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Caroline Severance was born in Canandaigua, New York, the daughter of a banker, Orson Seymour, and his wife Caroline M. Clarke. After a conservative upbringing, she married Theodoric C. Severance, who was called T.C., an abolitionist banker from Cleveland, Ohio. She became the mother of five children, one of whom died in infancy. She credited her marriage with turning her into a social activist. Caroline Severance became an abolitionist and a pioneering activist for women’s rights and social justice. She was the founder of the New England Women’s Club in 1868, the first of its kind, a place where women could meet to discuss social issues, literature, and art, as well as direct their efforts towards the betterment of society as a whole. Having devoted her life to the creation and support of organizations for women, she moved to Los Angeles in 1875, where she was known as “The Mother of Clubs.”
Women's rights and women's clubs
In 1853, after several years of attending and speaking at conventions on behalf of woman’s rights, she made her first appearance as a speaker to the general public with a speech to Cleveland’s Mercantile Library Association, the first lecture delivered there by a woman. Her subject was “Humanity: A Definition and a Plea,” by which she meant that women should be included as part of “humanity.” It was a radical idea, but the speech was well received by the audience, and by the Cleveland press.
Having moved with her family to Boston in 1855, Caroline Severance was active in the years before the Civil War in organizations ranging from the Boston Anti-Slavery Society to the New England Hospital for Women and Children. Attracted by the powerful sermons of Theodore Parker in Boston, the Severances joined the Unitarian Church. Caroline remained active in both local and national women’s rights organizations, which had begun to focus on the subject of woman suffrage. After the war was over, along with many other abolitionist/suffragists, Caroline Severance split from the more radical suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony over the issue of whether woman suffrage should take precedence over suffrage for black men. While still remaining a committed suffragist, Caroline Severance began to explore other ideas for the advancement of women.
In 1868 she and her friends founded the New England Woman’s Club, of which she was the first president.
In 1875, for various reasons which included her husband’s health and the fact that her two older sons had moved to the West Coast, she relocated with her husband to Los Angeles, buying a tiny home on West Adams Street which they called “Red Roof.”
Both Caroline and T.C. Severance had a major impact on the development of Los Angeles. Together they founded the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles in 1877. T.C. was a founder of the Orphan’s Home Society, and the Horticultural Society. Caroline began organizing the women of the rapidly growing community. She brought the kindergarten movement to Los Angeles, serving as president of the city’s Free Kindergarten Association, and helped establish the Los Angeles Public Library. In 1878 she founded the first Los Angeles Women’s Club. Her interests were far ranging, from woman suffrage to historic preservation [working with Charles Lummis] to world peace. As she grew older, she began to be considered the elder stateswoman of women’s rights movements in the city. She also became more radical in her thinking, and was active in the city’s Christian Socialism movement at the turn of the 20th century. She began to be referred to in the press as “Madame Severance,” an indication of her prestige and position in the city.
With two of their children still in the east, Caroline and T.C. Severance had never lost their love of Boston, although they became passionate advocates for their newly adopted home. At first they returned regularly to the east, and without Caroline’s immediate leadership, the Los Angeles Women’s Club twice failed. Finally, in 1881, she established a lasting institution, the Friday Morning Club, devoted to cultural and social betterment and civic reform. As reported by Leonard Pitt and Dale Pitt in their book Los Angeles: From A-Z,” [The Friday Morning Club] ran a lending library, maintained an employment bureau, and conducted classes.” It became one of the most powerful and prestigious organizations in the city.
After her husband’s death in 1892, Caroline Severance changed the name of her home to “El Nido,” which is Spanish for “the nest.” Situated in a tree-shaded garden, El Nido was a gathering place for men and women devoted to social change. In 1906, Ella Giles Ruddy wrote in The Mother of Clubs: “For more than thirty years this hospitable home has been a rendezvous for literary people visiting Los Angeles, for leaders in progressive thought . . . in whatever direction it may tend, and for men and women interested also in local or municipal reforms and improvements. The title “Mother of Clubs” has been supplemented by that of the “Ethical Magnet of Southern California . . .”
Women's right to vote in California
In 1911, when California women achieved the right to vote, Caroline Severance was lauded as the spiritual leader of the suffrage movement in Southern California, although her advanced age had limited her participation in the campaign. She was featured in every Los Angeles newspaper the day after the election. Although it has often been written that she was the first woman to register to vote in the state, this is not true. In fact, she registered a week after the election, when a registrar came to her home. She did, however, go to the polls the following year to vote in the presidential election, and in 1912, at the age of ninety-two she cast her vote for president, having worked for woman suffrage for more than sixty years. Although she told the press that she had voted for Theodore Roosevelt, it is just as likely that she voted for the Socialist candidate. As Joan Jensen wrote in Women in the Life of Southern California, “By the time she died in 1914 she was firmly committed to a new radicalism. Had she lived on through World War 1, perhaps she would have been classed as a ‘parlor Bolshevik,’ dangerous pacifist, and pro-laborite, and her home watched carefully by members of the many Loyalty Leagues of Los Angeles.”
- Elwood-Akers, Virginia, "Caroline Severance", iUniverse, 2010
- Jensen, Joan, “After Slavery: Caroline Severance in Los Angeles,” in Women in the Life of Southern California. Historical Society of Southern California 1996
- Severance, Caroline M., The Mother of Clubs, Baumgardt Publishing Co. 1906
- DeRoche, Celeste, "Caroline Severance" from the online Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography