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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 Strassord 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 to 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.8
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.
The Republican platform of 1896 contained a plank on women's rights that Ricker paraphrased and quoted in her own support: "I assisted in rescuing the country from Democratic and Populistic mismanagement and misrule, and now I want and ask for a 'wider sphere of usefulness.'”, She admitted that her first intention had been to ask for a post in Berlin because of her fluency in German, but she preferred the warmer climate of South America and added that the salary for the Colombian post would be welcome, even though it was substantially less than that paid to the holder of the German mission. Language, she thought, would be no problem, for she could learn Spanish as quickly as she had German, Italian, and French. 10
By the time Ricker's application was resubmitted to McKinley she had gained sponsorship from what some thought to be "a somewhat conservative source." Henry W. Blair, former senator from New Hampshire, was an orthodox Republican on such issues as the tariff, sound money, and the pension, but his strong humanitarian convictions and fervent belief in women's suffrage nurtured his support for Ricker. Blair practiced law in the District of Columbia after retiring from active politics in 1895. He had served in Congress three sessions as a member of the House and as a senator from 1879 to 1891. His efforts on Ricker's behalf included five messages to the president as well as an unrecorded personal interview. 11
Blair first recommended Ricker in early March, soliciting for his candidate the post of envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the United States of Colombia "or some other diplomatic position of equal rank and importance.” He reviewed her qualifications as a good Republican, accomplished linguist, and able student of international law. Blair cited the abilities of three
Letter to Marilla Ricker from James Boyle, McKinley's secretary, acknowledging receipt of her application for the Colombian post.
women then influential in governmental affairs, Queen Victoria, Maria Cristina, regent for Alfonso VIII of Spain, and Tz'u-hsi, the empress dowager of China, and sought to convince McKinley of the great opportunity for justice presented to him by Ricker's application: It is a sad reflection that the Great Republic still rests in the disgraceful bonds of a narrow conservatism which the favorable consideration of this application will enable you to break assunder, and thus, in its very beginning, dignify and ennoble your Administration of public affairs by a conspicuous act of justice.... In short, Mr. President, unless women are to be forever excluded from the diplomatic service, there can never be a more fortunate opportunity than this to take the advance step, too long neglected, and by this grace
9 The Business Folio, Mar. 1, 1897. 10 Boston Post, Feb. 6, 1897. 11 Scales, History of Strafford County, pp. 614-615.
ful, adequate and dignified recognition of the womanhood of the country, establish the great truth that the soul and not the sex of the applicant is the true test of qualification for public service. 12 Blair's endorsement was accompanied by memorials and testimonials from seven women's business and professional organizations, five women's patriotic societies, seven large groups of private citizens, attorneys from three firms, and four newspaper and journal editors. The documents came from the District of Columbia and six statesNew Hampshire, Massachusetts, Illinois, Iowa, Colorado, and California.13
Blair's second effort on Ricker's behalf was supported by another patriotic organization, a Boston newspaper editor, a private citizen, and Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll.14 In early April McKinley received testimonials from New Hampshire Republicans, fifty-two women of Washington, D.C., including Belva Lockwood and Matilda Joslyn Gage, a prominent feminist organizer and writer.15 Later Lillie Devereaux Blake, president of the New York City Woman Suffrage League and the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, endorsed Ricker.16 Even The Arena, a journal that had supported Bryan in 1896 and embraced such radical causes as birth control, the single tax, free silver, prohibition, and penal reform called for Ricker's appointment. Its editor, John Clark Ridpath, was aware of the irony of The Arena's offering advice to the new president. He wrote that his publication supported Ricker "as far as our influence extends. This may be said humorously, but ... is sincerely and seriously meant." 17
Blair too, was conscious of the odds against his friend's appointment, for he exhorted the president
once again: “Conscious that there are strong influences adverse to the application of Mrs. Ricker because, and only because of her sex, I beg of you Mr. President, not to neglect this pressing and fortunate opportunity to perform a great, just, and I may well say conspicuous and immortal act, which if done now will be sure to rank hereafter among the most illustrious deeds of any American President.” 18
Seven weeks elapsed before the former senator submitted his final letter and endorsements from representatives of women's groups in Massachusetts and Idaho.19 The message to the president was little more than a formality for five months had passed since Blair's first appeal. It must have been obvious by then that the individual who had been at the forefront of so many professional and political efforts by her sex would not be the first woman official to represent the United States abroad.
No record exists to provide unmistakable determination of why McKinley declined to appoint Ricker, but speculation is not difficult. There was no great public outcry against the application. It is likely, however, that the appointment of a woman as minister would have become much more widely known than had her application. Neither McKinley nor his new secretary of state, John Sherman, were politicians likely to risk the results of what might have been a very controversial act. Moreover, none of Ricker's support came from sources whose goodwill was indispensable to the new administration. Ingersoll was the most prominent Republican of the group, but his influence had never been irresistible and was waning. Indeed, the endorsements of some, such as Ridpath, may have had a negative effect on the application. The appointment of the nondescript Charles Burdette Hart suggests that the sensitivity of the Colombian post was not a factor in the selection. Had it been, the fact that Hart
12 Blair to McKinley, Mar. 8, 1897, Ricker File. 13 Ibid. 14 Ibid. 15 Blair to McKinley, Apr. 10, 1897, ibid. 16 Ibid., May 3, 1897. 17 The Arena 17 (1897): 977-978.
18 Blair to McKinley, May 3, 1897, Ricker File. 19 Blair to McKinley, June 25, 1897, ibid.