The Suffragist

Grace Irene Rohleder

From an article published in the Women Lawyers Journal in 1932.

My great-grandaunt Grace lived 30 years on each side of the turn of the twentieth century. During her life, three presidents died in office, the United States fought in two wars and experienced two economic depressions. She lived in three different cities, five of her immediate family members died, and she never married. Her brothers, two older and two younger, were characters, to say the least! Grace was the shining star in this family. I expect she would have lots of stories to tell and would make an interesting dinner guest (this week’s prompt).

Grace Irene Rohleder was born on 12 Dec 1873 in Petersburg, Virginia, third daughter and sixth child of Frank William Rohleder (1833-1904, my paternal immigrant ancestor) and Susan Ann Elizabeth Gentry (1842-1919). The 1900 census states there had been 10 children born to the couple, but only five were still living.

  • Mary Elizabeth Rohleder (1863-1895)
  • James F. Rohleder (1866-1867)
  • Joseph Lawrence Rohleder (1868-?)
  • Andrew Hamilton Rohleder (1870-1950, my great-grandfather)
  • Frances E. Rohleder (1872-bef 1880)
  • Grace Irene Rohleder (1873-1933)
  • Susan D. Rohleder (1876-1886)
  • Richard Atherton Rohleder (1878-1942)
  • Rosa Adina Rohleder (1881-1881)
  • Mortimer Emerson Rohleder (1882-1951)

When Grace was 15 the family moved to Richmond and rented a home there. Her father was a tailor. Her eldest sister, Mary, who died in 1895, left a 15-month-old daughter, Pemberton. Frank and Susan took her in, but I have a feeling Grace provided much of the mothering for Pemberton, leaving Grace’s two teenage brothers for her mother to deal with. The 1900 census doesn’t list an occupation for her; however, that census does reveal that her brother Richard had moved out of the house, and brother Andrew had married and moved his family in (wife and five kids), bringing the total number of people in the household to 13. That must have been crowded! Grace sang soprano in the choir at Grace Episcopal Church. By 1910 she had gotten a job as a stenographer at a bank and a few years later became a notary.

Just prior to the beginning of World War I, Grace was appointed Clerk to United States Attorney Hiram M. Smith in Virginia’s Eastern District, fourth circuit. Her salary was $1,500. In the September 1914 issue of The Stenographer and Phonographic World, Albert E Pharo praised Grace in his article entitled “Ladies are Winners.” He had asked for letters regarding the most valuable attribute of a stenographer, and, expecting to hear from a man, was surprised to hear from Grace. Her answer to his question: “the ability to learn something new.”

I don’t know when Grace’s interest in women’s issues began nor what prompted her to attend law school. She was active in the Business Women’s Club in Richmond, and served as president in 1917. At the July 1917 meeting she introduced the speaker, Governor Henry Carter Stuart, who paid a personal tribute to Grace and the splendid quality of her professional work. At the time Grace worked in the office of Attorney-General Pollard and was going to law school in Richmond. The following month Grace traveled to Charlotte for the funeral of her nephew, Milton Rohleder, son of Andrew. Milton had been accepted to law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but drowned before he could matriculate.

Shortly before the end of World War I, Grace, and her mother and niece, moved to Washington, D.C., where Grace was secretary to former Gov. Stuart when he served on the federal War Industries Board (chair of the agricultural advisory committee and member of the price-fixing committee). She also transferred to the Washington College of Law. Founded in 1898, it became the first law school to be founded by women, the first with a female dean, and the first law school to graduate an all-female class; it became part of American University in 1949.

The year 1919 was an eventful year for Grace. She graduated in June with a Bachelor of Laws degree. Her mother died in August was buried in Richmond. Grace was admitted to the Washington, D.C., bar in October along with five other women and 148 men. She was active in the Women’s Bar Association of the District, which worked towards urging Congress to enact laws protecting children, and recommending local bar associations to form a national body.

Grace continued her law education and earned her Master of Laws and Master of Patent Law degrees from Washington College of Law in June 1920. In August 1920, after 42 years in the making, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on the 18th. Grace was a lawyer in general practice in Washington, D.C., and her book, Woman on the Bench, came out in August as well. A review in the September 16, 1920, issue of The Washington~Times Magazine Page stated “[T]his pamphlet contains more matter for sober thought than many a book with as many chapters as it contains pages.” The publisher advertised in The Suffragist magazine, and it was reviewed in the November 1920 issue of that magazine.

Grace was active in the Women’s Bar Association and over the years served on the legislation and banquet committees. In 1924 she led a discussion at the Washington College of Law alumni meeting on “regarding psychic conditions in youth as a defense for crime.” Also during that year she served on the publication committee for the Women Lawyers’ Journal and published an article in the April issue (Vol. 13, No. 2) entitled “Some reasons why women should study law and practice the profession.”

Something happened to Grace in 1926. According to her law school alumni magazine, she spent six weeks in Florida, returning in May to resume her legal practice. But in 1927 she was a sales lady for Ruby Lee Minar, who was very successful in realty development. I can’t find an occupation for Grace in 1928 or 1929. She told the census taker in April 1930 she was an attorney, and in June of that year she applied for a position with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 1931 she was a clerk at the Census Bureau, but I’ve been unable to find a record of her in 1932.

Grace died on 28 July 1933 at age 59. She’s buried in the family plot in the old Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Her work for women in the law continued to be an influence after her death, inspiring Virginia Drachman to quote Grace’s Woman on the Bench in the Indiana Law Review in 1995 and again in her book Sisters in Law: Women Lawyers in Modern American History.

Even with all of Grace’s efforts toward women’s rights, there are still some disconnects, especially by today’s standards. She still used male pronouns when referring to everyone, and her mother’s obituary mentioned very little about her mother (parents and kids) and a whole lot about Grace’s father. I’m curious what it was like for her growing up in Virginia and how the deaths of her siblings affected her and the rest of the family. What made her decide to study law and why did she wait so long to start? What was her father’s immigration story and what was her mother like? Why was she in Florida so long? What happened to Pemberton? And there are those brothers, but I’ll leave their story for another time.

This entry was posted in 52Ancestors, Gentry, Rohleder. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Suffragist

  1. Pingback: Led Astray by His Brother? | Leafy Vines

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  5. Jan says:

    Recently I heard of an article that dismissed all the white women who fought for women’s suffrage because the group of advocates didn’t include an black women (heck, they were still serving whites as slaves when the movement started). I admire and praise all the white women who were brave enough to fight their own societal norms, making my life a little better over 100 years later. We still have some miles to go before there is equality for all women and men.


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