Her Fathers’ Daughter: Flora Stone Mather and Her Gifts to Cleveland by Dr. Marian Morton


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Her Fathers’ Daughter: Flora Stone Mather and Her Gifts to Cleveland

By Dr. Marion Morton

Cleveland’s best-known woman philanthropist took no credit for her generosity: “I feel so strongly that I am one of God’s stewards. 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, and as my dear earthly father would have me, were he here.” [1]  So Flora Stone Mather described the inspirations for her giving: her Presbyterian belief in stewardship – serving (and saving) others – and the example of her father, Amasa Stone. But she expanded her role as grateful daughter, moving beyond philanthropy into political reform and institution-building.

Flora Stone, born in 1852, was the third child of Amasa and Julia Gleason Stone.  Her family – parents, brother Adelbert, and sister Clara –  moved to Cleveland from Massachusetts in 1851. Her father, a self-taught engineer, built churches, then bridges and railroads, which made his fortune.  He arrived in Cleveland as superintendent of the Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati Railroad, which he had built with two partners. He subsequently directed and built other railroad lines and invested in the city’s burgeoning industries and banks.  Thanks to its railroads and lake shipping, petroleum refineries, and iron and steel mills, Cleveland would become an industrial giant.

In 1858, Stone built an elaborate Italianate mansion on Euclid Avenue, a sign that he had arrived socially and financially.  He became an ardent Republican and an enthusiastic supporter of the Union side of the Civil War.  The war boosted Cleveland’s industries and made Amasa  even richer.  He kept his son Adelbert out of the Union Army, but lost him anyway when the 20-year-old student at Yale drowned on a school expedition in June 1865.

Julia Gleason had worked as a seamstress before her marriage, but her husband’s financial success and social position meant that daughters Flora and Clara were destined for lives of privilege, defined as marriage and family, in keeping with nineteenth-century ideas about woman’s nurturing and innately domestic nature.

Flora seemed fitted by personality and upbringing for this role. “Small in stature and fragile in health,” “plain and unassuming” in her appearance and habits, [2] she was above all, modest, self-effacing, and compassionate.  She dutifully participated in the conventional social life expected of Euclid Avenue women: dinners, receptions, teas, walks and carriage rides, charity benefits, and visits to her affluent, congenial neighbors. Yet she had a lively intelligence and a keen curiosity, honed by her rigorous education and travels abroad. Her intellect and energy made her a leader among her peers even as a young adult:  “’Wait until Flora comes.  She will know just how to go ahead,’” said her friends.[3]  She also had an adventurous spirit, confessing to her fiancé: “I do like to meet new people.”[4]  And meet them she did.

Amasa Stone valued education for his daughters – perhaps to enhance their (and his) social status or perhaps to enhance their intellects. He was a funder and the builder of the Cleveland Academy, a private girls’ school, which opened in 1866 across from the Stones’ Euclid Avenue home. Both Clara and Flora attended. Their demanding college preparatory education relied on both Biblical texts and current events and emphasized speaking in public as well as writing.[5] Headmistress Linda Thayer Guilford also taught her young students that they had a moral responsibility to the less fortunate around them.

And there were plenty of the less fortunate in post-Civil War Cleveland.  Its population had doubled during the war and continued to grow –  92,829 in 1870 and 160,146 in 1880 – , swelled by immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and soon from all over Europe, as well as by native-born men and women from small towns and villages who saw possibilities in this bustling city on Lake Erie.   Often lacking the skills for urban life or earning a living in the city, however, new arrivals often fell upon hard times.  The Cleveland Infirmary (or public poorhouse) sheltered – grudgingly –  absolutely destitute families. Those who had at least a roof over their heads received an ungenerous supply of food and clothing at the backdoor of the Infirmary.  In this almost complete absence of public assistance, private charities, all faith-based, stepped in to help their co-religionists.

Immigrants also turned a small homogeneous town into a prospering city with neighborhoods  differentiated by class, ethnicity, or religion. But in the second half of the nineteenth century, before the widespread use of the streetcar and then the automobile allowed the well-to-do to flee the city, these neighborhoods often adjoined one another, so that the less fortunate were not hidden from their more fortunate neighbors.

The population growth that created visible poverty also created great wealth for some: men like Amasa Stone who arrived in Cleveland at the right time with the right skills.  And like Stone, a handful became the philanthropists who created Cleveland’s enduring cultural, educational, social welfare, and medical institutions, as well as its recreation facilities.  Some of the magnificent gifts of these late nineteenth-century industrialists and bankers still bear their names: Gordon Park, Wade Park Lagoon, Severance Hall, Rockefeller Park, the Mather Pavilion of University Hospitals of Cleveland, Case Western Reserve University.

All these big donors were men.  It would have been almost impossible for a nineteenth-century woman to earn this kind of money.  Women acquired wealth by inheriting it or marrying it.

Flora Stone Mather did both. Her marriage in 1881 to Euclid Avenue neighbor Samuel Mather was a love match that brought the couple four children – Samuel Livingstone Mather (born in 1882), Amasa Stone Mather (born in 1884), Constance Mather (born in 1889), and Philip Richard Mather (born in 1894).  The Mathers were a more distinguished family than the Stones, dating their American origins back to the famous Puritan ministers, Increase and Cotton Mather. Samuel’s father, Samuel Livingston Mather, came to Cleveland in 1843 to take charge of the family’s holdings, established by his own grandfather, Samuel Mather Jr., a stockholder in the Connecticut Land Company that settled the region. [6]

Although born into a wealthy family,  Flora’s husband had made his own fortune.  In 1869, he had permanently injured his arm while working in his father’s Michigan ore mines and did not attend Harvard as he had planned.  Instead, Samuel continued to work for his father’s company, Cleveland Iron Mining Company, and then founded Pickands Mather, a rival supplier of iron ore and transportation to the steel industry. He also held directorships in several iron and steel companies and banks. When Samuel died in 1931, he was considered the richest man in Ohio although the Great Depression had diminished his wealth. [7]

Amasa Stone’s death in 1883 left Flora an independently wealthy young woman.  Stone committed suicide, depressed by his own failing health, his son’s death, and the tragic collapse in 1876  of one of his railroad bridges, which killed 92 passengers and ruined Stone’s  reputation. [8] Flora and Clara each inherited $600,000; their husbands, author-diplomat John Hay and Samuel Mather, $100,000, plus whatever money was left over after Stone’s debts and other bequests were paid.   [9]

Flora had enough money during her lifetime to make dozens of gifts to local charities –  from the Visiting Nurse Association and the Humane Society to the YMCA, the Home for Aged Colored People, and Hathaway Brown School.  When she died in 1909 of breast cancer, she left money to a wide range of educational institutions, including Lake Erie College and Tuskegee Institute, various Presbyterian missionary groups, Cleveland Associated Charities, and the Association for the Blind.[10]

Her most compelling interests and her most generous gifts, however, were shaped by her  private religious faith that found public expression in serving those in need.

             The Stones belonged to First Presbyterian (Old Stone) Church, centrally located on Public Square, close to the Stones’ Euclid Avenue home.  The church, founded in 1827, boasted a socially and politically prominent congregation. Like most other wealthy Protestant churches, Old Stone sold or rented pews to its members.  In 1855, when the Stones were members, almost half of its pews cost more than $400 a year; eight cost $1,000.[11]   Obviously, this custom discouraged membership by the less wealthy.

Perhaps to compensate for the high price of its pews, the congregation also established a tradition of stewardship. Its members established the Western Seamen’s Friend Society in 1830, one of the city’s first charities, which built a chapel and organized a Sunday school to promote the physical and spiritual needs of the men who worked on the canal and the lake.

Although the leadership – lay and clerical – of Protestant churches was male, women carried on most of the institutions’ charitable activities. (They also did most of the fund-raising.) These allowed  women a socially sanctioned entrance into the world beyond home and family.  Led by Rebecca Rouse, the women of Old Stone founded the city’s first orphanage, the Cleveland Protestant Orphan Asylum, in 1852.  This is now Beechbrook, a residential treatment center for children.  In 1863, the women established a home for “poor and friendless people” –  later called the “Protestant Home for Friendless Strangers” –  who were so new to town that they were ineligible for the city Infirmary. [12]  Amasa Stone became the first in his family to donate money to this institution, which evolved into Lakeside Hospital and eventually University Hospitals.

             Like other Protestant churches, Old Stone experienced waves of religious revivalism in the last decades of the nineteenth century that gained the institution new members and new enthusiasm.  In 1866, for example, its pastor, Rev. William H. Goodrich, led a “powerful revival” with “marked indications of the presence of the Spirit” in the Young People’s Meeting.[13] Flora, then an impressionable 14, may well have felt that Spirit. [14]

             In 1867, Flora and Clara joined the newly formed Young Ladies Mission Society. The young women did their missionary work in the working-class neighborhood just to the north of the church where they sewed garments and raised funds for the mission church that became North Presbyterian, originally at E. 41st St. and Superior Ave. [15]

This missionary spirit also infused the temperance movement of the 1870s. Temperance was probably the most popular reform of the nineteenth century as American cities grew rapidly.  Too much alcohol in a country village was one thing;  too much in a congested urban neighborhood was another – obviously more harmful to persons and property.  Drinking was also associated with immigrants, especially Irish and Germans, not always welcomed by native-born Clevelanders. And to enthusiastic Protestants, conversion to temperance was the first step to finding salvation and true religion, a belief reinforced by the opposition to temperance by some Catholics.

Temperance had particular appeal to women since male abuse of alcohol harmed women and children. In spring 1874, “praying bands” of Cleveland women descended upon local saloons, pleading with saloon keepers and customers to forswear alcohol. Weeks later, the national Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was formed in Cleveland; in the last decades of the nineteenth century, it became the largest woman’s organization in the country.

The local branch of the WCTU founded several institutions intended to save men, women, and children from the evils of alcohol. [16] Two have survived: Rainey Institute and Friendly Inn, both neighborhood centers in inner-city Cleveland.

             Temperance provided Flora with her first foray into public life as vice president (1874-1876), then president (1877-1881) of the Young Ladies Temperance League (YLTL).  The young women were more decorous than the “praying bands,” although equally pious.  As president, Flora led their formal meetings, held in various Protestant churches, which began with prayers and featured hymns, and Bible readings.  Their group’s stated goal: to stand “against the use of intoxicating liquors [and] to aid in creating an enlightened Christian public sentiment” on the subject. All members took the pledge of total abstinence.[17]

Like the WCTU, the young women believed that the salvation of the soul was closely connected to the salvation of the body, and like their elders, they established institutions for less fortunate women.  The first, in 1875, was a lodging house “for friendless young women dependent upon their own exertions for support,” which provided “a refuge from temptation” while jobs and permanent housing were sought.   “Nearly all” the young women were “either directly or indirectly, sufferers through the crime of intemperance.”[18]  The home sheltered only Protestants and only “the better class of young women … seamstresses, housekeepers, clerks, nurses …”  Flora drew up the house rules, which included attending Protestant religious services. [19]

More inclusive and of more lasting importance were the league’s institutions for children. The YLTL briefly took responsibility for a “charity kindergarten for “twenty-one little waifs.”   Out of this project in 1880 grew a day nursery. Flora had visited such a nursery in New York City and encouraged the group to start “a similar enterprise” in Cleveland. [20] Here Flora developed personal connections with poor children and their mothers: “”[I] had such a sweet time at the Nursery…. 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.’”[21]  The nursery took all children, regardless of their religious background.

In 1882, the Young Ladies Temperance League became the Young Ladies Branch of the Woman’s Christian Association, whose sole purpose was to establish day nurseries for the children of working mothers. Flora served as the group’s first president.  She enlisted the financial support of her former Euclid Avenue neighbor, John D. Rockefeller. [22]  In 1888, she herself donated the site of the nursery she named “Bethlehem” to connect it “with the childhood of Christ.” [23] This was one of several day nurseries that the group eventually maintained; the others, however, were named for their benefactors like the Hanna and Wade families.  A Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter painted this charming portrait of the Perkins day nursery:  “cool, clean, airy rooms filled with bright-faced, happy children” who received meals and medical attention as well as lessons in good behavior; mothers paid five cents a day or whatever they could afford. [24]

             In 1894, Flora’s organization became the Cleveland Day Nursery and Kindergarten Association, which operated day nurseries and kindergartens all over the city and trained teachers for public kindergartens.  As the Cleveland public school system established its own kindergartens, the association gradually closed theirs but continued to operate day nurseries until it was absorbed into the Center for Families and Children in 1969. Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development is descended from the association.

Although initially inspired by her pious desire to serve the less fortunate, Flora’s next project moved her in the direction of changing the society in which they lived. In 1897 Flora founded and funded Goodrich House, the social settlement at E. 6th and St. Clair Avenue, around the corner from Old Stone and named for her former pastor.  Its “object,” Flora wrote, “shall be to provide a center for such activities as are commonly associated with Christian Social Settlement work.” [25] Although a separate institution, the settlement grew out of  Old Stone’s clubs and classes for neighborhood children.  The first president of the settlement’s board of trustees was the current pastor of Old Stone, Hiram C. Hayden. The settlement’s first director, Starr Cadwallader, was a graduate of Union Theological Seminary.

Settlement houses often had denominational connections.  Cleveland’s first settlement, Hiram House, was an offshoot of Hiram College, a Disciples of Christ institution, and was directed by George Bellamy, an ordained minister.  The Council Educational Alliance, which evolved into the Jewish Community Center, was initiated in 1899 by the  National Council of Jewish Women;  Merrick House, in 1919 in the Tremont neighborhood, by the Catholic Christ Child Society.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer in June 1897 waxed ecstatic about Goodrich House, the gift of “Cleveland’s most distinguished woman philanthropist, Mrs. Samuel Mather.”  The activities within the “handsome three-story building of brick with stone trimmings and imposing entrances” were “infused with the Christian spirit although no effort is made to prejudice its members in religious matters.” [26]

Settlements sought to solve the pressing problems of urban poverty and social dislocation by easing the transition of immigrants into urban life, expanding upon the faith-based activities spawned by churches and the temperance movement with secular lectures, services, and classes for adults as well as for children.  Goodrich House, for example, had a gymnasium, a bowling alley, public baths and a laundry, classes in choral singing, several clubs for boys ( the Garfield and Franklin clubs) and for girls (the Sunshine, Rosebud, and Little Women clubs). [27]

Settlement residents were usually single, middle-class, educated men and women who lived in the settlement in return for leading classes or other activities with its working class neighbors.     Goodrich House’s early residents included future Cleveland mayor and U.S. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and reformer-author Frederic C. Howe.  Howe later recalled: “Residents … had good food and comfortable rooms; they enjoyed a certain distinction because of their good works.” [28]

Settlements launched the careers of many Progressive reformers because what the residents learned first-hand about the difficult lives of the poor often encouraged them to challenge the political and economic status quo. Goodrich House became “perhaps [the] most liberal settlement” in Cleveland, providing a “public forum for the discussion of social reforms.” [29]  In this context, Howe, like Baker, went into reform politics, as did Cadwaller.

By then married with four small children, Flora did not become a resident of Goodrich but was fully engaged in its activities from its beginnings to the end of her life.  Its organizational meetings were held at her Euclid Avenue home. She wrote to well-known reformer Jacob Riis for suggestions for a director.   He couldn’t help her out, but when Goodrich House opened in April 1897, she invited Riis to its opening; he regretfully declined. [30] She served on the settlement’s House Committee that oversaw its residents and on its executive committee. She provided also for the settlement’s upkeep.  Staff had to insist on sticking to a budget so that she would not simply pay all the bills herself.[31] Samuel served on the board of trustees.

As the downtown neighborhood commercialized, Flora participated in the discussion to sell the elaborate building in 1907 and to move farther east to E. 31st St. Flora’s settlement, now located at E. 55th St. and St. Clair, has been renamed Goodrich-Gannett Neighborhood Center after Alice P. Gannett, the settlement’s director from 1917 to 1947.  It provides a wide range of programs and services for children and adults as it did when Flora first founded it.

Responding to what she too had learned about the urban poor at Goodrich, as well as in her earlier temperance work, in April 1900, Flora urged the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce to “try to improve the conditions of labor.”  “Mrs. Samuel Mather Will Co-operate Very Substantially,” exclaimed the Cleveland Plain Dealer on its front page, when Flora promised to pay the salary of someone to take charge of investigating “working people’s conditions and surroundings in stores, shops, and factories.” [32] Within weeks, however, she decided instead to form at Goodrich House the Consumers League of Ohio (CLO), a local chapter of the National Consumers League.  Flora served on the local league’s executive committee from its founding until 1907 when she was made an honorary vice-president.

The league’s goal was to improve the working conditions of women and children: to limit the hours of work, to guarantee a minimum wage, and to ensure that factories, mills, and offices were safe and sanitary.  In 1900, more than a third of Cleveland’s female work force  (10,600 women) were factory operatives; they worked in all industries but were concentrated in textiles, cigar factories, and laundries. A study in 1908 provided shocking details: women and girls in laundries got paid less than $5 a week; work in candy factories was dangerous and filthy (for both workers and consumers); in garment factories, men did the skilled work and got paid twice what women did.[33]

Although it had no connections with organized religion, the CLO’s concern for women and children had been Flora’s since her days as a temperance activist.  In 1905, league president Marie Jenney Howe maintained that the local CLO grew out of Flora’s “friendship” with Florence Kelley, the founder and first general secretary of the national organization.  [34] Flora may have met Kelley when she was a resident at Chicago’s famous settlement, Hull House, from 1891 to 1899, just as Flora was making her plans for Goodrich House.  Kelley, a Socialist, was also an outspoken activist and reformer.  The CLO moved Flora even more decisively from philanthropy into reform politics.

League members used their considerable social status and economic power as middle-class consumers to apply pressure on employers to improve conditions in their shops and factories.  For example, in 1901, Flora, with CLO president Belle Sherwin, asked retail store owners to close at noon on Saturday to give their workers an extra half-day off. [35] The league also tried to educate the public about wages and working conditions in factories and shops. Employers who met league standards got the league’s “white label”; shoppers were urged to boycott those who did not. Sherwin reported much progress in 1905: “improvement in lunch and toilet rooms for employees, better sanitation in factories, shorter hours for clerks and, best of all, a cultivation of a ‘shopping conscience.’” [36]

Department stores like William Taylor & Co. advertised that many of their goods carried the “white label” – meaning “clean, sanitary surroundings [for workers], the absence of child labor, the proper treatment of employees, the absence of sweat shop conditions.” [37]  But CLO members soon realized that voluntary cooperation of employers with the league “did not prove universally successful … [ and] recognized the need for establishing legal standards.” [38] This realization took women like Sherwin and Howe into politics and the suffrage movement.

Flora died before the local suffrage movement was well underway, but in 1905, she ventured again into reform politics when she joined the local committee to work with the National Child Labor Committee.  The goal of the committee, established in 1904 and headed by Owen Lovejoy, was to end child labor. Husband Samuel also sat on the committee, as did Rabbi Moses Gries and Belle Sherwin. [39]

In 1908, Flora, with Marie Jenney Howe, Mrs. Newton D. Baker, and others, organized the Municipal School League.  Its purpose was “to increase the interest of women in the school ballot … [and] to maintain the representation of women on the school board.” [40]  (Ohio women had gotten right to vote for and serve on local school boards in 1894.)

If Flora’s faith-inspired work for women and children led her into  the secular world of political reform,  her gifts that followed in Amasa Stone’s footsteps helped to transform the small college for men that he had sponsored into a thriving university that educated both men and women.

             His gift of $500,000 had persuaded Western Reserve College, founded in 1826, to move in 1882 from the village of Hudson to the city of Cleveland on properties along Euclid Avenue in what is now University Circle.  These had been donated by other benefactors for both Western Reserve and Case School of Applied Science, which had been founded in 1881 by Leonard Case Jr., in downtown Cleveland. Stone stipulated that Western Reserve College was to be re-named Adelbert to honor his son and that $150,000 of this gift was to be spent on buildings and that the remainder would be a permanent endowment.  It is not clear whether the gift was inspired by Stone’s grief at the loss of his only son or by his rivalry with Case or whether it was intended to atone for the tragic train wreck.  In any case, the gift came with strings attached: not only the college’s new name but a new board of trustees chosen by Stone himself.  After his death in 1883, the college received another $100,000. [41]

Generous as Amasa had been, Flora and husband Samuel would ultimately donate to the college more than ten times as much. [42]  When her father died, she and Samuel had been married only two years and still lived in Amasa’s home.  (The couple built their summer home Shoreby in Bratenahl in 1890 and a grander home on Euclid Avenue in 1910, completed after Flora’s death.)  Flora must have been deeply grieved at her father’s death and the contempt which many Clevelanders had for him – despite his wealth and social standing.  Her gifts to the college  – like his – may have been a way of clearing his name and restoring his reputation.

Her first gifts were to Adelbert College: an endowment in 1888 of $50,000 and $2,500 to the library fund, to which Samuel also contributed. In 1889, she endowed a chair in history. The Cleveland Plain Dealer haled the “MUNICIFENT GIFT,” but Flora, always modest, “treated the subject lightly and impatiently said the sum was so small she didn’t care to speak of it.” [43]

The endowed chair was named for Haydn, then both the college president and Flora’s pastor at Old Stone.  Almost all private colleges had financial and other connections to religious denominations, and it was common for college presidents to be clergymen.

Haydn ended coeducation at the college.  Women had been admitted, beginning in the 1870s.  Although their numbers were small, most were excellent students, and they had a champion in then-college president Carroll Cutler, whose daughter Susan was valedictorian of her class. But the women also enemies among the faculty and trustees, who blamed the college’s low enrollment on its female students and feared that the college would become “over-feminized” if it continued to admit women.  Cutler resigned, weary of the battle over coeducation. Haydn assumed the presidency in November 1887 and terminated the admission of women shortly afterwards. This decision generated bitter controversy over the virtues of educating women. During his inaugural address, four women, graduating seniors, walked out of Haydn’s presidential inauguration in protest, leaving the college for good and receiving their college degrees elsewhere. Haydn responded by establishing a separate College for Women under the aegis of Western Reserve College in 1888.  [44]

The new College for Women thus got off to a rocky start. Its faculty was drawn from Adelbert College, and for three years, they taught the young women for free in a farmhouse at the corner of Euclid Avenue and Adelbert Road.  There was originally no dormitory, no proper chapel, and an ill-equipped gymnasium in a barn.[45]

The first significant gifts to the new College for Women came from Flora’s mother ($5,000) and her brother-in-law, John Hay ($3,000).  The first academic building was the gift of Anna M. Harkness, who also donated Harkness Chapel to honor the memory of her daughter Florence.  Flora donated $75,000 for the first dormitory, named for Linda Thayer Guilford, and in 1891, she gave another $75,000, most of which was to go into an endowment for the college.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer called this “ A Princely Gift. ”[46]  In 1901, she donated, (not very) anonymously, the funds for Haydn Hall, a classroom building.  She also gave small gifts “from books to …  boating permits [,] … making it possible for the young women of the college to enjoy healthful exercise by rowing on the pond in Wade Park.” [47] She and Samuel in 1898 gave $12,000 to the university library. [48]

Adelbert Stone had gone to Yale, but higher education did not figue into Amasa Stone’s plans for his daughters. They might have attended Mount Holyoke College, for example, where Guilford had gone, or to nearby Oberlin College.  Instead, Clara married John Hay when she was 24.  Flora devoted the decade between her high school graduation and marriage to her temperance and day nursery work.

             The College for Women gave Flora her long-delayed chance to go to college. Even though she was a wife and the mother of four young children, with a demanding social and civic life, she visited the college almost every day, getting to know the students and bringing gifts or visiting lecturers.  She invited the graduating class to her home every spring. [49] And sometimes as a guest, sometimes as a hostess, she, and often Samuel, attended formal parties, dances, and receptions at the college.  She also served on its Advisory Committee.

In 1907, she and Clara donated a chapel to Adelbert College, a memorial to their father’s memory and a commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the college’s move to Cleveland that he had engineered. Amasa Stone Chapel was completed in 1911, two years after Flora’s death.

On January 21, 1909, students from both the College for Women and Adelbert College lined Euclid Avenue to pay tribute to Flora as her funeral procession passed the campus on its way to Lakeview Cemetery. Although during her lifetime, she did not permit the name change, in 1931, the College for Women became Flora Stone Mather College, acknowledging her gifts of time, energy, and money. (She had also rejected the suggestion that Hathaway Brown School, another beneficiary of her generosity, be named after her.[50])

Amasa Stone had built a high school for his daughters, the Cleveland Academy, and a college named after his son Adelbert.  Flora (and Samuel) not only gave generously to Adelbert College but helped to assure the survival of the controversial young college for women.  Adelbert and Flora Stone Mather Colleges, perhaps the only coordinate colleges in the country named after siblings, were consolidated in 1971, along with Cleveland College. The three were renamed Western Reserve College in 1973 after the merger with Case Institute of Technology that produced Case Western Reserve University. [51]  Flora’s name lives on in the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women at the university, which provides services and advocacy for women students and faculty.

After her death, Samuel – who himself had missed out on college –  continued her tradition of giving to the university.  He and his children gave the Flora Stone Mather Memorial Building in 1914, and in 1930, a $500,000 addition to the building. [52]  Samuel also donated $400,000 to the university in 1923 and made gifts to various programs within the university. [53]

             Like her father, Flora donated to Lakeside Hospital, originally the Protestant Home for Friendless Strangers, during her life and at her death. [54]  Samuel was also a major benefactor of the hospital, instrumental in its move to University Circle and serving as president and chairman of its board of trustees from 1899 to 1931. Mather Pavilion honors his memory. [55]

             Other women have also given generously to Cleveland.  Among them are Frances Payne Bolton and Elizabeth Severance Allen Prentiss.  Like Flora, both women inherited and married money, and both became important public figures.

Prentiss (1865-1944) was the daughter of Louis H. Severance.  Her first husband, Dr. Dudley P. Allen, was on the faculty of the Western Reserve University Medical School; he died in 1915.  She married industrialist Francis F. Prentiss in 1917.  She donated the Allen Memorial Medical Library to Case Western Reserve University, made significant gifts to the Cleveland Museum of Art, and established the Elizabeth Severance Prentiss Foundation to promote medical research.  In 1928, she also became the first woman to receive the Chamber of Commerce distinguished service medal. [56]

Bolton (1885-1977) was the daughter of banker-industrialist Charles W. Payne.  Volunteer work with the Visiting Nurse Association in New York City inspired her interest in professional nursing, and she funded a school of nursing at Western Reserve University in 1923. This was named the Frances P. Bolton School of Nursing in 1935.  In 1939, she finished the unexpired term in the U.S. House of Representatives of her late husband Chester Castle Bolton and held that office until 1968.  [57]

             Yet Flora stands out because of the breadth and depth of her commitment to the city and its people.  She would be thrilled that her husband was named Cleveland’s “first citizen” for his role as founder and funder of its Community Chest, the forerunner of United Appeal, as well as for his leadership of many other organizations.[58] She would likely be embarrassed that in 2010, she and Samuel were named the second most influential people in the city’s history: their generous partnership has sustained Goodrich House, Western Reserve University, University Hospitals, and countless other significant institutions. [59]

Always the modest daughter, she properly acknowledged her debts to her heavenly and earthly fathers. Nevertheless, Flora became her own woman, creating a new path and new opportunities for herself and others.


[1]  Quoted in Gladys Haddad, Flora Stone Mather: Daughter of Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue and Ohio’s Western Reserve (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2007), xi. I am deeply indebted to this sensitive portrait of Flora’s private life as daughter, wife, and mother. I have focused instead on her public life. I also want to apologize for referring to Flora Stone Mather by her first name, which I would never do if she were present.  However, since her name changes from Flora Stone to Flora Stone Mather after her marriage in 1881, it seems easier – if somewhat disrespectful – to use “Flora” throughout this essay.

[2]  Haddad, xi, 70.

[3]  Quoted in Haddad, 10.

[4]  Quoted in Haddad, 54.

[5]  Haddad, 20.

[6]  Haddad, vii, viii, 38-39.

[7]  David V. Van Tassel and John G. Grabowski, Dictionary of Cleveland Biography (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1996), 309-10.

[8]  C.H. Cramer, Case Western Reserve: A History of the University, 1826-1976  (Boston: Little, Brown & Company),  81-86.

[9]  Haddad, 70-71.

[10]  Haddad, 108-9.

[11] Michael J. McTighe, A Measure of Success: Protestants and Public Culture in Antebellum Cleveland (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 29.

[12]  Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 17, 1863: 3.

[13]  Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 28, 1866:3.

[14] In October, 1879,  the great evangelists Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey preached to  full houses at Old Stone; one sermon was on “The Work and Power of the Holy Spirit.”Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 9, 1879: 1; Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 10, 1879: 4.

[15]  Jeannette Tuve, Old Stone Church: In the Heart of the City Since 1820 (Virginia Beach, Virginia: Donning Company, 1994), 42.

[16]  Marian J. Morton, “Temperance, Benevolence, and the City: The Cleveland Non-Partisan Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1874-1900,” Ohio History, Vol. 91, Annual 1982: 58-73.

[17] Cleveland Day Nursery Association, Mss. 3667, container l, folder 14, Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS), Cleveland, Ohio.  The temperance movement’s ultimate success, the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919, was opposed by Samuel Mather when in 1928, he joined the board of the Association against the Prohibition Amendment:  Kathryn L. Makley,  Samuel Mather: First Citizen of Cleveland (Minneapolis: Kathryn L. Makley,  2013), 46

[18]  Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 27, 1876: 4.

[19]  Mss. 3677, container 1, folder 14, WRHS.

[20]   Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 18, 1880: 4.

[21]  Quoted in Haddad, 31.

[22]  Haddad, 75.

[23]  Mss. 3667, container 1, folder 3, WRHS.

[24]  Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 30, 1887:  2.

[25]  Goodrich House, Mss.3505, container 5, folder 2, WRHS.

[26]  Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 7, 1897: 6.

[27]  Mather Family Papers, Mss. 3735, container 8, folder 7, WRHS.

[28]  Frederic C. Howe, Confessions of a Reformer (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1988), 76.

[29]  John G. Grabowski, “Social Reform and Philanthropic Order in Cleveland, 1896-1920,”  http://www.teachingcleveland.org.

[30]  Mather Family Papers, Mss. 3735, container 8, folder 7, WRHS.

[31]  Mss. 3735, container 8, folder l, WRHS.

[32]  Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 18, 1900: 1.

[33] Marian J. Morton, Women in Cleveland: An Illustrated History (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana State University Press, 1995), 42-43.

[34]  Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 7, 1905: 33.

[35]  Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 11, 1901: 10.

[36]   Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 19, 1905: 6.

[37]  Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 27, 1904: 12.

[38]  Consumers League of Ohio, Mss 4933, container 1, folder 26, WRHS.

[39]  Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 13, 1905: 4.

[40]  Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 5, 1908: 7.

[41]  C.H. Cramer, Case Western Reserve: A History of the University, 1826-1976  (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1976), 78-86.

[42]  Cramer, 85.

[43]  Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 3, 1889: 8.

[44]  Cramer, 89-98.

[45]  Cramer, 100-102.

[46]  Cramer, 102; Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 23, 1891:8.

[47]  Cramer, 103.

[48]  Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 20, 1898: 5.

[49]   Cramer, 103.

[50]  Haddad, 87.

[51]  Richard E. Baznik, Beyond the Fence: A Social History of Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University, 2014), 355.

[52]  Haddad, 109.

[53]  Baznik, 86.

[54]  Haddad, 79-80, 108.

[55]  David D. Van Tassel and John J. Grabowski, The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 1034.

[56]  Van Tassel and Grabowski,  Dictionary of Cleveland Biography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 359.

[57]  Van Tassel and Grabowski, Dictionary, 53.

[58]  Makley, 25.

[59]  Plain Dealer, December 26, 2010: H2.

“They Also Ran: The Women Who Would Be Mayor, 1961 to 1997” By Marian Morton

The pdf is here

cermak_albina capers_jean_murrell_1948 cotner_mercedes_r-2-1956-csuhelen-k-smithjpg-2ec297bf76f3df88-plan-dealer

Albina Cermak 1948 CSU, Jean Murrell Capers 1948 CSU, Mercedes Cotner 1956 CSU,                                     Helen K. Smith 2010 PD

They Also Ran: The Women Who Would Be Mayor, 1961 to 1997 

by Marian Morton 

They were from different political parties, of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and ran for mayor of Cleveland for different reasons.  But they shared a common fate:  they lost their elections. None was even close.  But being elected mayor of Cleveland isn’t the only way to measure political importance.  All four women served their communities and their parties for decades, challenged the political status quo, and redefined what it meant to be a woman in Cleveland politics. Like the women who went before them, Albina Cermak, Jean Murrell Capers, Mercedes R. Cotner, and Helen K. Smith, blazed the trail for the women who would follow.

Cleveland women first engaged in partisan politics in 1911 when they organized to win the vote. It was tough going. Parades and demonstrations, speeches on soap boxes, and ceaseless lobbying of men in power led only to failed campaigns in 1912 and 1914 to amend the Ohio constitution to enfranchise women. In 1917, a woman suffrage amendment to the Ohio constitution was rejected by voters.  Finally, in 1920, the Nineteenth (Woman Suffrage) Amendment was ratified by Congress and the states, and adult American women became voters. 

Trained and inspired by the suffrage movement, women in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County immediately seized the opportunity to run for political office. Two were elected to the Ohio legislature in 1922. Nettie McKenzie Clapp, a Republican, served three successive terms in the Ohio House of Representatives. Maude Comstock Waitt, also a Republican and a member of Lakewood City Council, was elected four times to the Ohio Senate.  Mary B. Grossman, an active suffragist, a founder of the Women’s City Club, and a member of the League of Women Voters, lost her first bid for a municipal judgeship.  In 1923, however, she won a place on the bench that she occupied until her retirement at age 80 in 1957.  The most prominent of this first generation of women to run for office was Florence E. Allen.  A stump speaker and debater for suffrage, Allen had successfully defended before the Ohio Supreme Court the right of East Cleveland women to vote in municipal elections.  In 1920, she was elected to the Common Pleas court, the first woman in the United States to be elected to a judgeship.  In 1922, she became the first woman to be elected to the Ohio Supreme Court; in 1934, the first to be appointed to a federal court, the U.S. 6th  Sixth Circuit, and in 1958, the first woman to become a chief judge of any federal court, the U.S. 6th Circuit.

Cleveland women also ran for Cleveland City Council.  Two  –  Anna Herbruck and Isabella Alexander – declared their candidacies for Council on August 20, 1920, the day that the Nineteenth Amendment passed. “Millinery in Ring for Council Race,” commented the Cleveland Plain Dealer.[1]  Both women apparently thought better of their bold actions and withdrew.

In 1923, however, Clevelanders elected the first two women to City Council. Marie Remington Wing, a suffrage activist and lawyer, had worked for the YWCA and then for the Consumers’ League of Ohio, an organization dedicated to improving the working conditions of women and children. She ran as an independent. While on Council, Wing worked to establish a Women’s Bureau in the Cleveland Police Department.  She lost her Council seat in 1927, but in 1933, she was appointed to the Cuyahoga County Relief Commission.  From 1937 to 1953, she served as attorney to the regional Social Security Board.   Helen H. Green was also elected to Council in 1923. Green, an endorsed Republican, was president of the county Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which for decades had launched women into public life.  During Green’s first term, she expressed some dismay with her colleagues on Council: “The best trained man will not follow a woman, even to victory,” but defended them as “gentlemen, not highwaymen.” [2] During Green’s second term, she supported regulating industries “which give off fumes or liquid wastes considered dangerous to health,” an early effort to preserve the environment that outraged the Chamber of Commerce and other spokesmen for industry. [3] She also defended the job and salary of the woman who headed the city’s park department: “Mrs. Green Pleads for Equality,”read the headline. [4] Both women lost re-election bids in 1927. In its tribute to them, the Cleveland Plain Dealer emphasized their gender:  “In Mrs. Green, the Council loses one of its two grandmothers [the other was Mildred Bronstrup, appointed to her husband’s seat after his death], its foremost dry, and one of its most assiduous workers …. In Miss Wing, the only woman attorney on Council will step out.” [5]     

Thirty-seven women followed these pioneers onto Council.  The longest-serving was Margaret McCaffery. First elected in 1948 to her late husband’s seat, she served her East Side ward until 1964 when she lost her seat to redistricting. Nothing daunted, she ran successfully two years later from the West Side, an unprecedented political crossing of the Cuyahoga River. When she resigned in 1973, she had been on Council a total of 24 years. McCaffery recalled that initially she battled the notion that a woman’s place was in the home, not in Council, but that male colleagues gradually came around and “started wearing ties and quit swearing.”  In 1956, there were six women on Council, more than ever before, or since; they included McCaffery, Jean Murrell Capers, and Mercedes R. Cotner.  The Councilwomen met in mini-caucuses – the men called them “hen parties” – to discuss the interests peculiarly appropriate to their gender, especially “good housekeeping and public safety,”  McCaffery remembered. Three of the women served on Council’s committee on public welfare, chaired by McCaffery, which dealt with public health, charities, direct and work relief. (Capers was vice-chair.) Despite the difficulties she had experienced, McCaffery urged other women to get into politics:   “politics needs women with understanding and compassion.”[6]

                                                                Albina Cermak                  

Albina Cermak (1904-1978), the first woman to run for mayor, followed in her parents’ political footsteps. Her father was a precinct committeeman. Her mother was a suffragist.  Cermak’s pioneer candidacy in 1961 reflected her mother’s passion for equal political opportunities for women.

Cermak dropped out of nursing school to become the book-keeper for her father’s dry goods store, then went to work for the city’s public utilities department, where she became a supervisor. At age 21, she began her ascent up the political ladder, serving as Republican precinct committeewoman, vice chairman and secretary of the county Republican Central and Executive Committees, and chairman of the Republican Women’s Organization of Cuyahoga County.  She was also a member of the county Board of Elections and a delegate to the Republican National Conventions of 1940, 1944, and 1952.  In 1953, with the support of two Republican congressmen – U.S. Senator George Bender and U.S. Representative Frances P. Bolton -, Cermak was appointed U.S. Customs Collector for Cleveland by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. [7]  (Bolton served the 22d Congressional District from 1940, when she succeeded her late husband, Chester C. Bolton, until 1968.)  

 In 1957, Cermak was elected president of the Catholic Federation of Women’s Clubs, and women’s organizations became her earliest supporters. (All news about Cermak, until she ran for mayor, appeared in the women’s section of the newspaper, alongside tips on hair styles and hats.)  In 1961, Cermak’s customs appointment was threatened when Democrat John F. Kennedy became President. A speaker on the status of women at the Women’s City Club pointed to Cermak’s appointment as a “great gain” for women and complained, “Now there is no woman on the election board and the women in either party don’t seem to give a darn.  This would not have been true 30 years ago. We are not only not making gains; we are losing ground.” [8]

In 1961, the Republicans’ first two choices, both male, declined to run for mayor against the popular Democrat Anthony Celebrezze, then completing his fourth term. Cermak got the nod. She ran unopposed in the Republican primary.

Anne Celebrezze, when asked how she felt about her husband running against Cermak, reportedly replied, “May the best man win.” [9]  Cermak was well aware of her path-breaking role: “I hope nobody will vote for or against me because I am a woman.” [10] Her underdog status was enhanced by being a Republican in a Democratic town.

Although she had never run for city-wide public office, Cermak was an energetic, enthusiastic campaigner.  She took the offensive immediately. Denied a permit to kick off her campaign on Public Square in front of the statue of Tom L. Johnson, Cermak accused the Celebrezze administration of denying her right to free speech. [11]  She listed as her key issues air pollution, the need for new industry (“We’ve slipped.  People are out of work because industry has moved”), saving the lake front (“It makes me mad when a mother has to rub her children down with alcohol after they’ve gone into the dirty lake”), slum clearance (“City Hall has certainly been dragging its feet in this regard”), and better public transportation (“When you have to wait 25 minutes for a bus, it’s ridiculous”). In good Republican fashion, she opposed a city income tax and accused the administration of wasting tax-payers’ dollars. [12]

In most unladylike fashion, she described Celebrezze’s as “an administration of political do-nothings unmatched in the city’s history.  It takes arrogance for the mayor to run again on old promises that have not been carried out. ” [13]  She challenged Celebrezze to pledge that if elected, he would serve out his term. She thought he was using the mayor’s office as a stepping stone for a run for higher office, probably governor. He didn’t take the pledge, and she was half right. In 1962, Celebrezze left Cleveland to become U.S. Secretary of Health Education and Welfare.

Her broad grin and trademark hat became familiar to voters. On the eve of the election, she and Celebrezze were lampooned at the Press Club’s Pan Lunch in a skit entitled “Anthony and Cleobina.” She laughed uproariously; Celebrezze managed a wan smile. [14]

No-one expected her to win, and she didn’t. Celebrezze won almost 75 percent of the vote, all precincts, and an unprecedented fifth term. Cermak ran unsuccessfully for state senator in 1962 and for clerk of Cleveland municipal court in 1963.  For her loyal service to the Republican Party, however, she was appointed the first woman bailiff to the Common Pleas Court in 1964 and to a number of state positions subsequently. Plain Dealercolumnist Elizabeth Kardos, writing in the women’s section of the paper, commented on the importance  of Cermak’s run: “Albina Cermak should be an inspiration to all women because she takes her chances on an equal basis with the men.”[15]

     Jean Murrell Capers

Jean Murrell Capers ( 1913-   ) met head-on the challenges of being both female and black by maintaining her outspoken political independence. The daughter of teachers, she went to Western Reserve University on a scholarship, one of the university’s few black students at the time. She earned a degree in education and taught briefly before getting her law degree from Cleveland Law School.  She passed the Ohio Bar in 1945 and was appointed assistant police prosecutor by Mayor Thomas A. Burke in 1946. “[A]nother first for Negro women,” the Cleveland Call and Post announced proudly. [16]The newspaper later applauded Capers as the one of several “lady lawyers [who] bring beauty [and] brains” to the local legal community.  An accompanying photo shows a stylish Capers, smiling mischievously. [17]

            Capers made her first foray into partisan politics in 1943, staging an unsuccessful write-in campaign for City Council. She also ran unsuccessfully for Council in 1945 and 1947. Like Cermak, she early gained the support of organized women’s groups, and in 1949, she got one of her few political endorsements from the Glenara Temple of Elks, of which she was a member. “[I]t is high time that Negro womanhood took its place in the sun of city politics,” said Republican leader and temple member, Lethia C. Fleming. [18]  In 1949, on her fourth try, Capers became the first black woman to be elected to City Council and the first Democrat to be elected from what had historically been a Republican ward.  

Her four subsequent elections to Council reflected her ability to organize her ward and get out her supporters, doubtless impressed by her education, her political skills, and her glamorous appearance. Capers fought for a swimming pool for her ward’s children and offered a prize for the neighborhood’s cleanest yard. 

But she also sparked plenty of controversy and made plenty of enemies.  She joined forces with Council member Charles V. Carr in an unsuccessful effort to make the possession (as opposed to the sale) of policy slips legal despite police efforts to crack down on the numbers racket. [19] And despite the opposition from local pastors, she got a license for a local bingo parlor. She criticized Cleveland’s ambitious slum clearance program: “In every instance since urban renewal began, the city has created more problems than it has cured.  This is reflected in increased crime and lower sanitation standards.”[20]   (Its critics often referred to urban renewal as “Negro removal.”)

Her opponents alleged that she had ties to rackets figures and pointed to her poor attendance record at Council meetings.  There were also allegations of voter fraud in her ward in 1952 and 1953.  In 1956, she was the only black member of Council to oppose the fluoridation of city water, further estranging her from the Democratic majority. [21]  

Even though it had earlier praised her, Capers’ most outspoken critic became the Cleveland Call and Post, the city’s African-American and Republican newspaper, which accused her of being a lazy Councilman and a “wholly irresponsible person.” [22] She was a “vicious, skilled campaigner,” the paper claimed, whose sex “protected her from retaliation in kind.”[23]  Her sex did not protect her from savage attacks by the paper –  for example, for her opposition to the appointment of Charles P. Lucas, a black, to the Cleveland Transit Board in 1958: “the odor of selfish irresponsibility and putrid demagoguery … marked the conduct of Mrs. Jean Murrell Capers,” the paper spluttered. [24]  Everyone wanted her out of office except her constituents.

By 1959, however, although she was chairman of Council’s powerful planning committee, Capers had lost her Council seat to James H. Bell, the candidate endorsed by local Democrats.  Bell “ has retired, at least temporarily, one of Cleveland’s most colorful and successful political demagogues …. [who] was possessed of a vibrant sort of feminine attractiveness, an excellent family background, and a razor sharp mind, ” wrote the Call and Post[25] Capers unsuccessfully filed suit in Common Pleas Court to set aside Bell’s “fraudulent victory.” [26] Undiscouraged, she ran unsuccessfully in 1960 in the Democratic primary for state Senate in a large field that included Carl Stokes, and in 1963, she lost a primary race for her old Council seat.

In 1965, Capers and her League of Non-Partisan Voters organized the movement to draft Stokes  to run as an independent mayoral candidate, a race which he lost.  Only two years later, however, the league supported Republican Seth Taft when he ran against Stokes for mayor.  Capers minced no words when she explained league’s about-face: “Mr. Taft has qualities superior to those of his opponent and has the broad personal knowledge necessary to administer the complex affairs of the city.  Stokes knows nothing about anything and is far too superficial in our judgement to serve as mayor.  Carl Stokes especially lacks the knowledge and understanding necessary to solve this city’s crisis in human relations.” [27]  Capers subsequently acted as the lawyer for Lee-Seville homeowners who fought off Stokes’ plan to locate public housing in their neighborhood.  In his embittered autobiography, Stokes called her “one of the brightest politicians ever to come out of Cleveland” but also accused her of being a hustler who supported him in 1965 only to get herself back into politics. [28] 

In March 1971, Capers decided to run as an independent in the mayoral primary. She had joined the new National Organization for Women and hoped to win support from the emerging woman’s movement. In mid-summer, she discovered that she had missed the Board of Elections filing date for independents but persuaded a federal judge to overturn this early filing date. The date became a moot point since she did not get enough valid signatures on her petition and was disqualified from the mayoral race. Thanks to a divided Democratic Party, Republican Ralph Perk was elected mayor.  

By 1976, Capers had become a Republican herself, and her former nemesis, the Call and Post, endorsed her candidacy for Juvenile Court Judge.  She lost this race, but Republican Governor James A. Rhodes appointed her to a municipal judgeship in 1977, a position she held until her retirement in 1986.  Reflecting on her long, difficult political career, Capers pointed to her double handicaps of race and gender, maintaining that her “detractors resented her not just because she was a black woman but because she was an educated black woman. ‘They still had the concept that the only place for a Negro woman was on her knees scrubbing the floors. If I had been a dumb Negro woman, I would have gotten along much better.’”[29]

In recognition of her long, difficult political career, Capers earned many professional honors. These include the Norman S. Minor Bar Association Trailblazer Award and induction into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame.

                 Mercedes R. Cotner

Mercedes R. Cotner (1905-1998) had a long, respected career in Cleveland politics.  Although she was often publicly identified as a wife, mother, and grandmother, her gender did not become a political liability until she ran for mayor in 1973.

She grew up in Ohio City. Her father, John S. Trapp, was a jeweler. She learned stenography and bookkeeping at St. Mary Commercial High School; her first job was at Harrington Electric. 

            Cotner began her political career at the grassroots level as a Democratic precinct committee member and then ward leader. In 1954, she was appointed to fill a vacancy on Cleveland City Council from her West Side ward. In 1955, she won the preferred rating from the Citizens’ League: “Age 50; housewife … [she] has shown an intelligent approach to city and ward problems, if frank and forthright; deserves election on her record.”  [30] It was the first of many endorsements. She won that election to Council and four more.

She joined the group of five women on Council that included McCaffery and Capers.  They were occasionally asked to address “women’s issues.”  In 1958, for example: “Would Women Be Better Leaders Than Men.”  Cotner answered diplomatically: “If women were in control, things might be different, but of course, I think that we must have the thinking of both men and women to achieve a complete, well-rounded approach.”  (Capers agreed.)[31]  In 1960, when someone noticed that there were more women than men of voting age, Cotner, and other women in political office, were asked to comment on women’s roles in politics.  “Where would the men be without us?” she asked. “Virtually all the booth workers, precinct committeemen, and those who hand out literature on election day are women.”  (McCaffery agreed.)[32]  It apparently didn’t occur to Cotner that a woman would run for mayor because Cermak hadn’t yet, and Cotner’s own mayoral contest was more than a decade away.

Cotner’s first battle on Council was against the Celebrezze administration’s plan to put an incinerator on Ridge Road in her ward.  Her constituents packed City Council chambers in her support.  She lost the fight, but must have gotten some satisfaction when the incinerator, just as she had predicted, spewed smoke and dust into her ward: “The worst thing I have ever seen,” she claimed. [33]  Except maybe Public Auditorium, which was discovered to be dirty and untidy: “You need a woman to supervise your maintenance, as City Hall has,” she advised Celebrezze. [34]

Cotner was chosen chairman of the urban renewal and planning committee of Council, a visible and powerful position, as the city set out on the most ambitious urban renewal plan in the country.  She supported the Erieview project, the plan’s only success, and advocated high density housing for the St. Vincent Charity neighborhood, which turned out to be too expensive to build and too expensive for its intended low-income residents.

In 1960, Cotner led the opposition to a city fair housing law that would have prohibited discrimination in the sale or rental of property. In a heated debate that pitted her against fair housing advocates, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Reverend John Bruere, Cotner maintained “… I don’t believe I’m breaking any moral code when I say I don’t want to take a certain person into my house – regardless of race, color or creed …. I’ve gone into neighborhoods where garbage is lying on the ground.  Don’t tell me they can’t buy a garbage can when there are four or five cars in the driveway.”  She also claimed that a fair housing law would violate her constitutional rights to sell or rent to whomever she pleased.[35] In 1973, as a candidate for mayor, she disavowed these embarrassing remarks, saying that the times and the law had changed and so had she. (Cleveland City Council did not pass a fair housing law until 1988.)

In 1963, in a Democratic caucus, her vote for James V. Stanton helped to oust Jack P.  Russell as Council President, and Cotner was chosen the first woman Clerk of Council, a position she held for 25 years. During that quarter of a century, she became the adviser and ally of Council Presidents Stanton, Anthony J. Garafoli, and George L. Forbes.

Thirteen days before the 1973 mayoral election, Democrat James Carney, slated to run against incumbent Perk, decided to bow out of the race.  At the urging of Garafoli and Forbes, Cotner stepped in as a write-in candidate.  The men’s publicly stated intent was to run her not as a serious candidate but to “use her” candidacy to point out that the city charter did not allow a last-minute substitution on the ballot.[36] However, when the Eighth District Court of Appeals ruled that her name could appear on the ballot, she got the advantage over the eight other write-in candidates. These included another woman, the Socialist Workers, Party candidate Roberta Scherr, who had run third in the nonpartisan mayoral primary.

Eleven days before the election, Cotner began to campaign in earnest. With little money and even less time, Cotner waged as vigorous a campaign as she could, invading Perk’s territory on the East and Southeast Sides, including ethnic restaurants and clubs.  The Democratic Party kicked in only $9,000, mostly for cards and bumper stickers.[37] Although she had been in politics for decades, she was relatively unknown, especially on the East Side : “Mrs. Conter [sic] Gaining in Campaign for Identity,” explained the Cleveland Plain Dealer, misspelling the candidate’s last name.[38]  “’A nice elderly lady like you should be home rocking your grandchildren,’” challenged one critic. “’Aw, go on,’”  the 68-year-old candidate laughed.[39]

Big-name Democrats, including Governor John Gilligan and U.S. Senate hopeful Howard Metzenbaum, came into town to support her. And despite Cotner’s dubious record on fair housing, so did U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress: “Mercedes,” she said, “I know what it is like to be a woman.  I’ve fought, I’ve struggled.  I’ve battled to get where I am.” [40]  

            Mayor Perk’s wife, Lucille, publicly disapproved of Cotner’s running for mayor, saying it was too big a job for a woman.  Cotner accused her husband of doing a mediocre job, mismanaging city funds and shortchanging police and health services: “Anything he can do, I can do better.” [41]  Faced with a “charming” opponent who was not only female but older than he, Perk ran “scared but cautious;” he did not attack Cotner but the “discredited Democratic machine” that she was part of. [42] He refused to debate her.

In a record low turnout, Republican Perk beat Democrat Cotner handily by a margin of almost 2-1 in a city in which Democrats outnumbered Republicans 7-1.[43] Gracious in defeat (“these have been the most wonderful 12 days of my life,” she said),[44] she retained her job as Council Clerk. In 1987, her decades of service to the party and her long friendship with Council President Forbes paid off when he appointed her to the Regional Transit Authority Board, a position she held onto when she retired as Clerk in 1989.

As she prepared to step down as Clerk, Plain Dealer columnist Brent Larkin described her as a “force at City Hall,” remarking especially on her close relationship with Forbes. “On the surface, the pair seemed incompatible, but they quickly became inseparable allies.  In the early years of Forbes’ presidency, he rarely appeared in public without Cotner at his side.  She was his security blanket in a white-dominated society ….  Forbes would not be the successful politician he is were it not for Cotner.”[45] A diplomatic way of saying that a black East Side politician needed support from the white West Side.  Forbes himself described her as “just like my mother …. [She] kept me from doing crazy things.” (He also recalled with chagrin that when she and he were invited to the Cleveland Club, she was not allowed to sit in the public dining room, which was for men only.)[46]

After her death in 1998, Cotner was remembered as “sweet-spoken and grandmotherly”[47] and eulogized as a “pioneer for women in politics” and “probably the second most powerful person in Cleveland politics during Forbes’ presidency.” [48] She was certainly one of Cleveland’s most loyal Democrats since she did so much for its party leaders and so many of its voters nevertheless abandoned her for Perk.

Both Capers and Cotner were aided by the growing feminist movement, reinforced by federal legislation mandating equal pay for equal work and prohibiting sex discrimination in employment. Cleveland women organized for equality in groups like Cleveland Women Working and the Cleveland Coalition of Labor Union Women. The Cuyahoga County Women’s Political Caucus was founded in 1971 to put more women in elected office.  In 1973, nine women ran for seats on Cleveland City Council; four won. One of them, Mary Rose Oakar, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1976.  In 1974, women held 12.9 percent of the county’s elective offices; in 1978, 18.3 percent.  However, almost 80 percent of these were on school boards and city councils; no women held any of the eleven county offices, and only three were in the state legislature.  [49]

During the next two decades, Cleveland women did win high-profile political positions. Mary O. Boyle, after serving in the Ohio House of Representatives, became the first woman to be elected County Commissioner in 1984. Jane Campbell succeeded Boyle in the Ohio House in 1985 and was elected County Commissioner in 1996. In 1991, Stephanie Tubbs Jones was elected Cuyahoga County Prosecutor and went on to the U.S House of Representatives.

                                                      Helen K. Smith

Cleveland Councilman Helen K. Smith (1942 –  ) built upon these political gains.  As a candidate and office-holder, Smith had her critics, but after decades of seeing women in elected office, Cleveland voters, politicians, and media did not say in 1997 – at least, not publicly – that the “best man” should be elected mayor or that the mayor’s job was too big for a woman.  

Smith, a Cleveland native with a B.A. from Maryland College of the Sacred Heart and an M.A. from Case Western Reserve University, began her lively political career by leading the unsuccessful 1978 effort to recall fellow Democrat, Mayor Dennis Kucinich. “The recall started at my kitchen table,” she later recalled.[50] (The reference to kitchen tables as the source of homely wisdom is used by both men and women.)

Like Cotner, Smith is white and from the West Side. Like Cotner, she was appointed to a vacant seat on Council – in March 1979 – before winning the seat in her own right in November. She served on Council for 19 years.  Her ward, including Ohio City and the Clark-Fulton neighborhood, was racially diverse – white, black, and increasingly Hispanic – and had more than its share of urban ills: unemployment, poverty, high crime rates, housing blight, and social disorganization. 

Smith got city-sponsored projects and federal block grant funds for her constituency. She supported tenants at Lakeview Terrace in their contests with the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority management, and with U.S. House Representative Mary Rose Oakar, Smith got federal dollars for the renovation of the public housing project. She insisted on a greater police presence to control prostitution and kept homeless shelters out of her neighborhoods, already saturated with social service agencies.   She got credit for a new recreation center, a spruced-up West Side Market, and a new shopping complex across the street from the market, as well as some early gentrification efforts. 

Also like Cotner, Smith had a cordial relationship with Council President Forbes, which enhanced her ability to deliver dollars and projects for her ward. In turn, he got crucial support from the West Side. He appointed her Council’s majority leader in 1981 and to the chairmanship of Council’s finance committee. She controlled the distribution of some federal block grant monies, which, according to her critics, went to Forbes’ friends and not to his enemies. She never denied it. [51] Smith also acted as peacemaker after Forbes’ temper tantrums.

She remained on good terms with Republican Mayor George Voinovich, who endorsed her reelection to Council in 1981. When asked in 1985 if she would endorse Democratic mayoral candidate Gary Kucinich over Voinovich, she “laughed for a long time, but never did answer the question.”  Almost none of the Democrats on Council answered the question.[52]

            In 1988, when Forbes announced that he would not run again for Council, she was mentioned as his possible successor as Council President. In 1989, she endorsed Forbes in his mayoral race against Mike White. When White won, Smith lost her position as majority leader and was not appointed to chair any Council committees.

She became a frequent critic of the White administration.  With Councilman Fannie Lewis, Smith was scolded by the Plain Dealer for “infantile” behavior when they criticized Jay Westbrook, White’s choice for Council President. A Plain Dealer cartoonist pictured the conflict this way: a TV interviewer asks a woman, “How do you feel about women in combat?”  To which she replies, “That all depends whether you mean in the army or in Cleveland City Council.” [53] A year later, White himself publicly reproved her, ordering her to “cease and desist” her opposition to Westbrook, claiming that even the appearance of Council disunity would harm the city’s bond rating. [54]

In 1994, Smith lost the Democratic primary for the 10th Congressional seat to Frank Gaul despite an endorsement from the Plain Dealer.  She also received financial support from Emily’s List, an organization that supports candidates who support women’s rights.  In 1996, she faced her old rival, Dennis Kucinich, in that same race.  When she withdrew, she won applause from Democratic Party chairman, Jimmy Dimora, for being a team player.  Kucinich won the seat, launching his political career on the national stage. 

In 1996, she opposed White’s plans to privatize city parking lots and golf courses, and she became – and remained – a vocal opponent of his plans for a new football stadium for a new Cleveland Browns after Art Modell took the old team to Baltimore. “These are dollars that we desperately need in the city of Cleveland for our neighborhoods.  I’ve been in this Council the better part of 16 years,” during the Voinovich and White administrations, “and every year the mayor says that [neighborhoods] will be his priority next year.  So Gateway was the priority, Society Center was the priority, Tower City was the priority, and now this is the priority.”[55]

In August 1997, Smith entered the mayoral primary against White and four other challengers. The issues that she emphasized in her campaign were often – not always – those considered appropriate for women. For example, her campaign focused on spending money on neighborhoods rather than on downtown projects. She correctly predicted that the new stadium would run over budget: “The Stadium is out of control, and this is the same man [White] that wants to run the Cleveland school system,”[56] a reference to White’s efforts to gain control of the public schools and to what she felt was his domineering political style.  Smith believed that voters, not the mayor, should control public education.   

Entering the race late and with very little money, Smith nevertheless won 40 percent of the primary vote; White, 55 percent. The remainder was divided among the four other candidates. One of them, Genevieve Mitchell, was the first black female mayoral candidate ever endorsed by the Republican Party of Cuyahoga County; she won 663 votes. 

As Smith and White faced off against each other in the November general election, she hammered home her main issues: homes and neighborhoods, not big-ticket downtown projects; schools, not sports stadiums. Her “vision for Cleveland in the new millennium” looked like this: “In our 21st century Cleveland, I walk into Terminal Tower and take the rapid to Kinsman Road…. I … walk into a thriving neighborhood.  Men and women … bustle along the street preparing to open up their small businesses.  Neighbors gather at a coffee shop to share ideas and news …. Children scurry to a neighborhood school, where teachers and parents work together toward educating, nourishing and training them for the future…. I see a City Hall returned to the role of public servant …. [D]owntown is a neighborhood – one that is shared and nurtured by its residents .… [O]ur neighborhoods boast well-kept, renovated homes. ”[57]

A high point of Smith’s campaign was a City Club debate with White the week before the election. “… Helen Smith came out swinging [in] a performance that surprised many in the audience with its vigor and pointed comebacks.”  She attacked White’s claim that crime was on the decrease: “You can’t run a safety department with a revolving door at the top,” a reference to White’s firing three police chiefs.  She maintained that White couldn’t possibly run the public school system: “He’s got enough to do at City Hall and he’s not doing it.”  Her final words were those she said she had heard from voters all over Cleveland: “Thank you for giving us a choice.  And thank you, we need a change.”[58] 

White’s threats to privatize city jobs won Smith the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, and his combativeness with the Cleveland Teachers Union won her theirs. She had a few stalwart supporters in City Council, but most were reluctant to challenge White.

Wrote columnist Dick Feagler: “I like Helen Smith.  I think she would make a good mayor.  It is her misfortune that Cleveland already has a good mayor.”[59]  It was also her misfortune that the Indians made it to the World Series that fall, providing White, in full Indians regalia, lots of free photo opportunities while Smith struggled to get voters focused on her issues and her candidacy.

Smith gave White a run for his money. He spent plenty of it and was later fined $500 for exceeding campaign limits.  She won 39 percent of the vote in the first real political challenge to White since his first win in 1989.  The votes fell along familiar racial lines.  White carried all the East Side wards except two, where Councilmen Mike Polensek and Ed Rybka supported Smith, and White also did well enough on the West Side to get 60 percent of the total vote.  Race  “is always a factor, but it was not a deciding factor,” said White’s campaign manager Arnold Pinckney. [60] Nobody mentioned Smith’s gender; by 1997, that would have been politically incorrect.  In his postmortem of the election, however, Brent Larkin did mention that Smith might be “a nicer mayor” than White had been. [61]

Smith had to step down from her Council seat to run for mayor, but after her defeat, her long-time colleague on Council, Jim Rokakis, appointed her to the Cuyahoga County Board of Revision.


These also-rans –  competent, ambitious career politicians –  seldom get mentioned in stories about Cleveland’s past: written history generally sides with the victors. But these women’s shared fate says much about Cleveland politics.  All lost the mayor’s race in a city where ethnicity and race often trumped party affiliation and almost everything trumped being female.  Their gender was “always a factor”  –  to borrow from political analyst Pinckney – although certainly more of a factor in 1961 than in 1997.  Very occasionally being a woman was an advantage; more often, it was a limitation. And always, a woman’s political fortunes were closely linked to her powerful male colleagues.

Albina Cermak, Jean Murrell Capers, Mercedes R. Cotner, and Helen K. Smith nevertheless played a man’s game and played it well, starting at the grass roots and working hard to get to the top. Their long service to their constituents, their city, and their parties was acknowledged and rewarded in their post-mayoral careers.

In the longer run, their importance is two–fold. First, they kept incumbent officeholders on their political toes and gave Cleveland voters a choice in a what was essentially a one-party town during these decades. Second, they left a legacy of expanded political opportunity for other women.  

And then in 2001, more than eight decades after women got the vote and exactly four decades after Cermak’s trail-blazing campaign, Jane Campbell was elected Cleveland’s first female mayor.  She did not emerge from City Council but had served six terms as a state legislator, where she became a vocal advocate for women’s and children’s issues; she then served five years as a Cuyahoga County Commissioner. She was a founder and executive director of WomenSpace, the first shelter for battered women in Ohio, and became a lobbyist for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Her election represented a triumph for feminism.  But it was a short-lived triumph. Campbell, although white, had an excellent record on civil rights. Nevertheless, she won only 30 percent of Cleveland’s black vote; the rest went to her opponent Raymond C. Pierce, an African-American political unknown who hadn’t lived in Cleveland for ten years.  In 2005, after struggling with the financial mess and political scandals left by the White administration and a national economy in disarray after 9/11, Campbell lost the mayoral race by ten points to Council President Frank Jackson, winning only 24 percent of the black vote and losing the support of white Council members, who campaigned for Jackson on the city’s West Side.

Her victory had made Campbell the best-known woman in Cleveland politics. Yet she was following in the footsteps of these less well-known women: Albina Cermak, Jean Murrell Capers, Mercedes R. Cotner, and Helen K. Smith. And so will the women in Cleveland’s future who will also run.

 Cleveland Plain Dealer(CPD), August21, 1920:10

2  CPD, February 5, 1924: 1; CPD April 28, 1925: 1.

3  CPD, June 5, 1926:10.

4  CPD, January 4, 1927: 3.

5  CPD, November 13, 1927: 14.

6  CPD, October 17, 1973: 9A.

7  CPD, December 23, 1978:13C.

CPD, March 21, 1961: 23. 

CPD, July 4, 1961: 20.

10 CPD, August 7, 1961:13.

11  CPD, September 28, 1961: 1.

12  CPD, June 27, 1961:1.

13  CPD, July 13, 1961:5.

14  CPD, November 3, 1961: 5.

15  CPD, November 19, 1961:26E.

16  Cleveland Call and Post, December 7, 1946: 1 A.

17  Cleveland Call and Post, November 1, 1952: 10-C.

18  Cleveland Call and Post, October 29, 1949: 4 A.

19  CPD, May 18, 1950: 1.

20  CPD, April 1, 1958:5.

21  Cleveland Call and Post, March 24, 1956:1A.

22  Cleveland Call and Post, October 29, 1955:2D; Cleveland Call and Post, September 27, 1957:6A.

23  Cleveland Call and Post, November 14, 1959: 2C.

24  Cleveland Call and Post, January 25, 1958:2 D.

25 Cleveland Call and Post, November 14, 1959: 2C.

26 CPD, December 17, 1959: 23.

27  CPD, October 30, 1967:11.

28  Carl B. Stokes.  Promises of Power Then and Now (Cleveland: Friends of Carl Stokes, 1989):81-82.

29  CPD, April 20, 1986: P19.

30  CPD, September 28, 1955:35.

31  CPD, February 2, 1958: 13C.

32  CPD, April 17, 1960: B1.

33  CPD, May 17, 1960: 39.

34  CPD, March 6, 1958: 22.

35  CPD, May 19, 1960: 41; CPD, June 25, 1960: 4.

36  CPD, October 17, 1973: 5A.

37  CPD, December 30, 1973:94.

38  CPD, November 3, 1973: 8C.

39  CPD, November 2, 1973: 10A.

40 CPD, November 4, 1973: 29A.

41  CPD, October 26, 1973: 31; CPD, November 2, 1973: 10A.

42  CPD, October 28, 1973: 2A.

43  CPD, November 7, 1973:8A

44  CPD, December 22, 1988: 2B.

45  CPD, November 24, 1993: 10B.

46   CPD, November 21, 1998; 11A.

47  Marian J. Morton, Women in Cleveland: An Illustrated History (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), 220.

48  CPD, January 18, 1996: 1B

49  CPD, January 20, 1989: 18.

50  CPD, October 9, 1985:22.

51 CPD, January 25, 1990: B6.

52  CPD, January 25, 1991: B1.

53  CPD, March 9, 1996: 1A.

54  CPD, September 4, 1997: 1A.

55  CPD, October 28, 1997:9B.

56  CPD, October 31, 1997: 1A.

57  CPD, November 3, 1997: 2A.

58 CPD, November 6, 1997: 1B. 

59 CPD, November 9, 1997: 1E


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