Clara Colby: The International Suffragist by John Holliday

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Clara Colby: The International Suffragist by John Holliday

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A life of the pioneer suffragist, Clara Bewick Colby. The research is impressive and the story well-told. I was sorry to finish the book. Definitely recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 402 Date: December 2019
Publisher: Tallai Books
ISBN: 978-0648684800

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The path of Clara Dorothy Bewick's life was probably determined when her family emigrated to the USA. At the time she was just three-years-old but because of some childhood ailment, she wasn't allowed to sail with her parents and three brothers. Instead, she remained with her grandparents, who doted on her and saw that she received a good education, both in and out of school. She was the only child in the household and her childhood was glorious. By contrast, her family had become pioneer farmers in the mid-west of the United States and life was hard, as Clara was to find out when she and her grandparents eventually went to join the family. Clara would only know her mother for a few months: she was married for fifteen years, had ten pregnancies, seven surviving children and died in childbirth not long after Clara arrived. As the eldest girl, a heavy burden would fall on Clara and Wisconsin was a rude awakening.

She would make the most of her opportunities though, working hard at school and eventually going to university before becoming a teacher there, although she would be paid less than her male colleagues. At just twenty-two, she met Leonard Colby, whom she would marry. This would prove to be a rare misstep as Colby was persistently unfaithful to her, duplicitous and dishonest. He would regularly fail to support her. He adopted a Native Indian baby which he found on the battlefield at Wounded Knee, without discussing the situation with Clara and then left her to bring the child up, frequently without financial support. Clara did her best and flourished in her work for the suffragist movements, which included publishing a regular newspaper.

John Holliday provides a family tree early in the book and I'd recommend bookmarking this as being the simplest way of working out who's who. The name 'Clara' was given to three women of different generations, and Clara Bewick and Leonard Colby even share a date of birth, but once you're through this first section the story flows beautifully. Holliday's research has been extensive, but it's used with care and there's a judicious balance of the suffragist side of Clara's work and the personal tribulations which occurred in her private life.

Holliday obviously has a great deal of respect for Clara Colby but this isn't hagiography. We see her lack of organisation (she often had her fingers in far too many pies) and her impulsiveness along with her rather cavalier approach to her finances. The marriage to Colby was persisted with long after it was obvious that it was over: in fact, given their very different views on marriage and the fact that Colby did not share her moral standards, it's difficult to see how it could ever have succeeded. On the other hand, Holliday highlights her determination to succeed, whether personally or professionally and she went to considerable lengths to give her adopted daughter as good a life as possible.

Clara Bewick Colby was a new name to me and it made me realise quite how much the women of today owe to the sacrifices of people like Colby. I read the book far more quickly than I expected and I was rather sad when I parted company with Clara Colby. I'd like to thank the publisher for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

In the book, you will find mention of a relative, Walter Medhurst, who went to China to establish a printing facility for the London Missionary Society: Holliday tells his story in Mission to China: How an Englishman Brought the West to the Orient.

You can read more about John Holliday here.

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