Suffragist of the Month – July 2017

Louisine Havemeyer, 1855 – 1929

Louisine Havemeyer was born in New York City July 28, 1855 into a life of wealth and privilege. Her father had made his fortune in the sugar industry. Her mother was an avid suffragist, and counted among her good friends Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone. From an early age Louisine developed a deep love for art, and later enjoyed a close friendship with Mary Cassatt, whose work she admired and collected for many years.

When she married Harry Havemeyer in 1883 she married a kindred soul. Harry was also an art lover, and the couple spent many years traveling through Europe, raising their three children, and building an impressive collection of French and Asian art. They made their homes in Manhattan and at Bayberry Point on Long Island’s south shore. Harry also shared her belief in equality for women. He once stated, “If a woman doesn’t know how to vote, she better get busy and learn.”

When Harry died in 1907 Louisine felt bereft, and searched for a meaningful occupation. Her good friend Harriot Stanton Blatch (Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter) knew exactly what Louisine should do – she should join her and work for suffrage.

Suffragists had created a suffrage torch, which the movement’s leaders equated to the torch carried by the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. They carried the torch from Montauk Point, up through New York State to Buffalo, and down again. The torch was then to be passed to suffragists in New Jersey who would carry it on across the nation as a symbol of American women’s search for political freedom. Harriot planned to pass the torch herself, but sadly, her husband died at their Long Island home. She asked Louisine to take her place.

The August 1915 day was overcast as crowds gathered on both shores of the Hudson River to watch the two tugboats meet in the middle of New York Harbor, under the shadow of Lady Liberty herself. The boats were filled with reporters, photographers and suffragists, and as purple and white flags flew and horns gaily blew Louisine made a moving speech, (despite an attack of seasickness). She then ceremoniously transferred the Torch into the waiting hands of the New Jersey delegation, and it was sent on its way, carrying its message of freedom through New Jersey and on to the southern states.

Louisine would later join the White House pickets, be arrested and carted off to Occoquan prison in Virginia. Louisine was horrified, not just by the prison conditions, but by the brutality and cruelty they suffered after their arrest. In her later article, “The Prison Special” in Scribner’s she wrote:

Where was my Uncle Sam? Where was the liberty my fathers fought for…the democracy our boys were fighting for?…The women of America were to languish in a dirty, discarded prison because they dared to ask for their democracy while our President was hawking democracy abroad…and would give it to any little nation that would stand still long enough to receive it.

After she was freed she joined the “Freedom Special,” a train carrying suffrage prisoners throughout the nation. They women dressed in replicas of their prison garb, and all along the route they spoke to whomever would listen, telling their tales of prison to immense audiences in meeting halls and to small groups in local parks. Twenty-nine days later they returned to New York City, exhausted, but proud and confident. They had spoken to over 50,000 people in those twenty-nine days.

Louisine Havemeyer could have lived a life of quiet luxury. She chose instead to put her wealth to work for justice, to chance the ridicule  of family and friends to champion a cause she believed in, a cause that would ultimately improve the lives of millions of women. When Louisine died she left a substantial number of her paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, a “munificent bequest.” But it could be argued that her work for woman suffrage was no less valuable a legacy.

Once, while speaking of Joan of Arc, Louisine commented that the world was better off because a peasant girl in Domrémy was not afraid of prison. The same could certainly be said of the stalwart Louisine Havemeyer herself.

Happy Birthday, Louisine Havemeyer!



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