Advocates Push for State House Portrait of N.H. Suffragist

Aug 10, 2015

In 1870, Marilla Ricker, an attorney from Dover, attempted to cast a ballot in an election, but she was turned away. She tried again every year for the next five decades and was either refused or had her ballot destroyed. Ricker died in 1920, shortly after women won the right to vote. 

Recently the state of New Hampshire authorized the hanging of a portrait of Ricker in the State House. Now two groups—the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Women’s Bar Association—are raising money to actually do so. Liz Tentarelli is president of the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire. She spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

Why does Ricker deserve a place on the walls of the State House?

Well, there are only seven other women among the 200 portraits of the State House, none of whom had anything to do with that important push for women’s right to vote in New Hampshire. So legislation was passed, first in 1997, signed by the first woman governor, Jeanne Shaheen, and then again in 2013, signed by our second female governor, Maggie Hassan. But, of course, the government doesn’t allocate money for this, so we’re raising the funds through the League of Women Voters New Hampshire Education Fund.

And one of the tragic parts of her story is that she died in 1920, the year women officially received the right to vote, but she never got a chance to cast a ballot.

Not that we have been able to confirm. We know she died just a few days after the first election where she would’ve been able to vote. She died of a stroke. We think she was probably too ill to cast a ballot, but we have not been able to confirm that one way or the other. So we’re assuming, because there was no publicity about it, that she did not cast a ballot.

You’re attempting to raise $10,000 for this portrait. You’re a little more than halfway there. What will this money pay for?

This will pay to have a portrait painted. There’s a marvelous artist who was educated at Philips Exeter Academy, lives in Vermont right now. Her name is Kate Gridley. She’s got a couple of portraits hanging in the Vermont State House. And she’s going to paint a portrait from various photos of Marilla Ricker that exist. We’ve got copies of those photos of her. And then it has to be framed, and there has to be one of those lovely brass plaques that tells viewers in the State House some of the important facts about Marilla’s life.

The state approved acquiring the portrait, but didn’t provide any money for the project. Should the state have funded this?

I’m not sure. You know, the recent portraits that have been up there, the most recent one that was put up was, of course, Governor Shaheen’s portrait. That funding was raised privately as well. So other portraits have been paid for in the past. The very first female portrait that got up there was Harriet Dane, a Civil War nurse, and the Legislature did authorize funding for that. But that’s changed over the years. So I don’t know if I can say which should be or shouldn’t be. There are so many demands right now on the state budget, I’m not at all surprised that they didn’t supply funding. It doesn’t seem to be the way things are done lately.

Once you have the funding, how will you go about finding a place for it in the State House?

That’s not up to us. I could easily point to a spot and say, “Right there,” but that doesn’t mean anything. So the Joint Legislative Historical Committee decides on where portraits will be placed, and fortunately one of the bill’s sponsors of this portrait is on that committee. So we think that gives us a little bit of a push to have it placed in a nice spot in the State House. We’d like to imagine, when all these little fourth grade groups go to the State House to study the workings of our state government and they see portraits, that they will see Marilla’s portrait and the little girls will say, “What did that lady do?” And we hope one of their teachers will read the plaque to them and understand just what a groundbreaker Marilla Ricker was.