(This is a corrected version, September 10, 2018)
Jennie Nita Angell was born in 1872 in Bay City, Michigan. After graduating from Cornell University, she moved to Louisville to take a teaching job at the Hampton School for Girls on Walnut Street.
In Louisville, the young teacher lived in the same boarding house as Herbert W. Mengel, a member of one of the city’s most successful families. Members of the Mengel family had emigrated from Gera, then in the Kingdom of Saxony and now in Germany, in the 1840s, and had at first lived in Massachusetts. In 1877 two brothers, Charles and Clarence Mengel, moved to Louisville and founded a factory that at first manufactured wooden boxes and beer barrels. In 1890 their younger brother Herbert joined the firm. By 1900 the C.C. Mengel and Bro. Company had taken advantage of the nearby hardwood forests and Louisville’s extensive railroad network to create a lumber business that employed over six hundred people at its ten-acre Louisville plant. The company eventually owned property in several American cities, Central America, and Africa, and acquired a fleet of ships to move products within this commercial empire.
Jennie and Herbert became engaged, and the romantic adventures of this eligible bachelor and his fiancée fascinated the local press. In May of 1897, Jennie Angell suddenly received a message from Bay City that her brother was ill, and set out to visit him. Herbert Mengel knew that she had another suitor in Bay City and, fearing that this rival might persuade her to reconsider her engagement, insisted on getting married hastily before she left. “The local four hundred,” reported the Louisville Courier-Journal breathlessly, “are now busy discussing…what might have happened had not the Louisville man taken time by the forelock.” The couple had four children—Herbert, Elizabeth, and twins, Frances and Jane. Frances died at the age of two in 1912.
Jennie Mengel did not give up her professional interests when she married, but continued them as a member of several civic organizations. In 1906, she reported to the Louisville Woman’s Club that she had visited many of Kentucky’s rural schools and discovered an “appalling” level of illiteracy. In an editorial in the Courier Journal, she declared in 1909 that education was the most vital issue facing the state and nation. She drew on the philosophy of John Dewey, the most influential pedagogue of the era, to insist that the public school must “train the heart and hand as well as the head. It must train for avocation, for life, for citizenship.”
Mengel probably first supported woman suffrage as a means to improve education—an area that many contemporaries assumed was of particular interest to women. Along with other members of the Louisville Woman’s Club and many other civic associations, she organized a state-wide campaign for “school suffrage,” the right of literate Kentucky women to vote in school board elections. Neither she nor her co-workers objected to the discriminatory impact of this measure on African American women, who were far less likely to be literate than their white fellow citizens. After the passage of this law in 1912, she and others urged qualified women to vote.
Mengel was also president for a time of the local branch of the National College Equal Suffrage League, an organization founded in 1900 in order to attract educated young women to the suffrage cause. A meeting at Louisville’s Seelbach Hotel in 1911 featured a prestigious panel of speakers: M. Carey Thomas, the president of Bryn Mawr College; Jane Addams, a much-admired Chicago social reformer; and Anna Howard Shaw, the head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
At the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), held in Louisville in 1911, Mengel called for suffrage rights for all American women. “We are ready for a real baptism in the militant spirit,” she declared. “The stimulus derived from this meeting will take us far.” The “militant spirit” was in fact limited, for the NAWSA Resolutions Committee had tabled a request from the New York NAACP activist Martha Gruening for an expression of solidarity with African Americans who also fought for voting rights.
In 1915, Mengel became the president of the Louisville Woman Suffrage Association (LWSA), the local branch of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA). Until then, the LWSA had grown very slowly, but the addition of 1138 new members in 1915 raised the total membership to 4000, and the numbers continued to grow. Increasing support for woman suffrage was not only a local, but also a national trend. Women won the right to vote in Washington state in 1910, and in California in 1911. These victories revitalized the NAWSA, which now refocused its efforts on what was called the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment”—a constitutional amendment that guaranteed voting rights regardless of sex. Meanwhile the culture of the Progressive Era, as the years between about 1890 and the 1920s were called, encouraged young, educated women to take an active role in social reform. Like many such reformers, Jennie Mengel hoped that women, once they had the right to vote, would work together not only to raise the status of women but to purify politics and provide education and services to poor and vulnerable citizens.
Under Mengel’s leadership, the LWSA gained visibility and membership. Suffragists found new ways to publicize their cause. They staffed booths at the Kentucky State Fair and at community events; held rallies; sent delegates to march in suffrage parades; appointed a Committee on Information to educate the public; and established permanent headquarters on Fourth Street. Louisvillians gained a prominent position in the Kentucky Equal Rights Association by serving as officers and by hosting state-wide conventions. A controversy among Kentuckians pitted the veteran suffrage crusader Laura Clay and her allies, who insisted that suffrage was a state rather than a federal issue, against others who supported the constitutional amendment. Louisville suffragists such as Mengel, whose education and far-flung business interests probably encouraged a national rather than local perspective, played an important role in persuading the KERA, over Clay’s objections, to place increasing emphasis on federal action.
When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, Mengel encouraged her fellow suffragists to assist the war effort in many ways, for example by planting gardens on lawns and vacant properties to increase the food supply. The sinking of two of the Mengel company’s ships by German submarines probably intensified her commitment to the war. In wartime she did not halt her work for woman suffrage, which in her view was an integral part of the struggle to defend democracy, abroad and at home. Strongly supporting the NAWSA’s policy of non-partisanship, however, she condemned the tactics of the National Woman’s Party, which sent members to picket the White House in protest against President Woodrow Wilson’s hesitation in supporting the constitutional amendment.
In 1919, Mengel was once again President of the LWSA, and spearheaded a final lobbying effort to gain ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment by the Kentucky State legislature. On January 6, 1920, Kentucky became the twenty-third state to ratify the Amendment. When Tennessee ratified in August of 1920, Mengel declared herself delighted that a Southern state had completed the ratification process. “Civilization is still in the fight against that quadruple alliance—ignorance, disease, vice and crime,” she commented, “and women have always helped to fight these enemies.”
After winning the right to vote, some former suffragists devoted themselves to educating women voters by founding a new organization, the League of Women Voters (LWV). Mengel became president of the Louisville branch of the LWV in 1921. She also continued her education by earning a M.A. degree in history from the University of Louisville in 1925, at the age of fifty-three, and went on to teach history and to work as the University’s Adviser to Women (a position similar to that of Dean of Women at other universities).
Jennie Angell Mengel died in a car crash in 1934. Many of her descendants still live in Louisville.
Prepared by Ann Taylor Allen, Professor Emerita, University of Louisville
“Took no Chances: Herbert Mengel’s Diplomacy,” May 21, 1897.
“Makes Education The Paramount Issue of the Hour: Louisville Woman’s Club Uses the Courier-Journal to Promote Interest in Bettering School System of State.” January 27, 1909.
“Woman’s Suffrage Report of 4,000 Membership,” October 16, 1915.
“State Suffrage Meeting Delegates Are Named,” November 5, 1916.
“Clubs To Raise $5,000 For War Garden Work,” April 30, 1918.
“Kentucky Women Plan Campaign For Ratification of Amendment,” June 6, 1919.
“Club Women Here Elated At Suffrage Ratification,” August 19, 1920.
“Ballot To Be New Incentive, Says Mrs. Herbert Mengel,” September 5, 1920.
“1920 Victory Year,” December 26, 1920.
“Mrs. Mengel, Hurt in Crash, Expires,” December 11, 1934.
David C. Bettez, Kentucky and the Great War: World War I on the Home Front (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2016).
Susan Dessel, “Martha Gruening: Brick in a Soft Hat,” http://dangerouswomenproject.org/2016/10/24/martha-gruening/
Carol Guethlein, “Women in Louisville: Moving Toward Equal Rights,” The Filson Club History Quarterly, 55, no. 2 (April, 1981): 151-178
John C. Kleber, Mary Jean Kinsman, Thomas D. Clark, and George E. Yater, eds. Encyclopedia of Louisville (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001).
Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African-American Women and the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1998).
Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).