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‘She Was My North Star’
Last fall, I was invited by the Constitution Chapter of the DAR in Washington, D.C., to attend the presentation of the first Women in American History Award to the Women’s Bar Association of Washington, D.C., in honor of my great-grandmother Ellen Spencer Mussey. My pioneering great-grandmother, who lived from 1850 to 1936, founded both organizations and spent her life as a lawyer, suffragist and educator. But I seemed to be the only one who knew of her. So this event, held in Constitution Hall, was truly a highlight of my life.
Ellen Spencer Mussey attended a suffragist meeting in 1870 and knew Susan B. Anthony, but it was not until 1895 and an increase in her divorce caseload that she decided that many laws governing women’s rights needed to change. She confronted the idea that these laws would not change easily unless women could vote for congressmen sympathetic to their cause. Mussey became Anthony’s protege, and later, a mentor to suffragist leader Alice Paul.
In her time, Ellen Spencer Mussey was one of the few women to be admitted to practice before the Supreme Court, and she continued practicing throughout her life. Widowed at 40 in 1890 with two young sons and little money, she kept the family together and the family law office open. She helped pass the Married Women’s Act, giving women equal guardianship rights over their property and children, and drafted the Cable Act, which ended the automatic loss of citizenship for women who married foreign nationals. When George Washington University’s law school refused to admit her because she was a woman, she co-founded the Washington College of Law (now part of American University) to educate young women for the law. She was its first dean.
When I started my city planning career in the 1960s and ’70s, we didn’t have mentors. Even though I had never met her, I had a role model in my great-grandmother. For me, Ellen Spencer Mussey was the North Star. I admired her intelligence, her principles, her energy, her compassion and her amazing success. When things got difficult and I felt that I was facing a problem with no solution and no way out, there was a small voice that said, “She would have figured this out. Why can’t you?” So I always tried, I often succeeded, and I’m still here!
In 1913, my great-grandmother served as a marshal for the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C., leading the lawyers’ contingent. Police protection was insufficient, and she was injured and hospitalized after an attack by protestors. But she recovered fully and went on to champion the rights of women and children for many years. Today a grainy photograph of her as marshal sits over my desk. She remains my inspiration.
Susan Mussey Huffman ’61 lives in Philadelphia.
This essay appears in the Fall 2020 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.