Tuesday will be the 196th anniversary of the birth of Zerelda G.Wallace, step-mother of Lew Wallace. Zerelda became a key leader in both state and national suffrage associations, and her life was dynamic, resourceful, and inspirational. The League of Women Voters believes it is appropriate to annually recognize and celebrate Zerelda's role in working to gain women the right to vote.

Born Aug. 6, 1817, Zerelda Gray Sanders was the oldest of five daughters of Dr. John Sanders and Polly Gray Sanders. Growing up in Kentucky and Indianapolis, she benefited from her father's belief that girls should receive the same education as boys. He encouraged her to read his books and included her in conversations with his friends.

At age 19, Zerelda fell in love with David Wallace, a widower 18 years her senior and the father of three small boys. They were married Dec. 25, 1836 at an Indianapolis hotel. Following the service, David brought Zerelda to Crawfordsville where she met his three boys for first time. Years later, the middle son, Lew, used Zerelda as the model for the beloved mother in his novel Ben Hur. David and Zerelda had six additional children, three of whom survived.

Zerelda Wallace supported her husband's political career while he served as the sixth governor of Indiana (1837-1840) and then represented Indiana in Congress. She was the youngest woman ever to be first lady of the state of Indiana. It is reported that everything her husband wrote, he submitted to her for review. When her stepsons studied the law, she read along with them and gained a good understanding of the legal system.

Zerelda first became active in the temperance movement and was instrumental in the founding of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, serving as the first Indiana State President and also national vice president. When she addressed the state legislature on temperance in 1875, the members were quick to show their contempt for her cause and her gender. She realized that until women gained the vote, they would have no real voice in the government. After her speech, Wallace shook the hand of a particularly rude senator and said, "You are against our cause; but I am grateful to you, because today you have made me a woman suffragist."

She threw herself into the woman suffrage cause with the same vigor she had brought to the temperance issue. Wallace served as president of the Equal Suffrage Society of Indianapolis, was a founder of the Indiana Woman Suffrage Association, and was elected vice president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, serving with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. She became known as a powerful speaker for both temperance and woman's suffrage and was in constant demand, addressing gatherings all across the nation.

On January 23, 1880, Zerelda testified before the United States Senate's Judiciary Committee on woman's right to vote. She addressed the 1883 International Council of Women held in Washington D.C. on "The Moral Power of the Ballot." She was a featured speaker at Conventions of the National Woman Suffrage Association in both 1886 and 1887.

In 1980, the Indiana Academy elected her posthumously as a member. She was also selected to represent Indiana in the League of Women Voters National Hall of Fame. On June 13, 2004, an Indiana State Historic Marker was dedicated to Zerelda G. Wallace at the Central Christian Church in Indianapolis.

Zerelda Wallace continues to be an example and inspiration for the League's mission to encourage informed and active participation by all citizens in government.

The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization, encourages informed and active participation in government. The League never supports or opposes candidates or parties. But the LWV does work to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information about the League, visit the website www.lwvmontco.org, or send a message to LWV, PO Box 101, Crawfordsville, IN 47933.