Sewall, May Wright (1844–1920)

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Sewall, May Wright (1844–1920)

American educator, suffragist, club founder, writer, and pacifist. Born May Eliza Wright on May 27, 1844, in Greenfield, Wisconsin; died of kidney disease on July 23, 1920, in Indianapolis, Indiana; second daughter and youngest of four children of Philander Montague Wright and Mary Weeks (Brackett) Wright; Northwestern Female College, Mistress of Science, 1866, Master of Arts, 1871; married Edwin W. Thompson (a mathematics teacher), in 1872 (died 1875); married Theodore Lovett Sewall (an educator), in 1880 (died 1895); no children.

Co-founded Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society (1878); co-founded the Girls' Classical School of Indianapolis (1882); helped found the Western Association of Collegiate Alumnae (1883); served as chair of the executive committee of the National Women Suffrage Association (1882–1890); helped establish theNational Council of Women and the International Council of Women (1888); founded the General Federation of Women's Clubs (1889); headed the World Congress of Representative Women (1893).

Selected writings:

Women, World War, and Permanent Peace (1915); Neither Dead Nor Sleeping (1920).

May Wright Sewall was born in 1844 in Greenfield, Wisconsin, where her father Philander Montague Wright, of old New England stock like his wife Mary Brackett Wright , had brought the family to start a farm. A gifted child, May was reputedly reading Milton before she was ten. After being tutored at home by her father, who had previously worked as a schoolteacher, she attended academies in Wauwatosa and Bloomington, Wisconsin. Sewall then taught school in Waukesha to earn money for college before enrolling in Northwestern Female College (now part of Northwestern University) in Evanston, Illinois. She graduated in 1866 with a Mistress of Science degree and taught school in Mississippi, Michigan, and Indiana while also pursuing graduate work at Northwestern Female College, from which she received a Master of Arts degree in 1871.

The following year, Sewall married Edwin W. Thompson, and both began working in Indianapolis at what later became Shortridge High School, she as a teacher of German and English literature and he as a mathematics teacher. She continued teaching there after her husband's death in 1875. That same year, she became an early member of the Indianapolis Woman's Club (for which she would design a clubhouse, the Propylaeum, built in 1891). Already a strong proponent of women's suffrage, in 1878 she joined with Zerelda G. Wallace to found the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society. Sewall became secretary of the organization, which served as an alternative to the local branch of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), founded by Lucy Stone . In 1880, she married Harvard-educated Theodore Lovett Sewall, who ran a boys' school in Indianapolis, and stopped teaching. The following year, Sewall became deeply involved in the push for a suffrage amendment in Indiana, which would fail by a narrow margin in 1883. She and her husband meanwhile, in 1882, had founded the Girls' Classical School of Indianapolis. Sewall would serve as administrator of the school, which quickly became prominent in the area, for 25 years. After 1889, she would be assisted in running the school by her husband Theodore, who closed his own school in order to join her that year.

Even as she began running her new school in 1882, Sewall also became chair of the executive committee of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), Susan B. Anthony 's and Elizabeth Cady Stanton 's rival to the AWSA. She would hold this position for the next eight years, often testifying to Congress in the struggle for suffrage. In 1887, a meeting of the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage led to the organization of an Indiana branch of the NWSA, of which Sewall served as chair of the executive committee for two years. In 1888, she coorganized, with Frances Willard , and attended an international women's assembly in Washington, D.C., marking the 40th anniversary of the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. At the assembly was born the National Council of Women, intended as an umbrella organization for all stripes of women's groups in the country, for which Sewall served as initial recording secretary. The creation of the National Council of Women was followed a year later, again by Sewall and Willard, by that of the International Council of Women, of which she was an active member. Also in 1889, she traveled to Paris as a delegate of the NWSA and the National Council of Women to the International Congress of Women, sponsored by the French government in connection with the Exposition Universelle. Speaking in French, Sewall delivered one of the principal addresses at the congress, and won high praise for her eloquence.

By this time she had become a prominent lecturer on higher education for women and equality before the law. Sewall delivered addresses at most of the suffrage conventions across the United States, and also wrote a number of articles and chapters for books promoting suffrage and education. For several years, she edited a women's column in the Indianapolis Times. She put her ideas into practice at her girls' school, where the curriculum included the novelty (some considered it a dangerous practice for girls) of physical education as well as a deep grounding in mathematics and ancient and modern languages. Her students were encouraged to believe that all fields of knowledge were both open to them and worthy of their attention. Sewall also instituted dress reform at the school, no small matter in an era when longtime corset use could seriously impair health. As well, in 1883 she became a founder of the Indianapolis Art Association and its art school, which would later become the John Herron Art Institute. On the national level, she was active in the Association of Collegiate Alumnae and was a founder (1883) and twice president of the Western Association of Collegiate Alumnae (1886, 1888–89), both forerunners of the American Association of University Women.

In 1892–93, Sewall traveled abroad to kindle interest in and recruit speakers for the World's Congress of Representative Women, planned to coincide with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. She presided over the congress, at which 300-plus women from numerous countries read papers on all facets of women's issues. Her husband died in 1895, but Sewall continued running her school and actively pursuing suffrage and social improvements for women. She was an organizer of an Indianapolis "Ramabai Circle," dedicated to raising funds for Pandita Ramabai 's efforts to educate young widows in India, and remained active in the General Federation of Women's Clubs, of which she had been a founder in 1889. Sewall served as president of the National Council of Women from 1897 to 1899, and as president of the International Council of Women from 1899 to 1904. In 1900, she was appointed a U.S. representative to the Paris Exposition by President William McKinley. During the last 15 years of her life, she was an active member of the American Peace Society. In 1915, she published Women, World War, and Permanent Peace and also presided over the International Conference of Women Workers to Promote Permanent Peace at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. That December, she accompanied Rosika Schwimmer on the "Peace Ship" (Oscar II), funded by Henry Ford in an attempt to end the war in Europe.

After closing her school in 1907, Sewall had moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and later to Eliot, Maine. Despite having for years attended the Unitarian Church with her husband, she turned to spiritualism after his death, apparently seeking contact with him. Her book Neither Dead Nor Sleeping, published in the last year of her life, described her experiences with psychic phenomena. Once described as "powerful, dominant, and queenly in personality," able to inspire both "tender and loyal friendships and vivid aversions," Sewall died in Indianapolis in 1920, age 76.


Dictionary of American Biography. 20 vols. NY: Scribner, 1935, p. 610.

Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham. The Congress of Women Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition. Chicago, IL: International, 1895, pp. 771–775.

Gates, Susa Young. The Relief Society Magazine. September 1920, pp. 499–501.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971, pp. 269–271.

Logan, Mrs. John A. The Part Taken by Women in American History. Wilmington, DE: Perry-Nalle, 1912, pp. 580–581.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Harriet Horne Arrington , freelance biographer, Salt Lake City, Utah

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Sewall, May Wright (1844–1920)

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