PORTLAND, Maine — The new historic marker outside Augusta Hunt’s former home at 165 State St. is hard to miss. Standing on the green verge between the sidewalk and the curb, it looms more than six feet high.
It’s also bright purple, like a spring lilac in bloom.
The color scheme is appropriate. Lilac and white were the official hues of the suffrage movement which won women the right to vote 102 years ago, with passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
Hunt is an important figure in Maine’s suffrage movement and the marker commemorating her efforts was supposed to be officially dedicated in 2020, during the 19th Amendment’s centennial — but the coronavirus pandemic put those plans on hold.
Finally, this month — at 1 p.m. Sunday — Hunt will get her historic due in a fitting ceremony of dignitaries and speakers.
“Augusta Hunt was one of the mainsprings behind the idea that Maine women should get a referendum through the Legislature to attain the right to vote,” said Herb Adams, a Portland historian who will speak at the ceremony.
The marker is a joint project between the Maine Suffrage Centennial Collaborative and the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, which donated the sign.
Hunt’s marker is one of five the collaboration has put up around the state celebrating suffragists and their efforts. Another one stands in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood. The others can be found in Augusta, Farmington and Lewiston.
Augusta Merrill Barstow Hunt was born in Portland on June 6, 1842. At 21, she married George S. Hunt, a shrewd businessman well on his way to making a fortune in East Indies shipping. With her husband’s wealth and staunch support, Hunt dedicated much of her life to civic engagement and progressive politics centered around temperance and women’s rights.
The couple lived and raised their children in the brick mansion where the marker stands today.
In 1876, Hunt helped found Maine’s branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She served as its president for many years. This stands somewhat at odds with her family wealth, as part of her husband’s business was shipping sugar cane to Maine where it was refined into rum.
“It must have made for some very interesting dinner conversations,” Adams said, “with her husband profiting from the liquor trade.”
Among Hunt’s other many causes were advocating for free kindergarten for all, establishing Portland’s first-ever police matron, building a women-only reformatory and a rest home for aging women.
She spoke frequently before the Maine Legislature’s various committees and, in 1895, helped usher an equal guardianship bill into law. For the first time, it gave mothers an official say in the lives of their children. Beforehand, only fathers had legal standing before the law.
However, Hunt is chiefly remembered for her suffrage activities, for decades, lobbying the all-male Legislature to grant women the opportunity to vote in elections.
The historic marker outside Hunt’s home specifically recalls a day in 1916 when she opened her home to the Maine Woman Suffrage Association’s 36th annual meeting. During the proceedings members voted in favor of pursuing Maine’s first suffrage referendum.
The popular, male-only vote was held in 1917 and went down in a crushing, two-to-one defeat.
But Hunt and her colleagues persisted.
They succeeded in getting another referendum set for Sept. 13, 1920. If passed, it would have granted women the right to vote in presidential elections only.
But before that vote could take place, Maine ratified the 19th Amendment on Nov. 5, 1919. Tennessee voted likewise the following August, giving the amendment the two-thirds needed to become the law of the land. Congress certified the process the same month,
A few weeks later, the Maine Woman Suffrage Association dissolved and reformed as the League of Women Voters.
Hunt was an inaugural member.
At the age of 78, she became the first woman to cast a vote in Portland on Sept. 13, 1920. She died in 1932 at the age of 90.
Anne Gass, of the Maine Suffrage Centennial Collaborative, told Maine Public that two additional suffrage markers are in the works. One is to be dedicated to African American women and the other the first Maine indigenous woman to cast a vote.
“The Black Matriarchs of Bangor will have their own marker, it’ll be the only marker recognizing that Bangor even had a vibrant and thriving Black community back in the early 20th century,” Gass said.
The 19th Amendment did not extend to any Indigenous people, male or female, when it was passed, she also pointed out.
Some Maine tribe members got the right to vote in 1924 when Congress granted them U.S. citizenship but Maine refused to allow anyone living on reservations to vote until 1954.
Finally, in 1955 Lucy Nicolar Poolaw, a member of the Penobscot Tribe, was the first Indigenous person living on a reservation in Maine to ever cast a ballot — 35 years after Hunt made her first choice at the polls.
“[Poolaw] will be honored with another marker,” Gass said.
Ten years ago, Augusta Hunt’s name turned up on a national television program.
In 2012, Hollywood actress Helen Hunt appeared on “Who Do you Think You Are?” where well known figures explore their genealogical heritage. On the actress’ episode, she found out that Augusta Hunt was her great-great-grandmother.
She knew nothing about her important ancestor until appearing on the show.
“Learning about the life and devotion to freedom and equality that Augusta had has filled me with a sort of pride I have no right to, and inspiration to keep her work and dreams alive,” the star of movies including “Twister” and “As Good as it Gets,” said.