Wells, Marguerite Milton (1872–1959)

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Wells, Marguerite Milton (1872–1959)

Third president of the National League of Women Voters who sought to educate women on the issues and their political rights. Born on February 10, 1872, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; died of pneumonia in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on August 12, 1959; daughter of Edward Payson Wells (a banker, railroad entrepreneur, and politician) and Nellie (Johnson) Wells; attended Miss Hardy's school in Eau Claire, Wisconsin; graduated from Smith College, 1895; never married.

Became involved with the suffrage movement in its final stages as a member of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (1917); joined the newly formed National League of Women Voters after ratification of the 19th Amendment (1920); became president of the League (1934).

Marguerite Milton Wells was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1872. Her parents Edward and Nellie Wells moved to Jamestown, a settlement on the edge of Dakota Territory, where Wells spent her childhood. Her father's interests in banking and railroads made him one of the primary figures in the development of the Territory, and Marguerite had the opportunity to watch the territorial government form as an example of democracy in action. The experience gave her an unshakable confidence in the democratic process that would inform much of her philosophy in regards to women's suffrage.

Wells took her teaching examinations at the age of 15 and taught a summer session in a one-room Dakota school before attending Miss Hardy's school in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. In 1891, Wells entered Smith College, thus beginning a longstanding association with the school that would include her graduation in 1895 and her ascension to a trustee post in 1915. The years following her graduation were a combination of European travel, two years of teaching in New Jersey, and volunteer work in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where her family had settled. However, Wells suddenly dropped all responsibilities on various boards in order to devote herself wholeheartedly to the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association in 1917, even though she had never previously been involved with activist work.

Wells joined the suffrage cause in the final stages of the movement; working closely with Clara Ueland , she helped organize the campaign for the ratification of the 19th Amendment in Minnesota. Once the association achieved its goal, Wells switched her focus to the education of the newly enfranchised female voter as part of the new National League of Women Voters in 1920. She served as president of the Minnesota League for ten years, was a member of the national board, and finally succeeded Belle Sherwin as the third national president of the League in 1934.

Wells' vision for the League was to fashion it into an unbiased and informed voice of the public on various political issues. She believed the League needed to educate voters beyond its own membership rolls, and her philosophy became the background for the League's theory of government. In 1938, Wells wrote A Portrait of the League of Women Voters at the Age of Eighteen, promoting action over study. In 1944, Wells' letters to state League presidents were collected and published as Leadership in a Democracy, Marguerite Milton Wells, which further highlighted her vision of community representation in government. Wells helped to rework the League's structure to more directly link the national office with local members, promoting these issues until her retirement from the presidency in 1944. She died of pneumonia in 1959 at her sister's home in Minneapolis.


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

Amy Cooper , M.A., M.S.I., Ann Arbor, Michigan

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Wells, Marguerite Milton (1872–1959)

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