In Frances Witherspoon’s words, “The essential history of any life is not the record of its long continuity, but of its high significant moments.” The “high significant moments” that marked Witherspoon’s life were moments of great importance for America’s “essential history” as well. Witherspoon was at once a compassionate, kind woman and an ardent, determined supporter of pacifism and woman suffrage.
Born on 8 July 1886 in Meridian, Frances May Witherspoon was the daughter Samuel Andrew Witherspoon, who represented Mississippi in the US House of Representatives from 1911 until his death in 1915, and his wife, Susan May Witherspoon, the Kentucky-born daughter of a Frenchman who had served as a Confederate officer. Fanny May Witherspoon attended public school in Meridian before enrolling at Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in English and Latin, graduating in 1908. College president M. Carey Thomas, a suffragist, provided Witherspoon with a model for activism. Bryn Mawr was also where Witherspoon met Tracy Mygatt, a zealous writer, reader, and activist who became Witherspoon’s life partner.
Witherspoon and Mygatt moved to New York City in 1913 and participated in a diverse range of pacifist and suffrage organizations, including the Woman’s Peace Party and the Socialist Suffrage Brigade, which they helped to organize. In 1915 Witherspoon helped to found the New York Bureau of Legal Advice, a forerunner of the American Civil Liberties Union, and in 1923, she and Myatt were among the organizers of the War Resisters League. Witherspoon maintained her antiwar activism throughout her life, working with the Women’s Committee to Oppose Conscription during World War II and later organizing a campaign against the Vietnam War among Bryn Mawr alumnae.
Witherspoon wrote numerous essays, articles, and pamphlets, including “The Lumberjack and the Constitution,” which appeared in The World Tomorrow in May 1919; Who Are the Conscientious Objectors?, published by the Committee of 100 Friends of Conscientious Objectors in 1919; and Four Good Reasons, an argument against a draft for women published by the Committee to Oppose the Conscription of Women in 1943.
Even into her eighties, Witherspoon organized pacifist efforts. She collected signatures for a petition against the war in Vietnam by Bryn Mawr alumnae. During the weeks before her death on 16 December 1973, Witherspoon communicated with newspaper editors and political figures about pacifism, showing that her politics were a lifetime pursuit.
- Frances H. Early, A World without War: How U.S. Feminists and Pacifists Resisted World War I (1997)
- Jean Bethke Elshtain, Women and War (1987)
- Lillian Faderman, Powerful Brilliant Women (1998)
- Nancy Manahan, Women’s Studies Quarterly (Spring 1982)
- Lois Scharf and Joan M. Jensen, Decades of Discontent: The Women’s Movement, 1920–1940 (1983)
- New York Times (18 December 1973)
- Barbara J. Steinson, American Women’s Activism in World War I (1982)