Researched and written by:
Mary Ellen G. Heckman
Associate Dean of Library Services and Learning Resources
The Yocum Library
Reading Area Community College
There was an organized women’s suffrage organization in Berks County by at least 1913. On February 10, 1913 the “first real session of the local branch of the Pennsylvania State Woman’s Suffrage League was held in the Board of Trades rooms…and nearly 200 disappointed women were turned away” because the room was too small to hold them. (Reading Times, 11 February 1913, page 2). The Board of Trades rooms were at 25 North Sixth Street, Reading, floor 2, and were a popular meeting space for many groups. Mrs. John C. Wrenshall was named as chairman of the local branch in the newspaper article.
So who was Mrs. John C. Wrenshall? She was born Frances Addison Mason in Hagerstown, Maryland, in February 1873 and called “Fannie” by her family. She was the sixth child and second daughter of Dr. Augustine Smith Mason and his wife Mary McIntyre Eliason Mason. Although Dr. Smith had practiced medicine in Hagerstown for decades by the time of his death, he had been chief surgeon for the Confederate Army in Richmond in 1863 and president of the Confederate Memorial Association in Washington County, Maryland (Evening Star, 26 May 1911, page 1). Her mother was from “an old Virginia family” according to her obituary (The Baltimore Sun, 14 January 1910, page 11). The family was prominent in Hagerstown society. In June 1901 a 28-year old Frances married 33 year-old John Richard Cowan Wrenshall formerly of Baltimore, but working as a civil engineer for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad at Lebanon, Pa. The Wrenshalls were prominent in Baltimore society and Frances’ father-in-law had been an engineer in the Confederate army although he was from a wealthy family in Pittsburgh, Pa. It was the first marriage for Frances and the second for her husband who married as a young man but must have been divorced as his former wife and child were still living at the time of his second marriage.
While living in Lebanon, Pa., Frances was active in local society such as the Bridge Club, the Woman’s Club where she performed piano pieces, and managed theatrics at her church. Descriptions of her gowns are included in articles about local balls and she summered at her cottage on Long Island. There is no evidence that the couple had children.
In January of 1910, Frances’ mother died. In March of 1910 her husband is promoted and transferred to Reading, Pa. According to the 1910 U.S. Census Frances’ husband is living alone in Reading as a boarder. In May of 1911 her father died. By the end of 1912 Frances began to get involved in Reading society including the Woman’s Club, Young Woman’s Auxiliary of Christ Church, and the YWCA where she chaired the Education Committee (Reading Times 13 February 1913, page 2). By February 1913 the couple are living at 228 North Fifth Street in Reading. In April Mrs. Wrenshall’s “imported model of heliotrope peau de soie” frock was commented upon at the Woman’s Club Bridge Dance (Reading Times 12 April 1913, page 3).
At a January 1913 meeting of the Woman’s Club in Reading Frances participated in a suffrage debate where she “ably defended the cause of suffrage” (Reading Times, 14 January 1913, page 10), and by February she is identified as the “chairman” of the Berks County suffrage group. Frances began to be mentioned frequently in the local press as an active member of the local suffrage movement. In February 1913 she was “the sole representative from Reading at the national suffrage conference held in Carnegie Hall, New York (Reading Times, 21 February 1913, page 3). In April 1913 she met with Miss Hannah J. Patterson, state chairman of the Pennsylvania Woman’s Suffrage party (Reading Times 22 April 1913, page 5). In May 1913 she traveled to New York City and “witnessed the suffrage pageant in the Metropolitan Opera House and the parade” (Reading Times 10 May 1913, page 3). In September 1913 the Berks County Suffrage Association “officially allied itself with the state organization at their meeting…at the home of Mrs. John C. Wrenshall, Jr.” (Reading Times 27 September 1913, page 1). In October and November Frances worked with Mrs. Maude McCreery of the Pennsylvania state suffrage group and energized by her attendance at the “Votes for Women” state convention in Pittsburgh. She planned to go around Berks County and distribute literature, buttons, and suffrage stamps (Reading Times, 5 November 1913, page 6). In November 1913 she traveled to Philadelphia to hear the English suffragist Mrs. Pankhurst and remarked “Even if I had not been wholly convinced before, I should have been at the conclusion of her lecture.” (Reading Times 21 November 1913, page 4). In December 1913 Frances traveled to Washington, D.C. to the national suffrage convention where she was “a student at the Suffrage School” (Reading Times 15 December 1913, page 4). While Frances was in Washington. D.C. she “was a member of the delegation who visited President Wilson in an endeavor to enlist his support” but she “considered his reply to the delegation hedging” (Reading Times 24 December 1913, page 2).
Frances continued her suffrage work in 1914 by inviting and hosting suffrage speakers plus traveling around the county, but took time to throw a dinner party for her visiting sister, and, of course, the decorations and flowers are all in the suffrage color of yellow. However, a newspaper article from March 1914 noted that she “earned her first money speaking at the Washington birthday party at Womelsdorf” (Reading Times 11 March 1914, page 7). In April 1914 Frances was appointed to the national Congressional Suffrage Committee whose task is “to interview candidates for any office whatever all through the United States…[her] duties will be confined within her own congressional district.” (Reading Times 3 April 1914, page 5). On May 20, 1914 the Reading Times published a speech by Frances Wrenshall following the May 2nd suffrage demonstration in which she stated that
“I, for one, freely admit that I am no longer contented to care only for my own home. I want to see a woman wherever women and children are concerned; a police woman when a girl is arrested; fair proportion of women on a jury that decides where the guilt is to be laid; women probation officers; on the school, asylum and institutional boards. Have we not always had the patching and mending to do? Why should not those talents be applied in human affairs?” (Reading Times, 20 May 1914, page 5).
However, a few days later Frances returned to her family home in Hagerstown for “a much needed rest before beginning her strenuous campaign planned for the early summer month.” (Reading Times, 22 May 1914, page 12). However, her rest was short because she had already been traveling outside of Maryland and returned to Reading in early June. (Reading Times, 4 June 1914, page 2). By September of that year the Berks County suffragists planned to visit every home in the county and have “heart-to-heart talk” with the women they meet. (Reading Times, 24 September1914, page 5). President Frances and her colleagues also held meetings such as the October 1914 event at Bortz’s Hall in Temple which attracted more than 80 women and which featured Frances as the keynote speaker. (Reading Times, 10 October1914, page 1). During 1914 Frances continued to be active in the Maryland suffrage movement so she traveled often to those meetings. (Reading Times 23 October 1914, page 5). Even in November Frances led the suffrage workers who will “tramp to Yellow House, distributing literature along the way.” (Reading Times, 9 November 1914, page 1). Later in November Frances attended the Pennsylvania Suffrage convention in Scranton and then addressed a suffrage meeting in Amityville (Reading Times 16 November 1914, page 3). In December Frances hosted suffrage teas and meetings at her home on Fifth Street. (Reading Times 12 December 1914, page 8). However, Frances was still involved with other local groups and hosted the YWCA Board at her house to “sew and embroider for the Christmas bazaar” (Reading Times 11 November 1914, page 6).
On 12 January 1915 the Mondell Bill was voted upon by the U.S. House of Representatives. It was the first vote on a federal woman suffrage amendment, but was defeated by a vote of 204 nays to 174 yeas.
(Library of Congress, American Memory: Detailed Chronology National Woman’s Party History. https://www.loc.gov/static/collections/women-of-protest/images/detchron.pdf). Frances had previously written to local Congressman Rothermel urging him to vote for the bill, but he was expected to vote against it (Reading Times 13 January 1915, page 7).
In January 1915 there were newspaper headlines reporting that the Reading Suffrage Association voted to merge the “local branch with the Woman’s Suffrage Party of Berks County.” Frances who had been serving as president of the Reading Association tendered her resignation which was accepted with regret. A nominating committee was formed and a special meeting planned when new officers and committees would be chosen. (Reading Times 23 January 1915, page 1). Although in March and April of that year Frances is identified as president of the Berks County Suffrage Association in several newspaper articles, by May she has resigned because “the duties proved too arduous” and was reported to be “enjoying an extended vacation after a winter of strenuous suffrage endeavor.” (Reading Times 3 May 1915, page 8). The county suffrage group had “the greatest trouble to secure a woman to take the city chairmanship” so they definitely missed Frances’ leadership (Reading Times 22 May 1915, page 8).
However, there may have been a personal reason for her resignation because it seems that her marriage was in a troubled state. In the 1915 Reading city directory Frances and her husband John Cowan Wrenshall, Jr. are living together at 228 North Fifth Street, but in the 1916 city directory her husband is living at a different address and without her. Another clue is that when reports about Frances’ activities appear again in the newspapers, she is not using the title of “Mrs. John C. Wrenshall” but now is identified as “Mrs. Frances Mason Wrenshall.” By spring 1916 Frances is living in Hagerstown, Maryland and active once again in the suffrage movement there. (Baltimore Sun 23 March 1916, page 3). In 1918 Frances’ estranged husband is transferred to Philadelphia where he divorced Frances in 1919 (Philadelphia Inquirer 8 July 1919, page 12).
Frances Mason Wrenshall did not stay inactive long. She was a member of the suffrage organization “The Just Government League of Maryland” serving as toastmaster at their 1916 meeting (Baltimore Sun 27 April 1916, page 3) and the Hagerstown Forward Club of United Women (Baltimore Sun 13 May 1917, page 7). In 1922 Frances offered lessons in parliamentary law at her Hagerstown home (The Daily Mail, 4 February 1922, page 5). By 1925 Frances had moved to San Francisco and was listed in directories as a “child engineer” or as an educator. In 1930 she traveled through Europe with her sister. (The Morning Herald 5 August 1930, page 2). By the 1940 U.S. Census Frances is listed as living in Los Angeles and working as a housekeeper in the construction business. She died there on October 16, 1958 at the age of 85.
Frances Addison Mason Wrenshall had been a tireless worker for women’s suffrage in Berks County and her leaving was a reason why the Reading Times reported in August of 1919 that “There is no longer a suffrage organization here, the principal leaders having moved out of town. Berks is one of the few Pennsylvania counties without an organization. (Reading Times 1 August 1919, page 6).
The Berks Women’s History Alliance is a group of organizations who have joined together to create events celebrating the centennial of women gaining the right to vote under the banner of the Berks Suffrage 2020 Centennial.