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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Savery, Annie Nowlin
(1831–April 14, 1891)

–suffragist and philanthropist—was born in London and came to the United States as a young girl. In 1853 in Saratoga, New York, she married James Savery, an inveterate speculator and businessman. In April 1854 they settled in Des Moines, which then had a population of about 1,500. James Savery purchased the Marvin House, a log hotel on Third Street, which Annie Savery managed. The busy hotel helped her husband establish a fortune in real estate. In 1862 James Savery opened a new hotel, the Savery, and by 1870 the couple's real estate had increased in value from $10,000 to $250,000 (more than $3.5 million in today's dollars).

    Largely self-educated, Annie Savery read avidly and widely, taught herself to read and speak French, and was a lifelong student of religious thought. She developed her personal library into what many considered the finest in Iowa, and she made her home in Des Moines an intellectual and social center of the community. Savery was often described by friends and in the press as a person of sharp wit and brilliant conversational abilities, and of a kind and generous character. Savery donated funds to the Des Moines Library, established a scholarship program for women at Iowa College (now Grinnell College), initiated reform of the pestilent conditions at the county jail, and became a partner in a large beekeeping operation to demonstrate its potential as a path for women's economic independence.

    Savery's most notable contributions, however, began in the late 1860s when she became involved in the woman suffrage movement, mostly in Iowa. She gave her first suffrage speech in January 1868 in Des Moines. A notice in an 1868 issue of the Revolution, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony's women's rights newspaper, thanked Savery for promoting the paper. Savery was a founding officer (corresponding secretary) in the state suffrage organization and helped establish the first woman suffrage society in Polk County in 1870. She served on the executive committee of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) during the 1870s.

    Savery's commitment to women's rights and her abilities as a suffragist were tested in 1871 when a scandal broke in the national press about a prominent NWSA ally. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had joined forces with Victoria Woodhull, a charismatic, wealthy proponent of women's rights whose unconventional personal life and radical ideas on women's sexual freedom put the NWSA under a political cloud. The Woodhull scandal stalled the nascent Iowa suffrage movement. Conservative voices within the movement attempted to purge it of everyone who would not denounce free love. Many new, local suffrage societies bowed to public pressure, denounced Woodhull, and were cowed into silence.

    Savery, however, refused to be intimidated by erstwhile friends in the movement or opponents outside of it. An excellent public speaker and writer, Savery emerged as the acknowledged leader of the suffrage movement in Iowa during that dark period because she responded to critics with suffrage arguments that revealed a sharp, creative, unconventional intellect. In speeches, letters to the press, and floor debates during suffrage meetings, she insisted that the women's movement include all who believed in women's rights regardless of their opinions on divorce, free love, marriage, or any other political or moral position. She scoffed at her critics' smear campaign, calling free love a "scarecrow."Savery established a network of contacts and friends in the larger national movement, corresponding with Lucy Stone, Isabella Beecher Hooker, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, and developing a close personal friendship with fellow Iowans and veteran suffragist and political activists Amelia Bloomer and Elizabeth Boynton Harbert.

    Nonetheless, Savery was outmaneuvered by her opponents within the suffrage movement. In 1872 the state legislature debated a woman suffrage bill that had been passed in 1870. If passed a second time in the legislature, the bill would go to the electorate for a vote. Savery was determined that the suffrage movement would be heard. She and fellow Des Moines suffragist Elizabeth Boynton Harbert petitioned to speak before the legislature, but Savery's opponents in the Polk County Suffrage Association lobbied successfully to keep her and Harbert off the senate floor. Without concerted support from the suffrage movement, the woman suffrage bill lost any hope of passing the 1872 legislative session. Iowa women would not see a suffrage bill submitted to a popular vote until 1916.

    With that defeat, Savery ended her formal suffrage work in Iowa, and the state leadership passed to the conservative suffragists who had denounced Woodhull. Savery turned to other interests, including her beekeeping enterprise and occasional political reporting for the Des Moines Register during her annual residency in Washington, D.C.

    A strong and clear thinker, Savery faced several periods of relative poverty during her adult life (due to her husband's ultimately unsuccessful career in real estate investment) and a long, debilitating decline in health because of heart trouble with characteristic cheer and courage. In the 1880s she embraced Theosophy, a rationalistic creed of pantheism. She died in New York City in 1891.
Sources include Louise R. Noun, Strong-Minded Women: The Emergence of the Woman-Suffrage Movement in Iowa (1969); and Louise R. Noun, with Rachel E. Bohlmann, Leader and Pariah: Annie Savery and the Campaign for Women's Rights in Iowa, 1868–1891 (2002).
Contributor: Rachel Bohlmann

Cite as: Bohlmann, Rachel. "Savery, Annie Nowlin" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 11 December 2017