Davis, Paulina Wright (1813–1876)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Davis, Paulina Wright (1813–1876)

American feminist, reformer and suffragist. Born Paulina Kellogg on August 7, 1813, in Bloomfield, New York; died on August 24, 1876, in Providence, Rhode Island; one of two daughters and three sons of Captain Ebenezer (a volunteer in the War of 1812) and Polly (Saxton) Kellogg; married Francis Wright (a merchant), in January 1833 (died 1845); married Thomas Davis (a jewelry maker and politician), in April 1849; children: (second marriage) two adopted daughters.

In 1817, when Paulina Wright Davis was five years old, her family moved to a tract of land near Niagara Falls; she spent several years of early childhood enjoying the freedom and adventure of frontier life. In 1820, however, after the death of both her parents, she was sent to live in LeRoy, New York, in the care of her orthodox Presbyterian aunt. In the strict religious environment of her new home, she joined the church and prepared for missionary service in the Hawaiian Islands. Her plans were interrupted in 1833 by her marriage to Francis Wright, a young, upcoming businessman from Utica who had courted her for five years.

Of a similar outlook, Davis and her young husband embarked on work for abolition, temperance, and women's rights. They helped organize an anti-slavery convention held in Utica in October 1835 and, as a consequence, suffered a mob attack on their house. In the late 1830s, Davis joined Ernestine Rose in petitioning the New York legislature for a married women's property law. After her husband's death in 1845, she used her sizable inheritance to continue her reform work. Davis was an attractive woman with blonde hair and clear blue eyes, whose appearance added considerably to her gentle, earnest appeals. She toured the East and Midwest lecturing on physiology and hygiene, using an unclad female mannequin imported from Paris which, when produced during her talks, was said to have caused some in the audience to faint, and others to flee the room.

In 1849, she married Thomas Davis, a widower and jewelry manufacturer from Rhode Island, who was also a politician. When he was elected to Congress on a Democratic ticket in 1852, Davis accompanied him to Washington for his single term. She then turned her energies to the cause of women's rights, taking the lead in plans for the first National Woman's Rights Convention, over which she presided in October 1850. In February 1853, she began publishing, at her own expense, the monthly periodical Una, one of the first publications devoted to women's rights. With editorial assistance from Caroline Dall , the publication continued to appear until late 1855.

In 1859, Davis toured Europe, devoting time to the study of painting. The Civil War temporarily suspended the women's movement, and it was not until 1868 that Davis helped found the New England Woman Suffrage Association, of which she was president until 1870. With the split in the national suffrage movement in 1869, Davis lent her support to the National Woman Suffrage Association of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (whom she was said to resemble). After participating in suffrage conventions in Washington and New York, she went abroad for a second time to continue her art studies.

In her later years, Davis became an enthusiastic spiritualist, finding comfort from her painful rheumatic gout by communicating with what she called the Other World. She died in Providence, Rhode Island, at age 63, and was buried in Swan Point Cemetery. By her request, Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke at her memorial service.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts