Phoebe Apperson Hearst: A Life of Power and Politics

Phoebe Apperson Hearst: A Life of Power and Politics

by Alexandra M. Nickliss
Phoebe Apperson Hearst: A Life of Power and Politics

Phoebe Apperson Hearst: A Life of Power and Politics

by Alexandra M. Nickliss


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In Phoebe Apperson Hearst: A Life in Power and Politics Alexandra M. Nickliss offers the first biography of one of the Gilded Age’s most prominent and powerful women. A financial manager, businesswoman, and reformer, Phoebe Apperson Hearst was one of the wealthiest and most influential women of the era and a philanthropist, almost without rival, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Hearst was born into a humble middle-class family in rural Missouri in 1842, yet she died a powerful member of society’s urban elite in 1919. Most people know her as the mother of William Randolph Hearst, the famed newspaper mogul, and as the wife of George Hearst, a mining tycoon and U.S. senator. By age forty-eight, however, Hearst had come to control her husband’s extravagant wealth after his death. She shepherded the fortune of the family estate until her own death, demonstrating her intelligence and skill as a financial manager.

Hearst supported a number of significant urban reforms in the Bay Area, across the country, and around the world, giving much of her wealth to organizations supporting children, health reform, women’s rights and well-being, higher education, municipal policy formation, progressive voluntary associations, and urban architecture and design, among other endeavors. She worked to exert her ideas and implement plans regarding the burgeoning Progressive movement and was the first female regent of the University of California, which later became one of the world’s leading research institutions. Hearst held other prominent positions as the first president of the Century Club of San Francisco, first treasurer of the General Federation of Woman’s Clubs, first vice president of the National Congress of Mothers, president of the Columbian Kindergarten Association, and head of the Woman’s Board of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

Phoebe Apperson Hearst tells the story of Hearst’s world and examines the opportunities and challenges that she faced as she navigated local, national, and international corridors of influence, rendering a penetrating portrait of a powerful and often contradictory woman.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496205322
Publisher: UNP - Bison Books
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 696
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Alexandra M. Nickliss is an instructor of history at City College of San Francisco. 

Read an Excerpt



Phoebe Elizabeth Apperson Hearst possessed "beauty, grace and charm." Those characteristics "left stamped upon my mind a picture of perfect womanhood," declared her friend and contemporary Elizabeth W. Allston Pringle, a South Carolina rice planter and plantation manager. Hearst and Pringle had served together on the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association (MVLA) Council. The MVLA was an organization devoted to the restoration of George Washington's Mount Vernon home in Virginia. As Pringle elaborated, Hearst "rarely spoke in Council, but listened most attentively to all that was said," adding, "[Phoebe] ... devoted her powers of mind and heart as well as her material wealth to the good of this Association." How did Hearst, an ordinary girl from a rough environment in rural Missouri, establish the foundation necessary to give her the ability to transform herself into such a refined, flawless, powerful representative of womanhood? What was the origin, or root, of her power?

Phoebe's life began when she took her first breath on December 3, 1842, in the Cumberland Presbyterian settlement of Franklin County, Missouri, about forty miles southwest of St. Louis. It was named the Whitmire Campground because so many settlers had the last name of Whitmire. Phoebe experienced the misfortune of coming into the world at a time when Americans possessed a deeply held belief in the attributes of "true womanhood" — purity, piousness, submissiveness, and genteel domesticity. True womanhood was a trope based on "Victorian prescriptive literature" that dogged white women from birth. It demanded that females be modest, moral guardians who married and generally held their tongues in public. Without these "cardinal virtues," "no matter whether there was fame, achievement or wealth, all was ashes." With them, women were "promised happiness and power." Phoebe's parents, as soon as their firstborn child opened her eyes, began to shape the life of their eldest child by passing on the lessons they had learned while growing up in the South and the prevalent, popular ideas that permeated society and the nation.

Phoebe's grandparents, John and Alcey Favor Apperson and Henry and Ruth Hill Whitmire, came of age in Virginia and South Carolina, respectively, during the Revolutionary War era. Her Southern parents, Randolph Walker and Drusilla Whitmire Apperson, grew up in the early nineteenth century, steeped in reverence for religion and the virtue, charm, modesty, self-control, and submissive nature expected of a Southern lady. Republican ideology and principles of the time linked home and the state. They centered on a patriotic political role for females that stressed the duty of women to educate sons to be virtuous citizens and "demanded a well-educated citizenry" as a means to civilize society. The Appersons took these beliefs to heart and instilled them in Phoebe from birth. But they also reshaped them to fit women's experiences in what was considered a less sophisticated and cultivated region — the American West. Randolph and Drusilla, as they raised their daughter, struggled to impose order on and interact with the western rural environment in which they were living, and they relied on this regional understanding of women as "civilizers" and workers to shape Phoebe's distinctive character and abilities. Phoebe's individual qualities were thus laced with traits and values from the South along with notions of true womanhood and republican ideology that contributed to the development of a western regional identity.

Phoebe's parents and ancestors contributed the natural aptitude and education she needed to achieve the goals, financial and otherwise, set by her family. Her kind and enterprising father, Randolph, was born in Abingdon, Virginia, on April 10, 1809. He came of age in an era that emphasized a character ideal that encouraged men to set and achieve personal goals. Randolph had little schooling, but he grew up to be an ambitious, industrious, self-educated, and enterprising individual. He had an eye for design and was "public-spirited." He was, moreover, a Jacksonian Democrat with both conservative and liberal views by the time he grew into a young man. Phoebe's paternal grandparent, John Apperson, was a physician and farmer and served in the American Revolutionary War. John's wife, Alcey Favor Apperson, took care of the home and eleven children. Both John and Alcey were from Culpeper, Virginia. Phoebe's maternal grandparents, Henry and Ruth Hill Whitmire, joined almost one million Virginians going to the Deep South and West in 1819, several years after the Panic of 1817, to seek greater opportunities. This emigration emptied the state of human and economic resources during a national boom. The Appersons and Whitmires were drawn to Missouri by the extensive publicity that beckoned settlers to take advantage of opportunities in the West. They carried with them to Missouri their Southern sensibilities, a belief in male reliance on developing "inner resources," and a way of life based on hierarchy. At the time, Franklin County, Missouri, was a wide open, remote area that lacked established institutions of white civilization, providing the Randolph family with an opportunity to undermine a clearly delineated pecking order and room to move up the social and economic ladders.

In 1830, when he was twenty-one years old, Randolph left the Methodist Episcopal Church, at the end of a democratizing era in American Christianity, and became a devotee of the Cumberland Presbyterians in rural Missouri. The Cumberland Presbyterians were a radical reform wing of the church that grew out of the Kentucky revivals in the early nineteenth century. They expressed and emphasized salvation by faith and tended "to depart from the Westminster standards" — church documents that represented the doctrinal standards of Presbyterian denominations. They promoted religious reform by rebelling against inflexible Calvinistic rituals and symbolism. They also gave up on traditional high standards of academic education for their ministers in order to make it easier to meet the need for licensed clergy in the South and West. These religious reformers held evangelistic camp meetings to practice and promote the faith. Randolph came of age in an antebellum generation in which middle-class families valued respectability, material success, and "identification with a progressive model of human endeavor," so Randolph was raised an evangelical with more progressive views than most conservative Southerners. Randolph grew to manhood in an environment that encouraged self-sufficiency and that was free, to a large extent but not entirely, of deep-rooted, long-held traditions and the ways of life in the East, setting the stage for him to pass on his individual traits, beliefs, and evangelical values to his daughter.

Phoebe's mother, Drusilla Whitmire (Apperson), passed on to Phoebe the personal qualities, convictions, and evangelical principles that helped her daughter develop the ability to understand herself primarily as a "lady," rather than a pioneer woman, growing up in the American West. Drusilla came of age in the same generation in the South as had Randolph Apperson. She was born on September 24, 1816, in Newberry District, South Carolina. She took her first steps in a big, elegant white house on the edge of a town named after her family, Whitmire. Her Cumberland Presbyterian parents, Henry and Ruth Hill Whitmire, steeped Drusilla in the world of commerce and trade, the church's religious principles, and Southern genteel domesticity. Drusilla's enterprising parents never owned a plantation or slaves, unlike many of their neighbors. Instead, the Whitmires were landowners and ran a tavern, or public house, that Drusilla visited. Economic realities meant the Whitmire family "could not afford the luxury of" placing women on pedestals, despite their adherence to the ideal of Southern ladies — an apparent contradiction. To survive, Drusilla's family sold food, drink, and goods in the tavern marketplace, a center of economic self-sufficiency and financial power. From an early age, then, South Carolinian evangelical, rural, and commercial values and forces comingled in Drusilla's daily experiences. The lessons in Southern sensibilities and Cumberland Presbyterian values and exposure to the tavern business on rural land her father owned shaped her outlook on life and contributed to the rise of the Whitmire family standing in their community.

The intelligence and efforts of the Whitmire family were good enough to make their business successful in a rough, rapidly changing, and unpredictable commercial economy that differed markedly from the world of slaveholders but embraced the hierarchical and patriarchal structure and way of life in the South. The Whitmires' accomplishments made them a part of the slow-rising middling sorts — a category based on family status at birth, level of education, manners, and property owned. A rebellious lot, the middling sorts set their sights on owning enough land to enjoy an economically self-sufficient and stable family life and decent physical and mental health, especially in their older years. The Whitmires rose to a higher class standing as the term middle classes replaced middling sorts between 1800 and 1850. The Whitmire family's crowning achievement: they were "for many generations the largest landowners in the [upper] section" of South Carolina. Drusilla's family joined other enterprising families in seeking new opportunities and adventures, particularly in the West, to maintain a prosperous class standing and to rise in status.

The Whitmires were aspiring parents like the Appersons. They traveled from South Carolina to the West during the period when the Panic of 1817 dealt a severe blow to their home state and signs of slow-growing inequality began to appear in the South more than in the North. They traveled to Missouri on an emigration train of ox carts with the Hearst and Clark families, among others. They established the Whitmire Campground in a territory seeking admission to the Union as a slave state, which was granted in 1821. Drusilla met her future husband, Randolph Apperson, seven years her senior, in the campground, and they married in late January of 1841, some twenty years after Missouri entered the Union as a state and accepted the highly delineated order of the Southern way of life based on slavery. So Randolph married up. He wed a woman who came from a higher family and community standing. Many other pioneer women in Missouri were not as fortunate as Drusilla to come from such a well-heeled, dignified family with manners and property. The Whitmire family work in the commercial world took precedence in their lives but not to the exclusion of their religious beliefs and concerns and Southern ways.

Coming into the marriage, Randolph Apperson held no property and was from a family with a lower social and economic position than Drusilla Whitmire's. He compensated by becoming a Cumberland Presbyterian elder and Sunday school teacher. Elected church elders were required to possess the qualities and abilities needed to take care of religious, business, and civil affairs. The teaching of Christian principles was a top priority, but they also handled church business and the concerns of ordinary citizens. Furthermore, they executed church laws and guarded "against the effects of power," as one minister noted. They also advocated equality and spread the principles of democracy at the same time that evangelicals supported slavery — an obvious contradiction. The Appersons possessed a Southern family heritage and came from slave states as well, but no evidence exists to prove conclusively whether they sympathized with or supported slavery. So it may have been Randolph's Cumberland Presbyterian occupation, rather than slavery, landownership, or commercial endeavors, which brought him power, authority, and respect. His job defined his family's community standing in the Whitmire settlement as the popularity of religious revivalism grew and talk of democracy came from the mouths of Protestant ministers. Leadership in the religious world took precedence over commercial pursuits for Randolph and brought him and his family standing in the settlement.

The birth of the Appersons' first child — Phoebe Elizabeth Apperson — occurred about two years after Randolph and Drusilla married. There are only a few sources available to tell us about Phoebe's early life. One is an unpublished hagiographic biography written by Adele S. Brooks, Phoebe's friend and a contemporary. It provides some information useful to understanding Phoebe's childhood and teen years, particularly descriptions of the kind of attributes Phoebe possessed as a young person by the early 1860s. But Brooks's work must be used with caution. Phoebe experienced, Brooks wrote, "a lonely childhood" because relatives, friends, and neighbors were not nearby. But although it was not uncommon for women to experience loneliness on the frontier, the Appersons came to Missouri with a large number of homogenous people with a sense of community to establish a settlement in the "wilderness" with "Indians ... around in every direction" and "some Spaniards but mostly French," according to George Hearst, a neighbor who lived close to the Appersons. Women in the West wrote and talked about feeling isolated. But "women's isolation was perceived more than real," according to one scholar. The Apperson family lived and socialized together with people in the Cumberland Presbyterian campground and with new settlers who were mostly like them. About a year after Phoebe's birth, Randolph and Drusilla had another daughter, Sarah Agnes, but she died in infancy. Phoebe's brother, Elbert (Eppy), came along in 1851. Phoebe's experiences growing up with Southern parents in the middle class in a sparsely settled, but not entirely isolated, area in rural Missouri certainly differed from those of young daughters and sons in affluent, urban families, especially those on the East Coast and with Northern sensibilities. These children, unlike Phoebe, enjoyed the pleasures of wealth and participated in a cultivated, refined way of life in more densely populated areas.

Phoebe's enterprising parents gave their firstborn child an ordinary upbringing for a girl with her ancestry, religion, and class in rural Missouri. They believed, like many Americans, that for women to be successful they had to possess "good sense or good luck" in selecting a man of means, "sharing his identity," and rising "with him." Randolph and Drusilla relied on parental control and home lessons to teach Phoebe the traits of, and respect for, true womanhood and republican ideology in the American West. They taught these attributes and values so she could attract a worthy suitor, marry and have children, and develop her ability to secure a bright future.

To increase their daughter's chances of making something of herself by finding the right suitor, the Appersons drilled into Phoebe a sense of religious duty and the power of moral superiority influenced by their Cumberland Presbyterian beliefs and their Southern heritage. These were special characteristics Americans assumed white women possessed and could put to good use to "civilize" the West. Drusilla Apperson was "a woman of uncommon vigor of mind and body." She presumably held the primary responsibility for raising the Appersons' children. She was, more than likely, the disciplinarian and stabilizing force in the family. Randolph probably supported the lessons Drusilla taught their daughter — Cumberland Presbyterian and republican principles, including literacy, gentility, and domestic skills.

Having been raised by parents who owned a tavern, Phoebe's mother was familiar with the business world. She took business lessons to heart and became a capable household manager. She ran a well-ordered home and ruled with "unflagging diligence" and "efficiency," a hallmark value of rising industrialism. Drusilla also took a strict religious and cultural approach to training her first child in "impeccable conduct, the dignified grace, and the welcoming cordiality southerners ... considered important in the schooling of an elite daughter." A "reserved and dignified" perfectionist, Drusilla educated her eldest child to have a noble, stately demeanor while she grew up in a world filled with pioneer women with less sophistication and polish. She drummed into Phoebe's head the "traditions of high character, sound principles, industrious living, religions thinking and gentle breeding; and in all ... [the] ways of worthiness and grace" often taught to Southern ladies and which some Southerners thought "important in the schooling of an elite daughter." Drusilla raised Phoebe, in other words, to believe it was her sacred duty to God to be modest and conduct herself in a morally superior manner that matched people's expectations of what it meant to be a "lady" and "civilizer" in rural Missouri. So this girl with a customary upbringing was steeped in the beliefs and ways her parents thought would be useful for their eldest child in finding a worthy suitor, someone with the potential to help her rise into the elite class so she could avoid misery, misfortune, and public criticism.


Excerpted from "Phoebe Apperson Hearst"
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Copyright © 2018 Alexandra M. Nickliss.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
Author's Note,
1. Ability,
2. Money,
3. Political Agenda,
4. Power by Design,
5. Benefits for Women,
6. Limits,
7. National Politics,
8. The Vote,

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