By IRIS NELSON
Cora Agnes Benneson, a celebrated woman in her native Quincy and beyond, was born in 1851 to pioneers Robert and Electa Ann (Park) Benneson.
She was educated and taught in the community until her early 20s. Benneson went on to navigate a "life without precedents." In 1888 after receiving several degrees and traveling the world she moved permanently to the Boston area, where she was one of the first female lawyers. Anticipating a visit by Benneson a 1909 Quincy Journal headline states, "The Gem City is Proud of Her Distinguished Daughter." Throughout her life Benneson received accolades as a scholar, lawyer, reformer, and lecturer.
Benneson grew up with three older sisters, Alice, Annie, and Caroline, in a mansion at 241 Jersey Street on the bluffs of the Mississippi River. The impressively landscaped residence allowed a view of fourteen miles of the river and bird's eye view of the passing steamers.
The Benneson girls were schooled by their mother who had been a teacher in New England. Cora was an enthusiastic reader and at 12 read and wrote Latin. Benneson attended the Quincy Academy during the Civil War and graduated with a high school diploma when she was 15. She enrolled in the Quincy Female Seminary, established in the fall of 1867, and graduated on June 26, 1869 when she was 18. Benneson stayed on as an instructor of English from 1869 to 1872. She was an early member of Friends in Council, a women's study group, and a member of the Unitarian Church where she founded the original Unity Club, a forum on leading topics of the day.
Benneson's parents were involved community leaders in politics and education. Robert Benneson served as an alderman for several years, mayor from 1859-60, and a member of the School Board for 16 years (1870-1886). Benneson was initially in the lumber business and later built what was known as the Benneson Block on the south side of Maine Street between Fifth and Sixth streets. The Bennesons helped to establish the Unitarian church in Illinois. Entertaining notable men who lectured in the Midwest, Benneson dinner guests included Ralph Waldo Emerson, lecturer and essayist, who it is said made the "greatest impact upon Benneson's developing mind."
In 1875 Benneson enrolled at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor shortly after women were accepted. She completed the four-year course of study in three and was the first woman editor of the university newspaper, The Chronicle. She then applied to law school at Harvard but was denied because Harvard did not have "suitable provision for receiving women." She attended the law school at the University of Michigan and was one of two women in her law class of 175. With her law degree obtained in 1880 she stayed on to receive a master's degree in jurisprudence and German. Benneson was admitted to the Michigan bar in March 1880 and Illinois bar in June 1880.
To broaden her knowledge of legal procedures around the world Bennesen toured foreign cultures to see their legal systems. She also made of point of looking into the treatment of women and opportunities available for them in foreign countries. In this quest she embarked on a two-year and four month journey leaving Quincy on June 13, 1883. On Oct. 2, 1883, the Philadelphia Chronicle-Herald noted that "Miss Cora Benneson, the Quincy, Illinois female lawyer, is making a tour around the world."
Traveling with a Miss White of Boston, the two sailed first to Hong Kong. With some risk they toured Canton, China with Cora reporting that war with France seemed "imminent." From there the journey took them to Japan and on to India, Burma, Abyssinia, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Norway, Russia, Italy, France and England. In the fall of 1885 they returned to the states sailing from Queenstown, Ireland.
As she circumnavigated the globe, Benneson documented her exotic and notable experiences. Her father, Robert, made a practice of taking her letters to the children of the grammar division of Jefferson School. A Quincy Daily Journal story of March 14, 1884 indicates the students anxiously followed her travel experiences.
Once back in Quincy those stories were relayed in lecture series throughout 1886 and 1887.
Briefly in 1886, she was the law editor of the Law Reporter of West Publishing. From the fall of 1887 to spring of 1888 Benneson was a fellow in history at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia and studied administration under future President Woodrow Wilson.
Fourteen years after leaving law school Benneson opened what became a successful law practice. The Boston Globe announced in December 1894 that Benneson was admitted to the bar in Massachusetts and established her law practice in her home at 4 Mason Street in Cambridge, now on the Harvard campus. The Quincy Morning Whig reported that a number of Quincy people were present to witness the proceedings.
When Benneson moved to the Boston area, she attended Radcliffe College earning a second masters degree in 1902.
Benneson, steeped in advocacy for equal rights and suffrage while a young woman in Quincy, worked with suffrage leaders throughout her life. Benneson was a good friend of suffragist Lucy Stone, a prominent organizer for the rights of women. Benneson spoke about the new roles of women in both the private and public spheres. On a visit to Quincy in 1895 she spoke to the Women's Council on June 14 as a proponent for full suffrage. The Boston Globe on Sunday, Feb. 17, 1895, reported that Benneson spoke at a symposium titled, "The Coming Woman."
The New York Times of June 27, 1900, reported that Cora Benneson, Massachusetts attorney and special commissioner, presented a paper, "The Power of Our Courts to Interpret the Constitution," at the 49th general session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the Social Economic Group at Columbia University. Benneson studied questions concerning government and wrote on topics such as "Executive Discretion in the United States" and "Federal Guarantees for Maintaining Republican Government in the States." Recognized by the Association she was made a fellow in 1899. Apart from government research, Benneson frequently authored articles on law, education, politics and social science.
At the age of 68, Benneson was prepared to undertake a new direction in life as a civics teacher under a program for the Americanization of immigrants. She had just received her Massachusetts certification when she died in her home in Cambridge on June 8, 1919. Her cremated remains arrived in Quincy on June 16 and her ashes are buried with the family in the Benneson lot at Woodland Cemetery.
Iris Nelson is reference librarian and archivist at Quincy Public Library, a civic volunteer, and member of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Interpretive Center Advisory Board and other historical organizations. She is a local historian and author.
"Admitted to the Boston Bar." Quincy Morning Whig, December 15, 1894.
Bar none: 125 years of women lawyers in Illinois. Chicago: Chicago Bar Association Alliance for Women, 1998.
"Brilliant Woman Dies: Miss Cora Benneson was Native of Quincy." Quincy Daily Herald, June 12, 1919.
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"Personal." Quincy Herald, June 10, 1883.
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"Scientists in Conference." New York Times, June 27, 1990.
Trueblood, Mary Esther. "Cora Agnes Benneson." Representative Women of New England. Boston: George H. Ellis Co., 1904.
"Urn Containing Ashes of Woman Has Arrived." Quincy Daily Journal, June 16, 1919.