They’d Have My Vote!

On the theme of strong women, today I have for you the stories of two women in my family tree who played a role in creating the world of opportunity that American women have today. Neither of these ladies was a blood relative, one having married a cousin on my mother’s side and the other marrying a cousin on my father’s side. Clearly, though, if they had not had the support of open-minded husbands, they could not have made their lasting contributions to society.

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Dr. Mary Holloway Wilhite

Mary Margaret Holloway was born in 1831 to an Indiana family of meager means. Her interest in politics may have developed due to her father’s service as county commissioner. In 1850, she sold subscriptions for The Women’s Advocate, an early suffrage newspaper. Despite the scoffing of neighbors, Mary was determined to obtain a medical education, and she took in sewing and taught school to pay her own tuition to Penn Medical College in Philadelphia. She received her medical degree in 1856, and returned to Crawfordsville, Indiana, the first female practitioner in the state.

In 1860, at the age of 29, she married Eleazer Wilhite (my third cousin four times removed), who was a tailor. Over the years they had seven children, three of whom died in infancy. Even as busy as she must have been with her family and her medical practice, Mary continued her interest in and devotion to the issue of voting rights for women. In 1869, she chaired the committee which organized the Woman’s Suffrage Association of Montgomery County and then served as its secretary. She also was vice president of the Indiana Equal Suffrage Association and organized the group’s 1880 Convention in Crawfordsville. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were guests at the Wilhite home when they came to Crawfordsville, and Dr. Wilhite’s son Stanton was named after the great suffrage leader.

Dr. Wilhite’s medical practice also focused on the needs of women and children. In 1880, she headed the drive to establish the Montgomery County Orphan’s Home. Always known for her compassion and the degree of attention she gave to her patients, Dr. Wilhite went to any corner of town to relieve suffering. She died in February of 1892 from pneumonia contracted while making a house call.

The home of Eleazer and Mary Holloway Wilhite (at the corner of Wabash Avenue and Grant Street) is included as “Stop Six” in the Crawfordsville, Indiana “Women’s History Walking Tour.”


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Dr. Leta Stetter Hollingworth

Leta Ann Stetter was born on a farm near Chadron, Nebraska, in 1886. Always a precocious child, her early education was in a one-room log schoolhouse. She graduated from the University of Nebraska, with Phi Beta Kappa honors, at the age of 19. She took a job as assistant principal and teacher at a school in DeWitt and her contract, which was not unusual at the time, required her to keep the schoolhouse in good repair, provide supplies and do janitorial work, for $60 per month. [My mother, who was teacher and principal in a one-room Eastern Kentucky coal camp schoolhouse could identify with that!]

Two years later she married former Nebraska college classmate, Harry Hollingworth, my second cousin once removed. Harry was a graduate assistant to the eminent psychologist James McKeen Cattell at Columbia University. Leta sought a teaching position in New York but found that they did not hire married women. There she was, an intellectually gifted woman with unbounded energy and ambition, forced into a woman’s traditional role. Her husband wrote a biography about Leta, in which he said: “During the earlier years of married life, Leta Stetter Hollingworth’s time and energy were chiefly consumed by housework, cooking, dressmaking, mending, washing, ironing, making her own hats and suits and endless other domestic duties in the frugal apartment home. Almost always she effectually stifled her own eager longing for intellectual activity like that of her husband. Day after day, and many long evenings, she led her solitary life in the meagerly furnished quarters, while he was away at regular duties or seizing on this and that opportunity to earn a few dollars on the side . . . .”

After three years, the Hollingworths had saved enough money so that Leta was able to begin graduate work in educational psychology; she earned her MS degree in 1913 from Columbia University and began putting traditional ideas about the inequality of women to the test. As a woman who had been rebuffed in a “man’s world,” she wanted to know why women were regarded as inferior to men and whether there was a valid scientific basis for such thought. She began collecting data and conducting studies to refute the prevailing theories that they were inherently weak in body and mind.

Dr. Hollingworth received her Ph.D. degree in 1916 and accepted a position as instructor in educational psychology at Columbia University Teachers College. Even then, with her advanced degree and academic contributions, she did not have the right to vote. In her day, Leta Hollingworth was known as the “scientific pillar” of the women’s movement. She was a member of the Woman’s Suffrage Party and a frequent marcher (with husband Harry) in suffrage parades. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing all American women the right to vote, was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920, when Leta was 34 years old.

She died at the age of 53 of abdominal carcinoma. Her husband established the Leta Stetter Holllingworth Fellowship for a woman graduate from the University of Nebraska to pursue graduate study at Columbia.


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