Brockton’s First Lady of Politics
January 25, 2010
By James Kenneally, Professor Emeritus of History at Stonehill and Brockton resident.
Special to the Enterprise
At one of the "most striking testimonials" in Brockton's history, 800 of the city's leading citizens crowded into Brockton High School auditorium on June 26, 1919, to honor M. Sylvia Donaldson, retiring principal of the Goddard School.
A graduate of Boston Normal School, the 77-year-old Donaldson had completed additional courses at Boston University and taught in Falmouth and Brookline before coming to Brockton in 1872.
Here, she taught at the Sprague, Whitman and Goddard schools and was appointed principal of the latter in 1881 and later district principal. A beloved teacher, known to have purchased graduation dresses for students who could not afford them, Donaldson was active in a wide variety of civic affairs and professional organizations.
She was a trustee of the Brockton Hospital and Brockton Public Library, Red Cross worker, oversaw the adoption of 34 French war orphans, volunteered at the Fort Devens War Camp Community House and supported woman's suffrage.
Before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified enfranchising women in 1920 she helped found the Women's Republican Club of Brockton.
Following her retirement, Donaldson began an entirely new career in public service. Three months after her testimonial she sought and won both the Democratic and Republican nominations for school committee (city elections were partisan at that time) amassing 8,114 votes, the largest number that any candidate for school committee had ever polled.
She served on the school board from 1920 to 1933, championing equal pay for woman teachers - having been victimized herself by pay discrimination as district principal.
Just eight months after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of woman's suffrage, Donaldson, in the belief that one of Brockton's representatives in the Massachusetts House should be a woman, won with ease a Republican nomination in the city's double district (these nominations were tantamount to election in those heavily Republican wards).
In a field of eight, she polled 778 votes, finishing second only to a Republican incumbent. (One other woman, Boston's Susan Fitzgerald, was also elected to the House in 1922, but Donaldson was considered the senior of the two and may be considered the first woman elected to the state Legislature.)
Described as "venerated" and "idolized" by the electorate, she believed her office was a "sacred trust" and prayed that "God helping me I'll not prove unworthy of it. Service above self will continue to be my motto as I have earnestly tried to have it throughout my life."
Despite her pioneering political career, Donaldson was not a starry-eyed feminist, but more of a transitional figure, from the 19th Century lady to the 20th Century woman, for as she proclaimed while campaigning for a Brookline woman, "It is not the purpose of women to relegate the men to the kitchen, all the women want is a share in politics."
For her, there were only three civic services unfit for women: military, police and jury duty.
During her years, in the Legislature she fought against compulsory jury service for women. Although women should be subject to the same call as men, she believed they should be able to exempt themselves solely on the basis of gender for jury service could be unladylike. (Opposition to women jurors was so powerful that Massachusetts did not allow it until 1949 and then the law reflected Donaldson's view by allowing women to have their names omitted from the jury list and excused from rape and child abuse cases if likely to be embarrassed.)
Donaldson's somewhat traditional views were also manifest her first day in the Legislature, when she wore a huge, flowered hat and long gloves onto the floor and had to be persuaded to have her photo taken.
On Feb. 18, 1924, in recognition of her "efficient and able work," the speaker's rostrum was turned over to Donaldson - the first woman in history to preside over the General Court.
She received standing ovations from her colleagues and from the galleries crowded with women. That enthusiasm was in sharp contrast to that of 200 hostile feminists who that morning listened to her testimony before the Joint Judiciary Committee against compulsory jury service for women.
During the six years she commuted to Boston, Donaldson compiled a commendable attendance record usually voting conservatively except on women's issues. She participated often in legislative debates, spoke on political and women's issues before many organizations, continued to assume new responsibilities, such as trustee of the University of Massachusetts, and spent but a total of $20 on her election campaigns.
In 1937, the Brockton City Council approved the acquisition of land adjacent to the Goddard School for a playground named in her honor.
Before the work was completed, Donaldson died at age 88. Services were held at the White Avenue Funeral Home, where she was eulogized by the pastor of Unity Church, Wilbur Miller, and was buried in the family plot in Falmouth.
However, work continued on the playground, which was dedicated Oct. 24, 1937, before hundreds of admirers. Among the participants were clergy from St. Paul's Episcopal, Swedish Lutheran, and St. Margaret's churches.
Designated as a "permanent memorial" with "perpetual care and improvement" neither the playground nor the commemorative plaque apparently exist.
Could any reader clarify this mystery and would it not be appropriate to honor her and to inspire students by having a memorial plaque on school property in the city?
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