Perle Potter Penfield Newell, physician and woman suffrage activist, daughter of Susan Adella (Potter) Penfield and Charles Seymour Penfield, was born at Spencer, Clay County, Iowa, on September 24, 1881. She was the second of four children. Her family moved about the United States until they settled in Texas, where they lived in Denison, Houston, La Porte, Nixon, and San Antonio. Her father, who worked as a real estate broker, cofounded the town of Rock Island and later established a bank in La Porte and served as president of the Nixon State Bank. Her mother, an artist, musician, and “lover of good literature,” formed a ladies’ reading club in La Porte and was a suffrage activist.
Penfield completed college preparatory courses at Rockford College in Illinois before entering Oberlin College in Ohio, where she took a classical course load and studied music. She then transferred to the University of Texas in Austin to finish her junior and senior years. While at the school, Penfield held memberships in the Ashbel Literary Society, the Young Women’s Christian Association, and the Women’s Athletic Association, of which she also acted as the first president. She played on the basketball team and counted herself “an enthusiast in various athletic sports,” with her quote in her senior yearbook reading, “To be strong is to be happy.”
Penfield served as a student assistant in botany and received a bachelor of science degree from the University of Texas in 1905. After graduating, she taught at a preparatory school in Austin for two years. She then worked as a clerk at her father’s bank in Nixon, where she had a tennis court installed at her parents’ home.
Penfield’s mother Adella served as an auditor of the Texas Woman Suffrage Association and aided in an attempt to get a woman on the Houston school board around 1904. In 1908 Penfield herself was recruited to work as a national field secretary, organizer, and speaker for the National American Woman Suffrage Association by president Anna Howard Shaw. In this position, Penfield traveled across the country to form suffrage clubs and on one occasion worked in six different states in six months; she held parlor meetings, addressed churches and schools, and set up booths at state fairs.
Back in the small Texas town of Nixon, Penfield’s father, brother, and other local men signed a petition in favor of woman suffrage, on which she reported “only six persons declined.” Her mother Adella remained active in the cause and frequently joined her daughter on the speaking circuit and served as president of the Texas auxiliary to the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Penfield even paid pledges for two of her nieces.
In 1911 Penfield entered the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB). The memory of the earlier death of a sister from typhoid fever may have inspired her to pursue a medical degree. She received the George Brackenridge and Isabella H. Brackenridge scholarships offered exclusively to the female students.
During this time, Penfield was hired as a summer intern for the Houston-based headquarters of the Texas Woman Suffrage Association (subsequently the Texas Equal Suffrage Association) by then president Annette Finnigan. Penfield framed her appeal for suffrage on how female voters could more efficiently use their status as women and mothers in a modern society. She wrote articles for the state’s newspapers and urged women to fight for their right to vote so that they might directly exercise their influence on progressive reform issues such as housing, streets, food safety, and public education.
Galveston Equal Suffrage Association and later Texas Woman Suffrage Association president Minnie Fisher Cunningham recruited Penfield to run a planned beach headquarters in Galveston. This outlet never came to fruition, but Penfield became one of the headline speakers at Cunningham’s suffrage activities held in conjunction with the city’s Cotton Carnival. The women drove up and down the boulevard in donated vehicles and delivered voiceless speeches on placards from the top of a building to draw attention to the cause.
Penfield was appointed headquarters and field secretary, as well as the first organizer of the Texas Equal Suffrage Association. Her national grassroots organizing experience led those in Texas to look to her for guidance and approval. Her speaking talents proved especially effective, for example, in talking to the harder-to-reach woman laborer contingent and in bringing smaller communities across the state into the central organization.
She tirelessly visited Texas towns and held both small gatherings and open-air meetings in front of large crowds. At one time, this included Alvin, Arthur, Bay City, Beadle, Beaumont, Collegeport, Dickinson, Edna, El Campo, Hempstead, Orange, Port Arthur, Port Lavaca, Victoria, and Wharton. Penfield offered shrewd assessments of the climate towards woman suffrage, customized strategies for each area, and spurred the creation of clubs in many of the locales. She also gave the general insight that while many Texas women appeared passively receptive to the cause, they needed to become active in promoting it. At the state Capitol, she interviewed members of the Texas House and Senate to determine their position, which was entered on card catalog at the organization’s headquarters. She took any opposition she faced in stride and humor.
Penfield graduated as one of three women in her class at medical school on May 31, 1915. She completed postgraduate work in Massachusetts, where she served as an intern at Memorial Hospital and became a house physician at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in New York City. During World War I, she was a member of the Medical Women’s National Association which organized foreign work for women doctors. Penfield substituted at the Normal College in North Carolina and at the Stanford University’s physical education department in California for fellow women physicians stationed abroad. She also served as a lecturer for the Women’s Work, Social Hygiene Division of the of the Young Women’s Christian Association’s Social Morality Committee War Work Council.
Penfield married George Stribling Newell, a former University of Texas classmate, on August 3, 1922, in Houston, Texas. By then, he was a world-traveled chemical engineer widowed with four young children. He had been married to Penfield’s longtime friend, May Mason (Jarvis), a fellow in biology. Along with these children, the couple had one son together, George Stribling Newell, Jr. The family lived in California, where George Newell worked and Perle Penfield had set up a practice in San Francisco. They later settled in the Point Loma community of San Diego. She was on the California Organization of Women Physicians for Federal Recognition. Still, she reportedly limited her practice due to the wishes of her husband. The couple’s son became somewhat of a child prodigy, gained admission to Princeton University at the age of fourteen, and graduated with a doctorate in physics at the age of twenty-four. Perle Potter Penfield Newell died at the age of fifty-five on February 8, 1937, in San Diego, California. She is buried at City Cemetery No. 1 in San Antonio, Texas.