Historical markers. It’s easy to pass them by without stopping to read the words that unassumingly anchor our city to its story. On the corner of Wabash and Grant avenues, where the colonnade for Wabash College stands reads one of the city’s newest markers: “Dr. Mary Holloway Wilhite A longtime proponent of women’s equality, Wilhite helped revive the women’s suffrage movement in Indiana after the Civil War. She was integral in founding the Montgomery County Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.”
The simple history hints at a colorful life for the curious. A woman born on a farm in Montgomery County in 1831 became the first female doctor born in Indiana. She changed the community and put Crawfordsville on the map for women’s suffrage.
Like women waiting for their right to vote, Montgomery County’s League of Women Voters has waited two years to dedicate this marker. Last year, on the anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, they held a virtual celebration. This year, they invite the community to the in-person dedication of the marker at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 25.
Wilhite’s journey to medicine wound through poverty, determination and a belief in women’s equality. Wilhite sold subscriptions to The Woman’s Advocate, sewed for hire, and taught school to save up money. At the age of 23, she moved to Philadelphia to go to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. It’s notable that most colleges refused to admit women. She returned to Crawfordsville and took out a notice in the paper: “Mary M. Holloway M.D. Respectfully tenders her Professional services to the Ladies and Children of Crawfordsville and vicinity. Office at the Residence of her Father, opposite the Old School Baptist Church. July 10, 1856.” She’d already responded with equanimity to the verbal challenges to her choice. One resident told her he’d rather see his daughter dead than “to turn out so.” Presumably he meant to be a well-educated, working woman. Holloway married Eleazer Wilhite in 1860. She mothered seven children, though only four lived to adulthood. Meanwhile, Wilhite continued treating patients all over the county, helped establish a home for children, supported the suffrage cause and wrote editorials and poetry.
Wilhite set a standard of excellence in her contributions to the community. She often treated patients at the county poor house, where she saw children housed unsafely with adults. She helped to create the orphan’s home to protect and separate vulnerable youth, many of whom were abandoned or neglected. At times there were up to 43 children, orphaned, abandoned or removed from unsafe homes. Not only did Wilhite provide services to the poor, she committed herself to traveling whenever called to the far reaches of the rural communities. Eventually, this commitment would contribute to her cause of death. She traveled far out into rural areas one winter, contracted pneumonia, and died at the age of 61.
Wilhite filled her years with purpose. After the Civil War, she wrote editorials for the Saturday Evening Post, and the Indianapolis News, as well as local papers, arguing for women’s social, political and economic equality. She foresaw the present when “men and women would stand side by side in all professions from kitchen to the pulpit.” Men had too long “taken a premium” for being born as men, she argued. Women’s moral and intellectual capabilities would improve not only their own lives, but the world at large. It was time for women to embrace that their “sphere is the wide universe, where her taste and talent may lead her,” she wrote. She called for equal pay for equal work, noting that women could do hard work, from plowing to governing, as well as men.
In 1880, she welcomed Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to Crawfordsville for a national suffrage convention, placing Crawfordsville on the map of progressive towns. Her suffrage work localized the movement for justice, liberty and equality in a period when the national suffrage movement was fractured. It contributed to the role of Crawfordsville natives and Hoosier women in helping to form the League of Women Voters.
The event Aug. 25 will include a speech and more about her life, with remarks by Shannon Sullivan Hudson, author of Wilhite’s biography and other speakers. The marker’s sponsors include Dorothy Q Chapter DAR, the Genealogy Club of Crawfordsville, Nucor Steel, Nancy Wilhite Gineris (descendant), Joan Eaton (descendant), Shannon Sullivan Hudson, Linda Airey and Virginia and David Maharry.
The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.
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