Eleanor McWilliams Chamberlain
(C. 1848 – 1934)
Eleanor Collier McWilliams, called Ella, was fortunate to be born in Okaloosa, Iowa: in 1858, when she was ten years old, Iowa became the nation’s first state to admit women to its public university. In this progressive atmosphere, she was in the first generation of college women – whose status was clear in that they were called “co-eds.” She attended Okaloosa College in the 1860s.
In 1870, she married Fielding P. Chamberlain. They came to Florida in 1881 and settled in Tampa in 1883. Just a year after moving to Tampa, she was speaking on women’s rights. In 1893, she argued so strongly for her right to vote that one of the men present suggested she organize a society. She took up the challenge, and just days later, 20 people joined; eight were men. Not surprisingly, Chamberlain was elected president. Affiliating themselves with the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the members distributed literature advocating the vote.
Tampa women led the state, and they hosted the organizational meeting of Florida’s first suffrage organization in January 1895, which also elected Chamberlain as president. In this position, she spoke as far away as DeFuniak Springs in the Panhandle. She also went to Washington for the national convention in 1893 and wrote about that in the Tampa Tribune. As younger women began to lead the later effort for the vote, Chamberlain worked for what the era called “Mother’s Pensions” – an early form of Social Security for widows with children to support. In the 1920s, after the vote was won, she concentrated on charity, especially for African Americans.