A Suffrage Discussion Comes Home: Letters between Alexander Graham Bell and Mabel Hubbard

Alexander Graham Bell with his wife Mabel and daughters Elsie (left) and Marian (Daisy). 1885

Most primary sources that reflect the women’s suffrage movement are from speeches, protest marches, or publications. It was an unexpected pleasure to find correspondence on the topic between a couple in a romantic relationship.

In 1875, a month before they became engaged to be married, Alexander Graham Bell wrote to Mabel Hubbard, “I never suspected that you were one of these people who think women have rights. Do you actually suppose their wishes are to be considered with the same respect as those of men?” After suggesting that specific careers relating to astronomy and medicine are the domain of men and women should not be involved, he wrote, “Why cannot women be contented with the condition in which nature has placed them? Why should they seek to make themselves the equals of men?” Hubbard responded a few days later. Why do you think she declares herself “puzzled to know what your views on Woman’s Rights really are”?

Their correspondence continues with a letter from Bell and a response from Hubbard. We do not have Hubbard’s complete response. What else might she have said to Bell?  Would you have continued the relationship based on this correspondence?

Letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Mabel Hubbard Bell, October 5, 1875

 

Portion of letter from Mabel Hubbard Bell to Alexander Graham Bell, October 13, 1875

Bell and Hubbard eventually married in 1877. She became active in the suffrage movement and was a supporter and confidant to her husband until his death. On March 10, 1901, Mabel Hubbard Bell wrote to her husband about universal suffrage. She discussed issues of education and its role in being a successful citizen. How did he respond in his letter of March 28, 1901? What changes do you see in his opinion from what he wrote in 1875? What in the March 28, 1901, letter explains this change in opinion?

A timeline attached to the collection suggests that Bell’s October 5, 1875, letter was teasing Mabel about her beliefs. Do you think that Bell truly believed what he wrote in this letter? How does the March 28, 1901, letter confirm or disprove your opinion?

Want to read more of the correspondence between Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell? Explore the Alexander Graham Bell Family papers. In addition to the timeline of Bell’s life, the collection includes information on Bell as a scientist and inventor. Many of the handwritten letters include typed transcriptions available as PDF files.

Consider how Bell’s career as a scientist and inventor, and the events taking place during his lifetime, may have shaped his opinions. How does understanding that affect how your students view Bell?

One Comment

  1. Amy W.
    April 3, 2018 at 3:45 am

    Thank you for your research and for providing such great resources and questions! Looking forward to bringing these documents into the classroom to help students corroborate sources and to consider the context from which they were made.

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