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  • Writer's pictureTedd Long

Celebrating Emma Jane Smith Ashley and Women's History Month

This profile of Emma J. Ashley is from my 2023 Wine, Women, and Song tour at Woodlawn Cemetery & Arboretum. Sadly, I've failed to find a photograph of Emma, so I used Chat GTP to generate this sketch of her leading a historic meeting at Hunker's Hall.

Apart from her roles as the spouse of James M. Ashley, a US Congressman and Montana Territorial Governor, and the great-grandmother of Ohio Representative Thomas Ludlow Ashley, Emma Ashley stood out as a pioneering figure among Toledo women—helping to lead the establishment of one of the nation's earliest organizations to advocate for women's rights.

Before I get into the Emma Ashley story, let's talk briefly about her husband, James, who in the late 1840s was a former riverboat clerk and then newspaperman recently admitted to the State Bar in Ohio. Still, he didn't practice law because he was too busy helping fugitive enslaved people escape to freedom. After being defeated in his run for Mayor of Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1851, James felt unsafe in southern Ohio and decided to move to Minneapolis, but on his way, he discovered Toledo, another northern town open to the idea of Abolitionism and a favorite stop on the underground railroad to Canada. Once he decided on Toledo, he returned to Portsmouth and married Emma Jayne Smith of Lexington, Kentucky, in the fall of 1851. She was fifteen years old.

The couple made their home in Toledo, where James opened a drug store near Summit and Jefferson. They raised three sons and one daughter.

In 1858, James was elected to Congress as a Republican and served five consecutive terms until March 1869. Known for shepherding the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives, some say his political career in Washington was derailed because he led the fight to impeach Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson.

March of 1869 may have ended James Ashley's career as a congressman, but it was the beginning of a new journey for Emma. On March 9, 1869, she stepped into the limelight at a public meeting she chaired at Hunker's Hall. Ever heard of it? It was above Hunker's Toy Store on Summit Street between Madison Avenue and Adams Street. This meeting was called to draft a Toledo Woman Suffrage Association constitution. It was held just four days after Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended a reception held in their honor at the Toledo home of Israel and Olivia Hall at Superior Street near Jefferson. The constitution was adopted eight days later, and Emma became President of the Toledo Woman Suffrage Association, among the earliest chapters organized in the United States.

In the 19th century, Emma, a woman whose census record modestly states her occupation as "Keeping House," witnessed her husband's ascension as a formidable politician dedicated to the liberation of enslaved individuals and the advocacy for citizenship rights of freed African Americans. Concurrently, as the nation deliberated on black suffrage, she championed the cause of women's suffrage with equal fervor. One can only envision the profound discussions that unfolded at their dinner table. Emma embodied courage and commitment to justice.

After Emma passed away in May 1912, The Toledo Woman Suffrage Association merged with the Political Equality League in 1915. The last meeting was held at the home of Mrs. Pauline Steinem, grandmother of Gloria Steinem. Today, the group that was started at the meeting held in a hall above a toy store and chaired by Emma Ashley is alive and well. We know it now as the League of Women Voters of Toledo-Lucas County.


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