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.

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.

Ida B. Wells: Journalist for Justice

Mary_Garrity_-_Ida_B._Wells-Barnett_-_Google_Art_Project_-_restoration_crop
By Original: Mary GarrityRestored by Adam Cuerden – Based on image originally from NAEMVZELXQV2iw at Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain.

Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was an African American journalist and advocate of women’s rights, including suffrage. Though she was born a slave in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, six months later the Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves. Even though they were legally free citizens, her family faced racial prejudice and discrimination while living in Mississippi. Her father helped start Shaw University, and Ida received schooling there, but when she was 16, her parents and one of her siblings died of yellow fever. This meant that as the eldest, Ida had to stop going to school and start taking care of her eight sisters and brothers. Since the family direly needed money, Ida ingeniously convinced a county school official that she was 18 and managed to obtain a job as a teacher. In 1882, she moved to her aunt’s in Nashville with several siblings and at last continued her education at Fisk University.

A direct experience of prejudice in 1884 electrifyingly catalyzed Wells’ sense of the need to advocate for justice. While traveling from Memphis to Nashville, she bought a first-class train ticket, but was outraged when the crew told her to move to the car for African Americans. Refusing, Wells was forced off the train bodily; rather than giving in and giving up, she sued the railroad in circuit court and gained a judgment forcing them to pay her $500. Sadly, the state Supreme Court later overturned the decision; but this experience motivated her to write about Southern racial politics and prejudice. Various black publications published her articles, written under the nom-de-plume “Iola”. Wells later became an owner of two papers, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and Free Speech.

Besides her journalistic and publishing work, she also as a teacher at one of Memphis’ black-only public schools. She became a vocal critic of the condition of these segregated schools. This advocacy caused her to be fired from her job in 1891. The next year, three African American store owners clashed with the white owner of a store nearby who felt they were competing too successfully for local business; when the white store owner attacked their store with several allies, the black store owners ended up shooting several white men while defending their store. The three black men were taken to jail, but never had their day in court – a lynch mob dragged them out and murdered all three men. Moved to action by this horrible tragedy, she started writing about the lynchings of a friend and others, and went on to do in-depth investigative reporting of lynching in America, risking her life to do so.

While away in New York, Wells was told that her office had been trashed by a mob, and that if she ever came back to Memphis she would be killed. She remained in the North and published an in-depth article on lynching for the New York Age, a paper owned by a former slave; she then toured abroad, lecturing on the issue in the hope of enlisting the support of pro-reform whites. When she found out that black exhibitors were banned at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, she published a pamphlet with the support and backing of famed freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, as well as “A Red Record,” a personal report on lynchings in America.

In 1896, Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women; and in 1898, she took her anti-lynching campaign to the White House and led a protest in Washington D.C. to urge President McKinley to act. She was a founding member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), but later cut ties with the organization, feeling that it wasn’t sufficiently focused on taking action. Wells also worked on behalf of all women and was a part of the National Equal Rights League; she continuously fought for women’s suffrage. She even ran for the state senate in 1930, but the next year her health failed, and she died of kidney disease at the age of 68. Well’s life is a testament to courage in the face of danger.

“I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.”

— Ida B. Wells

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.