Somerville, Nellie Nugent (1863–1952)

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Somerville, Nellie Nugent (1863–1952)

American suffragist and state legislator. Born Eleanor White Nugent on September 25, 1863, near Greenville, Mississippi; died of cancer on July 28, 1952, in Ruleville, Mississippi; daughter of William Lewis Nugent and Eleanor Fulkerson (Smith) Nugent; attended Whitworth College in Brookhaven, Mississippi; Martha Washington College in Abingdon, Virginia, A.B., 1880; married Robert Somerville (a civil engineer) in 1885 (died 1925); children: Robert Nugent Somerville (b. 1886); Abram Douglas Somerville (b. 1889); Eleanor Somerville (b. 1891); Lucy Somerville Howorth (1895–1997).

Named corresponding secretary of the Mississippi Women's Christian Temperance Union (1894); became chair of the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association (1897); elected vice-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (1915); was the first woman elected to the Mississippi state legislature (1923–27); served as a delegate from Mississippi to the national convention of the Democratic Party (1925).

Nellie Nugent Somerville was born Eleanor White Nugent in 1863 near Greenville, Mississippi, on a plantation that belonged to her maternal grandmother, S. Myra Cox Smith . Her father William Lewis Nugent was then in the Confederate Army. Two years previous, Union forces had shot Nellie's grandfather and burned the family home in Greenville. Nellie was two years old when her mother died, and she went to live with her grandmother. After his second wife died, William married a third time, to Aimee Webb , and Nellie returned to live with them in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1870. William prospered there as a member of the bar, and Nellie enjoyed a life of privilege as the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the state.

She attended Whitworth College, a finishing school in Brookhaven, Mississippi, but her intellectual capabilities soon exceeded the school's resources and she transferred to Martha Washington College, from which she graduated in 1880. Nellie augmented her formal education by reading extensively in the areas of political theory, theology, history, and public affairs. After completing college, she turned down an offer to study law as a member of her father's firm, opting instead to return to her grandmother's home and tutor the children of a Greenville banker. She married civil engineer Robert Somerville in 1885 and had four children, one of whom, Lucy Somerville Howorth , became a noted Mississippi jurist.

Despite family obligations, Somerville formed a relationship with national suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt in the early 1890s, and became an outspoken advocate of women's suffrage. She was also influenced by Frances Willard and the temperance movement, and in 1894 took a leadership role in the Mississippi chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union as corresponding secretary. Somerville then founded the Mississippi branch of the Woman Suffrage Association in 1897, taking on the difficult task of building the suffrage movement in a state notorious for its conservative politics. Through efficient organization and intelligence, she advocated public health and occupational safety programs in addition to the right to vote. Her activities on behalf of women's suffrage secured her the position of vice-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1915.

Somerville's social reform and women's rights work led her to develop an increasing interest in politics, and in 1923 she became the first woman elected to the Mississippi state legislature. Her image as a genteel Southern woman deflected much of the hostility accorded to women in the public arena, but she proved to be anything but gentle and demure while in office. She became a powerful figure in Mississippi's Democratic Party with a reputation for being stern, argumentative, and effective. She used her considerable influence to reform the state mental hospital, and was named as a delegate to the National Democratic Convention in 1925. Somerville's radicalism, engendered by her stand on women's suffrage, did not extend to other areas, however. She opposed pacifism and the federal child labor amendment, while supporting a poll tax (aimed at excluding African-Americans from the voting booths). She was also an outspoken proponent of states' rights by the late 1940s.

Following her husband's death in 1925, Somerville became a speculator in real estate and soon amassed a considerable fortune. Although no longer active in political or women's rights activities after finishing her term in the Mississippi legislature in 1927, Somerville continued to be in demand as a public speaker and writer, and retained an interest in real-estate speculation. She died of cancer on July 28, 1952, in Ruleville, Mississippi.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Grant Eldridge , freelance writer, Pontiac, Michigan

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Somerville, Nellie Nugent (1863–1952)

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