When Johnston was sixteen, she and her family moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and for three months the following year she attended boarding school in Atlanta, Georgia; this was her only formal education. Johnston's life changed dramatically when, in 1889, her mother died. The oldest of six children but still a teenager, Johnston took charge of the household. Apart from caring for her younger siblings, she became her father's emotional support and accompanied him on numerous business trips both across the United States and abroad.
In 1892, when the family moved to New York, Johnston was hobbled by illness. This, coupled with the economic panic from 1893 until 1897, motivated her to seek extra income through writing. Keeping her efforts a secret from her family, Johnston submitted various short stories for publication and burned the rejection notices. She also began her first novel, doing her writing in Central Park. About 1902, the family moved to Richmond, and Johnston lived in Virginia for the rest of her life. Her father died on May 21, 1905, after which her family depended heavily on her earnings as a novelist.
Writing and Politics
In addition to her literary career, Johnston was involved in numerous social causes. She advocated sex education and informing women about birth control and venereal disease, legislation protecting labor, raising public health standards, and enacting laws addressing child neglect and juvenile delinquency. During World War I (1914–1918), she remained a pacifist and considered herself a socialist. She became critical of organized religion and, to her family's dismay, withdrew her membership from the Baptist Church and turned instead to spiritualism and Theosophy (beliefs that suggest all religions contain at least some truth that contributes to humanity's eventual perfection). Johnston was a member of the Author's League, the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Association for Labor Legislation, the Woman's Trade Union League, the Consumer's League, and the Forestry Association of America.
Johnston and Suffrage
Despite her initial shyness about public speaking, Johnston became one of the most popular speakers of the movement. She wrote numerous articles and pamphlets in support of suffrage, as well as her novel and feminist manifesto, Hagar. Although Johnston preferred using more conservative methods for winning the vote, she respected radicals like Alice Paul, who engaged in civil disobedience and staged hunger strikes. On at least one occasion, Johnston served as mediator at a "peace conference" between the Congressional Union and the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
After ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920, Johnston declined an invitation to serve on the Organizing Committee of the League of Women Voters. She stated that she supported the extension of suffrage leagues in newly enfranchised states for informative purposes only and was "against any re-segregation of women in the political and social life of the country."
Johnston and Lynching
Still, Johnston did not always seek the role of activist. In fact, she rarely if ever spoke publicly against lynching and even declined a request to have the story read into the Congressional Record. Although passionate about many issues, she nevertheless tended to restrict her views to her correspondence and, occasionally, her fiction. The exception, of course, was suffrage, and some evidence suggests that Johnston was repulsed by various attacks she sustained as a suffrage activist, possibly making her hesitant to speak out again.
In 1912, Johnston constructed a new house, called Three Hills, tucked among the Blue Ridge Mountains in Warm Springs. The property played a major role in her life, but financial difficulties continued to plague her, not least because of numerous friends and relatives who lived there with her. She took in boarders in 1917 and nearly lost the house four years later. Meanwhile, Johnston's increasing activism and unconventional writing led to a sharp decline in her commercial popularity. Still, her death on May 9, 1936, of Bright's disease, made national headlines. In his eulogy, Arthur Goodrich 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."
- Prisoners of Hope (1898)
- To Have and to Hold (1900)
- Audrey (1902)
- Sir Mortimer (1904)
- Lewis Rand (1908)
- The Long Roll (1911)
- Cease Firing (1912)
- Hagar (1913)
- The Witch (1914)
- The Fortunes of Garin (1915)
- The Wanderers (1917)
- Foes (1918)
- Michael Forth (1920)
- Sweet Rocket (1920)
- Silver Cross (1922)
- 1492 (1922)
- Croatan (1924)
- The Slave Ship (1925)
- The Great Valley (1926)
- The Exile (1927)
- Hunting Shirt (1932)
- Miss Delicia Allen (1933)
- Drury Randall (1935)
- The Goddess of Reason (1907)
- The Collected Short Stories of Mary Johnston (Edited by Annie Woodbridge and Hensley C. Woodbridge, 1982)
Plays and Short Stories
- Pioneers of the Old South (1918)
- The Status of Women (Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, 1909)
November 21, 1870 - Mary Johnston is born in Buchanan, Virginia.
1900 - Mary Johnston's To Have and to Hold is published in novel form and becomes her first major success.
1921 - Mary Johnston, having been a member of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia since 1909, hails the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which grants women the right to vote.
May 9, 1936 - Mary Johnston dies of Bright's disease and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Menefee, S. P., & Brooks, C. M. Mary Johnston (1870–1936). (2012, January 18). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Johnston_Mary_1870-1936.
- MLA Citation:
Menefee, Samuel P. and Clayton McClure Brooks. "Mary Johnston (1870–1936)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 18 Jan. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: October 8, 2008 | Last modified: January 18, 2012
Contributed by Samuel P. Menefee and Clayton McClure Brooks. Samuel P. Menefee is a former Rhodes Scholar with degrees from Yale, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Virginia. He is affiliated with the Center for Oceans Law & Policy, the Center for National Security Law, and World Maritime University, and is author of several pieces in the Dictionary of National Biography of Wives for Sale: An Ethnographic Study of British Popular Divorce (1981), and of Trends in Maritime Violence (1996). Clayton McClure Brooks is a National Governors Association post-doctoral fellow in residence at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton. She is the editor of A Legacy of Leadership: Governors and American History (2008).