to many women of wealth during her time, she focused her philanthropy on the needs of women and children.

Raised in New York, Severance was a school teacher until her marriage to banker Theordore Severance in 1840. They lived in Ohio and Boston, where she became instrumental in founding a variety of organizations. Some consider her the "Mother of the Woman's Clubs" because of her role in creating and fostering such organizations. She was very active in Woman's Rights conventions. She headed the committee that founded the first regional suffrage association, the New England Woman's Suffrage Association, which formed in response to the failure of the abolitionist cause to achieve equal rights for women. In 1866 she helped Susan B. Anthony found the Equal Rights Association. Several years later she joined Lucy Stone and others in creating the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

When the family moved to Los Angeles in 1875, Severance could have slowed down, but she continued her many activities. Among her contributions were the establishment of several kindergartens, the first Unitarian congregation in LA, and various women's groups. Most important was her developing the Friday Morning Club (pictured as built 938-940 South Figueroa Street) which became the center of social reform activities. Such groups developed boarding hotels for single working women, training programs for better job opportunities, orphanages, hospitals, and schools. [Photo courtesy of Library of Congress]

Although women's clubs initially formed for self-education and social reform, eventually they committed more directly to suffrage. Through these clubs women learned to speak in public, to coordinate activities, to create and manage organizations, and to publicize their works. As a result, they became an important base, already in existence, for securing the vote. Regrettably, no comprehensive biography of this significant leader exists, and she is omitted from textbooks on California history.

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