Summer of Woman Suffrage! Week 3

Posted by on Jul 25, 2020 in Featured slider | Comments Off on Summer of Woman Suffrage! Week 3

Summer of Woman Suffrage!  Week 3

Thanks to WHM member Anne Crider for the short biographies of Outstanding Williamstown Women which we will be sharing this week!

Helen Renzi (1924-2012)
The First Woman School Superintendent in Williamstown
(and all of Berkshire County)

Helen Renzi begin her 25 year career in the Williamstown Elementary school in 1961 as a 4th grade teacher. Later she was named principal, and in 1981 superintendent. She was the first women school superintendent in Williamstown and in all of Berkshire County. The elementary school named its multipurpose room after her, and each year since 1986, the Helen Renzi Award is presented to four “great kids” from the 6th grade.

Helen was a founder of the Williamstown Children’s Museum and an early contributor to the school’s integrated art program. In 1979, she was named a member of the Institute for Development of Educational Activities Academy of Fellows. She was chosen with 650 other outstanding American educators for the honor.

Born in Brooklyn and educated at West Chester (PA) University, Helen did graduate studies at Penn State University, Boston University and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

She and her husband, Ralph Renzi were parents of four children.

Emma Curtiss Bascom (1828-1916)
Teacher and Temperance and Woman Suffrage Activist

Emma Curtiss Bascom was one of the earliest advocates for woman suffrage and women’s rights. She was born in Sheffield, Massachusetts 1828. After her education at several different academies she taught school in Kinderhook Academy in New York and Stratford Academy in Connecticut.

In 1856 she married John Bascom, a professor at Williams College. The Bascoms lived in Williamstown for most of their marriage. She and John had five children and during the early years Emma ran their home, raised the children and helped her husband with his work during the years he was unable to read and write due to an eye ailment.

John Bascom

In 1874 John Bascom was appointed president of the University of Wisconsin and the family moved to Madison where they lived until their return to Williamstown in 1887. The move give Emma an opportunity for an active public life. The women in the west were more open to her ideals for woman’s advancement. She became active in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the woman’s suffrage organization. She entertained many of the most influential woman of the time including Francis Willard and Susan B. Anthony at the President’s house.

Emma worked hard for the causes in which she believed. She was a charter member of the Association for the Advancement of Women and a founding member and president of Wisconsin’s Equal Suffrage Association, the Secretary for the Woman’s Centennial Commission for the state of Wisconsin, and very active for many years in Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. On her return to Williamstown she continued to support her causes. In 1930 she was elected to the Wisconsin League of Women Voters honor roll.

Emma died February 27, 1916 and was buried in the Williams College cemetery. She shares the plot with John and four of their offspring.

Florence Bascom
Emma and John Bascom’s daughter, the second woman to earn a PhD in geology in the US, and the first woman to work for the US Geological Survey.

Bascom family monument in the Williams College cemetery.


Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre 1887-1933
Suffragist and Political Advocate

Jessie Sayre, the second daughter of US President Woodrow Wilson, was an advocate for woman suffrage and a political activist. In 1913 after a White House wedding to Francis Bowes Sayre and a European honeymoon, the couple settled in Williamstown. Francis Sayre, a Williams College and Harvard Law School graduate, worked as an assistant to Williams College president Harry A. Garfield. Jessie Sayre, the mother two young children, found time to be the president of the Williamstown branch of the Equal Suffrage League, hosting meetings at her home and speaking at Berkshire County League meetings.

Much to the delight of the townspeople the Sayre house on Main Street, currently a B&B known as The House on Main Street, was visited on a number of occasions by President Wilson, including Thanksgiving in 1914 and the christening of the Sayre’s second child in 1916. In fact he was visiting when he learned that he had been elected for a second term.

Sayre house at 1120 Main Street

Wilson visits Williamstown headline
courtesy of Saturn Leonesio

After the end of WWI the Sayres moved to Cambridge, MA where Francis was offered a faculty position at Harvard Law School. Jessie continued her active interest in the League of Women Voters, the League of Nations Association, and also established a prominent role in the Massachusetts Democratic Party. In 1928 she introduced presidential nominee Al Smith at the Democratic National Convention, and in 1930 she was approached to run for the Senate. She took herself out of consideration in order to remain at home with her family and concentrate on her role as secretary of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

Jessie died at the age of 45 following abdominal surgery. The Boston Globe expression of sympathy noted that ” Mrs. Sayre was a public character and had won for herself the respect and affection of the community. Although she had never held public office she was one of the most useful citizens in her adopted State.”

Lucy C. Lincoln (1828-1911)
First Woman to be Elected to Office in Williamstown

Lucy C. Lincoln was born Lucy Phillips on September 9, 1828 in Windsor.  A sister of John Phillips, a professor of Greek at Williams, she married Isaac N. Lincoln, Williams College professor of Latin, in 1851.  Unfortunately, Isaac died in September of 1862, at the age of 36, after a visit to Plainfield to attend to his brother who had been ill and died while Isaac was visiting.  After his brother’s death, Isaac stopped at his father in law’s home in Windsor and became ill with typhoid fever. He died after an illness of two or three weeks.  Interestingly, in 1856, several years before his death, Isaac Lincoln was elected to the School Committee as his wife would be, nearly thirty years later.  At the annual town meeting held in March of 1884, Lucy Lincoln was elected to the School Committee for a three year term. Mrs. Lincoln relocated to New York and died there in 1911. There is no mention of her achievement as the first female elected official in Williamstown in her obituary.



Mildred Boardman Leigh 1894-1959
The Second Woman to be Elected to Office in Williamstown

In 1868 women were elected to serve on school committees in a few Massachusetts towns, but it was not until 1879 that the Legislature voted to allow women to vote for school committee members, male or female. And it wasn’t until 1926 that a woman was elected to the Williamstown school committee. By 1926 of the 355 school committees in the state, 256 had women members and a total of 269 women were on school committees.

In 1926 a citizen’s petition was circulated in Williamstown stating that it was time to have a woman on the school committee and endorsing Mrs. Robert Leigh. Mildred Leigh was a founding member and the president of the newly formed Williamstown League of Women Voters. She won the close contest for the position, defeating E. Herbert Botsford by a margin of 541 to 502.

Mildred Leigh resigned from the committee in 1928 after her husband, Dr. Robert D. Leigh, a professor of political science at Williams College, was named the first president of Bennington College. She assisted her husband in planning the Bennington College program and its operations.

Mildred Leigh, nee Boardman, was born in Rochester, NY and received bachelors and masters degrees from Teacher’s College of Columbia University. She taught in public schools in western New York, at Bennett College, Millbrook, NY, and at Reed College, Portland, Oregon. She died May 19, 1959.

Katherine Slater Haskell Wyckoff (1900-1993)
First woman elected to the Board of Selectmen in Williamstown and in all of Berkshire County

Back in 1921 Phoebe Jordan of New Ashford, the first woman to vote legally in a US Presidential election, ran for the Board of Selectmen in her town and received exactly one vote. We have no record of how many women in Berkshire County subsequently tried over the years, but it wasn’t until 1960 when a woman actually served on a Board of Selectmen, and it was Katherine “Kay” Wyckoff of Williamstown, referred to in the press as “Mrs. Williamstown.”

Kay Wyckoff is seated in the center as a member of the Select Board

Wyckoff was elected to the Board in 1961, but she was first appointed to fill an unexpired term in 1960. There was much town debate prior to her appointment as the rumor mill churned over the questions such as: “Was the town ready for a woman on the Board?” “Were there any qualified women in town?”

Other names were put forward before Wyckoff’s but those women declined the appointment, as indeed Wyckoff did at first, but at the urging of friends and community members she changed her mind, stating, “I do believe that a woman can effectively serve in a situation of this kind without slighting her home duties, and after reconsideration and much mature thought I have agreed to accept the appointment.”

After serving both the term she was appointed to fill and the term she was elected to, Wyckoff declined to run again in 1963. The next woman to be elected to the Williamstown Board of Selectmen was Faith Scarborough in 1978.

Faith Scarborough

Born in New York City in 1900, Wyckoff served as a yeoman first class in the Navy in the Cable Censor Office in the city during World War I. In 1919 she moved with her birth family to Ithaca, NY, were she attended Cornell University, graduating in 1923.

A first marriage that ended in divorce took her to southern California, where she became involved with the PTA at her children’s school, eventually taking a job as assistant purchasing agent for the Compton High School and Junior College Union, comprising five schools, along with serving as president of the Lynnwood Coordinating Council.

In 1946 she married William O. Wyckoff and moved to Williamstown when he became Director of Placement at the College.

Here Wyckoff became heavily involved with the Williamstown League of Women Voters, serving as president as well as in other capacities. She also served on the boards of the Williamstown Bicentennial Committee, the Visiting Nurse Association, the Williamstown Community Chest, and North Adams Regional Hospital, among others. In 1958 she was appointed as an interim member of the town’s Capital Outlay Committee.

Wyckoff seated at far right as Eleanor Bloedel cuts the cake celebrating the third anniversary of the Women’s Exchange.

In 1957 Wyckoff, Eleanor Bloedel, and other women of the town started the Women’s Exchange to benefit the Visiting Nurse Association. Wyckoff served as managing director of the Exchange until 1987.

Wyckoff was the first recipient of the Faith Scarborough Citizenship Award in 1982. She also received the Williamstown Community Chest Award in 1988.

Do you have women in your family whose stories should be told and preserved at the Williamstown Historical Museum.  We would like to collect and share the stories of all of Williamstown’s residents.

Learn more during our Summer of Woman Suffrage here: Summer of Woman Suffrage Online Exhibit