New Yorker Mrs. Frank Leslie's Million Dollar Gift to Women's Suffrage

By Joan Marie Johnson


New Yorker Mrs. Frank Leslie donated more money than any other individual to the woman suffrage movement, leaving her entire estate to Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to win the right to vote for women.

From Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and The Women's Movement, 1870-1967.
Copyright © 2017 by Joan Marie Johnson. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.

Born in 1836 in New Orleans, Miriam Folline was known for a series of marriages, divorces, and scandalous affairs. Miriam was also an astute businesswoman, writer, and editor, who fought to be taken seriously in the publishing world. When her third husband, Frank Leslie died, she changed her name to Frank Leslie, inherited his publishing business, and quickly turned the in-debt company into a profitable enterprise. She did so owing both to her editorial eye and to her business acumen — for example, consolidating publications and famously scooping other magazines with an illustration of the deathbed scene of President Garfield.[1]

Although she was not an activist, Leslie consistently supported the suffrage movement with small donations for well over two decades before leaving her estate to Catt. Moreover, she demonstrated through her life choices and business acumen that women were capable of economic independence. Together, Leslie’s love life and business achievements reveal that she took control of her own life and her finances, despite the steady stream of men in her life — men on whom she could not rely. This independent spirit was probably the source of her dedication to woman suffrage. It should not be surprising that Leslie wrote that the woman of the future “must free herself from her swaddling clothes and go into the world with courage and self-reliance,” traits she had already proven to have herself.[2] Leslie decided to leave her considerable fortune to Catt to use for the suffrage movement in order to provide other women a means to the independence and power she had been able to develop through the publishing business she inherited.


Leslie left her entire estate valued at over $1.7 million to Catt to spend on woman suffrage as she liked, with no strings attached. After fighting off relatives and others who wanted a share of the fortune and paying attorney fees and taxes, Catt netted $977,875 out of an original bequest of $1,737,478.[3] Catt then established the Leslie Woman Suffrage Commission to oversee the fund, wisely retaining control over the money rather than merging it into the NAWSA general budget. The size of the bequest and the fact that it had no restrictions on how it was to be spent freed Catt to pay for whatever strategy or tactics she wanted, and was indispensable to the passage and ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Given the mixed record of state campaigns funded by NAWSA in the past, Catt used the Leslie bequest to abandon the state-by-state strategy, which had been so costly and difficult to implement, and focus instead on her Winning Plan. The plan directed the national organization to focus on winning the federal amendment through campaigns in selected states as well as through lobbying Congress. The selected states would give momentum to the passage and ensure ratification of the national amendment.

The plan was successful because Catt was able to centralize suffrage fund-raising and spending. She had already successfully orchestrated a constitutional change requiring all local suffrage societies to become affiliates of their state division of NAWSA and to pay a percentage of their revenue to the national body. After state associations submitted their plans to the national board, the dues they paid supported either the federal amendment congressional committee lobbying force in Washington, D.C., or the states determined to have a good chance at winning suffrage.[4]

Catt argued that with the Leslie Commission funds focused on the Winning Plan, NAWSA would no longer be obligated to step in and assist states who had pushed for a state referendum too soon or with ill-conceived plans. Unsurprisingly, not everyone liked this approach. States not included in the plan were not happy. On the other hand, the states in which suffrage was on the ballot or that were otherwise prioritized in the Winning Plan did benefit from Leslie’s beneficence. Catt’s home state of New York did particularly well with $25,000 in funding. Spurred by a major campaign in New York that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, New York’s woman suffrage referendum passed in 1917 as a crucial victory for the national movement.[5]

The Winning Plan also required work in Washington, D.C., lobbying congressmen to pass the federal amendment. NAWSA’s congressional committee, which had been limited to a ten-dollar budget, now needed funds to compete with Alice Paul’s National Women’s Party lobbyists. NAWSA and the Leslie Commission covered around $20,000 a year for congressional committee lobbying expenses. With the new influx of money from the Leslie Commission, NAWSA could now rent a house, called the Suffrage House, in Washington, D.C., for a corps of lobbyists to live and work in. The Leslie Commission immediately began paying rent and expenses for the Suffrage House.[6] Now generously funded, both individual states and the Winning Plan strategy began to experience success.

The Leslie bequest also provided substantially more money for publicity. Suffragists published everything from tracts to weekly newspapers to full-scale books documenting the movement, organizing its workers, and trying to convert the public to their cause. Having a mouthpiece “so we can sauce back our opponents,” as Susan B. Anthony once said, was important to suffragists. Without the vote, women depended on men to pass woman suffrage for them, making education essential to their ability to wield any power over legislators. When Catt received the Leslie bequest, she argued that giving direct donations to politicians who were beholden to other special interests was ineffectual. Rather, a suffrage education campaign would create the national sentiment in favor of woman suffrage that would pressure politicians to vote for it.

The Leslie bequest provided the funding necessary for a massive publicity blitz. Suffrage education was the biggest expense funded by the Leslie bequest. The commission created a Bureau of Suffrage Education, with a staff of twenty-five trained publicity experts and journalists taking over the fifteenth floor of the headquarters building in New York, all paid with Leslie money. The Publicity and News Department offered five services: The news service sent daily press releases to newspapers around the country, and the photo news service sent photographs biweekly. A bulletin service created a weekly compendium of suffrage news, which suffragists around the country could use to write weekly columns. The “stunts” service helped local efforts with conventions, automobiles, parades, and other big events, and a motion picture service created propaganda films.

The Feature Department offered suffrage publicity through cartoons, stories about leading suffragists, testimonials in favor of suffrage, and “plates” (ready-to-print news). It also provided “intelligence,” or statistical information and legislative updates gathered by the Research Department. A Field Press Department helped ensure that all this information reached the local presses and local organizers, who were charged with reaching out to their local papers. An Editorial Correspondence Department followed through with editors and rebutted anti-suffrage editorials.[7]

The Magazine Department created a new suffrage magazine. After an earlier failed experiment in running the Woman’s Journal, NAWSA published a newsletter, the National Suffrage News, but Catt kept her eye on the Woman’s Journal. Although she knew it kept losing money, $8,000 – $20,000 annually since 1912, and circulation was under forty thousand, she still thought it crucial to have a mouthpiece for the movement.[8]

Given NAWSA’s continued desire for a magazine and competition from the Suffragist, the Leslie Commission finally bought out Elizabeth Blackwell’s shares in the Woman’s Journal and merged it with the Woman Suffrage Party of Greater New York’s Woman Voter and NAWSA’s National Suffrage News to form the Woman Citizen, retaining Blackwell as a contributing editor. Total cost for the new journal was approximately $75,000 the first year, including salaries, office rent, printing, and postage. Because advertising and sales only brought in $25,000, the Leslie Commission paid the remaining $50,000 in expenses.[9]

Suffragists had struggled for years to produce a suffrage magazine and the other publicity materials necessary to create public sentiment in favor of votes for women. The million-dollar bequest from New Yorker Mrs. Frank Leslie finally freed Catt to create a publicity machine unlike anything suffragists had been able to achieve for decades. The money allowed suffragists to reach and influence many more people. The publicity and NAWSA’s Winning Plan were essential to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Former NAWSA officer Harriet Taylor Upton understood the importance of the bequest. “I sometimes wonder,” she wrote after suffrage was won, “if we would still be going up to the Capital if Mrs. Leslie had not made that bequest.”[10]

Joan Marie Johnson is a historian and faculty coordinator for the Office of the Provost at Northwestern University.

[1] Madeline Stern, Purple Passage: The Life of Mrs. Frank Leslie (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953); New York Times, Sept. 19, 1914.

[2] Mrs. Frank Leslie to Carrie Chapman Catt, Oct. 27, 1910, in National American Woman Suffrage Records (NAWSA), Library of Congress, microfilm, reel 45; Byron Stinson, “The Frank Leslies,” American History Illustrated 5 (1970), 12–21, quotation on 20.

[3] Rose Young, The Record of the Leslie Woman Suffrage Commission, Inc.,1917–1929,
58–60; “Statement of Income and Expenses,” Minutes, Leslie Woman Suffrage Commission (LWSC), vol. 3, NAWSA, reel 45.

[4] Harriet Upton to Paul, Sept. 5, 1914, National Women’s Party Papers: The Suffrage Years, 1913-1920, Library of Congress, microfilm, reel 1; Sharon Hartman Strom, Political Woman: Florence Luscomb and the Legacy of Radical Reform (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 93.

[5] [Catt], “To the incorporators,” n.d., Minutes, LWSC, vol. 1, NAWSA, reel 44.

[6] Sara Graham, Woman Suffrage and the New Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 92–94.

[7] Minutes, LWSC, vol. 1, NAWSA, reel 44.

[8] Agnes Ryan to Carrie Catt, Aug. 5, 1916, NAWSA, reel 12.

[9] Minutes, LWSC, vol. 3, NAWSA, reel 45.

[10] Harriet Taylor Upton, Harriet Taylor Upton’s Random Recollections,edited by Lara Dunn Eisenbraun (Warren, Ohio: Harriet Taylor Upton Association, 2004), 154.