Bucking the odds is a common theme of Walter-Mitty-type fantasies — overcoming daunting obstacles to become a winner, or a hero at some level. Few of us actually live the dream, but sometimes it happens, and during Women’s History Month, an incredible North Country example comes to mind: Rhoda F. Graves of Gouverneur in St. Lawrence County.
The extreme unlikelihood of her becoming a historic figure in state politics makes her story all the more compelling. And the details are amazing.
Extreme unlikelihood? Well, consider that for the first two-thirds of her life, the groundbreaking events of the final third were hardly even possible. For one thing, she was a woman, and politics was almost solely the purview of men. Women couldn’t vote, a right they had sought for nearly a century — and the idea that men would elect a female legislator in New York was an absurdity. Aside from that, she was in her late forties at a time when life expectancy for American females was in the low fifties. For most women in that situation, it was time to break out the rocking chair and wait for the end. But Rhoda Graves was not most women.
She was born in July 1877 in Fowler, in southwestern St. Lawrence County, about five miles southeast of Gouverneur. Her parents were Leander and Rhoda Austin, but her mother died in childbirth. Rhoda was placed with the nearby family of Lafayette and Rhoda Fox, who adopted her before she was two years old. Her father had remarried by then, but Rhoda remained a Fox. She attended area schools and was a very attentive, capable pupil (at age 10 in Spragueville she had no absences or tardies and carried a 96 average). After graduating, she worked as a teacher at Rossie, Oswegatchie, and other area schools into the early 1900s, and lived in the village of Gouverneur.
She frequently visited with friends living in several area villages, and socialized often. In the late 1890s, her most frequent companion was Perle Graves, a village resident nine years her senior. They married in late April 1905 (he was 36; she was 28) and had two sons, Paul (1907) and Mark (1910). Perle was a clothing-store clerk, but forged a close friendship with Frank Seaker that would deeply affect how Rhoda’s life unfolded.
With many friends among farmers (he was raised on a nearby farm) and connections among the local chamber of commerce’s 90 members, Perle assisted Frank on an important project: getting elected to the New York State Assembly in Albany. Seaker was the unanimous nominee, won the election, and took office in January 1912. Perle, already serving the party in different capacities, was named in March to the Republican County Committee and became an alternate delegate to the state GOP convention. In winter 1913, courtesy of Seaker, Perle held a clerk job in the Assembly, and the following year was a Railroad Committee clerk (the family moved with him to Albany until the job was done), prompting rumors that he might one day seek an Assembly position.
The Graves and Seaker families traveled and socialized together, and in late 1915, Perle and Frank formed a business partnership, purchasing a Main Street corner lot in Gouverneur, where they spent approximately $20,000 ($503,000 in 2019) on building a large, two-story garage to house the Seaker-Graves Motor Company.
Personal, political, and business ties between the two families remained strong, and clearly had an impact on Rhoda’s future. During that same period, while handling the traditional job of housewife and mother to two young boys, she became active in the affairs of multiple organizations. Back in 1904, the year before she married, Rhoda was elected vice-president of the St. Agnes Guild of the Trinity Church, her first leadership position as an adult. Many more would follow during the decade spanning 1910 to 1920, when she played a very active role in guiding the paths of several organizations, including the local WCTU unit (Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the national anti-alcohol organization), the Gouverneur library, the Women’s Relief Corps (a patriotic group in support of America’s army), and the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution). She served on Red Cross committees, was team captain on drives for the YMCA and the Victory Loan Program, and attended meetings of the Northern New York Federation of Women’s Clubs, which brought many groups together for common causes.
Two factors stood out in Rhoda’s evolving persona: her role in most organizations progressed to leadership positions; and the common sense, personality, and other traits that got her there attracted many appreciative admirers.
In early 1918, while maintaining the positions she held, Rhoda began gravitating towards politics. With the benefit of hindsight, a convergence of events that provoked the change becomes evident—her husband’s and Frank Seaker’s political success for nearly a decade, her own achievements on behalf of multiple organizations, and the burgeoning women’s movement, especially the push for suffrage.
She became a regular attendee at GOP meetings, and in July was selected by the Republican County Committee as a delegate to the state meeting in Saratoga. In February 1920, she was one of 50 New York State women chosen to attend a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City with US Senator James Wadsworth, who was running for reelection. The importance of women had recently reached a game-changing moment: they had finally won the right to vote. In June 1919, the 19th Amendment had been ratified, and was destined to become law in August 1920, less than three months before Election Day. Wadsworth and most other politicians sought support among this massive new source of voters, and for good reason: more than eight million women cast ballots during their first year of eligibility. In New York State, Republicans dominated the effort to register women voters by a margin of almost ten to one (in March the numbers were 226,000 Republicans to 25,000 Democrats). Up north, Rhoda was one of two women chosen to lead the registration effort.
With thousands of connections made during the past decade, and the many leadership roles she held, Rhoda’s potential political power suddenly skyrocketed with the advent of women’s suffrage. Any influence she might wield could drastically affect future election campaigns, which county political men recognized. At the GOP organizational meeting in April 1920, Rhoda was selected as vice-chairman of the Republican County Committee. (Baby steps … the term chairperson was still many decades away.) In a brief address, she declared that most women would side with Republicans and bring about victory in November. Said the Ogdensburg Republican-Journal: “Mrs. Graves is a very entertaining speaker … her address was listened to with great interest and was heartily applauded.”
From that moment forward, her already busy life was a whirlwind of political activity on behalf of the party. In May she helped organize a luncheon/fundraiser in Potsdam. In July she was appointed to the committee on nominations, organized a Campaign School for Republican Women (three state officials addressed how to organize, recruit, etc.), and (with Perle, and Frank Seaker) attended the GOP convention in Saratoga. In early September, as a member of the Century Club reception committee, she helped host a Republican luncheon with former Ambassador to Mexico Henry L. Wilson as the featured guest. In late September, she supervised in hands-on fashion the establishment of campaign headquarters for Gouverneur GOP members. In their home in early October, she and Perle hosted party leaders and their wives, and late in the month, she spoke at a party rally in Lisbon.
Such was life for one of the most active political women in the North Country. She and Perle, financially sound, hired a live-in housekeeper, which allowed Rhoda to be a mom while maintaining such a busy schedule. She sponsored, organized, and spoke at numerous events on behalf of the party over the next few years, pointing out that men were as welcome to attend as women were. She arranged rallies, spoke on important issues, and continued to serve as vice-chairman of the Republican County Committee. In that capacity, she hosted many successful events, epitomized by a reception and tea in November 1922 that attracted more than 200 attendees, including sitting and former state congressmen.
Next week, part 2: aiming high and running hard, but “anybody could beat a woman.”
Photos: Rhoda Fox Graves; headlines, Ogdensburg Journal, 1920