Nellie Nugent Somerville was a reformer active on behalf of women’s rights and suffrage and the first woman elected to the Mississippi legislature. Born during the Civil War into a prominent family, she grew up among the prosperous new “leisure class” that emerged in the post-Reconstruction period. Although she never abandoned the role of proper southern lady, she became of necessity an iconoclast, attacking double standards, removing barriers, and breaking ground for women.
Nellie Nugent was born on 25 September 1863 on a plantation near Greenville, Mississippi, in Washington County. Fighting raged in the area, her father was away at war, her grandfather had died from an enemy bullet, and her family home had been burned. When she was only two years old, her mother, Eleanor Smith Nugent, died, leaving Nellie in the care of her father and grandmother, both of whom played profound roles in shaping her character. After serving in the Confederate Army, William Lewis Nugent rose to prominence and wealth as a member of the Mississippi bar and a Methodist philanthropist. Also a devoted Methodist, Myra Smith, Nellie’s grandmother, was a pioneer in women’s church work during Greenville’s early days. Her husband, Abram F. Smith, was the first Washington County representative in the Mississippi legislature and is credited with having given Greenville its name.
Young Nellie exhibited a keen interest in political theory, history, theology, and public affairs, so William Nugent saw to it that his daughter received a sound education, at the time deemed unnecessary for females. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1880 from Martha Washington College in Abingdon, Virginia., finishing first in her class. She later studied law under her father but turned down his offer to join his practice.
Nellie Nugent married Robert Somerville, a Virginia engineer who had moved to Greenville, in 1885, and the couple went on to have four children: Robert N. and Abram D. Somerville, who became attorneys in Cleveland; Eleanor Somerville Shands, who became a Cleveland community leader; and Lucy Somerville Howorth, who became a distinguished leader in the fields of law, politics, and women’s rights.
Nellie Somerville refused to be stymied by the prevailing sentiment in Mississippi that women were not allowed to take part in public life. For a time she found her platform in organizations acceptable for southern ladies: culture and study clubs, church missionary work, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She worked for years to bring about change and to educate women about their rights, proving herself an inspiring leader and organizer and gaining a measure of support from women across the state. When it became apparent that no real reform could be accomplished without the power of the ballot, Somerville began to concentrate her efforts on the issue of woman suffrage, enduring stubborn opposition from Mississippi men. In a barrage of fiery speeches and newspaper articles, she challenged the establishment with a fervor that brought her to the attention of national feminist leaders, who soon came south to garner support for the movement.
When the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association formed in 1897, Somerville served as its guiding light and prime motivator, and she was chosen the first president. She devoted a significant portion of the remainder of her life to gaining political rights for women. Under her leadership, the state suffrage association and the Greenville Suffrage Club adopted vigorous civic and hygiene programs. She kept her small following hard at work addressing issues such as public health, occupational safety, and protective legislation concerning the welfare of children as well as the ongoing campaign for the vote. Somerville promoted the state’s first antituberculosis campaign and procured for Greenville Mississippi’s first female community health nurse. In 1915 she was elected vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, becoming the only southern woman on the board.
In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Somerville interrupted her suffrage work to organize and coordinate home front activities. She chaired the Washington County Woman’s Committee, Council of National Defense, while her younger daughter, Lucy, served as treasurer. According to Nellie Somerville, “All [women] can do for our country in this time of peril is less than we want to do. Our ability is limited; our patriotism is unlimited.” Her professed patriotism was indeed the keynote in her long campaign for equal rights. “Among thoughtful people,” she stated in one of many wartime speeches, “there is a growing belief that American institutions cannot be preserved without the infusion in the body politic of a new moral force, and . . . only the womanhood of the nation can furnish that moral power.”
In spite of laboring on many levels, careful never to appear aggressive or offensive, Somerville and her fellow Mississippi suffragists failed to accomplish their ultimate goal: suffrage by state constitutional amendment. Although the Mississippi legislature refused to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the US constitution, Somerville proved woman’s political potential in 1920 by becoming the first female member of the Mississippi House of Representatives. Having achieved the legitimacy she had long sought, she served a four-year term as chair of the Committee on Eleemosynary Institutions, helping to bring about numerous improvements in the state’s charitable institutions, child labor laws, and conditions for the blind, deaf, and the mentally ill. She steered to passage the bill that brought about a major reorganization of the state mental hospital, moving the facility from Jackson to Rankin County. She also sponsored legislation that established Delta State Teachers College (now Delta State University). She was active in the Democratic Party and in 1925 served as a delegate to the national convention in New York City.
Although she did not seek a second term in the legislature, Somerville remained involved in politics and was in great demand as a speaker through the state during the 1930s and 1940s. In the late 1940s, she and many other Mississippians became States’ Rights Democrats (Dixiecrats). She maintained her involvement in reform efforts, especially where moral issues were involved, through Methodist missionary work and various patriotic and service organizations, receiving numerous awards both before and after her death in Ruleville on 28 July 1952. The Nellie Nugent Somerville Lectures on Government and Public Affairs were inaugurated at Delta State University in 1974, and the Mississippi Woman’s Day Annual Woman of the Year Award was renamed for her in 1975. In 1981 the State Department of Archives and History inducted her into the Mississippi Hall of Fame.
- Mary Louise Merideth, “The Mississippi Woman’s Rights Movement, 1889–1923: The Leadership Role of Nellie Nugent Somerville and Greenville in Suffrage Reform” (master’s thesis, Delta State University, 1974)
- Anne Firor Scott, in Notable American Women, the Modern Period (1980)
- Marjorie Julian Spruill, in Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives, ed. Martha H. Swain, Elizabeth Anne Payne, Marjorie Julian Spruill, and Susan Ditto (2003)
- Somerville and Howorth Family Papers, 1850–1983, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women, Radcliffe College
- Marjorie Julian Spruill, New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States (1993)