Phoebe Apperson Hearst (ca. December 3, 1842-April 13, 1919)
By Edith P. Mayo, Curator Emerita of the Smithsonian Museum of American History
Phoebe Apperson Hearst played a major role in the suffrage movement as one of its financiers. At the turn of the 20th century, Hearst was one of the best known and most revered women in the nation. Today, her name is barely recognized.
Born in 1842 in Franklin County, Missouri, she attained what today would be a high school education, augmented through reading, life experience, and world travel. She met George Hearst, 22 years her senior, when he returned to his native Franklin County after a decade of mining in California and Nevada. She married Hearst over her parents’ objections in June of 1862 and joined him at his San Francisco home.
Building on her husband’s growing wealth and position, Phoebe was known for her elaborate entertainments and her serious study of architecture, music, and French. Her careful study for her European travels completed her education. After an extended European trip (1878-1880), she returned to San Francisco and her philanthropic work, concentrating on issues that elevated the status of women, the welfare of children, and education.
Living in Washington, D.C., during her husband’s terms as a California Senator, she developed an interest in Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. Elected to Mount Vernon’s Board of Regents in 1889, she donated to its restoration and preservation for more than 29 years. Her investment in the nation’s foremost historic site secured her place as a leader in the fledgling historic preservation movement, originally founded and led by women.
Working with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) she supported the founding of a permanent facility for the professional training of women at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, California. Phoebe hired famed architect Julia Morgan to design the buildings on the Asilomar campus. (Morgan is better known today for her construction of “Hearst Castle” for Phoebe’s son, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.)
She was a founder of Mills College, the only women’s college on the West Coast. A staunch advocate of the kindergarten movement, she underwrote the education of both white and African American kindergarten teachers. She was a founder of the Parent-Teachers Association, which began in her living room as the National Congress of Mothers. A founder and force in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, she made women’s organizations a powerful force for women’s reform issues. Hearst was chair of the Woman’s Board of the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.
From the late 19th century into the first two decades of the 20th, woman suffrage was the most significant and controversial reform affecting women. Privately Phoebe donated money and supported the 1911 California constitutional amendment granting California women the vote. Her publicly declared backing for suffrage guaranteed that the Hearst newspapers would promote the cause as well, a significant development in public perception of the movement.
In 1916, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage called a convention, held on June 5, 6, and 7, 1916 at the Blackstone Theater in Chicago, to found the National Woman’s Party (NWP), a formal political party for the enfranchised women of the nation. A large donation by Phoebe Hearst enabled the Congressional Union to reserve the Blackstone Theater for the founding convention. The Party’s platform supported a federal suffrage amendment. Convention plans proceeded “and money pressures eased, particularly after a substantial contribution from . . . Phoebe Hearst.”
Her decision to become a public figure in the Congressional Union and the National Woman’s Party was the culmination of her evolving vision of women’s political power. Her election as vice chair of the National Woman’s Party legitimized the group politically – and financially. The power of women’s votes to influence state and federal programs on women and children was a defining factor in her embrace of suffrage.
Although she died before passage and ratification of the suffrage amendment in 1920, Phoebe Hearst empowered the movement, bringing her cachet as a woman universally known and respected, her impeccable credentials and enormous wealth, to the suffrage drive. She played a decisive role in the most important re-shaping of the American political landscape—the enfranchisement of more than half the nation’s citizens.
- Paul, Rodman Wilson. “Phoebe Apperson Hoearst,” in Edward T. James et. al. Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary (3 vols., 1971), Vol. 2, pp. 171-172.
- In the article, “Beginnings of the Preservation Movement,” Mount Vernon is recognized as “one of the first efforts in historic preservation . . .”wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS105; Article cited at www.mountvernon.org/preservation/mount-vernon-ladies-association/phoebehearst, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association is recognized as the first national historic preservation organization in the United States; Robinson, Judith. The Hearsts: An American Dynasty (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press), 320-321.
- Robinson, 374-376.
- Zahniser and Fry, 240. See letter of May 29, 1916 thanking Mrs. Hearst for her contribution and telling her the use they would make of her money. National Woman’s Party Papers, Reel 87, Library of Congress.
- See letter PAH to Miss Martin, May 26, 1916, National Woman’s Party Papers, Reel 87, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; and newspaper clipping from the Washington Post, May 26, 1916, National Woman’s Party Papers, Reel 87, Manuscript Div., Library of Congress.
Photo: Portrait of Phoebe Apperson Hearst 1890s, Portrait Collection, California Historical Society, used with permission 7-28-2021.