Wealthy women in the movement


Wealthy women in the movement


It’s easier to research rich suffragists than poor ones. Wealthy women’s contributions to the movement were well-documented, their correspondence is more likely to be preserved, and they were profiled and gossiped about in the papers. One rich woman’s contribution... 🧵

Katherine Duer Mackay’s life seems ripped from the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel: outrageous wealth, a scandalous divorce, and more. Given her extreme privilege and narrow, conformist social circle, her approach to suffrage and public welfare is notable.

Mrs. Mackay, as she was known, joined the cause in 1908. She consulted leading suffragists like Harriot Stanton Blatch to devise a plan. Mackay wasn’t interested in joining NAWSA’s dull NY chapter, nor Blatch’s deliberately cross-class Equality League of Self-Supporting Women. She wanted her own project. In creating the Equal Franchise Society, Mrs. Mackay recruited a board of serious and capable suffragists (including Blatch), and began funding lobbying in Albany as early as 1910.

Few resources for New York legislative work existed then. Her funding laid the groundwork for the 1915 New York referendum, and eventually the 1917 win. Along with better-known Alva Belmont, her involvement made suffrage seem safe for prominent society women who had hesitated to be associated with a cause that threatened patriarchy.

Mrs. Mackay’s upper-crust viewpoint sometimes left her at odds with her own organization -- for example, when she insisted that the Albany headquarters be a suite at the posh Ten Eyck Hotel, not a storefront on State Street. Mackay was deeply dismayed when the Franchise Society board voted to join the first big NYC suffrage march, in May 1910. She feared that street demonstrations threatened the movement’s respectability.

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But to her credit, she accepted the decision -- and cared to see the Society would show up handsomely, though she herself refused to attend!

Wealthy doesn’t really begin to describe Katherine’s lifestyle. Shortly after she married gold/telegraph/financier Clarence Mackay, they hired Stanford White to design their Long Island estate. Katherine worked closely with White on the design and construction of Harbor Hill, a castle on 648 acres.

Katherine’s efforts on behalf of the local community were genuine. She donated funds to renovate the public library, and then in 1905 ran for school board. She served 5 years, the first woman ever elected.

And she sent her children to public school! As she told the newspaper: “If we wish to establish confidence in the public school system, it is necessary for the rich as well as the poor to patronize them. If we draw such caste distinctions as in the past, it is inconsistent to preach the benefits to be derived from government aid in education.”

Katherine had stepped back from active involvement with suffrage by the time her cousin Alice Duer Miller began publishing her witty suffrage column “Are Women People?” in the New York Tribune.

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That year Katherine’s life got much more complicated. She fell in love with a doctor who had treated her husband, and sought a divorce. She lost custody of her children, and was stripped of her American citizenship when she and the doctor moved to Paris. After the war they returned to New York & later divorced. Katherine’s private life was extensively covered in the papers, always in a tone viciously judgmental of her. She died of cancer in 1930 at age 51.

A footnote for all the new theater folks following tonight - Katherine’s daughter Ellin Mackay married Irving Berlin! Then her father disowned her because he was Jewish.😣 Father & daughter later reconciled, and Irving & Ellin were married 62 years. #Suffrage100 #19thAmendment 


Daily Suffragist






Daily Suffragist, “Wealthy women in the movement,” Daily Suffragist, accessed September 27, 2022, https://dailysuffragist.omeka.net/items/show/482.

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