Mary Clemmer Ames: A Victorian Woman Journalist
By Maurine Hoffman Beasley
Volume II, Number 1
A century ago Mary Clemmer Ames gained a national reputation as a Washington correspondent by attacking the excesses of Gilded Age politics. Little known today, she won wide acclaim from 1866 to 1884 for her column which appeared in the New York Independent, " A Woman’s Letter from Washington." But despite her success in a predominantly masculine occupation, Mary Clemmer Ames always gave lip service to the Victorian ideal that a woman’s place was in the home. According to Edmund Hudson, her second husband, she truly believed that "the best thing that can happen to any woman is to be satisfactorily loved, to be taken care of, to be made much of, and to make much of the life and the love utterly her own in her own home."1
Mary Clemmer Ames did not lead the kind of life that she advocated. Divorced from her first husband, she earned her own living as a writer and cultivated contacts with political figures to get news for her columns. "Personally timid and sensitive to criticism, she was capable, nevertheless, of sharp condemnation of political leaders whose conduct failed to measure up to her standards of rectitude," as a biographer has stated.2
A study of her career illustrates how it was possible for a woman to manipulate the cultural framework of the Victorian period, and to achieve success in a career without sacrificing her claims to femininity. Promoting the prevailing ideology that women possessed purer morals than men, Mary Clemmer Ames maintained that it was her womanly duty to campaign in her columns for an elevation of public life.
Born in Utica, New York, on May 6, 1831, she was the eldest of a large family of children of Abraham Clemmer, whose ancestors had been Alsatian Huguenots, and Margaret Clemmer, who had emigrated to Utica from the British Isle of Man. Her father’s financial misfortunes led her into an unwise marriage at the age of twenty to Daniel Ames, a minister, who held Presbyterian pastorates in New York and Minnesota. Incompatible from the beginning, the couple lived apart from time to time. One biographer has described her as "desperately unhappy . . . even to the point of contemplating suicide."3
In 1859 she left Ames temporarily and moved to New York City, where she lived with two sisters, Alice and Phoebe Cary, both poets and authors from Ohio, who introduced her in turn to Horace Greeley and other editors, and sparked her interest in writing. Reunited with her husband during the Civil War, she served as a nurse in Union hospitals in Washington, and developed close friendships with important political figures, including Representative Portus Baxter and Senator Justin S. Morrill, both of Vermont. When the war ended, she parted from Ames permanently and began a newspaper career. After her divorce she purchased a large brick house on Capitol Hill and lived there with her aged parents, enjoying her social position as a "literary lady."
At this particular time Washington offered new opportunities for women journalists. Jane G. Swisshelm, the first woman Washington correspondent, had gained a brief notoriety in 1850 when she insisted that Vice President Millard Fillmore permit her to sit in the Senate Press Gallery with the male journalists.4 Her initial stay in Washington, as a correspondent for Horace Greeley’s Tribune, however, was short, but other women correspondents soon followed her. According to the U.S. Congressional Directory of 1879, at least twenty women correspondents, representing about twelve percent of the total of 166 correspondents, were entitled to sit in the Congressional press galleries.5 Most of these women concentrated on social news but some broadened their scope to include political affairs.
Of the entire group, Mrs. Ames had the longest and highest-paid career. She published her first "Woman’s Letter" in the Independent on March 4, 1866, and continued to write a column until her death in 1884. Unlike some of her contemporaries (such as Sara J. Lippincott who wrote as "Grace Greeenwood" for the New York Times), Mrs. Ames did not use a pen-name. Instead she signed her columns either with her initials or her full name. After she was divorced in 1874, she resumed her maiden name, but referred to herself as Mrs. Clemmer.
Although she received immediate praise for her column, which ranged broadly over the capital scene, she carefully pointed out that she shrank from public attention because she was a "true woman," who loved quiet domesticity.6 Claiming that her own career resulted from financial necessity, she insisted that success extracted a higher price than women wanted to pay. As she stated in one column:
That fame is a curse which soils the loveliness of the womanly name by thrusting it into
the grimy highway, where it is wondered at, sneered at, lied about, by the vulgar, the worldly, and the wicked. The woman who finds herself the cynosure of a home, who sees in her children her choicest treasures, finds in her husband the satisfaction of her heart and the crown of her, . . . she is the happy woman.7
While she wrote hundreds of columns based on events in Congress, which she watched from the ladies’ galleries, she never ventured into the Capitol press galleries even though she was entitled to sit there. As she explained to her readers:
Because a woman is a public correspondent it does not make it at all necessary that she as an
individual should be conspicuously public - that she should run about with pencils in her mouth and pens in her ears; that she should invade the Reporters’ Galleries, crowded with men; that she should go anywhere as a mere reporter where she would not be received as a lady.8
Considering herself far above women reporters who covered social events during the Grant regime, Mrs. Ames ridiculed her colleagues whom she referred to by the derogatory nickname of "Jenkins".9
"Dress as a fine art must ever be a delight to esthetic eyes; but to be forever shuffling the small coin of Jenkins adjectives over it . . . is fearfully small business for an immortal soul."10
She repeatedly emphasized that as a woman she had a special obligation to crusade for reform. Calling for an improvement in the caliber of Congressmen, she pleaded for men of high morals to enter political life. In her column, she branded one senator, Saulsbury of Delaware, as a drunk, and lamented, "To see such a man reeking with tobacco and rum is one of the saddest comments on human frailty."11 Her columns also applauded efforts to educate the newly emancipated black population and called for justice toward blacks.
Like most other nineteenth century advocates of women’s rights, Mrs. Ames never foresaw an era when women would adopt the same moral standards as men. Instead she pictured a future Utopia where men would be raised to the allegedly "pure" level of women. She felt that women should vote but objected to any further active participation in political life. During the campaign of 1872 she heralded women as a moral and intellectual force in politics, yet exhorted women to avoid "practical" politics, presumably meaning by this campaigning or sitting in smoke-filled rooms. Rather, she urged them to exercise their idealism from behind the scenes, claiming that "only in this higher realm of politics can woman reign without detriment to herself or without reflex injury to man."12
Her support of women’s suffrage, while sincere, never extended to tactics she construed as unladylike.
Isabelle Hooker, who proclaimed her intention of staying at a Washington hotel until she forced the Senate to listen to her plea on suffrage, won no sympathy from Mrs. Ames. She called Mrs. Hooker’s aspiration not only "silly" but full of "monstrous personal conceit."13 Occasionally she blamed women themselves for their lack of success in getting the vote: "The suffrage movement has not been fashionable, if only for the reason that such an army of ridiculous women hovered in its rear, making its assemblages grotesque, its proceedings often inconsequential and disorderly."14 She considered suffrage less important than economic gains: "Woman can live nobly without voting; but they cannot live without bread," she wrote.15
As scandals of Grant’s second term unfolded, she attacked Grant’s "cronyism," which had led the President to appoint unqualified personal friends to high office. When other correspondents accused her of personal pique against the administration, she retorted, "I, having no time whatever for tattle, speak professionally, because it is my business to do so, and without any personal grievance whatever."16 Two weeks later she defended the press against attacks from those exposed as corrupt. Reporters, she held, had an obligation to disclose the true state of government:
For, with all the war made upon the Reporters’ Gallery and all the sneers and abuse which is aimed from senatorial lips at ‘newspaper men,’ without a proclaiming and protesting press, notwithstanding its faults, the Congress of the United States, the departments of the government, the government itself, too low in its standard of integrity already, would be thrice as corrupt as it is.17
Like other social commentators, she realized that politics had sunk to a new low following the Civil War. As she put it, "One result of the war is to throw a class of men into legislation unknown to it before. It has brought into the governing power an element course to brutality . . ."18 Yet Mrs. Ames remained loyal to the Republican Party of Grant because she believed it "the party of freedom, of universal brotherhood, of progress and of religion."19 The aim of her criticism, she said, was to restore the party’s "white splendor of its ancient state."20
When Rutherford B. Hayes was inaugurated as President in 1877, she greeted him as the savior of the nation. But her enthusiasm waned as women government employees were dismissed and the administration compromised with the South. For a woman, she said, the political situation looked particularly bleak: "Nothing could be more foolish than for a woman to be a partisan. She owes nothing to either party. As a citizen [sic], both are condescending, shabby and mean to her. . . .There was a time when the Republican Party was worth caring for. It was before the days of Grant and his thieves."21
By 1878, however, Mrs. Ames had regained much of her initial enthusiasm for the Hayes administration, especially as compared with the previous regime. She assured her readers: " . . . the best of Hayes’ administration in incorruptibility is a great advance on the administration of Grant. Thieves and harpies no longer fatten on the Treasury of the people; and you are sure, unconsciously, that you breathe in a cleaner atmosphere."22
Describing Hayes as "a clean, obstinate, self-satisfied man, who believes thoroughly in himself, in his ‘luck’, in the Lord, and in his wife," she held that he was influenced "chiefly by the first and last."23 Consequently, she continued, while Hayes was no stranger to "the giving of political rewards," the atmosphere surrounding him was "clear and healthful."24 Picturing Mrs. Hayes as the embodiment of womanly purity, Mrs. Ames praised her warmly throughout the entire administration for domestic and religious virtues.25
Pressed to produce weekly columns, Mrs. Ames moved from the profound to the trivial, writing one week on the future of democratic institutions and the next week on the Washington weather. She freely expressed opinions on political figures, summing up Senator Roscoe Conkling in a merciless sentence: "The trouble with ‘Roscoe’ is that he is as arrogant as he is able."26 She blasted Senator James G. Blaine: "It is recorded in multiform facts of his life that James G. Blaine, while holding positions of exalted public trust, while passing for a patriot and a Christian statesman, had been a dealer in ‘jobs,’a beneficiary of railroad corporations for his own personal enrichment."27
Her journalistic and literary output reached its zenith in the 1870s when she published two novels in the sentimental style of the age and three non-fiction volumes based largely on her Washington columns. In addition, she contributed material from 1869 to 1872 to the Brooklyn Daily Union as well as to the Independent, both of which were published by Henry C. Bowen. Her versatile efforts, which included columns, book reviews and advertising copy, so impressed Bowen that in 1872 he paid her $5,000, a salary believed up to that point to be the largest received by an American newspaperwoman.28
After ceasing to work for the Brooklyn paper, she became a Washington correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial as well as for the Independent. For the Ohio newspaper she expanded material taken from the Independent articles. Eventually her health failed under the pressures of her career. Severe headaches caused by overwork began to afflict her in 1875. Then, in 1878, she panicked and jumped from a carriage when the horses bolted, suffering a skull fracture that led to her death nine years later. She curtailed some of her writing after the accident but continued to write her columns and published a book of poetry.
On June 19, 1883, she married Edmund Hudson, a well-known Washington journalist who edited the Army and Navy Register. She made no mention of the marriage in her Independent columns although she did describe sights seen on her European honeymoon. Fourteen months later (August 18, 1884) she died in her Washington home of a cerebral hemorrhage, at age 53. Her last published work consisted of columns praising John A. Logan as a possible candidate for President.
Her journalistic prominence was cited in numerous obituaries including those in the New York Times, Boston Traveller, The Nation, the Washington (D.C.) Evening Star, Arthur’s Home Magazineand The Literary News. A lengthy eulogy in the Independent described her as a slender, graceful and dignified woman with blue eyes, light-brown hair and high coloring traceable to her Manx ancestry. It further stated that she began writing newspaper columns for two dollars each and was earning at least forty dollars or more per column at the time of her death. The tribute also stressed that her columns "commanded her a position in the selectest society of Washington," and that "she took her rank as a recognized leader in the literary circles of her day."29 It praised her too for being a "remarkably womanly woman" who "loved home cares, to attend to the house, to go to market, to dress with a woman’s elegance, to identify herself with a woman’s life and woman’s duties and hopes."30
In pursuing her career, she traded heavily on her sex, calling for reform by assuming that a woman exemplified a purity that could not be expected of a male journalist. Describing the role of a woman correspondent, she wrote, "Because she is a woman, hers is a higher work. It is her work to help exalt the standard of journalism, and in the midst of an arduous profession to preserve intact the dignity and sweetness of individual womanhood."31
During the time when she wrote for the Independent, it was one of the most influential newspapers in the country. Although associated with the Congregational church, it had become well known as a radical anti-slavery publication. According to one journalistic historian, "It paid little attention to congregationalism, but much to national politics."32 As one of its Washington correspondents, Mrs. Ames was a figure to be reckoned with by politicians. Schuyler Colfax, Vice President from 1868 to 1872, unsuccessfully pleaded with her to uphold his innocence when he became embroiled in the Credit Mobilier scandal.33 Other notables also sought her out. As Senator Justin S. Morrill wrote in an eulogy, "Mary Clemmer has been the trusted friend of many eminent men - of Sumner, of Whittier and of Garfield . . . . She made herself a power believed and feared."34
Almost from their first appearance, her articles bolstered the influence and circulation of the Independent. Oliver Johnson, the managing editor, informed her in 1867 that he and Theodore Tilton, the chief editor, were delighted with her work. In a letter to her Johnson quoted Tilton as saying, "I find also in my travels much commendation expressed of Mrs. Ames’ letters. She is your card, and she is a trump."35
Letters were sent to her by admiring readers, including ministers, state legislators, newspaper editors and politicians. For example, a minister, A. B. Russell, who described himself as the "pastor of a church in a country village," wrote that "the clergymen of our common country can find no better aid outside of God and the Bible than the light given upon moral subjects from such pens as your own."36 W.W. Williams, the co-publisher of a Minnesota newspaper, The Free-born County Standard, enthused, "I would to God every Washington correspondent had your independent, fearless make-up."37 Women sent letters of appreciation for increasing their pride in their own sex. Mrs. Cassius Peck of Brookfield, Massachusetts, stole a moment while her husband was away "transacting weighty matters of business for the town" to pen a flowery note, confiding "I shall not tell him that I have written to Mary Clemmer to tell her how much I love and respect her for he would laugh at me."38
In summary, Mary Clemmer Ames’ success as a journalist in the Victorian era stemmed from her transformation of a potent liability - her sex - into a strong asset. In the seamy world of post-Civil War politics, she showed that a woman correspondent had an unique advantage because she could stand apart from the robber barons and their hireling politicians, and point a finger of righteous scorn and indignation. By insisting that she was not just a journalist, but a "true woman," she took maximum advantage of the social mythology that assumed women held higher moral values than men. She extended this mythology to its logical conclusion: That woman had a right to comment on public affairs if she did so in the name of morality.
6 See Lawrence J. Friedman, Inventors of the Promised Land (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), 145-178. Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860," American Quarterly, XVIII, No. 2, Pt. 1 (Summer 1966), 151-74.
9 "Jenkins" was a 19th century term for journalists who wrote gossip columns for a penny a line. According to the Dictionary of the Noted Names of Fiction (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1865), it was first given in "Punch" to a writer for the London Morning Post whose descriptions of persons and events in fashionable society betrayed the servility , priggishness and vulgarity of his character.