The 104-Year-Old Daughter of a Suffragist Watches the Election

The 19th Amendment passed when Marian Cannon Schlesinger was eight—and she’s lived to see a woman nominated for the presidency.

Heidi Legg

“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.

Cornelia James Cannon also wrote for The Atlantic. Her essays on early feminist ideas in the 1900s touch on contemporary themes: women’s rights, birth control, and immigration. She was an active member of Planned Parenthood and the League of Women’s Voters. Schlesinger is no shrinking violet herself. She shares her mother’s wit and capacity for insisting women be given the same opportunity and responsibility as a man.

Schlesinger’s Cambridge memoir, Snatched From Oblivion, details an intellectual life in early Harvard academia interwoven with a Boston sensibility for ill-heated houses, books over clothing, and a bevy of children climbing trees and red-brick buildings when not producing plays. But her most vivid memories are of an activist mother who would haul her children through housing projects and apartment buildings knocking on doors to get out the vote. Her mother was a prolific writer and best selling author of Red Rust, along with seven other novels.

“My mother would make the beds, do the mopping and dusting of the second floor with lightning swishes, and then descend to her desk … and depending on her most recent interest or outrage, she would issue commendatory or censorious epistles to the Boston Transcript, the Boston Globe, and the Cambridge Chronicle, where for decades her peppery letters appeared almost until the day she died, at the age of ninety-three.”

I sat down with Marian Cannon Schlesinger to reflect on how both she and her mother might experience Hillary Clinton becoming the first female President of the United States.

How would you describe your mother?

She was very funny and interested in everything. She believed in plain living and high thinking and was of an iconoclastic turn of mind with endless curiosity. She liked a well-rounded, concrete fact.

Was she quiet?

(Laughs) No. She was very lively and she had very strong opinions on everything but you didn't have to agree with her.

With five children and two aunts living in the house, everybody talked and nobody directed the conversation. It was fun. Everybody was opinionated, except for my father who never could get a word in edgewise.

Was your father supportive of your mother's views?

Oh, heavens, yes. My mother was an early activist in the movement attending the famous Birth Control Conference in 1921, when Margaret Sanger was arrested and sent to jail.

I think the birth control issue at some point was rather a problem for him because he was active in medical politics at Harvard. I've heard from other sources that she softened her tone a little towards the end, but a lot of other people had taken it up by then so it didn’t matter.

I write frequently about my mother in my memoir about how she became somewhat of old-aged fanatic traveling to the Philippines, India, Turkey, London and Israel in blue sneakers and leaning on a cane with my older sister Linda, who was the head of an adoption agency in D.C. At one point, my sister discovered my mother’s battered old suitcase was stuffed with contraceptives of all sorts and sizes. My mother insisted on visiting various clinics in back alleys and when they finally reached Rome, my mother’s suitcase was empty.

What was the driving force for her on birth control?

She worked in poor areas of the city doing charity work and she saw all these poor women and they’re overwhelmed with having too many children and they’re absolutely exhausted in every way. They didn't have any money and they’d have 10 or 12 children. I think that was the first thing that impressed upon her.

She also saw her mother, Frances James, who was very much of an intellectual and who really didn’t feel she was born to be a mother. My grandmother had seven children and I think it exhausted her. This work was in sympathy and an understanding of her mother’s problems. I think that's an interesting point.

But your mother went on to have five children of her own.

Yes. She didn’t mind. My mother had huge energy and that's the trouble with me. I've got too much energy, which I got from her.

Was your mother ambitious?

No question about it. She had a zestful approach to the reforming of corruption in city government and took on the perennial Mayor Quinn. I remember her coming back from school committee meetings and saying, “The Irish make the political villains too attractive for defeat.”

When my father was given an honorary degree from Yale, the Cambridge Chronicle wrote, “Professor Cannon is perhaps best known as the husband of Mrs. Cornelia James Cannon, secretary of the Cambridge Public School Association, whom everyone not only loves and admires for her engaging personality but for her constructive and sympathetic work for public schools and in other civic lines.”

Did you pursue these politics?

Unlike my mother, I was very politically unsophisticated for years. I married Arthur Schlesinger in 1940, from a very politically active family, and I learned a huge amount from him. He gave me a sense of continuity in politics.

How did Arthur Schlesinger feel about women's rights?

Look at his father. He started the whole business of archiving women’s papers. [Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library is named in his honor.]

Your mother came to Radcliffe on her own. How did that come to be?

The money had given out and the family bankrupt over land, but my mother demanded she must go. A maiden aunt at last saw to my mother’s education and came out to live with the Jameses in St. Paul and in exchange provided the money for her tuition.

What do you remember about your mother's writing life?

She often wrote in the bathroom, the only warm room in the house, and when she wanted to get away from the telephone, committee-women, and whining children, would take refuge in the family car, where she would scribble away on a pad of paper propped up on the steering wheel.

In 1928, my mother published a best-selling novel, Red Rust, the story of Swedish pioneers in her native Minnesota. It was her first novel, but not her first piece of writing. She had been turning out provocative articles for The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and the North American Review since the early ‘20s on a variety of subjects, ranging from “The New Leisure” to “Philanthropic Doubts” from “Can Our Civilization Maintain Itself?” to “The Crabbing of Youth by Age,” a lively critique of education in the June 1923 Atlantic.

My mother’s Red Rust is rather like Willa Cather’s writings. Have you ever read Willa Cather?

No. But I will now.

You’ve missed it! I’ve read four of her books in the last two or three months. She writes about the West and she’s a great seller of this country. It’s all about Nebraska and Iowa and this wonderful extraordinary expanse of the American west in the mid-19th Century. It’s just terrific.

My mother also wrote a book around immigration, which I think is terribly good, called Heirs. Somehow she gets the decadence of New England through the story of these Polish peasants who were imported to this country after the First World War. Many of them went into textile mills here in New England and, at the same time, bought up some of these deserted farms that so many New Englanders couldn’t make a way of and then these immigrants were able to make them flourish. It’s the story of this new blood coming into New England—and that’s my mother’s story.

What do you think about this election?

I think it’s disgusting. I read with fascination. I’m not so pure and good. I read it all, but I’m so tired of it now.

Over the decades when other countries elected women leaders, say Margaret Thatcher, did it bother you that women weren’t on the presidential ticket in America?

No. It didn’t bother me because I wouldn’t want to have her on my ticket.

You see … I’m really not a feminist. I’ve taken women for granted for so long. After all, my mother was one of six girls and a boy. I came from a family of four girls and a boy—all of whom were very strong-minded, opinionated people. We were not held back at all. We were encouraged. We were pushed forward.

What about when you stepped into the world, were there ever times you were frustrated by your gender?

No, I felt very confident in myself. I mean, not confidence in a worldly sense, but I felt confidence. That’s why when I was in Washington and met all these famous leaders, I never at any point felt inferior to anyone.

Did you ever feel any push back as an independent, educated woman based on your gender?

I’ve always thought that I’d have more recognition. I’m very ambitious too. For instance, Snatched From Oblivion never got the notice it should have had because I was a woman. It was as though they thought, “What does she know?” Maybe they’ll discover me after I die or when I’m 108. I’d like to see it reprinted. I find it as timely and as relevant now as it was when published in 1979.

If Hillary Clinton becomes president, what's the next area for societal progress?

Equal pay. The whole thing is ridiculous. And why should these white men be so indulged? Do you indulge your husband?

Some things are acculturated as women. I think we indulge men, but I don't know if it's only white men.

Of course. My mother ran a whole household and my father went off to his laboratory and did the work. It seems to me, in that case, a fair division.

She didn't sound like a traditional, stay-at-home woman.

No, she wasn’t that at all. To think of her as a traditional woman would be a false picture. She wasn’t that type of person at all. She did have a cook. I don’t think she ever for a minute felt sorry for herself.

And my mother must have known something about birth control for herself and she had enough energy to fulfill her family and her writing. I don’t think she felt for a minute unfulfilled. She loved her children. She loved life.

What motivated her to write and be active in political life?

It has to do with energy, mentality and questioning, curiosity, education and awareness of what's going on in the world. She was an individual person. That’s the point.

She was opinionated. She was vocal on a lot of things but she never insisted we agree with her. In fact, she used to laugh about it and say, ‘you know, I don't mind. As long as you let me say this, I don't care if you agree or not.’

Do you remember the perception of your mother by your friends?

She was forever pressing me to have my classmates over. I was startled years later by some of my classmates who remembered those evenings given over to ‘great thoughts’ as being ‘one of the most stimulating and vivid memories of their college years.’

Do you have any advice for Hillary if she’s elected?

That she continue to focus on mothers and children. I don’t think anybody paid any attention to children and mothers until she came in. It’s admirable that she has drawn attention to children’s psychological problems, which is terribly important and she made it possible for children with psychological problems to be taken care of with privacy. I’m glad you’ve asked me that question because I feel very strongly that a huge amount of insight and intelligence has been raised by her encouragement where women and children will be supported in every way. I’m a great believer in family.

What will the world think of the U.S. electing a female president?

We’re way behind them.

Some young, women Millennials don’t understand why a woman elected president of the U.S. is a big deal. What do you say to that?

Like computers, we take it all for granted in no time.

It should have been done a thousand years ago! Women have more of an instinct to protect because they have to protect children. They have to look ahead. I think they’re much more willing to look into the future than men, and it translates itself into knowing how to politically look ahead at the possibilities available, the fates, and the approaches that will work. I think they instinctively look into the future. What do your contemporaries think?

Many think we should vote for the right person, not the gender. But it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room—that a woman has never been president.

We’re organized on the basis of party. Party prejudices have to be changed if that’s going to be the way we organize as a nation. I don’t know, maybe all these little organizations that are developing will make a difference.

Like the Bernie Sanders campaign?

Yes. Maybe that’s where change will take place—through these smaller groups that bring pressure to bear.

People call 2016 “the election of a lifetime.” Is it really?

That's what we said about Truman. That’s what we said about Roosevelt. That’s what we said about Kennedy. That was a nice election but it wasn’t the election of a century!

As a centenarian, which one is the “election of a lifetime?”

I suppose Roosevelt. The second time he was elected was terribly important because there was the war and he and Churchill came together.

What’s next for our society to push forward?

We need to take care of unemployed people outside the ages of 30-55. We live to be at least 95. I’m 104! We are too prosperous as a society inside that age window of 30-55 and poor and pathetic on the other sides.

What would your mother and her Radcliffe peers think if Hillary is elected?

They’d be thrilled. What about your pals?


I can’t imagine not being thrilled. Can you?

No, but you and I both grew up in houses full of women.

Do you know men who feel threatened by that?

I think there are a lot of them.

Are they friends of yours?

No, because I live in Cambridge.

I hope you’re going to put that in.