Making Democracy Work

LWV People in History: Katharine Dexter McCormick

Katharine Dexter McCormick: A Nearly-forgotten LWV Founder

By Mary E. LaVelle

McCormick at 1913 National American Woman Suffrage Association convention.
The Vote. The Pill. Two achievements essential to the seismic shift in women'srights and roles in the Twentieth Century. One woman was central in the development of both: Katherine Dexter McCormick (see photo).

Born in 1875, she had two early essentials for a life that could become significant: a wealthy family who believed that women should be educated, and then a fine education at MIT. She was MIT's second woman graduate. Her degree was in biology, and she harbored a desire to become a doctor.

In 1904, however, she married her childhood friend Stanley McCormick-- an heir to the International Harvester fortune and a tall, handsome gifted athlete and scholar while at Princeton. She gave up plans to go to medical school, but in a strange twist of fate, what might have become a conventional life as a married Boston socialite took a different turn. After years of worsening symptoms of schizophrenia, her husband succumbed to dementia; he was declared mentally incompetent in 1909 and kept in virtual isolation at a California estate for the rest of his life. It was a family curse; his sister also suffered from schizophrenia.

Husbandless and childless, Katherine began to use her family's wealth in causes she espoused. In 1909 she became vice-president and treasurer of the National Women's Suffrage Association. In this role she bankrolled much of the organization's outreach and activity, working with Carrie Chapman Catt to organize their efforts to pass the 19th Amendment, which was finally ratified in 1920.

Once the right to vote was secured, McCormick teamed with Catt and other activists to found the League of Women Voters. She was the original Vice President of the League, while Carrie Chapman Catt served as President. Dexter family money was apparently essential in helping launch our organization as well as supporting suffrage earlier.

At the same time, she was working with Margaret Sanger on birth control. Again and again she smuggled diaphragms in her luggage from Europe to New York for Sanger's Clinical Research Bureau! She hosted delegates at the Dexter family home in Geneva during the 1927 World Population Conference and was a generous supporter of Sanger, but she was also locked in a struggle with the McCormick family---famously litigious concerning money-- over his wealth. Birth control research was not on their agenda. So, though even then Katherine was fascinated with the possibility of making birth control as easy as taking an aspirin for a headache, that idea would have to wait.

She remained married to Stanley until his death in 1947, always sharing in decisions about his care. During these years she combined her own wealth with the yearly stipend granted her by the McCormick trusts to fund medical research in endocrinology, which was thought to be a possible cause of schizophrenia. Beginning in 1927, Harvard University was the recipient of her generous grants in that field, and over the years that support continued.

Katherine was 72 years old when Stanley passed away and his fortune became wholly hers. The inheritance made her-even after taxes--one of the wealthiest women in the country. Finally she could independently fund the birth control research she had long dreamed of-and she proceeded to do so. Entirely. No one else took on this long and complicated project. The $2 million she gave would be about $18 million in today's dollars. And her impatience and insistence on results made The Pill happen in time for many of us to benefit.

In the years that followed, Katherine Dexter McCormick, granddaughter of one of the founders of the University of Michigan, began to give serious amounts of money not only to Harvard but to Stanford and to MIT. She insisted that the gifts honor her deceased husband Stanley, and also that they support education for women. Almost 40 million dollars have gone to MIT.

One of those MIT gifts financed a dormitory for women; it opened in 1964, ensuring that women would always be a part of the student body there. Two hundred women live in Stanley McCormick Hall; their housemaster is Professor Charles Stewart III, our Sanibel Captiva LWV January luncheon speaker, in his capacity as MIT's leader of the Cal Tech/MIT Voting Technology Project. HE told us about Katie! (And lots about voting...)

So--we in Sanibel finally are beginning to learn about Katherine Dexter McCormick, suffragist, activist, philanthropist-and the LWV founder whose name we had almost lost. When she died in 1967 at age 92, no major newspaper carried her obituary. She deserved better. She now deserves our remembrance and respect.

More interesting stuff! Websites: -

Fields, Armond. 2003. "Katherine Dexter McCormick, Pioneer for Women's Rights, a Biography." ( ISBN 0-275-98004-9 )