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The Olivia Letters

Emily Edson Briggs (1906) 

Emily Edson Briggs, one of the first female newspaper correspondents in Washington, wrote about Congress and Washington from the point of view as a social commentator. Her columns abounded with picturesque descriptions of notable personalities of the day, such as Senator Roscoe Conkling, “the Apollo of the Senate”;  Senator William Sprague, who she dubbed “A New Champion of a Panacea for Ills Financial”; and Senator James Nye, of whom she said,  “. . . there is enough electricity about him to send a first-class message around the world….”  Using lush, metaphorical prose, she covered everything from lavish society dinners to the impending clouds of President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment: “The Democracy are in martial line, defending the independent sovereignty of the States, with Andy Johnson at the head, ready to die for the Constitution. The magnificent decorations which make the Senate chamber a marvel of beauty in the day seemed touched with the fairy hand of enchantment at night.”

Although Briggs was one of the first women to be admitted to the congressional press galleries—“a favor that is given at best grudgingly, and never unless the need is imperative”—she said she did not avail herself of this privilege because she felt her presence was not really welcome there. Nonetheless, she had amazing access to the halls of Congress that allowed her to vividly describe the characters and events of Washington during the mid-1800s.

Because Briggs’s columns were written for a female audience, she addressed topics of particular interest to women, such as the 19th Amendment. Her column called “At a Committee Hearing, the Ladies Plead Their Cause at the Capitol” described in detail the stalwart ladies of the Suffragette movement who testified before a congressional committee:  “. . . Susan B.–bless her heart!–faced the Congressional guns. The great pumping power which this woman carries in her brain had lifted the blood into her cheeks, and her eyes blazed with the fire of early day. . . .  [She] commenced by telling the gentlemen that they had it in their power to strike the word ‘male’ out of the Constitution. (Susan has a way of saying the word ‘male’ so that is sounds like the snapping of small arms.)”  The column was written in 1870; it was almost fifty years before the Constitution was amended to allow women the right to vote.