Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Feminist Foremothers

The pioneer crusader for women’s right to vote started life as a precocious child. Raised in the 1820s by a Quaker father who believed in independent thinking and education for women, Susan learned to read and write by the time she was three. Her first career was as a schoolteacher, but she soon found her niche as a political reformer, taking up the cause of temperance, then abolition. In 1869, she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the National Women’s Suffrage Association and put out a pro-feminist paper, The Revolution.

When the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1872 guaranteeing equal rights for African Americans, including the right, as citizens, to vote, Anthony and Cady Stanton kicked into action demanding the right to vote for women as well. Susan and a dozen other suffragists were jailed for trying to vote in the presidential election of that year. Undeterred, they began to work for a separate amendment giving this right to women. However, Congress patently ignored the amendments put before them each year on the vote for women until fifty years later.

Both Stanton and Anthony were real hell-raisers. Stanton, along with Lucretia Mott, organized the first women’s rights convention in 1848 with a platform on women’s rights to property, equal pay for equal work, and the right to vote. Stanton was introduced to Susan B. Anthony three years later. They were a “dream team,” combining Elizabeth’s political theories and her ability to strike people’s emotions, with Susan’s unmatched skill as a logician and organizer par excellence. They founded the first temperance society for women and amazed everybody with their drastic call for drunkenness to be recognized as a legal basis for divorce. Reviled during her lifetime, she learned to live with the taunts and heckles; critics claimed, among other traits, that she had “the proportions of a file and the voice of a hurdy-gurdy.” Nonetheless, the “Napoleon” of the women’s rights movement, as William Henry Channing called her, tirelessly lectured around the country for women’s rights until her dying day in 1906.

Although she didn’t get to realize her dream of voting rights for women, the successors she and Stanton trained did finally win this landmark victory for the women of America. Of the 260 women who attended the foremothers’ historic first women’s rights convention in 1848, only one woman lived long enough to see the passing of the victorious 1920 amendment grating women the right to vote— Charlotte Woodward. She declared at the time, “We little dreamed when we began this context that half a century later we would be compelled to leave the finish of the battle to another generation of women. But our hearts are filled with joy to know that they enter this task equipped with a college education, with business experience, with the freely admitted right to speak in public—all of which were denied to women fifty years ago.”

“Failure is impossible.”

— Susan B. Anthony
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Angelina Emily Grimké and Sarah Moore Grimké: Sister Soldiers

The Grimké sisters were raised like Scarlett and her sisters in Gone with the Wind, but, unlike the fictional characters, grew up hating slavery. The privileged duo, two of twelve children, had all the southern advantages of private tutors and training in the arts at their palatial Charleston, South Carolina, home and were brought up to be good, high church Episcopalians. But they first showed their abolitionist spunk when Sarah was twelve; she was caught teaching a slave to read and write, a criminal offense. Because Angelica supported her, they were both punished.

As soon as they could, they high-tailed it out of there. Sarah bailed in 1821, moving north to The City of Brotherly Love and converting to Quakerism because of its antislavery beliefs. Angelina followed eight years later and repeated her sister’s religious switch and “lefty” leanings, going so far as to join the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society.

Angelina had a nose for publicity and got her passionate condemnation of slavery published in William Lloyd Garrison’s magazine The Liberator. Spurred by this break, Angelina followed up with a pamphlet entitled “An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” which tried to appeal to women’s consciences in opposing slavery: “But, perhaps you will be ready to query, why appeal to women on this subject? We do not make the law which perpetuates slavery. No legislative power is vested in us; we can do nothing to overthrow the system, even if we wished to do so. To this I reply, I know you do not make the laws, but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and the daughters of those who do; and if you really suppose you can do nothing to overthrow slavery, you are greatly mistaken…1st. You can read on this subject. 2nd. You can pray over this subject. 3rd. You can speak on this subject. 4th. You can act on this subject.”

Her appeal created a storm of controversy. In her hometown of Charleston, the postmaster burned all copies and put out a warning that Angelina better never show her face again in the South. At that point, sister Sarah took up the charge and attacked the slavers with a shot below their biblical belts with a refutation of the lame excuse that slavery was “OK” according to the Bible in her “Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States.”

The fearless siblings took their abolitionist act on the road, speaking to mixed crowds of both men and women. This really raised the dander of so-called “proper” society—ladies were not supposed to appear in public with men who were not their husbands and women were not supposed to lecture or preach—and they returned fire with a printed attack from the Massachusetts clergy that was preached to every available congregation in 1837. The clergy condemned women reformers and preachers, issuing a caution regarding any female who “assumed the place and tone of man as public reformer…her character becomes unnatural.” This was followed by other pious publications assaulting the Grimké sisters for overstepping their place.

As a result of the churches’ attack, the sisters found themselves in the middle of the women’s rights movement and are generally credited with being the first to make a link between the abolitionist cause and women’s rights. The irrepressible duo fired back in grand style with letters in the Spectator and in Sarah’s book, published in 1838, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women where she took the panty-waisted preachers down with her brilliant manifesto declaring women as absolutely and naturally endowed with equal rights, and that the only “unnatural” behaviors being performed in American society were those of men suppressing women!

Later, Angelina became the first woman in America to speak to a legislature with the presentation of her antislavery petition signed by 20,000 women to the Massachusetts state legislative body. The Grimkés were ahead of their time in many other ways as well, embracing new health fads and intellectual movements and running with a pretty arty crowd, including Henry David Thoreau who was intrigued by their up-to-the-minute fashion sense, describing them as “two elderly gray-haired ladies, the former in extreme Bloomer costume, which was what you might call remarkable.” Go Grimkés!

“I ask for no favors for my sex. I surrender no claim to equality. All I ask our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright on the ground which God designed us to occupy.”
— Sarah Moore Grimké

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Belva Ann Bennett McNall Lockwood: See How She Ran

BelvaLockwood-engraving
By Unknown – 1883 publication, Public Domain.

Victorian powerhouse Belva Lockwood was the first woman to plead before the U.S. Supreme Court and the first woman to run for president of the United States. After being blocked from the law department of Columbian College (Now George Washington University) for fear that her presence would distract the male students, this widow and former school teacher applied to the brand new National Law School. Upon her graduation in 1869 at the age of forty-three, Belva was refused her degree and took this affront to the attention of President Ulysses S. Grant, who arranged for the due delivery of Belva’s diploma.

This was just the beginning of her struggles to be allowed to practice law. Admitted to the District of Columbia bar, Belva was barred from speaking to federal courts due to her gender. Not willing to take the exclusion lying down, she then rammed a bill through Congress allowing women lawyers in the federal courts, becoming in 1879 the first woman admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court. Proving that Belva wasn’t just in it for herself, she took up many cases for the underdog—championing, for example, the first southern black lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court. And in her most spectacular case, she won a famous $5 million judgment (an unheard of amount in the nineteenth century) for the Cherokee Indians, forcing the U.S. government to pay them for their land. This spectacular victory prompted opposing lawyer Assistant Attorney General Louis A. Pratt to designate her “decidedly the most noted attorney in this country, if not in the world.”

With her brilliant legal mind, Belva figured that, “If women in the states are not permitted to vote, there is no law against their being voted for, and if elected, filling the highest office in the gift of the people” and decided to run for president as the candidate of the Equal Rights Party in 1884 and 1888, with a hefty platform espousing rights for all minorities (including voting rights for women) along with temperance, peace, and universal education. Interestingly, she was opposed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who urged her to endorse the Republican candidate, James Blaine (he was in favor of women’s rights). Both Blaine and Lockwood lost out to Grover Cleveland, but Lockwood surprised everyone by getting thousands of votes! Throughout her life, she continued to work and speak on behalf of her favored causes—women, peace, and minority rights—attaining a national reputation as a brilliant and powerful speaker. In her later years, she threw her energies into the Universal Peace Union, a precursor to the United Nations that advocated arbitration as a solution to internal conflicts. In 1912, she reflected back on her lengthy career and remarked, “I never stopped fighting. My cause was the cause of thousands of women.”

“Were I a voice—a still small voice—an eloquent voice, I would whisper into the ear of every young woman, improve and exercise every talent that has been given to you; improve every opportunity, obey your inspiration, give no heed to the croakings of those narrow minds who take old hide bound and musty customs for religion and law, with which they have no affiliation, and who tell you with remarkable ease that these professions were never intended for women.”
— Belva Ann Bennett McNall Lockwood

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Nannie Helen Burroughs: The Practical Prophet

Nannie_Helen_Burroughs
By The Rotograph Co. – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID cph.3b46093, Public Domain.

NAACP pioneer William Picken described Nannie Burroughs this way: “No other person in America has so large a hold on the loyalty and esteem of the colored masses as Nannie H. Burroughs. She is regarded all over the broad land as combination of brains, courage, and incorruptibleness.” Born in the Gilded Age in 1879, Nannie Burroughs was fortunate to be born into a family of ex-slaves who were able to establish a comfortable existence in Virginia, affording young Nannie a good education. Nannie applied for a job as a domestic science teacher and wasn’t hired because she was “too dark.” Later, she was turned down for a job as a government clerk because she was a black woman.

Nannie began dreaming of a way to prepare black women for careers that freed them from the traps of gender and bias. Nannie worked for the national Baptist Alliance for fifty years, starting as a bookkeeper and secretary. In her spare time, she organized the Women’s Industrial Club, providing practical clerical courses for women. Through the school she founded in 1909, the National Training School for Women and Girls, she educated thousand of black American women as well as Haitians, Puerto Ricans, and South Africans to send them into the world with the tools for successful careers. Her program emphasized what she called the three Bs: the Bible, the Bath, and the Broom, representing “clean lives, clean bodies, and clean homes.”

An advocate of racial self-help, Nannie worked all her life to provide a solid foundation for poor black women so they could work and gain independence and equality. She practiced what she preached. At one point, she wrote to John D. Rockefeller for a donation to her cause. He sent her one dollar with a note asking what a business-woman like her would do with the money. She purchased a dollar’s worth of peanuts and sent them to him with a note asking him to autograph each one and return them to her. She would then sell each one for a dollar.

She founded the Harriet Beecher literary society as a vehicle for literary expression and was also active in the antilynching campaigns. She gave Sojourner Truth a run for her money with dramatic speech-making and stirring lectures such as her headline-making speech in 1932: “Chloroform your Uncle Toms! What must the Negro do to be saved? The Negro must unload the leeches and parasitic leaders who are absolutely eating the life out of the struggling, frightened mass of people.”

One of her students once said that Nannie considered “everybody God’s nugget.” Nannie Burroughs’ pragmatic “grab your own bootstraps” approach to racial equality offered that chance to everyone who came into her purview.

“The training of Negro women is absolutely necessary, not only for their own salvation and the salvation of the race, but because of the hour in which we live demands it. If we lose sight of the demands of the hour we blight our hope of progress. The subject of domestic science has crowded itself upon us, and unless we receive it, master it and be wise, the next ten years will so revolutionize things that we will find our women without the wherewithal to support themselves.”
 — Nannie Helen Burroughs
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Sojourner Truth: “Ain’t I a Woman?”

Carte_de_visite
By Unidentified photographer – Gladstone Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6165 (3-11b), Public Domain.

Sojourner Truth’s name alone suggests sheroism. It fits her perfectly—she was a fire-breathing preacher, suffragist, and vigilant abolitionist. Unschooled and born to slavery, she didn’t allow these disadvantages to prevent her from becoming one of the most charismatic and powerful orators of the nineteenth century. In fact, like many African Americans of the day, hardship seemed to make her only stronger, like a blade forged by fire.

She hailed from Dutch country in upstate New York and grew up speaking Dutch. Christened Isabella, she was sold away from her parents as a child and was traded many times, until finally landing with John Dumont for whom she worked for sixteen years. At fourteen, she was given to an older slave to be his wife and bore five children. In 1826, one year before she was to be legally freed, Isabella ran away from Dumont and hid with a pacifist Quaker family.

Upon hearing that one of her sons had been sold into lifetime slavery in Alabama, Isabella sued over this illegal sale of her son and, remarkably, won the case. Isabella moved to New York in the 1830s and worked as a maid for a religious community, the Magdalenes, whose mission was the conversion of prostitutes to Christianity.

By 1843, the extremely religious Isabella heard a calling to become a traveling preacher. She renamed herself Sojourner Truth and hit the road where her talent for talking amazed all who heard her at revivals, camp meetings, churches, and on the side of the road, if the occasion arose. She kept her sermons to the simple themes of brotherly love and tolerance. In Massachusetts, Truth encountered liberals who enlightened her on the topics of feminism and abolition. Her autobiography, as told to the antislavery forerunner William Lloyd Garrison, provided a powerful weapon for the cause of abolition when published. Her story, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, was one of the first stories of a woman slave to be widely known and was retold many times, including the charmingly entitled version, “Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which was published by the Atlantic Monthly.

Sojourner then put her religious fervor into the message of abolition, a holy mission into which she threw all her formidable will and energy. Her call to end the slavery of human beings in this country was powerful. There is a beloved story showing her quick tongue and even quicker mind and spirit: when the great Frederick Douglas openly doubted there could be an end to slavery without the spilling of blood. In a flash, Sojourner replied, “Frederick, is God dead?”

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Sojourner was preaching the twin messages of abolition and women’s suffrage. She was unwavering in her convictions and made the eloquent point that “if colored men get their rights and not colored women, colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as before.” She threw herself into the Civil War efforts helping runaway slaves and black soldiers. President Lincoln was so impressed with the legend of Sojourner Truth that he invited her to the White House to talk.

Sojourner Truth worked, preached, and fought right up to her dying day in 1883. She lived long enough to see one of her fondest hopes—the abolition of slavery—be realized and, along with the estimable Harriet Tubman, is one of the two most respected African American women of the nineteenth century. Was she a woman? Yes, indeed. And a shero for all time!

“I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman?”
— Sojourner Truth
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Elizabeth Blackwell: Medicine Woman

Elizabeth_Blackwell
By Unknown photographer – National Library of Medicine, Public Domain.

After she was born in England, Elizabeth Blackwell’s family moved to the United States in 1831, settling in Cincinatti when their sugar refinery in New York burned down in 1835. They were progressives, and Elizabeth’s father, Samuel, had chosen to refine sugar from beets because it could be done without slave labor. However, the malaria-ridden Ohio River Valley soon took Samuel Blackwell’s life, and the children all had to work to support the family. Musically talented Elizabeth taught music classes and assisted her siblings in running a boardinghouse in the family home. Elizabeth had a chance to teach in Kentucky but couldn’t tolerate the idea of living in a slave state.

Befriended by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth became very active in the anti-slavery movement and also exported her literary leanings, joining the Semi-Colon Club at Stowe’s urgings. Elizabeth needed more intellectual stimulation than even the writing club offered, however, and spurned the attention of Cincinnati’s young men in order to keep her mind clear for higher pursuits. When her father was alive, she had become accustomed to the excellent schooling and private tutors Samuel provided for his brood. Children were “thinking creatures,” the elder Blackwells proclaimed. Further, they made sure that the girls were taught all the same subjects as the boys, quite a rare notion for the time.

When her friend Mary Donaldson died of what was probably uterine cancer, Elizabeth Blackwell knew she wanted to become a doctor. Mary had told Elizabeth that she believed her illness would not have been fatal if her doctor had been a woman; a woman would have taken her seriously instead of her being dismissed as suffering from “woman troubles” and emotionalism. Elizabeth knew in her heart that Mary was right. Her long road to becoming a physician was more difficult than she could ever know, but her unswerving dedication to reaching her goal is a testament to Elizabeth Blackwell’s character.

Elizabeth Blackwell was turned down by no less than twenty-eight medical schools in her attempt to study medicine! Even her ultimate triumph at the age of twenty-six in finally enrolling at Geneva College in New York was handled insultingly. Pressured by Joseph Warrington, a noted doctor from Philadelphia who admired Elizabeth’s fierce combination of smarts and pure pluck, the board at Geneva decided to give Blackwell a chance. Wimpily, they left the vote up to the all-male student body, who as a joke voted unanimously to let her in. Blackwell had the last laugh, however, when she outperformed the lot of jokers and graduated at the top of the class. Far from taking away from her achievement, their mockery made her victory all the sweeter. But she faced more obstacles upon graduation.

Elizabeth first worked in a syphilis ward for women where she was greeted with rancor and resentment by all the male physicians. The only job she could get was in Paris
at La Maternite hospital interning in midwifery. Then Elizabeth’s hopes of becoming a surgeon were dashed when she lost her left eye to disease. She also interned a year in London, meeting Florence Nightingale and forming a friendship that lasted their lifetime. Blackwell fared no better in the United States when she tried to find work in her profession, finally going into private practice in New York City where she was deluged with obscene letters and accosted on the street as a harlot and an abortionist. Her initial interest in women’s health was evidenced by her opening of the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children, where the unfortunate could receive medical attention. There, Elizabeth welcomed two more women doctors—Emily Blackwell, her sister, and Marie Zakrewska, both of whom had entered medical school with her help.

Blackwell’s pioneering works are considerable: She authored a book titled The Laws of Life, lectured on the importance of women in medicine, organized a Civil War nursing outfit, and founded a health-inspection program run by the first African American female physician, Dr. Rebecca Cole. When she moved back to England in 1869, she added sex education and birth control to her lectures, argued against the use of animal testing, cofounded the British National Health Society, was a professor of gynecology at the brand new School of Medicine for Women, and wrote several more books and tracts, including her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. Elizabeth died of a stroke at the age of eighty-nine, sixty-three years after she broke down the walls barring women from medicine.

“I am watching, my doubts will not be subdued. (I will) commit heresy with intelligence…if my convictions compel me to do it.”
— Elizabeth Blackwell

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Sofya Kovalevsky: It Pays to be Calculating

Sofja_Wassiljewna_Kowalewskaja_1
By Unknown – http://www.goettinger-tageblatt.de/newsroom/wissen/dezentral/wissenlokal/art4263,603649, Public Domain.

Russian child prodigy Sofya Kovalevsky wasn’t allowed to study her favorite subject, mathematics, because of her gender. Her parents even threatened not to allow her to be educated at all if she was caught studying math. Wily and willful, Sofya found a way: working out equations on the back of old wallpaper in an unused room in her house, thus keeping her passion for numbers safely secret. She faced similar barricades when she was older and was denied admission to a university. Around 1870, Sofya married to get away from her stifling mother and an equally repressive Mother Russia and escaped to Germany, where she attended the University at Heidelberg. Soon she was calculating rings around other students and acquired a reputation as a top-notch mathematician in the elite realm of partial differential equations. By thirty-three, she received a professorial post at Stockholm’s select university and was awarded the Prix Bordin from the French Academy of Sciences. A true Renaissance woman, Sofya also wrote a few novels and plays before her creativity was halted by an early death at a mere forty-one.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.