First Women in the NH Legislature



Democrat Mary L.R. Farnum of Boscawen (left) and Republican Jessie Doe of Rollinsford were the first women in the New Hampshire Legislature.

A proposition to incorporate "woman suffrage" in the Constitution of New Hampshire was passed by the state's Constitutional Convention in 1902 and came before a vote of the people in 1903.

In a March 10, 1903 article in the New York Times it was noted that places in which woman suffrage had passed were most often "frontier communities," where "males usually preponderated." The thought behind such adoption was that the measure would tend to attract female immigration.

Speaking on the subject in an address to the Granges of the State, the Governor of NH declared: "We should remember that participation of woman in public affairs always tends to draw her interest away from her most sacred duty, that of homemaking.... When woman wants the ballot, no honest, intelligent man will withhold it from her. The lack of interest among women in securing the ballot is not so much from failure to recognize its value as from a true appreciation of their present exalted position in the homes of the Nation."

The 1903 proposal was voted down by the exclusively male electorate of the state, but 16 years later when the Governor approved the ratification of the 19th amendment on Sept. 10, 1919, New Hampshire became the 16th state to approve Congress's proposal for women's suffrage.

Within two years (really by the next election cycle) there were two women willing to disregard their "exalted position" by not only voting but by running for the NH State Legislature and winning.

They are pictured here in this collage of faces from the 1921-22 General Court. To find their faces, imagine two clock hands extending from the head of Governor Albert O. Brown in the middle - one pointing to 10 o'clock and the other pointing to 2 o'clock. You'll find their faces roughly on those lines.

Republican Jessie Doe of Rollinsford (pictured to the left of Governor Brown)

Democrat Mary L.R. Farnum of Boscawen (pictured to the right of Governor Brown)

And in the research we've uncovered a mystery to which we invite the assistance of any state historians out there. According to the voting records from that year, a third woman, Republican Bernice C. Banfill of Stewartstown in Coos County beat Democrat John Ray Keysar 162 to 119. She's not pictured here and, as far as we can tell not usually counted in other writings about the first NH Legislature after Suffrage. Please send along any information to editor@nh.com.

**UPDATE

Mystery Solved!

Our plea for a historian to unravel the mystery of the women of the 1921 Legislature was heeded by reader Janice Webster Brown who was in the process of doing some genealogical research regarding various New Hampshire female political figures. Turns out the identity of Bernice Banfill is even more complicated than we thought, but, in fact there were only two women in the 1921 NH House of Representatives because Bernice C. Banfill was a man. Below are some results of her research:

There were two Bernice Banfill's living in the same area one a man, one a woman.

#1 Bernice Clarence Banfill, b. 25 Feb 1885 in Coos Co. NH; farmer. He died 12 Apr 1930 in Stewartstown NH, wife: Josie (Pratt) Banfill (Bernice C. is the legislator we misidentified as a woman)

#2 Bernice M. Banfill, b. Jun. 24, 1898, daughter of Edgar & Marion (Flint) Bennett died 2 Feb. 1924, Colebrook NH. Her spouse: George Banfil.

Photo of the 1921-22 General Court courtesy of Arnie Arnesen.

**Update 2

Watch Arnie Arnesen's interview with Fox 25 News New Hampshire's history of women in politics and see her take on our new all-female Washington, D.C. delegation. Click here for the video.

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