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White, Sue Shelton (1887–1943)

American lawyer, suffragist, and government official . Born on May 25, 1887, in Henderson, Tennessee; diedof cancer on May 6, 1943, in Alexandria, Virginia; daughter of James Shelton White and Mary Calista (Swain) White; educated at Georgia Robertson Christian College and West Tennessee Business College; Washington College of Law, LL.B., 1923.

Sue Shelton White worked her way up from stenographer to lawyer to one of the architects of Democratic policies in the Roosevelt era. Born in the tiny town of Henderson, Tennessee, in 1887, White was one of three children in a family that, like so many others in the South, had been struggling financially since the Civil War. Her father, a lawyer as well as a Methodist minister, worked seven days a week, and died when White was nine years old. She was educated at home until age 13, when her mother died and she went to live with an aunt. White then attended Georgia Robertson Christian College in Henderson, with one year at another private school. When she was 16 she took a year-long teacher training course at Georgia Robertson, and then spent the next year in a secretarial course at West Tennessee Business College.

White started her working life as a stenographer in the town of Jackson, Tennessee. Because of her father's profession, she had always been interested in the law, and when her older sister Lucy White resigned her post as court reporter in 1907, Sue took the job and used it to get close to many area judges and politicians. As part of her duties as court reporter, a position she held until 1918, she served as private secretary to several members of the state supreme court. She also became interested in the fight for women's rights, and in 1913 served as the recording secretary for Tennessee's suffrage association. White had many political contacts and was an able organizer. She oversaw the formation of local suffrage groups, and during World War I held the position of chair of the Tennessee Division of the Woman's Committee of the U.S. Council of National Defense. Her work with the suffrage movement seems to have frustrated her, however, as she was stuck in the second tier of the Tennessee movement's hierarchy.

In 1917, White joined the radical National Woman's Party (NWP), the most militant branch of the suffrage movement. She also became chair of the Tennessee Woman's Party, though as its head she tried to maintain close ties to the more moderate wing of the movement. Her group was responsible for many theatrical and outrageous protests, and for this it was mostly reviled by the more mainstream National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). White tried to downplay her party's radicalism to allow both groups to work together, but some mutual bitterness persisted. In 1919, after the previous year's election of Woodrow Wilson, she was arrested for joining a NWP protest in Washington at which a cartoon of Wilson was burned. Jailed for five days, she then toured the country with a group of other women who had also been imprisoned, flaunting their prison uniforms to dramatize the struggle of the women's movement. While she was engaged in these militant actions, White also worked tirelessly to write and promote legislation that benefited women. She was responsible for drafting Tennessee's first married women's property act, a mother's pension act, and an old-age pension provision, all of which eventually became law.

In 1920, the year that saw ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, White began working in the nation's capital, first as a clerk and later as secretary to Tennessee Senator Kenneth D. McKellar, a supporter of women's suffrage. She also began attending night classes at Washington College of Law, and received her law degree in 1923. That same year, she helped to draft the Equal Rights Amendment. As a member of the NWP, White derided some of the moderate legislation advocated by the new federal Women's Bureau, and her uncompromising outlook seems to have been the reason she lost her job with McKellar in 1926. She returned to Jackson and began practicing law while continuing her work within the women's movement. Two years later, when the NWP decided to support Herbert Hoover's presidential campaign despite the fact that he had not endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment, White resigned her posts within the party and let her membership lapse.

After 1928, White became active in the Democratic Party, working to organize women voters. She closed her private practice in 1930 and returned to Washington, this time as executive assistant to the vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee in charge of women's issues. In this position White worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt, Nellie Tayloe Ross and other prominent women, contributing to the campaign that swept Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency in 1932. Early in 1934 she became assistant chair of the Consumers' Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), and also served on the National Emergency Council, as assistant director of that group's Consumers' Division. After the Supreme Court dissolved the NRA, in 1936 she became attorney for the Social Security Board (later the Federal Security Agency). In this position she helped to lay the foundations of Social Security as it exists today, although she died of cancer only seven years later, at age 56.


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

Angela Woodward , M.A., Madison, Wisconsin

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White, Sue Shelton (1887–1943)

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