The National Women's History Museum in celebration of the National Foundation of Women Legislators 70th Anniversary presents Women Wielding Power: First Female State Legislators

Massachusetts State Seal  Massachusetts

Both the suffrage and the anti-suffrage movement had early roots in Massachusetts.  Its legislature was a major stumbling block on women’s enfranchisement, but after the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution granted the vote to all women, two female legislators won elections in 1922, the first opportunity.

 

Susan Walker Fitzgerald
Susan Walker Fitzgerald
Public Officials of Massachusetts (1923), Courtesy of the State Library of Massachusetts.

Sylvia M. Donaldson
Sylvia M. Donaldson
Public Officials of Massachusetts (1923), Courtesy of the State Library of Massachusetts.

Susan Walker Fitzgerald (1871-1943)

    Susan Grimes Walker was born on May 9, 1871 in Cambridge, Massachusetts; her parents were Rear Admiral John G. Walker, U.S.N. and Rebecca White Pickering Walker.  She majored in political science at Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College, the most liberal of the elite colleges for women that were associated with New England’s Ivy League.  Its president was Dr. M. [Martha] Carey Thomas, a leader in women’s rights and close friend of Susan B. Anthony.  Following this role model, she was elected class president and founded the student government association; after her 1893 graduation, she became Thomas’ personal aide.

    In 1901, Susan Walker married Richard Y. Fitzgerald, an attorney with whom she had four children, Anne, Rebecca, Susan, and Richard.  They lived in New York City, where she worked at the Richmond Hill Settlement House.  Settlement houses helped immigrants adjust to America and almost always were run by women who donated both time and money.  They actively promoted liberal causes such as ending child labor, and Fitzgerald was appointed to the New York City Child Labor Committee. 

    Her connection to M. Carey Thomas naturally led Fitzgerald to activism in the Massachusetts Woman’s Suffrage Association, and she also was elected recording secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.  When the 19th Amendment was ratified, she was well prepared to campaign and win a legislative seat representing Jamaica Plain, a community southeast of downtown Boston.  After her legislative service, she worked to promote her alma mater, Bryn Mawr, the General Alliance of Unitarians, and other organizations. Fitzgerald died on January 20, 1943.

 

Sylvia M. Donaldson (1849-1937)

    Sylvia M. Donaldson was educated at Boston University, then a new, co-educational institution in an era when most Massachusetts colleges remained gender-segregated.  She went on to become the school principal for Brockton, a blue-collar town of immigrants in southeastern Massachusetts, and held this position until 1919.  

    Her involvement with organizations such as the Audubon Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, the National Education Association, League of Women Voters, and the Women's Civic Federation prepared Donaldson for a life of public service.   A Republican, she won the Brockton/Plymouth district -- and thus began her legislative career at age 73.

    She was re-elected in 1924, and on February 18th, 1926, her legislative colleagues honored her as Speaker of the House for a day.  Sylvia Donaldson served until 1931, retiring just six years prior to her death on June 15th, 1937, at 88.

 

 

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