MILFORD, PA — She advocated for women’s rights—especially the right to vote. She helped put an end to child labor and fought for higher wages for workers. She pushed hard for …
MILFORD, PA — She advocated for women’s rights—especially the right to vote. She helped put an end to child labor and fought for higher wages for workers. She pushed hard for equality for Black people. And she ran—unsuccessfully—for Congress three times.
Her name was Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, and her story will be told in a living history performance, “Cornelia in Confidence,” which will be presented free of charge on Saturday and Sunday, July 15 and 16, at the Columns Museum.
Cornelia was “well versed in politics in a time when most women didn’t dare get involved or vocalize their opinions,” said Lori Strelecki, director of the Columns Museum and the writer of “Cornelia in Confidence.”
She “would fight for change and speak her mind. She was true to her causes and true to herself and her story is one worth telling.”
Cornelia Bryce, born into the Gilded Age in 1881, was the daughter of wealthy journalist and politician Lloyd Bryce. A native of Newport, RI, she could have focused on gracious living and beautiful clothes and ensuring that her social status was secure—a character in an Edith Wharton novel.
Instead, she dyed her hair red and joined the Progressive party. “A natural-born rebel, Cornelia had spirit, drive and independent means,” according to a page about her on the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) website.
Gifford Pinchot, whom Cornelia married in 1914, introduced her to Grey Towers, the family home.
Gifford’s ancestors had fled France because of the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, and they settled in Milford’s French Huguenot community, said Tracie Rohner, information services assistant for the USFS, and Jennifer Kosinski, technician at the USFS, in an email.
The USFS is the agency that oversees Grey Towers National Historic Site. Gifford was the first chief of the agency; in 1963, the family donated Grey Towers and 102 acres to the forest service.
“ wanted to create a way that made people communicate,” Rohner and Kosinski wrote.
The politically active Pinchots “used Grey Towers as a stage and had several political dinners and people of different political backgrounds to visit.”
Cornelia kept an office at Grey Towers “to help champion her causes,” they wrote. A doubles desk, used by her and her secretary, now sits in the Baitbox, her son’s former playhouse.
When Gifford ran for governor in 1922, Cornelia was there to help. She was one of the main reasons he won, Rohner and Kosinski wrote. “After women won the right to vote [in 1920], she had her friends vote for Gifford [as did her friends’ husbands], so he won in a landslide.”
She championed many civil rights causes, which also resonated locally, Rohner and Kosinski wrote. “Cornelia was the first woman on the local school board. She fought for women’s right to vote and to get children out of the mines in Pennsylvania.”
As Teddy Roosevelt, a family friend, put it, when he endorsed her for Congress: “She knew more about politics than any other woman… Mrs. Pinchot is nationally known for her ability, her fearlessness, and her knowledge in public affairs… She understands the needs and problems of the people of the district, and at Washington, she will stand for and work for their interest.”
Cornelia didn’t win her races, but her legacy lives on.
She was “a social justice advocate,” Rohner and Kosminski said of her; Cornelia died in 1960, three years before Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. “She physically down barriers at Grey Towers, so that people treated as equals.
Some information taken from the Forest Service website, www.fs.usda.gov/detail/greytowers.
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