Graduate student Leeah Mahon brings Eugenie out from behind the shadow of her famous husband.
If you are a Hoosier, you may have heard of Meredith Nicholson. Indiana Humanities operates out of the former home of Nicholson, and we celebrate him as a leading author during the “Golden Age of Indiana Literature.” However, did you know that his wife Eugenie Kountze Nicholson was an intelligent, politically outspoken leading proponent of suffrage, as well as a dedicated civil servant in nineteenth-century Indianapolis?
“The Beginnings of Her Exquisite Unselfishness”
Eugenie Kountze Nicholson was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on July 11, 1867, to Herman and Elizabeth Davis Kountze. Her family was prosperous; her father founded banks in New York, Omaha and Denver. During her teenage years, Eugenie lived with her grandparents in Indianapolis, where her grandfather Thomas Davis had established the Sinker-Davis Company, and attended the Girls’ Classical School and the Kappas School.
Although Eugenie was only a year younger than Meredith and Indianapolis was a small city, the two apparently did not meet before she left for Vassar. Instead, they first encountered each other at a social event in the early 1890s. Eugenie was visiting Indianapolis, the guest of honor at a party thrown by fellow Vassar classmates. Meredith, a newspaperman and one of the city’s most eligible bachelors, also attended. Eugenie and Meredith hit it off instantly and were engaged in September 1895. They married on June 16, 1896.
Indeed, Eugenie Nicholson was key to her husband’s success. As a young father, Meredith pursued an unfulfilling business career in Denver, but Eugenie helped persuade him to give it up and follow his true passion for writing. Eugenie’s family money also allowed him to take up this less lucrative work. She provided him with insights and ideas, and anecdotal evidence suggests that she played a significant part in reviewing and editing his best-selling works.
Apart from her role as supporting wife, Eugenie was also a brilliant and accomplished woman in her own right. Before moving to Indianapolis, she attended the prestigious all-female Vassar College (class of 1888), where she was an honors student and member of Phi Beta Kappa. While at Vassar, Eugenie wrote for the college newspaper, the Vassar Miscellany. Her articles included literary analyses and reviews and, most notably, opinion pieces. Eugenie retained her strong political opinions well into the 1910s, when she became a fervent proponent for women’s suffrage. Politics were not her only passion—charitable works, including WWI relief efforts, were also important to her.
“A Woman Is as Much a Citizen as a Man”
After Eugenie and Meredith settled in Indianapolis in 1901, she became involved politically, philanthropically and socially. Never afraid to speak her mind, she became increasingly involved in women’s suffrage in the 1910s, serving as vice president of the Woman’s Franchise League of Indiana from 1912 to 1915. This period coincides with the revitalization of the suffrage movement in Indiana, thanks to the leadership of Grace Julian Clarke, among others.
In 1911, the state legislature took up a women’s suffrage bill. Eugenie and her husband Meredith each testified before the legislature on behalf of it. In his testimony, Meredith wondered “why woman should be educated up to the point where she asks questions and then is told that she was educated merely out of compliment to the public schools and that the men, in their superior wisdom, shall take care of things.”
In an Indianapolis Star article from the time, Eugenie wrote, “Women are citizens and they should be granted a citizen’s privileges. They should not be compelled to fight for suffrage. It is their simple right and should be extended without question since a woman is as much a citizen as a man.”
Eugenie also belonged to civic groups such as the Indianapolis Woman’s Club, the Contemporary Club, the Progressive Club, the Indianapolis Public Health Association and the Art Association of Indianapolis. After the United States entered World War I in 1917, war work became the focus of Eugenie’s attention. She was the head of the Red Cross’s Surgical Dressing Division from March to July 1917. She also led the canteen service at Indianapolis’s Union Station, “often working all night” between March 1918 and the summer of 1919. It was after this arduous and selfless war work, which is said to have taken a toll on her health, that Eugenie was forced to retire from her social and civic work. She died on December 20, 1931.
Eugenie Nicholson was a passionate and dedicated individual who nurtured not only her own family through encouragement and support, but also her fellow woman and wider community. She was a progressive woman before her time, and had she been born today, she just might have overshadowed her famous husband.
Leeah Mahon will graduate with a master’s degree in public history in May 2020. Over the last year, she has interned with Indiana Humanities and helped to guide suffrage centennial activities.