Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Caroline M. Seymour Severance 1820 ~ 1914

 

By Mrs. John A. Logan

Mrs. Severance was born in Canandaigua, New York, in January, 1820. She is the daughter of Orson Seymour, a banker of that place. Her mother was Caroline M. Clarke Seymour, who must have been a devoted and wise mother to have reared a daughter of such rare genius as Mrs. Severance. January 12, 1840, Miss Seymour became the wife of Theodoric C. Severance, a banker of Cleveland, Ohio, to which place Mr. Severance took his bride and established their first home. Their five children were born there, their mother devoting her entire time to her husband and children; it was an ideal American home. Mrs. Severance, meanwhile, kept abreast with the progress of the times. Her native talent, active mind and accomplishments made her an authority on the ethics of society. In 1853 she was chosen to give a lecture before the "Mercantile Library Association," the first woman to deliver a lecture before such an association. Her topic was "Humanity; a Definition and a Plea." She made such a brilliant accomplishment that she was obliged to deliver it in many places in the state. "The Woman's Rights Association," of Ohio, prevailed upon Mrs. Severance to arrange the lecture in the form of a tract to be distributed throughout the country. Later Mrs. Severance was appointed to present to the legislature a memorial "asking suffrage and such amendments to the state laws of Ohio, as should place woman on a civil equality with man."

In 1855 Mr. and Mrs. Severance removed to Newton, Massachusetts. The women suffragists of New England were delighted to welcome so brilliant an advocate for the cause of suffrage as Mrs. Severance. She demurred at taking an active part in the work the "Woman's Rights Association" was planning to inaugurate. She preferred to render such service as she could as a member of the committee of the "Theodore Parker Fraternity Association," and to aid in securing a woman lecturer for the course. She earnestly joined her associates in requesting Mrs. Cady Stanton to deliver the course. Mrs. Stanton was, however, unable to accept the invitation of the committee. Mrs. Severance wrote to Mrs. Stanton long afterwards: "I was not able to resist the entreaties of the committee and the obligation that I felt myself under to make good your place, so far as in me lay." Hence she took upon herself the grave responsibility of giving the course of lectures the committee considered of vital importance to the cause of woman's rights. The initial lecture was the first ever delivered by a woman before a Lyceum Association in Boston. Mrs. Severance subsequently in writing to Mrs. Stanton tells of her emotions while delivering the lecture: "I will not tell you how prosy and dull I fear it was; but I know it was earnest and well-considered, and that the beaming eyes of dear Mrs. Follen and Miss Elizabeth Peabody, glowing with interest before me from below the platform of Tremont Temple, kept me in heart all through."

Mrs. Severance is a tall, dignified woman, with a handsome face, ever lighted up by her effervescing spirits. Her countenance reflects the brilliancy of her rare intelligence, quickness of thought, and purity of mind and heart. She possesses remarkable conversational powers, and is a most effective and eloquent speaker from the platform. In years gone by she has given "soul-service'' in many directions, standing as corresponding secretary for the Boston Anti-slavery Society, as one of the Board of Managers of the Boston Woman's Hospital, and delivering a course of lectures on practical ethics before Dio Lewis' school for girls, at Lexington, Mass. These lectures cover the relation of the young woman to the school, the state, the home and to her own development.

After long and prayerful thought as to how to best utilize "the truth, the goodness, the intelligence of the literary and philanthropic women of New England, and the vast benefits which she foresaw would flow from such a union," in 1868, Mrs. Severance called the sympathetic women together in parlor meetings to talk over her ideas. Their meetings resulted in "the introduction to the world of a new form of social and mental architecture." Mrs. Severance, as founder, "was elected president of the first woman's club in our country, the New England Woman's Club of Boston," and thereby became the "Mother of Clubs" and was the primal force in a movement that has become a stupendous factor in our civilization.

May 30, 1868, in Chickering Hall, the New England Woman's Club was introduced to the world. The noble women who had perfected this beneficent organization were ably assisted and encouraged on that occasion by the addresses of Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, Jacob Manning, John Weiss, O. B. Frothingham, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Bronson Alcott. The speakers for the club were : Julia Ward Howe and Mrs. E. D. Cheney, who set forth the purposes of the New England Woman's Club so eloquently and comprehensively as to win the endorsement and confidence of the whole assemblage: First, "to organize the social forces of the women of New England;" to establish "a larger home for those who love and labor for the greater human family;" to combine "recreation with the pursuit of wisdom;" to provide "the comforts of the club to the lonely, in city and suburb," and proposed useful work in a registry of women seeking the so-called higher occupations, providing rooms for women who came to Boston for concerts, operas, and lectures.

Among the achievements of the New England Woman's Club has been the establishment of a Horticultural School for women, in which the pupils erected their own greenhouses, painted the buildings, etc. It was subsequently merged into the "bussey," a department of Harvard. Caused the passage of the first school-suffrage law, which permitted women to be elected members of the Boston and other school boards. Aided by helpers, the club established the New England Hospital for women and children, which was officered and managed by women, with eminent doctors of the other sex as consulting physicians and surgeons. In co-operation with Hon. Josiah Quincy, Dr. Bowditch and others, the club joined in the incorporation of a successful Co-operation Building Association, which proved a great assistance to the poor, and furnished an object lesson to the philanthropists of the whole country. Aided by one of its members, "St. Elizabeth" Peabody, the club provided scholarships for studious young women and used its potent influence to promote higher education for women, resulting in the founding of the Girl's Latin School, of Boston.

The club began the agitation and eventually caused the appointment of women police matrons and placed women on the boards of all public institutions. Homes of detention for women they also secured.

This club also aided the fund of the Egyptian Exploration Society, joined the Archaeological Institute of Greece, and abetted the New York Society for the suppression of obscene literature and took an active part in the dress-reform movement.

The club organized classes in English literature, languages, and other higher studies. In 1876, it had classes in political economy, and in 1891 formed a "current topics" class, and secured able lecturers on Political Development, Railroad Laws, Prohibition Laws, George's "Progress and Poverty," Summer's "Obligations of the Social Class," Bryce's "American Commonwealth," Socialism of Today, Municipal Reform, Rent, The Lobby System, The Silver Question, Food Waste, Prison Reform, The Responsibility of the Employer and Employed, as well as many topics bearing upon the standing of woman and her influence in all departments of human activity. Socially, the club gave many receptions to distinguished visitors and American celebrities, among them: Monsieur Coquerel, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Faithful, Mary Carpenter, Lord and Lady Amberly, Harriet Hosmer, Anne Whitney, Professor Maria Mitchell, Dr. Parsons, the Dante scholar. Professors Pierce, Gould, and Fiske and Rev. Dr. Edward Everett Hale. Thus it will be seen that "the diversity of activities and of sympathy illustrates well the broad purpose and intent of the originators of club-life for American women."

In 1875, Mrs. Severance removed to California with no abatement in her devotion to the cause of woman's rights and the extension of woman's clubs. She was soon actively engaged in the work of organizing woman's rights associations and clubs, and has the satisfaction of seeing many flourishing societies and clubs. She traveled extensively in her early life. Wherever she went, she immediately hunted up persons of note who were interested in the dearest object of her life, woman's rights. Among her many friends in England were: Mrs. Lucas, sister of Jacob and John Bright; Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Florence Nightingale, Mrs. Somerville., Mrs. Jameson, Harriet Martineau, Mrs. Cobbe, Charlotte Robinson and many others.

The editor has had the good fortune to know Mrs. Severance and to visit her in Los Angeles, California, in her lovely home, El Nido, which is full of priceless literary treasures and souvenirs of great occasions and honors paid to her as "The Mother of Clubs." She has also been christened the "Ethical Magnet of Southern California." Many contemporary authors have contributed valuable copies of their books suitably inscribed. Arranged in a cabinet are the autographed photographs of her distinguished friends and co-workers, whom she calls her "immortals," including Mrs. Browning, George Eliot, Margaret Fuller, Lydia Maria Childs, Lucy Stone, Frances Dana Gage, Caroline H. Dall, Louisa Alcott, Celia Burleigh, Ednah D. Cheney, and Lucretia Mott. In a corresponding case, are pictures of Junipero Serra, Wendell Phillips, Longfellow, Whittier, James Freeman Clarke, William H. Channing, Lowell, Samuel Johnson, and Charles Sumner. Another rare picture is one of five generations of the Severance family in a group.

Among the most valued are the souvenirs of the celebration of the silver wedding of Mr. and Mrs. Severance, which occurred in 1865. When her literary friends and admirers journeyed from the Middle West and every part of the country to Boston, Mass., to participate in the festivities of the felicitous occasion, they brought tributes of affection in poetry and prose. Of the number, such illustrious names appear, as Isabella Beecher Hooker, Dr. and Mrs. Dio Lewis, Mattie Griffith, Albert G. Browne, Mrs. Satterlee, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ivinson (sister of Mrs. Severance), the Burrage family of Boston and a host of others. While the letters of regret bore the signatures of such immortals as George Bradburn, Harriet Minot Pitman, James Freeman Clarke and Mrs. Clarke, William Lloyd and Frank Garrison, Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. Rev. Zachos, William H. Avery, Salmon P. Chase, Theodore Tilton, Grace Greenwood, Truman Seymour, James F. Hall, George Wm. Curtis, Anna Q. T. Parsons, W. W. Story (the artist), General and Mrs. Fremont, Miss Fremont, Lieutenant Frank Fremont and George B. Grinnell.

Mrs. Severance's "Ye Geste Book" is a rare volume, containing innumerable names of those who have paid their respects to this remarkable woman. John W. Hutchinson and his wife, with a record of "fifty-eight years old, thirty-nine years singing and ten thousand concerts," made a visit to Mrs. Severance, Ludlow Patten and wife (nee Abby Hutchinson), Henry M. Field and wife, Helen Hunt Jackson, Captain R. H. Pratt, J. Wells Champney and wife, William J. Rotch, Locke Richardson, Charles Dudley Warner, George W. Cable, Elizabeth B. Custer (widow of General Custer), J. W. Chadwick and wife, John W. Hoyt and wife, Mary A. Livermore, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (written in her eighty-seventh year). Rev. William Milburn (the blind chaplain of the Senate), Mrs. A. D. T. Whitney, Edward Everett Hale, Miss Susan Hale, Charlotte Perkins Stetson, Grace Ellery Channing, Rev. J. Minot Savage, Kate Sanborn, Cordelia Kirkland, Ida Coolbrith, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Mrs. E. O. Smith, "Vivekananda," (who wrote, "From the unreal, lead me to the real from the darkness into light"), Mrs. J. S. Langrana, of Poona, India; Miss Florence Denton, of Kyoto, Japan; Jan Krigo, of Transvaal, South Africa; Henry Demarest Lloyd, who prefaced his autograph with "We can preserve the liberties we have inherited only by winning new ones to bequeath."

Rich beyond compare in experiences which make life worth the living, and the fullness of years of well-doing for all mankind, Mrs. Severance is one of the noblest types of American womanhood. Fascinated by the external youthfulness of her spirits and charming personality, one realizes that age cannot wither.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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