Early Years and Family
Anna Whitehead was born on or about July 26, 1826, in Midland Park, Bergen County, New Jersey, the daughter of Jesse Whitehead and Sophia Candy Whitehead, both of whom were English immigrants. When she was ten years old the family moved to Virginia. Her father oversaw construction of the Manchester Cotton Mill in the city of Manchester and served for many years as its superintendent. The family lived in a house adjacent to the mill, and Whitehead’s parents evidently provided her with a good education. On January 15, 1846, she married Augustus Bodeker, a German immigrant who had settled in Richmond ten years earlier. Then a clerk for a local druggist, he soon opened his own pharmaceutical business. She assumed responsibility for the care of two teenage members of her husband’s family, and she had three daughters, the first of whom died in infancy. In 1862 the family purchased a two-and-a-half-story brick house in Church Hill in Richmond. Bodeker spent part of the(1861–1865) in Albemarle County but lived in Church Hill for the remainder of her life.
By late in the 1860s Bodeker was well versed on women’s issues and had begun to follow the activities of the National Woman Suffrage Association, the larger and more radical of the two major suffrage organizations founded in the United States in 1869. When she learned that NWSA activists, including Paulina Wright Davis, were visiting Richmond late in January 1870, Bodeker invited them to her house to discuss the suffrage movement with friends and neighbors. The visitors left the meeting impressed. Reporting on her trip in the Revolution, a prosuffrage weekly, Davisa “most bril[l]iant woman” and predicted that if she could “be induced to take the lecturing field, she might reach the whole south and do incalculable good.”
With this encouragement Bodeker made plans to organize a woman suffrage association in Virginia. She and several other Richmond women drafted and submitted a “Defence of Woman Suffrage” to the Richmond Daily Enquirer, which opposed extending the franchise but published the essay in two installments on March 18 and 23, 1870. The article promised benefits to society if women were granted the vote and focused on the connection between the franchise and women’s economic opportunity and independence. Bodeker also arranged for the prominent New York suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage to visit Richmond. On May 5, 1870, Gage addressed a small group of suffrage supporters. The following evening she joined Bodeker and others in founding the Virginia State Woman Suffrage Association, with Bodeker as president. The founding officers also included United States District Court judgeand his wife, Maria Jackson Underwood; Alexandria attorneys Lysander Hill and and their wives, Adelaide Cole Hill and Jennie Woodbury Willoughby; Freedmen’s Bureau school superintendent ; the novelist , a native of Norfolk, then resident in New York; Elisa Washburne, wife of Richmond’s superintendent of schools; Georgianna Smith, a physician’s wife; and Sue L. F. Smith, daughter of a former president of Randolph-Macon College.
Bodeker was elated and invited several well-known suffrage leaders to speak in Richmond during the meeting of the General Assembly that began on December 7, 1870. Susan B. Anthony, hoping that Bodeker would be able to ignite a viable suffrage movement in the South, accepted and gave evening talks at the federal courthouse on December 9 and 10. Anthony advocated a constitutional amendment granting women the vote, but despite advance publicity and personal invitations to the members of the House of Delegates, on both nights the audience consisted of only a few legislators and women. Because many white Richmonders avoided the federal courthouse as a result of its association with Reconstruction, Bodeker attempted unsuccessfully to move the second night’s talks to the House chamber in the Capitol . Nevertheless, she used Anthony’s second appearance to test her own oratorical skills. In introducing Anthony, Bodeker delivered a fierce denunciation of the subordinate status of women and concluded with a stirring call for immediate legislative action.
Far from being discouraged by the low turnout, Bodeker was energized by Anthony’s visit and pushed forward with her own schedule of lectures and appearances. In January 1871 she hosted a presentation by the Southern-born suffragist Lillie Devereux Blake, and two months later Paulina Wright Davis, Josephine S. Griffing, and Isabella Beecher Hooker spent several days in Richmond with Bodeker. These speakers attracted larger audiences than Anthony had, but few Richmond women attended their lectures, and their presence failed to create a groundswell of support for the suffrage movement.
At a suffrage convention held in New York in May 1871, Bodeker was one of thirty-four women whom Anthony selected to serve on the National Woman Suffrage Educational Committee, a group charged with coordinating future NWSA activities. The committee urged association members to cite the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and attempt to vote in local elections in the autumn of 1871. Bodeker accordingly appeared at the designated polling place for the second precinct of Marshall Ward in Richmond to cast her vote. When the election judges refused to accept it, she insisted on placing a paper in the ballot box“by the Constitution of the United States, I, Mrs. A. Whitehead Bodeker, have a right to give my vote at this election, and in vindication of it drop this note in the ballot-box, November 7th, 1871.”
During the 1872 assembly session the Virginia Woman Suffrage Association sponsored another suffrage program featuring Matilda Joslyn Gage and Laura de Force Gordon, who had recently campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat in the California state senate. At Bodeker’s request, Henry County delegatepresented her petition for legislation granting women the right to vote. The petition was referred to the Committee for Courts of Justice, which ignored it, and the assembly once again rose without seriously considering woman suffrage.
Whether prompted by frustration at her inability to effect suffrage reform in Virginia or by some other reason, Bodeker late in 1871 began to take a deep interest in spiritualism. By 1872 she believed that she had developed exceptional powers as a medium. Convinced that she could commune directly with Heaven and that she had a responsibility to interpret God’s plan to all who would listen, Bodeker began to express her unorthodox spiritual views forcefully at home and in public. Her behavior became so erratic that on September 19, 1873, her family had her confined against her will in the Western Lunatic Asylum in Staunton. Following her release on October 20, 1874, Bodeker returned to her home in Richmond, but she never resumed her suffrage activity and by 1876 had been replaced as Virginia’s representative to the National Woman Suffrage Association by Caroline Putnam, a Northumberland County teacher. By 1909, when the suffrage movement revived with the founding of the, Bodeker’s legacy as the founder of the state’s first suffrage organization had faded into obscurity.
In 1882 Bodeker published Medium We, a collection of her spiritualist writings. After the death of her husband on July 26, 1884, she continued to live in the family’s home with her surviving daughters, neither of whom had married and the elder of whom became the head of the household. Bodeker died in Richmond on October 26, 1904, and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in that city.