In 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment—which sought to guarantee that the right to vote could not “be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex”—wound its way through statehouses across the country. On September 8, the amendment arrived in Minnesota. In the book And Yet They Persisted: How American Women Won the Right to Vote, author Johanna Neuman writes that Minnesota “suffragists broke out into a rendition of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ in the Senate chamber and offered a banquet that evening for the men who had offered them a ballot.”
One of those suffragists spoke with crystal clarity about the stakes: wealthy and well-educated Mary Harriman Severance, one of the Schubert Club’s most socially prominent members. “I hope we will bring to the vote a steadfastness of purpose, a fearlessness that you men have not,” she said bluntly. “We will stand fearless. We have learned sacrifice and service. We come into your parties, women unafraid.”
In an era when ambitious and industrious women were constrained professionally, many turned to volunteer work to make a difference in their communities. Mary Severance was one such woman. Her distinguished entry in the 1914–15 edition of the Woman’s Who’s Who of America hints at both her intellectual curiosity and her sheer indefatigability. At the time, she was on the board of St. Paul’s Protestant Orphan Asylum, and a member of at least ten civic organizations, including the Society for Prevention of Cruelty, the Women’s Welfare League, and the Current Topics Club.
One of the causes closest to her heart, however, was music. She was a member of the Schubert Club and an enthusiastic and effective volunteer with the Minneapolis Symphony. (In fact, in 1919, Musical America wrote of that ensemble’s 1919–20 season opening concert: “The work of a new orchestral committee headed by Mrs. C.A. Severance and Oscar Kalman was evidenced in a good sized audience—the largest in several seasons to greet this organization.”) She was someone who knew how to organize.
Mary Frances Harriman was born in the middle of the Civil War in Somerset, Wisconsin. Her maternal grandparents lived in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, which is where Mary grew up, alternating her time between the city and the countryside. (Fatefully, she’d later inherit her grandparents’ property.) In 1877, at the age of fourteen, she began studying at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Later she left for Wellesley College, where she graduated in 1885, and then went overseas to study at the University of Zurich for three years. Her formal education completed, she returned to Minnesota to teach, and then, in the summer of 1889, she married fellow Carleton alumnus Cordenio Severance.
Cordenio Severance would go on to become one of the most respected lawyers of his generation (eventually he became President of the American Bar Association). Thanks to his professional success, he and his wife accrued great wealth. Although they spent time living in St. Paul, their hearts remained with their Cottage Grove estate Cedarhurst, which they transformed from a modest farmhouse into a Cass-Gilbert-designed mansion. Music was so important to them that they famously had a custom-made organ installed in the Cedarhurst ballroom.
After the Severances’ death, an anonymous author wrote a slender book in tribute to husband and wife. This author wrote of Mary that she was a “Maker of Friends, Lover and Loved of Children; To Whom Books and Trees were living Companions; To Whom Human Beings—Their Daily Lives when they were toiling, Their Dream Lives when they were creating, Their Intellectual Lives expressed in Education, Their Social Relations expressed in Politics—were ever vital interests: thousands remain gladly in her debt.”
Needless to say, those thousands in her debt include all of the women who can vote today because of her and her fellow activists’ persistence, as well as all of the people who enjoy the grand musical legacy of the Schubert Club she helped to support.
© 2019 by Emily Hogstad
This article was originally scheduled to be published in An Die Musik in Spring 2020