The Not-So-Secret Suffragette

When May Wright Sewall moved to Indiana in 1871 for a teaching position, soon after graduating college, she found camaraderie in the Indianapolis Women’s Club.  Indiana was only one of five states to form a women’s rights organization within three years of the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Though the club had not made much progress, it laid the ground-work for Sewall’s decades-long quest for equal rights for women. 

In 1878, Sewall gathered like-minded community members to discuss the enfran-chisement of women and the possibility of forming an Indianapolis suffrage association. Doing so overtly was socially and legally hazardous, so her invitation was circulated through secret means. As Sewall recalled, nine women and one man “not mutually acquainted, but the most courageous of those to whom the call had come,” met to discuss “advanced ideas” concerning women.

The group made one big decision that evening—to not hide their advocacy. They named their organization the Indianapolis Suffragists and advertised their next meeting in the local paper. Soon after, the organization’s meetings grew in attendance and Sewall was selected to represent Indiana at the Jubilee Convention of 1878. The event was hosted by the National Woman Suffrage Association in Rochester to celebrate the 13th anniversary of the first Seneca Falls gathering.  Sewall’s star was on the rise, and she soon became lifelong friends with civil-rights advocates Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frederick Douglass.

The Hoosier community was inspired by Sewall, who was noted as being “a social clockmaker who gets human machinery into 
shape, winds it up and sets it running.” Through letter-writing campaigns, petitions, and community meetings, the Indianapolis 
Equal Suffrage Society promoted an equal-voting rights bill that was passed by the Senate and House, only to be defeated in the General Assembly in 1883 due to a technical error which kept it off the official legislative record. 

Sewall was also involved in Indianapolis philanthropies and social organizations, and wanted to create an organization for the 
study and promotion of art. An organization called the Indianapolis Art Association did exist at the time to display the work of local artists, but the all-male club had not been able to advance its cause beyond single exhibitions. So on April 5, 1883, Sewall and seventeen other women drafted articles of association to cultivate and advance art, art education, and establish a permanent gallery. The Art Association of Indianapolis was formally incorporated on October 11. Twenty-two years later, Sewall participated in the ground-breaking ceremony for the John Herron Art Institute, which would become  the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1969.

In the early 20th century, Sewall turned her attention to the cause of world peace, asserting that equal partnerships between  men and women would create a society of reason.  Sewall dropped out of public life in her later years, but her mark on American history and our Hoosier landscape was indelible. In Indianapolis, she had founded or co-founded over 50 organizations, including the Contemporary Club, the Propylaeum, Indianapolis Women’s Club, and the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society.

Sewall died July 22, 1920. She had lived long enough to know that her tireless quest for the right to cast a ballot was successful. The 19th Amendment was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, though not ratified until after her death. Sewall once said, “My country is the world, my countrymen are all mankind,” which seems fitting for a pioneer who helped bring equality to the national ballot box and a world’s worth of art to Indianapolis.

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