Christine de Pizan

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Monday, January 12, 2015

Caroline Seymour Severance, Activist and Organizer

Caroline Seymour Severance (born 12 January 1820)


Abolitionist, suffragist, social reformer and political organizer, Caroline Seymour Severance is less well known than many of the American women with whom she worked during her lifetime, women like Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony.

Caroline Severance in California,
c. 1910
Born in New York and educated in several female academies, the young Caroline Seymour was a teacher before she married Theodoric Severance in 1840.

Between 1841 and 1849, she gave birth to five children--and although we might expect her time to be fully occupied with her family, Severance later wrote that, with her marriage, "I was at once freed from the bondage to authority, dogmas and conservative ideas." Her husband may have been a banker but, she said, he was "very concerned with great movements to reform society, rather than simply bemoan its decaying state." She credits her marriage and family life with helping to shape her as a social reformer.

In their Cleveland home, the Severances welcomed abolitionists and women's rights activists: "We . . . became very active in the woman's rights movement of the time, attending our first convention in Akron in 1851. I was asked to prepare a tract for the Ohio Woman's Rights Association in 1853 arguing for equal property rights, and delivered it proudly at the state convention, in spite of the hooting and laughter from many of the disreputable sort who had infiltrated the audience."

The Severance family relocated to Boston in 1855 and to Los Angeles in 1875. In that Southern California city, she continued her dedication to political activism and social causes: she and her husband created the First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles in 1877, while Caroline herself worked to bring the kindergarten movement to Los Angeles, helped to establish the Los Angeles Women's Club, dedicated to improving the lives of homeless children, and founded the Los Angeles Public Library. She also helped develop the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, worked to found a local branch of the University of California (UCLA), promoted historic preservation, and opened an employment bureau.

Although she died before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, the indefatigable Severance lived long enough to see the state of California extend the suffrage to women in 1911, and she voted in the 1912 presidential election in California. She died in November 1914.

Ella Giles Ruddy's 1906 "appreciation" of Severance, The Mother of Clubs: Caroline M. Seymour Severance, is available for free at Google Books; to read or download, click here. California historian Virginia Elwood-Akers's 2012 full-length biography, Caroline Severance Seymour, is available at Amazon

A brief biographical note is also available at the National Women's History Museum website.

Caroline Severance's grave,
Angelus Rosedale Cemetery,
Los Angeles