Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Mary Mason Anderson Williams (3 June 1871–1 April 1945), president of the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, was born in Richmond, Virginia, and was the daughter of Archer Anderson and Mary Anne Mason Anderson. Her father was a prominent Richmond industrialist, and her elder sister Sarah "Sally" Archer Anderson was a longtime president of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society (later the American Civil War Museum). She attended Richmond Female Seminary, a fashionable private school also known as the Powell School, where she developed a passion for community affairs. As a young woman she helped establish local circles of the Order of The King's Daughters (later the International Order of The King's Daughters and Sons) and organized the Virginia branch, serving as its first state secretary from 1894 until she resigned in October 1896. She sat on the board of managers of Sheltering Arms Free Hospital and was the executive board's president from 1897 to 1899. She was named in 1896 to the board of the nascent Woman's Club of Richmond, which grew into one of the city's premier women's organizations. On 18 November 1896, she married Francis Deane Williams, a Richmond tobacco manufacturer. They had two daughters and two sons.

In addition to being a well-known member of Richmond society, Williams belonged to several state and local social and political organizations throughout her life. A music enthusiast and a pianist, she was the first president of the Musicians' Club of Richmond from 1916 until 1930, and later helped organize a symphony orchestra in the city. Williams was especially active in several heritage organizations, demonstrating her passion for history and preservation. She was a member of the Colonial Dames of America, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and the Confederate Memorial Literary Society. Williams served for more than a decade on the board of directors of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, was a long-time chair of its Ways and Means Committee, and was one of the vice presidents from 1933 until her death in 1945. The association (later Preservation Virginia) recognized exemplary individual or organizational work in historic preservation with the Mary Mason Anderson Williams Award.

Along with many of the officers and members of those organizations, Williams opposed woman suffrage. From 1915 through 1920 she was president of the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. No organizational records survive to indicate how many members the association had, but at the May 1918 state convention officers reported on the addition of almost 1,350 new members. Its board of directors and committees included members of many influential social, business, and political families in the state. Williams attended the convention of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage in Washington, D.C., in December 1916 and may have attended other national conventions. In 1919 and 1920 she sat on the board of directors of the national association, whose publication, The Woman Patriot, had on its masthead the motto, "For Home and National Defense Against Woman Suffrage, Feminism and Socialism."

Virginia had a conservative record in granting women equal legal rights, including being among the last of the then-existing states in 1877 to extend property rights to married women. Opponents of woman suffrage argued that most women did not want to vote, that they were not qualified to vote, or that women should not take part in the sordid world of politics. Williams and like-minded Virginians used those arguments and also focused on the issues of state's rights and race as opponents did in other southern states. The Virginia Constitution of 1902 had effectively disfranchised almost all African American men as well as a large proportion of white men, and opponents of woman suffrage feared that an increased number of African American voters would jeopardize white supremacy in the state. A newspaper account of an executive committee meeting of the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage in 1917 printed Williams's statement that the proposed suffrage amendment to the United States Constitution "would deprive the States of their right to direct their own affairs: it is a blow aimed at all local self-government." In a public letter to President Woodrow Wilson dated 23 August 1919, the day after he urged the General Assembly of Virginia to ratify the amendment, Williams asserted that African American women were unqualified to vote and that allowing them the opportunity could "jeopardize the whole social order existing between the Negro and white races in Virginia and possibly throughout the South." The legislature refused to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment early in 1920, but it took the first step in a long process to submit a suffrage amendment to the state constitution instead. Such an amendment was no longer necessary, however, once the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in August 1920. The following month Williams publicly urged white women to register and vote in the November election even if they had previously opposed woman suffrage.

During World War I, the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage joined with other women's organizations in Richmond to organize a Virginia branch of the National League for Woman's Service. Williams served as chair of the Richmond division, which supported the work of the Red Cross and the sale of liberty bonds. After the war the league helped raise money to erect a memorial cross in honor of Richmond servicemen who lost their lives in the conflict.

Williams's husband died on 7 May 1924, a few days after she and one of her sons were scheduled to depart for a vacation in Europe. She developed vision problems later in life, but continued her activity in the various organizations to which she was devoted. As founding president in 1932 of the Natural Bridge Garden Club in Rockbridge County, where her family owned a summer property, she oversaw the club's beautification project to plant more than twelve miles of flowering plants alongside a local highway. Mary Mason Anderson Williams died of a cerebral hemorrhage at her Richmond home on 1 April 1945, and was buried at the city's Hollywood Cemetery.

Sources Consulted:
Self-reported birth date of 3 June 1871 in passport application, 18 Apr. 1925, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Marriage Register, Richmond City, Bureau of Vital Statistics (BVS), Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia (LVA); Sara F. Gugle, History of the International Order of The King's Daughters and Sons, Year 1886 to 1930 (1931), 382–384 (portrait on 383); Richmond Times-Dispatch, 16 Nov. 1917 (second quotation), 5 May 1918, 2 Sept. 1919, 19 Sept. 1920; The Woman Patriot 3 (30 Aug. 1919): 8 (masthead quotation and third quotation with surname erroneously printed as Waleacre), 3 (20 Sept. 1919): 7; Death Certificate, Richmond City, BVS (with incorrect 3 June 1872 birth date and incorrect 31 March 1945 death date); BVS Death Certificate and funeral contract with corrected birth date of 3 June 1871 and death date of 1 April 1945 in L. T. Christian Funeral Home Records, Accession 34483, LVA; obituaries in Richmond News Leader and Richmond Times-Dispatch, 2 Apr. 1945 (both reporting that Williams died "early Sunday," i.e., 1 Apr. 1945); editorial tribute in Richmond News Leader, 2 Apr. 1945.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Kimberly R. Bowman.

How to cite this page:
Kimberly R. Bowman, "Mary Mason Anderson Williams (1871–1945)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2018 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Williams_Mary_Mason_Anderson, accessed [today's date]).

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