Frances Perkins: Dear to Her Heart

Frances_Perkins_cph.3a04983
By Unknown – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID cph.3a04983., Public Domain.

Frances Perkins joined Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cabinet in 1933 as secretary of labor when America was reeling from The Great Depression. She remained in this office as long as FDR himself did, serving her country well during its worst-ever economic crisis. Frances also worked on behalf of reform for workers and on many other issues dear to the First Lady, Eleanor’s, heart. She was responsible for the creation of many jobs and work corps, for the development of better minimum wages, and for benefits such as Social Security and unemployment insurance. Frances’ zeal as an industrial reformer came from a tragedy she witnessed in 1911, when 146 women working at the Triangle Shirtwaist company died in a fire because there were no fire escapes. This was a
real turning point for Perkins, “I felt I must seal it not only on my mind but on my heart as a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.”

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

Emma Goldman: Radical Rhetorician

Emma_Goldman_seated
By T. Kajiwara (1876–1960) – Library of Congress, Public Domain.

Teenage immigrant Emma Goldman had escaped from Russia in 1885 after witnessing the wholesale slaughter of the idealist political rebel anarchists who called themselves the Nihilists. Two years later in America, the young woman “born to ride the whirlwinds” as someone once said, saw it happen again with the new trial and killings of the Haymarket anarchists who had opposed Chicago’s power elite. Rather than scare her off the politics of idealism forever, young Emma was drawn even more toward the kind of political passion that risked death for principles. She “devoured every line on anarchism I could get,” she notes in her autobiography Living My Life, “and headed for New York City, command central in the 1890s for radicals of many stripes.”

In New York, Emma met one of the anarchists whose writing she’d been devouring, Johann Most, who encouraged her to develop her gift for public speaking. Emma worked as a practical nurse in New York’s ghettos where she saw the price women paid for want of any birth control. Soon she was taking to the soapbox to air her views on this lack of available contraception and the resulting reliance on back-room abortions: “Thanks to this Puritan tyranny, the majority of women soon find themselves at the ebb of their physical resources. Ill and worn, they are utterly unable to give their children even elementary care. That, added to economic pressure, forces many women to risk utmost danger rather than continue to bring forth life.” Her campaign reached the ears of Margaret Sanger and influenced the development of a national birth control campaign.

But birth control was only one of her bailiwicks; what she was really advocating was anarchism: a classless, governmentless society made up of small groups in free, humanistic cooperation with one another. She had a tremendous gift for verbal rhetoric. Nicknamed “Red Emma,” she traveled the United States lecturing—often six months of the year, five nights a week—making frequent stops at Mabel Dodge’s infamous salon, and publishing her monthly magazine, Mother Earth, a vehicle for her twin concerns of women’s liberation and the rights of the working class. Reporter Nellie Bly was delighted to note that “Red Emma” was very pretty “with a saucy turned up nose and very expressive blue-gray eyes…(brown hair) falling loosely over her forehead, full lips, strong white teeth, a mild, pleasant voice, with a fetching accent.”

In 1893, she was jailed for a year for exhorting a crowd of unemployed men who believed “it was their sacred right” to take bread if they were starving. Later she came to believe that the ends do not always justify the means, and she repudiated violence as a tool to create change. She continued to mesmerize crowds with her impassioned speeches until 1917 when her opposition to World War I led to a two-year imprisonment. She was subsequently deported, the Justice Department fearful of allowing her to continue her antiwar campaign: “She is womanly, a remarkable orator, tremendously sincere, and carries conviction. If she is allowed to continue here she cannot help but have great influence.”

She continued to exercise influence from abroad; in 1922 Nation magazine proclaimed that she was one of “the twelve greatest living women.” She was allowed back into the country after her death when the government decided that her silenced corpse posed no risk, and she was buried in Chicago with the Haymarket martyrs.

“The more opposition I encountered, the more I was in my element and the more caustic I became with my opponents.”
— Emma Goldman

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

Mother Jones: MoJo Rising

Mother_Jones_1902-11-04
By Bertha Howell – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID cph.3a10320., Public Domain.

In the 1960s, big business came to be known as “The Man.” A hundred years before the hippie revolution, Mother Jones was giving The Man a kick in the wallet every chance she got. She organized her first labor strike at the midpoint of her life, age forty-seven, and devoted the rest of her life to establishing unions in coal mines, breweries, factories, and cotton mills over a span of forty years. Armed with steel-trap smarts, a tough, no-nonsense manner and endless courage, she fought her way to the forefront of the labor movement and paved the way for safer, more humane conditions for workers, including child labor laws and the eight-hour work day.

A charismatic leader who helped the underpaid and overworked laborers of America fight for their rights, Mary Harris Jones came to be known as Mother Jones because of her concern for the workers she came across. Portrayed in the many photos taken, as the sweetest of grandmothers in her proper Victorian gowns, hats, and spectacles, she was however, in her own words, “a hell-raiser.” Doubtless, she enjoyed the epithet once hurled at her by a prosecutor in West Virginia—“the most dangerous woman in America.”

She was born into a working-class family of revolutionaries. Her father and his father before him were both soldiers in the battle for Irish independence. Her grandfather was hanged for his participation in the revolution; her father escaped to North America to avoid arrest. Young Mary attended public school and trained both as a seamstress and a teacher. She taught at a convent in Monroe, Michigan, for a year before deciding to set up a dressmaker’s shop in Chicago. The year 1860 found her in Memphis teaching; there she met and married George Jones, an ironworker, union member, and labor organizer, who died seven years later of yellow fever. This was enough to send her back to Chicago, where she applied her skill as a seamstress, making fancy dresses for the wealthy of Lake Shore Drive. Anger welled up inside her at the selfish wealthy folks she sewed for who blithely ignored the needy and basked in their sumptuous comforts.

Four years after losing George to yellow fever, Mary lost her shop to Chicago’s great fire, and she joined the ranks of the homeless. Her anger at the selfish wealthy class incited her to attend Knights of Labor meetings where she quickly became admired for her orations and argumentation. Mary Harris had found her true calling—as a labor activist, agitator, and activist. She was nothing short of brilliant. Her passionate calls to action were heard by thousands of Americans who were inspired by her to fight for basic human rights and respect as workers. She had an almost magical ability to band people together to fight against incredible odds.

“Women are the foundation of the nation,” she declared as she put her heart and soul into helping the condition of working women in rural areas and mountainous towns of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, and as far west as Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. She forged a powerful sisterhood with these women and saw behind the shy faces a steely strength that she helped them tap. “Women have great power, if only they knew how to use it,” she would declare often, urging women to focus their eyes on the prize of better pay, decent working conditions, and reduction of the soul-killing hours. “This is the fighting age. Put on your fighting clothes. You are too sentimental!”

Mother Jones labored in the trenches alongside the workers, sleeping on their floors in cold mountain shacks and sharing their scant food. While intellectuals theorized about class struggles and economic ideals, Mother Jones worked in the gritty reality of these people’s daily lives. She saw herself as one of the struggling, too, and babysat, cared for the sick, held the dying, and scavenged for food, clothing, coal, and money during strikes. Her distrust of the suffragette movement came from her total allegiance to the uneducated working poor; many of the suffragettes were of the monied, educated, upper class she so resented. She let them worry about getting the right to vote for women; she was making sure they could survive the business of making a living.

A victim of sexism, Mother Jones was never allowed to participate in the United Mine Workers of America she fought so hard for. Men completely ran the union; she was allowed no part of it. From the sidelines, she tried her best to advise in impassioned letters these men for whom she had built a powerful membership. Late in life, she was saddened by the infighting and corruption she was powerless to prevent.

Mother Jones championed the underdog at her own expense and often at enormous personal risk. Ahead of her time, she amazed West Virginia mine workers she had organized when she implored them to be more understanding of the foreign-born “scabs” who were sent to work the mines during strikes. She also lobbied on behalf of African American workers who suffered bigotry from the unions.

Born in the Victorian Age and brought up to be subservient, Mother Jones was a first generation Irish American who fought the good fight and left the world a better place for her class, for women, and for the ethnic groups trying to find their place among the workers of America. Mary Harris Jones was fortunate to live long enough to see many of the great changes she fought for in improving the lot of the working class. Iron-willed and lion-hearted, Mother Jones lived by her principles. A shero in both words and action, she reminds us all, “it is the militant, not the meek, who shall inherit the earth.”

“This Jeanne d’Arc of the miners was a benevolent fanatic, a Celtic blend of sentiment and fire, of sweetness and fight…(who) captured the imagination of the American worker as no other woman—perhaps no other leader—ever has.”
— Dale Fetherling on Mother Jones

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

Daisy Bates: Fighting the System and Winning!

Daisy_Lee_Gatson_Bates
By Source, Fair use, Public Domain.

The image of an eight-year-old black girl in her perfectly starched blouse and skirt walking through a gauntlet of hatred to go to school was etched in the minds of every American in the sixties. Everyone was touched by the grace and dignity shown by the young girl who was spat at and heckled, as cameras shoved in her face recorded it for all posterity. Activists for integration won a huge victory that day and with an even greater strength and resolve went on to flatten every segregation wall that presented itself.

Daisy Bates was one of the civil rights warriors who were first called into action in the fight for desegregation. Born in 1920, Daisy was adopted into a loving family in Little Rock, Arkansas, and never knew what happened to her birth mother until the taunts of schoolchildren made the eight-year-old question her adoptive mother. On that day, she found out that her mother had been raped and murdered by three white men who then dumped her body in a pond. Her father left town to escape having the crime pinned on him.

When Daisy was twenty-one, she married L.C. Bates, a black man who had been educated as a journalist. Together, they took over a Little Rock newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, and turned it into a platform for “the people,” reporting crimes committed against blacks that the white paper ignored. Daisy worked as a reporter, covering with complete honesty, for example, the cold-blooded murder of a black soldier by military police. The white business community was outraged over the State Press’ coverage: They feared the army would leave their town and withdraw all advertising. However, the Bates’ brave courage in the face of brutality to blacks curtailed these crimes, and Little Rock became a more liberated town despite itself.

Then the movement toward desegregation heated up, with Daisy Bates right in the thick of things. The Supreme Court had declared segregation of schools unconstitutional in May of 1954, giving Southern schools the chance to describe how and when they would make the required changes. The local school board had responded by saying that they would take on the notion of integration “gradually.” Little Rock’s black community was up in arms about the foot dragging and after butting their heads in the many stony-faced meetings, they opted to take matters into their own hands. The state and local NAACP decided that they would try to enroll the students into the segregated schools and build up cases of denied admission in order to create a true challenge to the policy of gradualism. Daisy Bates, as president of the NAACP in Little Rock, worked with the State Press and other papers to publicize this flouting of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Finally, in 1957, they decided to integrate the high school, come hell or high water. The children who would put their bodies on the line would become famous overnight as “Daisy’s children” and suffer personal agony for the cause of racial injustice.

When nine children were selected to attend the “whites only” Central High School, Daisy acted as their escort and protector. Answering a poll screened by school officials, the group of young heroes and sheroes consisted of: Carlotta Walls, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Ernest Green, Terrence Roberts, Gloria Ray, Minnijean Brown, Jefferson Thomas, and Elizabeth Eckford. When Little Rock school superintendent Virgil Blossom decreed that no adults could accompany the black students, Daisy called all of their homes and told them there would be a change of plans.

Elizabeth Eckford’s family had no telephone, so she showed up on opening day—to be faced by an angry white mob who also attacked the reporters and photographers. The mob siege lasted seventeen days until 1,000 paratroopers showed up in response to orders from the White House to carry through the order of legal integration of the school.

However, the students were on their own once inside, prey to taunts, shoving, and threats of violence. Daisy Bates continued to protect and advise the children throughout the ordeal, accompanying them to every meeting with a school official when racial incidents happened. The struggle at Little Rock was only the first in a round of actions that ultimately led to full legal desegregation. Though difficult, the victory was entirely to Daisy and her “children” who showed the nation that you could stand up to hatred and ignorance with honesty and dignity. You can fight a losing battle and win.

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

Coretta Scott King: Unshakeable Faith

Coretta_Scott_King
By Kingkongphoto & http://www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA – Coretta Scott King © copyright 2010, CC BY-SA 2.0, Public Domain.

Like the Robesons, the Kings had a marriage based on love—for each other and for racial equality. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Coretta gained recognition in her own right as a pillar of the civil rights movement. A talented musician, Coretta was born in Alabama in 1927 and was educated at Antioch, where she got a degree in music and elementary education and was exposed to whites in a very different environment than the South, learning a great deal about techniques to foster interracial communication. In 1953, she married Martin Luther King, Jr. while they were both college students, and they pursued a life together, her music—she got a higher degree at the New England Conservatory of Music—and his theological degree. From a long line of ministers, Martin felt a call to become a pastor, a decision that found the young couple moving to Montgomery, Alabama, after their education. They had their first of four children in their first year at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and became deeply involved in the actions of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the bus boycott after Rosa Parks’ historic bus ride. As the footage shows, Coretta was right beside Martin at every protest, fighting for the rights of all African Americans. She also participated in fundraising for the movement by giving more than thirty concerts in Europe and the United States to raise money for Martin’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

The Kings traveled extensively in their work—to Ghana, to India, to Nigeria, and in 1964, to Norway to receive Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, the world watched in horror as Martin was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, during a garbage workers strike. Coretta didn’t shrink from the work at hand and led a protest in Memphis four days later with her children at her side. Her quiet dignity captured the nation; that year she was voted Woman of the Year and Most Admired Woman by college students.

From that fateful day, Coretta stepped forward and took up the mantle of leadership in the civil rights movement, which she shared with the young Jesse Jackson. Coretta amazed everyone with her stamina and heart as she made speech after speech and led march after march. She has received innumerable awards for her tireless efforts in her lifetime. She founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change and has also led the attention of the nation into new directions, organizing antiwar protests, antinuclear and anti-apartheid lobbies, and employment for African Americans. More than 100 colleges have given her honorary doctorates. Coretta Scott King has never hesitated to give herself to the struggle for freedom and justice, viewing it as both “a privilege” and “a blessing.”

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

Fannie Lou Hamer: Bravery Unbound

Fannie_Lou_Hamer_1964-08-22
By Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine; Restored by Adam Cuerden – the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division, Public Domain.

Fannie Lou Hamer grew up a sharecropper’s daughter in Montgomery, Mississippi, where she was exposed to the worst face of racial injustice. Forced to quit school in the sixth grade to work in the cotton fields to help support her family, she got involved in the effort to register blacks to vote in 1962. At the time, a literacy test was required in order to secure the right to vote, and Fannie helped teach people so they could pass the test. One day, Fannie was on a bus with a group of fellow African American youths who were challenging the “whites only” policy at the bus terminal diner. When they were attacked by state troopers called in to deal with the “insurrection,” Fannie was hurt badly and jailed with everyone else from the bus. Her sufferings had only begun, though. Hamer was incarcerated in a cell with two black men who were ordered to beat her with a metal-spiked leather billy club. Fannie was permanently blinded in one eye by this beating and suffered kidney damage, but she emerged with even more inner resolve to put an end to racial injustice. Fannie worked without cessation for many related causes: Head Start for black schools, jobs for poor blacks, and against the Vietnam War because she felt black soldiers were being sent to protect rights they themselves didn’t have at home. Fannie Hamer risked her life over and over to improve the lot of her people until her death in 1977, never receiving the attention that was her due. A true unsung shero, her essential belief was, “We serve God by serving our fellow (human beings).”

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.