Flora Gapen Charter (1879-1916)
By George Robb: Professor, William Paterson University, Wayne, New Jersey
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
Executive Secretary, Political Equality League of Wisconsin; Executive Secretary, New Jersey Equal Suffrage Committee; Business Manager, The Woman Voter
Flora Gapen Charter was born in Illinois in 1879 to Dr. Clarke Gapen, a physician, and his wife, Jennie Swanson. The following year the family moved to Madison, Wisconsin. Flora later attended the University of Wisconsin and worked as a high school mathematics teacher in Milwaukee.
Flora Gapen’s interest in women’s suffrage led her to the newly formed Political Equality League of Wisconsin, which attracted a younger and more militant membership than the more established Wisconsin Women’s Suffrage Association. Gapen quit her teaching job in 1912 to devote herself full-time to the passage of a Wisconsin suffrage referendum, scheduled to be voted on in November, 1912. She helped organize rallies around the state and edited a special pro-suffrage edition of The Leader, Milwaukee’s socialist newspaper. Gapen worked closely with Crystal Eastman, a prominent socialist who headed Wisconsin’s suffrage campaign. When the referendum was defeated decisively, Gapen decided to work for suffrage amendments in other states.
In 1913 Gapen took part in suffrage campaigns in Ohio and New York, becoming an important spokesperson for the cause. For example, when a judge in New York claimed that he sentenced women less harshly than men and that “the suffragists do not know how lightly the law sits upon women,” Gapen responded that “women are asking no favors because of their sex these days. They are demanding simple justice, no more, no less.”
In 1914 Gapen became the business manager of The Woman Voter, a monthly suffrage journal published in New York City. She also helped enroll young girls in the newly organized Junior Woman Suffrage Party, whose members sold suffrage literature and “Votes for Women” buttons throughout the city. At this time Gapen also secured a position in the office of Carrie Chapman Catt, national suffrage leader. In January 1915, Flora Gapen married Joseph Remington Charter, a journalist who was supportive of her suffrage work. They lived in East Orange, New Jersey.
Throughout 1915 Flora Gapen Charter took a leading role in New Jersey’s suffrage operations. A special women’s suffrage referendum had been scheduled for October, and all the state’s major suffrage organizations agreed to coordinate their activities by creating an Equal Suffrage Committee. Gapen Charter was elected executive secretary, and she helped run a vigorous campaign that included massive rallies and parades, fund drives, newspaper ads, posters on trolleys and in train stations, and street banners in all the state’s major towns. Despite this hard work, the New Jersey ballot measure was defeated.
Flora Gapen Charter did not live to see the 19th Amendment ratified in 1920. She died on May 5, 1916, a few days after giving birth to a daughter who also died. She was 36 years old.
Ida Husted Harper, ed., History of Woman Suffrage vol. 6: 1900-1920, (New York, Fowler and Wells, 1922), pg. 423. https://books.google.com/books?isbn=0260321486
“Mrs. Flora Gapen Charter is Dead,” The Wisconsin State Journal, 5 May 1916.
“Mrs. Flora G. Charter, Suffragist, Is Dead,” Milwaukee Sentinel, May 6, 1916.
“Woman Rejects Man’s Kindness,” Denver Rocky Mountain News, 8 June 1913.