Celia B. Whitehead (1844-1932)
By Flora Boros, Independent Historian & Curator
This biographical sketch was first published on the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States and appears here by permission. That database is accessible at https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/VOTESforWOMEN
Celia B. Whitehead was a well-known non-conformist writer, pamphleteer, and speaker on social and economic issues such as dress reform, woman’s suffrage, and virtually every battle over human rights for over sixty years.A Christian, feminist, and supporter of the Greenback Party, Whitehead was an active, sometimes radical reformer.
Born on October 13, 1844, in Naugatuck, Connecticut, Celia Josephine Baldwin was one of fourteen children of a Methodist abolitionist minister, Lucius Baldwin and Maria Willard. Likely inspired by her father, she first became interested in social and economic injustices at the age of fifteen, when she studied the Civil War.In March 1869 she married Emory J. Whitehead, a commercial lawyer, and their two sons, Rufus Baldwin and William Carleton, were born in Connecticut in 1871 and 1877.
The Whiteheads likely moved to New Jersey after the birth of their second son, first settling in Bloomfield. By 1889 the family moved to Westfield, where Whitehead became an active member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). In November 1894 she presented a report on the WCTU of Westfield at the annual meeting of the New Jersey Woman’s Suffrage Association (NJWSA). During this time, Whitehead also became active in the local women’s issues and the suffrage movement, as a member of the Westfield Woman’s Club, and as the Vice President of The Direct Legislation League of New Jersey until 1899. Together with Estella B. Broakaw and Frances E. Russell, Whitehead held a symposium on the “Single Taxation By Representative Women” in 1896.In 1897, Whitehead delivered an address to Elizabeth’s chapter of the WCTU entitled “Citizenship to Human Brotherhood,” as well as spoke at the state meeting of the NJWSA.
Notably, Whitehead led a local petition, leveraging 220 citizens of Bloomfield, to ask the New Jersey Legislature for the restoration of full suffrage, which had been unconstitutionally taken away from women in 1807. On February 13, 1884, a special committee of the New Jersey Assembly granted them a hearing. The Committee was presented with a 1776 copy of the state constitution, wherein the words “all inhabitants” was substituted for those of “male freeholders” in the suffrage clause, thereby granting suffrage to women and men of color. Although the Committee favorably heard the measure, it was defeated by 27 nays to 24 years.
Whitehead published under her own name, as well as under various pseudonyms, including Elizabeth Josephine Jackson and Henrietta James. Under the latter, Whitehead published a “Another Chapter of The Bostonians” (1887).The twenty-seven page pamphlet extended Henry James’ 1886 anti-suffragist novel in providing a closing chapter to address its problematic closure of a marriage between a talented suffrage orator and a violent, conservative anti-suffragist. Here, Whitehead makes the novel’s implied message for female activists explicit: the political is always personal.
Under her married name, Whitehead’s anti-establishment reform writings and letters to the editor were published and circulated in papers across the country.She admonished, for example, the “poor authorities” of Newark’s gendered division of “worthy” and “unworthy”community members under their purview; Whitehead bluntly commented, “This woman was not worthy; therefore I knew you would not take care of her.” In her local critique of New York City’s extensive economic divide, “And Life is Cheap,” (1896) Whitehead argued against anti-suffragists by quipping “are you not afraid that some of us women will begin to think that men ‘don’t know enough to vote?’” Whitehead’s voice was especially prominent locally, due to her position as editor of the “Woman’s Sphere” section in The Union County Standard of Westfield throughout the 1890s.
In defiance of Comstock Laws, Whitehead also regularly contributed toThe Word: A Monthly Journal of Reform andLucifer, The Light Bearer, anarchist free love periodicals that openly discussedsexuality, reproduction, and contraception.In support of a “plain speech policy” for instance, Whiteheadtook offense of the practice to “make footballs of the names” of women’sreproductive organs and functions, calling such censorship a “grave and disgusting mistake” that was “like smoke to the eyes or vinegar to the teeth.”Just as controversially, she argued against the idea of contraception on the grounds that women would be taken advantage of by men because they would have no “excuse” for refusing. Likewise, “I do want to have it understood,” she declared in one of her many letters to the editor, “that a woman is something more than a procreating machine” and that motherhood involves “something more” than an act of conception. On October 27, 1894, editor Henry Browne Blackwell chose to publish Whitehead’s “Class Legislation Never Safe,” a letter described by Blackwell as “another brief and forcible argument against limiting the demand for woman suffrage by an educational qualification, or by any limitation not required of male voters.” Eschewing anti-suffragist rhetoric, Whitehead claimed that, “an educated class could not be trusted with the interests of the illiterate; that each must speak for itself.”
Following the example of Amelia Bloomer forty years prior, Whitehead was an enthusiastic proponent of women’s dress reform. She practiced what she preached, regularly wearing short and knee-length dresses with elasticized pants, “gymnasium outfits,” as well as un-skirted bloomers. Whitehead advocated for all women to wear shorter, lighter, and looser dresses, and championed the cause in op-eds, poetry, speeches, and pamphlets. For instance, she read an original poem entitled, “A Defeated Dress Reformer” at the first annual meeting of the Rainy Day Club, a New York group organized to give moral support to women who wore “rainy day skirts” that reached the tops of their shoes.In 1883, she spoke at the Institute of Heredity in an address entitled “An Object Lesson in Dress Reform,” connecting dress reform with libertinism, noting how women “fails to see that she is defrauded by her rights in marriage, in the home, in the state, in the pocket-book, because her dress has held her in weakness, and ignorance, and fear, so that she neither knows her rights nor dares to maintain them.”
Likewise, she penned “What’s the Matter?,” (1884) a small volume that was excerpted and cited in newspapers across the country. Whitehead declared that trousers were the only proper dress for women, and when interviewed on the subject said: “A dress which takes into account the fact that women have ‘limbs,’ ‘lower limbs’ as well as upper limbs, and as they are necessary for use it cannot be really unwomanly to adapt a dress to them, and their use in the dress that must come before the horrors caused by compressed waists and burdened shoulders and fettered legs will be don away. ‘That means trousers!’ We may ridicule and hesitate, and squirm and evade and compromise, groan, suffer and die as long as we like; we may study and invent, only to find at last that a two-legged animal wants a two-legged dress, if any, and that it would be just as absurd to insist on making a coat of one immense sleeve for both upper limbs as to make a dress of one immense skirt for both ‘lower limbs’ and not a whit more so.”
Unusually for the time, Whitehead lived apart from her husband since October 1897, choosing to instead reside with her youngest son, who was attending law school at Columbia College, in Harlem, New York. In the fall of 1899, at age fifty-five, Whitehead officially left her husband, and moved with her son William Carletonto Denver, Colorado. She was defended by her son during the bitter divorce proceedings that followed her departure from New Jersey. On October 11, 1900, her husband was granted an absolute divorce on the grounds of his wife’s desertion “without cause.” Court records pointedly noted her “queer practice” of wearing of bicycle bloomers and that her “aim in life was not in accordance with the views of her husband.”
In Colorado, Whitehead cast her first vote for president, and went on to become involved in local politics as a prominent Socialist, human rights advocate, and a pacifist during World War I. After her death at age eighty-seven on February 4, 1932, she was eulogized by the Rocky Mountain News as “one of the outstanding liberal figures in three generations of American life,” who was “known to every important leader of liberal movements in the country in her times.”
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“Trousers for Women: Mrs. Celia B. Whitehead Gives Good Reasons for a Change in Feminine Attire.” The Saint Paul Daily Globe(Saint Paul, MN)June 16, 1889, pg. 12.
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“Letter to the Editor.”Lucifer, the Light Bearer (Valley Falls, Kansas) August 3, 1888, pg. 6.
“Mrs. Whitehead to Elmina.”Lucifer, the Light Bearer (Valley Falls, Kansas) June 25, 1886, pg. 2.
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“The ‘Undeserving’ Poor.” The Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) November 9, 1915, pg. 12.
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