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Vernon, Mabel (1883–1975)

Vernon, Mabel (1883–1975)

American suffragist and peace advocate. Born on September 10, 1883, in Wilmington, Delaware; died of heart disease on September 2, 1975, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of George Washington Vernon (a newspaper publisher) and Mary (Hooten) Vernon; graduated from Wilmington Friends' School, 1901; Swarthmore College, B.A., 1906; Columbia University, M.A. in political science, 1924.

Worked as an organizer and sometimes militant activist in cause of women's suffrage (1913–early 1920s); interrupted speech by President Woodrow Wilson (1916); joined Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (1930); present as inter-American committee delegate at founding of the United Nations (1945).

A key figure in both the women's suffrage movement and the pacifist movement, Mabel Vernon devoted her life's work to social change. She did not shy away from civil disobedience in the struggle for the right to vote, and was one of the first suffrage activists to spend time in jail for the cause.

The youngest of seven children, Vernon was born in 1883 in Wilmington, Delaware. Although the family belonged to a local Presbyterian church, the Quaker faith also played a role in her development; her father, a newspaper publisher, came from a Quaker background, and Mabel attended the Wilmington Friends School, graduating in 1901. The Quakers had (and still have) a long tradition of pacifism and social activism, and this spirit was to inspire Vernon throughout her career. She earned a bachelor's degree from Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, in 1906, and then supported herself by teaching German and Latin.

Alice Paul , with whom she had become friends in college, sparked Vernon's interest in the growing women's rights movement, and in 1912 she attended the convention in Philadelphia of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) as an usher. Paul also encouraged her to quit teaching and take a job as a suffrage organizer, at meager wages, in 1913. Vernon, a verbally oriented woman who had excelled as a debater in college, took naturally to the work. Soon she became an organizer at the national level for the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, a militant suffrage group that had split from NAWSA and would later become a component of the National Woman's Party (NWP). Vernon traveled around America, successfully working with Anne Henrietta Martin to enact a suffrage law in the state of Nevada in 1914 and organizing a cross-country suffrage auto caravan for Sara Bard Field .

On July 4, 1916, Vernon interrupted a speech by President Woodrow Wilson in Washington, D.C., an act that signaled a new boldness in the efforts of suffragists. As part of a group she met personally with Wilson in May 1917 to press the cause, but embarked on a course of civil disobedience again later in the year when she picketed the White House, was arrested, and spent three days in jail. Undaunted, she toured the country after her release on an NWP speaking tour.

After the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed by Congress in 1919, Vernon worked to promote its ratification. When this task was successfully completed in 1920, granting women the right to vote, she spoke in support of women candidates for office, but also took time out to recharge herself philosophically for new challenges. She lectured on feminism and returned to school, earning a master's degree in political science from Columbia University in New York City in 1924.

The new effort that would absorb Vernon's attention for the rest of her long life was the cause of world peace and disarmament. She joined the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in 1930, immediately putting her organizational skills to work and helping to launch the WILPF on a trajectory that has made it among the most durable of pacifist societies. As she had done in her suffragist days, she organized a transcontinental caravan. She represented the U.S. WILPF chapter at international conferences, and at a 1936 meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, began to develop a specific interest in Latin American countries. In 1945, in the capacity of representative of an inter-American delegation, Vernon was present at the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco. The organization that had sent her to Buenos Aires, the Peoples Mandate Committee for Inter-American Peace and Cooperation, made her its director in the 1940s and then its chair, a position she held until her retirement in 1955.

Vernon was recognized as an activist who excelled both in the spotlight and behind the scenes. An orator whose speeches helped achieve women's suffrage, she was equally gifted as a fund raiser and as what today would be called a lobbyist. In 1972 and 1973, approaching her 90th year, Vernon recounted to oral historians at the University of California at Berkeley the events in her life, which stood at the center of monumental changes in action and attitude. She died in 1975 of heart disease.

sources:

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

James M. Manheim , freelance writer, Ann Arbor, Michigan

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