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Frances Slaven Williamson

At a glance:

Born: 1842
Died: December 21, 1919 
Maiden name: Slaven 
Race/nationality/ethnic background: Caucasian 
Married: John R. Williamson 
Children: six (three sons, three daughters) 
Primary city and county of residence and work: Austin (Lander), Reno (Washoe)
Major fields of work: education (teacher), journalism, politics (women's rights)
Other role identities: wife, mother, author

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Biography: Frances Slaven Williamson

Mention the words "equal suffrage" to most students of Nevada history and the name of Anne Martin is usually mentioned. What most people are unaware of is that before Anne Martin became famous for her work in helping Nevada women win the right to vote, Frances A. Williamson, a woman from Austin who lived through far too much personal tragedy, had long been active throughout the state working as a leader for equal suffrage. By learning about the trying life and dedicated work of Frances Williamson, students of history will develop a deeper understanding of the harsh realities of living in Nevada in the late 1800's and be inspired by the commitment and zeal of this early Nevada activist.

Frances Slaven was born in Canada in 1842. The first twenty-one years of her life are somewhat a mystery. One thing certain is that she was an educated woman. She authored at least one book, The Age of Sham, and had sufficient schooling to become a teacher. In 1863 Miss Slaven moved to Austin to teach at the school there. By 1865 she had taken on the role of school principal as well as teacher.

Slaven met John R. Williamson, her husband-to-be, in Austin where he was a prominent member of Austin society. They were wed on June 28, 1868. Frances gave birth to six children, was both teacher and principal of the school in Austin, and was active in the community. Mr. Williamson was superintendent of schools, ran his mercantile business, and was active in state politics.

By the mid-1870s life drastically changed for Frances and her husband. She suffered immense personal tragedies; four of their children died from a variety of diseases in 1876 and 1877. In addition, their eldest son, John R. Williamson, Jr., died in Carson City in 1891 where his father now represented Lander county in the State Senate. Despite the sorrow of her five children's deaths, Frances Williamson remained active and expanded on what was to become her life's work. She continued to teach, became an author, displayed a collection of her own books at the 1893 World's Fair. She also remained active in Austin society and was an aide to the Fourth of July Parade Marshal. 

While Frances fared well through her tragedies, her husband did not. Becoming depressed, he "for some weeks went completely out of his mind" and suffered a mild form of insanity and gave no reason he would injure himself." While in this state of mind, he shot and killed himself on Saturday, April 28, 1894. 

Her husband's suicide proved to be the impetus that drove Frances Williamson to become one of the early leaders of the suffrage movement in Nevada. Two months after Senator Williamson's death, Frances put the mercantile store up for sale. On November 30, 1894, Frances, Mrs. Lund and Mrs. Weller organized a meeting on equal suffrage at the Austin courthouse. Approximately 125 people, both men and women, attended the meeting during which Williamson spoke about the organization and of the careers of some women activists such as Lucy Stone, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Susan B. Anthony. By the meeting's end Frances, who had been acting as temporary chair, had been elected corresponding secretary of the newly-formed Lucy Stone Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage League. It is easy to imagine Frances widowed and with only one child living, being able to throw herself into the role of corresponding secretary, spending most of her time writing and organizing meetings throughout the state. Although women had worked for equal suffrage with other organizations, such as the Nevada Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Lucy Stone group was Nevada's first specific equal suffrage organization. 

The Lucy Stone Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage League's name is long, but with good reason. The League was formed "expressly to secure the political enfranchisement of the women in the state of Nevada and to study the duties of citizenship." Also, prior to 1894, "equal suffrage had been endorsed in platforms of the Progressive, Socialist, and Democratic Parties of Nevada, and was supported by many leading Republicans. The (equal suffrage) campaign was absolutely non-partisan and was advanced as a work of justice and good government." Williamson and the other activists of the time had the support of the political parties and, by being nonpartisan, their cause could without offense cross party lines and gain wide support. 

In less than one year after the suicide of her husband, Frances had made herself known throughout the state. She had many lengthy, articulate and persuasive letters on equal suffrage published in a number of newspapers. (Click here to see a partial text of her letter of Dec. 13, 1894 to the Reno Evening Gazette) Many editors and readers were supportive to her cause, many were not. Those in opposition to equal suffrage did not state that women could not handle the responsibilities of governing, but that women should not be dragged down to the level of political work because they were ".....too good to wade in the slums of politics as men do..."

By late April 1895, one year after Williamson's husband's suicide, the suffrage league had passed into oblivion. It had experienced great success in its year of existence. Diligent lobbying of legislators and heartfelt debate by many concerned individuals had led to passage of a suffrage resolution in the Nevada Assembly and Senate in February, 1895. 

Around this time arrangements were being made to bring Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw, President and Vice-President, respectively, of the National Woman Suffrage Association, to Reno. The two women were on their way to California and took the opportunity to meet with Nevadans on May 17, 1895. The meeting, held at McKissick's Opera House, was well-attended. Both speakers urged those present to unite into a single statewide organization. Williamson spoke at the meeting and also took part in the Women's Board of Congress of the Atlanta Exposition in October of that year. These two meetings set the stage for a state women's suffrage convention. 

The first State Equal Suffrage Association convention was held in Reno, October 29 and 30, 1895. It was held in October because that was "state fair" month and the railroads usually offered lower fares, thereby insuring a large attendance. During the convention it was proposed and adopted that the state organization should be called the State Equal Suffrage Association, an adjunct to the National Equal Suffrage Association. Frances was elected the first president of the new organization. The majority of her work consisted of chairing the Legislative Work Committee and canvassing the state for support. She visited every town accessible by stage or rail in the state. With her help, many local suffrage organizations were established. It is hard for us to imagine what it must have been like to travel and lecture across Nevada in the late nineteenth century. 

For the next two years Frances continued to travel the state, attended a National Equal Suffrage Association convention in Washington DC, and appeared before the US Senate committee that was considering an equal suffrage amendment. She presided over the second convention of the State Equal suffrage Association in Reno in September of 1896. By 1897 Frances and her daughter, Mary Laura (sometimes called "Mamie"), lived in Reno. 

In spite of major efforts by Frances and her suffragist colleagues, the suffrage resolution did not pass the Nevada Legislature in the 1897 Session.

While in Reno, Williamson and her daughter began publishing a pro-suffrage newspaper, "The Nevada Citizen", whose self-proclaimed mission was to "promote the advancement of women in the ethics of civil government, ordained in the Declaration of Independence and established in the constitution of the United States of America." Frances was editor-in-chief and Mamie was the associate editor. Exact publishing dates are unclear, but there is evidence it was published through early August, 1898. It proved to be a great resource to Nevada's suffrage movement. The paper was sent to suffrage organizations through the state, and it must have provided Nevada activists with a certain sense of pride from having a newspaper of "their own."

On October 30, 1897, the State Equal Suffrage Association held its third convention, this time in Carson City. Over 300 delegates were present and again, Frances addressed the assembly. However, soon after the convention, Frances and her daughter left Nevada. 

Frances went to Washington DC to work in the Women's Press Bureau. Mary Laura accompanied her mother and enrolled in Washington Law College in January of 1899. They moved again, to San Francisco, in June of 1899. Shortly thereafter, they decided to build a home in Oakland. Mary Laura enrolled in Heald's Business College while the house was under construction. Moving into the new home in January , 1900, their joy was short-lived. Mary died of uremic poisoning and kidney failure. She is buried in Austin, along with the rest of the family. 

After her daughter's death, Frances was still active in the suffrage movement. She attended the California State Equal Suffrage Association convention in San Francisco, December 14 and 15, 1900, as president of a local branch of the Alameda County Association. Mrs. Williamson endured more loss than anyone should have to, yet she set an example for political commitment and activism that has hardly been rivaled. Although her work is not as well-known as that of Anne Martin or Hannah Clapp, it showed a level of commitment and achievement every bit as important as theirs.

As a final twist of irony, Frances Williamson died at her Oakland home on December 21, 1919, the same year the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. She was buried in Austin on New Year's Day, 1920.

Biographical sketch by Sally Wilkins from unpublished research by Fred Steinle

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Published works:

Williamson, Frances, The Age of Sham (date unknown) 

The Nevada Citizen. pro-suffrage newspaper published by Frances Williamson, 1897.

Sources of Information:

Anthony, Susan B. and Ida Husted Harper. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. IV, New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Cerveri, Doris. Nevada Historical Miscellany, Sparks, NV:Nevada Press Women. Western Printing and Publishing Co. 1976.

Earl, Phillip. "The Story of the Woman Suffrage Movement in Northeastern Nevada, 1869-1914,," Northeastern Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, vol.6 #4, 1976.

Mack, S.E. History of the Suffrage Movement in Nevada, 1900-1920, unpublished manuscript. Reno: University of Nevada, Reno, Special Collections.

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