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May Wright Sewall (1844-1920)

Location: Northwest corner of Veterans Memorial Plaza at the corner of Meridian and North Streets, Indianapolis (Marion County, Indiana) 46204

Installed 2019 Indiana Historical Bureau, Indiana University Office of the Bicentennial, and the Indiana War Memorials Commission

ID#: 49.2019.2

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May Wright Sewall (1844-1920)

Side One

After moving to Indianapolis in 1874, Sewall gained renown as an educator, proponent of the arts, and women’s suffrage leader. She co-founded many institutions and civic clubs to promote equality for women, including the Indianapolis Propylaeum, located nearby from 1891-1923. During WWI, it served as a center for Red Cross drives and military service members’ recreation.

Side Two

Sewall promoted women’s suffrage through her lectures, writings, and organizational leadership. She helped establish the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society in 1878 and the International Council of Women in 1888. In later years, she advocated for international peace. Sewall died one month before ratification of the 19th Amendment, which secured women’s suffrage.

Annotated Text

Side One 

After moving to Indianapolis in 1874[1], Sewall gained renown as an educator[2], proponent of the arts[3], and leader in the women’s suffrage movement[4]. She co-founded many institutions and civic clubs to promote equal opportunities for women, including the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society, Girls’ Classical School, and Indianapolis Propylaeum, located nearby from 1891-1923.[5] 

Side Two:

Sewall promoted women’s suffrage through her lectures and writings.[6] She expanded awareness of the cause by helping establish the International Council of Women and served as its president, 1899-1904.[7] She devoted her later years to international peace advocacy.[8] Sewall died one month before the 19th Amendment, which secured women’s suffrage, was ratified.[9] 

 

[1] Ray E. Boomhower, But I Do Clamor: May Wright Sewall, A Life 1844-1920, Zionsville: Guild Press of Indiana, 2001, 17-18; “Woman Suffragists,” Leavenworth [Kansas] Times, May 9, 1879, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Born May Wright in Wisconsin in 1844, she moved to Indiana to take a teaching position in Franklin in 1871. She and her first husband, Edwin Thompson, then moved to Indianapolis in 1874 to accept positions at Indianapolis High School (later named Shortridge High School). At Indianapolis High School, she taught German and English.

[2] Ray E. Boomhower, But I Do Clamor: May Wright Sewall, A Life 1844-1920, Zionsville: Guild Press of Indiana, 2001, 17-18; May Wright Sewall, A Report on the Position of Women in Industry and Education in the State of Indiana, [n.p.]: Carlon & Hollenbeck, 1885, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com.proxy.ulib.uits.iu.edu/tinyurl/8zgRq2; May Wright Sewall, “Higher Education for Women in the United States,” in Report of the International Council of Women, Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association, March 25-April 1, 1888, 51-68, https://archive.org/details/ofinternatreport00interich/page/50; May Wright Sewall, “Development of the International Spirit Thru Education,” in National Education Association of the United States, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses of the Fifty-third Annual Meeting and International Congress on Education, Ann Arbor: National Education Association Secretary’s Office, 1915, 244-246; “Schools, D.A.R., Library Division Served By Edifice Lately Effaced,” Marion County Mail, November 28, 1963, accessed Indianapolis Public Library; “The School Board,” Indianapolis Journal, June 5, 1880, 7, accessed NewspaperArchive.com.

Sewall got her start in teaching at a young age. Before she was twenty, she was teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in Wisconsin. After earning her mistress of science degree at Northwestern Female College, Sewall taught at various schools and was principal at the high school in Plainwell, Michigan. In Indiana, she taught at the high school in Franklin, then at Indianapolis High School for six years. Upon her resignation from Indianapolis High School in 1880, the school board issued the following statement:

Resolved, that the board accepts with regret, at her own request, the resignation of Mrs. May Wright Thompson, who for many years has been one of the most worthy teachers in the High School. Her constant and untiring efforts to elevate the standard of education in our city entitle her not only to our appreciation, but that of the community generally….

Later that year, she married her second husband, Theodore L. Sewall.

In 1882, the Sewalls together founded the Indianapolis Classical School for Girls. Often referred to simply as the Girls’ Classical School, the Sewalls developed the school’s curriculum around university entrance requirements, like those at Harvard. At the Girls’ Classical School, Sewall was ahead of her time in urging students to ditch corsets and adopt blouses that allowed more freedom of movement. Believing that physical education was important for girls as well as boys, the Sewalls had a gymnasium in their school for the girls’ physical training. Sewall published reports about education and women in education for the National Education Association, the International Council of Women, and more throughout her life.

[3] Art Association of Indianapolis, Indiana: A Record 1883-1906, (Indianapolis: Hollenbeck Press, 1906), accessed Indiana State Library; Eva Draegert, “The Fine Arts in Indianapolis, 1880-1890,” Indiana Magazine of History vol. L, no. 4, December 1954, p. 325, 334.

Sewall was a founding member of the Indianapolis Art Association in 1883—in fact, sources say the Association was her idea. She was the Association’s first Recording Secretary. When the Association opened an art school the following year, Sewall was part of a committee tasked with the school’s business management. However, the school was short-lived and closed after two years due to a lack of resources. Sewall was the second president of the Art Association, serving from 1893-1898. She presided over the Association during a transformative period in its history, when Indianapolis businessman John Herron died in 1895 and left the bulk of his fortune to the Art Association. Two and a half years of litigation and struggle ensued over Herron’s will between Herron’s relatives and the Association. In March, 1899, Sewall and three men made up a committee within the Association which created a plan for the use of the Herron funds.

In 1900, Sewall was integral in choosing a site for the “Art Building,” which would become the new headquarters for the Association. She recommended the Association purchase the Tinker/Talbott property at 16th and Pennsylvania (today, the location of Herron High School). The John Herron Art Institute opened on March 2, 1902 at the Tinker/Talbott property, furthering the Association’s mission to maintain an art school after the first attempt failed in 1886. On Saturday, September 23, 1905, Sewall lifted the first spade that broke ground for the new Art Association building. In the 1906-1907 year, Sewall served on several Art Association committees. She was chairman of the Special Publication Committee and sat on the Fine Arts and Membership Committees. See the T.C. Steele marker for more information about the Art Association, Herron School of Art and Design, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art (Newfields).

[4] Judith E. Harper, “Sewall, May Eliza Wright (1844-1920),” in Women’s Rights in the United States: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Issues, Events, and People, Volume 2: Suffrage and a New Wave of Women’s Activism (1870-1950), Tiffany K. Wayne, editor, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2015; Jane Stephens, “May Wright Sewall: An Indiana Reformer,” Indiana Magazine of History vol. LXXVIII, no. 4, December 1982, p. 273-295; Hester Anne Hale, May Wright Sewall: Avowed Feminist, Indiana Historical Society, collection BV 2638, 1992, chapter 12; Bertha Demaris Knobe, “Mrs. May Wright Sewall: ‘Leader of 5,000,000 Women,’” Harper’s Bazaar, June 2, 1900, accessed Indiana State Library Clippings File; May Wright Sewall, editor, The World’s Congress of Representative Women: A Historical Resume for Popular Circulation of the World’s Congress of Representative Women, Convened in Chicago on May 15, and Adjourned on May 22, 1893, Under the Auspices of the Woman’s Branch of the World’s Congress Auxiliary, Chicago: Rand, McNally, and Company, 1894; Hester Anne Hale, “Sewall, May (Mary Eliza) Wright,” in The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, edited by David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 1253.

Throughout her life, Sewall was dedicated to advocating for women’s suffrage. Shortly after arriving in Indianapolis, she was a founding member of the Indianapolis Women’s Club. A few years later in 1878, she was part of a group of women that founded the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society. Soon after its creation, the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society selected Sewall as its representative to the thirtieth anniversary convention of the Seneca Falls meeting in 1848. This convention, hosted by the National Woman Suffrage Association, was Sewall’s “first speech on women’s suffrage to a national audience.” According to historian Jane Stephens, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass who were in attendance at the convention, all “congratulated Sewall” on her impressive speech, “and from this date she maintained a lasting friendship with all three” (p. 286-287). Sewall’s attendance at the 1878 convention and the speech she gave there launched her renown as a suffragist on the national level.

In 1880, when Sewall was secretary of the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society, the Society and the American Woman Suffrage Association Indiana auxiliary began a push for women’s suffrage in the Indiana General Assembly. Though there was significant support among state legislators for amending the state constitution to secure women’s suffrage, and such a bill passed in 1881, the state constitution demanded that the following session of the general assembly must also vote to submit the bill. This meant that Indiana suffragists had two more years of campaigning ahead of them. Hester Anne Hale argues that during this time, Sewall played a lead role in talking with legislators and corralling public support. However, despite her efforts and those of the equal suffrage organizations in the state, the bill failed when it came up again in 1883-- likely due to the influence of the liquor lobby which saw women’s suffrage as tied to prohibition, and thus a threat to their industry. Sewall remained busy with suffrage advocacy after the defeat at the state level, and turned her attention to the suffrage question nationally. From 1882 to 1890 she was chair of the executive committee of the National Woman Suffrage Association.

Sewall spent the 1890s organizing women’s councils nationally and internationally. One example of such organizing efforts is Sewall’s work as chairman of the committee responsible for planning the World’s Congress of Representative Women at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the quinquennial meeting of the International Council of Women also took place. She also was president of National Council of Women, from 1891-1895, and from 1897-1899.

After being elected president of the International Council of Women in 1899, a Harper’s Bazaar piece described Sewall as a “leader of 5,000,000 women.” She held the office of president of the ICW until 1904. Sewall’s work on behalf of women was recognized by U.S. President William McKinley, when in 1900 he appointed her to represent American women at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.

[5] Wayne Guthrie, “Clubs Monument to May Sewall,” Indianapolis News, January 6, 1967, accessed Indiana State Library Clippings File; “Propylaeum Board Decides to Seek New Home When Plaza Takes Property,” Indianapolis Star, December 17, 1922, p. 20, accessed Newspapers.com; “New Home of the Propylaeum,” Indianapolis News, April 21, 1923, p. 4, accessed Newspapers.com; R. L. Polk & Co.’s Indianapolis City Directory for 1922, Indianapolis: R. L. Polk & Co., 1922, p. 1232, accessed archive.org; R. L. Polk & Co.’s Indianapolis City Directory for 1924, Indianapolis: R. L. Polk & Co., 1924, p. 894, accessed archive.org.

According to an Indianapolis News article, Sewall helped form more than fifty women’s clubs—from the local to the international level. The Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society was founded in 1878. For more information about the Indianapolis Propylaeum, which is integral to Sewall’s local impact and was incorporated in 1882, see the Indianapolis Propylaeum state historical marker, installed in 2009, at https://www.in.gov/history/markers/IndyProp.htm.

The Propylaeum was originally located on the south side of E. North Street between Meridian and Pennsylvania Streets. In mid-1922, the city initiated condemnation proceedings on the Propylaeum property in order to acquire it for the war memorial plaza, to honor veterans of World War I. The block where the Propylaeum was originally located became known as the Veterans Memorial Plaza. By April in 1923, the Propylaeum association purchased a new building, the Schaf mansion on the corner of 14th and Delaware Streets, where the Propylaeum remains located today.  

[6] May Wright Sewall, “Woman’s Work,” Indianapolis Times, October 29, 1881, 6, accessed Indiana State Library; May Wright Sewall, editor, The World’s Congress of Representative Women: A Historical Resume for Popular Circulation of the World’s Congress of Representative Women, Convened in Chicago on May 15, and Adjourned on May 22, 1893, Under the Auspices of the Woman’s Branch of the World’s Congress Auxiliary, Chicago: Rand, McNally, and Company, 1894; Sewall, May Wright, Women, World War and Permanent Peace. San Francisco: J. J. Newbegin, 1915; May Wright Sewall, “The Education of Woman in the Western States,” in Woman’s Work in America, edited by Annie Nathan Meyer, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1891; “Mrs. May Wright Sewall,” Woman’s Exponent [Salt Lake City, Utah], September 1, 1895, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; “Church Notices: Unitarian,” [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star, March 2, 1895, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

Beginning in 1881, Sewall had a weekly column printed in the Indianapolis Times titled “Woman’s Work.” In the opening column, Sewall named four demands of women: (1) “opportunity for complete education,” by which she means education equal to men, (2) “freedom to use this education in any avocation to which they may be called, (3) “equal pay for equal work,” and (4) “the ballot.” Over the course of her column’s four year run, she wrote weekly on updates about activism within the women’s movement, frequently covering women’s council and association meetings.

As a chapter contributor, Sewall wrote on women’s higher education in the western states for an edited collection titled Woman’s Work in America (1891). In this chapter, Sewall outlined the connection from education access for women to “growth of … cordial recognition of equality” between men and women (p. 82). Further, she argued that “Only the presence of women in these places [of higher education] can relieve the young men who are students in these institutions from an arrogant sense of superiority arising from their sex, and the young women from a corresponding sense of subordination,” (p. 87). For an educator like Sewall, education was an obvious path to equality, and thus suffrage.

Sewall also regularly published reports from council meetings she attended or spoke at. For example, Sewall edited a printed volume of the proceedings of the May 1893 World’s Congress of Representative Women, for which she was chairman. Women, World War, and Permanent Peace was published in 1915. This book was a report on the July 1914 Panama International Exposition, where a special International Conference of Women Workers was held and which Sewall was asked to organize.

Along with her written support of suffrage, Sewall often gave lectures on the subject. In 1895, the Woman’s Exponent in Utah reported on Sewall’s time spent in Arizona that summer, which she spent giving lectures and organizing women’s clubs. In addition to lecturing in the Girls’ Classical School, at the Propylaeum, and at council meetings across the country and in Europe, Sewall also gave lectures to church congregations, like she did in March 1895 while in Washington, D.C.

[7]  Ray E. Boomhower, But I Do Clamor: May Wright Sewall, A Life 1844-1920, Zionsville: Guild Press of Indiana, 2001, 98-100; Judith E. Harper, “Sewall, May Eliza Wright (1844-1920),” in Women’s Rights in the United States: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Issues, Events, and People, Volume 2: Suffrage and a New Wave of Women’s Activism (1870-1950), Tiffany K. Wayne, editor, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2015; May Wright Sewall, editor, The World’s Congress of Representative Women: A Historical Resume for Popular Circulation of the World’s Congress of Representative Women, Convened in Chicago on May 15, and Adjourned on May 22, 1893, Under the Auspices of the Woman’s Branch of the World’s Congress Auxiliary, Chicago: Rand, McNally, and Company, 1894; May Wright Sewall, International Council of Women: Report of Transactions During the Third Quinquennial Term Terminating With the Third Quinquennial Meeting Held in Berlin, June 1904, Boston: [n.p.], 1909.

Susan B. Anthony recognized Sewall’s talent for organizing and Anthony selected Sewall to co-coordinate the inaugural meeting of the International Council of Women in Washington, D.C. The call issued in 1887 stated that the International Council of Women was being convened to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Seneca Falls convention. May Wright Sewall’s name is appended to the end of this 1887 call for the creation of the International Council of Women along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and four other organizers, as at the time Sewall was chairman of the executive committee of the National Woman Suffrage Association.

In March 1888, women from ten countries assembled for a week at the first International Council of Women meeting to discuss a wide range of topics: education, philanthropy, temperance, industry, community organizing, legal and political conditions, social purity, and religion. The women in attendance represented fifty-one separate organizations. Sewall also organized the second meeting of the ICW in 1893, held at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. 

From 1899 to 1904, Sewall was president of the International Council of Women. Her term was marked by fundraising issues, and yet the Council’s membership and reach expanded under her administration. Part of Sewall’s success in this regard was her belief that the ICW should have representatives at each international exposition (also called a world’s fair, world expo, universal exposition) to organize women and spread the ideals of internationalism. The last quinquennial meeting under Sewall’s leadership was held in Berlin in 1904.

[8] Sewall, May Wright, Women, World War and Permanent Peace. San Francisco: J. J. Newbegin, 1915.; Jane Stephens, “May Wright Sewall: An Indiana Reformer,” Indiana Magazine of History vol. LXXVIII, no. 4, December 1982, p. 290; May Wright Sewall, “Letter from Mrs. May Wright Sewall,” in The Advocate of Peace, 72(1910): 65-66, https://archive.org/details/jstor-20665912/page/n1; Jane Stephens, “May Wright Sewall: An Indiana Reformer,” Indiana Magazine of History vol. LXXVIII, no. 4, December 1982, p. 292-293.

By about 1900, Sewall had devoted herself to the peace movement. In July 1915, Sewall acted as chairperson of the International Conference of Women Workers to Promote Permanent Peace. She believed that permanent international peace would only come about with “cooperative internationalism.” The resolutions published in Women, World War, and Permanent Peace make clear the connection of women’s suffrage to the peace movement; resolution eight states that “This Conference urges women to be permitted to share political rights and responsibilities both nationally and internationally” as a means of promoting permanent international peace (p. 165).

Later that year in November 1915, Sewall accepted an invitation to join Henry Ford’s Peace Expedition. The Expedition, which was comprised of an unofficial group of delegates, journeyed to Europe to promote peace and arbitration during World War I. Ford’s goal was “to get the boys out of the trenches by Christmas,” but this did not occur, and the Expedition was largely panned as a failure.

[9] May Wright Sewall Death Certificate, 1920, accessed Ancestry.com; “Official Suffrage Proclamation,” [Muncie] Star Press, August 27, 1920, 8, accessed Newspapers.com; “Legislature Passes Suffrage Resolution,” Bloomington Daily Student, January 17, 1920, 3, accessed NewspaperArchive.com; Jane Stephens, “May Wright Sewall: An Indiana Reformer,” Indiana Magazine of History vol. LXXVIII, no. 4, December 1982, p. 293-294; Ray E. Boomhower, But I Do Clamor: May Wright Sewall, A Life 1844-1920, Zionsville: Guild Press of Indiana, 2001, 142.; The Indianapolis Propylaeum, “May Wright Sewall Leadership Award,” https://www.thepropylaeum.org/may-wright-sewall-award; May Wright Sewall, “Indiana’s Part Prominent in Woman Suffrage Fight,” Indianapolis News, January 24, 1920, p. 16.

Sewall passed away on July 20, 1920, a month prior to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. However, she did live to see Indiana ratify the Amendment on January 16, 1920. She wrote for the Indianapolis News in late January 1920, briefly covering the role of Hoosier women in the suffrage struggle. She closed out her short missive that with regards to Indiana passing the Nineteenth Amendment, legislators “of recent years have added to the credit of the state. Women especially will hold them in grateful appreciation and remembrance.”

In May 1920, Sewall’s book Neither Dead Nor Sleeping was published by the Indianapolis publisher Bobbs-Merrill Company. This book contained Sewall’s account of her experiences with spiritualism—a history of her communications with the dead going back twenty-five years. Sewall chose to keep these experiences secret from the public, keenly aware that knowledge of them would harm her reputation as a rational, strong-willed advocate for equality. These predictions were correct, and in 1946 an Indianapolis Times reporter wrote that “Nothing rocked the foundations of Indianapolis quite as much as the appearance of Neither Dead Nor Sleeping,” (Stephens, p. 293-294). 

In 1923, a pair of bronze lampposts, the Sewall Memorial Torches, were dedicated in Sewall’s memory. They were installed at the Herron Art Institute along 16th Street, where Herron High School is today. In 2005, the Propylaeum instituted a May Wright Sewall Leadership Award, given annually to a Hoosier woman for outstanding civic engagement.