University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Kate Gannett Wells, Anti-Suffragist

Volume XXXIV · 1981
Kate Gannett Wells, Anti-Suffragist

Just as the current movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment has its opposition, so too the nineteenth-century suffragists had their detractors. The anti-suffragists were never as highly visible or organized as the suffragists, but they did have an adverse effect on the progress of the suffrage movement through their organizations, publications, and political lobbying.

The revived interest in women's history has encouraged the publication of many studies of the suffrage movement and of those who led the 80-year struggle to achieve the franchisement of American women . Not much, however, has been written about the antis. The most extensive work yet to appear on the subject is Jane Jerome Camhi's Ph.D. dissertation "Women Against Women: American Anti-Suffragism, 1880-1920" (Tufts, 1973). In doing her research, Camhi discovered there was little biographical information on even the most prominent antis. She attributed this lack of biographical data to the personality of the antis. "Not many of the leading Antis were given to introspection, " she writes, "therefore there is very little in the way of autobiographical material, such as memoirs, diaries or letters to work from in helping to form some understanding of the personality or motivation of a particular Anti."1

The William Channing Gannett Papers in the University of Rochester Library provide insight into the personality and motivation of one anti-suffragist, his sister Kate Gannett Wells. The collection's family correspondence contains the several hundred letters that Kate wrote to her brother Will during the 50-year period between 1861 and 1911. That this massive correspondence from an anti-suffragist should exist in the Gannett Papers is ironic, for William Channing Gannett, minister of Rochester's First Unitarian Church from 1889 to 1908, and his wife, Mary Thorn Lewis Gannett, were ardent suffragists and close friends of Susan B. Anthony.

Kate Gannett Wells' rejection of woman suffrage also seems ironic because of her own very active career on behalf of women. She was among those who founded and led for many years the New England Women's Club, the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, and the Association for the Advancement of Women. She had been involved in an unsuccessful attempt to permit the admittance of women into Harvard Medical School and she helped raise funds to endow a professorship for a woman faculty member at Boston University. In addition, Kate had served as one of the first women on the Boston School Committee, and in 1888, she was appointed to the Massachusetts State Board of Education. In many of these activities she had been closely associated with Boston's leading suffragists, such as Julia Ward Howe, Caroline Severence, Ednah Dow Cheney, and Abigail May. Given this background, Kate's 1884 appearance before the Massachusetts State Legislature to denounce suffrage seems incongruous, but in many ways this act was the culmination of Kate Gannett Wells' search to reconcile her own ambitions with her domestic obligations and to define the proper sphere for women in society.

Like her fellow antis Kate believed that the biological differences between the sexes dictated that men and women should occupy discrete spheres. Most anti-suffragists argued that women's primary role was to create a home for their husbands and children. It was through their position as mothers that women could best contribute to the nation's welfare and at the same time achieve more personal power and prestige than they ever could in the masculine preserves of politics and business. Although Kate Gannett Wells agreed that women should occupy a separate realm, she found her own domestic life narrowing and unfulfilling. In her definition of women's unique role she put the stress on women's spiritual, rather than domestic, attributes. As the daughter and sister of prominent Unitarian ministers, Kate looked to her father and brother for the role model on which to pattern her life. Thwarted in her desire to be a professional minister, she found a release for her ministerial ambitions in the areas available to her, moral reform and education. When suffragists suggested that women needed the vote to help eradicate vice and corruption they implied that societal problems could be cured with political solutions. To Kate Gannett Wells this idea was an anathema: she looked to a non-political, altruistic, and service-minded womanhood as the antidote to society's ills. Kate put her faith in establishing an ordered, moral nation by spreading the gospel of the Protestant ethic of right behavior, frugality, and hard work. Through her clubs, writings, and speeches, Kate emphasized the reform work women could do as women—rather than as voters—and she found a way to become her father's heir and her brother's colleague as a spiritual leader.


Kate Gannett Wells was the eldest child of Ezra Stiles Gannett and Anna Tilden Gannett. Her father's position as a well-respected Boston clergyman and the Gannetts' long New England heritage provided Kate with a sense of pride and identity. Perhaps it was Ezra Stiles Gannett's personality that exerted the greatest influence on his daughter, however. Such influence was not unusual in an era when a father was most often the unquestioned head of his household, but in Kate's case, the usual filial respect of a daughter for her father was accentuated by Ezra Stiles Gannett's self-reproachful and dependent personality. The first fact of Kate's existence, her 1838 birth in London, England, rather than in her beloved Boston, was due to her father's fragile mental state. Throughout Kate's early life his need for affection and reassurance, as well as his political, religious, and social ideology, would be important factors in forming her views on the proper limits of women's role inside and outside the domestic sphere.

Ezra Stiles Gannett was born in 1801. His father, Caleb Gannett, had begun his career as a minister, but later became a tutor of mathematics at Harvard, and eventually attained the position of a steward of the College. After his first wife died, leaving him with four children, Caleb Gannett married Ruth Stiles, daughter of Yale University's president Ezra Stiles. Ezra Stiles Gannett was their only child. While a student at Harvard, Gannett turned from his orthodox religious upbringing to the more liberal tenets of Unitarianism. Upon his graduation, in 1820, William Ellery Channing invited Gannett to become the assistant minister in his Federal Street Church . Gannett was to become an important figure in the organization of the Unitarian Church. He was among the founders of the American Unitarian Association in 1825, and served as its first secretary and later as president.

Like other Harvard Unitarians, Ezra Stiles Gannett based his faith in the existence of God on the empirical evidence provided by nature. Man's reason led him to believe that behind the well-ordered universe was a morally perfect, ever just, benevolent God. Divine revelation supplemented religious faith based on man's reasonable interpretation of nature. Through the Bible God revealed to man His moral laws and purposes. Central to Gannett's theology was the conviction that the Bible was a true historic record and that the miracles recorded there provided proof of Christ's divine mission. Unitarian faith held that Christ was not a deity, but that he was sent by God to teach men how to live a godly life. Man was not by nature depraved and did not require Christ to die on the cross to atone for his sins; rather, man must achieve his own salvation by heeding his inner conscience, cultivating good moral habits, and striving for a perfection in character as exemplified by Christ. A reasoned, optimistic religion, Unitarianism had special appeal for Boston's refined and educated elite. 

Eventually more radical Unitarians such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker would deny the need for any external authority, be it the Bible or miracles, for man to know God or His will. They would substitute intuition for reason. Gannett, however, remained faithful to the conservative wing of Unitarianism. His reverence for reason and order, and his respect for outward authority, characterized his religious convictions and also determined his response to events in the secular realm.

In 1836 Ezra Stiles Gannett married Anna Tilden, of whom little is known. In his biography of Ezra Stiles Gannett, William Channing Gannett describes her as "a shy, gentle woman, having hidden strengths of thought and character, a conscientiousness as certain as [Ezra Stiles Gannett's] own, and deep religious feelings."2 She was 10 years younger than her husband. Their relationship had begun as that of pastor/parishioner, for William Channing Gannett reports that "a struggle with religious doubts, in which he had been her only confidant, had brought their two minds close together."3

Within six months of their marriage, Gannett suffered a nervous breakdown and was advised by his physician to take an extended trip alone to Europe to recover. The deeply depressed and lonely exile was befriended and counseled in London by a Dr. Boott. On Boott's advice Gannett sent for his wife, who joined her husband in February 1837. When on April 6, 1838, their daughter was born in London, they named her Catherine Boott Gannett, in honor of her aunt, Catherine Tilden, and Dr. Boott.

The family returned to Boston in July 1838. They took up residence at 4 Bumstead Place and Gannett resumed his pastoral duties. William Channing Gannett was born in 1840 and another son, Henry, in 1842.

Upon William Ellery Channing's death in 1842, Ezra Stiles Gannett assumed his position of pastor of the Federal Street Church. Misfortune continued to befall him, however: he suffered a stroke which left his right leg paralyzed and thereafter he used a pair of canes to walk; and on Christmas Day in 1846 his wife died, leaving him with the three children then aged eight, six, and four.

Kate Gannett Wells' memories of her mother were indistinct. Many years after her mother's death she wrote her brother Will, "I do not, never have understood why I didn't remember her more. I can not recall a single caress."4 Some recollections of her mother came second hand from her mother's sister, Aunt Kate, and from her father. It became the practice of Ezra Stiles Gannett to retreat to his study on Christmas Day, the anniversary of his wife's death, to record in his journal reminiscences of her. In the evening the children would join him to talk of their mother and recite the hymns she had taught them. According to her husband, Anna Tilden Gannett's major attributes were moral integrity, a devotion to right, a high sense of rectitude and duty, and a firmness or moral purpose tempered with gentleness .5

One vivid memory of her mother left Kate with a deep sense of guilt. To Will she confided in a letter that she was "constantly stung and have been for many years by the thought of the difference between my mother and father regard." Her childhood wish that her mother "dressed better and did not look so sad" filled her with a sense of shame.6

These painful memories of her mother may have led Kate to conclude as a young girl that she did not wish to be a mother.7 To arrive at such a decision in a period when motherhood was considered the most important role to which a woman could aspire, the one which would insure her the highest regard and influence, was indeed significant. Kate's aversion to maternity never changed even after the birth of her children. Her childhood rejection of motherhood as an aspiration was replaced by a growing desire to be a minister.8 Her father, after all, had not deserted her, and his presence provided Kate with a role model that she found more appealing than motherhood.

With the death of her mother, Kate's responsibilities toward her father increased. In 1852 Ezra Stiles Gannett suffered another loss when Henry, his youngest child, died. This new sorrow made him more despondent than ever.

Kate's last year of formal education was 1855-56. For all but the final year she had attended George Barrell Emerson's school for young ladies in Boston. Under Emerson's tutelage young ladies learned that the purpose of their education was to serve others. In a lecture, "On the Education of Females," Emerson reiterated the commonly held pedagogical theory that an educated girl was better equipped to carry out her social roles as daughter, sister, companion, friend, wife, and most importantly mother. To the question why educate women, Emerson responded:

"That our liberty may be permanent, our females must receive a high, pure, liberal, religious education such as shall qualify them to educate men; and it is only by giving them such an education, that we can diffuse through our community the universal knowledge of right and justice, on which our institutions depend, and without which they will disappoint the hopes of the world."9

Thus from Emerson Kate learned that her influence was to be indirect. Her intellectual activity was not to be exercised in the public sphere, as her father's and brother's, but in the private.

She also received this message from her Aunt Kate, who assumed the role of "mother-aunt" to the children. Aunt Kate made clear that she expected Kate to confine her activities to the home. In 1854 Aunt Kate took a trip through the Southern states. In a letter to Will and Kate she outlined the separate courses their gender predestined them to follow. Her travels had convinced her, she wrote, that "it is indeed a great country" which needs "every man, woman & child to do all that in them lies to preserve its liberty, strength, virtue & growth." But Aunt Kate stressed that the contributions they were to make should be in different spheres. "How much you have before you Willie, how much you can as a man do," she wrote, "and how much Kate can do at home for this glorious heritage of ours."10

In the fall of 1856, Will entered Harvard College. For Kate this event must have underscored in reality what Aunt Kate had underscored in her letter: her future was to revolve around the home, while Will's future was opening up to educational and career choices.

When Will graduated from Harvard he took a teaching job in Rhode Island. However, he could not long resist the urge to become involved once open hostilities broke out between the North and the South. When, in November 1861, Union soldiers captured the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, Will found his opportunity to serve the Northern cause. From 1862 until 1865, in what became known as the Port Royal Experiment, he taught the ex-slaves who had been left behind on the Islands or who emigrated from the mainland.

Soon after the war began, Ezra Stiles Gannett wrote his son, "For the present folly the South is far more to blame than the North, but I cannot help thinking that the violence of Garrison & his friends in their assaults upon slavery is the. . . cause of all this disaster." 11Although opposed to the institution of slavery, Gannett had long been disenchanted with the methods and the message of the abolitionists. He felt the prospect of war and disunion was worse than slavery. When the Fugitive Slave Bill was being debated in 1850, Gannett had spoken from his pulpit of "Freedom, Peace, and Order." He asked his congregation “to bear it ever in mind that patience and hope are more effectual means of introducing the triumph of right under a perfect constitution of society, far more effectual than discord and violence. Freedom, peace, order! - he who sacrifices one of these, in his anxiety to secure the largest measure of either or both of the other two, is at best a blind enthusiast, if he be not a mad fanatic.” 12

William Channing Gannett believed that his father's reverence for "organic order and visible law" were at the foundation of Ezra Stiles Gannett's disavowal of abolitionists' methods. "The same predisposition that in religious thought kept him so firmly planted on the authority of an outward revelation . . . also made him one who only in the very last extreme could have ventured on immediate anarchy to compass a higher future peace."13

Twenty years later, Kate Gannett Wells looked back and declared that her father "saw more widely than G[arrison]." Like Ezra Stiles Gannett, she believed that the abolitionists' demands and actions had led to war. Their methods had shown a distrust of "God or of ethics or of the good" to ultimately triumph and "melt" the evils of slavery. "The faith of endurance is ethical, divine," she maintained. Moderation rather than "radical processes" must be employed to make changes in the social order or disaster was the result.14 Belief in reason, self-control, and gradual social changes was a lesson Kate Gannett Wells learned well from her father.

Growing up in an anti-abolitionist household meant that Kate was not exposed to the same environmental forces that influenced women who were themselves or whose families were abolitionists. One of those women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, recalled that at anti-slavery conventions, "the broad principles of human rights were so exhaustively discussed, justice, liberty, and equality so clearly taught, that the women who crowded to listen, readily learned the lesson of freedom for themselves."15 Anti-slavery women, already engaged in a cause that emphasized conscience over man-made laws, were predisposed to question their own disabilities dictated by law and tradition. Kate, on the other hand, had been given to believe that slavery was preferable to war, and by extension, women's disenfranchisement was preferable to social disruption.


In 1861 Kate became engaged to a young lawyer, Samuel Wells, Jr., who was from a distinguished Maine family. His father had served as a justice of the Supreme Court of Maine and as governor of the state from 1856-57.  They were married on June 11, 1863.

Sam Wells was a quiet, reserved man and did not make a favorable impression on either Kate's father or brother. Will objected to the marriage because he did not think Sam was the right type of man for Kate. When he heard of the engagement, Will wrote Aunt Kate that Sam's "manner and life give me . . . the impression that he will be a refined, retired man, —faithful and probably successful enough in his profession,—who will come home after office hrs, —and enjoy cosy, genteel evenings in slippers and silk dressing gown, —without troubling himself much about the joys or sorrows of the rest of the world."16

Will apparently hoped his sister would marry a man more attuned to social reform and humanitarian endeavors, a man more like himself. Perhaps it was the retiring quiet qualities in Sam's nature that appealed to Kate, however. Having lived in the shadow of her father and brother, Kate may have relished the idea of a husband who was a comfort rather than a competitor.

The contrast between Sam and Will is indicative of the dichotomy in Kate Gannett Wells' nature. She appreciated the calm security that marriage to Sam offered, but at the same time craved the intellectual stimulation that Will provided. She herself pointed out that Sam attracted that "part of me which is" rather than that which "knows."17 Because she had the assurance that Sam "loved me wholly," she was not afraid of him, for, as she explained, she could feel "somewhat his equal because a woman in marrying a man merits by that alone, equality."18 Toward her brother, on the other hand, Kate felt a great amount of deference. He, unlike Sam, appealed to that part of her which "knows" and was intellectually ambitious. The desire to win Will's admiration is evident throughout Kate's life. In 1877 she wrote him, "to write and know and be beautiful. . . only that I may be more worthy of you. . . to please, gratify you, that is all."19

Kate was assured of Sam's affection and felt herself his equal because they were married. Marriage to Will could have brought her the same benefits in regard to him. A constant theme in Kate's correspondence with her brother was her wish to be his wife. In a typical letter she wrote:

“You don't know how dearly I love to write to you, it seems just as if I put my head on your shoulder & told you everything & you comprehended & pitied & silently led me. Not that when we are together it is so, literally speaking for I always feel you would not like it, perhaps are unconsciously reserving all for your future wife, which I wish I was going to be”20

As his wife, Kate would have been able to achieve equality with Will and would have been able to share in his work. Like their father, Will eventually entered the ministry, a profession for which Kate longed, but from which she was barred. If she had been Will's wife she could have been his teamworker in religious labors. "For this summer I cannot express too much gratitude," she wrote Will after he visited her in Boston. "It has been a great deal more of you than I dared to hope & we have had so many talks together & planned of possible work that it seems as if we did belong to each other."21

Kate's hypothetical marriage to Will would be a platonic one based on a sharing of intellectual endeavors and common work. Her real marriage to Sam, a struggling young lawyer from Maine, meant that Kate lost the prestige and identity of being a Gannett. She wrote Will shortly after her marriage, "I am so proud of the name Gannett, as belonging to my father, a grand Unitarian minister, that I can not bear to hear myself called otherwise. I drop the Boott & write Gannett now for consolation! "22

After Kate's and Sam's marriage the Boylston Street house the Gannetts had moved to in the late 1850's was remodeled so that Ezra Stiles Gannett occupied the first floor, Kate and Sam the second. For Kate this meant retaining all her old obligations toward her father as well as adding her new duties as a wife. Within two months of Kate's marriage, Aunt Kate was writing Will that Kate was suffering from "excruciating attacks of pain & dyspepsia." Aunt Kate believed that the cause of the ailment stemmed from overexertion and efforts to fulfill all the old and new demands on her time.23 It may be that her physical condition reflected Kate's growing awareness that domestic obligations were going to greatly curtail any intellectual pursuits. In January 1864 she wrote Will that she was glad that he had found time to do some studying. "The only advantage in being a woman," she wrote in a resigned but rather wistful tone, "is that there are so many various duties in each day's work, that her mind cannot run constantly in the same tracks."24 She queried Will about how much time it was proper for a "common place person (like myself)" to spend on intellectual pursuits when there were so many other social, charitable and domestic chores to be done.25

Kate's responsibilities increased when on December 7, 1864, her first child, Stiles Gannett Wells, was born. She had not looked forward to becoming a mother26 and her aversion to maternity did not change after the baby was born. She wrote Will that she loved the child with her mind because he was dependent upon her, "but as for feeling like a m_____‚ I can't even write the word. I don't feel like it, nor like anything else. "27

Four years later, January 19, 1869, a second son, Samuel Wells, Jr., was born. "Must I say something about him," she asked Will in a letter written a few weeks after the baby's birth. She reminded Will that her unenthusiastic attitude toward children was not new. "I have never pretended to have motherly feelings beforehand." She had grown to love her first child, "but a baby comes to me in the light of duty. One of the duties that comes at certain intervals." Kate indicated that she had never wanted children even as a girl and had married with that feeling. "If Sam had cared as little for children as I, I should have been gladder."28

Kate insinuates that she agreed to have children because Sam wanted them and she had submitted to his wishes, and by implication to his sexual demands, only out of a sense of duty to him. Shortly after the birth of their first child Kate acknowledged that Sam had been very kind to her, "But then the old Adam or Eve comes up in me and says he ought to have been, considering—and I reply well anyhow I think enough of him to satisfy the most exacting."29 She had consented "to satisfy the most exacting" of Sam's wishes, but there is also an indication that Kate had exerted her own will within their marriage relation. One of Kate's earliest public lectures was on the subject of birth control. She wrote to Will that Sam had approved the contents of the speech before she had delivered it, and "if anyone could infer about us from it," she maintained, "it would only be to his honor."30 What can be inferred from this statement is that the Wellses practiced birth control, and the method they employed depended on sexual continence. Like other nineteenth-century advocates of family limitation, Kate equated birth control with the regulation of sexual desires.

As the historian Linda Gordon has pointed out, nineteenth-century sexual reformers "did not seek to make an infinite number of sterile sexual encounters possible" through the use of artificial birth control devices, but sought to alleviate women from unwanted pregnancies through the practice of periodic abstinence.31 "Voluntary motherhood," or the conviction that women must be able to control what happened to their own bodies, was a major tenet in feminist ideology. By "voluntary motherhood" the feminists did not suggest, however, that women should have the option to not become mothers at all. What they advocated was that women should be able to choose not if, but when and how often, they became mothers.

Kate's negative attitude toward her own motherhood indicates she did not believe that women instinctively desired children, or that they were endowed with traits and talents which made them particularly suited for the job of nurturing them. She protested more than once that "the spirit of baby tending is wanting with me."32When writing to Will of her non-maternal feelings, she expressed the hope she would not have a daughter and be the "means of bringing another woman with my temperament and tendencies into the world."33 For Kate, therefore, the "maternal instinct" was an individual rather than a feminine characteristic. This view was not being articulated, at least in public, by even the most forthright feminists. Elizabeth Cady Stanton went so far as to argue that motherhood was but an incident in a woman's life, not her whole life, but this line of reasoning did not bring her to suggest that some women might prefer to bypass the incident of motherhood altogether.

Both the suffragists and the anti-suffragists stressed women's role as mothers to support their arguments. The suffragists said that motherhood imbued women with a moral superiority that should not be confined to the home but exercised in the public realm; the antis said women's role as mothers was too important to be compromised with more public duties. Despite her anti-suffrage stand, Kate Gannett Wells could not in good conscience declare that women should disqualify themselves from voting because they were mothers. She was too much aware that her own motherhood was a matter of "duty" rather than "destiny" to make the claim that women should not vote because they were actual or potential mothers. Perhaps for this reason her antisuffrage pronouncements do not contain the usual rhetoric on the sacredness of motherhood. Women were too busy in their homes to vote, she said in 1884 before the Massachusetts State Legislature—not women should sacrifice their lives to the welfare of their children. Kate came to believe like Elizabeth Cady Stanton that motherhood was only a part of a woman's life, certainly not her whole life.34 She declared, "a woman with faculties only for the home or children cannot fully develop."35

During the late 1860's Kate vacillated between resignation to her domestic obligations and a determination to "do something." At one point she wrote Will, "Oh I wish I had some positive work to do,"36 but soon afterwards told him, "I have slowly & deliberately given up all idea of trying for any sphere beyond that of an imperfect housewife & nursery girl. That gives large enough scope & I don't feel so hurried if I am not striving to read or be gay, so all the better physically & as eternity is so long & one is born, take it easy & trust to another world as there is so much chance for hope deferred. . . "37 This philosophical view was replaced the next month with the renewed conviction that domesticity was too narrowing and she needed some outside interest to "fully develop."38

Aunt Kate recognized Kate's restless discontent. She wrote Will, "Excitement, a certain kind of power, positive & influence, are natural & necessary to [Kate], but with the sort of limitations & restraints and the excitements of home to which she is subjected, there is not the enjoyment she might otherwise receive from the gratification of her peculiar temperament, from all the sources which really feed it."39

Kate's entrance into the New England Women's Club (NEWC) in May of 1869 provided an outlet for her "peculiar temperament." The New England Women's Club was founded in 1868 by Caroline Severence, a social reformer and feminist . The Club attracted many middle-class women almost immediately, and served as a prototype of other women's clubs that sprang up within a few years. Various explanations have been proposed for the emergence and tremendous popularity of women's clubs. Julia A. Sprague, the first historian of the New England Women's Club, attributed their founding to the demise of the Sanitary Commission after the Civil War. The Commission had given middleclass women a respectable reason to leave their homes and work together for a worthy cause. After the War Mrs. Sprague explains "a strong desire existed. . . to find some means of uniting forces in such a way as to continue such educational and social relations."40 Women's clubs may also have been successful because middle-class women had more leisure time in the postwar era. New household labor-saving devices and the increased availability of inexpensive immigrant servant girls made the housewife's chores less demanding. Women also joined women's clubs in great numbers because of their non-political, non-controversial nature. Although the NEWC engaged in the traditional feminine activity of charitable work, a major part of its agenda was designed to foster the intellectual development of its members and to expand the educational and economic opportunities of women generally. In time the NEWC sponsored a horticultural school, maintained a registry for the "higher employments," agitated for a college preparatory school for girls, promoted the election of women to the Boston School Committee, and operated a dress-reform store. Kate Gannett Wells was a very successful member of the NEWC. Within a year of joining, she was elected a director of the club, and in 1878 she became one of the vice presidents. She served on the Membership Committee, the Committee on Art and Literature, and the Discussion Committee, which she chaired for many years.

Will had graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1868 and had become a parish minister in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1870 he returned to Boston to be near his father, whose physical and mental strength continued to deteriorate. On August 26, 1871, the elder Gannett died in a train accident, ironically, after his many years of ill health. After his father's death Will remained in Boston until 1877, when he assumed the pastorate of a church in St. Paul, Minnesota. With Will's departure from Boston the weekly correspondence between him and Kate was resumed. Her letters now conveyed more assurance and a determination to be useful. She was already involved in many more organizations and was about to embark on an even more public role as writer and speaker. Ezra Stiles Gannett's death partly explains Kate's emergence into public life. She was now relieved of responsibility for his care and had more time to pursue her own interests. Then too, by 1877 her children, including her daughter Louisa Appleton Wells, born in 1872, were older, and she could more easily justify leaving them in someone else's care. Sam was also more preoccupied with his law practice, real estate dealings and the Masons, which kept him increasingly away from home.

The greatest encouragement for Kate to pursue her ambitions probably came from Will, however. As early as 1861 he had expressed the hope that "Kate would be one of the strong women on whom many lean and find comfort and support."41 Will was also a supporter of women's rights. While in Milwaukee he had attended a women's rights convention in 1869 and had served as a committee member. He had addressed his congregation on the need for women to be able to earn their own living, to be creative, and to be purposefully occupied.42 It is likely that he spoke to Kate during his stay in Boston about the increased role women should play in society and his support emboldened her to embark on a more public career.

Will's theological beliefs also had an effect upon his sister. Unlike their father, Will became part of the liberal wing of Unitarianism, which rejected the divinity as well as the deity of Christ, the historical revelation of the Bible, the need for religious dogmas, or any form of external religious authority. The liberals believed that man could find God within himself. Each individual had to assume the responsibility for the formation of his own character. Thus the definition of sin became the failure to live up to one's own highest ideals as exemplified by Christ. In Will's view social evils were the result of the combined sins of individuals and atonement required each person to strive for the Right, the Good, the Just, and the Beautiful in his own life and to participate in instilling these ideals in others through humanitarian reforms. Will's ministry was directed, therefore, more to the service of man than of God. Through his parish work, he took direct responsibility for the moral welfare of his parishioners, guiding them in the realization of their own best selves and in united efforts to improve the community.

Kate took Will's theological concepts and applied them to her ideas of womanhood. She saw a relationship between exclusionary religious creeds that discouraged fellowship based on broadly shared ethical sympathies and exclusionary causes, such as suffrage, that broke up the "feminine hosts" into political factions and deterred their coming together in a common sympathy based on womanhood. Therefore, when Will expressed dismay over Kate's anti-suffrage stand, she compared her dislike of suffrage to his reluctance to restrict Unitarianism to allegiance to Christian doctrine. She retorted that it was "just as much a plain duty" for her to speak against suffrage as it was for him "not to use the word Christian."43

Kate also believed that suffrage would make women more selfish and self-conscious. As part of the political process women would be more likely to seek public recognition by working for causes that furthered their own personal ambitions and goals. Kate was convinced that women united in a common purpose that crossed social and economic barriers could do more to cure the nation's problems than individual women driven by selfish motivations and divided by political differences. She did not trust political and economic reforms to restore order to an increasingly complex and heterogeneous society which urbanization, industrialization, and immigration threatened to fragment even more. "I care so much for a higher womanhood," she wrote Will, "which shall be freer than any possible political action at this period of history can make it."44

The Moral Education Association of Massachusetts was one of the institutional bases through which Kate sought to put into practice her ideal of the higher womanhood. The Association was founded in 1870. Kate became a member in the mid-1870's and was elected president in 1881, a position she held for many years. The Association's mission was to seek out those forces in society which tended to lower the moral tone, to lessen their effect, and to help prevent their further growth. As education was the key element in the Association's reform tactics, the social evil—prostitution—was its major target. The moral educationists believed that they could prevent prostitution if morally superior women spread their influence over their more unfortunate sisters. "Every true woman should enlist in personal search for the friendless," wrote Kate in an article for the Unitarian Review. "When each holds another up, then there will be no occasion for falling."45 Women also had an important role to play as educators of the young (especially boys) in turning their thoughts and actions from lustful ways and instilling a more exalted code of behavior.

It was through her work in moral education, her articles, and Sunday talks at the Women's Educational and Industrial Union that Kate began to realize her aspiration to share in her father's and brother's ministerial work. "Sometimes when I am speaking earnestly I fancy my voice catches a little of [Father's] intonation," she wrote Will. 46 Her club activities also helped reassure her that women's philanthropic work was not only of parallel importance to male political institutions, but that suffrage would undermine women's contribution to society. In a 1901 letter to Will she asserted: "What little good I have accomplished has been because I was independent of suffrage. . . & as it so happens that prominent women think as I do that their official work is independent because they cannot vote."47


Kate made her first public stand in opposition to woman suffrage before a special committee of the Massachusetts State Legislature in 1884. The Legislature, as they had done during two previous sessions, were considering a bill to allow women the vote in municipal elections. After a prominent group of men and women had been able to use their influence to defeat the bill in 1882, they founded a formal organization to continue their fight against encroaching woman suffrage. In 1883, the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women sent their first group of members to the Legislative hearings.

Kate was the only woman to speak on behalf of the remonstrants at the 1884 hearing. Others who testified for the anti cause that day were Louis Brandeis, William H. Sayward, and George C. Crocker, and letters were read from Francis Parkman and Clara T. Leonard. The scarcity of women speakers may indicate the antis' sensitivity to the suffragists' charge that appearing before legislative bodies was in contradiction with their contention that women were too busy for politics. Kate's willingness to appear at the hearings as the sole woman witness attests to the strength of her opposition to suffrage.

One theme that ran through Kate's speech was that women were "not fitted" to vote. She indicted women for being politically naive, shortsighted, and non-objective. Women, she argued, would add an unfortunate emotional element to politics. They would use their feminine wiles to sway the outcome of elections and legislative deliberations. When woman suffrage comes, Kate warned, "there will be more. . . exercise of the power of personal charms as a weapon of persuasion than now exists among men."48

Woman suffrage was "inexpedient," Kate told the legislators, "until the highest type of morality and the clearest sense of justice and the widest reaches of law in its theoretical and practical applications are reached by all women." Kate conceded that "Women now do generous, wise, and lofty deeds, "but they also "do mean, foolish, despicable actions,—oh, how mean! how bad!" She beseeched the gentlemen of the legislature to "Withhold from us the duty, necessity, right of suffrage, whichever it may be called, until you can have only noble, honestwomen for your voters and legislators."49

Kate's expressed doubts about the moral integrity of most women is in sharp contrast to her contention that women possessed virtues that made them particularly suited to be moral reformers. She based her own claim to the role of moral educator on her womanhood, but she found it difficult to extend the faith she had in herself—and perhaps in other women of her own class—to all women. As an anti-suffragist she endeavored to deny women the symbol of self-sovereignty men enjoyed in a democratic nation, the right of the elective franchise. In place of their political rights Kate offered women the compensatory role of moral leaders. The difficulty was she did not really believe that women were capable of being either truly honest or noble.

It is perhaps in the second theme of her speech that Kate more accurately articulated her true reservations about woman suffrage: the vote of women would help increase the political influence of the lower class. Like other antis, Kate feared that educated, refined women would choose not to exercise their right of suffrage while the "unintelligent and depraved women" would flock to the polls to help their brothers force the state to give them whatever they needed. "Once let the great mass of uneducated women be added to the great mass of already uneducated men," Kate declared, "and the state will slowly but surely be shaken under the varying demands made upon it for bread, work, money, leisure and all kinds of laws to favor all kinds of persons."50 The enfranchisement of women would thus be demoralizing for the poor. They might no longer heed the advice of those, like Kate, who counseled patience, hard work, and frugality as an antidote for poverty. For Kate, who had made a career out of providing such counsel, the franchisement of women was indeed a "dangerous experiment."

Kate's public stand in support of anti-suffragism probably came as a surprise to many suffragists. Her many activities on behalf of women had led the suffragists to believe that she was one of their own. Their reaction to her announced allegiance to the anti side in 1884 and again in 1885 was, therefore, marked with a sense of betrayal and often rancor. Although Kate was disturbed by the suffragists' hostility, she was most concerned about Will's response to her anti stand. Her anxiety proved to be justified. Shortly after her speech, Will wrote to Mary (May) Lewis, a committed suffragist whom he was to marry in 1887, that Kate's suffrage position could not help but put a barrier between them. When he disagreed with someone over a fundamental issue of right and wrong he explained they "simply aren't [the same] to me, nor shd I think I'd be to them—however dear in many ways still."51 May, who had known both Will and Kate for several years, took a more charitable attitude toward Kate. Because she was willing to believe that Kate's anti-suffragism was inspired by pure motives, she was sure her affection for Kate would not be altered. ". . . [W]e are drawn to each other by character more than opinion & if the aim is common—truth & holiness—all differences of attitude dwindle before depth of purpose—so although it pains me that Kate should take the stand she does—the more so that her arguments against seem so puerile & her life & example for carry so much weight ... it does not seem a vital matter."52

Kate and Will finally agreed to silently disagree over suffrage. This bargain could not be struck with her more vocal critics, however. One of the issues most often raised by her detractors was her father's anti-abolitionist stand. Kate came to accept the comparison. She wrote Will that their father's belief in the eventual eradication of slavery was an indication of his faith. Had his advocacy of patient waiting been followed, the horrors of war would have been prevented. As with abolition, Kate wrote, "The holy causes ever exist, temperance, suffrage—is one stupid because one stands for moderation. . . the martyr today is he who is conservative; the conservative that weighs all sides!!!!"53 Kate's sense of martyrdom was heightened by the attacks on her from former colleagues, the women's press, and in letters. These assaults only deepened her convictions and made her more resolved to oppose the further extension of suffrage to women. "I'll stand alone, though it may kill me," she declared to Will; "we must each do our right."54

Kate had maintained in her speech before the Legislature that women were too busy in their homes and charity work to participate in politics. After the 1870's, Kate certainly was preoccupied with philanthropic and civic endeavors. In addition to her membership in the New England Women's Club, the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, and the Moral Education Association, she was also an active member of the Association for the Advancement of Women, The Massachusetts Emergency and Hygiene Association, and the Cruelty to Children Society. Kate was giving increased numbers of lectures at NEWC and WEIU programs, at Association for the Advancement of Women conventions, and before groups such as the American Library Association. The paper she read before this last group was published in the September 1879 issue of Library Journal. Other articles, most based on her lectures, began to appear in the Atlantic MonthlyNew England Magazine, the North American Review, and Unitarian Review. Her first novel, Miss Curtis; A Sketch was published by Ticknor in 1888.

Also in 1888 the Governor of Massachusetts appointed Kate to the State Board of Education. For Kate, who had always taken a great interest in schools and education, the appointment was very gratifying. She served on the board until 1909. During these many years she took a particular interest in the Massachusetts normal schools, and most particularly in Boston's Normal Art School and the normal school in Framingham. In 1902 a new building at the latter school was named Wells Hall in honor of her many years of work on the school's behalf.

All her outside activities opened Kate to the charge from Aunt Kate and Will that she was not devoting enough of her time and energies to her home. In her defense Kate wrote Will: “If the house were confusion, if I were all hurry I don't believe Sam would be as happy as he certainly is. The children are not [underlined four times] neglected, nor is house work & there is lots of petting behind scenes . . ."55 Kate's felt need to justify the work she found satisfying against the demands of her family was not unique to her. Indeed, it is a problem that married career women still face today. In Kate's case there was an irony to the accusation. It was home and motherhood, after all, that the anti-suffragists were most eloquent in defending. But for Kate work outside the home to preserve "true womanhood" was always more rewarding than the role of housewife and mother. Although she believed that a woman must adopt the "law of self-respect" and not completely sacrifice her own interests to her family,56 Kate did have some regrets that she did not have a close relationship with her husband and children. In an 1891 letter to Will she confessed, ". . . Sam & the children care little or nothing for what I care for. They are always kind but their tastes & ways are different & the older they grow the more pronounced they become & I feel very lonely often, for I don't agree & I will never argue nor talk."57


The last years of the 1800's and the first few years of the new century were a period of personal crisis and tragedy for Kate Gannett Wells. Progressing deafness made it more difficult for her to carry on her work. When Will inquired how she managed with her hearing loss to preside at meetings, she replied that she either sat close to the speaker or did the talking herself.58 Even with this ingenious method of coping, her hearing loss must have made Kate feel increasingly isolated from the events in which she had always taken such a leading part.

Both of Kate's sons had graduated from Harvard, Gannett in 1886 and Sam, Jr. (nicknamed Tony), in 1891. Gannett joined his father's law firm while Tony became an agent for John Hancock Life Insurance Company, where his father had been a director and first vice president for many years. Kate's daughter Louisa (Looly) did not take any interest in the concerns that had preoccupied her mother. Instead, she turned to golf as her major pastime, playing in many tournaments and helping to establish a women's golf association. It must have been a disappointment to Kate that her daughter chose to expend her energies on golf when there was so much religious, charitable, and educational work still to be done. For her part, Looly may have had a surfeit of altruism. Unlike Kate, who had been challenged to excel by the noble example of her father, Looly declined to compete with her mother as a social reformer. She chose instead to adopt an interest completely alien to her mother's way of life and withdrew to the golf course.

Beginning in 1897, the Wells family was inundated by health and financial reverses. As a result of a serious illness that year, Sam was not reelected as a director of John Hancock . In recognition of his many years of service, he was kept on as a counsel, but only at half salary. Shortly afterward Tony also became very ill and was forced to resign from his job with John Hancock as well. Tony's condition was soon diagnosed as incurable. He apparently suffered from tuberculosis. Seeking some relief, he traveled to California in the company of a hired "man servant." He died in Redlands on February 10, 1899, at the age of 30.

Kate diverted her grief and her guilt for not accompanying Tony out West into a short novel titled Little Dick's Son. The novel, published in 1901, is about Dick Bell, aged four, his older brother Peter, and his younger sister Ruth. Kate based many of the anecdotes about the children on actual incidents in the lives of her own children. In the story, Dick's "son" is his conscience, his inner "ought" that counsels him to choose the right course on every occasion. When Will asked Kate if he could reveal Dick's true identity, Kate replied that she did not see why not, for "Little Dick is Tony & the part about my son & the very words about my son are Tony's."59 If so, Kate could take consolation in her success at imparting to her son her high sense of conscience and duty; of fulfilling her maternal role as educator of morality and builder of character.

In 1903 Sam suddenly collapsed and died of heart failure. Within two years Gannett, like his younger brother, contracted tuberculosis. On February 18, 1907, he died at the age of 43.

Gannett's death left Kate and Looly on their own, with diminished financial assets. During Gannett's long illness, his law partner either misappropriated or mismanaged the firm's funds. As a result, Gannett's will and his share of the law firm were tied up in litigation for over two years. Without this capital, Kate could no longer afford to maintain the Commonwealth Avenue house the family had purchased in 1894. In February 1908 the house was sold and she and Looly moved to a rented house on Otis Place overlooking the Charles River embankment.

In 1909 Kate was forced to resign her position on the Massachusetts State Board of Education. The State Legislature voted to consolidate the Board of Education and the Industrial Commission. In the reorganization, several Board members, including Kate, lost their seats. "So this is the end of all that has been," she sadly wrote Will.60

On Saturday, December 9, 1911, an article by Kate Gannett Wells entitled "Fifty Years of the Arlington Street Church" appeared in the Boston Transcript. The next day Kate attended services in the church her father had built and which had been so much a part of her life. On Wednesday, December 13, at the age of 73, she died of acute gastritis in her Otis Place residence. "It came very suddenly," wrote Will to his friend Fred Hosmer. "A day or two of what I fear was great pain—judging from previous attacks—then weakening brought gradual unconsciousness & she passed out very quietly."61

"By the death of Mrs. Kate Gannett Wells Boston has lost, it seems to me, her most eminent woman," wrote her long-time friend Arlo Bates in the Boston Transcript. Kate, who had spent so much of her life defending the "higher womanhood" against suffrage, would have found his concluding tribute most gratifying:

“The community is poorer for lacking her, and in a time when so many slurs are cast upon woman it is with peculiar feelings of gratitude and inspiration that we may stand by the grave of one whose constant and enforcing influence bred always reverence for the dignity and the inspiration of womanhood”.62



  1. Jane Jerome Camhi, "Women Against Women: American Anti-Suffragism, 1880-1920," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Tufts University, 1973, p. 432.
  2. William Channing Gannett, Ezra Stiles Gannett (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1893), p. 151.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Kate Gannett Wells (KGW) to William Channing Gannett (WCG), February 27, 1885. William Channing Gannett Papers, University of Rochester Library.
  5. Gannett, pp. 241-43.
  6. KGW to WCG, September 7, 1879.
  7. KGW to WCG, February 5, 1869.
  8. KGW to WCG, April 24, 1881. Kate wrote, "Oh would I were a minister. My child's wish grows stronger in middle life."
  9. George B. Emerson, "On the Education of Females," in The Introductory Discourse on the Lectures Delivered Before the American Institute of Instruction, in Boston, August, 1831 (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, Little and Wilkin, 1832), p. 41.
  10. Catherine Tilden to WCG and KGW, May 16, 1854.
  11. Ezra Stiles Gannett to WCG, November 20, 1860.
  12. Gannett, pp. 296-97.
  13. Gannett, p. 287.
  14.  KGW to WCG, November 1, 1885.
  15. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, et al., History of Woman Suffrage (Rochester: Susan B. Anthony, 1881), Vol. 1, P. 52.
  16. WCG to Catherine Tilden, February 12, 1861.
  17. KGW to WCG, March 27, 1865.
  18. KGW to WCG, May 29, 1865.
  19. KGW to WCG, March 13, 1877.
  20. KGW to WCG, May 7, 1865.
  21. KGW to WCG, October 2, 1881.
  22. KGW to WCG, October 18, 1863.
  23. Catherine Tilden to WCG, August 14, 1863.
  24.  KGW to WCG, January 24, 1864.
  25. KGW to WCG, February 21, 1864.
  26. Aunt Kate wrote to WCG on November 8, 1864: "I wish [Kate] looked forward with more joy to becoming a mother."
  27. KGW to WCG, April 20, 1865.
  28. KGW to WCG, February 5, 1869.
  29. KGW to WCG, March 27, 1865.
  30. KGW to WCG, March 3, 1878.
  31. Linda Gordon, Woman's Body, Woman's Right (N.Y.: Grossman, 1976), P. 100-01.
  32. KGW to WCG, February 5, 1869.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Gordon, p. 104.
  35. KGW to WCG, [July, 1869]
  36. KGW to WCG, January 19, 1869.
  37. KGW to WCG, June 20, 1869.
  38. KGW to WCG, [July, 1869]
  39. Catherine Tilden to WCG, November 17, 1868.
  40. Jennie Cunningham Croly, The History of the Woman's Club Movement in America (N.Y.: Allen & Co., 1898), p. 35.
  41. WCG to Catherine Tilden, February 12, 1861.
  42. William H. Pease, "William Channing Gannett; A Social Biography," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Rochester, 1955, p. 270.
  43. KGW to WCG, January 30, 1884.
  44. KGW to WCG, June 6, 1885.
  45. Kate Gannett Wells, "Personal Influence a Preventive," Unitarian Review, XVIII (July, 1882), P. 20-21.
  46. KGW to WCG, February 15, 1880.
  47. KGW to WCG, November 24, 1901.
  48. Kate Gannett Wells, An Argument Against Suffrage (Boston? 1884?), p. 4.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Ibid.
  51. WCG to Mary Thorn Lewis Gannett, June 17, 1884.
  52. Mary Thorn Lewis Gannett to WCG, June 23, 1884.
  53. KGW to WCG, November 1, 1885.
  54. KGW to WCG, March 10, 1885.
  55. KGW to WCG, June 8, 1879.
  56. Kate Gannett Wells, "Reminiscent Honeymoon," New England Magazine, XVIII (June, 1898), p. 418.
  57. KGW to WCG, March 8, 1891.
  58. KGW to WCG, February 10, 1898.
  59. KGW to WCG, October 16, 1901.
  60. KGW to WCG, May 30, 1909.
  61. WCG to Fred Hosmer, December 28, 1911.
  62. Arlo Bates, "Kate Gannett Wells," Boston Transcript, December 14, 1911.


Arrow  Return to Top