Annie Savery was an early leader of the women’s suffrage movement but her commitment to improving the lives of women was broader than the vote alone. Iowa historian and activist Louise Noun praised Savery as “the most admirable woman I have found in my research on Iowa feminists."
Born in London but moving with her family to the United States at an early age, she married businessman and real estate speculator James Savery in 1853. The couple moved to Des Moines in 1854 and purchased a log hotel that Annie managed and that became the first acquisition in a very profitable real estate business. They later built a more permanent structure, the first of three Hotel Saverys in Des Moines, but sold it and left the hotel business as James’ real estate holdings and family fortune grew.
The 1868 addition to the Iowa constitution that gave black males but not women the right to vote spurred woman suffrage advocates to action, including Savery. In that year she gave her first speech in support of women’s suffrage and soon became a charter member of the Polk County Woman Suffrage Association, an officer in the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association, and ultimately a member of the executive committee of the National Woman Suffrage Association. The latter role brought her into close contact with two giants of the movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Her association with the NWSA proved to be her undoing at the local level. A suffrage amendment to the Iowa constitution passed the legislature in 1870 in the first of its required approvals before going to the voters but failed in 1872. The previous year, there had been a national scandal surrounding a prominent suffrage leader in New York City, Victoria Woodhull, who advocated “free love” and a re-evaluation of marriage thought by some women to keep women subservient and in economic dependence. Stanton and Anthony sided with Woodhull.
Annie Savery, while affirming her support for traditional marriage, claimed that the suffrage movement should welcome women who supported the right to vote regardless of positions on other issues. Conservatives in the local organization condemned free-love advocates and took stern measures to try to distance themselves in the eyes of the public from anything that smacked of immorality or a challenge to traditional religious norms. They pushed Savery out of local leadership roles and reaffirmed their belief in the sanctity of the home.
Following the 1872 defeat and conservative fall out, Savery turned to other activities. A serious and voracious reader, Savery compensated for her lack of formal education. She began the study of law and earned a degree from the University of Iowa law school in 1875. Always seeking for ways to advance women’s lives, she took up beekeeping to demonstrate a way women could earn an income on their own. She established scholarships for women at Iowa College (later Grinnell College) and became a benefactor of the Des Moines Public Library.
Her husband’s real estate investments ran into hard times during an economic recession and the couple moved to Montana. Eventually they relocated to New York City, where Annie’s health declined and she passed away in 1891. She was buried in the family mausoleum in Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines. In 1997 she was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.