“As a 10- or 12-year-old, I remember how cold it was being hauled around with my mother to these three-decker houses in Cambridge, knocking on doors in late October and November, and trying to persuade people to vote her way,” Marian Cannon Schlesinger, who was born in 1912, recently recalled. The 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, passed when she was eight, and she says politics in those early years remained a male domain. “I do remember the first time we voted for the first woman mayor of Cambridge. I was very pleased to do it and perhaps that was the first beginning I have of feeling of being a feminist.”
Her mother, Cornelia James Cannon, left Minnesota to attend the recently formed Radcliffe College in 1895. The second eldest of seven, she was rooted in strong female role models, and took their example to heart. A sardonic cousin once sent a telegram ahead to relatives in Boston. “Cornelia will be with you on Sunday evening at six o’clock. The Lord be with you!”
Today, at 104, her daughter lives in Cambridge a block from the Cannon family home. Schlesinger says her mother had always pined for intellectual pursuit and a career. “She couldn’t understand why women would settle down and just wait until a husband turns up.” Cannon eventually folded and married fellow St. Paul resident and Harvard classmate, Walter B. Cannon. They moved back to Cambridge when he became Harvard Medical School professor of physiology—but not before Cornelia Cannon caused a furor in 1899 by applying, as a woman, for membership into the Harvard Club of Minnesota. For context, it wasn’t until 70 years later that feminist Brenda Feigen, who co-founded Ms. Magazine with Gloria Steinem, would sue the Harvard Club of New York City for women’s right to full membership and win.