A Suffragist Dynasty: Susan Look Avery (1817-1915); Lydia Avery Coonley Ward (1845-1924); Helen Avery Robinson (1855-1943); Kate Shindler Jewett Avery (1856-1926)

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SUSAN HOWES LOOK AVERY (1817-1915)

Susan Howes Look was born in 1817 in Conway, Massachusetts, the first of the six children of Samuel and Polly Loommis Look. Early in Susan’s life, the family moved to western New York State and staked out a farm, where they lived a pioneer life, spinning and weaving their own cloth and making their own butter and cheese.  The Looks eventually settled in Manheim, Herkimer County.  Raised as a Baptist, Susan may well have responded favorably to this denomination’s decentralized structure, which allowed congregations a large degree of independence. She may have heard women preachers.  During her formative years, moreover, she took part in a wave of religious revivals in western New York, then known as the “Burned Over District.”  At these meetings women broke the silence that most conventional Protestant churches prescribed for them and spoke out “as the spirit moved them” about their experiences of divine inspiration and conversion.

Susan Look attended local elementary schools and Utica Female Seminary, one of the earliest secondary schools for girls. When she graduated, she stayed on at the school as a teacher for a few years. In 1843 she met Benjamin Franklin Avery, whom she married in 1844. Born in Aurora, New York, in 1801, Benjamin Avery studied law but, disliking legal practice, went into business by opening a foundry, which soon developed into a plow factory.

Looking for new opportunities, the couple moved in 1848 to Louisville, where Benjamin opened the Avery Plow Works. The factory, which produced plows that were suitable to southern soils, was highly successful.  In Louisville they raised a family of six children: Lydia was born in 1845, Samuel in 1846, Gertrude in 1849, George in 1852, Helen in 1855, and William in 1858. Both Susan and Benjamin Avery were fervent abolitionists and supported the Union in the American Civil War. Benjamin placed his factory at the service of the Union army as a hospital, and Susan volunteered as a nurse. After the war, the factory, now renamed B.F. Avery and Sons, expanded to become the largest enterprise of its kind in the world. The Averys moved into a luxurious mansion at Fourth Street and Broadway in Louisville and spent the summers at Hillside, their summer estate in Wyoming, New York.

Until she was sixty-eight years old, Susan Avery devoted herself to her large family. After the death of her husband in 1885, however, she changed course and moved into the public sphere as a social reformer—a role in which her prominent social position added to her effectiveness.  

Among all the causes she supported, Susan Avery gave priority to women’s rights. In response to the founding of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association in 1888, she called together the first meeting of its Louisville branch, the Louisville Equal Rights Association (LERA), in 1889. In that year the Association, which met in the Avery home on Fourth and Broadway, had fourteen members. According to organization’s constitution, its main purpose was to “advance the industrial, educational, and legal rights of women and to obtain the franchise for them.” After the visits of Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt to Louisville in 1895 had stirred up enthusiasm, the membership had increased to thirty-two..  The organization developed into the Louisville Woman Suffrage Association. During the first decade of its existence, it met only sporadically, but then gained momentum; by 1916 its membership had increased to about 6500.

In 1890, Susan Avery founded the Louisville Woman’s Club, and it too held its first meetings in her home.  “We recall vividly the large, bright room,” wrote Patty Blackburn Semple, a leading member of the club, in 1923. “There is an impression of ample light and space.” The Woman’s Club was part of a national movement that produced similar initiatives in many American cities. The clubs recruited chiefly middle-class women to work for civic improvement in many areas: education, the fine arts, charitable provision for vulnerable members of society, and women’s rights. 

The Equal Rights Association and the Louisville Woman’s Club, which were federated and had overlapping memberships. joined in a campaign to improve the status of women in Louisville and Kentucky.  In 1891 they successfully petitioned the mayor and City Council of Louisville to provide police stations with matrons, whose duties included protecting women prisoners. Another petition to the city government requested seats for shop girls, who often stayed on their feet for long hours. In the state capital, Frankfort, the Louisville women joined members of KERA in sponsoring bills that gave married women the right to control their property, make wills, and gain custody of their children after their husbands’ death.  In 1894, the governor signed the Married Women’s Property Act, which guaranteed some of these rights.  

As a prominent figure not only in the local but also in the national suffrage movement, Susan Avery was named an Honorary Vice President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1889. In the next year she invited Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Anna Howard Shaw, Alice Stone Blackwell, and other leaders of the to spend some leisure time at Hillside after a conference in nearby Rochester, New York.

Susan Avery grew more radical with age and spoke out on the most controversial issues of her time.  Among these was racial integration. Since the 1890s African American women throughout the nation had founded their own clubs, which pursued much the same ends as their white counterparts. In 1900, when Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, an African American intellectual who had founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, attended the national convention of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), the organization’s Executive Committee refused to recognize Ruffin’s credentials because she represented an African American club. Most southern members of the GFWC supported the separation of white and “colored” women’s clubs. Susan Avery, however, who was a former abolitionist, urged clubwomen to break down racial barriers. “Since the position of white women in the General Federation and elsewhere is assured, and cannot be compromised by the admission of colored women,” she wrote in the January 1902 issue of the GFWC journal, The Club Woman, “our only question would seem to be, Can we be helpful to them?...In what lies the essence of character? Is it in the physical organism, is it the color of the skin, or in the spirit, the soul which animates the whole being?”

Susan Avery also took principled stands against capital punishment, for bi-metallism (the use of silver as well as gold as a basis for currency, an important principle of the Populist Party), for the popular election of senators, for free trade and on numerous other issues.  She insisted, however, that woman suffrage was the key to all forms of social progress.  “If there is one thing I believe more implicitly than another, it is that we can never hope for better or purer government until women have the ballot,” she wrote in the Women’s Tribune, the journal of the NAWSA, in 1905.

Until her death in 1915, at the age of ninety-eight, she remained a passionate suffragist and an indefatigable worker.  “She believed in work,” stated her obituary in the Louisville Courier-Journal, “her favorite aphorism being: ‘It is bad for the ignorant and vicious to do ill, but it is worse for the educated and honest to do nothing.’”

 

LYDIA AVERY COONLEY WARD (1845-1924)

Lydia Arms Avery, born in 1845 in Lynchburg, Virginia, was the first of the six children of Susan and Benjamin Franklin Avery. She grew up in Louisville, where her parents moved when she was five years old. She married John Clark Coonley in 1867. Coonley, who was born in Cayuga County New York and was an iron manufacturer, in some ways resembled Lydia’s father.  The young couple lived first in St. Louis, Missouri, and later, when Coonley relocated his company, moved to Chicago. The couple had six children. John Clark Coonley died in 1882.

Lydia Avery Coonley, now a widow, joined the Chicago Woman’s Club sometime in the 1880s. The club had been founded in 1876 and was among the oldest, largest, and most active in the country.  To name only a few examples, its members helped to create and finance kindergartens in public schools; to support female candidates for the school board; and to improve the care of female patients in insane asylums. They set up an employment agency for women and initiated one of the nation’s first birth control campaigns, carried on by the Illinois Birth Control League. In 1894 the Chicago Woman’s Club founded the Chicago Political Equality League to work for woman suffrage, which Illinois women gained in 1913. Lydia Coonley was a prominent member of the Chicago Woman’s Club. She represented it at the International Women’s Congress in Washington in 1888 and served as its president in the year 1896-1897. In 1901 she urged the Woman’s Club to take a stand on world peace and organized a conference entitled “A Plea for Action to Promote Peace.”

Although Lydia Coonley probably derived her interest in women’s rights from her mother, Susan Look Avery, the mother may also have followed the daughter’s example. Lydia embarked on civic work earlier than her mother, and joined an already well established club.  When Susan Avery founded the Louisville Woman’s Club in 1890, she probably looked to the much larger Chicago organization for ideas, and Chicago social reformers such as Jane Addams and Julia Lathrop made several trips to Louisville to support the local suffrage and social reform movements.  Susan Avery’s opposition to racial separation in the woman’s club movement, an unusual stance for a southern activist, may have been influenced by the Chicago club’s decision, after much controversy, to remove racial barriers to entry. The first African American member was Fannie Barrier Williams, admitted in 1895.

In 1897, Lydia Avery Coonley marred Henry Augustus Ward. He was a geologist and naturalist who had taught at the University of Rochester, where he had assembled the world’s largest collection of meteorites.  After Ward’s death in 1906, Lydia sold the collection to various universities and museums.

In addition to her civic activities, Lydia Avery Coonley Ward wrote prose and poetry and patronized the arts. She published a volume entitled Under the Pines and Other Verses in 1895, and some of her verse also appeared in suffragist newspapers. An example was a tribute published by the Women’s Tribune in 1900 to Susan B. Anthony, whom Lydia had known personally.  The poem praised a pioneer generation of activists who had laid the foundations for what the poet optimistically anticipated would be a “women’s century.”

Mott. Stanton, Stone, and Anthony, what names
To bear aloft for pure nobility,
The while each voice with gratitude proclaims,
"They gave to us our women's century."

Lydia Avery Coonley Ward died in Chicago in 1924.

 

HELEN AVERY ROBINSON (1855-1943)

Helen Blasdell Avery, born in 1855 in Louisville, was the fifth child and third daughter of Susan Look Avery and Benjamin Franklin Avery.  Helen Avery attended the Kentucky Home School and Vassar College. In 1871 she married Charles Bonnycastle Robinson, who was born in Louisville in 1853 to William Meade Robinson and Ann Bonnycastle Robinson. He attended local public and private schools and the Shattuck School, an Episcopal boarding school for boys in Faribault, Minnesota. C. Bonnycastle Robinson, as he was usually known, entered the cotton business and rose to become president of the Robinson-Hughes Company in Louisville.

The couple had five children, four of whom were alive in 1910. When first married they lived with Helen’s parents, the Averys, but later moved to Anchorage, Kentucky, where they owned an estate called Bonnycot.

Helen Avery Robinson (Mrs. C. Bonnycastle Robinson) appeared with her mother, Susan Look Avery, and her sister-in-law, Kate S. Avery, on the list of members of the Louisville Equal Rights Association in 1895.  The family continued to play an active, even a dominant role in Louisville women’s civic activities.  The Equal Rights Association, to be sure, met only occasionally during the first years of its existence. Many of its members, however, found ample scope for their energies in a variety of civic organizations. In these women’s view, civic activities furthered the suffrage movement by showcasing the power of women to reform society—a power that they hoped would be multiplied when women gained the right to vote.

After a lecture by the Chicago social reformer Florence Kelley, Helen Avery Robinson hosted the first meeting of the Kentucky branch of the Consumers’ League at her home.  Kelley had founded this national organization in order to use the power of women as consumers to put pressure on manufacturers to improve the pay and working conditions of their employees, especially women and children. Members committed themselves to buy only items that carried a label that indicated that the manufacturer had met the League’s standards.  A slide show presented by the social reformer Eleanor Tarrant brought the viewer into a typical sweat shop and showed “how dirty, dark, and hopeless-looking these places are.”

Helen Avery Robinson was an active member of the Louisville Woman’s Club and in 1907-1908 served as its president.  When she left the position in 1908, she announced that the club now had 328 members. The club’s work during the preceding year had included cultural activities such as concerts, art exhibits, and public lectures.  The club had also supported the founding of two new community organizations. Inspired by a visiting speaker on the juvenile court system, the Legal Aid and Protective Committee (later called the Legal Aid Society) assisted people who had problems with the courts or police and could not afford a lawyer. The Red Cross Committee supported the creation of a branch of the National Red Cross Association in Kentucky. In addition, members promised to support the University of Louisville, which had recently reorganized its Liberal Arts Department: “the Woman’s Club wishes to stand strongly for an institution so greatly needed in our city.”

Helen Avery Robinson continued for some years as president of the executive board of the Legal Aid and Protective Committee. In about 1917, the Robinsons sold their house in Anchorage and moved to New York City. Charles Bonnycastle Robinson died in 1928; Helen Avery Robinson died in 1943.

 

KATE SHINDLER JEWETT AVERY (1856-1926)

In 1895, Kate S. Avery (Mrs. George C. Avery) appeared with her mother-in-law, Susan Look Avery, and her sister-in-law, Helen Avery Robinson, on the list of members of the Louisville Equal Rights Association. Kate S. Avery was born in 1856 in Moravia, New York, as Kate Shindler Jewett, the daughter of James Shindler Jewett, a prosperous farmer, and Juliette Barmore Jewett. In 1891, she married George Capwell Avery, the fourth child and second son of Susan Look Avery and Benjamin Franklin Avery.  George C. Avery graduated from M.I.T., entered the family business, B.F. Avery and Sons, in 1873, and in 1892 succeeded his brother as president of the company.  The couple had one child, Juliette, born in 1893.

Kate S. Avery became a well-known figure on the state and local volunteer scene. She owed her success as an activist partly to her social position as a member of one of the city’s most prominent families, but probably also to her talents as an administrator and public speaker.    In 1902, she was elected president of the Kentucky State Federation of Women’s Clubs, thus gaining statewide visibility.  She identified school suffrage (the right of literate women to vote in school-board elections) and restrictions on child labor as the priorities of the State Federation. The announcement of the election results in the Louisville Courier-Journal was accompanied by a large and flattering photograph.  A caption identified the new president as “one of Kentucky’s best-known women…an able parliamentarian and a fluent speaker.  On other subjects and on women’s affairs, there is no better read person in Louisville than Mrs. Avery.”

Kate S. Avery became president of the Women’s Emergency Association of Louisville in 1904. This group, which included 4,000 members representing all areas of women’s work—literary, philanthropic, artistic, church-related—provided many kinds of relief in times of local or national emergency. For example, the group provided relief for Louisville flood victims in 1907.  Other emergencies that the Association identified were social crises, such as the deplorable state of local politics and the ill effects of drunkenness. Improved education and restrictions on the sale of alcohol, therefore, were among the Association’s goals.

In the same year, 1904, Kate S. Avery was elected president of the Louisville Woman’s Club, and the Courier-Journal hailed her as “one of the most prominent clubwomen in the state.”  Once again elected president of the Louisville Woman’s Club in 1908, she succeeded her mother-in-law, Helen Avery Robinson.

Kate S. Avery continued active in a variety of philanthropic endeavors, including the Associated Charities of Louisville, of which she was became the director in 1916. During the First World War, she threw herself into patriotic work as the Chairwoman of the Women’s Division of the Council of National Defense.  She sold Liberty Bonds, organized dances for enlisted men at nearby Camp Zachary Taylor, and urged her fellow citizens to salute the flag.

After the war, Kate S. Avery seems to have retired from public activities. George Avery died in 1916, and Kate S. Avery died in 1926.

*** Sources ***

Susan Look Avery

Ancestry.com; Susan Howe Look, Benjamin Franklin Avery, Susan Look Avery

Avery, Susan Look. Letter to The Woman’s Tribune 15, vol. 17 (1900): 53.

Avery, Susan Look. “The Open Arena.” The Club Woman (January, 1902): 148.

Avery, Susan Look. “Susan Look Avery’s Creed.” The Woman’s Tribune 6, no. 22 (1905): 23.

Kirk, Jane. Susan Look Avery: A Nineteenth-Century Reformer. Historical Wyoming 24, no. 3 (January, 1978): 57-64.

The Kentucky Equal Rights Association and Kentucky Federation of Woman’s Clubs. The Woman Suffrage Association of Louisville, 1910.  Brochure, Filson Historical Society, Louisville.

Louisville Courier- Journal: Oct. 17, 1889; May 16, 1889; Dec. 9, 1891; July 5, 1895; March 3, 1905; Oct. 26, 1911; Oct. 8, 1914; Feb. 3, 1915.

“List of Members April 1st, 1895,” in “Minutes: Louisville Woman Suffrage Association, 1890-1915.” Handwritten manuscript, Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky.

Lydia Avery Coonley Ward

Ancestry,com: Lydia Arms Avery, Lydia Avery Coonley, Lydia Avery Coonley Ward, John C. Coonley, Augustus Ward

Browne, Waldo, and Lydia Avery Coonley Ward. Chronicle of an American Home: Hillside (Wyoming, N.Y.) and its Family: 1858-1928. New York: private printer, 1930.

Wikipedia. “Lydia Avery Coonley,” “Augustus Ward,”

Frank, Henriette Greenbaum, and Amalie Hofer Jerome, Annals Of the Chicago Woman’s Club for the First Forty Years of its Organization, 1876-1916. Chicago: Chicago Woman’s Club, 1916.

Ward, Lydia Avery Coonley. Under the Pines: and Other Verses. Chicago: W.W. Donelly and Sons, 1895.

Ward, Lydia Avery Coonley. “Some Timely Suggestions.” The Club Woman (October, 1900): 5-7.

Ward, Lydia Avery Coonley. “Susan B. Anthony—Love’s Rosary.” The Woman’s Standard 1, no. 13 (1900): 4.

Ward, Lydia Avery Coonley. “Individuality in Dress.” The Club Woman (September, 1900), 200.

Helen Avery Robinson

Ancestry.com: “Helen Blasdell Avery”, “Helen Avery Robinson”, “Charles Bonnycastle Robinson”, “William Meade Robinson”, “Ann Mason Robinson”

U.S. School Catalogs, 1765-1935: “Helen Blasdell Avery”

“List of Members April 1st, 1895,” in “Minutes: Louisville Woman Suffrage Association, 1890-1915.” Handwritten manuscript, Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky.

Louisville Courier- Journal: May 28, 1901; Feb. 3, 1908;  May 23, 1908; Nov. 16, 1909; April 10. 1910; April 19, 1912; June 1, 1913; May 30, 1915.

Kate Shindler Jewett Avery

Ancestry.com: “Kate S. Avery”, “Kate Shindler Jewett”, “James Shindler Jewett”, “George C. Avery”, “Juliette Avery”

“List of Members April 1st, 1895,” in “Minutes: Louisville Woman Suffrage Association, 1890-1915.” Handwritten manuscript, Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky.

Louisville Courier-Journal: Feb. 9, 1902; March 3, 1904; Jan. 22, 1907;  March 19, 1908; May 18, 1908; Feb. 27, 1918.


This biosketch was prepared by Ann Taylor Allen, Professor Emerita of History, University of Louisville, for the Kentucky Woman Suffrage Project.