Between Old and New Woman: Flora Stone Mather and the Politics of Gender By Dr. Einav Rabinovitch-Fox

Between Old and New Woman: Flora Stone Mather and the Politics of Gender

By Dr. Einav Rabinovitch-Fox

(This is based on a lecture given at the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women at CWRU, on April 20, 2016) 

Flora Stone Mather, the woman whom the place we are in today is named after, and the subject of my talk, is known as one of the greatest philanthropist in Cleveland history, and certainly one of its greatest woman philanthropist, famous for her work and contribution to religious, educational, and social welfare activities. True to her sense of service, and fortunate enough to enjoy a position of power due to her wealth and family reputation, Flora managed to navigate her way in a masculine world, and to cultivate a new identity for herself, as a woman, as a philanthropist, and as an influential force in Cleveland’s elite.  In my talk today, I would like to examine Flora’s life and work as both exemplar of nineteenth century womanhood and a prototype for a generation of Progressive New Women that will follow her. In her ability to carve a position of power in a changing social world in terms of gender and class, Flora Stone Mather’s life provides us with a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities women faced in this period and are still facing today.

Born in 1852, Flora was the third and youngest child of engineer entrepreneur Amasa Stone and his wife Julia Gleason Stone. The couple moved to Cleveland in 1851, after Amasa already reached fame and fortune as a superintendent of the Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati Railroad. Flora herself was born in the family home on Superior Ave., a typical Victorian house in one of the fashionable and respectable neighborhoods in Cleveland. In 1858, the family will move to the more fashionable and luxurious mansion on Euclid Ave. that served as a testament to Amasa Stone’s status as one of Cleveland’s social and financial elites.[1] Cleveland in the period just before and after the Civil War was a city in boom. During this time, its population doubled to forty thousand, attracting not only immigrants and cheap labor force but also the Nation’s top entrepreneurs and capital. The war itself brought economic prosperity to Cleveland, transforming it from a commercial village to a mid-size industrial city and an important regional center for manufacturing and shipping. Euclid Ave., where the Stones resided, became during this time the center of wealth and opulence and the home to some of the richest people in America, receiving the name: “Millionaires’ Row.”

Whereas her parents had to climb their way to prosperity, Flora was born into a life of privilege. She participated in the conventional life expected of women of her milieu: dinners, receptions, teas, charity benefits, and church. As the youngest daughter, with an older brother to serve as the family heir, Flora was not destined to become a social reformer but a society woman, a dutiful daughter, a caring wife and a mother – keeping with the Victorian ideals of True Womanhood. Historian Barbara Welter defined True Womanhood as comprised of four core values: domesticity, piety, submissiveness, and purity. According to Welter, the ideal Victorian woman was supposed to be nurturing and innately domestic in nature, cultivating a life of faith and devotion set apart from the public and masculine world of business and interest.[2] And indeed, Flora seemed fitted to this ideal. “Small in stature and fragile in health, plain and unassuming in her appearance” as one description of her explained, Flora embodied the values of the Victorian lady.[3]

On par with the ideals of True Womanhood, religion was an important part of Flora’s life. Her parents were members of the First Presbyterian Old Stone Church, and the children were involved early on in church life. Centrally located on Public Square, the church had a socially and politically prominent congregation, which served not only as a religious community but also as a social one. The reverend of Old Stone Church, William Henry Goodrich, was a great influence of Flora, and played an important role in shaping her views regarding social betterment and service. Indeed, although the leadership of Protestant churches was male, women were active participants in the church charitable activities, which allowed them to move beyond the world of home and family. [4] Navigating between the notion that saw woman’s rightful place in the home, and the notion of Christian service as expression of one’s piety, Flora managed to form a new version of the True Woman, one that carved new position of power in the public sphere, but without defying feminine virtues. On the contrary, Flora used her religious faith and dedication as the rational for action. Flora’s religious views did not only shape her understanding of her role as woman, but also were behind her philanthropic activities. “I feel so strongly that I am one of God’s stewards,” she attested to her notion of service. “Large means without effort of mine, have been put into my hands; and I must use them as I know my Heavenly Father would have me,” she explained her motivation for her work.[5]  

Religion was important aspect of two of the early causes that Flora took as a young woman. In 1867 she and her sister Clara joined the newly formed Young Ladies Mission Society who did missionary work in the working-class neighborhood just north of the church. As part of the Society’s activities, Flora and her colleagues raised funds for the church mission, sewed garments for the poor and held Sunday festivals. This missionary spirit also pushed Flora to join the Temperance Movement, which was the largest women’s movement in the late nineteenth century.[6] Seeing alcohol as a vice and a threat to the Christian home, the Temperance movement was more than just a Christian missionary group. It also served as the breeding ground for ideas of women’s influence and empowerment, and provided many of its members with the experience of public speaking and activism, albeit marked with conservative tones.[7] Thus, infusing ideals of True Womanhood with more progressive ideas regarding women’s role in public, the movement gave Flora her first foray into public life when she became the vice president and then president of the Young Ladies Temperance League. The League also introduced Flora to the field of charity work, especially with regards to children. In 1882, the League became the Young Ladies Branch of the Woman’s Christian Association, whose purpose was to establish day nurseries for children of working mothers. Flora took much joy in those activities: “I had such a sweet time at the Nursery,” she recalled. “I sat by the fire rocking a cradle and singing to a tired little boy. Then the mothers came for their children and I had a little talk with each one. We want to have them feel that we take an interest in them and their children,” Flora explain her rational for volunteering.[8]

Flora’s experiences with the Woman’s Christian Association and her religious affiliation and dedication to the Old Stone Church continued well beyond her youth. In 1896, when she was 44 and already married to Samuel Mather, another prominent Clevelander who made a fortune in the mining business, Flora founded the Goodrich Settlement House, named after her admired reverend. By the late nineteenth century, settlement houses were a common sight in the urban centers of the U.S. Influenced by Progressive ideas regarding social betterment and helping the poor, the settlement movement sought to eliminate social ills not through material charity, but through education and community work that was supposed not just to take care of the poor, but to solve the reasons for poverty all together. The major purpose of settlement houses was to help to assimilate and ease the transition of immigrants into the labor force by teaching them middle-class American values. In Chicago, for instance, Hull-House, which became the most famous settlement house in America, helped to educate immigrants by providing classes in history, art, and literature. Hull-House also provided social services to reduce the effects of poverty, including a daycare center, homeless shelter, public kitchen, and public baths.[9]

Settlement work offered a radical break from Victorian gentility as settlement workers, often young, single, highly educated women, went to live within immigrant and destitute urban neighborhoods and became part of these communities. It opened new possibilities for women to gain public influence and presence in the public sphere. In addition to education and social welfare, settlement houses became a nexus for political activism, with reformers like Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, and Lillian Wald, becoming involved in advocating social legislation to combat poverty in local, state, and national politics. While many settlement workers still worked within the boundaries of middle-class Victorianism, they represented a new understanding of femininity, one that was associated with the New Woman, a term referring to a generation of women who came of age between 1880 and 1920 and represented in their attitude and appearance a challenge to the ideal True Woman.[10] These women challenged the regulatory norms of gender by demanding public voice, a personal fulfillment through work, education, and political engagement. 

Although the settlement worker became a type of the New Woman, Flora, who was 44 and a mother of four by the time she founded Goodrich House, would hardly fit the image. And indeed, while the work done at Goodrich resembled much of the work done in other settlement houses—it had lectures and class to children and adults, a gymnasium, a bowling alley, public baths, laundry, and several clubs for boys and girl—Flora’s involvement attested more to her Victorian upbringing than to her willingness to break new grounds for women. As a mother of four, Flora did not live in Goodrich House but maintained her residence in the family home at Euclid Ave. Flora also saw Goodrich House as an extension of her religious activities, less as a place that will offer her a chance to gain a political influence in the community. As Flora specified in her own words, the object of Goodrich House was “to provide a center for such activities as are commonly associated with Christian Social Settlement work.”[11]

Flora was instrumental to the financial standing of the institution. She and her husband served on the board of trustees and Flora provided funds both for the settlement land and building, as well as $10,000 as a first installment of an endowment fund. Flora also covered the operating expenses. Yet, Flora’s contributions to Goodrich House were not only financial. She was fully engaged in its activities, and while she perhaps did not intend it to become one, Goodrich House nevertheless became known as a public forum for the discussion of social reform issues and was perhaps the “most liberal settlement in Cleveland.”[12] Flora herself, while not the typical New Woman, used Goodrich House and her activities for it to set the foundations to more rigorous reform efforts and opened up opportunities for women to gain position of power and influence in public.

In 1900, as part of her role at Goodrich House, Flora, who had learned about the conditions of the urban poor, decided to form the Consumers League of Ohio, a local chapter of the National Consumers’ League. The League’s goal was to improve the working conditions of women and children by limiting the hours of work, guaranteeing minimum wage, and the safety and sanitary conditions of factories, mills, and offices.[13] While for Flora, the League was very much a continuation of her church and temperance activities, the organization became a breeding place for more progressive and feminist reforms. League members used their considerable social status and economic power as consumers to apply pressure on employers to improve labor conditions, but these activities, while successful on the whole, also pointed the limitation of women to gain real influence without being able to have a voice in the political system. These pushed League member to become active in the women’s suffrage campaign. Although Flora herself was not involved in the local suffrage movement, the League offered a training ground to many of the local suffragists who will channel their experience into promoting more radical causes such as women’s suffrage. Thus, while she herself still hovered in the realm of respectable True Womanhood, Flora managed to harness her influence and fortune to carve new position of power that in turn helped to redefine notions of gender and women’s social roles. 

Beyond Flora’s own character and natural leaning towards social causes, she occupied a unique position that enabled her to become an influential force in promoting social reform while maintaining her relative independence. A series of tragic events that began with the death of her brother Adelbert in 1865 from drowning, and continued with her father’s suicide in 1883 due to a sense of shame from a railroad tragedy, ill health, and depression, turned Flora into a very wealthy woman as she inherited her father’s fortune.[14] Although both her mother and sister also inherited large sums, Flora became the one who not only inherited large sums of money, but also her father’s charitable responsibilities. Her sister Clara married John Hay in 1874 and moved with him to Washington DC where he had been active in politics and served among his other posts as Assistant Secretary of State. As her sister was occupied with the travels of her husband and her aging mother, Flora had to become, with the assistant of her husband, the head of the family, a role that was unusual for women during that time. While this position naturally gave her more influence than before, Flora still maintained her more submissive role as a woman and as a wife, staying true to the Victorian values of True Womanhood and refusing to take this opportunity to break new grounds. In one letter to her husband in 1883 she confessed, “When I think of the business part of the responsibility that has come on us I simply don’t know what I should have done without you.”[15] Despite the fact that by 1883 Flora already gained experience in philanthropy on her own right, she was still not ready to see herself as an independent person capable to running her father’s business.

Flora’s husband, Samuel Mather, also came from a well-known and wealthy family. His father, Samuel Livingston Mather made his fortune in the iron or mining business and Samuel, his son, also became a successful businessman. He and Flora got married in 1881, and two years later, much thanks to the fortune he received from Flora’s father’s inheritance, Mather found Pickands, Mather & Company to sell coal and iron ore, which became one of the great shippers of iron or from the great lakes region.[16] Their marriage became the beginning of a philanthropic partnership, as Samuel was very supportive of his wife’s various initiatives. In a letter to Flora in 1880 he wrote: “I love your conscientious devotion to duty. I could not love any one over a week that was without this quality and I lover your untiring energy and cheerfulness of spirit.”[17] Flora on her side answered: “What touched me most and made me most glad of you, was that you said we would try together to live naturally, truthfully, humbly striving to improve ourselves and be of some honest use.”[18] The couple had together 4 children, and while it was Flora who took upon herself the duties of the household and child raising, her economic status also enabled her the time and resources to pursuit a life of service beyond her immediate family.

Enjoying her husband’s emotional as well as financial support, together with having her own independent fortune due to her $600,000 inheritance of her father’s estate, Flora maintained a unique position that enabled her to carve more power and independence than other women of her milieu at this period, who were bound to their fathers or husbands. Samuel’s frequent traveling and business dealing provided with Flora with relative independence that enabled her to construct an identity separate from her husband. Although she did not enjoy the freedom that single New Women had, she manage nevertheless to enjoy another kind of freedom that gave her the possibility to break new grounds and to become an influential power in Cleveland’s philanthropic landscape on her own. And thus, while she never abandoned her Victorian uprising and the values of True Womanhood, her unique life circumstances enabled her to broaden the limits and definitions of womanhood, negotiating new realms of activities. 

Amasa Stone’s death, while certainly traumatic to the family, also opened up a new venue for Flora to continue her activism. Indeed, whereas religion was an important driving force in Flora’s development as a philanthropist, education was another. As a True Woman, Flora did not receive higher education, as this was considered to be a radical, and even dangerous occupation for women at the time. Although Amasa Stone and many of his class milieu thought that women should be educated, mostly to enhance their social status, rigorous academic training was not what they had in mind. Indeed, while her brother Adelbert was sent to Yale, Clara and Flora stayed at home, preparing for their life as wives and mothers. However, this is not to say that Amasa Stone did not care for his daughters’ education. In 1866 he founded the Cleveland Academy, to which both Flora and Clara went, and was a private girls’ school which was the equivalent of a high-school college preparatory education.[19] The curriculum was based on biblical texts and current events, and emphasized public speaking as well as writing. Their teacher, Linda Thayer Guilford, who became enormous influence on Flora’s approach to reform, represented better the possibilities that began opening up for women in terms of education in the nineteenth century that will become the hallmark of the New Woman. Guilford, who graduated from Mount Holyoke, one of the most prestigious high education institutions for women, was instrumental in introducing Flora to ideas of social service and moral responsibility for the poor.[20]

While Flora preferred to concentrate on helping the poor and children, education was one of Amasa Stone’s main philanthropic causes. In addition to founding the Cleveland Academy, Stone had an important role in the development of Western Reserve University. In 1880, he gave the institution $500,000 to facilitate the move from Hudson to Cleveland, as well as more funds to build Adelbert College, in the memory of his son. Upon his death, Flora took much of her father commitments to Western Reserve. In 1888, she gave $50,000 endowment and $2500 to the library of Adelbert College. In 1889, she endowed a chair in history.[21]  And in 1907, wanting to commemorate her father, as well as maybe to restore his reputation as a great philanthropist, Flora donated a chapel to Adelbert College in his name.[22] The Amasa Stone Chapel was completed in 1911 and stands at the CRWU campus until this day.

Although higher education was never a passion for Flora, the need to step into her father shoes opened an opportunity for her to promote women’s education, if not for her, then for other women. Shortly after Flora assumed her father’s commitment to Western Reserve University and Adelbert College, the new president of the university, Hiram C. Haydn, which Flora knew from his days as the pastor of the Old Stone Church, announced that women will no longer be admitted to the university. This decision has generated a controversy over the virtues of education for women, and Flora, instead of sitting the debate out, decided to use the controversy and to work for the founding of a new institution – a college for women that will be affiliated with Western Reserve University.

In 1888, a separate college for women began to operate. Its first significant gifts came from Flora’s mother and her brother-in-low, which provided sums that allowed the college to take off. In 1891, Flora donated $75,000 for the first dormitory, named for Linda Guilford, her beloved teacher. The college for women gave Flora a chance to experience college life, something she never done herself. She used to visit the college almost every day, getting to know the students, spending time with them, bringing gifts, or attending lectures.[23] Thus, without completely abandoning her life as a mother of small children and a philanthropist, Flora managed also to get acquainted with the new culture of higher education, a culture that soon many young women will get to share. 

Indeed, while she herself would have never been a New Woman, Flora’s involvement in the college, as well as her insistence that women will receive quality rigorous education, paved the way for women in the next generation to reach significant achievements. Alumna of the college later went into law and service, as well as into business, accomplishing the school spirit, and in some way also Flora’s tradition. One of these graduates was Florence Allen, a jurist and an ardent suffragist who defended women’s municipal suffrage before the Ohio Supreme Court in 1917. She was the first women to be nominated as a chief judge of a federal court, when Roosevelt nominated her to the United States 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1934.[24] While careers such as Allen were certainly unique, and although it will be difficult to draw a direct connection between Allen and her experience at the College for Women, Allen is an example of the type of space and functions that the college provided for women, and the possibilities it opened to them in a period where gender bias was still very much prevalent in higher education. 

If other women lived to their upmost potential thanks to the college, Flora remained bound to her more Victorian uprising. Despite her many activities and increasing philanthropic responsibilities, she maintained a life that was centered around her family, and particularly her children. To Flora, her children were the greatest achievement of her life. She confessed: “My greatest gift to the next century should be my well-trained children.”[25] And indeed, Flora took full responsibility for her motherly duties and the education of her kids. While for the twenty-first century feminist ears, such sentiment, especially from a woman who achieved such status in the public sphere, might sounds contradictory and even a bit defeatist, it is important to understand the world in which Flora operated in and the emotional, psychological, even if not economic challenges, that she had to negotiate. Flora was in no means revolutionary, but very much a product of her time, and in the period she lived, home and motherhood were a source of power, the base from which you go out to the world, not only a secluded prison you needed to escape from. 

And indeed, it is possible to see Flora’s philanthropy as the extension of the domestic sphere, not as a negation of it. Her charitable activities with children and mothers were a way for Flora to enhance her own motherhood. Even her involvement with education causes came out of her experience as a mother. As a mother she sought enriching schools for her children, and when she failed to find ones, she used her social and economic status to found them. One of those schools was Hathaway Brown, the school her daughters went to, in which Flora played a major role in its development. In 1904, she gave $33,000 for the land and building for the new residence of the school. This act propelled the school to request Flora to give her name to the new location and to change it to the “Mather School.”[26] However, since for Flora, philanthropy was not a form of self-interest or a way to advance a business agenda, but an extension of her motherly and feminine duties, she refused to take any credit for her work or contribution. 

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the ideas of philanthropy were tied up with the notion of service and civic stewardship. This notion was based on the idea that successful citizens owe a dual obligation of time and money to the community in which they prospered.[27] While this notion was not specifically gendered, as many wealthy men, from John Rockefeller to Andrew Carnegie also embodied this notion of philanthropy, for women, and especially for those who belong to Flora Stone Mather’s generation, success usually did not mean economic or business success, but an idea that was much rooted in notions of Christian missionary, devoutness, and domestic roles. Whereas Flora’s contributions to the development of Cleveland, to its institutions, to the promotion of women’s education, and to women’s and children welfare was on par with many of her male colleagues, if not surpassed them, Flora in her life never broke the boundaries that marked her gender and her understanding of her role as a woman in this men’s world.

Flora was known and acknowledged during her own lifetime, yet it was only after her death that she received the credit for her activities, assuming the role of the New Woman, a role that she never assume when she was alive. Indeed, Flora’s death in 1909, due to complications of breast cancer, did not mark an end to her lasting influence and involvement in philanthropy. Her will listed bequests for all the organizations that she had given support to throughout her life, among them the Children’s Aid Society of Cleveland, Old Stone Church, Lakeside Hospital, the Young Ladies Branch of the Women’s Christian Association, the Goodrich Social Settlement, and of course Western Reserve University and the College for Women and Adelbert college.

In the years after her death, her husband, Samuel Mather and her children continued Flora’s commitment to the Women’s College, honoring her with a dormitory in her name in 1913 and building the Flora Stone Mather Memorial Building in 1914. In 1931, the board of trustees of Western Reserve University renamed the entire college for women as the Flora Stone Mather College.[28]

Although today, the name of Flora Stone Mather is rarely known beyond Cleveland, her legacy is still very much alive today. In 1909, one of the eulogies that appeared on the Cleveland Leader commented that “Mrs. Mather achieved a career of which any man might be proud.”[29] Flora used her social status to promote issues that would later be picked up by reformers and feminists. While she herself never broke beyond the limits of her gender, her activities and philanthropic contributions enabled others to do it. Flora Stone Mather thus provided a model for a woman of her time and status that symbolized the transitional phase of women in the turn of the century America, one that did not represent a complete break with ideas of Victorian femininity, but managed to incorporate both the advances and the limitations of women’s liberation at the time. When we come to assess Flora Stone Mather today, in an age when women are running for president and are the head of multi-billion businesses, we should be reminded of the women, like Flora Stone Mather, who in their actions paved the path for other women to march on. While they were never revolutionary or radical, they too manage to carve a space of influence and power and to make their mark on Cleveland’s history and society.


[1] Gladys Haddad, Flora Stone Mather: Daughter of Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue and Ohio’s Western Reserve (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2007), 7-10

[2] Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860”, American Quarterly, 18, 2 (Summer, 1966), 151-174

[3] Marian Morton, “Her Father’s Daughter: Flora Stone Mather and Her Gifts to Cleveland”, 2.

[4] Morton, “Her Father’s Daughter”, 4; Haddad, Flora Stone Mather, 10-11.

[5] Quoted in Haddad, Flora Stone Mather, xi

[6] Morton, “Her Father’s Daughter”, 4-6

[7] For more on the Temperance Movement see: Ian Tyrrell, Woman’s World/Woman’s Empire: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in International Perspective 1880-1930, (UNC Press, 2010); Janet Giele, Two Paths for Women’s Equality: Temperance, Suffrage, and the Origins of Modern Feminism (Twayne Publishers, 1995)

[8] Quoted in “A Legacy of Stewardship: Flora Stone Mather”

[9] On the Settlement Movement see: Jane Addams, 20 Years at Hull House; and Robyn Muncy, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890-1935 (Oxford University Press, 1994)

[10] Martha H. Patterson (ed.), The American New Woman Revisited (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008); June Schoen, The New Woman: Feminism in Greenwich Village 1910-1920 (New York: Quadrangle Books, 1972); Jean Matthews, The Rise of the New Woman: The Woman’s Movement in America 1875-1930 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003).

[11] Morton, “Her Father’s Daughter”, 6

[12] John J. Grabowski, “Social Reform and Philanthropic Order”,

[13] Morton, “Her Father’s Daughter”, 8

[14] Morton, “Her Father’s Daughter”, 3; Haddad, Flora Stone Mather, 69-70

[15] Samuel Mather Family Papers, WRHS, box 9, folder 6

[16] Haddad, Flora Stone Mather ,76-77; “A Legacy of Stewardship: Flora Stone Mather”

[17] Samuel Mather Family Papers, WRHS, box 2, folder 4

[18] Quoted in Haddad, Flora Stone Mather , 61

[19] “A Legacy of Stewardship: Flora Stone Mather”

[20] Haddad, Flora Stone Mather, 12-13

[21] Morton, “Her Father’s Daughter”, 10; Haddad, Flora Stone Mather, 73

[22] Haddad, Flora Stone Mather, 107

[23] Morton, “Her Father’s Daughter”, 10; Haddad, 72-73

[24] “Florence Allen”, The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History,

[25] Samuel Mather Family Papers, WRHS, box 10, folder 8; Haddad, 80-81

[26] Haddad, Flora Stone Mather, 87

[27] Haddad, Flora Stone Mather, 114-115

[28] Haddad, Flora Stone Mather, 108-109

[29] Quoted in Haddad, Flora Stone Mather, 107

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