Womens suffrage photo

Cora Mitchel

The Mitchel Sisters – Cora, Sophie and Floride – were very active in Portsmouth culture and social reform movements.  Through their mother, Sophia Brownell Mitchel, they had long roots in the Bristol Ferry area.  Their father was a cotton merchant in Florida before the Civil War and the Mitchel family had to literally escape the South once the fighting began.  They came to Bristol Ferry because it was an ancestral and summer home for them.

Did you know that the Bristol Ferry area was a hotbed of the Women’s Suffrage movement.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her History of Woman Suffrage 1900-1920 wrote: “Among the nerve centers of suffrage activity in Rhode Island the Newport County Woman Suffrage League had a definite place from its founding in 1908, by Miss Cora Mitchell, its first president. The League’s work was at first largely carried on by an active group of philanthropic women of Bristol Ferry, Miss Mitchell’s friends and neighbors, among whom were Miss Sarah J. Eddy, Mrs. John Eldredge and Mrs. Barton Ballou. Gradually the suffrage agitation spread over the entire island, which includes the three townships of Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport.”  Cora remained active in demonstrations and organizing activities for many years.

Sophie was a talented artist and was among those in the Bristol Ferry artist community that had gathered around Sarah Eddy.  Sophie had studios in both Brooklyn and Portsmouth.  In 1908 Sophie built a house and studio on Bristol Ferry.  She traveled around the United States and Europe.  Subjects for her landscapes were Newport, Nantucket, Germany, Mexico, Long Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Cape Cod, etc.  She often led young socialite ladies on sketching tours.  She liked painting portraits, but she was more known for her landscapes and flower themes.  She exhibited in her own studios and also in more prestigious Boston art shows.

Floride Mitchel May was a mother and grandmother. Floride was the older sister of the Mitchel girls and she married around the time the Civil War began.  She and her husband moved from Florida to Georgia and Cora was sent to live with her and go to school.   Their mother, Sophia Brownell Mitchel, did not want to move north without Cora, so she undertook a very dangerous trip to get Cora before she managed to shepherd her family to Bristol Ferry.  Floride came to Bristol Ferry, probably after her husband died.

Bristol Ferry Map edit

Note Mitchel family land on 1907 Portsmouth map.

Floride’s daughter,  Clara, married famous artist Oscar Miller.  Clara took part in many of the activities that her aunts pursued.  She was among those doing suffrage work.  She was active in the arts exhibits in the County Fair.  Once the women got the vote, Clara was active in Republican politics.  In 1920 she was one of the organizers of the Newport County Women’s Republican Club.  She was a delegate to the state Republican convention.  Even after her husband’s death she continued as a patron of the arts for a Swanhurst Concert.

Portsmouth benefited from the work of all the Mitchel/May women.  Their activities in suffrage, the arts and politics made them women ahead of their time.