May Wright Sewall was born in Milwaukee and was the daughter of Philander W. Wright, a teacher, and Mary W. Wright. In 1866 she earned a bachelor’s degree and in 1868 she earned a master’s degree from Northwestern Female College (Northwestern Female College was later absorbed by Northwestern University).
In 1872 she married Edwin W. Thompson and moved with him to Indianapolis. He died in 1875. She became interested in women’s suffrage and attended a national convention in 1878. In 1880 she married Theodore Lovett Sewall, who was the head of a boys classical school in Indianapolis. With him she founded and then headed the Girls Classical School. For years the school was one of the three leading girls schools in Indianapolis.
She was a prominent supporter of suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She helped found the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society in 1878, and in 1881-83 she led a campaign that narrowly failed to secure women’s suffrage in Indiana. From 1882 to 1890 she was chairman of the executive committee of the National Woman Suffrage Association. In 1888 Sewall and Frances Willard took charge of a convention held in Washington, D.C., to mark the 40th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention. From that meeting emerged the National Council of Women (of which Sewall was president from 1897 to 1899) and the International Council of Women (of which Sewall was president from 1899 to 1904). In 1889 she joined in organizing and was elected first vice president of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. During 1891-92 she traveled extensively in Europe to build support for the World’s Congress of Representative Women, of which she was chairman, to be held in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Sewall’s later years were devoted principally to the cause of peace.
In 1907 she sold the Girls Classical School to Anna Weaver. However, the sale did not sustain her and she depended for income mainly on lecturing for women’s rights, for peace and arbitration, and for psychic research. In 1920, she wrote a book on her psychic experiences, Neither Dead Nor Sleeping. In the introduction to the book, Booth Tarkington wrote that the “three most prominent citizens” of Indianapolis in their day were Benjamin Harrison, James Whitcomb Riley and May Wright Sewall.
May Wright Sewall was a member of many organizations in Indianapolis, some of which she had a major part in founding. It was difficult for many of these groups to find a place to meet. May thought it would be convenient if these groups had one consistent, central location for the meeting of various groups for the purpose of cultural exchanges. She borrowed an idea from the Milwaukee Athenaeum from her former hometown of Milwaukee, WI. That group built their own building by selling stock certificates. And that is what May did in Indianapolis. This was the origin of an organization and a building called the Propylaeum. She and a committee formed by the Indianapolis Woman’s Club sold stock certificates and eventually had enough money to build the first structure of the Indianapolis Propylaeum, then located at 17 East North Street, Indianapolis, IN. That building was formally dedicated on January 27, 1891 with 800 guests. Hence, the Greek word Propylaeum means gateway to culture (from the Greek ” propylaea” meaning that which is before the gates as before the entrance of a building but the word propylaea has come to mean simply “gate building”).
She also wrote The Higher Education of Women, The Woman’s Suffrage Movement in Indiana, and Women, World War and Permanent Peace.
A month after her death the nineteenth Amendment was ratified.
You may read more about May Wright Sewall and her life in her correspondences,
The May Wright Sewall Papers.