Augusta Cheney, Natick’s champion of women’s rights

Perhaps you’ve heard of Horatio Alger Jr., the famed 19th century author of rags-to-riches stories for boys. His sister, Augusta, is famous, too.

Olive Augusta Alger Cheney (1833-1916) 

Born: November 19, 1833

Died: December 25, 1916

Buried: Glenwood Cemetery, South Natick

Olive Augusta Alger Cheney (she preferred “Augusta”), was well known 140 years ago in South Natick and she became known statewide and nationwide as a champion of the temperance movement and women’s rights. She was one of the most active social reformers in Natick’s history. Augusta didn’t live long enough to enjoy the legal right to vote in national elections (19th Amendment, 1920), but she devoted the last half of her life to ardently campaigning for women’s suffrage.

She got started on 40 years of activism when she founded the Natick branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union  to attack the perceived social and personal evils of consuming alcohol. In 1877 she founded the Natick Women’s Suffrage League to join the fight for women’s right to vote. She was president of her League chapter for almost 15 years, and was recording secretary of the New England Woman Suffrage Association.

In 1879 Massachusetts passed a state law allowing women to vote—but only in school committee elections. In the 1880s Augusta and other League members repeatedly petitioned the Natick Town Meeting to endorse the idea of women holding town offices and voting in all town affairs “on the same terms as male citizens.” The men repeatedly said “no.”

Augusta was not daunted. She took up her pen to support her causes. She edited “The Women’s Interest,” a regular column printed for 15 years in The Natick Bulletin, and spoke out for women’s rights. James Morley, a past president of the Natick Historical Society, has written that “Augusta kept hammering away at the men for the rest of her life.” In 1891 Augusta herself stated the rationale for her activism with bold clarity: “Home is not the place for every woman. If a woman can do more for her fellows by a public life, (and many can), then her duty is to live her life for the public; If she can do more at home, then her duty is there and the same will apply to men today who would do the country immeasurable good if they would sink into oblivion …”

A wide range of interests characterized Augusta’s public and private life. She published several books during her lifetime, the first of which was The Sunday School Speaker (1869), containing a number of poems and dialogues “comprising pieces suitable for Sunday School Concerts and Festivals”—it included three entries from her famous brother. Augusta submitted accounts of her European travels with her family to The Natick Bulletin. In 1909 she assembled a listing of “Important Articles in the Museum of the Historical and Natural History Society of South Natick,” including details of Indian relics, old deeds, and the society’s collection of manuscripts and books.

Selected sources and additional reading:

Natick Historical Society collections.