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From Woman’s Suffrage Leader to Government Agent in World War I 

By Edward Lengel
via the A Storyteller Hiking Through History web site

Vira Boarman Whitehouse was among the most outspoken and successful leaders of the campaign for women’s suffrage in the United States. Her leadership and hard work played major roles in securing votes for women in New York State in November 1917. Little did she expect the United States government to ask her to serve as a diplomatic agent in Europe, with responsibilities that included fencing with German spies–but she happily took on the challenge.

Suffrage Leader–Victorious

uc2.ark 13960 t0wp9z47x seq 8Vira Whitehouse. Frontispiece photo to her memoir, A Year as a Government AgentBorn in New Orleans in 1875, Vira Boarman attended Newcomb College and married New York stockbroker Norman Whitehouse–later a member of the Men’s League for Woman’s Suffrage–in 1898. As a popular society woman, she learned early on about living in the public eye; and as a lifelong advocate for women’s rights, she recognized the power of the media in defining public perceptions.

In 1913 she began working for the Women’s Political Union, earning plaudits for her abilities as a public orator. Two years later she became Chairman of the New York State Woman’s Suffrage Party, showing her strength as a publicist and manager by, for example, organizing one of the first ever political telephone polling campaigns. Most important from the standpoint of her colleagues, Vira Whitehouse was a phenomenally successful fundraiser. By early 1917 she had through her own efforts raised several hundred thousand dollars to support the suffrage campaign in New York.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917 Whitehouse, like Alice Paul of the National Woman’s Party, refused to abandon the campaign for woman’s suffrage. Unlike Paul, though, Whitehouse cultivated friendly relations with President Woodrow Wilson, meeting with him just before New York State voted to extend suffrage in November 1917 and campaigning in support of the war effort.

 Government Agent

For Vira Whitehouse, public service in support of the war effort offered an opportunity for women to take responsibility and authority in new roles throughout government and society. “One of the great stumbling-blocks to the advance of women is our very general reluctance to accept responsibility,” she wrote. “Since the beginning of the world we have been hypnotized and have hypnotized ourselves into a doubt of our ability.” War work–especially in unconventional fields–could help break the spell.

Whitehouse was attending a National American Woman Suffrage Convention in Washington, D.C., when George Creel, head of the Committee on Public Information (CPI), asked her to go to Switzerland as an American diplomatic agent. Her job in that neutral country would be to oversee the flow of pro-Allied information–actually, propaganda–in the midst of very active efforts from the opposite side by agents of the Central Powers. Creel believed that the skills Whitehouse had demonstrated as a suffrage leader would prove effective in this new environment. He was right.

Read the entire article on the A Storyteller Hiking Through History web site.

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