Sunday, November 13, 2016

... novelist, suffragist, social advocate: meeting the late Mary Johnston...

 “Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings - always darker, emptier and simpler.”

~Friedrich Nietzsche
Mary Jonston's grave (left)- picture taken by me
Mary Johnston was an early women's rights advocate, using her wealth and fame to promote the women's suffrage movement. She was a popular writer who wrote what we now consider historical romances. She was also the first woman to top best-seller lists in the twentieth century.

Her first two books, Prisoners of Hope (1898) and To Have and to Hold (1900) focused on colonial times in Virginia. Sir Mortimer (1904) and The Goddess of Reason (1907) use the backdrop of the French Revolution; and, in Lewis Rand (1908) the political life at the dawn of the 19th century was included. Hagar (1913) is arguably the most controversial of her work. Considered to be one of the first feminist novels, Johnston wrote in a semi-autobiographical way about the early efforts of women’s rights with a focus on women’s suffrage. The book created some controversy with women who were more traditionally-focused women and they refused to purchase any more of her novels. Her novel The Witch (1914) was about a woman in seventeenth-century England accused of witchcraft.

Portrait of Mary Johnston
Johnston was ahead of her time. She wrote a short story called "Nemesis" (1923) which depicted the lynching of a black man in a small southern town. The story dramatized the events following the lynching and even included the psychological impact on those involved. This was published seven years before the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching was founded. It also appeared five years prior to the Virginia Anti-Lynching Law, the first law in the United States to term lynching a state crime, was passed in 1928.

Walter White, assistant secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), wrote Johnston to say that he had never "read any story on this great national disgrace of ours which moved me as yours did."
On November 27, 1909, a group of women, including Ellen Glasgow and Lila Meade Valentine who are also buried in Hollywood Cemetery with Ms. Glasgow, found the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia.

The World's Work, 1909:
Picture of Mary Johnston
Public Domain
In 1913, in a letter to Lila Meade Valentine, Mary Johnston defends black women and encourages their inclusion in the suffrage movement.

Johnston was close friends with author Margaret Mitchell, who is best known for her novel Gone with the Wind (1936).

Johnston never married. When she died in 1936, playwright Arthur Goodrich gave her eulogy and reflected, "Each generation contributes to the world, too sparingly, its tiny few are the truly great. Mary Johnston was, I believe, one of those few in our time." 

I was fortunate enough to meet Ms. Johnston in Hollywood Cemetery in 2014.

Works Cited

Brooks, Clayton McClure, Samuel P. Menefee and Brendan Wolfe. "Mary Johnston (1870–1936)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Mar. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

Johnston, Mary. “Nemesis” The Century Magazine. May 1923. pp.3-22. Web. November 2016.


  1. Just another reason why I love cemeteries so much ... we meet the most interesting people there!

    I instantly recognized the location of your photo of Ms. Johnston's final resting place. In the background, I see one of my favorite roses at Hollywood Cemetery ... I call it "Dorsey-Cosby Red China" Just out of the frame is 'Safrano' on the Staples lot. 'Duchesse de Brabant' is also nearby. Ms. Johnston sleeps in a very rosy spot.

  2. Thank you for highlighting women's history!