Mary McHenry Keith: The Suffragist Behind the Portrait
Who is Mary McHenry Keith?
Mary McHenry Keith (1855-1947) was an American social justice advocate. She is most known for her work leveraging women's rights through the passing of the Sixth Star in California (1911) and securing humane treatment of animals with the Humane Society and Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
As the first woman to graduate from Hastings Law School (University of California) in 1882, Mary's fluency of the law contributed to her public speaking and work with the Berkeley Political Equality Club. In 1895, Mary organized the Woman's Congress (held in Berkeley) at which time she met Susan B. Anthony and began a regular correspondence about suffrage and women's rights. As noted by historians Mae Silver and Sue Cazaly, Mary’s leadership in Northern California provided a key role in securing the passage of the sixth star in the following 1911 state election. After the dismissal of the campaign in 1896, Mary revamped and retargeted the movement; publicly speaking to the right and need for co-education, centralizing suffrage as a primary cause in women organizations across the state, and integrating modern devices, such as cars and telephones as a way to reach and democratize rural areas. In 1912, Mary was elected president of California’s Equal Suffrage Association. In this role, she expanded her experience and suffrage support to other states, such work contributed to the 19th amendment's ratification in 1920.
What was her role in establishing the Saint Mary’s College Museum of Art?
Shortly after graduating from Hastings Law School, Mary McHenry Keith married the California landscape artist William Keith. During the time of their marriage, the Keith house served as a meeting ground for social activists to gather. In the Fall of 1911 (following William Keith's death) California women were granted the right to vote. The years proceeding William's death, Mary continued to work endlessly to secure women the right to vote on a national level. In addition to this work, Mary is also responsible for the gathering, recording, and archiving Keith's paintings. She worked closely with Brother Cornelius, the founder of the Saint Mary's College Museum of Art. Today, William Keith's paintings serve as SMCMoA's trademark collection as the museum cares for over 170 paintings and ephemera associated with the artist.
Why now? Why today?
2020 marks a pivotal year in cause and change; a year of voice and agency that calls for institutions to do better. This year is the centennial of the passage of the 19th amendment. For our institution, it also represents fifty-years of co-education at Saint Mary's College. As both a leader in the right to coeducation and a founding archivist for the William Keith Collection, Mary McHenry Keith represents a powerful voice in our regional history that has yet to be acknowledged. Currently, as museums across the United States are reexamining their collections and how their institutional histories are told, SMCMoA acts on this platform as an opportunity to reflect on an unsung and unheard voice that contributed to our museum's foundation and place. We hope that through this platform opportunities to examine social justice and history will evoke a new approach to cultivating wonder and engagement with our collections and exhibitions.
Tell us more about the portrait...
SMCMoA houses and cares for a portrait of Mary McHenry Keith painted by the artist Carrie Anderson (1858-1945). This portrait is thought to be a copy or based on a portrait previously painted by William Keith. Unfortunately, the museum does not know the whereabouts of the original portrait. Despite this portrait being a copy, it does raise some questions about gender and gaze. Carrie, as a woman artist depicting a woman subject, might have approached Mary in a different way or chosen to highlight different features than those depicted in the original portrait by William. When we approach the question of the male gaze, this portrait becomes an interesting inflection, as we the viewer might never know the answer. Currently, this portrait is on view and part of the 2020 exhibition Feminizing Permanence.
Sources + More:
Finding Aid to the Keith-McHenry-Pond Family Papers, 1841-1961, 1841-1961, The Bancroft Library University of California, Berkeley, https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf7199n90j/. Accessed 20 Aug. 2020
Mae Silver & Sue Cazaly “The Sixth Star: Images and Memorabilia of California Women’s Political History 1868-1915", 2000.
Gordon, Ann D., et al., editors. “SBA to Mary McHenry Keith: 1630 Folsom St San Francisco March 20/’96.” The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: An Awful Hush, 1895 to 1906, by Andy Bowers and Katharine Lee, Rutgers University Press, 2013, pp. 60–61. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hjfh1.27. Accessed 17 Aug. 2020.
A Centennial Celebration California Women and the Vote, wwww.bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/suffrage/ Accessed 20 Aug. 2020.