Maud Howe Elliott

Inducted: 2008
Born: 1854 - Died:
1948

Maud Howe Elliott was an American writer, artist, political activist, patron of the arts, and philanthropist. She and her sister, Laura E. Richards, shared a Pulitzer Prize for the biography of their mother, The Life of Julia Ward Howe. Other prominent works by Maud Howe Elliott included A Newport Aquarelle (1882); Phillida (1891); Mammon (1893); Roma Beata, Letters from the Eternal City (1903); The Eleventh Hour in the Life of Julia Ward Howe (1911); Three Generations (1923); Lord Byron’s Helmet (1927); John Elliott, The Story of An Artist (1930); My Cousin, F. Marion Crawford 1934); and This Was My Newport (1944).

Maud was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on November 9, 1854, the fifth child of Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe’s six children. Her father, director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, won international fame for being the first to educate a deaf-blind girl, Helen Keller. Julia Ward Howe, a descendant of two Rhode Island governors, was an abolitionist, a supporter of women’s rights, the impetus behind “Mother’s Day in America,” and the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

When Julia married, her husband, Samuel Howe, was already making his mark on the world. He had fought in the Greek War of Independence and had written of his experiences there. He had become the director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts, where Helen Keller would be among the most famous students. He was a radical Unitarian who had moved far from the Calvinism of New England and was part of the circle known as the “Transcendentalists.” Samuel carried religious conviction in the value of the development of every individual into work with the blind, with the mentally ill, and with those in prison. He was also, out of that religious conviction, an opponent of enslavement.

Samuel had married Julia Howe, admiring her ideas, quick mind, wit, and active commitment to causes he also shared. But Samuel believed that married women should not have a life outside the home, should support their husbands, and should not speak publicly or be active in the causes of the day. While respecting her husband’s attitude, Julia lived in isolation in that home, with little contact with the broader community. Julia attended church and wrote poetry, but it became harder for her to maintain her isolation. The marriage was increasingly stifling to her. Her diary indicates that Samuel controlled, resented, and at times mismanaged the financial inheritance her father left her, and much later, she discovered that he was unfaithful to her during the marriage. They considered divorce several times. She stayed, partly because she admired and loved him and partly because he threatened to keep her from her children if she divorced him – both the legal standard and common practice at that time.

Instead of a divorce, she studied philosophy on her own, learned several languages – at that time, a bit of a scandal for a woman – and devoted herself to her self-education and the education and care of their children. She also worked with her husband on a brief venture to publish an abolitionist paper and supported his causes. Despite his opposition, she became more involved in writing and public life. After Samuel died, she and her daughter Maud went to Europe and stayed there for over a year. During that time, Maud was influenced by her mother’s ideas about the role of women in society and women’s suffrage.

In her autobiography, Three Generations, published by Little, Brown in 1923, Maud describes her childhood: “Looking back upon the first six or seven years of my life, I find myself in a dim enchanted land, which I have come to think of as ‘The Twilight of the Gods,’ for the figures that peopled it were, indeed, heroes and demigods. They drop easily apart into two groups: Mama’s friends and Papa’s friends. Mama’s friends—we called them ‘The Owls’—were poets, philosophers, and theologians, speculative men who sat long and discussed abstract things. Papa’s friends were statesmen, soldiers, militant philanthropists, men of action whose time was too precious for long visits.” Her mother’s friends included Henry James the elder (while Maud grew up with the “James boys,” Henry and Willie), Elizabeth Peabody, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Carlyle, Margaret Fuller, Maria Edgeworth, Florence Nightingale, and “a host of others.”

Maud was privately educated by her mother both in the United States and Europe and counted among her mentors Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry W. Longfellow. Like her parents, Maud was an accomplished professional – an artist, political activist, and a writer with twenty-one novels and memoirs to her credit. She summered in Portsmouth, Rhode Island as a little girl, and moved to Newport permanently after marrying John Elliott on February 7, 1887. Elliott, an artist, illustrator, and muralist, worked closely with John Singer Sergeant, producing murals for the Boston Public Library. The couple lived in a mansion she named “Lilliput” at 150 Rhode Island Avenue in Newport. Her first novel was A Newport Aquarelle, published when she was twenty-nine, and her last book, This Was My Newport, appeared in 1944 when she was 90.

Her mother, Julia Ward Howe, championed the vote for women, helping to found the New England Suffrage Association in 1868 and the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association the same year. Maud became involved in the women’s suffrage movement and the Progressive Party both in Rhode Island and on a national level, lecturing on women’s rights. She fought for the right to vote and to liberate women from the confinement of the traditional “woman’s place” in stifling marriages like her mother’s. Locally, Maud campaigned for Rhode Island legislation to legalize women’s right to vote and helped manage the association’s membership, accounting, and selection of key people. She also traveled around the country, participating in lecture events to help build interest in fledging suffragist societies. She sponsored fundraisers and delivered speeches for women’s suffrage throughout the country.

Maud received a letter from Alva V. Belmont, dated July 2, 1914, thanking her for supporting a suffrage meeting at Marble House. She was also involved in the formation and development of the Rhode Island Progressive Party, founded by Theodore Roosevelt after he lost the Republican nomination in 1912. The party’s platform included tighter federal regulations on industry and programs to benefit the poor and working class. Additionally, the Progressive Party supported enfranchising women, which attracted Maud Elliott.

In 1907, Congress passed the Expatriation Act, which took citizenship away from American women who married a foreigner. What is interesting is that this Act only applied to women. Men retained their citizenship even if married to a foreign citizen. When women got the vote in 1920, Maud could not cast a vote. She had to wait until The Cable Act passed in 1922 to regain her citizenship. A newspaper article in June of 1923 reported that Maud had petitioned the Superior Court in Newport to regain her citizenship.

Mrs. Maud Howe Elliott is Given Back Citizenship
Newport, RI., June 4. Mrs. Maud Howe Elliott, daughter of Julia Ward Howe, author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” is once more an American citizen. She was naturalized today in the Superior court, having applied under the Act of Congress recently permitting American-born women who had married foreign subjects to regain citizenship. Mrs. Elliott married John Elliott, a British Subject in Rome, about 25 years ago. Despite losing citizenship, she has always been, at heart, a true American.

Maud sought to enhance community and regional life by founding the Art Association of Newport in 1912 (now the Newport Art Museum), which she saw as the culmination of her life’s work. She recruited what were then some of the biggest names in American art, including society matron and sculptress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. She used her skills as a writer and speaker to promote American art and artists.

In describing Maud in her book entitled Carrying the Torch: Maud Howe Elliott, Nancy Whipple Grinnell, Curator Emeritus of the Newport Art Museum, wrote, “She was a strong-willed, self-motivated, domineering spirit – a force to be reckoned with. You don’t mess with Maud.” The book’s title is derived from a eulogy by Maxim Karolik upon her death in 1948, in which he said, “If we are interested in Newport as a progressive New England town, we must keep Mrs. Elliott’s torch burning for our cultural life here. Indeed, we must, not just for Newport but for the whole art world.”

In 1940, Maud received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Brown University. She died on March 19, 1948, at her Newport home. Maud Howe Elliott was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2008.

For further reading:
•”Maud Howe Elliott 1854-1948. Noted daughter of a famous mother, in Women in RI History: Making a Difference.” The Providence Journal, 1994.
•Carrying the Torch: Maud Howe Elliott and The American Renaissance, by Nancy Whipple Grinnell, University Press of New England, 2014.

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