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by Audrey Partington
Life-long Sandy Spring resident Rusty Thomas Suter owns a book with a handwritten dedication to her great-grandmother, Mary Bentley Thomas, from women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony.
On Sept. 12, Suter, along with her niece, Gail Thomas DeRose, and great-niece, Alex Fennington, unveiled a marker at Sandy Spring Museum that honors their ancestor and her fellow Quaker neighbor, Caroline Hallowell Miller, for their roles in securing voting rights for women.
In 1889, Miller organized her friends and neighbors in Sandy Spring to form what would become the Maryland Woman’s Suffrage Association. The group sent delegates to national suffrage conventions.
Miller served as the group’s president until 1894, when Thomas succeeded her. Thomas was also involved in the suffrage movement on the national level, and spoke in both the U.S. House and Senate in favor of enfranchising women through a federal amendment.
The Thomas, Miller, Bentley and Hallowell families are related through multiple generations of marriage. Many descendants still live in the local area.
“You can bet that any Thomas within 50 miles of here was related to my wife, Beth,” said Lorne Garrettson, who attended the event.
Beth Miller, who passed away last November, was related to Caroline Miller through her great-grandfather, a brother of Caroline’s father Benjamin Hallowell (founder of the University of Maryland).
“I believe Beth was also related to Mary Bentley Thomas through the Bentley family,” Garrettson said.
Thomas was the granddaughter of Caleb Bentley, the first postmaster of Brookeville, who sheltered President James Madison at his home when the White House and the U.S. Capitol were burned by the British in 1814.
Sandy Spring Museum sits on land donated by the Bentley family at 17901 Bentley Road.
“We recognized that the museum is the beneficiary of land once owned by native Americans and on a former plantation where Black people were enslaved,” said Allison Weiss, director of Sandy Spring Museum.
The keynote speech by historian Jean Thompson highlighted the often-overlooked contributions of Maryland’s African American women to the suffrage movement.
“Black women were active from the earliest days of the fight,” said Thompson.
According to Thompson, African Americans were among the 150 women and men who petitioned the Maryland General Assembly in 1870 for women’s suffrage. Many were from a segregated section of West Baltimore.
That year, African American men won the right to vote under the 15th amendment. But work continued to enforce that right and to achieve the same rights for women.
Lavinia Dundore formed the Maryland Equal Rights Society, the state’s earliest women’s suffrage club, which was uncharacteristically integrated.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper attended national suffrage events, alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Augusta T. Chissell and Margaret Gregory Hawkins were active in a number of clubs that addressed the need to enfranchise black women. They included the Progressive Women’s Suffrage Club and the DuBois Circle (which continues to meet today).
“Their work did not end in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment,” said Thompson, who explained that their focus shifted to voter education. “They developed ‘A Primer for Women Voters’ that ran in the Baltimore Afro-American.”
“They persisted so that you and I and our granddaughters can enjoy the fruits of freedom,” said Thompson.
County Executive Marc Elrich attended the event and issued a proclamation establishing Sept. 12, 2021, “Women’s Suffrage Marker Day.” The proclamation recognizes the contributions that Montgomery County women like Thomas and Miller made to the suffrage movement.
“We’ve arrived where we are today because of these suffragists,” said Elrich. “But there’s work still to be done to make sure that women are guaranteed the same constitutional rights as men,” he said, citing the struggle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.
“We must keep moving the wheel forward.”
The event was sponsored jointly by the Maryland Women’s History Center, the National Votes for Women Trail, the National Collaborative of Women’s History Sites, the William G. Pomeroy Foundation and the Montgomery County Commission for Women.
About the marker
The marker placed at Sandy Spring Museum is one of 10 in the state that have been placed on the National Votes for Women Trail during the centennial celebration of the passage of the 19th Amendment.
The marker was awarded by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, a private grant-making foundation based in Syracuse, N.Y., through its National Women’s Suffrage Marker Grant Program. The Maryland Women’s Heritage Center facilitated the grant application process, in partnership with the National Collaborative of Women’s History sites.
The marker reads: “Votes for Women: Caroline Hallowell Miller and Mary Bentley Thomas led Sandy Spring and Maryland campaigns for women’s right to vote from 1883-1915.”
Historic documents tell the tale
The event to unveil the historic suffrage marker concluded with a display of archival resources housed and preserved in Sandy Spring Museum.
Many of the documents have been digitized and can be accessed on the Digital Maryland website at https://collections.digitalmaryland.org/.
Most notable are:
The charter of 1889 establishing the Maryland Woman Suffrage Association, with 13 signatures, including that of Caroline Hallowell Miller and her son, George B. Miller.
A book containing the constitution and bylaws of the Maryland Woman Suffrage Association, including handwritten meeting minutes from 1889 to 1903.
The Treasurer’s book for the Maryland Woman Suffrage Association, 1905-1912, which shows membership increasing beyond Montgomery County to other parts of the state.
A scrapbook compiled by Mary Bentley Thomas, which contains two letters from Susan B. Anthony. One letter is about a petition calling for the constitutional amendment and the other discusses logistics for an upcoming suffrage convention.
A handwritten letter from Anna H. Shaw, vice-president of the American Woman Suffrage Association, to Mary Bentley Thomas, dated January 26, 1900, discussing the upcoming national suffrage convention in Washington, D.C. After expressing some hesitancy, she agrees to Thomas’ request to speak, which attests to the high regard held for Thomas within the woman’s suffrage movement.
“When thinking of the woman’s suffrage movement, most conjure up visions of a singular struggle, culminating victoriously in the 19th amendment,” said Lydia Frazer, collections manager at Sandy Spring Museum, and project manager for the museum’s Archives Digitization Project. “The marvelous revelation in these documents is of a much more multifaceted movement of political and moral reform under the umbrella of woman’s suffrage.”
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