The work of Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis as a women’s rights advocate, social reformer, educator, and author extended over forty years from the late 1830s to her death in 1876. She was born in Bloomfield, New York, on August 7, 1813, the daughter of Captain Ebenezer Kellogg and Polly Saxon. After the death of both parents, Paulina was raised by a strict orthodox Presbyterian aunt. Davis began her work for women’s rights, abolition, and temperance causes when she was only twenty and newly married to Francis Wright, a wealthy merchant from Utica, NY. The couple became very involved in various contemporary reforms, especially abolitionism and women’s rights.
In the late 1830s, she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ernestine Rose, with whom she joined in a petition to the New York legislature that eventually led to the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1848, which gave married women control of their own personal property and real estate.
Her husband’s death in 1845 left Paulina desolate, but she was wealthy and free to embark on a career as a lecturer and women’s health advocate. She studied medicine in New York City and lectured widely on female anatomy and physiognomy. While on tour in Providence, Paulina met widower Thomas Davis, who held reform sentiments like hers. The couple married in April 1849 and began a partnership that greatly influenced Rhode Island’s social and cultural life during the mid-nineteenth century. Paulina hosted numerous gatherings on the Davises’ spacious Providence estate in such a manner that she inspired one observer to describe her as “a radiant figure” in her “circle of literary, artistic, and reformatory people.”
Paulina Davis worked on the National Women’s Rights Convention held in Worcester in 1850, and two years later, she launched the publication of Una, which she called the first women’s magazine devoted to “the elevation of women.” She was determined to promote a dialogue among women on the issues of labor, marriage, suffrage, property rights, and education, but Una had a short lifespan, folding less than a year later.
In 1866, Paulina Davis made many of the arrangements for the twentieth-anniversary meeting of the women’s suffrage movement held in New York City. In 1871, she published the proceedings of that gathering as The History of the National Women’s Rights Movement. During the 1860s and 1870s, she traveled abroad, meeting many prominent European reformers, and indulging her love and skill for art by copying the paintings of great masters. She abandoned her artwork only when she became disabled with arthritis.
Paulina Davis died in Providence on August 24, 1876, shortly after observing her sixty-third birthday. At her funeral, Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony eulogized Davis and urged others to follow her lifelong example of service to women. Congressman Thomas Davis died on July 26, 1895, at the age of eighty-eight and was laid to rest in Swan Point Cemetery beside his first wife, Eliza.
In 1891, the City of Providence purchased the Davis estate at a bargain price for recreational use, and enlarging the tract, it created Davis Park. In 1945, the federal government condemned the land, demolished the mansion, and built the Veterans’ Administration Hospital, but the flat, low-lying area to the east of the facility was then returned to the city, which uses it presently as a ball field and playground.
Paulina Davis was inducted into The National Women’s Hall of Fame, Seneca Falls, NY, in 1988. She was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2003.
For additional reading:
The Makers of Rhode Island, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2012.