Gail Laughlin: Suffragette and much more

Abbie Hill Laughlin, later known as Gail Laughlin

Both sides of the St. Croix Valley have produced notable national and international figures – U.S. senators, ambassadors and consuls to far flung nations, artists, historians, journalists and several novelists. One native daughter, however, has rarely been mentioned in our historical record. Born Abbie Hill Laughlin in Robbinston she became known nationally as Gail Laughlin and gained fame as an activist for the right of women to vote. She was also an early proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment for women which, while enacted by Congress long after her death, has not been ratified by the requisite number of states. Although Gail Laughlin’s fame was national, her local roots are deep.

She was born in Robbinston in 1868 to Robert and Elizabeth (Stuart) Laughlin. Robert was from Belfast, Ireland and Elizabeth from St. Stephen. Of their nine children seven survived childhood. Gail or Abbie as she was then known probably attended one of the local village schools in Robbinston. After her father died in 1876 the family moved to St. Stephen where she lived with her mother’s family until she was twelve and the family moved to Portland.

She was a brilliant student at Portland High School, a forceful orator and by the age of eighteen a determined advocate for equal treatment of women. When she attained the highest marks in her class but was denied the valedictory honors because she was a woman, she and her brother Frederick challenged the School Committee:

Portland Daily Press September 1886:

Mr. Laughlin who was present for the purpose, brought before the board the subject of his sister’s rank in the high school for four years and showed by figures very plainly that she was entitled to the first place in the class of 1886. After some explanation by Mr. Chase, the principal, that valedictorians and salutatorians have not always been assigned in the high school for the first and second scholars in their classes, on motion of Colonel Merrill it was voted that after examination of all the papers submitted to the committee, it appears that Miss Abby H. Laughlin was entitled to the first rank in the graduating class of 1886.

It should be noted that the male student who place second in the class received a full scholarship to Bowdoin and a pledge to assistance with tuition should he attend law school while it is said Abbie received only the medal. There is some suggestion she was awarded a partial scholarship to Colby but could not afford to attend. She was determined, however, to continue her education and worked at various jobs until she had saved enough to attend Wellesley College. It was at Wellesley in 1890 that she became Gail Laughlin as the admission office objected to the name Abbie and enrolled her as Abigail which she later shortened to Gail.

Cover of the American Economist 1894

At Wellesley she distinguished herself as an orator and a writer. One of the most significant pieces of legislation before Congress at the time was the Wilson Tariff Bill and her analysis of the bill and speech to members of the Agora Society at Wellesley graced the front cover of one of the most influential economic publications of the day- The American Economist. For a woman to achieve such recognition from academic excellence was unprecedented in this era. Her fame generated this condescending headline in the Boston Globe in 1894-

Will you find her with her law books or at housekeeping for her papa?

Of course, her father was not living and even if he were, Gail Laughlin was set on a course that few women would have considered at the time.

She went to work for the American Economist after graduation and, saving enough for law school tuition, she applied to Cornell. Here again she was nearly frustrated by discrimination against women. She was accepted on the proviso that some male members of the class drop out before classes began and while this happened it must have been frustrating for this brilliant woman to have her fate depend on the decision of other probably less qualified applicants.

It should have surprised no one that Abigail Laughlin was to make her mark at Cornell.

 Boston Globe 1898

The “Co-eds” of Cornell have waited long for their triumph. It is no wonder that they look with rapt admiration upon Miss Abigail Laughlin, who vanquished and routed the mere male students who have dared to treat the coeds with disdain and even with contumely.

The young woman not only defeated a varsity man in the memorial prize debate, but she had been selected as one of the eight out of 2000 students to make the final Test of Excellence. She is the only woman who has ever gained this distinction in Cornell.

The men do not know what to think about it. The idea of a Sage college student being chosen as one of the eight immortals never entered the head of a male student. They would have thought as seriously about putting a girl on the varsity football team or in the crew. Miss Laughlin is a graduate of Wellesley college and a remarkably brilliant young woman. She entered the law department at Cornell and will graduate this year. She founded the debating society “Agora” at Cornell and is speedily commanding respect.

For the record 50 years would pass before a woman was again awarded the Cornell memorial debate prize.

In another 1898 debate in which Cornell challenged the University of Pennsylvania newspapers throughout the country reported that the theory women are somehow “naturally deficient in analytic power” is being “knocked into smithereens” by such women as Gail Laughlin.

“an instance in kind is that of a young lady at Cornell. The fifth debate between the chosen champions of that institution and those of the University of Pennsylvania was had at Ithaca, N. Y., recently. One of the three Cornell disputants was Miss Abigail Laughlin. She was the first woman who ever appeared in an intercollegiate debate in this country, and there was great curiosity to see how she would acquit herself.

The judges were unanimous in the decision that the Cornell debaters were stronger in points of argument, but may it be said that the two young men who represented Cornell won this decision? Not at all. It was the universal verdict of those who heard the debate that the strongest argument presented by any of the disputants on either side was that of Miss Laughlin.  The Philadelphia Times declares that “her logical powers were unequaled by any of her associates.” What are those who contend that woman is not the intellectual equal of man going to make out of this case?

Here we have, the spectacle of two of the greatest and most progressive universities of the country “choosing from their thousands of students the six who were considered best able to argue a question and the only girl among them coming out ahead of the list. We have no doubt that similar results would be seen at other intercollegiate debates if a girl should be admitted occasionally, to the list of disputants. Atlanta Journal.

After Cornell Gail Laughlin moved to New York City where she established a law practice and became immersed in the struggle for woman’s suffrage. She was asked to address a meeting of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association by Susan B. Anthony who played a pivotal role in the movement in February 1900.

The Portland Maine Evening Express described the event:

February 21, 1900  

Gail Laughlin of Portland, a native of Robbinston, the young woman who graduated with such honors from Cornell a year or so ago “completely covered herself with glory at the meeting of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association in Washington a fortnight ago, according to a personal letter just received in the Forest City. Miss Anthony introduced her as a “wage earning woman,” which gave no clue to her line of work, so nobody was prepared for what followed. “As she warmed up to her subject,” this writer says, “giving facts, figures and detailed statements with such force and accuracy, the audience seemed spellbound interrupted only by applause as she made a telling point. I wish I could describe the pathos with which she set forth the conditions of the wage-earning woman and when she closed the house almost shook with applause After the meeting closed there was a perfect ovation on the platform, men, women and working girls surged up and down to take her by the hand and express their pleasure at her speeches. Miss Burgess, myself and all the Maine women were ready to burst with pride.”

She relocated from New York to Colorado about 1902 because Colorado had granted women the right to vote in 1893.  There she met Dr. Mary Sperry another fervent advocate of women’s rights and is said to have married her in San Francisco in 1902 although the legal status of the union is unknown. She and Mary Sperry continued organizing suffrage clubs throughout the west and together fought the battle for woman’s suffrage, winning the vote for women in California in 1911.  On the national level they finally prevailed in 1919 although Mary Sperry died on May 8, 1919, a month before the Senate passed the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote and a year before it was finally ratified.

A rather nasty battle began over Mary’s estate which was left entirely to Gail Laughlin. Mary’s mother, also Mary Sperry, made a number of claims about her daughter’s sanity and Gail Laughlin’s undue influence over her daughter. The case was finally settled after Mary’s mother retracted all the claims and received a small part of the estate in exchange.

With women’s suffrage now the law one would have thought Gail Laughlin would have taken a well-deserved rest from the political and social battles which had marked her career to date, but such was not the case. She became one of the founders of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women and its first President. The Calais Chapter is seen above in a 1920’s Fourth of July parade. There were hundreds of chapters throughout the country and for many decades it was an influential political and labor organization.

By the late 1920’s she had returned to Portland Maine and began practicing law with her brother, the same brother Frederick who we believe fought her battle before the Portland School Committee decades earlier. She became a much sought after speaker; civic, business and political organizations kept her fully booked. She continued her battle locally and nationally for enactment of an equal rights amendment for women in Maine and nationally. She served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives and two in the Senate advocating for progressive causes.

1927 conference of the Business and Professional Women’s Association

Today she would be accused of being “woke” and trolled or worse on X for her support of equal rights for women and other progressive causes, but she was, in fact, a staunch Republican and inspiration for younger women such as Margaret Chase, later Margaret Chase Smith. Remarkably she fiercely opposed Roosevelt’s progressive “New Deal” even though Eleanor Roosevelt, then the nation’s most influential supporter of woman’s rights, was a strong advocate for this progressive legislation.  It was an era when people could respectfully agree to disagree and work together on issues upon which they had common cause. She was constantly in the news, challenging the establishment, aggravating the bureaucracy and maintaining a grueling speaking schedule.

When she strayed from her brother’s camp and became lost in the woods it was front page news in Maine’s largest paper. She eventually found her way out after a day and night in the woods commenting “I had hoped no one would have found it out.” Gail Laughlin died in March of 1952. Her faithful brother Frederick died two months later, the last of the Laughlin children. Two brothers, Robert and James, boys who died in infancy are buried with their parents in Robbinston’s Ridge Road Cemetery.  Frederick, we presume, is buried in Portland. 

She is buried in the Portland cemetery along with the ashes of Mary Sperry under this simple marker.

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