October 24, 2018
Column

Florence Brooks Whitehouse: Helped clear the way for equality for women

Florence Brooks Whitehouse was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement in Maine from 1913 to 1920.

An early feminist, she supported many important social and political causes in addition to suffrage, including the “mother’s pension” – Social Security, fair labor laws, the Equal Rights Amendment, and international peace and disarmament.

She challenged narrow definitions of women’s proper sphere, braving public censure and rejection as she fought not just for the vote, but also for the right of women to have full equality with men. In so doing she helped clear the way for the emergence of Maine’s later female political leaders, such as Margaret Chase Smith.

Florence Brooks was born Oct. 29, 1869, into a prosperous and socially prominent family in Augusta. She was an accomplished painter, illustrator, writer and vocalist, and pursued advanced studies in those areas.

She married Robert Treat Whitehouse in 1894. They settled permanently in Portland and had three sons. By the time the third child was born in 1904, Florence Whitehouse had written two novels (both published by Little, Brown & Co.) and many short stories and plays. She joined the suffrage movement in 1913, when she was 44 years old.

Florence Brooks Whitehouse was always loyal to her beloved state of Maine. She was a director of the Maine Woman’s Suffrage League, was chairwoman of the Junior Equal Suffrage League, and also of the Suffrage Referendum League of Maine during the 1917 referendum campaign.

During World War I, she worked long hours for the Portland Red Cross, as chairwoman of the Information Bureau. She toured the state repeatedly to establish new suffrage leagues in Maine cities such as Lewiston, Rockland, Augusta, Waterville and Bangor.

She reached out to organized labor and other groups more energetically than any other Maine suffragist of her time.

Whitehouse founded and was chairwoman of the Maine branch of the upstart Congressional Union, later named the National Woman’s Party or NWP, whose members used radical tactics to advance the federal suffrage amendment.

She worked tirelessly throughout her life to support Maine women and their families. She knew women’s suffrage was the key to women’s abilities to control their lives and improve society.

From an article in the Portland Sunday Press of Feb. 25, 1917: “When I began to study suffrage I began to realize that there was something wrong in the civic structure of a society which made people hungry, and children sick, and girls go wrong, and I recognized for the first time the correlation between liquor and hungry families, and bad sanitation and sick children, and low wages and fallen girls, and I said to myself there must be some remedy for these things that we have not reached. When I looked deeper I read laws, laws everywhere … and I thought if women want a hand in the control of civic conditions, they must have the right to vote.”

The right to vote helped set Maine women on the path to equality with men. Just as importantly, she challenged Maine society’s rigid standards of appropriate womanly behavior at the time. Through her activism she created more opportunities for women to choose their own paths and follow their hearts and consciences, and set the stage for future Maine women leaders to emerge.

Florence Brooks Whitehouse was viewed as Maine’s most radical suffragist because she allied herself with Alice Paul and the NWP, publicly supporting, and occasionally participating in, actions such as picketing President Woodrow Wilson.

As important as suffrage was to Whitehouse, however, she understood it was merely a steppingstone to a larger goal, which was women’s rights to live their lives in ways not dictated by men. In this she was far ahead of many of her contemporaries, and she remains a valuable role model even against the backdrop of the considerable freedoms women enjoy today. She epitomized what women could do if they refuse to be bound by convention or narrow expectations; she was a successful writer and artist; had a deeply loving and egalitarian relationship with her husband; was a dedicated mother; and became a successful suffrage leader, political activist, and peace worker active on the local, statewide and even national levels.

As she said to men as part of testimony delivered to the Maine Judiciary Committee on Feb. 2, 1917: “I have no quarrel with you, but I stand/For the clear right to hold my life my own;/The clean, clear right. To mound it as I will,/Not as you will, with or apart from you;/To make of it a thing of brain and blood,/Of tangible substance and of turbulent thought./No thin gray shadow of the life of man …”

The Maine Women’s Suffrage Association held its first meeting on Jan. 29, 1873, in Granite Hall, which was demolished in the 1980s. The League of Women Voters of Maine today maintains its state headquarters at 333-335 Water St., diagonally across from the site of the original meetings on women’s suffrage.

Sources: Primarily the University of Maine at Augusta’s Maine Women’s Hall of Fame Web site, as provided by Whitehouse’s great-granddaughter Anne B. Gass, who nominated her for Maine Women’s Hall of Fame; University of Maine’s Women’s History Trail; Maine Historical Society’s online museum Maine Memory Network.

This photo most likely was taken on Feb. 23, 1917, when Gov. Carl E. Milliken signed a proclamation for a Sept. 10, 1917, referendum thawould give women the right to vote in a presidential election. The measure was defeated. At the signing in Maine were (from left) Mrs. Henry Cobb, Mrs. Carl E. Milliken, Gov. Carl E. Milliken, Deborah Knox Livingstone, Florence Brooks Whitehouse, Charles Milliken, Mrs. Guy P. Gannett, Mrs. Arthur T. Balentine and Mrs. William R. Pattangall. From the collections of the Maine Historical Society. This image and thousands of others spanning Maine history are on Maine Memory Network, www.mainememory.net, Maine?s digital museum developed by the Maine Historical Society

Correction: An information box on Page B4 of Saturday's paper accompanying the Maine Women in History feature about Florence Brooks Whitehouse was outdated and should not have appeared. There is no lecture on Brooks scheduled at the University of Maine.


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