Thursday, June 5, 2014

'No man . . . shall sit upon the throne of my mind'

The remarkable Marilla M. Ricker wanted nothing more than to break glass ceilings. “Let come what will come, no man, be he priest, minister or judge, shall sit upon the throne of my mind, and decide for me what is right, true, or good,” she once said.

Marilla Ricker
In 1897 Ricker applied to become ambassador to Colombia. No woman had ever held an ambassadorship. Even if she wasn’t appointed, she wrote in her application, she wanted to establish a precedent by asking for the job. The new president, William McKinley, appointed the journalist Charles Burdett Hart instead.

That glass ceiling remained in place for more than a half century longer. Eugenie Moore Anderson broke it when Harry Truman chose her to head the U.S. mission in Denmark in 1949.

But Ricker was not without her supporters. One of them was Henry W. Blair, a former congressman and U.S. senator from New Hampshire. Blair’s letter to McKinley recommending Ricker went up for sale on eBay the other day. That and Ricker’s New Hampshire roots are the reasons for this post.

There’s no way of knowing, but I hope the letter is a draft. If not, Blair strove mightily for the record for the longest run-on sentence fragments in the history of letter-writing. Certainly he had slept through punctuation lessons in school.

But at least the letter asserts that appointing Ricker would be a memorable moment in McKinley’s presidency.   

Henry W. Blair, a former U.S. senator from New
Hampshire, was a Washington lawyer when he
wrote his letter on Ricker's behalf.
To introduce Ricker, my friend and former longtime colleague Felice Belman, now an editor at the Boston Globe, agreed to write a brief biographical essay. Fifteen years ago, she and I edited The New Hampshire Century, a book of profiles of leading New Hampshire figures of the 20th century. The subjects ran from Steven Tyler to David Souter, from Christa McAuliffe to Grace Metalious. Belman wrote the profile of Ricker.

So we begin with her primer on Ricker, followed by Frank W. Blair’s letter:

Here in 2014, electing women to positions of power has become routine in New Hampshire. The state’s two U.S. senators and two U.S. representatives are women. So is the governor. So is the speaker of the New Hampshire House.

They were elected on the basis of their experience, their political ideas, their campaign savvy. But they owe their positions in part to Marilla Ricker, a pioneering feminist who, more than a century ago, helped convince the state’s leaders and voters that women deserved a role in New Hampshire’s political life.

Ricker was born in New Durham, N.H., in 1840 and graduated from what was then Colby Academy in New London. She was a widow before she was 30. Her husband’s death left her money and independence – and she devoted the next 50 years to advocating for women’s rights. She was the first woman admitted to practice law in the state. She was the first woman to apply for a foreign ambassadorship. She was an outspoken atheist who believed organized religion was responsible for subjugating women.

Perhaps most important, Ricker was the first woman in the state to try to vote. She argued that her willingness to pay her property taxes afforded her the right. She argued that women deserved the same rights as blacks. She argued that without the vote, women would never have equal economic power. She argued that female voters would bring attention to issues men ignored.

Election officials were unmoved.

Ricker gave speeches all over the state. She hounded lawmakers and newspaper editors – but most were slow to come around.

In 1910 Ricker attempted to challenge Robert Bass for the Republican nomination for governor. To her thinking, she met the qualifications: She had lived in the state more than seven years and was more than 30 years old – in fact, she was 70. The secretary of state, however, ruled otherwise: Ricker wasn’t a voter and thus couldn’t be governor.

Nine years later, the state finally caught up to Ricker, ratifying the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote.

Ricker never held elected office herself, but she nonetheless took satisfaction in the change. The decision, she said, “placed the state of New Hampshire on the right side of one of the great questions of the day.”


And here is Blair’s letter:
                                                                                Washington, D.C.
                                                                                 May 3d 1897
To the President:

In addition to the numerous memorials and other manifestations of strong desire now on file for the recognition of the rights of women to a fair share of the responsibilities and emoluments of public office in a free government by the appointment of Mrs. Marilla M. Ricker to an important diplomatic position on the part of many influential able and influential persons and organizations from various parts of the country. I have the honor herewith to enclose a strong letter from Mrs. Lillie Devereaux Blake, President of the New York City Woman Suffrage League and who was one of the principal representatives of her sex before the Committees of the St. Louis convention and has long been a leader in the great movement which has already given the suffrage to women in several states and undoubtedly will in all in the next quarter of a century and in Great Britain made almost equally significant progress; unsolicited, able and generous, (because justice has hitherto been generosity to women); Editorial by Dr. Ridpath in the ‘Arena’ of the current month. 

Conscious that there are strong influences adverse to the appointment of Mrs. Ricker because, and only because, of her sex. I beg of you, Mr. President, not to neglect this pressing & fortunate opportunity to perform a great, just, and I may well say, conspicuous and immortal act, which, if done now, will be sure to rank hereafter among the most illustrious deeds of any American President.
                                                                                    Very respectfully,
                                                                                    Yr. Obt. Servant
                                                                                    Henry W. Blair

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