History Vignette 5: Mary and Austin Adams
Written by Frank Potter
Mary and Austin Adams: 19th Century Radicals of the West (Dubuque, Iowa)
Mary Newbury Adams (1837-1901) became one of the major leaders of the women’s movement in the last half of the 19th century through her efforts of establishing women’s clubs. Women’s clubs were the only place then where women “could hear their own voices.”
In 1853, when she was 16 years of age she came with her family from Michigan to Dubuque, Iowa. A year later she met her future husband, Austin Adams (1826-1890) soon after her arrived from Vermont. Both sets of their parents came from New England Calvinist families, his were Baptists and her father was a Presbyterian minister. Austin said hearing the fiery sermons prevented him from completely enjoying his childhood.
They agreed to marry after Mary completed a year-long education at the Troy Female Seminary in New York (later renamed the Emma Willard School after their organizer and first teacher). Austin was a Dartmouth graduate who was an educator and lawyer in Vermont, then became an educator and then full-time lawyer after he came to Dubuque. When they married they joined the Congregational church, but within a couple years a Universalist Church organized in 1858 so they switched membership to the more liberal denomination.
During a long and harmonious marriage they worked for social betterment on several fronts. Their central theme was their passion for education: self-education, public education for both sexes, and education of women for empowerment. Closely allied to this was the cause of women’s rights, in which Mary was the more active and prominent of the two.
Mary Newbury Adams
Mary organized the Woman’s Conversational Club in Dubuque in 1868, the same year as the New England Women’s Club in Boston and the Sorosis Club in New York. These clubs most likely were formed in response to barriers to women’s progress that persisted after the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York. For example, the Sorosis Club was organized after the barring of a woman journalist from a press dinner for journalists to honor Charles Dickens. In organizing the Conversational Club, Mary had as a model not only the other women’s groups but also The Round Table, the men’s club her husband Austin established in Dubuque which met weekly to hear members give well-prepared talks on a variety of subjects. Mary described the women’s clubs as “nurseries for power.” (From the Parlor, Lex. p 14) They promoted learning, sharing of knowledge, and mutual support towards equality.
After helping to organize other clubs first in Dubuque, then in the surrounding region, and finally throughout the country, she began attending and speaking at annual women’s congresses. She often shared the podium with Julia Ward Howe. Mary spoke of the progress of women’s clubs and of women’s contributions in history going back to Roman times. Though a feminist in many respects, Mary did not advocate the vote for women until 1869, when a Dubuque paper assigned her to cover a suffrage event in nearby Galena, Illinois. After hearing Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Martha Brinkerhoff, Mary wrote to her sister, “. . . I must acknowledge my pail full of arguments [against suffrage] is getting emptied and the pail for is getting filled up.” (Lex, Feminist Forerunner, p. 335) Her two companions from the Universalist church in Dubuque responded similarly, and all three women returned home to organize the Northern Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, the first of its kind in the state organized by women.
As advocates of women’s education and suffrage, of abolition, and of liberal religion, ‘radical’ was what they called themselves. They identified with the Radical Club of Boston where later on Mary got to visit. In their home they entertained Transcendentalists, suffragists, and similar notables, viz., Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Horace Mann, Horace Greeley, Wendell Phillips, Mary Livermore, and Louis Agassiz.
Emerson lectured in the Adams parlor in December, 1871, and a year later Alcott followed. Both authors also gave talks at the Adams’ Sunday church services. Although Emerson was more eminent, Alcott made the biggest splash in the community and returned year later to stay with the Adams’ again. Alcott said Mary reminded him of Margaret Fuller, while Emerson called her “the most inspiring woman I ever met.” (Parlor, Lex, page 11)
In 1869, Mary was invited to speak to the literary club at Iowa College (later renamed Grinnell College). Learning of this, the faculty sent a board member to tell Austin the invitation was being retracted because the college could not allow a woman to give an address. In a letter to a Chicago periodical criticizing the college’s action, Austin pointed out that he had spoken there himself a year before and found that the female students wrote better essays than the males and made up the majority in the audience. A year later, Mary got her chance and spoke at the Universalists’ Lombard College, in Galesburg, Illinois. Mary helped organize the most important women’s event since the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention: the Women’s Pavilion at the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. She gave two speeches; Susan B. Anthony and other suffragists also spoke. In 1895, Susan B. Anthony enlisted Mary to speak to an audience of 3,000 at the New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House in honor of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 80th birthday. There she mentioned hearing Anthony and Stanton in Galena and said, “All days have been holier from that day.”
In June 1872, when visiting Alcott and Emerson at Emerson’s home in Concord, Mary asked Alcott to take her out to Walden Pond, where she asked to see the site of Thoreau’s cabin. She then took a stone from the pond’s edge to mark the spot. Alcott, finding the act charming, did likewise. Someone at a Unitarian church picnic nearby who noticed the action mustered the courage to ask the legendary Alcott what they were doing. The church people then went to the pond’s edge and returned to add their stones. Visitors ever since have been adding to the cairn.
Judge Austin Adams
Mary’s husband and staunchest supporter was a significant force in Iowa’s educational system and political life. Austin Adams brought in Horace Mann to help organize the public school system of Dubuque and then that of the entire state. It was said there was practically no innovation in Dubuque education that he did not have his hand in. He served two terms as Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court and was until his death a lecturer in law at the state university in Iowa City. After hearing Lincoln give a talk in nearby Galena, Illinois, Austin returned home to say, "I have heard the greatest man I ever listened to; he ought to be our next President." He spoke for Lincoln in both of Lincoln’s campaigns.
The Legacy of Mary Newbury Adams
Mary’s activities took her to both coasts, and her Conversational Club in Dubuque lasted 50 years. She died in August 1901. Reverend Mary A. Safford of the Iowa Sisterhood came from Des Moines to officiate at her funeral. Dr. Louise Moede Lex finished one of her two excellent essays on Mary with this summary of her life:
Adams realized that she could only be a forerunner, laying the groundwork for a new generation of women, who, she hoped, would bring about the fuller participation of women in all aspects of American life. She knew she was out of step with the times, but she disregarded the Victorian standards of propriety by her public speaking and her efforts to organize women into a force of change. During a period when women’s rights were not considered a serious issue, she helped to keep the ideas alive. Thus she contributed to the gradual public acceptance of women’s right to vote, a right which Suffragists believed was a fundamental step in improving the status of women. Yearning for a day when “woman is enabled to take her suitable place in civilization,” she worked toward attaining a goal that still has not been realized. (Annals of Iowa, Lex, p.339)
- Adams Family Papers, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library. Ames, Iowa. There are 10 boxes in this collection; the majority are Mary’s letters to her sister.
- “From the Parlor to the Platform: The Making of a Victorian Political Woman”, Louise Ann Moede Lex, Department of Political Science, Iowa State University, Delivered 8-10 March 1979, Missouri Valley History Conference, Omaha, Nebraska. Provided by Dr. Lex to Frank Potter and in his possession.
- “Mary Newbury Adams: Feminist Forerunner from Iowa,” Annals of Iowa, Louise Ann Moede Lex, Iowa State Historical Society, Third Series V. 43, No. 5, Summer 1976
- Strong Minded Woman, Louise R. Noun, Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa, 1969.
- The author, Frank Potter, a member of the Unitarian Fellowship of Dubuque, Iowa, is writing a book on the Adams couple with the working title The Radical Adams Couple of the West (Dubuque, Iowa), Hosts of their Transcendental and Suffragist Friends