Wallace, Zerelda G. (1817–1901)

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Wallace, Zerelda G. (1817–1901)

American temperance and suffrage leader . Born Zerelda Gray Sanders on August 6, 1817, in Millersburg, Kentucky; died of a bronchial ailment on March 19, 1901, in Cataract, Indiana; daughter of John H. Sanders and Polly C. (Gray) Sanders; attended boarding school, 1828–30; married David Wallace (lieutenant governor of Indiana), on December 26, 1836 (died 1859); children: Mary Wallace; Agnes Wallace Steiner (who married John H. Steiner); David Wallace, Jr.; three who died in childhood; and three stepchildren, including the writer General Lew Wallace.

Organized the Indiana state Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU, 1874); served as Indiana WCTU president (1877, 1879–83); helped organize the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society and becamefirst president (1878); headed Franchise (suffrage) Department of the national WCTU (1883–88).

Born the daughter of a successful physician in Kentucky in 1817, Zerelda G. Wallace ended her formal education after two years of boarding school, but she was well read and enjoyed intellectual and religious conversations with her father. After moving to Indiana, she married the state's widowed lieutenant governor, David Wallace, when she was 19. As her husband moved on to become governor and then a U.S. congressional representative, young Zerelda Wallace took on increasing social duties and soon became a distinguished citizen of Indianapolis. David Wallace died in 1859, and over the next 14 years Zerelda Wallace had little interest in civic causes or a public career.

In 1873, however, the extremely religious Wallace became caught up in the temperance movement. The following year she attended a Cleveland convention of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and, being a wellknown and respected citizen, she was installed on two influential committees. Upon her return to Indianapolis, she established the Indiana branch of the WCTU, of which she would serve twice as president. In 1875, she turned her attention to suffrage when she found that the signatures of 10,000 women on a temperance memorial meant little to the Indiana legislature. She was convinced that prohibition would never become law unless women were allowed to vote, and was instrumental in the passage that same year of a national WCTU resolution supporting the female vote on prohibition issues.

Interestingly, Wallace was not very concerned with suffrage itself, but instead viewed it as "the most potent means for all moral and social reforms." With that viewpoint, in 1878 she established the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society along with May Wright Sewall . Previously affiliated with a suffrage society formed by Lucy Stone 's American Woman Suffrage Association, in 1887 Wallace nevertheless founded a group loyal to Susan B. Anthony 's National Woman Suffrage Association, and served as its vice-president at large for three years. During most of the 1880s, she served as head of the national WCTU's Franchise Department and lobbied for prohibition and suffrage in Indiana and other state legislatures.

Wallace became well known in the 1880s for her popular, effective, and inspirational, if lengthy, suffrage and temperance lectures. She spoke with purpose, and her average, sturdy looks were said to reflect the strength of her convictions. Four years after her last major speaking engagement in Washington in 1888, she suffered a major illness but still continued to lecture periodically. Alert but weakening after 1898, she spent her last years in the home of her daughter Agnes Wallace Steiner . Zerelda Wallace was also the inspiration for the character of Ben-Hur's mother in the 1880 novel Ben-Hur, which was written by her stepson General Lew Wallace.


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

Jacquie Maurice , freelance writer, Calgary, Alberta, Canada