Florence Brooks Whitehouse
Playwright, Author, Suffragist, Artist,
Peace Activist, Wife and Mother
1869 - 1945
Florence was a remarkable woman who used her many talents to benefit her family, her community, women, and the world at large. In doing so, she challenged many societal norms regarding how women should behave and the role they should play in society.
Florence showed her independence long before she joined the woman suffrage movement. She studied art, music and languages in Boston after she graduated from high school. In 1892, when she was in her early 20s, she took an extended trip to Europe and the middle East, and spent an entire winter traveling up and down the Nile in a dahabeah.
She returned home in 1894 to marry Robert Treat Whitehouse , a young attorney she had known from childhood. Robert's father, William Penn Whitehouse (who later became Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Court) had been a suffrage supporter as early as 1874. Robert followed in his father's footsteps, helping to found and serving as the chair of the Men's Equal Suffrage Leaguge in 1914. It's unlikely Florence would have married him otherwise...
Following their marriage Florence and Robert collaborated on writing, directing, and acting in plays, among many other activities. Florence founded an author's group and joined the Rossini Club, the country’s first musical organization for amateur and professional women musicians. Though busy with small children who were born in 1895 (William Penn), 1897 (Robert Treat Jr.) and 1904 (Brooks) Florence published two novels with Little Brown & Co. (see Novels.)
Becoming a Suffragist
Around the end of 1913 Florence joined the Maine Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) after hearing a lecture by a prominent anti-suffragist ("anti"), Mrs. Morrill Hamlin. The lecture prompted her to research suffrage history and laws governing women, and before long she was hooked. Gradually her suffrage work became her primary focus because, as she later noted, "...the work I do for suffrage is fifty times more valuable to the community than ten times the work on charities or any social work would be.” She felt that charitable work did not get at the root causes of social ills; it was impossible to effect meaningful change without changing laws, and women needed the vote to do that. “When [women] do vote," she said, "they won’t be satisfied to skim the top of the pool of social corruption any longer, but they will pave it with clean cobble stones, and put a drain through it, and connect the source with the bubbling spring…Women are the conservers of the race, and men are the consumers…” Florence's suffrage activities are chronicled in the biography written by Anne B. Gass, Voting Down the Rose: Florence Brooks Whitehouse and Maine's Fight for Woman Suffrage.
Florence and husband Robert
Florence quickly rose to prominence as a suffrage organizer for MWSA, and was frequently featured in debates and on the lecture circuit. She also had a regular suffrage column in the Lewiston Journal. In 1915 she agreed to serve as the chair of the newly founded Maine branch of the National Woman's Party (NWP), a role she continued to play after suffrage was won and the NWP launched the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. The NWP had been founded by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, and became known for using radical tactics such as picketing President Woodrow Wilson and holding the political party in power accountable for failing to support a Federal suffrage amendment. The NWP and the more conservative National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) conflicted over organizing tactics, and this struggle carried through to the states as well. In Maine, MWSA was the NAWSA affiliate, and its leaders bitterly opposed Florence's NWP activities, which included picketing President Wilson at a speech he delivered in Chicago, and organizing Wyoming women to vote against Wilson in his 1916 re-election campaign on the grounds that "he kept us out of suffrage!".
When MWSA removed her from any leadership position, in December 1916 Florence's friends secretly formed the Equal Suffrage Referendum League and appointed Florence the chair, then infomred her of what they had done. She accepted this position, as it allowed her to play a leading role in organizing support for the 1917 suffrage referendum, which MWSA would not have allowed her to do. She continued her suffrage organizing even after the US entered WW I, despite working nearly full time for the Portland Red Cross. She initially served as its Public Relations Coordinator and later as Chair of its Information Bureau. While Florence was opposed to war, her two older sons had both enlisted, Penn to fly dirigibles and "Bobbo" as a bomber pilot, and she was eager to do what she could to bring the war to a rapid conclusion. Due in part to the war which diverted time and money away from the suffrage referendum campaign, and in part to voter backlash against the NWP pickets in DC, the referendum was defeated by a two to one margin. After that Florence did all her suffrage organizing under the NWP, remaining estranged from her former colleagues in MWSA who included Katherine Reed Balentine, Helen Bates, and Anne Gannett.
Despite continuing opposition from local newspapers and some politicial leaders, Florence continued to speak out on behalf of the NWP activists, who by this time were suffering arrest and long jail sentences for picketing the President outside the White House gates. From 1918-1919 she played a key role in lobbying Maine's US Senator Frederick Hale to vote in favor of the federal suffrage amendment (this was ultimately unsuccesful.) When Congress finally passed the federal amendment she led the effort have the Maine legislature ratify it, which included heading off a last-ditch effort by the antis to prevent ratification.
"...I have no quarrel with you- but henceforth,
This you must know; the world is mine, as yours,
The pulsing strength and passion and heart of it;
The work I set my hand to, women’s work,
Because I set my hand to it."
Florence Brooks Whitehouse, 1917
After the Suffrage Victory, A Focus on Peace
After the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution giving women voting rights was ratified in 1920, Florence continued her community activism, chairing the Home Directorate for the Maine Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture. She advocated publicly for the proposed League of Nations and chaired Maine’s branch of the Women’s Committee on World Disarmament. In later years she joined the National Council on Prevention of War, chaired the Government and International Cooperation Committee of the Maine League of Women Voters, served as the state Chairman of Government and International Cooperation for the Maine Federation of Churches, and represented the State Peace Commission on the World Unity Council. For a time she also did weekly radio broadcasts on WGAN on the topics of peace and disarmament.
Robert died in 1924, following a long illness. Florence was devastated. He had been a true soul mate; they had connected on a deep emotional level and he had steadfastly supported all of her activities in a way that few wives of that period could expect from their husbands. This excerpt from her poem "The Great Adventure" captures her grief.
...The “Great Adventure"! All the lure uncharted seas
Hold to the sailor, all sails set were ours.
And then the greatest of them all you said
That last adventure—Death
But on it you fare forth alone dear heart
And I bereft kneel sobbing in the dark.
In her grief Florence found solace in her community work, and in the pastimes she had enjoyed when she was younger. In addition to her work as a peace activist Florence taught Sunday School at the State Street Church in Portland. She also returned to painting. She was inviteed to join the Haylofters, a group of amateur and professional artists who worked out of a loft near Portland's West End. Finally, she enjoyed visiting with her grandchildren. She died in 1945.
Throughout her lifetime Florence’s allegiances were varied and complex, demanding her leadership on a number of different levels. As a married woman with children she had a responsibility to her family’s health and welfare that she took seriously and refused to sacrifice for her other causes. When her children needed her, as when Brooks contracted polio and required operations as part of his recovery, they were her first priority. During WW I she turned from suffrage for long periods in order to devote herself to Red Cross work because she perceived that her community had the greatest need of her skills. Workers in every cause she dedicated herself to recognized her many strengths and elevated her to high-ranking positions. She juggled her many causes so that each received her best effort when her influence was most needed and she could be most effective. Throughout, she remained true to the vision she recited to the Maine Judiciary Committee in 1917: “…the world is mine, as yours/The pulsing strength and passion and heart of it;/ The work I set my hands to, women’s work,/ Because I set my hand to it.”
Florence was inducted into the Maine Women's Hall of Fame in 2008, in recognition of her conribution to women's social and political rights.