Aunt Het was a suffragette. This is how our family remembers her, although suffragist was the term preferred in America by those working to enfranchise women. Esther Gracie Ogden was my great-great aunt and died long before I was born, but her story has always fascinated me. Women's history is usually not self-evident and is harder to tease out from ancestral files - even those as extensive as those in my care - but there have been many formidable women in our clan and Aunt Het is an exemplary example.
She was the daughter of Dayton Ogden and Esther Gracie: two old families of New York and Elizabeth New Jersey. She was an active worker in the suffrage movement between 1912 and 1920 and prominent in the National American Woman Suffrage Association, "the most mainstream and nationally visible pro-suffrage group." She was also a director and President of the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co., Inc., which was a powerful tool in getting the message out. My grandmother recalled getting "Votes For Women" pencils in her Christmas stockings from Aunt Het and produced by her suffragist press. I have searched in vain for extant examples of these items, but do have several treasured pieces of suffrage memorabilia, including a gavel inscribed "Votes for Women" dated May 2 1914 when neighboring Delaware held its largest rally for woman suffrage, and this small leather folder, embossed with Aunt Het's initials. If f you click to enlarge the image you will see in the yellow patch that it reads: "Votes For Women New Jersey Women Voted 1776-1807 Why Not Now?"
Aunt Het was modest about the part she played to help gain American women the vote, but she was very proud of women's achievement. In 1940, she sent my grandmother and each of her sisters a copy of Victory: How Women Won It 1840 - 1940 published that year by NAWSA. In a letter to my grandmother that accompanied the book, she writes:
"As you know my tiny part in the struggle for woman suffrage covered only the last eight years 1912 - 1920, but they are the years of my long life which to me were the most worthwhile. I often think of how you as a very little girl used to ride in my Model T Ford adorned with Votes for Women pennants. It added much to the satisfaction I felt in being a cog in the campaign machinery that we were working for you when you should come of age. Now (thanks be!) the struggle is an old story and woman suffrage is a matter of course in this country but I want you girls to have this record."
Women of the upper class and of society were not always in the suffragist vanguard. There are hints in the family record that some members, at least, were decidedly anti-suffrage. One of these was "Uncle" Johnny Owen Stearns, standing at right and also holding the horse at left with my great aunt Margie in the carriage. He was the great-uncle and of my grandmother, a confirmed bachelor, and renowned for his racing trotters. Along with Het and other family members he was an annual guest at Christmas dinner, where it was then a family tradition to have one small gift at each place and a suitable poem composed by my great grandmother Margaret Olmsted Ogden to accompany it. Madge Ogden had an impish wit, and she kept copies of her doggerel for posterity. Here in the entries for 1913 I find the following marvelous verse:
To Uncle Johnny - "Votes for Women" is the cry which often now we here / And yet the Antis tell us that the home is woman's sphere/ No wonder that poor Johnny's head is often in a whirl / How can he share the sentiments of of each and every girl? / But when it comes to fooling the public and the fair / Not Cook nor P. T. Barnum can with Our John compare. / He doesn't like society, Oh no, indeed not he / And yet "among those present" his name we often see. / But when it comes to suffrage a paradox we view / Although her is an Uncle, he is an Anti too! / Now if he is no suffragist there need not be much strife / for John you know has given votes to Women all his life."
He must have been mortified, though perhaps he relished such teasing attention. The photograph at the top of this post is inscribed "To Johnny, with the 'free love' of a suffragist." As for Het, her 1914 Christmas poem reads as follows:
" To Aunt Het - I do declare, it's hardly fair to get a joke on Het / For on every hand she has to stand being called at suffragette. / The Anti's scoff, but then hats they'll doff as she motors about the town / And her flaming car will be seen afar to add to her renown. / When the vote is won and the talk is done the jokes she will not resent, / For you can bet we'll all vote for Het, when she runs for President!"
When Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment giving the 2/3 majority needed to make woman suffrage the law of the land, Esther G. Ogden turned her energy and organizing skill to promoting democracy and opposing totalitarianism. Het served in a variety of official capacities with numerous political and social justice organizations. She was Vice chairman of the Women's bureau for the Democratic National Convention in 1920 and assistant secretary of the following convention in 1924. In 1935 she was a delegate to the Women's International Congress in Istanbul. She was a member of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and of the executive committee of the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War.
In 1921 she became membership secretary and the secretary of the Foreign Policy Association and served as an honorary member of its Board of Directors until ill health forced her to resign in 1937. In noting its deep regret at her departure, the board recognized her importance to the organization;
"Not only because of her length of service but also because of her rare wisdom, warmth of friendship and unflagging faith in the continuing possibilities of the Organization, Miss Ogden was a pillar of strength for the F.P.A. Whatever success the Foreign Policy Association has achieved during that period has been enhanced incalculably by the insight, the poise and the rare capacities which Miss Ogden contributed to every task of the organization."
I remember those slim, information-packed issues of Foreign Policy that my grandmother continued to receive and read with great interest as late as the 1970s, and clearly her support for the F.P.A. was due to its connection with Aunt Het.
Esther Gracie Ogden lived to be 89. She was a spirited and tireless worker for progressive causes, none greater than the cause of woman suffrage. She was a close friend of Carrie Chapman Catt and Eleanor Roosevelt (a very distant relative). She was particularly fond of the younger generations and had great hopes for them in a more democratic society. I can imagine her driving her Model T through the streets of Elizabeth, New Jersey, suffrage banners waving, and smiling at the laughing little girl beside her as they drove together toward a brighter future.