Severance, Caroline

Carolina Seymour Severance (January 12, 1820-November 10, 1914), called Caroline, was for nearly seventy years an active social reformer, organizer, church woman and club woman whose varied work changed the lives of countless of people. The eldest of five children born to Orson and Caroline Maria Clarke Seymour in Canandaigua, New York, Caroline and her family moved to nearby Auburn, New York after her father died an early death in 1824. The influence of a devout Presbyterian uncle and guardian, James Seymour, and the revivalism of Charles G. Finney made for a religiously tumultuous childhood.

Her schooling was typical of that given girls of her time and class. She attended the Upham Female Seminary in Canandaigua and Miss Almira Bennett’s Boarding School in Owasco Lake, New York. She graduated with honors in 1835 from the female seminary of Mrs. Elizabeth Ricord in Geneva, New York. For a short time she taught at Mrs. Luther Halsey’s boarding school for girls on the Ohio River below Pittsburgh.

In August, 1840, Caroline Seymour married Theodoric Cordenio Severance, an Ohioan of New England birth. They moved to Cleveland, where her husband entered the banking business. Five children were born to them between 1841 and 1849. One died in infancy.

Caroline Severance credited her marriage with “freeing her from bondage to authority, dogmas and conservative ideas and for making of reformer of her.” The Severance household in Cleveland became a gathering place for those involved in liberal causes. Like other leading women of the 19th century, she maintained the conventional emphasis on woman’s role as wife and mother, along with an increasingly added emphasis on woman’s ability to shape public policy.

Severance and her husband left the Presbyterian Church soon after their marriage. She said, “[W]e could no longer sit conscientiously under a preacher, or in a fellowship, where the golden rule of Christianity was not recognized as applicable to all men, whatever the color of their skin, or crinkle, or non-crinkle of their hair.” They formed the Independent Christian Church whose members were antislavery. The congregation grew, drawing other reformist parishioners and ministers, including in 1854 Amory D. Mayo, a noted Unitarian clergyman.

Severance soon became involved with woman’s rights and joined Frances Dana Gage in lecturing, writing, and organizing meetings for the cause throughout Ohio. In 1853 she presided over the first annual meeting of the Ohio Woman’s Rights Association. Through this work she met and became good friends with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. With Lucy Stone and other New England suffragists, she was one of the founders in 1869, at a Cleveland convention, of the American Woman Suffrage Association.

The Severance home had also become a regular stop for traveling lecturers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, and Bronson Alcott. In connection with her many New England friends, Severance developed a great love for the city of Boston and became convinced that Cleveland “did not offer the kind of companionship I craved.” When her husband was offered a position in Boston’s North Bank, the family led moved east. Before long Severance was very much a part of the city’s network of reformers. She served on the first board of the New England Hospital for Women and Children. In 1873 she was one of the founders and first president of the Moral Education Association. She was a founder of the New England Woman’s Club, a vehicle for reform which helped to establish the Girls’ Latin School and the Co-operative Building Association. Severance went regularly to hear Theodore Parker‘s sermons. She helped organize the Free Religious Association. She was the first woman to speak in the popular Parker Fraternity Lecture Course after his death. Her discourse, “Humanity: A Definition and a Plea” was well received.

In 1875 Severance and her husband left Boston for Los Angeles where two of their sons had settled. There they founded the city’s first Unitarian congregation, Unity Church. Severance raised the social consciousness of the city with her tireless civic activity on behalf of free kindergartens, a training school for kindergarten workers and the city’s first woman’s club whose members campaigned for the establishment of a juvenile court system.

The death of her husband in 1892 and her own advancing years barely slowed her. She inaugurated a weekly discussion series in her home. She championed Christian Socialism, Progressivism, anti-imperialism and peace. In December 1900, the Los Angeles County Woman Suffrage League was reorganized with Caroline Severance as its new president. She served until 1904.

She died at age 94 in 1914.


Archival collections of Severance papers are at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California; Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts; and Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Two books devoted to Severance are Ella Giles Ruddy ed., The Mother of Clubs: Caroline M. Seymour Severance, An Estimate and an Appreciation (1906) and a biography, Mary S. Gibson, Caroline M. Severance, Pioneer (1925).

Article by Celeste DeRoche
Post January 27, 2014