Dora Kelly Lewis: Philadelphia’s Voice in the Suffrage Movement

As the country commemorates the centenary of the Nineteenth Amendment, the In Her Own Right Project is highlighting collections related to women’s rights and the long struggle for women’s suffrage. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania is home to the correspondence of Dora Kelly Lewis, a prominent Philadelphian and central figure of the suffrage movement.

post by Andrew Williams, Imaging and Metadata Technician at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP)

Dora Kelly Lewis, prominent Philadelphia suffragist and a key member of the National Woman’s Party.

Often referred to in the sources as Mrs. Lawrence Lewis, Dora was born in 1862 to a well-to-do family. Both her father, Henry K. Kelly, a merchandise broker, and her mother, Louisa W. Kelly, could trace their roots to the colonial period. In 1883 Dora married Lawrence Lewis, a young Philadelphia lawyer who became distinguished after his work on the French Spoliation Claims. Together they produced a daughter, Louise, and two sons, Robert and Shippen. Dora was widowed in 1890 after Lawrence died tragically in a train accident in Frazer. 

Dora was deeply involved in women’s rights and the American labor movement, and participated in the 1909-1910 Shirtwaist strikes and prison reform demonstrations. She was a member of the first executive committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Congressional Committee, chaired by the Alice Paul. After participating in the suffrage movement in England, Paul believed the NAWSA’s approach at promoting suffrage at the state level too conservative, and proposed a campaign for a constitutional amendment. Lewis and Paul had met previously when both women were members of the Philadelphia Equal Franchise Society, and Lewis was one of the first women Paul asked to join her in breaking with NAWSA in 1916 to form the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, later known at the National Woman’s Party (NWP). 

As Paul stated in a 1976 interview, Dora Lewis was “a tower of strength.” Lewis’ status afforded an extensive network of contacts, and she traveled across the country to raise money for NWP. In addition to her tireless fundraising efforts, Dora served on the NWP national executive committee, and acted as chairman of finance in 1918 and treasurer in 1919. She also organized and participated in NWP’s campaign of civil disobedience. Known as the Silent Sentinels, a rotating group of picketers, clad in white, held continuous vigil in front of the White House for two years. Other strategies, of which many are described in Dora’s correspondence, included public speeches and the dramatic burning of Wilson’s words in front of the White House. NWP also put out a weekly publication—The Suffragist—to spread news about NWP activities and promote women’s suffrage.

Like many members of the NWP, Dora was arrested on multiple occasions during public demonstrations. For instance, while Dora went up to give a speech at a demonstration in front of the NWP headquarters in Lafayette Park, Washington, D.C., the police immediately arrested her and the other suffragists present. The most infamous occurrence of suffragist imprisonment occurred on November 14th, 1917, at the Occoquan Workhouse. After arriving at the prison, Dora spoke up for the group and requested that they receive political-prisoner status, which was summarily denied by the superintendent. That evening thirty-three women, including Dora, were brutalized by the guards, and those who participated in hunger strikes were violently force-fed. Lewis herself, who was nearly sixty, was handled so violently that the other picketers thought that she had died. President Wilson announced his support for a constitutional amendment only a few months later.

The Dora Kelly Lewis correspondence collection itself possesses enormous historical value for researchers and those interested in the history of women’s rights, women’s suffrage, and the first-wave 

feminist movement. Prolific in her communication with family members, Dora’s letters trace her fundraising and lobbying efforts across the country, and offer a glimpse into the inner workings of NWP. In one letter, Dora provides insight into her fundraising strategies: “We would like Mrs. Hepburn to help the NWP and I think Mrs. Havermeyer might be able to influence her to do so… It’s quite funny how one thing grows out of the other.” Dora’s correspondence from prison are also in the collection. In a letter written at the Occoquan Workhouse, Dora tells her mother to write as much as she can, and says that “Louise will tell you everything… until we are treated as political [sic] prisoners we can only write once a week…” The collection also contains correspondence between Dora and Lawrence preceding their marriage in 1883, which should be of interest to historians of social relationships, courtship, and nineteenth-century American society in general. 

 

Complete Works Cited:

Fry, Amelia R. and Jill Diane Zahniser. Alice Paul: Claiming Power. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Lewis, Dora Kelly. Dora Kelly Lewis Correspondence, 1879-1920. From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Lunardini, Christine. Alice Paul: Equality for Women. Routledge, 2018.

See also: 

Johnson, Joan Marie. Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and the Women’s Movement, 1870–1967. UNC Press Books: 2017

Buhl, Mari Jo and Paul Buhle. The Concise History of Woman Suffrage: Selections from the Classic Work of Stanton, Anthony, Gage, and Harper. University of Illinois Press, 1978.