Women We Celebrate

Elsie Hill

1883-1970


Elsie Hill was an activist, organizer, and leader in the suffrage and equal rights campaigns of the National Woman’s Party. Hill was born in 1883, the daughter of Congressman Ebenezer J. Hill of Connecticut—identified by Equal Rights newspaper as a champion of suffrage and women’s rights during his time in office. Hill was a graduate of both Vassar College and the New York School of Philanthropy, and also undertook studies in Paris.

Hill began her association with Alice Paul, founder of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (and later the National Woman’s Party) in early 1913. Hill was working as a high school French teacher in Washington, DC at the time that Alice Paul interviewed her and recruited her assistance for the March 3 suffrage parade. Paul credited Hill and her mother with securing the permit to use Pennsylvania Avenue for the historic parade. (See Alice Paul’s oral history with Amelia Fry for more details.)

Hill quickly rose to leadership within the Congressional Union, joining the Executive Committee in January 1914. Throughout 1915 and 1916, Hill helped lead the Union’s nationwide efforts to secure a federal amendment for woman suffrage, establishing several state branches including the Indiana branch of the Congressional Union in July 1916. In late 1916, Hill was an organizer and speaker in the enfranchised state of Colorado, campaigning for the federal amendment and against the Democratic Party—the party deemed responsible (by the Congressional Union and National Woman’s Party) for the amendment’s ongoing failure to pass.

In August 1918, Hill participated in several suffrage demonstrations at Lafayette Park. One meeting resulted in Hill and her fellow suffragists’ arrest and imprisonment in a disused, unsanitary prison building for five days. A penciled letter from Hill to Doris Stevens was printed in The Suffragist (August 24, 1918) describing the terrible conditions and failing health of Hill and her fellow suffrage prisoners. On a separate occasion, Hill spoke to a delegation of twenty-nine women at Lafayette Park, stating:

“We are compelled … to carry beside our flag, these banners which stand for democracy to women. Once the amendment is passed they will go with other battle banners, into a museum where children will look at them and wonder that their mothers were forced to struggle for freedom. Then all of us, men and women, will be able to work side by side for justice and democracy” (The Suffragist, August 24, 1918).

On February 24, 1919, Hill participated in a suffrage demonstration in Boston, deliberately held the day of President Wilson’s homecoming to the United States after peace negotiations abroad. Hill participated in the “watchfire” protests of the day—where suffragists burned President Wilson’s words on liberty and democracy in front of watching crowds. Hill was arrested and detained on the charge of speaking without a permit, and was later sentenced to eight days in jail.

After the suffrage amendment was won in 1920, Hill worked with the National Woman’s Party (NWP) to lobby Congress and write on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment, particularly on the topic of industrial equality. Though trained at Vassar as a champion of protective legislation for women, Hill ultimately denounced protective legislation as a threat to women’s employment and family livelihoods. In 1932, Hill ran for Representative from Connecticut for the Fourth Congressional District (the district represented by her father for twenty-one years) on an Equal Rights platform. Hill also supported the NWP’s international equal rights campaign.

In 1924, during her marriage to law professor, Albert Levitt, Hill became a mother to daughter, Elsie Hill Levitt. Hill’s NWP colleagues celebrated by making the child an honorary NWP founder. Hill herself served as state chairman of the NWP for Connecticut as well as Chairman of the National Council of the NWP during her career.

At a speech given during a tea at Alva Belmont House (today known as Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument) in December 1931, Hill identified the precise moment that she committed to the cause of women’s rights, explaining:

“I went with a group of women to visit President Wilson to ask for Woman’s suffrage. When we got back to our hotel we found that the President had sent us a bunch of flowers. To have a bunch of flowers sent to a group of women who had asked for the vote instead made me a real Feminist” (Equal Rights, January 2, 1932).

This feminist identity and purpose remained with Hill throughout her life, contributing significantly to her life’s work of organizing for equality for women. Hill passed away in 1970 in Connecticut.