Her Island History: 100 Years of Tenacious Island Women

Dora Kelly Lewis was an activist for women’s suffrage and a member of the National Woman’s Party. She served as treasurer and a lead fundraiser for the organization. She summered in Northeast Harbor and used her extensive network of wealthy friends from Philadelphia to raise money for the cause in many Maine summer communities. Her descendants Dora Lewis Townsend and Louisa Mygatt talk about her work, life, and inspiration for the women of their family.

Dora Lewis Townsend and Louisa Mygatt at the Sound Schoolhouse, August 2020,; Release from prison after two weeks being on hunger strike, Library of Congress, 1918; Portrait of Dora Kelly Lewis, Library of Congress, date unknown; portrait Dora Kelly Lewis, Library of Congress date unknown; Planning suffrage strategy with Alice Paul, Library of Congress ca. 1909-1920.

Celebrated suffragist Dora Kelly Lewis suffered physical, psychological, and emotional abuse in her fight for women’s right to vote between 1913 and 1920. Inspired by suffragist Alice Paul, Lewis became active in the National Women’s Party, serving as treasurer and a lead fundraiser for the party. She was a Silent Sentinel, a group of women who stood in front of the White House in silent protest for six days a week for over two years hoping to influence president Woodrow Wilson to support the right for women to vote.

As a result, with 32 other women, Lewis endured The Night of Terror a brutal and shocking imprisonment meant to break the spirit and commitment of suffragists. Over her time as a suffragist Lewis would be imprisoned for 83 days in basement cells without windows and in workhouses that tortured Lewis and her peers. While imprisoned Lewis went on hunger strike to call attention to the conditions of her confinement and the treatment of her fellow activists. She was force fed and eventually released from prison too weak to walk, but strong enough to continue the fight.

Her story, and those of other suffragists, are important and help us understand that the battle for the vote was a battle in the truest sense of the word. Yes there were parades of polite women dressed in white asking for the right to vote, but for over 70 years women argued, demanded, cajoled, and justified their right to the ballot box until finally they won in 1920.

Today, on the centennial of the adoption of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, the Mount Desert Island Historical Society commemorates island women and the role they play in transforming lives and our communities. What is the connection between Mrs. Lewis and Mount Desert Island? She summered in Northeast Harbor, and as a wealthy woman well connected to the summer colony, she used her influence to raise funds throughout the summer communities in Maine on behalf of the National Woman’s Party. Executive Director Raney Bench recently had the opportunity to sit down with her great grand-daughters, Dora Lewis Townsend and Louisa Mygatt to learn more about Dora Kelly Lewis, her life’s work, and her influence on the lives of her descendants.


Oral History Transcription:

This is Raney Bench at the Mount Desert Island Historical Society on August 11th, 2020 and I’m with Louisa Mygatt and Dora Lewis Townsend to talk about their ancestor Dora Kelly Lewis, who was instrumental in the woman’s suffrage movement, and who also had some connections to Maine. Thank you both for being with us today. Maybe start by telling us a little about Dora Kelly Lewis and her role in woman’s suffrage.


Dora Townsend: Dora Kelly Lewis was born in Philadelphia in 1862 and spent her early years there. Her family was very religious.  She was raised to believe that if she was able, she should always work to improve the lives of others and to make the world a better place. She married at the age of 20 but unfortunately, her husband died suddenly after 7 years of marriage, leaving her a widow with three small children. Despite the difficulty of having to ask her in-laws for money in order to live, she had a comfortable life and clearly was a woman of privilege. She traveled in Europe, spent summers on the coast of Maine, and her children all had a private school education, although she did homeschool them until they were ten or so and then they went off to school. My grandfather in his journal says that his mother was a fascinating person no matter the circumstances. She was very well read and quite good company – a great conversationalist. She became involved in suffrage when she was in her 50’s, after her children had grown and left the home. Her youngest son, my grandfather, was a practicing lawyer, living only a few blocks away in downtown Philadelphia. Dora attended the National American Women’s Suffrage Association annual convention in Philadelphia and there she met Alice Paul. Dora already was interested in suffrage, although she had not engaged in any suffrage activity at that point. She just believed that it was a very good idea that women should vote. But when she met Alice Paul she was quite taken with her leadership energy and quickly became very involved in what was then the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, it had not split off into the National Women’s Party yet.


Raney: Do you know what year that would have been?


Dora: The National Women’s Party split off from the National American Women’s Suffrage Association in June of 1916. Dora became involved in the Suffrage Movement in 1913 because that was the year of the parade in Washington, DC, and she was very much engaged in that event. The organizational split occurred several years after that famous parade.


Raney: So, she followed Alice Paul when Alice Paul broke away and started the Women’s Party.


Dora: Yes. It is interesting to note that the National Woman’s Party and the suffragists who picketed the White House and were arrested and force-fed received a lot of publicity, and so they should have, but the National American Women’s Suffrage Association actually was working slowly and steadily at the same time but in a much more quiet, peripheral way. They worked  within the states making sure that the elected officials believed in the cause for suffrage. When the 19th Amendment was passed, it was this organization, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association that morphed into the League of Women Voters. They have a very credible history and I have come to believe that both organizations using different tactics and strategies were needed to achieve the goal.


Louisa: And they, the National Women’s Party, out on the fringe, made the Women’s Suffrage Association look even more respectable and credible. I think it takes all different approaches to get somewhere that is so challenging to achieve.


Raney: Dora had an official role within the National Women’s Party, as I understand it, what did she do on behalf of the National Women’s Party?


Dora: She was a fundraiser; she was the Chairman of the Finance Committee and often would use their prison experience to stage a fundraising event. In one case at the Ritz Carlton they all dressed in prison clothes and marched in to a standing ovation and made quite a lot of money that night. In her letter she said they raised $5 and $6,000, which for that time would have been a lot. She was apparently very good at fundraising.


Raney: And she did some fundraising in Maine you think?


Louisa: I think so, from the book Voting Down the Rose that talked about her coming here on vacation and doing some fundraising, but she had connections all over and used them.


Raney: Well in Maine there were a lot of community members from Philadelphia who would come to summer in Maine, and Boston and New York families, too, who made this reproduction of community from their winter home to one in Maine. They were all sort of travelling together, so I’m sure she was very well connected here and had networks up and down the coastal summer colonies to be able to tap into.


Dora: And one of the interesting aspects about her is that she was so affluent and so connected to a very privileged part of society, and yet she picketed the White House and risked a lot of personal harm as well as societal disapproval, but she was undaunted in her endeavors.  I think the success of her fundraising may have come from her association with people who had money..


Raney: So, let’s talk a little bit about the activism piece, that she was among the Silent Sentinels positioned at the White House daily, on the sidewalk with their banners and was arrested for “clogging the sidewalk.”


Louisa: Obstructing traffic


Raney: Yes, that was the excuse for the arrest, but what do you know about her activism?


Louisa: The biggest time that I think we know about is the time that she and others were arrested and then the officials really wanted to make an example of these women and so they treated them incredibly poorly and put them in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. On what has become known as the “Night of Terror,” the guards treated the women brutally, and in fact threw Dora Lewis into her cell. Remember, she’s 55 or so at this point, older than almost the rest of these people, except one- what was that lady’s name?


Dora: Mrs. Nolan, who kept a journal while they were in prison, and she was older than Dora.


Louisa: When Dora was thrown into her cell, her head hit the bedstead and she was knocked unconscious.


Dora: And they thought she was dead.


Louisa: And didn’t some other woman have a heart attack on seeing that happen? I think so.


Dora: Oh, I don’t know. I think that was Mrs. Nolan.


Louisa: I think that might have been.


Dora: Raymond Whittaker was the Superintendent of the Workhouse and he was quoted in a letter that Dora wrote to her daughter saying that he thought “Mrs. Lawrence Lewis should be taken out and shot.” So, she was apparently a formidable person and didn’t seem to be afraid. She spoke for many of the other women, she was, I think, the designated spokesperson. And in Occoquan, they wanted to be treated as political prisoners, but that request was denied. And they were literally beaten with clubs.


Louisa: The guards shone flashlights in their eyes in the night to deprive them of sleep. The prison officials tried to get Alice Paul declared insane. My mother always wondered if Dora’s brother had helped find the doctor who came in to assess her and to pronounce her totally sane.


Dora: And he is quoted as saying “The courage to speak one’s mind does not make a woman insane.”


Raney: Well, if he were a lawyer in Philadelphia.


Louisa: That was her husband who had been the lawyer, and he was dead at this point, but her brother was actually quite a well-known physician who was part of starting Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, so he had medical connections.


Dora: I have tried to find the details of who that young psychiatrist was but all that was said was that he was a psychiatric resident. As of yet, I have not found out who it was.


Raney: So, how long was she in prison?


Dora: Overall, she spent 83 days in prison, but that was multiple times. She was arrested many times.


Louisa: And she went on more than one hunger strike. I always thought it was only one, but I think it was three.


Dora: I don’t know how many but the last one was after the experience at the Occoquan Workhouse, they were arrested again and Dora was put in an underground, windowless cell in a prison that had been abandoned for twenty years. There were rats and roaches and it was just a horrible place. She immediately went on a hunger strike for two weeks.  There is a photograph taken of her on the day she was released from prison. It was the last time she was in prison.  I have the photograph. It’s on the day of her release, and she literally can’t walk, she’s so thin and weak, and she just looks gaunt. It’s quite a dramatic photograph.


Louisa: And I think that’s the one that made Woodrow Wilson finally come around. I don’t know if this is true, but when I taught at the Agnes Irwin school, which coincidentally Dora attended, I always taught about suffrage. We had this great video, maybe from PBS or maybe from the National Women’s History Museum, I don’t remember, but I always loved this moment where they said that “Woodrow Wilson announced that he would not play his customary game of golf tomorrow afternoon, but would make an announcement about suffrage.” Good to know how things worked back then in 1918 when he finally changed and came out in favor.


Dora: But he did so very begrudgingly. He was an old school traditionalist and he did not want women to have the right to vote at all.


Raney: There are a lot of stories that I read about women encamped on his lawn.


Dora: They were the delegations; they were ‘deputations’ of women. They came in groups of homemakers, teachers, factory workers, professional women, elite club women, all these different groups of women in society came to ask President Wilson if he would consider suffrage as an issue for his administration. There are pictures of hundreds of women camped on the lawn of the White House, because they only let ten or so into his office at a time, but hundreds came. And he said one of two things: Suffrage is not an important issue for my administration OR, it’s a states’ issue not a federal issue.


Raney: So, I love how much you know about her, and obviously there’s a lot written about her work, but inside your family’s history, what kinds of things were passed down? Family stories, or family knowledge that either you haven’t found in the written work that influence how your family understands suffrage and your relationship to this history?


Louisa: It is true that our family is one of strong women. I never really thought about where that came from necessarily, but it could well have come from her.


Dora: Oh, for sure it came from her, although I didn’t know that much about her when I was growing up. And I don’t know if it’s because my mother didn’t talk about it or if I simply didn’t listen.


Louisa: I wanted to figure out when it was I learned about her because we have another cousin who said she never even heard this story as she was growing up, and I thought ‘Oh, that’s odd’ because I think that I did. I don’t know how much I knew about her.


Dora: Well, I think her family was committed to “good works.” There were five children in her family and one of them started the Philadelphia Lighthouse, one of them was Dora who was very much in the suffrage movement, and her younger brother was one of the founding physicians at Johns Hopkins, the hospital, and he’s who we heard about in my family. But I grew up in Baltimore and that may be the reason I have that strong association.


Louisa: Yes, growing up in Cincinnati I heard more about Dora than about him.


Raney: So, she has a connection to the Island; you’re not super sure what it is, but let’s talk about what you do know.


Dora: We are sure she did come to Northeast and summered here.


Louisa: We just don’t know when that started in her life. Was it something that she did as a child, or that she and her husband decided on, or was it something that her husband’s family had been doing since he was a child and then when he died, she just went with that program as a widow with young children.


Dora: That would be worth investigating (Louisa: I don’t know how we’re going to do that) You never know though.

Raney: Did they have a summer home that they returned to, or did they rent a home?


Dora: I would think that they owned but I do not actually know.


Louisa: That’s where I wondered if the Historical Society would have information that might help us figure that out (Raney: we can look for sure).


Dora: What the family lore is: there were three children, Louise was an unmarried daughter and I’m not sure where she ended up, probably with Dora staying in Northeast, but when Shippen and Bob, the brothers wanted to have summer places of their own, they did not want to be in Northeast, so my grandfather bought property in Pretty Marsh and built a camp and Uncle Bob rented property in Sorrento.


Raney: Do you know why they didn’t want to be in Northeast?


Dora: I think that they were both looking for a simpler summer community for their families, maybe not so moneyed.


Raney: So what was Dora’s husband’s name so we can try to trace that?


Louisa: His name was Lawrence Lewis, no middle name. (Raney: so that would be the family name to look into?) Yes. Dora’s father’s name was Henry Kuhl Kelly. And he fought in the Civil War.


Raney: So, you said you think there’s a legacy of strong women in the family and not sure how much the family lore talked about Dora.


Louisa: But it certainly has been talked about to our daughter’s generation. Those women are all in their 30s and 40s and they were raised on this story. Their moms (like Dora and me) came of age with the women’s movement and Dora’s activism spoke to us and our experiences. So we shared it with our daughters. Recently there was a set of interviews in the New York Times with descendants of prominent suffragists who are carrying on the tradition and one of them is Jessye Kass, our cousin’s daughter. Dora Kelly Lewis’s own daughter was also a strong woman committed to service who worked at the Philadelphia Lighthouse, which was a settlement house for immigrants. (Dora: it’s a strong theme in our family. Whether it was associated directly with Dora Kelly Lewis or if it was just associated with the idea that we should just work to make the world a better place and that’s just part of what we were raised on.) But there was also a clear message in our family that it was okay to speak up, to speak up to men. (Dora: Oh yes.) We should not take that for granted because that is not how other people, even in our generation, were raised. And I think it does come from our family history in a lot of ways.


And there was, there has been this family lore that part of what made Dora especially feel that the vote was important was that after her husband died, she had to be asking her in-laws for money and explaining what she wanted it for. Her husband had not bought any life insurance on the advice of his father, which maybe his father regretted later, but it put Dora in a position of financial dependence. Her discomfort with that may have been a motivation for getting involved with suffrage.


Dora: She had to always explain herself and her financial decisions to her in-laws and perhaps that experience helped her want women to be able to have autonomy and independence and not have to be dependent on someone else for survival.


Louisa: And there’s another interesting theory that has been floating out there. Before her untimely death, Cokie Roberts was in the process of writing a biography about Dora Kelly Lewis. Cokie tracked down Dora Townsend, and that led to several of us cousins going to meet Cokie and her daughter and have lunch with them in DC. In the course of that conversation, we asked her what her initial thinking was about why Dora got involved in suffrage. Cokie hadn’t had time to do much research at that point, but she had been theorizing that it might have had something to do with going to the Agnes Irwin School, which was an all-girls school that was strongly academic. The founder, Agnes Irwin, was the head of the school when Dora was there and Miss Irwin went on to become the Dean at Radcliffe College. She was all about women really having quality education and being able to speak up for themselves (Raney: not just homemaking), not just homemaking skills, exactly. Although Cokie (who went to an all-girls school herself) thought that the influence of the all-girls school might have been significant for Dora, I don’t believe that she had found any tangible independent evidence yet to support that.


Dora: Cokie had written about important aspects and events in American history, but she always approached it from the viewpoint and perspective of several women. When I spoke to her on the phone she explained that she wanted to tell the story of Suffrage through one woman’s eyes and perspective and because Dora was a prolific letter writer and journal keeper, Cokie had chosen her as that one woman. A lot of Dora’s correspondence and journals and letters are in the Library of Congress and the Pennsylvania Historical Society. So Cokie had access to a lot of material and original sources.


Raney: Do you have records and photos and albums in your family that you’ve been able to keep and maintain from that time period?


Louisa: I have copies of all the letters, all the suffrage letters that are in the Pennsylvania Historical Society, and then Dora had a copy of… you explain it, Dora.


Dora: I had wonderful original letters that were all tied with a blue ribbon and they were numbered in order. I that Louise Wood and Louise Page (our aunts) when they were writing their Political Prisoner paper about Dora, went through all the letters and decided what was suffrage related and what was not. This was a stack of letters that was tied with a ribbon and they weren’t related to suffrage and when Cokie came to my house for lunch, I said these letters might be relevant to the story and I gave them to her. My historic minded cousin, Louisa almost had a heart attack when I told her I had given Cokie original source material.  But, Cokie Roberts would be a good person to respect the authenticity of those letters… (Louisa: For sure.) And, it turned out that these were letters from her husband that Dora had kept, and the letters that Dora had written to her husband, which were the answers and the conversation were in the Library of Congress. Cokie had read those letters, so when she got the letters from me (tied with ribbon), she wrote to me and said ‘You can’t imagine the conversation that went back and forth between these people; they were so in love with each other and they would write these, it makes me teary, these letters like: “the minute I see you I’m going to kiss you all over ..so be prepared.” Cokie wrote me this in an email and I read it while sitting in an airport and I literally was blushing. These were steamy notes. And all of those letters are now in the Pennsylvania Historical Society in Philadelphia.


Raney: That’s wonderful that you’ve given those records to be preserved for future generations; they will be appreciative of that. So, what’s one thing that you want to record. There’s a lot out there about what her legacy might be, but what would you like to say is her legacy that is important?


Dora: I think that she lived by a personal code at least starting at age 50, and maybe all her life, which was that if you believe deeply that something is right, then it’s worth fighting for. I am sure she “picked her battles” so to speak, given her circumstances and the era in which she lived, but I think it was clearly a conviction by which she lived.


Louisa: That’s really a great way to say it because I think the way she speaks to me is to say ‘you need to take risks.’ To make change takes a lot of courage and you have to take risks to do it. (Dora: and determination and persistence) and persistence and she was out there doing it and that encourages me to get myself going.


Raney: Wonderful, well we are about to come up on the actual day of the ratification, the hundredth anniversary is later this month in August, so this is a really timely and appreciated interview to capture the connection and be able to share her connection to Maine and MDI specifically of this woman who was so influential to so many people, thank you very much.