Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Edith Clark Cowles

Edith Clark Cowles (27 August 1874–8 December 1954), woman suffrage activist, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and was the daughter of Robert Clark and Estelle Goodman Clark. During her youth the family moved between Virginia, Mississippi, and Alabama before settling about 1894 in Richmond, Virginia. There she completed a course at the Richmond Training School for Kindergartners. On 21 October 1903 she married Julius Deming Cowles, a Connecticut native who studied law at Yale University. They had one daughter, and lived in Brooklyn, New York, where he worked in business and she taught kindergarten. After suffering losses in the national financial panic of 1907, her husband for a short time was the superintendent of a fruit plantation in Cuba, although it is unlikely that she accompanied him. He soon returned to New York and later moved to Hollywood, where as Jules Cowles he enjoyed a long and successful movie career. The 1940 census listed him as divorced, but it is unclear whether they ever officially divorced. He died in Los Angeles on 22 May 1943.

Edith Clark Cowles, as she was generally known, regularly visited her family in Richmond and in the spring of 1909 may have attended a meeting with other socially prominent women at the home of author Ellen Glasgow to discuss woman suffrage. In November the Richmond women founded the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, with Lila Hardaway Meade Valentine as president. About 1914 Cowles moved back to Richmond and joined the fight for woman suffrage. The women did not consider themselves radicals or feminists but believed that a democratic society should allow women the basic right to the ballot. The nonpartisan organization at first promoted education on the subject and attempted without success to persuade the General Assembly to propose an amendment to the state constitution granting women the vote. After 1916 the league followed the National American Woman Suffrage Association's policy and focused its efforts on securing passage of a federal suffrage amendment. From 1916 to 1920 Cowles held the important position of executive secretary and press secretary of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. She corresponded with Virginia lawmakers, thanking those who supported suffrage, and attempting to persuade those who remained opposed. Cowles also regularly corresponded with the league's other officers and with officers of the many local leagues throughout the state. In 1917 she was a Virginia delegate to the national association's annual convention. During the prolonged illnesses of Valentine in 1918, 1919, and 1920, Cowles and the league's headquarters secretary Ida Mae Thompson often advised on legislative strategy and ran the office. Cowles, with some assistance from Thompson, later wrote the history of the Virginia campaign for The History of Woman Suffrage (1922).

Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919 and sent it to the states for ratification. Cowles helped coordinate the league's statewide effort to collect tens of thousands of signatures in support of the amendment (even visiting legislators while on her vacation), but Virginia's legislature refused to ratify it during the 1920 assembly session. Early in May Cowles represented Virginia at a meeting in Connecticut sponsored by the National American Woman Suffrage Association that was unsuccessful in securing that state's support for the amendment. Ratification was not secured until August 1920, although in anticipation of success, Cowles, her sister Adèle Clark, and suffrage organizer Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon earlier that year developed citizenship conferences to educate communities about public affairs and voting that the Equal Suffrage League could sponsor around the state. When women in Virginia voted for the first time on 2 November 1920, Cowles staffed the Equal Suffrage League office to provide information and assistance to the new voters and afterwards declared that she "enjoyed watching the surprise of the men when they saw the women coming to vote and with their minds made up concerning their choice."

From 1920 to 1922 Cowles served on the board of directors and as executive secretary and publicity director for the suffrage league's successor, the Virginia League of Women Voters, of which Adèle Clark was president. She assisted with the creation of local chapters, urging fellow suffragist Jessie Fremont Easton Townsend to "smile sweetly and tolerantly" at opponents and let them know "you pitied them—you do—for being out of the picture, but not as though you depended upon their coming in" to get the leagues started. In February 1921 Cowles represented Virginia at a regional meeting of the League of Women Voters in Atlanta to discuss training and educating new voters. After helping organize a conference on governmental efficiency in 1921 with Governor Westmoreland Davis, Cowles supported his unsuccessful campaign for the United States Senate the following year against incumbent Claude Augustus Swanson in the Democratic Party primary. She published an acrostic broadside in praise of Davis's record on woman suffrage as well as a large advertisement condemning Swanson that appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Cowles frequently wrote letters to Virginia newspapers on topics that interested her, including women's rights. In a 1917 letter to the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, she responded to editorials on the admittance of women to medical schools that expressed surprise at the medical skills women had shown during the war effort, arguing that "women were provided with human intelligence," but had long been "stilted in the development of their inherent power…due to the many centuries in which men have excluded them from educational, economic and political equality." Cowles was also vocal on issues affecting teachers, favoring fair pay and opposing policies that excluded married women from teaching.

Late in the 1910s, Cowles contributed to the national newspaper column "Training Little Children" published by the National Kindergarten Association. Written by mothers who had been kindergarten teachers and printed in big city dailies and small town weeklies, the column reached a wide audience and offered valuable information to parents and educators on child care and early childhood development. Since the federal Bureau of Education reported that only one in eight children attended kindergarten at the time, the advice was invaluable and the column's popularity led the bureau to compile many of them into a published volume in 1919.

Cowles's interest in education continued throughout her life and early in the 1920s she helped establish Lewis Ginter Library at Richmond's Ginter Park Community House, where she was executive secretary and librarian until retiring in 1946. She also took an active role in her parish as a member of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, where she organized a mother's club, served as president of the Order of Daughters of the King of the Diocese of Virginia, and was associate editor of The Parish Light, a semiannual congregational newsletter. Edith Clark Cowles died of a stroke at her Richmond home on 8 December 1954 and was buried in the Emmanuel Episcopal Church Cemetery, in Henrico County.

Sources Consulted:
Brief biographical note (n.d.), office memoranda, and correspondence, including Cowles to Jessie Townsend, 10 Dec. 1920 (second quotation), in Equal Suffrage League of Virginia Records, Accession 22002, Library of Virginia (LVA); biographical press release (ca. 1920) and correspondence in Adèle Goodman Clark Papers, Cabell Library, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond; letters in Adèle Clark Papers, Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Richmond; Marriage Register, Richmond City, Bureau of Vital Statistics (BVS), Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, LVA; Richmond Times-Dispatch, 22 Oct. 1903, 16 Feb. 1917, 23 Sept. 1917 (third quotation), and 1 Aug. 1922; Richmond Evening Dispatch, 3 Nov. 1920 (first quotation); feature article with portrait in Richmond News Leader, 15 June 1946; Cowles's publications include "Training Little Children," Columbia, S.C., State, 2 Mar. and 28 July 1918, "Virginia," in Ida Husted Harper, ed., The History of Woman Suffrage (1922), 6:665–672, and Westmoreland Davis acrostic broadside (1922), LVA; birth and death dates on Death Certificate, Richmond City, BVS; obituaries in Richmond News Leader and Richmond Times-Dispatch, both 9 Dec. 1954.

Photograph in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 5 Apr. 1925.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Kelley M. Ewing.

How to cite this page:
Kelley M. Ewing,"Edith Clark Cowles (1874–1954)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2018 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Cowles_Edith_Clark, accessed [today's date]).

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