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Sherman, Mary Belle Kingfree

(11 December 1862–15 January 1935)
  • Karen J. Blair

Sherman, Mary Belle King (11 December 1862–15 January 1935), woman's club leader and conservationist, woman’s club leader and conservationist, was born in Albion, New York, the daughter of Rufus King, a publisher, and Sarah Electa Whitney. She spent her early years in Rochester, New York, and moved with her family to Chicago when she was twelve years old. There she attended the Park Institute, an academy for girls. In 1887 she married John Dickinson Sherman, a journalist who was associate editor of the Inter Ocean and director of the Western Newspaper Union. They had one child.

Sherman became active in the Chicago Woman’s Club at the turn of the century, serving as its recording secretary, press committee chairperson, and legislative committee’s authority on parliamentary law. In fact, she became so knowledgeable on parliamentary law that she taught the subject at John Marshall Law School of Chicago and published Parliamentary Law and Rules of Procedure (1901). She also became active on the national club scene, serving as recording secretary of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) and its second vice president from 1908 to 1910. She accompanied federation president Eva Perry Moore on a 1907 tour of women’s clubs in the Panama Canal Zone, where she was stricken with an undiagnosed illness that “almost cost her life and left a permanent legacy of physical suffering.” Recuperating at Tahosa, a retreat in Estes Park, Colorado, that she had acquired in 1909, she developed an appreciation of nature and became a public supporter of conservation issues.

Sherman would win the title “National Park Lady” from federated clubwomen by creating and chairing the Conservation Department of the GFWC (1914–1920). In that capacity she lobbied for national parks, a national park service, and the protection of forests. Sherman promoted conservation and the celebration of National Garden Week in speeches to countless women’s organizations, school groups, and civic clubs. She also represented clubwomen as a member of the National Parks Association and vice president of the American Forestry Association. During World War I, Sherman was appointed special assistant director of the U.S. School Garden Army of the Bureau of Education (1918), which urged voluntary organizations to encourage students to plant school gardens. She was the only woman on the National War Garden Commission.

After chairing the GFWC’s Department of Applied Education from 1920 to 1924, Sherman was elected president of the two-million-member federation in 1924. During her four-year term she presided over a series of controversies that made her administration the most notorious in the history of the organization. She had moved to headquarters in Washington, D.C., after her husband’s death in 1926 and faced difficulties in three arenas. First, she designed policies to strengthen centralization of power at the top and to apply efficient methods of management, systems that many clubwomen regarded as unwelcome. She also invited criticism of the work of the Department of the American Home, which she created. Its ambitious Home Equipment Survey identified the dearth of labor-saving devices in a half million urban homes, and the study was later expanded to include rural households with funding from the National Electric Light Association and its state affiliates. Critics charged that the study’s call for more labor-saving electrical appliances was proof that utility companies had commercialized and compromised the survey. Nonetheless, the final five-part Home Equipment Primer emphasized the labor of women within the household and helped persuade the Bureau of the Census to create a new category, “homemaker,” where “not employed” had been used before. Finally, Sherman suffered attacks by patriotic women’s organizations, via Woman Patriot magazine, which claimed that Bolsheviks had corrupted the organization to support such radical causes as the League of Nations, international peace, child labor laws, federal support for maternal and infant care, and a U.S. Cabinet post for education. In fact, the GFWC had supported these progressive programs long before Sherman’s administration. The outraged federation membership weathered the storm gracefully, standing by their leader for two terms in the highest office. Sherman’s administration came under attack despite the fact that its emphasis on home economics represented the most conservative impulses in the organization.

Sherman was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge to the George Washington Bicentennial Committee (1925) and served on the Advisory Council of the National Broadcasting Corporation from 1926 until her death. She published dozens of articles in popular magazines about the findings of the Home Equipment Survey. She died in Denver, having devoted her career to organizing women in voluntary organizations to cooperate for social reform.

Bibliography

The General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Washington, D.C., has a President Sherman file containing biographical materials. Sherman wrote Parliamentary Law at a Glance (1901). Her Parliamentary Law and Rules of Procedure went through several editions from 1901 to 1916. See also Mildred Marshall Scouller, Women Who Man Our Clubs (1934), and Frances D. McMullen, “The National Park Lady,” Woman Citizen, 17 May 1924. Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Washington Post, both on 16 Jan. 1935.