Zelma Watson George, the Cleveland opera singer who had a president’s ear: Black History Month Untold Stories by Brenda Cain, Plain Dealer

This 1990 photo of Zelma Watson George was taken at a fundraiser for the Cancer Society. She was 91-years-old. (The Plain Dealer file photo)
Zelma Watson George, the Cleveland opera singer who had a president’s ear: Black History Month Untold Stories
by Brenda Cain, Plain Dealer February 1, 2022


“Bending to the Color Line: The Fight for Women’s Suffrage in Ohio.” a talk by Dr. Carol Lasser July 29, 2020

The video is here:

“Bending to the Color Line: The Fight for Women’s Suffrage in Ohio.”
Wednesday July 29 at 7pm
Dr. Carol Lasser, an emerita professor of history at Oberlin College, will deliver a lecture titled: “Bending to the Color Line: The Fight for Women’s Suffrage in Ohio.”

In the final years of the suffrage struggle, Ohio women’s efforts to gain the vote took place in a national movement that accepted the regional disenfranchisement of African Americans as part of a bargain to overcome Southern resistance. Yet in Ohio, the opposition from organized liquor interests brought Black and white suffragists together. The story of these complex relationships helps us think about how race, region, and special interests shape alliances and access to the vote.
The video is here:

FREE to the public
Made possible with a generous donation from Lin Emmons.

Sponsored by Cleveland History Center, CWRU Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning, League of Women Voters-Greater Cleveland and Rocky River Public Library

Florence E. Allen, Cleveland’s Most Famous Woman Almost No Clevelanders Today Have Heard Of

Florence Allen 1921 KSU

By Marian J. Morton

The pdf is here

When the Plain Dealer’s Andrea Simakis discovered “the unstoppable Judge Florence Allen,” she marveled over Allen’s path-breaking career, her intellect, her perseverance, her “moxie.”  And yet,  Simakis mused, “… I had never heard of her… Neither had a lot of women I know.”  [1] But for much of Allen’s lifetime (1884-1966), almost everyone in Cleveland – at least everyone who read the newspapers – had heard of her.  She was Cleveland’s most famous woman,[2] not just because she was the “first lady of the law,”[3] not just because this local girl made very, very good, but because Allen herself made it happen.  A performer by both nature and nurture, Allen loved being center stage. She gave hundreds of speeches -on soapboxes, street corners, luncheons, and lecture halls – on topics ranging from opera to woman suffrage to outlawing war; she faced down hecklers and anti-suffragists; she led and marched in parades. These set the stage for successful runs for municipal judge and the Ohio Supreme Court and less successful runs for the U.S.  House of Representatives and Senate and a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.  Fiercely ambitious, she cultivated political allies from local precinct captains to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; fiercely competitive, she relished the challenges of being the first woman in a male role.  Her reward: fame, although fleeting.


One of Allen’s earliest memories was of her five-year-old self on a make-shift stage, dressed in costume, like her older sisters, in a performance that celebrated her father’s birthday.  Allen recited the Greek alphabet, which he had taught her. [4]

The family was living in Utah, where her father, Clarence Emil Allen, had gone to recover from tuberculosis. He was a graduate of Western Reserve College in Hudson, then became head of Western Reserve Academy, and then taught classics at the college until his health gave out.  His wife, Corinne Tuckerman Allen, and two small daughters, Esther and Helen, followed him to Salt Lake City.

He quickly entered public life.  He studied law, was admitted to the bar (no law school necessary in those days), and became county clerk. He was elected to the territorial legislature, and when Utah became a state in 1895, he became one of its first elected representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives.  He served only one term, and after his return from Washington D.C., made his living as an assayer for one of the mines of Liberty Holden, owner of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Corinne Allen “was always immersed in some public undertaking,” her daughter recalled.[5] Corinne had been admitted to the first class at Smith College in 1875, one of a tiny handful of women who attended college in the 1870s.   Although she dropped out of college to marry Clarence, she believed that her privileged education gave her special responsibilities to her community.  Florence was born in Utah, and Elizabeth, Clarence Emil Jr., and John followed.  Utah women had been enfranchised by the Utah territorial legislature in 1870, disenfranchised by Congress in 1887 in a dispute over the legality of polygamy, but continued to play public roles. An energetic participant in the woman’s club movement of the late nineteenth century, Corinne joined local, state, and national women’s clubs and helped found the Mothers’ Congress, later the P.T.A.  She was a vocal opponent of the Mormon practice of polygamy. Corinne became an organizer in 1900 for Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.[6]

Florence Allen attended high school in Salt Lake City, where she was most inspired by her piano teacher, and in 1900, at age 16, she entered the Women’s College of Western Reserve University. Although she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, she later recalled, “I do not seem to have been greatly interested in any special branch of learning,” except piano, which she practiced for hours.  She found time for politics, however, and was elected freshman class president.[7] She loved going to local operas, stage productions, and concerts; her college scrapbooks are full of playbills with lively comments in the margins. [8] She also greatly enjoyed “the dramatics that we produced on the campus,” proud of her role in which “I was stout, vigorous, shook my cane and swore enthusiastically.” [9]  No male actors being available, she – with a strong voice – also played the king in a Hindu play: “ I sweltered in the royal purple robe.” [10]These college theatrics were dress rehearsals for performances in her judicial robes.

Allen was tall, sturdily built (she struggled with her weight all her life), with regular features and a broad forehead.  Until the 1920s, she wore her hair long and piled on top of her head. She was handsome, not conventionally pretty.  [11] She had a commanding presence, appreciated and applauded by audiences and supporters.  By her own account – and other’s -, she had little fashion sense and recalled more than one occasion when friends at the last-minute scrambled to provide something appropriately feminine for her to wear for a public appearance. [12]

After graduation in 1904, Allen accompanied her mother to Berlin, where Corinne had been asked to speak on polygamy to the International Council of Women. Florence studied piano but decided that she lacked the talent to make her living as a musical performer. Instead, she became a music critic, which provided her with an entry into her public life in Cleveland when she returned in 1906.  She landed a job at Laurel School, a private girls’ school, where she directed the plays, played piano for chapel every morning, and taught “Greek, German, geography, grammar, and American history.”  [13]

More important, she became the music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  She reviewed concerts, operas, orchestras, and solo performers weekly and sometimes more often.  To readers, the byline,  “By Florence Allen,”  became associated with social respectability and professional integrity.

But she didn’t want to teach high school girls or write music reviews forever. At the suggestion of one of her teachers at Western Reserve University, she studied for a master’s in political science and decided to go to law school.  Law was very much a male field, and the new requirement of law school made it even more difficult for women.  Western Reserve University Law School, for example, did not accept women, so Allen went first to the University of Chicago and then to New York University.  She graduated second in her class.

In New York, money was tight, and as she had in Cleveland, she supplemented her income with public lectures.  More important, she met the women who would help shape her career and her political agenda. These included the Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), 1904-1915; Carrie Chapman Catt, the brilliant NAWSA president usually credited with devising the “winning strategy” for achieving the vote; and Maude Wood Park, the organizer of the College Equal Suffrage Organization. Park gave Allen a job as the organization’s secretary. Although initially viewed as wild revolutionaries by many Americans, these suffragists led the movement into the moderate mainstream, especially after the break with the more radical National Women’s Party. This way led to victory in 1920.

Pragmatic by necessity, the NAWSA endorsed no political candidate unless he endorsed woman suffrage.  Suffragists argued for the vote on the grounds that women were equal to men and deserved equal treatment and also, often simultaneously, that women were different and would bring their special nurturing skills to politics and the larger community, especially the lives of women. These became Allen’s guiding principles.


In 1912, one of many proposed amendments to the Ohio constitution would have enfranchised Ohio women by changing the words that described a voter as a “white male” to “every citizen.”  Allen returned to Cleveland to make it happen. She was already well-known to Clevelanders, thanks to her family connections and her byline at the newspaper.

She was also a polished public speaker. Like her fellow suffragists, she was well educated and well off financially, but unlike them, she was neither shy nor modest.  Accompanied by cub reporter Louis Seltzer, she and other brave women rode from Cleveland to Medina on a rented trolley that carried a “Votes for Women” banner; when it stopped, Allen hopped off and pitched woman suffrage from a soap box. [14] Suffragists were routinely greeted by hecklers, who told them to return to their homes where they belonged.  “It can’t be did,” maintained one opponent to votes for women, “and if it can be did, it hain’t right.” [15] More frustrating was public indifference.  Allen recalled a meeting in one small town at which only two women appeared; she urged them to return the next night, and they did, bringing one friend.  On the brighter side, she was “roundly cheered” in a circus tent in Ottawa, Ohio, and in Sidney, Ohio, at a band concert,  accompanied by another suffragist, who entertained the crowd by whistling and playing the cornet. She spoke and organized women all over the state – 92 speeches in 88 counties [16] The referendum lost by 87,455 votes, but Allen’s exposure laid the groundwork for her successful runs for state-wide office in 1922 and 1928.

Ohio women organized a second effort to amend the Ohio constitution in 1914, using the  initiative. Allen again took to the lecture circuit; she shared a platform with fellow supporter, Cleveland Mayor Newton D. Baker in March, 1914. [17] As Baker watched from the grandstand, a great parade of 10,000 women and men, including Allen, marched through Cleveland streets on October 4.  [18] Allen predicted a win: “I have visited more than forty Ohio counties in this campaign … [M]any women opposed to suffrage two years ago now are heartily in favor of it…. [M]en are changing from a position of direct opposition or indifference to open espousal.” [19]  Her colleagues chose her to debate the prominent anti-suffragist Lucy Price in Gray’s Armory. Anti-suffragists, often wealthy and well-educated women like the suffragists themselves, argued that women’s place was in the home, not the polling place, and moreover, most women didn’t want to vote.  Allen took the opposite position.  Both arguments would have been difficult to prove.  Although no official winner was announced, Allen felt that she had won and accused her opponent of calling her “a short and ugly name.” [20] The initiative failed by an even greater margin than had the 1912 amendment.

Temporarily thwarted at the state level, suffragists switched tactics.  Persuaded by Allen and other suffragists, the authors of East Cleveland’s new charter in 1916 included a provision that allowed women to vote in municipal elections. The provision was challenged by the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. The Cleveland Woman Suffrage League filed a taxpayers’ suit against the board.  Allen was their attorney and won the case before the Ohio Supreme Court.

This victory, plus her name recognition, won her the attention of the local Democratic Party, which appointed her an assistant county prosecutor.  This became the beginning of her judicial career.

Even before the suffrage amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, Allen launched her campaign for municipal judge.  Because it was too late to enter a party primary, she quickly organized a petition campaign to get her name on the ballot.  Her fellow suffragists, many now members of the new League of Women Voters, came to her aid, as she had to theirs.  Allen herself spoke often, now on her own behalf.  Once in the race, she was endorsed by the league, by the Business and Professional Women and a host of other women’s organizations, and by all four Cleveland newspapers.  She led the field of ten judicial candidates.[21]

Allen ran as a non-partisan. She believed that judges should not be closely identified with one party or the other.  Moreover, she had broken with Democratic leader Baker over his endorsement of universal military training when he was Secretary of War during World War I.  She also hoped to get votes from both Democrats and Republicans, which she did. [22]

During these years in Cleveland, Allen met the leaders of the local suffrage movement like Harriet Taylor Upton, Elizabeth Hauser, Belle Sherwin, Zara DuPont, Lucia McBride, Mary B. Grossman, and dozens of others.  “Society women, professional women, rich women, poor women – a noble band of good workers.”[23]  She made personal friends and political alliances that would stand her in good stead for the rest of her career. She never forgot them; they never forgot her. “I was the beneficiary of the entire woman movement,” she acknowledged. [24]


Within months of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and with these women’s help, Allen took her seat as Cleveland’s first female judge of the Common Pleas court.  She prided herself on her efficiency in the dispatch of justice. On the grounds that she was single, she refused to be sidelined to divorce court, choosing criminal law.  “[25] This was where the action was: Cleveland was then under siege by “organized and unorganized criminals” who robbed and murdered citizens, including policemen, almost with impunity.  [26] In her first term, 1921-1922, she disposed of 892 cases.[27]

Two of those cases made headlines.  The first involved a 1921 payroll robbery in which two men were murdered by a gang implicated in several other robberies. Their leader, Frank Motto, fled to California but was returned to Cleveland and Allen’s court.  In May 1921, during the jury trial, she had to clear the courtroom of suspicious looking men, who were carrying weapons.  She herself received a death threat: “On the day Motto dies, you die.” [28] The Cleveland Plain Dealershouted: “JUDGE ALLEN SENTENCES SLAYER …. In a calm, even tone, Judge Florence E. Allen pronounced the death penalty.” [29]  Motto died in the electric chair in August. Allen got police protection, became the “first woman judge to impose the death sentence,” and created a reputation as a fearless enforcer of law and order. [30]

She enhanced that reputation by sentencing a fellow jurist, former chief justice of the Common Pleas Court, William Henry McGannon, to jail for perjury. He had twice been acquitted of murder.  The Cleveland Bar Association, however, prosecuted him, and others, for false statements made during the trials.  Despite Allen’s efforts, bribes and witness-tampering took place before McGannon’s trial.  The jury found McGannon guilty, and Allen sentenced him to one to ten years in the penitentiary.  “[A] court has never been faced with a more disagreeable duty than that of sentencing a man before whom the court has practiced as a lawyer,” she reproached him. [31]

It was a spectacular first act, but Allen had set her sights higher.  In the summer of 1922, she briefly contemplated running for the U.S. Senate against the incumbent, Atlee Pomerene.  Instead, encouraged by Baker, she ran for a vacant seat on the Ohio Supreme Court. [32] The Cleveland Plain Dealer applauded: “her election was one of the best things that ever happened to this [Common Pleas] court …. [H]er service on the lower bench fully entitles her to aspire to the higher office.” [33]Her usual allies, former suffragists and women’s organizations, again organized her campaign.  She again ran a non-partisan campaign and won handily, the first woman to be elected to a state supreme court.  Six years later, as her term drew to a close, she again contemplated the Senate. Without the endorsement of the Democratic party but encouraged by women’s groups offended by Pomerene’s lamentable record on woman suffrage, she ran in the primary against him.  She lost but by a small margin. [34]

Allen won re-election to the Ohio Supreme Court in 1928, but in 1932, hoping to add to a Democratic landslide, she made a run for the U.S. House. She lost to Republican Chester C. Bolton, but she received her reward in March 1934, when she was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the first woman to sit on the federal bench.  Clevelanders honored her with a banquet, “an expression of esteem from the Cleveland Bar Association and the women of the city for Judge Allen’s achievements in her profession.”  Organizers included women who had fought for suffrage with Allen two decades earlier. [35] She was appointed the court’s chief justice in 1958, the first woman to hold this appointment.

Allen also became the first to be seriously considered for a Supreme Court position by Roosevelt and subsequent presidents.  Although she had strong support from local and national women’s organizations and political connections in Washington, she never received the appointment.   She claimed that she did not “expect such an appointment,” [36] but many of her supporters wanted it for her, and certainly so did she.

Perhaps her academic and professional credentials, both limited by her gender, were not strong enough.  Perhaps she was too closely identified as a Democrat; perhaps not closely enough.  Perhaps Americans just weren’t ready for a woman on the highest court of the land. [37] Not until 1981 did Sandra Day O’Connor get appointed to the Supreme Court.

Allen was a pioneer judge but not a pioneer jurist. The decisions she was proudest of supported the familiar agenda of the suffragists and the women’s organizations who had always backed her (the death penalty being the exception). In Reutner v. City of Cleveland(1923) she ruled that Cleveland had the right to adopt a city manager plan and proportional representation.  The League of Women Voters advocated both and continued to support the city manager plan long after Cleveland voters rejected it in 1931.  The league also favored laws that protected women in the workplace. Although the decision was not gender-specific, in Ohio Automatic Sprinkler Co. v. Fender(1923) Allen voted with the majority of her colleagues to over-rule lower courts and hold the company responsible for the woman employee’s injury. Women’s organizations continued to support special legislation for women in the workplace until the  1970s.

Her most significant decision – in January 1938 on the appeals court – ruled in favor of the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority. The issue was whether the federal government had the authority to build the dams and waterways that would control flooding in the region and also market electric power.  Private power companies argued that this was unfair competition. The League of Women Voters had endorsed an earlier version of the plan in the late 1920s. [38] Clevelanders were familiar with  publicly owned utilities because of the municipal power plant established in 1914 when Baker was mayor of Cleveland.  In 1937, however, Baker was, initially, the lead attorney for the private power companies.  His side lost. Allen’s decision held that the TVA did not unfairly compete with private enterprise and more importantly, it upheld the federal government’s broad use of its powers.  Allen herself, in full judicial regalia, read aloud for an hour her decision before an excited, expectant audience in a jam-packed courtroom. [39] She was upheld by the Supreme Court.

This was probably her last bravura performance although she served on the appeals court until 1959. After retirement, Allen continued to make news, traveling and lecturing. In 1965, she published her memoir, To Do Justly.

During her long career on the bench, she had no opportunity to rule on women’s rights cases; those would emerge with second-wave feminism after her retirement.  In any case, despite her own unconventional life, she had conventional ideas about women’s responsibilities: family, home, work if necessary, and service to the community. Perhaps reflecting on the political challenges she herself had faced, she predicted, “No woman, no matter how qualified, will be nominated, much less elected, President of the United States.” [40]  Allen was more like Sandra Day O’Connor –  better known for her ability to get along with male judges [41]– than like the trail-blazing feminist, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

When Allen died in September 1966, the Cleveland Plain Dealerlamented the passing of this “distinguished, well-loved citizen.” [42]


Distinguished and well-loved, but soon forgotten.  Why?

Maybe because she was from Cleveland, and most famous people are from somewhere else.

Maybe even Clevelanders don’t think Cleveland history is interesting enough to remember. Dr. Jeannette Tuve’s is the only definitive biography of Allen. The Cleveland Public Library system owns three copies; only one circulates.  Allen’s contemporary, sometime friend and sometime foe but always more famous, Newton D. Baker, doesn’t do much better. The Cleveland Public Library system owns four copies of Clarence C.H. Cramer, Newton D. Baker: A Biography (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1961) and three copies of Douglas B. Craig, Progressives at War: William G. McAdoo and Newton D. Baker, 1863-1941(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

Maybe it’s just easier to forget women, even women like Allen who lived very public lives.

Of course, periodically we do “remember the ladies,” as Abigail Adams advised her husband John as he contemplated the American Revolution and she contemplated what freedom from the British might mean for those who were not male. John and his colleagues didn’t heed his wife’s advice.

In the 1910s and 1920s, when it looked as though the suffrage movement might, like the American Revolution, turn the world upside down, politicians remembered women – Allen, for example.  But in the following decades, attention turned to other things – the Great Depression and World War II, for example.

And then in the 1970s in the heady days of second-wave feminism, born of the civil rights movement, we re-discovered women in the American past.  Like Simakis, we were astonished – and exhilarated. We knew about the men, of course, – the presidents, the generals, the industrialists.  No one had ever mentioned that there were women back then. You’d think we could have figured it out.  And we did, and then forgot.

And today, in 2019, in the context of Hillary Clinton almost becoming President in 2016 and a record number of women elected to Congress in 2018 and because it is almost a hundred years since Allen and others fought for the vote – and Americans like centennials -, we are re-discovering women one more time.

But this story of Cleveland’s most famous woman reminds us that fame is fleeting. Simakis suggested – as Plain Dealer reporter Tom Suddes had earlier[43]– a remedy for our faulty public memory: a courthouse named for Allen, a more substantial memorial than existing portraits and plaques.  Simakis’s readers were enthusiastic.  Howard M. Metzenbaum and Carl B. Stokes have their names on courthouses:  why not “the gutsy, unstoppable FEA”?  One reader suggested that Allen’s life would make a good play.  Simakis concluded, “I can see the actress in Allen’s robes now, sitting in her chambers, opening that smudgy death threat [during the Motta trial] … [F]or sheer drama, her tenure as a judge in Cleveland is hard to beat.”  [44]

Allen was that actress; her whole life was that drama – from her five-year-old recitation of the Greek alphabet to her hour-long reading of her decision in the TVA case and all the lectures and stump speeches and marches and headlines in between. These made her Cleveland’s most famous woman.  For a while.

[1]  Plain Dealer, June 30, 2019: B3.

[2]   Don’t take my word for it. Reporter Grace Goulder described Allen as “Ohio’s most famous woman”, “Ohio’s first lady,” and the “world’s best known woman lawyer”: Cleveland Plain Dealer (CPD), October 6, 1935: 67. By my count, from 1900 to 2019, she got 1,466 mentions in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and for almost all those years, there was more than one Cleveland newspaper.

[3]   Allen had the good sense and sturdy ego to leave her papers to the Western Reserve Historical Society.  These became the basis for her definitive biography: Jeannette E. Tuve,  First Lady of the Law: Florence Ellinwood Allen(Boston and London, University Press of America , 1984).

[4]  Florence Ellinwood Allen, To Do Justly(Cleveland: The Press of Western Reserve University, 1965), 1.

[5]  Allen, 9-10.

[6]  Tuve, 10.

[7]  Allen, 19.

[8]  Tuve, 11.

[9]Allen, 19

[10]  Allen, 20.

[11]  Tuve, 12.

[12]  Allen, 26;28; 31. Virginia Clark Abbott, The History of Woman Suffrage and the League of Women Voters in Cuyahoga  County, 1911-1945(Cleveland: n.p. c. 1949), 52.

[13]  Tuve, 18.

[14]  Cleveland Plain Dealer (CPD),June 25, 1912: 12.

[15]  Abbott, 54.

[16]   Allen, 32.

[17]  CPD, March 3, 1914: 14.

[18]   Abbott, 38.

[19]   CPD, October 10, 1914: 5.

[20]   Allen, 34. What name can this have been?

[21]  Allen, 43-44.

[22]  Tuve, 54.

[23]Florence E. Allen and Mary Welles, The Ohio Woman Suffrage Movement(Committee for the Preservation of Ohio Woman Suffrage Records, 1952), 41.

[24]  Allen, 43.

[25]  Allen, 46.

[26]  John Stark Bellamy, The Maniac in the Bushes and More Tales of Cleveland Woe(Cleveland: Gray and Company Publishers, 1997), 219.

[27]  Allen, 51.

[28]  Allen, 28.

[29]  CPD, May 15, 1921: 1.

[30]   Allen, 56.

[31]   Allen, 62. McGannon was released after 19 months because he had diabetes.

[32]  Tuve, 63.

[33]  CPD, June 14, 1922: 6.

[34]   Allen, 75-77.

[35]   CPD,  March 25, 1934:16.

[36]  Allen, 110.

[37]  Tuve, 124-126.

[38]  Tuve, 117.

[39]  Tuve, 116-122.

[40]  Quoted in Tuve, 141.

[41]  Evan Thomas. First: Sandra Day O’Connor(New York: Random House, 2019).

[42]  CPD, September 17, 1966: 14.

[43]  Plain Dealer, June 7, 2000: B9; January 9, 2002: 9B.

[44]  Plain Dealer, July 21, 2019: B 1, B 3.  I can’t resist pointing out that the Newton D. Baker Building on the Case Western Reserve University campus has been demolished. Brick and mortar are no guarantee that you’ll be remembered.

Elizabeth J.  Hauser: The Woman Who Wrote Tom L. Johnson’s Autobiography by Marian J. Morton


Florence Allen, Elizabeth J. Hauser and Greta Coleman 1914 wiki

Elizabeth J.  Hauser: The Woman Who Wrote
Tom L. Johnson’s Autobiography
by Marian J. Morton

The pdf is here
The book is called My Story.  Its cover shows Tom L. Johnson, Cleveland’s most famous, most beloved mayor, writing something – presumably this book, his autobiography. But it’s a good bet that he didn’t write much of it.  The woman who did – and who helped to create this enduring self-portrait of Johnson – was Elizabeth J. Hauser.  If he is Cleveland’s most famous, most beloved mayor, she should get some of the credit.  This is her story. Or part of it.


Hauser became a suffragist at age 16 when she joined the Ohio Woman Suffrage Association (OWSA).  She was born in 1873 in Girard, Ohio.  Her parents, David and Mary Bixler Hauser, were German immigrants. [1] Her father was a butcher.

After high school, Hauser began her career as a journalist at local newspapers, including the Warren Tribune Chronicle.  She also worked closely with OWSA president, Harriet Upton Taylor, in the association’s headquarters in Warren, Ohio. In 1895, Hauser became press secretary for both the OWSA and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).[2]  She considered herself a writer and journalist all her life.

When the NAWSA moved its headquarters to Warren in 1903, Hauser ran the office. She had already become a force in the Ohio suffrage movement. The Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1899 described her as “probably the youngest active worker in the cause for equal rights.”[3] The newspaper also carried her call to the seventeenth annual convention of the OWSA in Cleveland in 1902: she declared,  “Ohio, a great progressive commonwealth, … still holds its intelligent women, politically, in the same class as minors, lunatics and criminals.” [4]

Hauser had certainly met Johnson before she arrived in Cleveland in fall 1910. He had been converted to the cause of woman suffrage by Marie Jenney Howe, at least according to her husband Frederick C. Howe, a close friend and political ally of Johnson. [5] Johnson and Hauser both spoke at the annual convention of the OWSA in Youngstown in October 1907: “Friends and enemies alike [were] invited to attend.”[6] In 1909, after the NAWSA and Hauser moved to New York City, Johnson visited its new headquarters.

While she was working in New York, Hauser met Joseph Fels, a wealthy soap-manufacturer (Fels Naptha), who, like Johnson, had become a single taxer.  Fels established a foundation to further the single tax cause, and in August 1909, he hired Hauser to work for the foundation for $2,000 a year. [7] Fels, a close friend and supporter of Johnson, probably paid her to edit My Story.

Hauser’s primary assignment when she came to Cleveland was to organize Cleveland suffragists into the Cuyahoga County Woman’s Suffrage Party.  She brought “new life and hope” to the Cleveland movement, [8] quickly opening an office and calling a meeting of interested women. She also found time to help out her friend Johnson, who needed a sympathetic editor for his autobiography.


When Johnson served as mayor of Cleveland, 1901-1909, he joined the ranks of nationally known mayors, including Hazen Pingree of Detroit and Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones and Brand Whitlock of Toledo, who represented Progressive reform at the local level.  In this context, Johnson embarked on My Story to explain how an extraordinarily successful man like himself could have been defeated by the very Cleveland voters who had made him mayor in three earlier elections. His answer: I have been beaten by “Privilege.”

During the last five months of his life, in failing health, he dictated most of the book’s contents to Hauser.  She transcribed the material and organized into coherent chapters the words of a man skilled at public debate but not at writing narrative.  [9]  For this, he generously gave her credit in the book, and she is acknowledged also on the book’s cover.  But she did far more.  As she listened, wrote down, organized, and edited his words, she realized that Johnson was not telling the story of himself, or at least, not the story that Clevelanders and his fellow Progressive reformers wanted to read.  Her job was to tell that story.

Johnson describes in the first chapter of My Story his youth in Kentucky –  his father “a slave owner and cotton planter” [10] and reluctant supporter of the Confederacy, was left penniless by the Civil War.  Johnson at age eleven went to work selling newspapers on the train, where he learned that creating a monopoly – in this case of newspapers – was the easiest way to get rich.  His parents continued to move around as his father tried to figure out how to earn a living.  During this time, Johnson received his “one and only full year of schooling.”[11]   From there, he rose rapidly from inventing a streetcar farebox to owning streetcar lines in several cities in his early thirties and then to a mansion on Euclid Avenue. This rags to riches story is the stuff of much American autobiography.  Johnson probably included it only because Hauser urged him to: “It was with extreme difficulty that he was induced to include the few delightful personal anecdotes which lend such charm to the early chapters,” she confesses. [12] And indeed, Johnson’s own introduction to the book describes not himself, but “Privilege”  – “Big Business, corrupt bosses, subservient courts, pliant legislatures and an Interest-controlled press,” [13] with which he did battle and which not only defeated him but turned the book into a political treatise, instead of a story about its author.

My Story does paint lively portraits of some of Johnson’s personal heroes and political collleagues.   First among them, of course, was Henry George, whose book, Social Problems, converted Johnson to the single tax that would become his primary weapon in his fight against Privilege. His conversion from businessman to reformer – although not immediate – became a turning point in his life.    Johnson also admired George’s courage – his “willingness to ‘raise hell’ for the sake of a cause or to give one’s life for it.” [14] Another hero: Harrison Cooley, pastor of the Disciples of Christ congregation of which Johnson was a member, who reformed the city’s public facilities for the indigent, ill, and aged, which were named Cooley Farm in his honor.  And a brilliant young lawyer, Newton D. Baker, who became Johnson’s city solicitor and later mayor and still later Secretary of War under President Woodrow Wilson.  And also Peter Witt, who came to heckle Johnson and stayed to join his ranks. He became Johnson’s city clerk in 1903 and remained in Cleveland politics for decades.  Witt sometimes ran interference for Johnson. At one Cleveland City Council meetings, Witt – brushing aside the reasoned arguments of lawyer Baker – went after the directors of the Cleveland Electric Street Railway Company for insulting Johnson and members of council: “Witt not only denounced the policy and methods of the railway company, charging that in the past it had bribed councilmen, corrupted legislators, used dishonest judges …. But one by one he called the men present by name and shaking his finger at them declared the responsibility of each for the particular things of which he held that man to be guilty.” [15]

Johnson describes a few of his own dramatic moments. In 1897, when he was the political manager for George’s campaign for mayor of New York, he was hissed at a public meeting in Brooklyn.  He challenged “the group of hissers …. “’Well, what is it? What don’t you like…. ‘Well come on, give us some more of it.  I like it, it makes me feel good’ … But I got no response,” and the men slunk away.[16]  It became Johnson’s habit to publicly challenge his opponents to a debate; few men took him up on it.  As mayor, he urged a councilman to pretend to take a two thousand dollar bribe so that the briber might be revealed at the next council meeting. As the councilman publicly threw the bribe on the table, the briber was arrested as he ran for the door. [17]

These were skirmishes in his long battle against Privilege, the theme of his story.  “The city government belonged to the business interests generally …. The campaign funds came largely from business men who believed in a ‘business man’s government ,’ and who couldn’t or wouldn’t see that there was anything radically wrong with it.” [18] In 1907, Johnson ran for re-election against Senator Theodore Burton.  Here is Johnson’s version: “Privilege was fighting with its back to the wall now and stopped at nothing in the way of abuse or persecution, not of me only but of the men associated with me.  At their clubs, our boys were treated with … obvious insult…. Everywhere the campaign was the town talk.  In banks and factories, in offices and stores, on the [street]cars, in the home, in the schools … Even little children in the public schools engaged in the controversy.” [19] If there is a villain in the story, it is Mark Hanna, Johnson’s long-time political and business rival.  Hanna, the Republican kingmaker, denounced Johnson as a “the national leader of the Socialist party …. A vote for Johnson is a vote for chaos in this country …. Socialists like thieves steal up behind to stab.”  Johnson describes Hanna as “the representative and defender of Privilege.” [20]

But Johnson writes more about his political philosophy than about political drama. Chapters are devoted to teaching “the Lessons [the 1889 flood at] Johnstown Taught” (the flood was caused by “Special Privilege”) ;  “The Lessons of Monopoly” ( “law-made privilege” creates poverty, which in turn creates crime, corruption, and vice); “More Lessons of Monopoly” (the necessary corruption of private ownership of streetcars persuaded Johnson to get out of the streetcar business); “The Way Out” (Privilege blocks just taxation).  Many more pages teach about his other political platform than describe his actions: the single tax, municipally owned utilities, and municipal home rule. These “lessons” overwhelm not only the narrative, but Johnson, the narrator and the supposed topic of the book.

Only in formal portraits and in some of the fine photos by Louis Van Oeyen does Johnson appear front and center: addressing a tent meeting; surveying the line for the three-cent fare streetcar; driving the first 3-cent fare streetcar; receiving victorious election returns; chatting with a young citizen; entering the voting booth; signing bonds (this is the portrait that appears on the front of the autobiography).

Johnson ends the book optimistically: “The defeats of the movement loom large …. But it is a forward movement and this is the word of cheer I would send to those taking part in it. It is in the nature of Truth never to fail.” [21]   Days later, he died.  And to his contemporaries, the defeats still loomed large.

Hauser then had to edit an autobiography that was not – in its original form – very much about its subject; she had to focus on Johnson, and not on the defeated Johnson but on the victorious one.  It was an enormous challenge. She transcribed his materials as he lay dying, and she had to complete the book in the days shortly after his death so that it could be re-published as soon as possible in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. 

Her editing, and especially her Foreword and her concluding chapter, she explains, are intended to “capture the human quality in him.” Johnson was a reluctant autobiographer, focused on the present, not his own past; he bowed to public pressure to write about himself only “after he became so ill that the slightest physical or mental effort was a severe strain.” [22]

Hauser makes no pretense of journalistic objectivity.   Johnson was a “Big, brave, dauntless, resourceful soul.” [23]  So self-effacing that only at her urging, did he include the details of his early life.   So modest that he understated “the overwhelming odds against which he fought and conquered” and the “persecutions and cruelties of the street railway company and the business interests allied with it” that included the Chamber of Commerce, the retailers, the lawyers, doctors, and ministers. [24] He had great moral courage, championing causes before they became popular: municipal home rule, just taxation, initiative, referendum, and recall.  And “After he became convinced of the justice of woman suffrage, he made several speeches for it.” [25] (Johnson apparently did not mention woman suffrage in the dictated materials, and Hauser did not add it.)  Hauser lists the accomplishment he had omitted: an efficient city government, a building code, a forestry department, street-paving, bath-houses, parks and recreation facilities, all achieved without graft or scandal. [26] She repeats Lincoln Steffens “estimate of Mr. Johnson as ‘best mayor’ and of Cleveland as ‘the best governed city in the United States.’” [27]

Johnson also did not mention his wife, daughter, and son. Nor did Hauser.

Autobiographers don’t get to write about their own deaths, but Hauser finishes My Story for him. Hauser’s concluding chapter, “Blessed the Land That Knoweth Its Prophets Before They Die,” likens Johnson to the towering Biblical figures who spoke truth but were too often ignored.  Hauser describes Johnson’s last painful months, his last public speeches to cheering audiences, his brave death on April 10, 1911, the weeping crowds who watched his passing hearse.  She quotes the Cleveland Leader: “’The heart of the city stopped for two hours while the simple cortege passed through the lines of silent, grief-stricken men and women.’”[28]

Hauser had written Johnson’s eulogy.   She started out to humanize him; instead she had turned him into a saint.

Newspaper headlines informed readers about Johnson’s last days: “ JOHNSON’S DEATH MATTER OF HOURS”;  “TIRED OUT, JOHNSON AWAITS HIS DEATH.”[29]  Barely two months after his death, the Cleveland Plain Dealer announced that it would serialize the book: “Tom L. Johnson’s own story – written by himself.” [30] Well, not exactly.

But My Story  – and Hauser’s version of this heroic reformer pitted against the powerful status quo  –  became “the single most important surviving primary source concerning Tom L. Johnson’s role in the American reform movement and Cleveland’s reaction to his mayoral administration.”[31] She had begun his canonization.  Historians, sculptors, painters, journalists, and students would follow her lead. [32]


As the book was being prepared for publication, Hauser threw herself back into her suffrage work. In June 1911, she organized a rally at Cedar Point, where she shared the speakers’ platform with her old boss, Harriet Taylor Upton, and Johnson’s colleague, Newton D. Baker.  She enlisted the support of some of Cleveland’s “fashionable” women from its “first families. [33] In the 1911 Cleveland mayoral race – run without Johnson for the first time in a decade -, Hauser publicly challenged the six candidates to answer this question: “’Are you in favor of the political enfranchisement of the women of Cleveland and of Ohio?’”  All but one answered in the affirmative.[34]

Anti-suffragists, however, remained opposed.  In an effort to win them over, the suffragists interviewed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer in April 1912 assured its readers that women would not lose their femininity if they voted: “Why Bless Your Hearts, We’ll Be Just the Same,” read the headline. “Even the leader of the movement in Cleveland, Elizabeth Hauser, to whom has been accorded the credit of securing for the suffrage cause the official public recognition it has received, is of the womanly feminine type.” [35]

The suffragists’ immediate goal was to reform the Ohio constitution by putting on the ballot in 1912 an amendment that would have enfranchised women by changing the words that described a voter from a “white male” to “every citizen.” When enough signatures had been collected, Hauser traveled to Columbus to present the petitions to the state legislature.  She opened a headquarters for the Ohio suffrage movement there and registered as its lobbyist.  On the eve of the election, Hauser invoked the suffragist heroine Sojourner Truth’s dramatic testimony in Akron in 1851: “If the first woman God ever made [Eve] was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone, dese women togedder ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again.  And now dey is asking to do it, de men better let them.’” [36] Truth’s speech won great applause. But the suffrage amendment lost by 87,000 votes. In August, Hauser had predicted the suffragists’ response to possible defeat: “The forces of evil may prevail to the extent of defeating amendment 23 …, but the righteousness of the measure is not thereby defeated.  Its operation is only deferred.”[37]

So Ohio suffragists tried again in 1914, this time using the referendum to amend the Ohio constitution.  Hauser continued as a field organizer for the OWSA, acting as its press agent and lobbyist, and then its chairman.  She spoke often and forcefully.  She told her audience in Salem, Ohio, “All just government is by the consent of the governed, and you cannot deny to woman the right to vote without repudiating the Declaration of Independence.”  Targeting the anti-suffragists, she argued, “There is no reason why a few sheltered, protected women, who realize nothing of the sufferings and wrongs and abuses of others of their sex, should be used as an excuse for defeating the cherished purpose of those who are awake, who would make of this a better land in which to live.”[38]  A month later she went after the “liquor forces” who opposed votes for women: “The liquor interests of Ohio are out to defeat woman suffrage…. [W]e believe the time has come when we must drive our most bitter enemy from seclusion and force a fight in the open.”[39]

Another defeat in 1914 inspired suffragists to pursue a narrower goal: a state bill that would allow women to vote only in presidential elections.  On its behalf, Hauser invoked Johnson: “if Tom Johnson were here, he’d be with us in this fight.” [40]This bill passed the legislature but was repealed by a referendum although the suffragists’ leading lawyer Florence Allen challenged its legality.

Ohio women – and all American women – did get the vote on August 18, 1920 after Congress and three-fourths of the states had passed the Nineteenth Amendment.

Months before, the NAWSA, led by Carrie Chapman Catt, anticipating this victory and its challenges, formally established the League of Women Voters (LWV) in February 1920.  In May, Hauser returned to Cleveland to help re-organize the Cleveland Woman Suffrage Party of Greater Cleveland into the new Cleveland LWV.  Suffragist leader Belle Sherwin was elected president of the local group; Hauser became a regional director.  Both would soon assume leadership positions in the national LWV. Sherwin was its president, 1924-1934.  Hauser served on the national board and executive council through the 1930s. In 1931, Hauser, Sherwin, Upton, and Allen, Hauser’s long-time friends and allies, were named to the national LWV Roll of Honor for their role in winning the vote.

Although the league had a broad-ranging reform agenda including minimum wage and protective legislation for women and more stringent child labor laws, its primary goal was to educate newly enfranchised women to vote and run for office to ensure that the long suffrage battle had not fought in vain.  The league also championed other political reforms that Johnson might have found congenial, such as the city manager form of government, initially supported, then opposed by Baker, and proportional representational voting, supported by Witt. [41]

The LWV was non-partisan, endorsing issues, not candidates.  This was a pragmatic decision since members and officers belonged to different political parties. For example, Upton was a Republican; Allen, a Democrat.

Hauser joined the Progressive Party as did Witt and Howe.  She returned to Cleveland in July 1924 for the party convention, which nominated Senator Robert LaFollette for President.   Identified as the president of the Ohio LWV, she was photographed with other “Progressive Bosses,” including labor leaders, trade unionists, Socialist Morris Hillquit, and Harriet Stanton Blatch, suffragist and daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. [42] LaFollette had supported woman suffrage early in his political career. The party platform endorsed familiar reform issues such as the public ownership of railways and water sources and just taxation.  Hauser and Witt served on the party’s Ohio Conference for Political Action. Her connections to women voters made her valuable to Lafollette; he added political breadth to the league.

Hauser served simultaneously the League of Women Voters and the Progressive Party, seeing both as logical expressions of her hope to reform American life.  Just weeks before the 1924 party convention in Cleveland, she addressed a league meeting in Buffalo on “Political Housekeeping.”  “It will be a great day for this country when the women voters, conscious of their might, undertake a political clean-up with the same vigor which characterizes their housecleaning…. Dare we suggest that it may even be necessary … to get a new house if the old one cannot be made healthfully habitable.[43]”  Johnson and LaFollette would have agreed about the need for a new house.


Thanks to Hauser, My Story became our story.   As Hauser well knew, the book was what Johnson’s devoted contemporaries wanted to read.  Her version of Johnson’s story also shaped all later conversations about Johnson and inspired historians, teachers, journalists, painters, poets, film-makers, and two fine statues, one in our Public Square. The story set the bar so high for later mayors that no one – except maybe Baker – has come even close to measuring up although Dennis Kucinich deliberately cast himself as Johnson’s heir.  Cleveland history buffs still like to read My Story.  We love Tom Johnson, the champion of Progressive reform, “the best mayor” of our “best governed city.”  And we read Hauser’s words about our “big, brave, dauntless, resourceful” leader and sigh wistfully, contrasting Cleveland’s golden years under Johnson with its decline under all the lesser mayors who followed.

Hauser’s own story, on the other hand, remains pretty much untold although she is less anonymous than the tens of thousands of her fellow suffragists.  No statues, no paintings, no books celebrate her.  But her name does appear on the bronze League of Women Voters National Roll of Honor.  And she did become a professional writer, an applauded speaker, a seasoned organizer, an activist who hobnobbed with the important women and men of her day. Not bad for the daughter of a butcher, from a tiny Ohio town, who had only a high school education. She never became mayor of a major American city.  But she helped to create one for us.

[1] https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/d/1009638274

[2] https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/d/1009638274

[3] Cleveland Plain Dealer (CPD), October 1, 1899: 24.

[4]  CPD, September 7, 1902: 6.

[5] Frederic C. Howe, Confessions of a Reformer (Kent, OH, 1988), 137.

[6]   CPD, October 6, 1907: 46.

 Morning News, August 7, 1909: 6.

[8]  Virginia Clark Abbott, The History of Woman Suffrage and the League of Women Voters in Cuyahoga County, 1911-1945 (Cleveland, 1949), 12, 15.  This is the best source on the local movement in this period.  See also http://teachingcleveland.org/how-cleveland-women-got-the-vote-by-marian-morton/

[9]  Tom L. Johnson, My Story (My Story), edited by Elizabeth J. Hauser, second edition  IKent, OHio, 1993),  xxvii-xxix.

[10]  My Story, 2.

[11]  My Story, 7.

[12]  My Story, xxviii.

[13]  My Story, vi.

[14]  My Story, 58.

[15]  My Story, 258.

[16]  My Story, 56.

[17]  My Story, 214-215.

[18]  My Story, 114.

[19]  My Story, 270.

[20]   My Story, 202-203.

[21] My Story, 294.

[22] My Story, xxviii.

[23]  My Story, xxxviii.

[24]  My Story, xxxviii.

[25]   My Story, xxxii.

[26]   My Story, xxxv.

[27]   My Story, xxxvi.

[28]  My Story, 313.

[29]  CPD, April 8, 1911: 1; CPD, April 9: 1.

[30]  CPD, June 15, 1911:12.

[31]  John G. Grabowski, Forward to Second Edition, My Story, xxiii.

[32]   Johnson has never lacked for hagiographers.  Here are only a few.

“America’s Best Mayor,” (2012) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v39bCf509BQ;

Robert H Bremner,   “Tom L. Johnson,” Ohio Historical Journal. Volume 59, January 1950, 1-13.

George Condon,  Cleveland: The Best Kept Secret (Cleveland, 1981).

Edmund Vance Cooke, “A Man Is Passing” (1910).

Brent Larkin, Plain Dealer, August 4, 2019: E 1.

Carl Lorenz, Tom L. Johnson  (New York, 1911).

Eugene E. Murdock,  “Cleveland’s Johnson: Elected Mayor.”  Ohio Historical Journal,  Volume 62, October 1953, 323-333.

“Progressive Reform for the Common Man,” (2009)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XW8sJS6UPPw.

Hoyt Landon Warner, Progressivism in Ohio 1897-1917 (Columbus: 1964.

See also these: http://teachingcleveland.org/tom-l-johnson-aggegation/

Grabowski’s Foreword to the second edition of My Story makes a more cautious assessment xi-xxv.

[33] Abbot, 12-17.

[34] CPD, August 19, 1911: 3.

[35] CPD, April 7, 1912: 8.

[36]  Topeka Plain Dealer, Sept. 6, 1912: 2.

[37]  CPD, August 31, 1912: 9.

[38]  Salem News, June 11, 1914: 8.

[39]  Akron Beacon Journal, July 13, 1914: 2.

[40] CPD, December 10, 1016: 15.

[41] Abbott, 16, 18.

[42] Casper Star Tribune, July 5, 1924: 1.

[43] Zanesville Times Signal, July 13, 1924: 15.

Marian J. Morton is professor emeritus of history at John Carroll University and the author of many articles and books on Cleveland history, including three other Arcadia titles: Cleveland Heights, Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery, and Cleveland Heights: The Making of an Urban Suburb. She has written many essays for Teaching Cleveland Digital and for that we will be eternally grateful.

The Gardeners Versus the Government: The Ambler Park Skirmish by Marian J. Morton

Ambler Park 1934 (CSU), Ambler Park 1912 Map (pub domain), Ambler Park 1940 (CSU)

The Gardeners Versus the Government: The Ambler Park Skirmish
by Marian J. Morton

The pdf is here
Cleveland history buffs love the story of how feisty women’s garden clubs helped halt the federal highway destined to destroy the beautiful Shaker Lakes and nearby neighborhoods. [1] This is what the women did: in 1966, a consortium of 30 garden clubs created what is now the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes and got it designated a national education landmark; so designated, it became it an obstacle to the proposed Clark Freeway. Today, the center’s mission is to preserve and enhance the lakes’ natural environment.  It’s a wonderful Goliath versus David story, or rather, a wonderful story of Goliath versus the “ladies in tennis shoes,” as the gardeners were described, the term suggesting that they were ineffectual socialites and dilettantes. The women, of course, had powerful allies: grassroots organizations that sprang up in opposition to the several proposed freeways; the mayors of Shaker and Cleveland Heights and Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, who knew very well that freeways can destroy a city; and Sun Press editor Harry Volk, whose editorials and news articles kept the issue alive from 1965 to its demise in 1970.

And whether they knew it or not, the women had history on their side: three decades earlier, the women of local garden clubs had also triumphed over the federal government. Marshalling the power of organized womanhood and their own social connections and with significant help from a sympathetic newspaper, they thwarted the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA)’s threatened destruction of the natural beauties of Ambler Park.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, garden clubs organized middle- and upper-class women for the socially acceptable purpose of beautifying their own homes and gardens.  Club activities – meetings, luncheons, elections, fund-raisers, plant sales, lectures – dominated the women’s pages of  many newspapers.  And as often happened when women got together, they looked beyond their own homes and became advocates for public causes – in this case, civic beautification and conserving the natural landscape.  Consequently, they also became political players.

A local example: in the 1920s, the Shaker Garden Club began to plant wildflowers around the Shaker Lakes and in 1930, cherry trees.  In 1933, the club developed a broader plan for the lakes’ region  and got permission from the city of Cleveland to “improve park property adjacent to the upper Shaker Lakes.” [2] The lakes had been a gift in 1895 to Cleveland from the Shaker Heights Land Company, which had bought the Shaker community’s property and later sold it to developers Otis P. and Mantis J. Van Sweringen in 1913. The proximity of the lakes to Shaker Heights’ handsome new homes greatly enhanced their value, as the Van Sweringens had hoped.

By 1933, however, the Great Depression had taken hold, and the Van Sweringens’ real estate empire had collapsed.  Even affluent suburbs like Shaker and Cleveland Heights had residents so down on their luck that they needed help from the federal government.  Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration created the Civil Works Administration (CWA) to take men off local relief rolls and put them to work on publicly useful projects such as parks, playgrounds, schools, roads, and bridges.  Cities that had projects already designed or underway got a head start.

The Shaker Garden Club’s plan for Shaker Lakes, for example, was ready to go. In December 1933, CWA workers, “directed by the City of Cleveland Parks Department  … and the women of the Shaker Lakes Garden Club,” began to “transform the 300 acres of forests and meadowlands of Shaker Heights into a great city recreation area.” [3]  This ambitious plan didn’t happen exactly that way, but in October 1934, the CWA had almost completed work on the landscaping and a set of stone steps on the peninsula of the upper [Horseshoe] lake. [4]

When the CWA began work on Ambler Park, however, it was a different story: gardeners clashed instead of cooperated with the federal government.  The CWA project on Ambler Park was part of the larger project to improve Doan Brook, which began in the Shaker Lakes and then proceeded through Ambler Park and from there to Rockefeller and Gordon Parks.   Like the Shaker Lakes, most of Ambler Park had been a gift to the city of Cleveland from a developer, Martha B. Ambler, owner of the property that became Cleveland Heights’ elegant enclave, Ambler Heights, that bordered the park on the north.

Ambler Park also had a very different terrain.  The Shaker Lakes were small and man-made, on flat meadowland, and designed to run the mills of the Shaker settlement. The lakes could be easily domesticated with wild flowers and cherry trees.  In contrast, much of Ambler Park ran through a steep, shale-lined ravine, which dropped sharply from the lakes on “the heights” down to Cedar Road and University Circle. Major thoroughfares flanked it on the south and north.

The park’s geography did not lend itself to baseball diamonds or tennis courts although there was a small pond at the foot of the park used for ice skating in the 1910s.    By necessity and design, most of Ambler Park was kept in its natural state.  Cleveland city officials in 1908 hoped to “cultivate [its] wild beauty.” [5] They boasted of its birds and summer foliage.  On one sunny Sunday in 1911, 10,000 people rode the streetcar or walked to enjoy the park. [6] The most frequent visitors were the dozens of Boy Scout troops who used the park to test their wilderness skills during the 1920s.

But the untamed landscape also created dangers: children drowned in the pond or ran their sleds into trees; motorists occasionally crashed down into the ravine.  And there was crime, including a sensational gangland slaying of two gamblers found trussed up, shot, and tossed into the park’s depths in 1927.  And the park itself was endangered. In the mid-1920s, debris from building Baldwin Reservoir to the south was tossed down the ravine.  Even worse, in 1930, County Commissioner J.H. Harris suggested that a boulevard be cut through the ravine to speed automobile traffic to and from the Heights.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized about “Saving Ambler Park[:] …. there is no convincing reason why [a roadway] should be made the instrument of destroying most of what remains of Ambler Park’s glory.” [7]  The idea went nowhere; Fairhill (then Fairmount) Road on the south side of the ravine was widened instead.

So park lovers were already concerned when the CWA began to enclose Doan Brook with culverts and cement walls in both Rockefeller and Ambler Parks. Photos from April 1934 show workers in Ambler Park struggling with huge chunks of concrete.[8] But the CWA’s primary goal was putting men to work; its secondary goal was to prevent erosion and keep the brook from overflowing its banks. Conserving the beauties of nature was not a priority.

Women’s gardening groups led the attack on what they saw as a destructive approach to the natural landscape.  Their spokesperson was Elizabeth Ring Ireland Mather, chairman of the Cleveland parks committee of the Garden Center (now the Cleveland Botanical Gardens).  She was the wife of William Gwinn Mather, a prominent industrialist and philanthropist and Cleveland’s “first citizen.” But she was a powerful civic activist in her own right.  She was a founder in 1930 of the Garden Center, then located on the Wade Lagoon, and she remained deeply invested in the planning and beautification of University Circle throughout her life. [9]

In 1933, under Mather’s direction, the Garden Center became the Garden Center of Greater Cleveland.  Its members included gardening and horticultural groups and women’s civic groups from several suburbs, as well as the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Natural History Museum. In December, Mather, on behalf of the  center’s “nearly 200,000 members,” asked that federal relief money be spent on  planting trees and shrubs along state highways, not simply widening and grading them.[10]  Six months later, Mather demanded that  Governor George White come up with the money she believed her groups had been promised. [11]

In the meantime, she also accused Cleveland Mayor Harry L. Davis of allowing the managing of Cleveland’s parks to become a “political football”: political appointees who knew little about parks –  and were almost certainly Democrats –  had allowed streets and parks to become “ugly and neglected.”  The city should create a non-partisan park board that would develop a comprehensive plan, informed by experts, she argued.  The mayor responded that even if there were enough money for such a board, it would be composed of residents of Cleveland, “not of the Heights.” The message:  suburban women had no business poking around in city business. [12] (Mather lived in Bratenahl.)

In 1935, the WPA replaced the CWA. But the approach to Ambler Park remained the same: walls and culverts.

On April 20, 1936, Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Josephine Robertson blasted the WPA’s destruction of Ambler Park on page one. “Natural beauty spots in the city’s parks are being laid waste by WPA workers …. The pretty meandering brooks and rills in which many generations of children have waded have been organized between high walls like open sewers.” The habitat of woodland animals has been destroyed, she continued, and “The natural mat of leaves and mold, the wild flowers and mosses are being scraped off the banks … The natural cover for birds … is being uprooted.”  Robertson interviewed strollers heartbroken and astonished that their park’s natural beauties had fallen victim to “pickaxes and shovels …. ‘The woods is gone now,’” one mourned. [13]

The very next day, Mather and the gardeners jumped in.  The Garden Center’s formidable alliance of Cleveland’s social and cultural elite established a committee to “investigate WPA plans to wall up” Doan Brook through Ambler Park. Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, Cuyahoga County WPA director, responded, “It’s all a matter of taste.”  The women disagreed.  “Why fix nature?” they asked. When he explained that walls would prevent erosion from the thousands of gallons of water dumped into the brook from the reservoir, the gardeners pointed out that this water had been dumped into the brook for many years from the Fairmount and then the Baldwin Reservoir without damage.  Further, they accused the WPA of “digging out the homes of little animals and destroying the natural vegetation along the way.” [14]

The Plain Dealer rallied to the women’s cause: “WPA workers, blunderingly trying to improve on nature in Cleveland parks, remind one of those highway engineers who are found occasionally slashing century-old trees so that a road may be made just a big straighter …. Thus many lovers of natural beauty will echo the protest against what the WPA is now doing to Ambler Park. One hopes there is landscaping as well as engineering talent in the high command of the WPA which will stay the hand of the slashers before it is too late.” [15]

In the hot seat, Cleveland City Parks Director Hugh E. Varga passed the buck, claiming that his department had “practically no check on the way projects were carried out,” although the city had apparently okayed the original plans.  He promised to do better: “a committee of Cleveland’s most prominent landscape architects [would] recommend” changes to WPA plans. “I will do all I can to preserve the natural beauty of the parks.”[16]

A month later, the Plain Dealer headlines shouted, “Ambler Brook Reprieved; Prison Walls Won’t Rise.”   The committee Varga had promised recommended that the eastern end of Ambler Park “should be kept in a natural condition.”  The gardeners had won. Robertson breathed a sigh of relief: “the sylvan brook in Ambler Park, which was threatened with being walled up like a sewer … will babble gayly by its natural green and wooded banks.”  The chipmunks and the birds are safe, Cleveland children will still wade in the shallow water.” [17]

WPA work on Ambler Park continued through the 1930s.  Photographs taken in 1940– at least for public relations purposes – show graceful steps and walkways winding through the stone outcropping and woods that line the brook. [18] The western-most end of Ambler Park was culverted.

Although the WPA left a very visible built legacy in nearby parks – the landscaping and statuary of Rockefeller Park and a handsome bridge in Forest Hills Park – , the WPA left behind in Ambler Park the (almost) natural setting for which the skirmish had been fought.

The preservation of Ambler Park was a small – but early – victory for the environment and for these gardeners: it illustrated that “women in tennis shoes” can be a force to be reckoned with, that private citizens can become political actors, and that private gardens can lead to civic beautification – especially with local journalists on your side. It left a legacy of grassroots activism for women of the 1960s and beyond.

Ambler Park has changed since 1940.  Today, Facebook pages show that local artists have left their own marks on its shale outcropping.  [19]  Mather’s gardeners might not approve.  Nevertheless, thanks to her and her gardeners, the park is still a place where strollers and birdwatchers and students can admire and learn about the beauties of nature.   [20]




[1] For example, Lauren R. Pacini and Laura M. Peskin, Preserving the Shaker Parklands, The Story of the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes (Cleveland, 2016).

[2]  Cleveland Plain Dealer (CPD), June 1, 1933: 4)

[3] Local History Ephemera File, Shaker Heights Library.

[4]  CPD, October 14, 1934: 28.

[5]  CPD, February 16, 1908: 5.

[6]  CPD, October 16, 1911: 12.

[7]   CPD,  November 18, 1930: 10.

[8] https://clevelandmemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/press/id/14388/rec/3

[9] https://case.edu/ech/articles/m/mather-elizabeth-ring-ireland.

[10]   CPD, December 5, 1933: 10.

[11]   CPD, June 30, 1934: 9.

[12]  CPD, May 9, 1934:14.

[13]  CPD, April 20, 1936: 1, 5.

[14]  CPD, April 21, 1936: 1,4.

[15]  CPD, April 21, 1936:8.

[16]  CPD, April 24, 1936: 1

[17]  CPD, May 25,1936: 1.

[18] https://clevelandmemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/gardens/id/258/rec/4; https://clevelandmemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/gardens/id/235/rec/7

[19] https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1299229313445614&set=a.401484156553472&type=3&theater;

Mr. Adorjan's 6th grade science class learns about geology in the classroom and in the park just south of the school. …

Posted by Roxboro Middle School PTA on Thursday, November 15, 2012

[20] https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1299229313445614&set=a.401484156553472&type=3&theater;

Battle for the Ballot: Cleveland’s Suffragist Movement A talk by Dr. Mary Manning Feb 23, 2021 at 7pm

Tuesday February 23, 2021 at 7pm
Battle for the Ballot: Cleveland’s Suffragist Movement
A talk by Dr. Mary Manning
Zoom RSVP here:

There is no complete record of the brave, often unnamed women who fought for their right to vote and finally triumphed in 1920. In conjunction with the Women & Politics exhibition at the Cleveland History Center, learn about a band of Northeast Ohio women who dedicated themselves to the public interest and grew into an organization that won the respect and confidence of the nation through the photographs, fashions, newspaper reports, and pamphlets they and their opponents left behind. This program will tell the story behind the local women who advocated for suffrage and went on to help establish the League of Women Voters.

Presented by Dr. Mary Manning, Western Reserve Historical Society

Cosponsored by Cleveland History Center, League of Women Voters of Greater Cleveland and CWRU Siegal Lifelong Learning


The Long Arc of Justice and the Beloved Community: Courage and Resilience in Black Women’s Struggle for Universal Voting Rights and Political Power” a talk by Joy Bostic 9/23/2020

The Long Arc of Justice and the Beloved Community: Courage and Resilience in Black Women’s Struggle for Universal Voting Rights and Political Power

Joy Bostic, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies, Founding Director for the African and African American Studies Program, CWRU

Wednesday, September 23, 7pm via Zoom

The video is here

This talk will delve into the core values and organizing strategies Black women use locally and nationally in the struggle for inclusive voting rights in the United States.

RSVP here:

Made possible with a generous donation from Lin Emmons

Sponsored by Cleveland History Center, CWRU Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning, League of Women Voters-Greater Cleveland

From the 19th Amendment to the Occupy Movement: Women’s Social Movement Activism A talk by Heather Hurwitz, Tues August 18, 2020

From the 19th Amendment to the Occupy Movement:
Women’s Social Movement Activism
A talk by Heather Hurwitz, Lecturer, Sociology, CWRU
Tuesday August 18, 2020 at 7pm
Via Zoom
The video is here

FREE to the public
This talk will explore the range of social movement activism that women have engaged in since the passage of the 19th amendment. Topics include the pursuit of racial and gender equality, women in environmental movements, feminists in the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter, and more. Since suffrage, women have continued to fight for equality within a variety of progressive movements.

Made possible with a generous donation from Lin Emmons.

Sponsored by Cleveland History Center, CWRU Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning, League of Women Voters-Greater Cleveland

A Collector’s Tale: Memorabilia Of The American Women’s Suffrage Movement Saturday June 27 at 2pm via Zoom Talk by: Angela Clark-Taylor, PhD


A Collector’s Tale: Memorabilia Of The American Women’s Suffrage Movement
Saturday June 27 at 2pm via Zoom
Talk by: Angela Clark-Taylor, PhD
Director, Flora Stone Mather Center for Women

This lecture will utilize artifacts and ephemera from the American Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Anti-Suffrage Movement to provide a brief history of women’s suffrage and the memorabilia suffragists created to develop a mainstream market appeal for their movement to the American people.
The video is here

RSVP here

The lecture is free and open to the public.
Made possible with a generous donation from Lin Emmons.

Co-sponsored by CWRU Siegal Lifelong Learning, The League of Women Voters of Greater Cleveland, and the Western Reserve Historical Society Cleveland History Center.


Beyond Suffrage: Women’s Reform Networks and the Road for Women’s Rights, a lecture by Einav Rabinovitch-Fox 2/27/2020 w/video


Beyond Suffrage: Women’s Reform Networks
and the Road for Women’s Rights
The video is here

Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, Visiting Assistant Professor, History, CWRU
Thursday February 27, 2020 at 7p.m.

Talk will be at CWRU Siegal Facility on Richmond Rd
25700 Science Park Dr Beachwood, OH 44122

This talk will explore how the local activism of women in various reform causes in Cleveland and elsewhere led to their involvement in the suffrage movement, thus situating the right to vote in a broader activist agenda to advance women’s rights and equality before and after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. This series is held in partnership with The Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning Program Case Western Reserve University and the League of Women Voters of Greater Cleveland.

Free and open to the public.
The flyer is here
RSVP here

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