Courtesy State Historical Society
By Nicole Heisick
Fought for Clean Water, Safe Milk, and The Vote (1878-1970)
Inspired by her activist mother and very supportive husband, Edna Gellhorn lived in an environment where she believed anyone had the power to make a difference. If she saw something that needed changing, she fought to change it. Gellhorn was an activist and civic leader and was involved in various organizations and causes in St. Louis. She is especially known for her work with the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
Gellhorn was born in St. Louis on December 18, 1878. In her early stages as an activist and reformist, she worked for the passage of clean water and pure-milk legislation, the first of many crusades challenging the status quo. She and her husband George worked to reduce infant mortality through their campaign to ensure a safe milk supply for babies and a provision for free medical clinics. During World War I, Gellhorn served as regional director of the food rationing programs.
In 1910, she finally found her true cause: fighting for women’s right to vote, saying she was “inspired by the message that women had something to contribute.” From 1910 until 1919 when women secured the right to vote, Gellhorn worked with state and local Equal Suffrage Leagues. She spent her time coming up with new ways to show people that without the right to vote, women weren’t even second-class citizens. She helped organize the Walkless-Talkless Parade, which took place during the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis in 1916. Thousands of women wearing white dresses and yellow sashes carried parasols, lined the streets, and stared down the male delegates as they walked from their hotel.
Gellhorn knew that just protesting in this one region wasn’t enough, and she sought a way to further her cause. She toured the northern half of the state by riding freight trains to different towns and spreading her message to anyone she met.
After women received the right to vote, Gellhorn traveled the state in the caboose of a milk train to hold classes for first-time voters. She helped form the National League of Women Voters and served as the league’s first vice president. She also founded and was president of the St. Louis League of Women Voters and Missouri League of Women Voters, where she served as the first president. She served three times as president of the St. Louis League and also on the national board. In the 1930s, Gellhorn led the League’s effort to institute the merit system in Missouri government hiring. Gellhorn also led the league to become one of the first racially integrated civic groups in St. Louis.
Gellhorn lobbied for causes such as legislation on child welfare, women’s property rights, and joint guardianship of children. She received an honorary degree from Lindenwood College in 1956 and another from Washington University in 1964. In 1957, the St. Louis Globe Democrat named her a Woman of Achievement. She died on September 24, 1970.
Gellhorn knew how important equal rights were, and her tireless campaign helped women earn many basic rights. Her efforts showed others the importance of one person in the fight for equality, as well as the importance of spreading political messages for all to hear.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re showcasing our Top 10 Women of Missouri, featured in the February 2012 of Missouri Life and selected by our panelists. To read our panelists’ bios, click here. For a full list of our 95 nominees for Top 10 Women of Missouri, click here. For more stories like this, subscribe to Missouri Life magazine.