Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

CLARA BEWICK COLBY (1846-1916), a "free lance" leader and spokesperson

E. CLAIRE JERRY

Clara Bewick Colby was one of the most active and versatile participants in the nineteenth-century woman's movement, both in the United States and abroad. She was an editor and publisher, an orator, a writer, an administrator, an organizer, a philosopher, and an international activist. However, she was first and foremost, in the words of her biographer Olympia Brown, a "free lance" ( Brown, 1917:xi). She was a close friend and coworker of many leaders who recognized her influential role in the woman suffrage movement, and she held a number of appointed and symbolic positions. Nonetheless, official positions of prominence eluded her. She was never elected to office in a national suffrage organization, she published without organizational and financial backing, and she held to unpopular positions even when they divided her from her friends. Nonetheless, for almost forty years, she was a persistent and effective spokesperson for the causes she embraced.


BACKGROUND

Clara Bewick was born in England in 1846; her family immigrated to Wisconsin eight years later. Her father, himself a well-educated man, supported some education for girls, believing it to be good preparation for a teaching position in rural schools. As a result, Bewick regularly attended the local public school, but at an early age she ended her own education to become a teacher. After two or three years in the district schools, she desired additional formal education. At the age of nineteen, she enrolled in the normal department at the State University of Wisconsin at Madison. She graduated with honors in 1869 and was the valedictorian among that university's first class of women. She remained at the university teaching Latin and history and taking graduate courses in chemistry until her marriage to Leonard W. Colby caused her to move to Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1872.

Bewick Colby quickly became involved in community activities. For example, in 1873, she was instrumental in establishing the first library in Beatrice. She was an officer in the Ladies Library Association, and, by 1878, she was serving as the librarian. She began the first community theater in Beatrice and edited a column called "Woman's Work" in the local newspaper. This column was recognized as a forum for discussing and publicizing woman's rights activities. It is the earliest indication of her interest in Nebraska suffrage work. The Nebraska Woman Suffrage Association (WSA) was founded in 1881, and Bewick Colby was elected vice-president-at-large, a position she held until she advanced to the presidency in 1883. In 1883, she also began what was to be the focus of

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