Bossie O’Brien Hundley Baer (1876-1966) was a leader in Alabama’s suffrage movement. During the 1910s, she was a member of the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association (AESA) and led the Birmingham chapter for a time. She headed the AESA’s legislative committee and was its chief lobbyist, using the political savvy she learned from her politically and socially connected family as well as her husband, attorney, politician, and later U.S. District Judge Oscar R. Hundley.
Bossie O’Brien Hundley Baer Bossie O’Brien was born Julia McBride O’Brien on July 8, 1876, in Birmingham, Jefferson County, to Frank P. O’Brien and Indiana (Dannie) McBride O’Brien and was one of five siblings. She was nicknamed “Bossie” by her childhood nanny and kept the name for the rest of her life. Her Irish Catholic father was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1844 but grew up in Pennsylvania, where his family settled after immigrating to the United States. Frank ran away from home at 14 and settled in Montgomery, Montgomery County, in 1859 and apprenticed under a fresco painter who had been hired to paint the Montgomery Theater. He served in several units in the Confederate States Army during the Civil War, and then after the war married Dannie McBride on October 11, 1865. By 1871, the family was living in Birmingham, where Frank worked as a real estate developer, contractor, and industrialist and helped care for the ill during the major cholera epidemic in 1873. Always a bit of a maverick, Frank built the Birmingham Opera House in the middle of what was then a cornfield in 1882. He also served as alderman, sheriff, and mayor.
Bossie was the youngest of four sisters and the baby of the family, after her infant younger brother’s death. Two of her sisters died in their 20s, and the third became a nun. Thus, Bossie was the only child of Frank and Dannie to live into late adulthood and have children. Before her death at 27, sister Maggie O’Brien Davis had been a successful writer and newspaper columnist, and her novel, Judith, the Daughter of Judas, was published by Lippincott in 1891.
After completing grammar school in Birmingham, Bossie was enrolled in St. Mary’s College in Loretto, Kentucky, in 1890. Among other subjects, she studied piano, banjo, voice, harp, and guitar. This love of music would remain with her for the rest of her life. All three of Bossie’s sisters attended the Catholic boarding school before her but all had graduated by the time she attended. The experience with the nuns at Loretto inspired both Maggie and Annie O’Brien to join the order, but Maggie’s ill health prevented her from doing so. In October 1894, about a year before her graduation, Bossie had her debutante party at the Joie de Vie Club in Montgomery. Bossie graduated from St. Mary’s in 1894 as class valedictorian.
Oscar and Bossie O’Brien Hundley In November 1896, Bossie anonymously sent a love poem and three violets to 41-year-old attorney and state senator Oscar Richard Hundley (1855-1921), a very forward action for a woman in that era. When he finally discovered her identity, he found her views on women’s rights and her other qualities admirable and attractive, and the couple married on June 24, 1897, at the O’Brien home. The couple spent their honeymoon in Europe. While there, she had a silk and velvet dress made to order in the colors of green, yellow, purple, and white, which were the colors of the suffrage movement, for which she would soon become a tireless force. Hundley would serve three terms as a judge for the Northern District of Alabama, and the couple lived in Huntsville during this time. Their home is now known as the Hundley-Fees House and is located across the street from Constitution Hall Historic Park. In 1909 Oscar resigned as justice, as he was unable to win Senate confirmation, and the couple returned to Birmingham, where he practiced law. The couple had one daughter.
Frank O’Brien was elected mayor of Birmingham on May 8, 1909, and during his year-long tenure, he led Birmingham through several crises, including racial tensions, smallpox, and the annexation of new territory to the growing city. Under considerable stress, O’Brien’s health declined, and he died on September 10, 1910. The Birmingham Equal Suffrage League (later the Birmingham Equal Suffrage Association) was formed the following year, with Pattie Ruffner Jacobs as president. A member of the same social circle as Jacobs and other suffragists, Hundley joined the movement in October 1912, when the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association (AESA) was formed. Hundley brought her own unique talents at politics and organizing that she had learned through both her father and her husband. Along with Jacobs and three other Alabama suffragists, Hundley was chosen as a delegate to the National Women’s Suffrage Association meeting in Philadelphia in November 1912.
Hundley was unanimously elected president of the Birmingham Equal Suffrage Association (BESA) in May 1913 and the following year served as chair of AESA’s legislative committee and its chief lobbyist. Working within the states’ rights mindset of the times, the AESA focused all its efforts on placing a suffrage amendment before the Alabama legislature by August 1915, rather than focusing on a national movement, a view that Jacobs supported. In December 1914, Hundley sent a questionnaire to every state legislator asking him not only his opinion on women’s suffrage, but his occupation, religion, and if he was a preacher and a Confederate veteran. Those who did not return forms were visited by a suffragist, who filled out the form after an interview. In this way, the views of every legislator were recorded, and then the organization created a file on each politician that included relevant newspaper clippings and photos when possible. (In 1947, Hundley gifted this suffrage scrapbook to the Birmingham Historical Society, and it is now held by the Birmingham Public Library. It provides a unique window on the views of Alabama men concerning women’s suffrage during the era as well as those of Hundley, who occasionally made notes on the politicians.)
In May 1915, Hundley and fellow suffragist Lilian Roden Bowron took Bossie’s new car and travelled to 14 rural counties to give speeches and initiate new suffrage leagues. On August 12, less than two weeks before the vote, Hundley appeared at an event in Wetumpka, Elmore County, for the Men’s Business League and found herself on the same stage as guest speaker U.S Representative J. Thomas “Cotton Tom” Heflin, an anti-suffragist whom she had been challenging to a public debate for two years. Bossie did not let her opportunity go to waste. After Bossie gave her speech to the crowd, Heflin began his own speech, beginning with derogatory remarks about her speech to the crowd. Bossie interrupted him with the formal, but polite statement, “Will the gentleman please permit an interruption?” Heflin had no choice but to give her permission, and the crowd cheered. Thus, Bossie managed to publicly debate the subject of suffrage with Heflin on stage before a crowd of 5,000.
BESA Presidents On August 25, 1915, the proposed amendment was put before the Alabama legislature, but it failed to get the required 3/5 majority at 52 in favor and 42 opposed. Hundley was replaced as president of BESA by her former traveling companion, Lillian Bowron, and Hundley was elected Printing Chairman. When AESA president Pattie Jacobs was appointed to the board of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Hundley ran for the position but lost to Carrie McCord Parke of Selma, Dallas County, in February 1916.
Hundley turned her attention to other important matters. She was elected president of the Alabama Federation of Music Clubs in April 1918 and remained involved in this association for several years. Over the next few years, she lost the last three members of her immediate family: Oscar died in December 1921, her last living sister died in July 1918, and her mother died in June 1925. Afterwards, she began to spend more time at her summer home in Black Mountain, North Carolina. She also traveled around the world, with long stays in Europe as well as trips to Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, and she spent the month of Ramadan in Egypt in 1936.
On June 19, 1945 Hundley married jeweler Maurice Jay Baer in Tryon, North Carolina. She had known Baer for many years, and he frequently met her on her world travels. He died shortly afterwards on April 25, 1946. Hundley died at her home in Black Mountain 20 years later on November 15, 1966, and was buried in Mountain View Memorial Park.
Even though the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1919 and ratified in 1920, the state of Alabama did not ratify the amendment until 1953, 38 years after Hundley helped lead the fight for Alabama women. Jacobs was correct in her assessment of federal intervention over states’ rights, but this does not diminish the accomplishments of Alabama suffragists like Hundley. She personally organized 13 leagues and reorganized two others, and she gave dozens of speeches promoting suffrage all over the state. And it is a significant achievement that Hundley and her fellow suffragists were able to convince 52 male legislators to vote for the bill the first time the topic had been placed before the Alabama legislature.
- Thomas, Mary Martha, ed. Stepping Out of the Shadows: Alabama Women, 1819-1990. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
- Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill. New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.