Grave of the Week: Frances Kellor

One year ago today, the United States Supreme Court handed down its historic decision extending and affirming the right to marry to same sex couples. Grounded in the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment, the Obergefell case has joined the ranks of landmark civil rights cases decided by the court (sadly a list still more or less on balance with decisions denying civil rights). By the time the decision was handed down in June of 2015, over 30 states – by legal action, legislative action, or popular action – had made same sex marriage legal, though only a dozen years earlier it had not been a recognized right anywhere in the United States. That means that for most of American history, same sex couples were forced to live in the shadows.

Frances Kellor
Grave of Frances Kellor, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY

Today’s Grave of the Week is that of Frances Kellor. Her name is not a commonly known one, though perhaps it should be; she was a critically important figure in the Progressive era, with influence in the realms of politics, immigration, racial equality, housing equity, women’s suffrage, equal access, and sports. She was also a lesbian whose long-time partnership with Mary Dreier, while accepted warmly by Mary’s family, was not and could not be recognized legally. I’m going to save a deeper discussion of Kellor’s importance for later, but I wanted to recognize her here in particular because of the nature of her grave, and her gravesite.

Theodor Dreier
Grave of Frances Kellor, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY

Critics of the Obergefell decision, and of same sex marriage generally, worry of social engineering – of law and government changing how people live, in their minds for the worse. Uncovering and remembering same sex partnerships buried in the past can go a long way toward saying what is obvious: same sex relationships are not new, they are not radical, and they are not threatening. They are now and have always been about what we hope every marriage is about: family, together, forever.Frances Kellor is buried in Brooklyn’s famed Green-Wood Cemetery, one of the nation’s most beautiful and important burying grounds. Kellor herself had no living family, but by the time of her death in 1952 she had been with her partner Mary for nearly 50 years, and is buried in the Dreier family plot. I’m indebted here to John Press, Kellor’s biographer, who did the legwork in finding her grave; the only work I had to do was a Google search to find his blog post about it here. As he points out, that she was buried alongside her partner and her partner’s family is quite notable, an indication that no matter the legal standing, her family recognized her as Mary’s wife in life and in death. Her stone is small and unadorned, slightly off to the side, but it is there nevertheless, with her family.

For anyone interested in more about Kellor, there’s plenty out there. John Press has done a lot of work on her, though is perhaps I think a little over-enamored, especially when it comes to Kellor’s support for the Americanization movement of the early twentieth century. You can find his site here, and his blog here, though it hasn’t been updated in a few years.

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