Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Lavinia Margaret Engle (1892-1979)
MSA SC 3520-11633


The Women's Suffrage Movement, with its formal beginnings in 1848, began to take hold of a significant portion of the population at the dawn of the twentieth century.  Women around the globe actively fought for the passage of laws granting them greater equality with men and the right to vote.  Against this backdrop, Lavinia Margaret Engle was swept up in the suffrage cause and devoted her life to achieving greater equality for women and better rights for all members of society.  As the first female delegate from Montgomery County in the Maryland House of Delegates and a prominent leader in the suffrage movement, Engle pioneered in her activism and became a source of inspiration to countless numbers of individuals.  In Notable Maryland Women, Nancy Revelle Johnson describes the significance Engle had for others of her time: "Her own life was an example to other women emerging from their cocoons of domesticity, as she led Maryland women to involve themselves in efforts to improve not only the position of women and children but of all people."1

Lavinia Margaret Engle was born on May 23, 1892 in Forest Glen, Maryland.  Lavinia's parents, both Quakers, undoubtedly influenced the development of her political activism.  Her father, James Melvin Engle, was a Treasury Department official, while her mother, Lavinia Hauke Engle, an active suffragette, frequently lectured at various women's clubs in the area and was also the first president of the Montgomery League of Women Voters.   In addition, Lavinia Hauke Engle had joined Susan B. Anthony to testify for women's suffrage before Congress.2  Young Lavinia looked up to her mother and aspired to continue in the fight for equality.  After completing her early schooling, Lavinia went to Antioch College where she earned her BA in 1912.  Later in her life, Engle decided to return to school at The Johns Hopkins University where she was the first woman graduate student in political science. 

For the time being, however, Lavinia chose to take a break from her studies after receiving her BA and joined the National American Women's Suffrage Association, or NAWSA, in 1914.  This association, in contrast to the more militant actions followed by the Women's Party, was based on utilizing more tactful and peaceful methods to achieve the integration of women into the existing political system.  Engle much preferred the techniques of justice, logic, and persuasion espoused by NAWSA to obtain suffrage, and enjoyed working with the organization.  She became one of the primary coordinators of campaigns. She spent much of her time traveling through the southern states to spread the message of NAWSA, and was instrumental in organizing the state association for suffrage in South Carolina.3  Her devotion to NAWSA and women's suffrage can be seen in the great lengths she went to in order to persuade others to support her cause.  An example of this was the occasion when she had to ride on mule back up a dry creek bed in West Virginia to plead successfully for a legislator's support for a suffrage amendment to the state's constitution.4  On March 3, 1913, a large march on Washinton D.C. was planned.  NAWSA wanted advocates to travel down Pennsylvania Avenue from Capitol Hill to the White House to persuade the President and onlookers to amend the law of the land in support of women's suffrage.  However, the women were greeted by hostile crowds, mainly composed of men, who surged into the street forcing police to break up the demonstration.  The suffragettes immediately demanded an investigation into the matter and garnered the support of many senators.  Eventually, a verdict was handed down castigating the police for not providing enough protection for the marchers, who had the right to protest.  Lavinia Engle, though realizing the dangers of her campaigning, reveled in the work she performed.  NAWSA was one of the first major groups to go public with its message and demonstrate in cities and towns nationwide.5  Although the women had to deal with intimidating crowds, hecklers, and violence on a regular basis, Engle, along with her fellow suffragettes, recognized the excitement of their venture and looked to the future with the hope that their dreams would be realized.

Lavinia Engle and thousands of other suffrage supporters in the country were overjoyed when the 19th Amendment granting women's suffrage was ratified in 1920.  However, when the ultimate goal of NAWSA finally came to fruition, there was no real need for the organization to continue, and, therefore, it disbanded.  Feeling discouraged over this latest development, Engle insisted a need for a group, such as NAWSA, still existed.  In 1920, the Maryland League of Women Voters was innagurated as the new outlet to support women's suffrage rights.  Developed with the help of Lavinia Engle, who was the director until 1936, the Maryland League of Women Voters sought to ensure that women were able to effectively utilize their newly obtained political power and safeguard against problems or set-backs designed to hamper female voter registration.6  In April 1922, Baltimore was host to one of the biggest functions of the Maryland League.  The Pan-American Conference of Women brought together women from around the world to discuss suffrage and equality.  The ten-day event was primarily organized by Engle, and was a resounding success.  At the close of the ceremonies, she was honored by the conference attendees and the National League of Women Voters: "in appreciation of the initiative which prompted her to suggest a Pan-American Conference," which indicated her importance to the formation of the event.7  During her tenure with the Maryland League of Women Voters, Lavinia Engle also extended her influence to the Maryland government as the legislative representative of the League.  She lobbied for laws to benefit women and children and was instrumental in the passage of the Juvenile Court Act, the establishment of a State Department of Infant and Maternal Hygiene, the establishment of the Commission on Almshouses, the reorganzation of the Board of State Aid to Charities, and a law providing minors compensation for injuries when illegally employed.8 

During this time, Lavinia Engle was a part of various state commissions, such as the Commission on Reorganization of the State Administrative Departments in 1921 and the State Commission on Higher Education in 1930.  However, in 1930, she decided to broaden her activism by becoming intimately involved with the state government and running for the Maryland House of Delegates.  If elected, she would then be able to better affect change over laws concerning women and children.  She promptly announced her name would be placed on the Democratic ticket as a candidate for the member of the House of Delegates from Montgomery County.  In announcing her qualification for the position, Engle stated, "My work for several years for educational and social legislation has led me to believe that as a member of the House of Delegates I should be able to present a point of view which would make some small contribution to the solution of the many and serious questions which will come before the next two sessions."9  The November 1930 election proved to be successful for Engle, as she won a seat in the House of Delegates.  Immediately she set to work to improve the rights of women and children.  Although she was only in the House of Delegates for one term, Lavinia Engle was able to accomplish some very impressive feats.  She worked on the passage of the Marriage Bill, which required that five days had to elapse after the issuance of a marriage license before the marriage could be performed, and she played an important role in the campaign to enact social insurance legislation.  In 1933, she prevented the compulsory unemployment insurance bill from being defeated and was later invited by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to participate in the White House Conference on Economic Security due to her work.10  In 1936, Engle resigned as Director of the Maryland League of Women Voters in order to accept the appointment by President Roosevelt to the Social Security Board as an educational representative.  In this position, Engle traveled around the country to speak at college campuses to encourage students to get involved with the Social Security program via internships and study.  She also spoke to women's organizations to explain the provisions of the Social Security Act by showing "how the act affects them as employers or employees and how it will affect their families and communities."11  Based on her exceptional work in this position, Engle was quickly promoted to the chief of field operations in the Washinton D.C. headquarters.  Engle remained with the Social Security Board until her retirement in 1966.

Over the course of her fifty year career, Lavinia Engle was also involved in various other activities, which include: organizer and speaker for the Liberty Loan Committee, 1917; organizer of a suffrage field hospital staffed by women, 1917; worker with the YMCA canteen services in France, Belgium, and occupied Germany; 1919; delegate at large to the National Democratic Convention in Chicago, 1932; head of the Speakers Bureau of the Women's Division of the Roosevelt Campaign, 1932; speaker on "Unemployment Insurance" before the International Conference of Women in Chicago, July 1933; the first woman to serve on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, 1933; delegate to the White House Conference on Aging, 1972;  member of the Hamilton Street Club;  member of the Board of Governors of the Baltimore College Club; member of the Montgomery County Commission on Aging; member of the American Political Science Association; member of the American society for Public Administration, and president of the Metropolitan chapter of the Public Administration Society.12  In addition, Engle was the recipient of many distinguished awards, including: honorary membership in the Sorority of the Women of the Republic of Salvador, 1922; the Certificate of Distinguished Citizenship from the state of Maryland; and the Susan B. Anthony Medal of the League of Women Voters.13 

Lavinia Margaret Engle, who died on May 29, 1979, devoted her life to working for women's suffrage, equlity, and civil rights.  Her accomplishments vividly portray the strength of her character in the face of extreme odds.  She perservered in a period and cultural climate that was adverse to the advancement of women.  She never gave up her fight nor relinquished her beliefs; qualities which were admired by her contemporaries and which will continue to inspire generations to come.                                   

1.  Johnson, Nancy Revelle. "Lavinia Margaret Engle, 1892- :Volunteer and Political Leader," in Notable Maryland Women, ed. Winifred G. Helmes (Cambridge: MD, Tidewater Publishers, 1977) 127.   return to text

2.  Pearson, Richard. "Lavinia Engle, Women's Advocate," The Washington Post, 30 May 1979.   return to text

3.  Luckett, Margie H.  Maryland Women (Baltimore, MD: King Brothers Inc. Press, 1931) 126.   return to text

4.  Stegman, Carolyn B. Women of Achievement in Maryland History (Maryland: Anaconda Press, 2002) 35.   return to text

5.  Johnson, 123.   return to text

6. "Commission for Women - Montgomery County Women's History Archives," Montgomery County Government, 2005.   return to text

7.  "Famous Women Paid Tribute at Close of Rally," The Baltimore Sun, 24 April 1922.   return to text

8.  Stegman, 35.   return to text

9.  "Lavinia Engle Comes Out for Legislature," The Baltimore Sun, 2 July 1930.   return to text

10.  Johnson, 125.   return to text

11.  "Lavinia Engle Gets Security Board Position," The Baltimore Sun, 6 June 1936.   return to text

12.  Johnson.  return to text

13.  Pearson.   return to text

Biography written by 2005 summer intern Lauren Morton

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