Monday, December 4, 2017

Frances Squire Potter and The Ballingtons

by Erin Doane, Curator

In 1905, Little, Brown, and Company published The Ballingtons by Frances Squire Potter. The novel, a tale of love and relationships that dealt heavily with issues of finance and freedom, was well-received. Professor Zeublin of the University of Chicago’s sociology department once used it as a reference book, considering it the best handling, in fiction, of the economic dependence of women. To me, the book felt a little old fashioned (having been published over 110 years ago), but the quality of Potter’s writing and the insight into her work that I gained from learning about her personal history made it a worthwhile read. [The novel is available for free at]

Minneapolis Journal Oct. 12, 1905,
available through
Frances Boardman Squire was born in Elmira on November 12, 1867. She was the daughter of Civil War surgeon Dr. Truman H. Squire and Grace A. Squire. She was known socially as Fanny Squire when she was growing up. She graduated from Elmira College in 1887 and is credited with writing the school’s alma mater. Four years after graduating, she married Winfield Scott Potter. There are no records of the intimate details of the couple’s private married life but I imagine there were problems. They had four children together and separated in 1899 when the youngest was just two years old.
“He looked on with scarcely concealed irritation at her devotion to their children. He told her that she was getting morbid, allowing them to absorb her duty to him.” The Ballingtons, p. 259

Portrait of Frances Squire Potter as a young woman,
courtesy of Elmira College Archives, Gannett-Tripp
Library, Elmira College, Elmira, N.Y.
In order to support her children, she took a job as a school teacher. In 1900, she joined the staff of the literature department at the University of Minnesota. In 1905, Potter had the opportunity to spend a sabbatical at Cambridge University in England where she studied English literature. She was able to bring her children overseas with her as well as her friend Mary Gray Peck. The two women had collaborated on the play Germelshausen along with Carl Schlenker in 1904. Potter dedicated The Ballingtons to Peck and in the notices of her death that appeared in the Star Gazette, it described Peck as “a member of Mrs. Potter’s family for a number of years.” In 1918, Peck gifted Elmira College a memorial window honoring Frances Squire Potter that was installed at the entrance to Alumnae Hall.

Portrait of Mary Gray Peck, courtesy of
Elmira College Archives, Gannett-Tripp
Library, Elmira College, Elmira, N.Y.
“Their regular correspondence had developed an unexpected strength and depth in their friendship. Their mental companionship had become a confirmed and eager necessity for both.” The Ballingtons, p. 260
It was while Potter was at Cambridge that she began cultivating her reputation as “one of America’s most magnetic and telling woman orators,” according to the Fort Wayne Daily News. She was attending a banquet of the Society of American Women in London when one of the speakers launched a scathing attack on Americans. Potter’s eloquent response helped propel her into a new career as a lecturer. As an extension lecturer at the University of Minnesota, she spoke on a wide range of topics including The Bible as Literature, Charles Darwin, The Italian Renaissance, Moliere and the Open Road, Women and Economics, and Theatres in Shakespeare’s Time.

Portrait of France Squire Potter
In 1909, Potter left her position at the University of Minnesota and devoted herself to women’s suffrage. She returned to New York and joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association, working as the organization’s corresponding secretary. She became an activist for women’s and labor rights as a member of the Women’s Trade Union League, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Socialist Party. In 1911, she took up the cause of  garment strikers in Chicago. She also continued working as a lecturer as a member of the staff of the University Lecturers’ Association.

Potter believed that one day men and women would meet on the same mental plane. She was quoted in an article in the Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1910 as saying, “I do not see any reason why women should not be judges, jurors, lawyers and policemen as well as school teachers. … There is to be no immediate or startling development in the movement, but it will gradually make its way. As it does so, artificial barriers between men and women will be taken down.”

Evansville Press (Indiana), July 5, 1912,
available through
One of the biggest sources of inequality between men and women, in Potter’s opinion, was economics. Many women were dependent on men – their fathers, brothers, or husbands – for financial support. A woman without financial means had to settle for a husband who could afford to take care of her. She believed that it was, therefore, men who had the power to pick a spouse while a woman had to settle for being picked. If women were financially independent, they would have greater say in who they married. “When more of the matrimonial arrangements are made by the women, the standards will be raised so much higher that divorce will be done away with,” she argued.

Potter explored the issues of financial dependence beautifully in The Ballingtons. She created complex, distinctive characters, both men and women, who were often at odds over money and the power that money provided to control and manipulate others. She masterfully used her skill at writing fiction to delve into the complexities of subject.
“Once or twice she gathered courage to ask Ferdinand for little sums of money, but he usually replied by inquiring what she wished, and then buying it for her himself.” The Ballingtons, p. 155
Frances Squire Potter passed away in her home in Chicago on March 25, 1914 after an extended illness. She was just 47 years old. Her body was brought back to Elmira and rests in Woodlawn Cemetery. That she had touched many people’s lives was evidenced in the numerous telegrams and wreaths that were send by friends, former colleagues, acquaintances, and civil organization in condolence to her family. Her work as an educator, author, lecturer, and activist would be sorely missed. Just days before her death, social activist Jane Addams said of her, “I cannot conceive of the death of a woman that would be a greater loss to the women of this country than the death of Mrs. Potter will be.”

Portrait of Frances Squire Potter, courtesy of
Elmira College Archives, Gannett-Tripp Library,
Elmira College, Elmira, N.Y.
“They stood motionless, listening and waiting for the beating of the heart to stop. Slower and slower came the labored breaths – there was a pause – another breath – and the wait – the wait – until the end of time, the wait.” The Ballingtons, p. 70

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