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Marquette suffragist: Abby Beecher Longyear Roberts

Abby Beecher Longyear Roberts

“The time is coming when women will stand up as a unit and…they will be able to develop themselves just as men do, and stand for something as individuals.” – Abby Longyear Roberts at first Upper Peninsula Mothers/Daughters Banquet, Gwinn, 1916

Developing herself and her children was the lifelong goal of Abby Beecher Longyear Roberts, and she extended that goal to her whole city during her long life. Abby was the first child of John Longyear, a powerful landowner and businessman of Marquette, and Mary Beecher, a former high school teacher. The family wealth came from John’s early surveying of the U.P. iron ranges and his subsequent land holdings. When Abby was born in 1880, her family’s wealth put her in the top tier of the then-rigid social society of Marquette. But in her reminiscences, she recalls that her earliest memory was lying under a pine tree at their Ives Lake property in the Huron Mountains; the wind through the pines was her first lullaby.

Mary Beecher Longyear tried to mold her oldest daughter into a society lady, but Abby followed her own inclinations, from getting sunburned on outings to reading the political newspapers in her father’s office. She and her escort slipped out of one New Year’s Ball to join other young people bob-sledding down Baraga and Washington streets. When Mary sent her to a finishing school in Boston for “social polish,” Abby despised it and managed to get herself admitted into a college prep school across the street. The final social break came when the opera singer that Mary thought would discourage her, instead said Abby should be devoting her life to song. She entered the Institute of Musical Art (now Juilliard Music Foundation) and graduated in 1908. Abby received six encores at her debut professional concert at Steinert Hall in Boston.

Later that year she married Alton True Roberts whom she had met a year and a half earlier in New York. She did not sing professionally again, but she still performed, especially during the years of World War I, as part of the YMCA Entertainment programs at training camps and hospitals, with soldiers carrying her on their shoulders and following her to the next performance.

Abby and Alton set up housekeeping in Marquette and proceeded to have five children in the next 10 years. Much of their time was spent in social and increasingly political activities in Marquette. She and Alton hosted President Taft in their home in 1911; Alton served as a Michigan State Senator from 1915-1917. Abby formed the Marquette Women’s Welfare Club and served as the first president. She was a strong suffragist and felt that women not having the vote was “taxation without representation.”

Abby spoke at the National Woman Suffrage Convention in Nashville, 1914, and was described as “an out and out advocate of feminism…She asserted that Michigan women are capable and willing to handle the duties of accredited voters…” At the Escanaba Women’s Club in February 1915, she said “There would be no such war as we now have in Europe if the women had a voice in the matter. What woman would consent to send her husband, her son, or her brother to be killed for the sake of some empty honor or for the gaining of more power?” On June 4, 1919, Abby Longyear Roberts was present in Washington, D.C. as the 19th Amendment, securing the vote for women, was passed in Congress.

The next decade would have few triumphs for Abby. Her beloved father died in 1922. Because of Alton’s business difficulties, he persuaded Abby to give him large sums of money, much of it by having her sign loans in her name. Abby also found that he had taken some of their children’s inheritances from her father. To save the family name and honor, the Longyears worked out a complicated financial plan in which their mother would pay off Abby’s debt. She finally sued Alton for divorce on the grounds of “gross deceit and subterfuge [which] dissipated $500,000 of her money.” The notice of the divorce decree came as she was nursing her mother in Brookline, Massachusetts, during Mary’s last stages of breast cancer. After Mary’s death, Abby and her siblings had to contend with at least seven wills that Mary had made with deteriorating mental capacity and, they felt, undue influence from a faction of the Christian Science Church.

Once all the lawsuits were settled, Abby returned to Marquette. “…[F]ollowing the familiar housekeeper, chauffer, trained nurse, geisha routine there was never a moment to wonder what to do… Then it all stopped at once. My husband gone, my children grown up… A drastic change was clearly indicated.” Abby had a house built on her land just outside of town on what is now County Road 492. Originally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Abby made so many changes that he would not claim the house. Construction was overseen by Abby’s son-in-law, John Lautner Jr. Around the house she called Deertrack, she created a native landscape that received the Miriam A. Robinson Memorial Medal from the Michigan Horticultural Society in 1950.

At the first Marquette Mother/Daughter banquet in 1916, which she hosted, Abby reflected, “A woman has more left than the 10 or 15 years she spends in the care of her children… When her children are grown up she has a chance to develop herself… She may do anything she sets her mind on… Girls should plan to live 80 years, and remember that only 20 of those are apt to be hard.” She was prophetic of her own life. Her attitude toward her advancing age could be summed up by a comment she made after a party at age 80, “when one of the men asked me to dance, I danced.” Abby died at age 90, having developed herself to her fullest and having enriched her city and all those around her.

To learn more about women’s suffrage, attend the opening reception for the MHRC’s new exhibit, Vote and Be Counted: Local Elections and the Census tonight from 5-7 p.m. The evening will feature a talk at 5:30 by Priscilla Burnham, the Marquette County League of Women Voters Vice President and Director of Voter Services. The story of the battle for women’s right to vote will be told through the voices, the writings, the images, and events that marked this gripping, polarizing time in America’s history. $5 suggested donation. For more information visit marquettehistory.org or call 906-226-3571.