Women We Celebrate

Mabel Vernon

1883–1975


Regarded by many as the National Woman’s Party best organizer, Mabel Vernon was born into a prominent family in Wilmington, Delaware on September 10, 1883.  She met Alice Paul while attending Swarthmore College. After graduating in 1906, Vernon taught German and Latin at a Pennsylvania high school. In 1912, she worked as an usher at the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Convention.  Leaving her career as a teacher, she joined Paul in 1913 as the first national suffrage organizer for the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU).

Vernon served as a regional fundraiser and recruiter for the CU shortly after its formal organization in 1913.  In 1914, she worked alongside Anne Martin in Nevada on the successful ratification campaign for the state suffrage amendment and in its campaign against Democratic congressional candidates.  At the President’s formal address to Congress in December 1914, Vernon concealed a banner under her skirt and sat in the front row of the visitor’s gallery, along with four other suffragists. While Wilson was speaking, the women unfurled the banner that read, “Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?” She again defied convention in 1915 by traveling alone to several states including Ohio, Colorado, Utah, and Washington, where she coordinated state suffrage conventions and established state branches. In 1915, Vernon worked as the advance person for Sara Bard Field’s cross-country automobile tour, organizing events and meetings in several major cities.  She also testified for woman suffrage before the House Judiciary Committee with Alice Paul and other members of the CU.  In June, 1916 she was named secretary of newly formed National Woman’s Party (NWP).  On July 4, 1916, Vernon interrupted President Wilson’s speech in Washington, D.C.  As the President pledged that he “stood for the interests of all classes,” Vernon stood up and asked, “Mr. President, if you sincerely desire to forward the interests of all people, why do you oppose the national enfranchisement of women?”

In June, 1917, Vernon was among the first group of NWP suffragists to be imprisoned for “obstructing traffic”—the standard charge at that time for those picketing the White House. She refused to pay the $25 fine and was sentenced to three days in the DC jail. Afterwards, she organized the picketing schedule so that someone was always at the White House. When a critic wrote to the National Woman’s Party (NWP) about the picketing, she responded: “The conclusion we have reached is that we must stand now for the establishment of a true democracy in this land. . . .[our] purpose is to remind constantly the President and the people of the country [that we] are not enfranchised.”  Vernon also traveled throughout Midwestern and Northwestern states speaking to groups about the importance of picketing.  In 1917, she organized a national letter-writing campaign, urging NWP members and supporters to contact the White House to protest suffragist prison sentences.  She participated in the 1919 “Prison Special” speaking tour to garner sympathy and support for the suffrage movement.  Finally, Vernon continued to serve as a regional organizer from 1918 to 1920 leading up to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, working in Georgia, Kentucky, and Delaware.

After passage of the 19th amendment, Vernon worked for the Equal Rights Amendment, serving as the executive secretary of the NWP.  In 1926, as a part of the Women for Congress campaign, she participated in a transcontinental automobile tour encouraging support for the female candidates for office.  She earned a Master’s degree in Political Science from Columbia University in 1924.

In 1930, she joined the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Her focus shifted completely to disarmament, peace, Latin American rights, and international relations.  She was the campaign manager for the 1931 Peace Caravan, which gathered petitions for the 1932 World Disarmament Conference in Geneva. Vernon represented the United States at the 1934 WILPF conference in Zurich, and in Geneva in 1935.  She was also the campaign director for the People’s Mandate to End War (later the Peoples Mandate Committee for Inter-American Peace and Cooperation), a committee within the WILPF, and served as its chair from 1950 until her retirement in 1955. In 1942, the Ecuadorean Red Cross awarded her the Diploma de Honor, and she also received the Al Merito from Ecuador for her lifelong devotion to end injustice.

Mabel lived in Washington, D.C. with her companion, Consuelo Reyes-Calderon, from 1951 until her death in 1975. She once defined suffragists as women “endeavoring to think fearlessly”–Vernon’s courageous and lifelong work for equality and peace stands as testament to her own fearless mind and spirit.