Suffragist of the Month – May 2015

Katherine Duer MackayMackay

1878 – 1930

Suffragists were often accused of being unattractive, unfeminine, and terrible mothers. None of these slurs were ever flung at Katherine Duer Mackay, however. She was decidedly one of the most beautiful, gracious and feminine suffrage leaders of the day. When Harriot Stanton Blatch, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter, took up the mantle of the suffrage cause in 1902, one of the first women she recruited was Katherine Duer Mackay.

Katherine was born May 9, 1878 to William A. Duer and Ellen Travers Duer. Both families claim descendants from illustrious, old American families. In 1898 she married the wealthy Clarence Hungerford Mackay, who with his father had founded the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. She and Clarence and their three children lived in Roslyn at Harbor Hill, one of the largest country estates on Long Island.

Katherine embraced the cause of woman suffrage with passion and enthusiasm; in 1908 she incorporated The Equal Franchise Society with herself as president, and convinced her wealthy friends to join. Its constitution stated simply: “The particular object and purpose of such society shall be to secure the national, state, and local electoral franchise for women.” Although it sought to organize men and women in the “ranks of society,” it also sought to involved “self-supporting” members, who, it was believed, would benefit more than anyone by the ballot. The annual dues were set at $2, which was thought to be an amount almost any woman could afford.

Katherine Duer Mackay brought great flair and style to the suffrage movement. Unfortunately, her tenure was brief; a passionate affair with her husband’s heart surgeon led to disgrace, and she left her husband and children to live in Paris with her lover. She and Clarence were divorced in 1914, and the marriage to the surgeon failed as well. She died in Paris in 1930.

But despite the short span of her involvement, her beauty, wealth and enthusiasm opened the door for other wealthy women to follow her lead and become involved. Under her patronage working for woman suffrage became acceptable, even fashionable. Even after leaving the front lines she still believed women should have the vote, if only to be able to vote for those who would improve the world:

If women ask for suffrage it is because the mother of a family, more even than the father, will anxiously consider what sort of men shall be put in office to make and enforce the laws under which their sons and daughters are going to live…It is impossible for the half to express the whole. 

Happy Birthday, Katherine Duer Mackay

For more information on Katherine Duer Mackay, see Chapter 9 of Long Island and The Woman Suffrage Movement. Photograph courtesy of the Bryant Library historical archives.

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