Saturday, November 30, 2013

The right to vote, and beyond: the legacy of Florence Eagleton

If you're a follower of New Jersey politics, you've no doubt heard of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Located on the Douglass College campus at Wood Lawn, the Institute conducts research on the state's political climate and serves as the University's educational arm on public policy. Countless numbers of state policy makers, journalists and elected officials have benefited from the Institute's programming and resources, whether in undergraduate or graduate-level classes, or seminars targeted to segments of the public.

I've always wondered who it was named for and why it happens to be headquartered on the campus of Rutgers' women's college. As I found from my research, both the setting and the focus of the Institute makes perfect sense once you learn its origin.

The name and the heritage traces to a classic New Jersey Woman With Moxie who wasn't content to simply live the life of a member of late 19th-early 20th century Newark aristocracy. Rather than simply settle for luncheons and charity events, she became one of the state's leading advocates for women's rights in a time when change was neither guaranteed nor completely supported within her social stratus.

Florence Peshine Eagleton was born in 1870 to parents whose families traced back to the earliest days of Newark's founding. Following her education at one of the city's exclusive finishing schools, her parents arranged her marriage to Henry Riggs, who at more than twice her age was already widowed and the father of a 20 year old son. According to Lives of New Jersey Women, their marriage, though without passion, resulted in one son, and they divorced as friends several years later. Though Riggs thought well enough of Florence to name her a beneficiary in his will after their separation, her own family disapproved of the divorce and considered her to be a fallen woman, in the parlance of the day.

Her second marriage was far more successful. At the age of 43, she married Newark neurosurgeon Wells Phillips Eagleton, a far better match, both in age and mutual affection. They were an accomplished pair: he as a well-regarded and often-published physician and she as a philanthropist and advocate for social change.

Florence had come of age during a time when the fight for women's suffrage and access to family planning were coming to a fever pitch. Already having helped found the New Jersey Birth Control League, she dove headfirst into the movement to ratify the 19th Amendment. As leader of the state's Women's Political Union and vice president of the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association (WSA), she drove a hugely successful petition drive in Newark, prompting the state legislature to vote to make New Jersey the 29th state to ratify the amendment. That achieved, Eagleton became the first president of the Newark League of Women Voters, the successor to the WSA which is dedicated to educating voters about public policy issues. Under her leadership, the LWV conducted a series of "citizenship schools" to help women make better educated decisions at the polling place.

The leap to the Eagleton Institute, then, becomes easy to understand, but why the Rutgers connection?

An advocate of women's education, Eagleton was an early board member of the New Jersey College for Women (now Douglass College) and later became one of the first women to serve as a trustee at Rutgers University. She no doubt became intimately familiar with the school and saw a fertile field in which her life's work could continue well beyond her death.

In her will, she bequested $1 million for the establishment of the Wells Phillips Eagleton and Florence Peshine Eagleton Foundation, directing that the funds go toward "the advancement of learning in the field of practical political affairs and government [so] that a knowledge of the meaning of democracy may be increased through the education of young women and men in democratic government." Further, she wrote, "It is my settled conviction that the cultivation of civic responsibility and leadership among the American people in the field of practical political affairs is of vital and increasing importance to our state and nation ... I make this gift especially for the development of and education for responsible leadership in civic and governmental affairs and the solution of their political problems."

Florence Eagleton died in 1956 and the Institute was organized not long after. Now the home of the Center for American Women in Politics, it continues her efforts to build and enhance women's influence on the public policy stage, even as it broadens its scope to study immigration, the role of the governor in American states and a host of other issues. Perhaps Florence is little known today, but more importantly, her mission continues.

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