This biographical sketch first appeared on the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States and appears here by courtesy of the publisher, Alexander Street.
By Jacalyn Kalin, teacher (retired), Montgomery College, Maryland
Elizabeth Bruce Gwynn was born in February 1875 in Baltimore, Maryland to Henry, a civil engineer, and Virginia (nee Riddick) Gwynn. Reared in Baltimore, she grew up with four brothers in a home where both her parents had graduated from college–her father from William and Mary, her mother from Wesleyan Female College with high honors.
The Gwynn family was well-known and respected members of Baltimore society. As an adult, Elizabeth’s name appeared periodically in the society news in The Baltimore Sun, including as a member of a boating party, and as a vacationer in Ocean City, Maryland, and Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Both parents supported the Confederate States of America and their obituaries highlighted their achievements in the cause. Elizabeth’s father took part in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg during the Civil War; her mother led Confederate soldiers through woods to escape danger and carried mail to the Confederate army. A reward for her capture was offered. In her mother’s obituary, it was also stated that Virginia Gwynn became “particularly interested in the suffrage movement and was an advocate of the cause, as well as the single tax.” Elizabeth would advocate for both causes in her life.
Elizabeth spent her lifetime as an artist. In the 1900 census, her occupation was recorded as artist; later on in 1910 she was listed as her own employer. She was an art member of the Charcoal Club of Baltimore, and then studied at the Art Students League in New York City. In 1907, she focused on portrait painting in a course there. She was listed under the Artist Category in the Baltimore City Directory in 1906; twenty years later Elizabeth was involved with art goods as recorded in the Directory.
Besides her art career, Elizabeth focused on the societal issues of suffrage, charity, and single tax reform. She often expressed her viewpoints to the editor of The Baltimore Sun. Her letters demonstrated a knowledgeable and well-educated person. She encouraged the reading of Longfellow’s Psalm of Life and two books by reformer Henry George, a proponent of financing government with a single property tax on the value of unimproved land. She quoted Byron in How to Abolish Poverty, and in other letters she mentioned the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. She wrote lines from poems, and made references to Biblical teachings. All her correspondence demonstrated a determined woman who fiercely expressed her informed opinions.
Elizabeth embraced the fight for woman suffrage. In 1916, she held the annual meeting of the Woman Suffrage Party of Maryland on her lawn. But her strong advocacy for Maryland suffrage was demonstrated in her numerous letters on the topic to The Baltimore Sun. Appearing in the “People’s Choice” column of the newspaper, she wrote about suffrage from 1913 to 1917. Forthright and direct in her writings, her headlines included Be Suffragettes and Redeem the World from Slavery, Sin and Sorrow, and The Ballot for Woman, Says This Lady, Leads Back to the Home, Striking Down Within and Without Many Monsters of Ancient Lineage and Savage Mien.
She chastised anti-suffragists, suggesting in 1916 that they “don’t stab your sisters in the dark.” She urged them to stop howling and to do a little thinking instead. “It does the mind good to think sometimes, it’s not well to allow a fungus growth on the reason.” She encouraged the anti-suffragists to “take the train of progress and don’t be a weed by the roadside.”
The view that woman should be limited to a narrow home life especially irked Elizabeth. She responded to a letter signed “Mere Man” who had stated “the one real way to appeal to man is through the home . . . a home which he guided and guarded.” She encouraged Mere Man to “study individuals and learn something of their yearnings and struggles.” We must “build society and advance, and venture forth, to save our brothers and sisters,” she wrote. In another letter, she responded to a Cardinal who said “the woman’s place is at home.” She unleashed intense questions: “Is it a home where a woman is at the mercy of a drunken brute? Is it a home where the male representative is an ‘impossible being.’” To better these conditions, don’t stand back she urged. Protect a woman by letting “her have a say in those things that jeopardize” her. Elizabeth saw the right to vote as a liberty and justice issue.
The theme of justice appeared in her other letters to The Baltimore Sun, especially in regards to charity. She often tied it to mercy and Christianity. “By religion we are simply called to a life of justice and mercy,” she wrote in One Who Fears Society Will Never Reform in February 1916.
Elizabeth offered suggestions as to how to be our brothers’ keepers and uplift humanity. Get “into wireless communication with the heart.” Read and digest Henry George’s doctrine of a single tax which addressed the root of poverty. It was necessary to study the causes of poverty and fight if necessary, she wrote.
She participated actively in The Woman’s Single Tax Club of Maryland. At its organizational meeting in March 1915, Elizabeth was elected to the board of governors. In July she hosted the club, and her home and lawn were decorated with Japanese lanterns. She became president of the Lend An Ear Club, an organization formed for the study of civic and social problems. At a meeting held in her studio in 1924, single tax was the club’s topic.
The last date unearthed for Elizabeth was a 1926 listing in the Baltimore City Directory. Her future activities and her death record could not be found.
In regards to the 19th amendment to the Constitution, Maryland rejected the amendment on March 26, 1920. Twenty-one years later, on May 29, 1941, the General Assembly of Maryland ratified it.
U.S. Bureau of the Census: 1900, 1910, and 1920. Ancestry.com
Harper, Ida Husted, et al., eds. History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. VI. New York: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922
The Baltimore Sun:
A “Mere Man” Tells Miss Gwynn That The One Real Way To Appeal To His Sex Is Through The Home And That The “Uplift” Of The Modern Feminine Means Man’s Debasement And Woman’s Injury.” August 11, 1914, p.6.
“Be Suffragettes And Redeem The World From Slavery, Sin And Sorrow.” October 13, 1914, p.6.
“Confederate Heroine Dead.” May 4, 1915, p.6.
“How To Abolish Poverty.” April 25, 1915, p. 6
“Miss Elizabeth Bruce Gwynn.” December 29, 1907, p.7.
“Miss Gwynn Reasons Gently With “Mere Man” And Tells Him How She Would Elevate The Home.” August 18, 1914, p.6.
“On A Sailing Party.” August 19, 1903, p.6.
“One Who Fears Society Will Never Reform.” February 10, 1916, p.6.
“Religion Must Walk Hand In Hand With Justice.” August 6, 1916, p.8.
“She Gives The Editor A Dose Of His Own Medicine.” January 13, 1918, p.8.
“Single Tax Is Club’s Topic.” July 18, 1924, p. 6
“Single Tax Women Meet” July 7, 1915, p. 6
“Take The Train Of Progress.” August 8, 1919, p.6-“The Ballot For Woman, Says This Lady, Leads Back To The Home, Striking Down Within And Without Many Monsters Of Ancient Lineage And Savage Mien.” January 14, 1913, p.6.
“The Suffrage Agitation Comes From The Germ Of Liberty.” April 10, 1913, p.8.
“The Woman’s Place.” May 15, 1913, p. 6.
“This Advocate Of The Cause Advises Anti-Suffragists, Queens And Clinging Vines To Stay At Home And Not Mingle With The Agitators At Annapolis.” February 25, 1914, p.6.
“Women Single Taxers Organize.” March 25, 1915, p.6.