Clara Colby: A Victory Girl of Another Era
Clara Colby: A Victory Girl of Another Era
I was really looking forward to visiting America this year, promoting my new book during the centenary of the Nineteenth Amendment, promoting the achievements of my distant cousin, the suffragist, Clara Bewick Colby.
She achieved so much in her life, during a time when women really did have some significant hurdles to overcome, compared to those which face feminists today. I was intending to spend three months travelling throughout the United States, taking part in functions which commemorated the one-hundredth anniversary of women gaining the vote. Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic had different plans so my trip was cancelled. I had spent two years working on the book after a research trip to America, spending much of my time at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison.
In the place of a personal visit to America, allow me to present a short synopsis of Clara Colby: The International Suffragist, which I hope will solicit your interest in reading the complete book.
We may never know why three-year-old Clara Dorothy Bewick was left behind in England when her parents and three brothers departed for a new life in America. Her parents Thomas and Clara Bewick were migrating to America, and the family had been talking about little else in the months leading up to their departure. They were leaving on the sailing ship Olympus from Bristol, and little Clara was in tears when she found that she could not join them.
The year was 1849, and one possible reason why Clara was left behind could be that she showed symptoms of an infectious disease. If that were the case, then the most likely suspect would be cholera, for the country experienced a cholera epidemic that year. With all the family possessions either sold or packed for shipment aboard the Olympus, there was no option but to arrange for Clara to stay with her grandparents until she was well and arrange for her to make the journey later.
Although this was a painful experience for Clara, it may have been an event that helped to shape the smart and tireless woman that she became. Raised as the beloved only grandchild in London, she had a substantial emotional and intellectual foundation by the time she arrived at the Wisconsin frontier in 1855, which sustained her through a hectic and often stressful life. The advantage she achieved helped her become the valedictorian for the first class of women to graduate from the University of Wisconsin and become a contemporary of Susan B. Anthony. After teaching at the university, she married the dashing civil war veteran, Leonard Colby. This would prove to be a rare misstep as Colby was persistently unfaithful to her, duplicitous and dishonest.
Clara was a dynamic speaker and compelling writer on women’s issues. Anthony called her the best writer in the women’s movement, a sentiment shared by Anthony’s famous colleague, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Encouraged by Anthony, Clara published the first issue of the Woman’s Tribune in 1883, a newspaper that was in continuous publication for 26 years, becoming the nation’s leading woman’s suffrage publication. She served as the President of the Nebraska Woman Suffrage Association, and she was the corresponding secretary of the Federal Suffrage Association, among her many other offices. From 1888, Clara spent the first half of each year in Washington DC, attending suffrage conferences and lobbying Congress members. She was very friendly and had many friends among influential leaders in the nation’s capital, including, for example, Caroline Harrison, the first lady of the day.
By 1890, her husband had become General Leonard Colby of the Nebraska National Guard, when his troops served at the Battle of Wounded Knee. It was here that General Colby adopted the native-American baby girl, Zintka Lanuni, found under the body of her dead mother. Colby did so without discussing the situation with Clara and then left her to bring the child up, frequently without financial support. Clara’s response was to plan to bring her husband to Washington, so she lobbied her Washington friends and succeeded in getting her husband appointed as the United States Assistant Attorney-General.
Clara was always on the move across America, supporting state suffrage and lobbying state governments, and Leonard was just as busy in his new role. She tried to maintain a stable marriage, but her husband held a different view, often engaging in clandestine affairs, amid allegations of impropriety in business and public life. Clara’s further lobbying resulted in Leonard being appointed Brigadier-General in the United States Volunteers during the Spanish American war, and Clara Colby was appointed as America’s first woman war correspondent.
Clara’s new role as a war correspondent placed her in a position which was remarkably similar to today’s coronavirus pandemic. She got as far as Camp Chickamauga Military Park in Georgia, where the United States Army was preparing to leave for Cuba. A combination of malaria, dysentery, and worst of all, typhoid fever was threatening more deaths among the forty-four thousand men than they would ever face in battle. From the ignorance of the attendants and the carelessness of the officers in charge, the hospitals became disease breeders. Infection was spreading between kitchens and hospitals located too close together, and fever patients were left open to mosquitoes, thus broadcasting the disease through the camp. While thousands of women had volunteered to nurse the soldiers, in some cases, there was only one nurse to twenty-five fever patients, making it more the shouts of the stronger ones or the ravings of the feverish to call for help from the nurses.
The report about the Second Division hospital was the most startling, as it proved that medical supplies and attendance were inadequate. Men went for days without medical attention, the tents were filthy, and sanitation wholly disregarded. The typhoid fever had so thoroughly infected the hospital that within three weeks of its opening, fifty patients died, and five of the contract nurses were down with the dreaded disease, while others had gone home to recuperate. A Red Cross nurse from Canada, a volunteer, became the first woman to lose her life in the service of this war.
The Woman’s Tribune became the publication that uncovered this story just as the Washington Post revealed the details of the Watergate scandal. The fact that every member of Congress received a copy of the Woman’s Tribune meant that Washington reacted quickly to the situation, and President McKinley sent his Secretary for War and the Surgeon-General to Chickamauga, resulting in an improvement in conditions for the soldiers.
The conflict with Spain was soon over and Clara Colby never made the trip further than Chickamauga. Leonard Colby did go on to Cuba however, although at the time he had already been released from his position with the United States Volunteers. His visit was more of a personal nature and the book reveals a secret conspiracy that Leonard had become involved in, which involved an illegal financial gain and a relationship with another woman.
Eventually, a divorce was unavoidable, and as a result, many leading suffragists shunned Clara from then on, diminishing her legacy as a suffragist. Clara made four trips to Europe, attending the International Congress of Women (Amsterdam 1908, Stockholm 1911 and Budapest 1913) and the Universal Peace Congress in London in 1908 and The Hague in 1913. She also supported the suffragette cause in England, making speaking tours of England, Ireland, and Wales.
Back home, she campaigned throughout the country on behalf of the state suffrage organizations, helping to increase the number of states that supported women’s votes. By this time, she was living in Oregon, but she continued to spend several months each year in Washington, and the last big event of that winter was the hearing on the two suffrage bills, where she appeared before the House Committee on March 27, 1916. As soon as these hearings were over, she left for Eugene, Oregon, where the climate would be more favorable. Unfortunately, her health did not improve, and the flu became pneumonia. Clara’s sister Mary, a medical doctor, drove up from her home in Palo Alto to care for her but soon decided to take her back to California to recoup. They arrived in Palo Alto on September 1, where Clara struggled to overcome her sickness. This fight for life was to be her last campaign, however, and she passed away on September 7, 1916.
The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of American women achieving the vote; after a suffrage campaign, which extended over 72 years. It took thousands of women to build the movement, which achieved ultimate success, but this is the story of one woman, whose contribution to woman suffrage is irrefutable.
Clara Colby: The International Suffragist is available everywhere. Tallai Books. Gold Coast, Australia. ISBN 9780648684800.
John Holliday, grew up in England, where he served in the Royal Air Force and later with IBM. After moving to Canada and initially continuing to work with IBM, John started the first of many businesses, mostly in the IT industry. A subsequent business opportunity resulted in a move to Australia where he continued his entrepreneurial activities.
John’s interest in writing arose when he decided to write a memoir of his business life, published under the title Toughing it Out: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur.
John had been aware of having an ancestor who was a famous missionary to China, but it was not until 2008 when he discovered that an orphanage founded by his ancestor in Jakarta in 1832 and All Saints Jakarta, the oldest English institution in Indonesia were both still functioning today. A visit to Jakarta and a commitment to build a library for the orphanage started the research into Walter Medhurst’s life that kindled a desire to write his biography. The result is Mission to China: How an Englishman Brought the West to the Orient, published by Amberley Publishing in England in September 2016, followed by a Chinese edition published by a Taiwan Publisher. It tells the story of Medhursts’s life as a missionary, adventurer, printer, writer, translator and teacher initially in Malacca, Penang and Batavia, which led to his achievements as a 19th Century pioneer to China. Medhurst was best known for translating the Bible into Chinese.
During the research into Walter Medhurst, John discovered the extraordinary life of his sister’s granddaughter, Clara Bewick. It was this discovery which led to his latest book, Clara Colby: The International Suffragist.
John lives with his wife Colleen on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, with three children and four grandchildren close by.