RHETA CHILDE DORR: Nebraska Native Edited Suffragist Newspaper, Challenged President Wilson

Rheta C. Dorr poses with the first edition of The Suffragist in 1913 (Library of Congress)
Elizabeth A. Elliott
The Daily Record

A 12-year-old girl from Nebraska snuck out of her house to attend a women’s rights rally and went on to urge the support for suffragists across the globe.

Rheta Childe Dorr fought for women’s suffrage and became a member of the National Woman Suffrage Association after attending the rally organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. It came as a surprise to her parents when they saw her name listed in a newspaper.

Eileen Wirth, professor emeritus of journalism at Creighton University and a board member of History Nebraska, said Dorr’s most dramatic impact was when she confronted President Woodrow Wilson unsuccessfully over women’s suffrage.

“She was certainly a colorful figure – an interesting and important figure,” Wirth said.

Wilson didn’t back the 19th Amendment until after World War I, when he acknowledged women’s role in the war effort.

“He was not a fan of it,” Wirth said. “He said he would vote for it at the state level and the suffragist movement by then concluded that state by state you would never get everyone’s vote. He didn’t do anything to help until after the war when public opinion had substantially shifted.”

Dorr was among the suffragists who brokered an alliance between upper-class women and women in the immigrant labor force in New York, Wirth said.

“That is very important because she fought for social justice particularly for immigrant workers,” Wirth said. “She came from an upper-class background and used her upper-class ties to mobilize other upper-class women to fight for better workplace conditions.”

Dorr worked at the post office after she dropped out of college. Reading “A Doll’s House” by Hendrik Ibsen influenced her. She faced opposition for her desire to work. People said she was keeping a man with a family out of a job and injuring the reputation of her parents, since it could be assumed her father was in a bad financial situation if she was working.

Her critics said working would prejudice her mother’s and sister’s social positions, according to her autobiography, “A Woman of Fifty.” In fact, she later divorced her husband, John Dorr, because he didn’t support her desire to work.

Dorr also dealt with suffragists working overseas. She met with British suffragists at the International Woman Suffrage Alliance near the coronation of a Norway king.

In her book, “What Eight Million Women Want,” which she published in 1910, Dorr said, “The object of the Woman Suffrage Party is organization for political work.”

The first suffrage demonstration was held in New York in February 1908, she wrote. At the time, there were four states in which women could vote: Wyoming since 1869; Colorado since 1894; and Utah and Idaho since 1896. Dorr said women could vote in school elections and on certain questions of taxation in 28 states at the time.

Dorr wanted national attention to the issue of a national suffrage amendment, Wirth said. She got front page coverage in The New York Times and was invited into the White House, which resulted in her confrontation with Wilson.

Ruth Brown, professor emerita of journalism and mass communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said people could easily say that Dorr’s biggest contribution to the suffrage movement was in 1913, when she became the first editor of The Suffragist, the official newspaper of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage.

“True, she chose the information and shaped the way it was presented in this group’s push for a federal suffrage amendment,” Brown said. “However, that wouldn’t address Rheta’s lifelong advocacy and her larger-than-life persona. She was fearless and indefatigable in her quest for women’s rights, using the only weapons she had: her savvy intellect, her rock-solid belief in equality, and her superb writing skills.”

Dorr took whatever relevant jobs she could find and made them into the jobs she wanted, Brown said. She showed readers and editors alike that women’s news was everyone’s news – socially relevant issues with an abundance of human interest.

“Rheta’s hubris and tenacity took her from stories of immigrant working women to stories from inside the Russian Revolution, from convincing editors to convincing generals that a woman’s place was anyplace,” Brown said. “Dorr lived her beliefs and, in so doing, she educated, inspired and motivated others.”


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