Mary Thistlewaite Birdsall was a premier suffragist and advocate of women’s right in the State of Indiana during the mid-19th century. Mary Thistlewaite married in 1848 (at the age of 19) and she and her husband, Thomas, became actively involved in the vanguard social movements of the period—emancipation, temperance, and suffrage.
The first Indiana Women’s Rights Convention was held in Richmond in 1852. Mary Birdsall was elected secretary of that convention and also of the second convention, held the following year in Richmond. After having served at the state level, she served as vice-president for the 4th National Women’s Rights Convention held in Cleveland. In 1854, the Indiana Women’s Rights Convention moved from Richmond to Indianapolis, where it was regarded with much disdain by the local press. Fortunately for the cause, the Convention was not deterred and continued to hold the meeting in Indianapolis for several more years and attracted national figures in the suffrage movement like Lucretia Mott. However, the Convention returned to Richmond in 1858. During this meeting, a petition to the Indiana State Legislature was composed. It requested that the same rights of property and suffrage be afforded to women as were granted to men. On January 19, 1859, Dr. Mary Thomas, Agnes Cook, and Mary Birdsall were the first women to address the State Legislature of Indiana. Unfortunately, the advent of the Civil War pushed suffrage and women’s rights out of view, and another Convention was not held in Indiana until 1869.
In addition to her many causes, Mary Birdsall was a writer/editor, and she often used the publications to advance the social reform that she championed. As the Women’s Editor of the Indiana Farmer, she often included pieces on women’s rights. She worked for the Indiana Farmer for at least 11 issues and wrote on domestic economy, scientific discussion of superiority of dry firewood, décor of the family home for the holiday season, and proper compensation for women’s labor. In 1855, Mary Birdsall purchased The Lily, a nationally distributed magazine. She worked with Dr. Mary F. Thomas to edit and published the magazine. It maintained an editorial focus on temperance, dress reform, suffrage, women’s rights, and the repeal of unjust marriage and inheritance laws. Mary Birdsall continued to publish The Lily from Richmond for at least five years after she and Dr. Thomas obtained ownership.
It is unknown when Thomas and Mary Birdsall moved to Philadelphia. but she died there in 1894. Her body was returned to Richmond and she was buried in the Earlham Cemetery. Charles and Laura Moore purchased the home in 1899. In 1927, they sold the property to the Whitewater Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends for use as a retirement home for the elderly and as a temporary meeting place for worship. Although the Friends no longer worship in the parlor, the building continues to function as a retirement home.