The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

March 9, 2014

Jo Ellis: Emily Newell Blair’s autobiography offers insight on region, national affairs

CARTHAGE, Mo. — Congratulations to the students, teachers and judges who took part in History Day on Friday. I was happy to see Carthage High School students carry home prizes, especially in the senior divisions.

I was impressed with the wide range of entries based on the theme of rights and responsibilities, but I disappointed that I didn’t see anything related to women’s rights. Because March is Women’s History Month, I had already decided to write today’s column about an outstanding Carthage woman, so perhaps this will fill the gap.

Born in Joplin, Emily Newell Blair spent her formative years in Carthage. She would gain national prominence as a feminist, suffragette, writer and political activist.

Her autobiography, “Bridging Two Eras,” is aptly named. She was born in 1877, when women’s daytime dresses should never be more than four inches above the floor and evening dresses had to sweep it, dirt and all. She twice tried to publish her autobiography, but it wasn’t until Virginia Laas, an associate professor of history at Missouri Southern State University, edited about 20 boxes of draft papers that the book was published in 1999.

Blair died in 1951 in Washington, D.C. She wrote articles and stories published in national magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping, which brought her to the attention of the suffragette movement. She wrote and made public speeches for the cause on the state and national level.

In 1914, she spent five months writing about women’s right to vote. At the beginning, only 11 of the state’s 700 newspapers supported the issue; at the end, all but 13 supported it. She helped organize and served as president of the Missouri Press Women’s Association.

Blair, deeply committed to the New Deal administration, worked on President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential campaign and consulted on his second election. She was appointed to the Consumers Board under the National Industrial Recovery Act.

She attributed her organizing ability to the fact that her father died at a relatively young age. She took on the responsibility of raising four younger sisters while her mother and brother had to assume the family business.

While part two of the autobiography deals with her writing and political career, it is the first part — in which she describes her life as a student and young mother in Carthage — that is fascinating to me.

As a child, she listened to her mother and father discuss business, politics and news of the day. The family lived in several locations around Carthage, including 222 N. Main St. and a newly built home at 826 Clinton St., “considered a more privileged neighborhood,” where the Newells enjoyed their first indoor bathroom.

Her father, J.P. Newell (a county recorder of deeds and later vice president of Central National Bank), and her husband, Harry Blair, encouraged her to develop her writing skills. In a telling conversation with her husband, she complained: “You know you are always bored with me when I go domestic. You only find me entertaining when I do outside things.”

“Did it ever occur to you,” he retorted, “that you are more entertaining when you do outside things?”

Harry was a court reporter and an attorney. He worked for the newly formed U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor in 1902, served at the front with the YMCA in World War I and, probably as a reward for Emily’s political efforts, was appointed assistant U.S. attorney general in 1934.

It was Harry, Emily wrote, who taught her “to fight impersonally.” Consoling her after he lost an election for circuit judge early in his career, he said: “Someone would have to lose. If we had won, would you expect him to be bitter? Not at all. We had no business getting into the fight unless willing to accept the fortunes of war.”

Words of wisdom for today as well.

ADDRESS CORRESPONDENCE to Jo Ellis, c/o The Joplin Globe, Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802 or email news@joplinglobe.com.

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