Mills, Harriet May

Harriet May Mills (1857 - 1936) worked towards the cause of woman suffrage, at first on a local level in the Syracuse area. Later she was socially and politically politically active all over the country.

She was the daughter of Syracuse abolitionist and freethinker C. D. B. Mills.

Harriet met Isabel Howland, niece of woman’s rights activist Emily Howland, while Harriet and Emily were undergraduates at Cornell University. The two became lifelong friends, by some accounts lovers, and worked together prolifically in the cause of woman’s rights.

Harriet was teaching at a private academy near Boston when she first embraced the suffrage cause, after hearing Lucy Stone speak in 1886. She moved to New York City to work with the then-new National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). At some point she returned to her childhood home in Syracuse, where she organized New York state’s first suffrage convention in 1892. By 1894, she had been named recording secretary of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association (NYSWSA). By then she was in demand as a lecturer and organizer. Other notable activists with whom she worked closely included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Carrie Chapman Catt.

Mills recruited Geneva-based suffrage activist Elizabeth Smith Miller to organize a statewide NYSWSA conference held in that city in 1897. Venues included the Smith Opera House, Collins Music Hall, and the Nester Hotel.

Early in the twentieth century, her home became the headquarters of NYSWSA. In 1910, Mills was elected president of NYSWSA. In 1914, she organized and chaired a three-day regional suffrage conference in Syracuse, held at the Syracuse YWCA and the Ka-Na-Te-Na Club, a then-prominent local women’s organization. In 1919 she founded the Onondaga County Women’s Democratic Club, first such organization in the state. In 1920 she campaigned for election as Attorney General of the State of New York, becoming the first female to seek major state-wide office as a candidate of a major political party.

When the Dresden, New York birthplace of agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll was first restored in 1921, Mills was one of many prominent local people who served on an organizing committee whose members included Thomas Edison and poet Edgar Lee Masters.

She befriended Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, campaigning for FDR when he ran for Governor of New York. In 1933, aged 75, she was a member of the Electoral College that elected FDR president; she attended his inauguration as an honored guest.

In 1934 the Harriet May Mills Women’s Building was dedicated on the grounds of the New York State Fair in Syracuse.

Harriet May Mills died about one year later, on May 16, 1935.

The Mills Building still stands; now called the Harriet May Mills Art and Home Center, it hosts exhibits on popular and fine arts, photography, and the culinary arts during each run of the Fair and is rented for varied purposes during the rest of the year.