Throwback Thursday: A Secret Suffragist

As you take a seat in the Emmy Carlsson Evald Great Hall next time, look to the portrait of the woman over the fireplace. Who was she? What secrets does her serene smile hide?

Emmy Carlsson Evald held a rich legacy at Augustana College and the world abroad, however, few may know of the impression she left on the American public as a suffragette.
Born in 1857 to the Erland Carlsson family—devout Swedish Lutherans—Emmy began her early years caring for her siblings and listening to her father’s teachings. Schooled at Sweden at Fryxellska flickskolan, one of the finest girls’ schools in Sweden, she returned to the USA and became deeply involved with the woman suffrage movement while a student at Rockford Seminary for women, later Rockford University.

C-D97, A portrait of Emmy Carlsson Evald, Augustana College Photograph Collection

Ann Boaden discussed in her article “Go Tell!” how Emmy became close friends with other founding mothers of the American woman suffrage movement in the early 1900s. Her friend and classmate, Jane Addams, lived down the hall from her in the Linden Hall Dormitory. Emmy Evald’s vision of political rights and social justice was inspired by messages learned as the daughter of a well-loved minister. Boaden writes, “Suffragist involvement was a natural step for anyone concerned with ‘telling’ the social justice message of Jesus Christ.”

During her long life as an advocate for women, the Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly notes that the Evald founded the Women’s Missionary Society of the Augustana Lutheran Church in 1892. She attracted over 50 women to the first meetings, which were designed to “send our Savior’s love to the homes of India.” By the earliest years of the 20th century, the Women’s Missionary Society was paying the salaries of female doctors, sending more women to medical school, and supporting a women and children’s hospital in India.
Within the hierarchy of the Women’s Missionary Society (referred to as WMS) “everything was done by women…[WMS] had adopted for its rhetoric a belief in the pride of womanhood, the power of motherhood” (Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly v. 30 no. 3, 1979 by Jane Tellen). The success and longevity of the organization was believed to be due in part to the interweaving the word of God with what Emmy and the women of the WMS saw as the calling of women. Historian Jane Tellen suggests that “for many of these sincerely Christian women, their leadership roles in the Society validated them in the same way that being a minister brought automatic prestige to men”. Indeed, the WMS was run by, and for, women. Evald was president of the society for 43 years.

Not only across the globe, but across the United States, Emmy Evald was making splashes on the American political scene. On February 13th, 1898,at the annual National American Woman Suffrage Association (now referred to as NAWSA) meeting in Washington, D.C., Evald was introduced by Susan B. Anthony and spoke on the theme of “the Work of Swedish Women in America”. Four years later she returned to Washington as a charter member of the First International Woman Suffrage Conference.

C-L00366_02, The Women’s Building during its 1927 construction, Augustana College Photograph Collection

Finally, at home on our own Augustana College, Evald strove to house more women students on campus. Campaigning to assure parents that their daughters would be “safe” at Augustana, Evald and the WMS succeeded in raising the $121,000 necessary to begin construction on the Woman’s Building during the academic years 1921-1922. The legacy of Evald’s work across the world and across 7th Avenue in Rock Island, IL, still stands to this day. The original 1928 Women’s Building was eventually converted to men’s residences in 1960 before ultimately becoming an academic building. In 2008, the building was rededicated to Emmy Carlsson Evald, the woman behind the legacy of women’s rights and suffrage.

To read more about Emmy Carlsson Evald’s work as an early suffragist, visit Special Collections and ask for the Emmy Evald Vertical File or MSS 287 Ann Boaden collection on Emmy Evald.

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