Emma Goldman: Radical Rhetorician

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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.

Faye Wattleton: Footsteps to Follow

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By Photo Credit: Kelly Campbell – Detail from Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, Public Domain.

Faye Wattleton was working as a student nurse at Harlem Hospital when one particular case drew her attention to the importance of safe and legal abortion. It was “a really beautiful seventeen-year-old girl” she recalls. “She and her mother had decided to induce an abortion by inserting a Lysol douche into her uterus. It killed her.” That’s when Faye became a reproductive rights activist, holding various positions in public health administration and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), before being elected in 1978 to the PPFA presidency. Ironically, Faye was giving birth when she won!

She carries the triple honors of being the first woman, the first African American, and the youngest person ever to head up PPFA. Over the years, she has worked valiantly
to fight the barriers constantly being put in the way—President Reagan’s “squeal rule” to notify parents of distribution of birth control or information, the “gag rule” preventing abortion counseling, and the Supreme Court’s challenge to Roe v. Wade. She resigned the presidency in 1992. Pointing to her contributions, Arthur J. Kopp of People for the American Way noted, “her remarkable ability to communicate difficult issues have made her a giant in the ongoing battle to preserve Americans’ fundamental liberties.”

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

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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.

Margaret Sanger: Woman Rebel

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By Underwood & Underwood – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division, reproduction number LC-USZ62-29808. [1], Public Domain.
Unimaginably, there were laws against the use of contraceptives until the year 1965. But Margaret Sanger worked most of her life—from 1879 to 1966—to fight for women’s rights to control their bodies, a battle still going on in the wake of Roe v. Wade. Margaret’s passion for the topic was born of personal experience: She believed her mother’s death at forty-nine was due to the physical hardship of eighteen pregnancies (out of which eleven children lived).

After her mother’s death, Margaret disobeyed her father’s wish to stay and run the household for him, instead going to nursing school. She also fell in love with a young architect, William Sanger, during this time, and they were married in 1902. She conceived during their first year of marriage and had a hard time with the pregnancy. After the birth of a son, Margaret was told she would be an invalid for the remainder of her life and admitted to a sanitarium. Margaret, showing the willfulness of an independent mind, quickly bailed out of the sanitarium and took care of herself. This proved to be exactly the right thing to do, as her health again blossomed and she produced two more children.

Full-time housewifery and motherhood bored her, however, and she soon took a job as a nurse and midwife in New York’s lower east side. Margaret’s activism
was stirred by the pitiful sights she saw of young, impoverished mothers “destined to be thrown on the scrap heap before they were thirty-five” dealing with unwanted pregnancies, and she resolved to do something about it.

She saw clearly the connection between reproductive rights for women and women’s economic and social equality, convinced that birth control was the key not only to freedom for women but to a better world. Despite censorship laws, she started writing eye-opening articles on birth control and women’s sexuality. A trip to Europe to check out the birth control scene there gave Margaret an evangelical fervor to change the state of things back home in America despite enormous opposition. Founding the American Birth Control League, Margaret also began publishing Woman Rebel, which nearly landed her in jail when a court ordered her to shut the magazine down after the U.S. Post Office refused to deliver it for using the phrase “birth control.” Unstoppable, she circumvented the post office by handing out a circular, Family Limitation, telling women everything they needed to know about birth control; by 1917, she had given away 160,000 copies.

In 1916, she started the first birth control clinic in the country in Brooklyn with the help of her sister and a Yiddish-speaking friend. The clinic was an immediate hit with the women of the boroughs, and 500 women visited in less than two weeks before a police raid landed Margaret in jail. All was not lost, however; the judgment handed down from the court stated that doctors could discuss birth control in the context of prevention of venereal diseases. This gave Sanger the opening she needed and her efforts began to bear fruit. During World War I, the U.S. military distributed condoms to the soldiers, along with Sanger’s pamphlet. “What Every Girl Should Know.” She continued to lecture and founded various birth control clinics. In 1953, she founded the International Planned Parenthood Federation; there are now more than 300 doctor-staffed Planned Parenthood clinics in the country. She was also instrumental in gaining financial support for the initial research into the birth control pill.

Margaret Sanger is truly the mother of reproductive rights. She fought on behalf of the cause for more than fifty years and was jailed nine times. Her battle for voluntary motherhood was an incredibly important step in women’s liberation; as historian Ellen Chesler remarked, “Every woman in the world today who takes her sexual and reproductive autonomy for granted should venerate Margaret Sanger.”

“No gods! No masters!”
— the slogan of Margaret Sanger Woman Rebel

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