ENTRY

Pidgeon, Mary Elizabeth (1890–1979)

SUMMARY

Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon was a woman suffrage activist who worked for change at every level: as a grassroots organizer, a state politics watchdog, and a researcher at a federal agency. She began her activist work in 1917 as a field organizer for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), traveling to New York, South Dakota, and eventually her native Virginia, where she worked with the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. She then dedicated herself to educating the electorate, especially new women voters, by serving on the steering committee for the formation of the Virginia League of Women Voters and as director of citizenship schools across the state from 1920 to 1926. She also worked to promote efficiency in state government, paying particular attention to legislation affecting women, as chair of the Virginia League of Women Voters’ department of efficient government for much of the 1920s and secretary of the Virginia Women’s Council of Legislative Chairmen of State Organizations from 1923 to 1925. She completed a master’s degree in political science in 1924 and worked for nearly thirty years at the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor. She died in 1979.

Early Years and Family

Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon was born on August 2, 1890, in Clarke County. She was the daughter of Lewis Pidgeon and Susan Talbott Williams Pidgeon, whose families had been members for decades of Hopewell Monthly Meeting, Society of Friends (also known as Quakers). She was educated at a Friends School in nearby Loudoun County, at the George School, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and at Swarthmore College, from which she graduated in 1913 with a B.A. in English. In 1914 Pidgeon was appointed a teacher at the Friends school in Media, Pennsylvania.

Suffrage Activity

While still in college Pidgeon began taking part in woman suffrage events, and in 1917 she went to work in New York as a field organizer for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. First sent to Buffalo, where she was recognized as an effective speaker, Pidgeon then went to Auburn and organized events and spoke before numerous groups in the state’s Fifth Campaign District. After women won the right to vote in New York in November 1917, the association sent Pidgeon to South Dakota. She made speeches, lobbied politicians, and organized for the South Dakota Universal Franchise League. Women won the right to vote there in a referendum in November 1918.

The Rights of the People—Women are People

The association then sent Pidgeon to her native state to work with the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. It had begun a campaign to sign up as many supporters of woman suffrage in each county and city as the number of men who had voted in each jurisdiction in a recent election (although it is unclear to which specific election they referred) in order to demonstrate statewide support to members of the General Assembly. Pidgeon first worked in the northern counties near where she had grown up, but she also worked in Norfolk and Portsmouth, in eastern Virginia, and made an extended trip in the summer of 1919 to sign up women in the southwestern part of the state between Bristol and Roanoke. Except for a brief mission to North Carolina, Pidgeon worked in Virginia until early in 1920, when the assembly rejected the proposed Nineteenth Amendment. Every few days she wrote and sent detailed reports of her progress to officers of the league, and her article on suffrage work, “From the Virginia Battle Front,” appeared in February 1920 in the national journal, Woman Citizen. An energetic and capable canvasser, Pidgeon signed up a great many Virginians in support of votes for women and quickly made friends among the league’s officers. She was also thrifty and wrote some of her first reports in Virginia on stationery of the South Dakota Universal Franchise League that she had saved after the conclusion of her work in that state. She later sometimes carried with her a handful of hotel stationery for writing reports as well.

Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment

Early in 1920, in anticipation that the Nineteenth Amendment would eventually be ratified (which occurred in August 1920), the Equal Suffrage League cooperated with the Extension Bureau of the University of Virginia to create citizenship schools to educate people about voting and public policy choices. Pidgeon’s successful work made her the logical choice as state director, and she began the work with a three-day School of Citizenship at the university on April 22, 23, and 24. She took the program on the road and conducted sessions in several Virginia towns and cities prior to the election in November. She was among the first women to hold an educational position of any kind at the University of Virginia, and Pidgeon directed the citizenship schools until 1926.

Political Activity

Vote

Pidgeon was a member of the steering committee for the formation of the Virginia League of Women Voters in the autumn of 1920 and became involved in state politics. She publicly supported the successful campaign in 1920 to ratify an amendment to the Constitution of Virginia authorizing referenda on proposals to borrow money to construct public highways, and in January 1921 she was the first woman elected a vice president of the Virginia Good Roads Association. In August 1921 she was selected by members to the state central committee of the Democratic Party. In November of that year she helped organize a statewide conference on efficiency in state government, making Virginia one of the first states to do so at the urging of the National League of Women Voters. Pidgeon chaired the Virginia League’s department of efficient government for much of the 1920s. Between 1922 and 1926 she published five booklets in the University of Virginia Record: on Virginia election laws, a comparison of convention and primary elections for selecting candidates for public office, Virginia laws respecting women and children, the governor’s 1926 proposal to reduce the number of popularly elected state officials from seven to three, and a correspondence course for women’s clubs based on her early citizenship schools. Pidgeon also served from 1923 to 1925 as secretary of the influential Virginia Women’s Council of Legislative Chairmen of State Organizations (later the Virginia Council on State Legislation), which monitored bills in the General Assembly of special interest to women. She was named executive secretary of the council in February 1928, but did not serve long.

Women Workers and their Dependents: Women's Bureau Bulletin

During those same years Pidgeon resumed her education and completed a master’s degree in political science at the University of Virginia in 1924 with a thesis entitled “The Government of the County in Virginia.” She studied at Fédération Universitaire Internationale, in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1925 (after she returned home she gave a lecture on the League of Nations for the Richmond League of Women Voters), and in 1926 entered the doctoral program in political science at the University of Chicago. Pidgeon planned to write her doctoral dissertation on the 1927 mayoral election in the city, but in 1928 she moved to Washington, D.C., as assistant editor of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor. She was promoted in 1930 to director of the bureau’s Division of Research, and during the 1940s she became chief of the bureau’s Economic Studies Section. While she was with the Women’s Bureau, the nation endured the Great Depression, fought World War II, and adjusted to changed employment patterns afterward. Those events all seriously affected women in the workforce and outside of it. The bureau issued almost 200 official reports as separate issues of its Bulletin of the Women’s Bureau during Pidgeon’s tenure. She was sole or principal author of about thirty reports on women in various workplace settings.

Soon after Pidgeon moved to Washington she helped organize the Friends Meeting of Washington, of which she was recording clerk for several years. She was also one of two dozen prominent American women from various organizations who in 1936 wrote a women’s charter as part of a campaign to secure for women full political and economic equality with men worldwide. Intended as an alternative to the proposed equal rights amendment to the Constitution of the United States and the proposed international Equal Rights Treaty, the charter endorsed legislation to protect women in the workplace, which its supporters feared would be jeopardized by an equal rights amendment. They planned to submit the charter to the League of Nations, but the proposal became tainted with communist associations.

Later Years

Hopewell Meeting House

Pidgeon remained in Washington, D.C., from her retirement in 1956 until 1967, when she moved into Friends House, a Quaker retirement community in Sandy Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland. Pidgeon died there of a heart attack on November 24, 1979, and was buried near her parents in the graveyard at Hopewell Meeting (later Hopewell Centre Meeting) in Frederick County, Virginia.

MAP
TIMELINE
Much of the 1920s
For much of the decade, Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon chairs the Virginia League of Women Voters' department of efficient government.
Summer 1919—February 12, 1920
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon works with the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia to sign up supporters of woman suffrage in southwestern Virginia in order to demonstrate statewide support to members of the General Assembly.
Fall 1920
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon is a member of the steering committee for the formation of the Virginia League of Women Voters.
1940s
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon becomes chief of the Women's Bureau's Economic Studies Section at the Department of Labor.
August 2, 1890
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon is born in Clarke County to Lewis Pidgeon and Susan Talbott Williams Pidgeon.
1913
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon graduates from Swarthmore College with a B.A. in English.
1914
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon is appointed a teacher at the Friends school in Media, Pennsylvania.
1917
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon begins working as a field organizer for the National American Woman Suffrage Association in New York.
November 1917
The National American Woman Suffrage Association sends Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon to South Dakota to organize for the South Dakota Universal Franchise League.
November 1918
The National American Woman Suffrage Association sends Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon to Virginia to work with the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia.
June 4, 1919
The U.S. Congress passes the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment guarantees women the right to vote.
1920
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon publicly supports the successful campaign to ratify an amendment to the Constitution of Virginia authorizing referenda on proposals to borrow money to construct public highways.
February 12, 1920
The General Assembly votes not to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees women the right to vote.
February 21, 1920
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon's article on suffrage work, "From the Virginia Battle Front," appears in the national journal, Woman Citizen.
April 1920—1926
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon is state director of the citizenship schools, a program of the extension bureau of the University of Virginia. She is among the first women to hold an educational position of any kind at the University of Virginia.
April 22—24, 1920
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon conducts a three-day School of Citizenship at the University of Virginia.
January 1921
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon is the first woman elected a vice president of the Virginia Good Roads Association.
August 1921
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon is selected by members to the state central committee of the Democratic Party.
November 1921
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon helps organize a statewide conference on efficiency in state government, making Virginia one of the first states to do so at the urging of the National League of Women Voters.
1922—1926
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon publishes five booklets in the University of Virginia Record.
1923—1925
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon serves as secretary of the influential Virginia Women's Council of Legislative Chairmen of State Organizations (later the Virginia Council on State Legislation).
1924
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon completes a master's degree in political science at the University of Virginia with a thesis entitled, "The Government of the County in Virginia."
1925
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon studies at Fédération Universitaire Internationale in Geneva, Switzerland.
1926
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon enters the doctoral program in political science at the University of Chicago.
1928
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon moves to Washington, D.C., to become an assistant editor of the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor.
February 1928
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon is named executive secretary of the Virginia Women's Council of Legislative Chairmen of State Organizations.
1930
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon is promoted to director of the Women's Bureau's Division of Research at the Department of Labor.
1930
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon helps organize the Friends Meeting of Washington, D.C.
1936
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon takes part in writing the Women's Charter, an alternative to the Equal Rights Amendment, the charter endorses labor legislation as part of a campaign to secure for women full political and economic equality with men worldwide.
1956
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon retires from the Women's Bureau's Division of Research at the Department of Labor.
1967
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon moves into Friends House, a Quaker retirement community in Sandy Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland.
November 24, 1979
Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon dies of a heart attack at Friends House. She is buried near her parents in the graveyard at Hopewell Meeting (later Hopewell Centre Meeting) in Frederick County, Virginia.
FURTHER READING
  • Tarter, Brent, Marianne E. Julienne, and Barbara C. Batson. The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2020.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. Pidgeon, Mary Elizabeth (1890–1979). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/pidgeon-mary-elizabeth-1890-1979.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "Pidgeon, Mary Elizabeth (1890–1979)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 25 Oct. 2021
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