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THE JOURNAL OF THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES
203 A Wider Sphere of Usefulness: Marilla Ricker's Quest for a Diplomatic Post
Bennie L. DeWhitt
209 How ’Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down?: Women and World War I
Nancy E. Malan
240 United States Government Policy toward Civilian Women
during World War II
256 Genealogy Notes
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Published quarterly by the National Archives Trust Fund in cooperation with the General
A WIDER SPHERE OF USEFULNESS: MARILLA RICKER'S QUEST FOR A DIPLOMATIC POST
BENNIE L. DEWHITT
The first woman to seek a major diplomatic post in the United States foreign service was rejected for reasons having nothing to do with her qualifications for the position she sought. Marilla Ricker, a devoted Republican, distinguished lawyer, and prominent feminist who was knowledgeable in several foreign languages, was passed over for the post of envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Colombia in favor of Charles Burdette Hart, a West Virginia newspaperman who had performed routine political chores for President William McKinley.1 Aside from a solitary letter urging McKinley to "rebuke the spirit of Effeminancy of which this woman is a victim," there is no record of why the president chose to ignore or disregard the recommendations of Republicans Henry W. Blair and Robert G. Ingersoll, but in so doing McKinley passed over a person of remarkable ability and singular achievement.2
Marilla Marks Young was born in 1840 in Durham, New Hampshire, the daughter of Jonathan B. and Hannah Stevens Young, both descendants of early settlers of New England, Jonathan, a staunch womansuffragist and outspoken freethinker, educated Marilla in philosophy and politics, encouraging independence and curiosity. She attended public schools, establishing a good reputation as a teacher beginning at age sixteen, and subsequently attended Colby Academy in New London, New Hampshire. The Civil War prompted her to apply for nursing duty, but she was rejected for lack of experience. In 1863 she married John Ricker, a wealthy farmer and firm believer in equality of the sexes, who was thirty-three years her senior. Within five
years Marilla Ricker was left a childless widow with a substantial inheritance and real estate holdings.3
Able to pursue her interests almost at will, Ricker spent four years abroad beginning in 1872, absorbing the doctrines of European freethinkers and developing fluency in foreign languages. Upon her return to the United States she settled in Washington, D. C., with the intention of entering the legal profession to help the poor and oppressed. She passed the bar examination for the District of Columbia in 1882 with the highest grade in a class of nineteen. Her first courtroom appearance was to assist Robert G. Ingersoll in the Star Route mail fraud cases of that year. Ricker became a notary public in the federal district and aided indigent prisoners by allowing them to make depositions before her without paying the usual fee. She was the first woman to exercise the quasi-judicial functions of the post of United States commissioner and examiner in chancery in the district and was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. Her efforts to aid pauper criminals and prisoners in both the District of Columbia and New Hampshire led journalists to bestow on her the title “Prisoner's Friend."
Research for this article was begun at the 1972 Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents at the University of Virginia, sponsored by the National Historical Publications Commission in cooperation with the Center for Textual and Editorial Studies in Humanistic Sources of the University of Virginia.
1 William McKinley to Charles Burdette Hart, Apr. 28, 1896, series 2, vol. 87, and Hart to McKinley, Jan. 12 and May 24, 1896, series 1, William McKinley Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
2 Marilla Ricker File, Applications and Recommendations for Office, 1897-1901, General Records
of the Department of State, Record Group 59, National Archives Building (hereafter cited as Ricker File).
3 The best biographical sketch of Ricker is by Dorothy Thomas in Edward T. James et al., eds., Notable American Women (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 3: 154-155. See also John Scales, History of Strasford County, New Hampshire and Representative Citizens (Chicago, 1914), and letters and clippings from the Ricker File.
As an adult Ricker was unable to remember a time when she had not been interested in politics and equality of the sexes. Her first important contribution to women's rights came in 1870 when she insisted, upon paying her taxes in New Durham, New Hampshire, that she be allowed to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment. Refused on that occasion, she was the next year the first woman in the United States to vote upon that basis in a state election. Thereafter a similar protest accompanied each payment of her taxes, and she continued to vote in New Hampshire contests. She petitioned the supreme court of her native state in 1890 and gained for women the right to practice law there. She served with the New Hampshire and the National Woman Suffrage Associations as a delegate, generous contributor, and popular lecturer. Actively supporting the presidential candidacy of her friend Belva Lockwood in 1884, she headed the list of New Hampshire electors for the National Equal Rights Party. That was her only deviation from staunch Republicanism prior to Roosevelt progressivism. She campaigned nationally
for the Republican party, speaking extensively in California in 1888 and helping organize the first women's Republican club in Iowa in 1892. During the McKinleyBryan presidential contest Ricker did not stump for the party nationally, but supported Republican monetary and protectionist policies in scathingly anti-Populist editorials. 4
Ricker's application for the Colombian post was initially sent by her to Presidentelect McKinley in early February 1897.5 It was accompanied by a clipping from the Boston Post that discussed her recently announced intention to apply for the position, offered evidence of support for her, and provided a summary of her life and career. Its contents, which included an excellent portrait, evidently eluded McKinley's secretary, James Boyle, who returned them to her with a request that they be submitted after the inauguration. If he was not a sexist, he was surely busy, for Boyle addressed the reply to “Marilla M. Ricker, Esqr." and employed the salutation “Dear Sir." 6
Ricker's justifications for her appointment were avowedly feminist and political. She stressed her strong support for the McKinley tariff as evidence of her Republican orthodoxy. The Colombian post, she said, was customarily a New Hampshire plum. Her stated motive was open the foreign service to women, for “there is no gender in brain, and it is time to do away with the silly notion that there is.” 7 She said that she would have asked President Benjamin Harrison for an appointment in 1892 had he been reelected. No constitutional or statutory provision prohibited the appointment of a woman, she declared; and since penalties of law applied equally to all, so should privileges.
4 Two signed editorials from the Dover, N. H., Daily Republican and The Inquirer, Ricker File.
5 Ricker to McKinley, Feb. 5, 1897, Ricker File. 6 James Boyle to Ricker, Feb. 16, 1897, ibid. 7 The Business Folio, Mar. 1, 1897. 8 Boston Post, Feb. 6, 1897.