The Women Behind the Memorials: ‘Citizen’ Pennybacker founded a long tradition of teaching, lecturing, organizing at CWC

The Women Behind the Memorials

Anna Pennybacker

Reporter’s note: The Chautauqua Women’s Club’s 125th celebration this season offers the opportunity to illuminate and celebrate the remarkable women who have made Chautauqua what it is. These women brought intelligence, energy and leadership to every project they touched. Testimony to their achievements remains in the buildings that bear their names, the organizations they created and the words they wrote. This series will attempt to recall their individuality, their interests and finally a suggestion of who they were as people — a sense of the women behind the memorials, of women who cast a long shadow. We continue with Anna Pennybacker.

Anna J. Hardwicke Pennybacker signed her 1936 letter to John D. Rockefeller Jr., “I am, most faithfully yours, Anna J. H. Pennybacker.”

The Chautauqua Women’s Club president was requesting $15,184 from Rockefeller, a final contribution that would complete the approximately $750,000 owed Chautauqua creditors. There is something about the “I am” which concentrates the imagination. It can be argued that her signature was a convention of the era. However, looking through the prism of time and learning of Pennybacker’s national and Chautauqua achievements, it can be considered a clue to this woman’s admirable, intriguing and forceful persona.

Who was this petite, elegant woman from Austin, who was always pictured in long dresses, hair perfectly coifed? Who was this woman who would not hesitate to write, in a familiar tone to Rockefeller, the wealthiest American of the time, and befriend Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, governor of New York and soon-to-be presidential candidate? 

When she began her 21-year reign as CWC president in 1917, the first non-Vincent or Miller female to hold the office, Pennybacker was a national figure. She had just completed four years as president of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, a formidable women’s organization and was trustee of the Leslie Woman’s Suffrage Commission. Though Pennybacker was an advocate for women’s equality and world peace — and would bring that advocacy to the CWC — she was not a radical.

Kelley Marie King said in her thorough 2010 Pennybacker biography, Call Her a Citizen, that “Pennybacker spent the ’20s and ’30s promoting causes in which she believed strongly … As she had most of her life, she avoided extreme positions and consistently took a moderate approach, supporting for example the League for Peace and the United Nations Non Partisan Association, but avoiding connection with organizations perceived as more radical, such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Pennybacker remained a reformer, not a revolutionary.”

For Pennybacker, moderation did not mean inaction, and this was true for Chautauqua. 

0718anna-pennybacker1During the 85th CWC anniversary year, an article in The Chautauquan Daily on Aug. 8, 1974, stated that “the Pennybacker presidency is remembered for ‘other firsts’: the start of the scholarship program and annual poetry contest; the building of the present Club House, the annual Life Members Party and the January 25, 1935, White House reception given by Mrs. Roosevelt.” 

The Texas State Historical Association bio states succinctly: “She was a principal influence behind the Chautauqua, New York, Women’s Club.”

The Aug. 8, 1974, Daily article introduces a discussion of Pennybacker’s leadership style. It implies she was authoritarian — some might say autocratic — but she was always perceived as benevolent and motivated by high ideals. In the article, Mrs. Philip C. Hodil, who joined the CWC in 1922, “recalled that she was a regular martinet. She made a lot of people attend all the programs.” 

The article quickly adds that “her contemporaries called her affectionately, ‘the little general,’ although the petite philanthropist’s commanding manner easily softened into a diplomacy which revealed her true love for people.”

The “general” characterization resonates. 

Rebecca Richmond’s 1941 somewhat-novelesque Pennybacker biography A Woman of Texas recounts how, as a young student, she added the initial “J” to her name. Friends thought the “J” stood for Stonewall Jackson, though it was never proven.

Richmond explains why Pennybacker’s authoritarian leadership was not only accepted, but respected: “She was always indisputably actuated by the good of the organization to which she was giving her loyal service. Women, agreeing or disagreeing with her message or methods, conceded that. She had no time for small hindering motives. A cause she maintained was always bigger than any woman. She always kept in view the end that must be achieved.”

There is frequent reference to her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. They met in 1924, seven years into Pennybacker’s tenure as CWC president. Both were active in Democratic Party politics, and King wrote that “Eleanor Roosevelt viewed Pennybacker, 23 years her senior, as a mentor.” 

King also viewed the Roosevelt/Pennybacker relationship as mutually beneficial and an example of Pennybacker’s understanding of the symbiotic nature of politics.

May 7, 1861

Born, Petersburg, Virginia. Daughter of John Benjamin and Martha (Dews) Hardwicke
 Feb. 4, 1938 Died, Austin
 Education First class of Sam Houston Normal School in Huntsville, Texas. She scored 100 percent on her entrance exam. Taught for 14 years.
 1884 ­ Married Percy V. Pennybacker; four children
 1888 Wrote and published A New History of Texas
 1901-1903 President of Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs
Chautauqua Women’s Club Presidency
 1919–20 ­ Associate member of the Democratic National Committee
 1920 Chairman Child Welfare Committee of the League of Women Voters
 1920–24 ­
American Citizenship Department of Womens’ Club

“Pennybacker’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt provided the Roosevelts with important contacts, connections, and information needed for Franklin’s political career,” King said. “At the same time, Pennybacker used the Roosevelts’ support to advance her work in support of both Chautauqua and the World Court and League of Nations.”

That sense of one hand washing the other can be read in the concluding paragraph of the Rockefeller request, which came from the Rockefeller Archives in New York.

“Please remember me to Mrs. Rockefeller,” Pennybacker wrote. “It was a privilege to work under her and with her when the Y.W.C.A. called in during the War, as Advisory Council, 100 women from other organizations.”

Somehow, it is difficult to envision Pennybacker working under anyone — even Mrs. Rockefeller. There is one letter from the Oliver Archives that hints at Pennybacker’s non-deferential style. 

On Jan. 27, 1930, she wrote to Chautauqua Institution President Arthur Bestor about her concern that a certain picture had not been used in the publicity materials. 

“It has so much more character than the other pictures that I really have grieved over it being cast aside,” she wrote. “Many other magazines have used it. I will feel better if you will explain to me why.”

He did on Feb. 13, explaining briefly that the picture’s style did not fit with the others.

There is one event in her personal life that must be mentioned, the 1899 death of her husband, Percy V. Pennybacker, after just 15 years of marriage. It seems to have been a “marriage of true minds,” according to Richmond’s book, and her loss was profound. 

Richmond wrote that, some time after his death, Pennybacker caught herself unawares in a mirror and “she had not been aware before of how much she had changed. This would not do. She must not let the large purposes of her life be broken. Her husband had had faith in her. This faith must be her strength now and many times thereafter when problems were to be faced and decisions made.”

She never remarried and evolved into the supremely independent, confident woman who appeared at Chautauqua in 1917. 

On the occasion of her 70th birthday she would tell a Daily reporter that she had really followed three occupations: “teaching, lecturing, and organizing: this last, one of the most fascinating, deals not alone with getting women to work together harmoniously but helping them to discover new talents in themselves.”

Now, 125 years since its founding, the CWC continues its work in that vein, along Pennybacker’s “occupations.”

In August 2010, former CWC president and Austin resident Barbara Vackar concluded her talk on Pennybacker at the Oliver Archives Lecture series with this comment:

“It took me 61 years to learn of Anna Pennybacker, and it saddens me that so few of my Chautauqua and Austin friends know of her,” she said. “I hope that you will appreciate the importance she has had in all of our lives and continue to flame her memory.”