Clara Lemlich – A Lifetime of Organizing

Clara Lemlich in 1910

Clara Lemlich in 1910

I first heard of Clara Lemlich on the American Experience special “Triangle Fire” about the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911.  Prior to the fire, in the fall of 1909, garment workers in New York City went out on  a massive strike referred to as the Uprising of 20.000.  Clara Lemlich’s words prompted the final decision to strike.

Clara Lemlich was born in Gorodok, Ukraine on March 28, 1886. Her family was Jewish and primarily spoke Yiddish, but against her parent’s wishes Clara learned to read Russian and devoured as many books as she could get. She did sewing and wrote letters for illiterate neighbors in order to raise money for books. It was during this time that a neighbor introduced her to revolutionary literature and she became a socialist.

In 1903, after the Russian Orthodox celebration of Easter, a riot began against the Jews in Kishinev the capital of the Bessarabia province of the Russian Empire (now the capital of Moldova.) The pogrom continued without intervention of the police or military until the third day resulting in approximately 50 deaths, 600 wounded, and 700 houses and businesses looted and destroyed. After this pogrom and a second one in 1905, tens of thousands of Jews left the Russian Empire for the west. The Lemlich family was among them.

The pogram in 1903 captured the attention of the world. Theodore Roosevelt telling the tsar to stop oppressing the Jews.

The pogram in 1903 captured the attention of the world. Theodore Roosevelt telling the tsar to stop oppressing the Jews.

Clara immigrated with her family in 1903 to New York City and quickly found work in the garment industry. The conditions in the factories were terrible with low pay, long hours, lack of advancement, and often humiliating treatment from supervisors. The introduction of the sewing machine, rather than making the work easier, served to increase the required output for each day. Workers were often subcontracted and paid even less than those hired directly. Lemlich along with others rebelled against these conditions and joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. She quickly became a leader, organizing strikes and even returning to the picket line after being injured.

On November 22, 1909, a mass meeting was held at Cooper Union to rally support for striking workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and the Leiserson Company. (Clara had been arrested 17 times while picketing outside the Leiserson factory, been beaten, and left bloody on the sidewalk with broken ribs in September.) Leaders in the labor movement and socialist movement spoke for a couple of hours and Clara grew impatient. Finally, she asked to be heard and was raised to the platform. I’ve read a couple of different versions of what Clara said that night. It could be because she spoke in Yiddish and the differences are in the translation, but basically she said that she was tired of talk. She had listened patiently to generalities, but they were there to make a decision, so she moved that they make the decision to strike. The crowd responded and voted for a general strike beginning the next day. Approximately 20,000 workers went out on strike the next day. It lasted until February 10, 1910, with union contracts at most shops. Sadly, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory held out and refused to make changes or allow the Union into their shop. Then on March 25, 1911, it became the site of a fire that took the lives of 146 people, mostly women and girls.

The fire department arrived quickly, but their ladders didn't reach to the floors where the workers were trapped.

The fire department arrived quickly, but their ladders didn’t reach to the floors where the workers were trapped.

After the Uprising, Lemlich was blacklisted from the garment industry and at odds with the more conservative leadership in the Union. She then took up the cause of women’s suffrage. She believed that suffrage was necessary to improve working women’s lives. Everyone around them in the workplace, the bosses, foremen, inspectors, and owners, were almost all men and they had a vote, but the working women had no vote. The primary suffrage organization, The National American Woman Suffrage Association, was oriented toward middle and upper class women, so she founded the Wage Earners League as a working woman’s alternative. The Wage Earners League, an alternative to the NAWSA was however, dependent on non-working class women for support. It soon passed out of existence and Clara continued her work for suffrage through the Women’s Trade Union League.

Her life took a different direction when Clara married Joe Shavelson in 1913. They moved to a working-class neighborhood and eventually to Brighten Beach. Clara had 3 children, Irving Charles Velson, Martha Shavelson Schaffer and Rita Shavelson Margules and didn’t return to work full-time for the next 30 years. She didn’t give up organizing however. While she devoted herself to raising her family she joined with other Jewish housewives to protest high prices and fight evictions through rent strikes. With Kate Gitlow, she organized the United Council of Working Class Housewives for this purpose and to raise money for relief for strikers.

Striking Garment Workers

Striking Garment Workers

During this time Clara had become a member of the Communist Party, from which she launched the United Council of Working Class Women. This organization was very successful for a time with over 50 branches in NYC and branches in Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Detroit. Although the Council recruited among Communist Party members, it didn’t identify with the Party or press members to join. It eventually was renamed the Progressive Women’s Councils which prompted the Party to withdraw support. Nevertheless in the early 1950s, the PWC was forced to shut down because of Communist Party affiliations.

Clara finally retired from garment work in 1954 and had to fight to get a pension. Over the following years, she was involved in various activities through the Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs, which she helped to found. She protested nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War, and campaigned for ratification of the UN Convention on Genocide and Civil Rights reform.

After her second husband, Abe Goldman, died in 1967, Clara moved to California to be near her children. She moved into the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles, and even there she organized. She convinced the management to join with the United Farm Worker’s boycott of grapes and lettuce, and organized the workers at the Home. I think it’s safe to say that Clara Lemlich agitated and organized as long as she was physically able. She died on July 25, 1982 at the age of 96

Clara Lemlich 2

Resources
“One Woman Who Changed the Rules”, Dwyer, Jim (March 22, 2011) New York Times  (From this article you can click through to see a series of articles published about the Triangle Fire.)
Clara Lemlich” – Wikipedia
The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire – Cornell University website
“Remembering the Waistmakers General Strike, 1909″ (pdf)
The Labor Wars by Sidney Lens
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Celebrating Black History Month Part 3

Here’s one last post of the women we’ve highlighted on the Saints, Sisters, and Sluts Facebook page for Black History Month. There are many more women who have made considerable contributions and done amazing things. It’s impossible to include them all. I know I have learned a lot though and have a basis to build on for future blog posts. I hope you’ve learned something along the way as well.

Nannie Helen Burroughs

Nannie Helen Burroughs by Rotograph Co., New York City, 1909

Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879 – 1961) was an educator, orator, religious leader, and business woman. She helped found the National Association of Colored Women and worked within the National Baptist Convention. In 1909, she founded the National Training School for Women and Girls. The school emphasized preparation for occupations, but also stressed being proud black women. To this end students were required to take a class in African American history and culture.

Willa Brown

Willa Brown

Willa Brown (1906 – 1992) was a teacher, social worker, pilot, and flight instructor, the first black woman officer in the Civil Air Patrol and the first black woman to hold a commercial pilot’s license in the US. With Cornelius R. Coffey (her husband and flight instructor) she established the Coffey School of Aeronautics to train pilots and mechanics.

She helped found the National Airmen’s Association of America in 1939 and lobbied for integration of black pilots into the Army Air Corps and the Civilian Pilot Training Program. The Coffey School was selected by the US Army to provide black trainees for the Air Corps pilot training program at the Tuskegee Institute.

Sissieretta Jones

Sissieretta Jones

Sissieretta Jones (1868? – 1933) was an American soprano who sang both opera and popular music. After beginning in the choir of her father’s African Methodist Episcopal church, Sissieretta went on to sing for 4 consecutive US Presidents and the British Royal Family.

Sissieretta Jones was sometimes referred to as "The Black Patti"

Sissieretta Jones was sometimes referred to as “The Black Patti”

She studied at the Providence Academy of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1888, she came to the attention of Adelina Patti’s manager who suggested that she tour with the Fisk Jubilee singers. Adelina Patti was a successful Italian opera singer. Sissieretta was sometimes referred to as “The Black Patti.”

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842 – 1924) was an African American publisher, journalist, civil rights leader, suffragist and the founder and editor of Women’s Era, the first journal written by and for African American women. Together with her husband George Lewis Ruffin (who had a number of first’s to his name, including first African American male graduate from Harvard Law School,) Josephine worked to recruit black soldiers to the Union cause during the Civil War and to support the men in the field.

In 1869, Josephine joined with Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone to form the American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1895, she organized the Nation Federation of Afro-American Women which later merged with the Colored Women’s League to form the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs with Mary Church Terrell at its head.

“The Ruffin Incident” occurred when Josephine intended to attend the meeting of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1900. She was representing two integrated groups (the New England Woman’s Club and the New England Woman’s Press Club) and one all black group, the New Era Club. When southern leaders discovered that the New Era Club was an all black organization they refused to let her represent them, but said she could participate as a representative of the other groups. She refused to compromise. The incident was widely reported across the country with much support for Ruffin.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 – 1977) was a voting rights advocate and civil rights activist. In 1962, in spite of the danger, she joined a group of people inspired by James Bevel and traveled to Indianola MS to register to vote. It was a very dangerous thing for African Americans to attempt to vote in the South at the time, so to bolster the groups courage she began to sing Christian hymns. This became her trademark as she organized other groups to register. Her courage brought her to the attention of leaders in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who recruited her to speak and organize.

Hamer is probably best known for her speech given to the Credential’s Committee at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. The Mississippi Democratic Party sent an all white and anti-civil rights delegation. In response Hamer with others formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Committee to challenge the all white delegation as not representing all of Mississippi. Ultimately, the compromise offered by the Convention was unacceptable to the MFDC, but the Democratic Party adopted a clause demanding equality of representation from all state delegations. Fannie Lou Hamer was selected as a delegate to the 1968 Convention.

There are several women I highlighted on the FB page, but not in these posts because they already appear in other blog posts. If you’re interested here are the names and links.

Marian Anderson
Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary Ann Shadd

In case you missed Part 1 or Part 2.

Celebrating Black History Month Part 2

I want to continue sharing brief information on the black women I’ve learned about during Black History Month. The more women I’ve researched this month, the more I have discovered. There is an embarrassment of riches in this area that has been unknown to me. One reason is the overshadowing, during their time, of black women by white women they worked jointly with such as Josephine Ruffin who worked with Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone to form the American Woman’s Suffrage Association. There is also the simple fact that women and African Americans are not fully present in the typical history curriculum. To anyone who thinks that we don’t need to emphasize Black History or Women’s History, I challenge you to do what I have done this month and search the internet for one person they have never heard of each day. You may be surprised.

Now for more black women from the SSS Facebook page. There are two women who should be remembered as the earliest African American female physicians: Rebecca Lee Crumpler and Rebecca Cole.

Dr. Rebecca Lee

Dr. Rebecca Lee

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831 – 1895) was the first African-American woman to become a physician. She graduated in 1864 from the New England Female Medical College. After graduation and the end of the Civil War, she worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau and other community groups to provide medical services to freed slaves in Richmond, VA. Later she returned to practice in her home in Boston, MA. Most of what we know about her comes from the introduction to her book “Book on Medical Discourse,” written from her clinical notes and published in 1883.

Rebecca Cole (source)

Rebecca Cole (source)

Rebecca Cole (1846 – 1922) was the second African-American female doctor. She graduated in 1867 from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and received her clinical training at Elizabeth Blackwell’s New York Infirmary for Women and Children. She practiced medicine for over 50 years working primarily with destitute women and children.

Sarah Early

Sarah Early

Sarah Jane Woodson Early (1825 – 1907) was the first African American women to become a college faculty member. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1856 and two years later took a position at Wilberforce College. The college had to close during the Civil War due to lack of funds, but for the next 40 years Sarah Jane was a teacher and school principal in Ohio and, after the war, in the South.

In 1868, Sarah Jane married the Rev. Jordan Winston Early, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and continued teaching and working with him in his ministry. She also traveled and lectured as the national superintendent of the Black division of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1894, she published a biography of her husband including both his life as a slave and his ministry.

Fannie Williams

Fannie Williams

Fannie Williams (1855 – 1944) was a teacher, lecturer, and social reformer. She helped organize Provident Hospital and its Training school for Nurses in Chicago (both interracial institutions.) After speaking at both the World’s Congress of Representative Women and the World’s Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, she was in great demand as a lecturer.

Fannie helped found the National Association of Colored Women, was among the founding members of the NAACP, and became the first Black member of the Chicago Woman’s Club. She wrote frequently for Chicago newspapers and in 1924 became the first African American and the first woman to be named to the Chicago Library Board. She also believed in a fully integrated women’s movement and was chosen as the only African American to eulogize Susan B. Anthony at the 1907 Women’s Suffrage Convention.

Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis (1844 – 1907) was an American sculptor of African American and Native American descent. She attended Oberlin College where she began sculpting and quickly became successful. She held her first solo exhibition in 1864 and produced popular works such as medallion portraits of John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison.

In 1865 Lewis went to Rome to study where she spent much of her adult life working and studying. One of her major works was a marble sculpture called “The Death of Cleopatra.” It was displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, this monumental piece (3000 lbs) was lost for almost 100 years. It was rediscovered, although covered in paint, and finally restored and donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1994.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 2000) was a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. Raised in Chicago, she had approximately 75 published poems by the time she was 16. In 1943, she received her first award and in 1945 her first book “A Street in Bronzeville” was published to critical acclaim.

“Very early in life I became fascinated with the wonders language can achieve. And I began playing with words.” Gwendolyn Brooks on Poetry

In 1950, Brooks became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with her book “Annie Allen.” She received many other awards including the Robert Frost Medal for lifetime achievement, the National Medal of Arts, and was honored as the first Woman of the Year chosen by the Harvard Black Men’s Forum.

Mary Frances Berry

Mary Frances Berry

Mary Frances Berry, born Feb 17, 1938, was Provost at the University of Maryland, Chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Assistant Secretary for Education in the US Dept of Health, Education, and Welfare. She received her education at Howard University, and the University of Michigan, obtaining  Ph. D. and J. D. degrees.

Berry was one of the founders of the Free South Africa movement and she was arrested and jailed several times due to her support of the cause. She was in Capetown in 1990 to greet Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison.

In 1980, Berry was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as a Commissioner on the US Commission of Civil Rights. She was later fired by President Reagan for criticizing his stand on civil rights and won her reinstatement through the federal courts. She was appointed Chairperson of the Commission by President Clinton and served until her resignation in 2004. Since then she has been a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

Audrey Lord

Audre Lord

Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992) was an American poet, essayist, and activist of Caribbean descent. She was politically active in civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements. Later she also became active in lesbian and gay rights causes. She co-founded “Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press” with author Barbara Smith, the first US publisher specifically for women of color. She was the State Poet of New York.

“I am defined as other in every group I’m part of”, she declared, “the outsider, both strength and weakness. Yet without community there is certainly no liberation, no future, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between me and my oppression.”

Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” She believed that the typical feminist approach of defining things and issues based only on gender was simplistic, if perhaps necessary, and that there were other issues of difference that needed to be addressed.

Violette Neatley Anderson

Violette Neatley Anderson

Violette Neatley Anderson (1882 – 1937) was an African American attorney and judge with many “firsts” to her name. Anderson was born in London and moved to the US as a young child with her family. After graduating from Chicago Law School in 1920, she became the first African American woman admitted to the Illinois bar, the first female city prosecutor in Chicago, the first African American woman to practice law in the US District Court Eastern Division, and the first African American woman admitted to practice before the US Supreme Court.

Pearl Bailey on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1968

Pearl Bailey on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1968

Pearl Mae Bailey (1918 – 1990) was known as an actress and singer, but she was much more. She wrote 4 books and at 67 earned a degree in Theology from Georgetown University. At 15, she won an amateur contest and decided to pursue a career in entertainment. Beginning in vaudeville, she made her Broadway debut in 1946 in St. Louis Woman. She won a Tony Award for the lead role in the all-black production of Hello Dolly in 1968. Her career was varied including both movie and television, voices for animation, even commercial jingles. During WW2, Bailey sang with the USO; she also sang in nightclubs with some of the greats including Duke Ellington.

One more post tomorrow will let me finish up the brief information I’ve posted on these women for the month. If you missed them be sure to read Part 1 and Part 3.

Alice Paul – The Final Stretch for Women’s Suffrage

Alice Paul around 1901

During the second half of the 19th century, the two primary women’s suffrage organizations led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (National Woman Suffrage Association), and Lucy Stone (American Woman Suffrage Association) were working on two different approaches: a Constitutional Amendment, and state-by-state legislation giving women the vote. There was little progress on either front by the time the two organizations joined in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA.) By 1900, only four western states had given women full suffrage, and the Constitutional Amendment that Susan B. Anthony had championed was not the preferred approach of most of the women’s leaders. Introduced in 1872, it had only been brought up for a vote one time in 1878 in spite of the fact that Anthony and others addressed the House Committee every year. Although a few more states had given the women the vote when Alice Paul returned from her studies in England, she was convinced that the only way to proceed was to push for the Amendment, and she was determined to do her part.

Alice Stokes Paul was born January 11, 1885 to William and Tacie Paul. They were Hicksite Quakers who led simple lives and had a strong heritage of activism and education for women. William was the seventh generation descended from Philip Paul who fled religious persecution in England and established Paulsboro, New Jersey. Alice’s maternal great-grandfather, Charles Stokes, was active in politics and a supporter of abolitionist and women’s suffrage causes. Her maternal grandfather, William Parry, believing in educating women, established Swarthmore College as a co-educational experiment and Alice’s mother Tacie was one of its first female graduates.

Photograph. Britannica Online for Kids

William Paul was a banker and owned a modest working farm. Together they gave the family a comfortable life and provided Alice and her three siblings, Helen, Parry, and William, the opportunity for an excellent education. As a child, Alice read every book in the house as well as the school library, and when she entered Swarthmore in 1901, she studied biology because it was the one subject she hadn’t studied in school. Intellectual curiosity about a subject, however, didn’t make for a good major, so at the advice of a professor, she switched and graduated with a degree in social work.

Alice was definitely academically gifted and in spite of her family heritage, had no real intention of being an activist. No one else would have expected it of her either. On her return from England after getting involved with the British suffrage movement, her mother was quoted in the New York Times (Nov. 13, 1909) as saying, “I cannot understand how this all came about, Alice is such a mild-mannered girl.” But after graduation, Alice had taken a job in the New York College settlement house. She quickly came to the conclusion that she didn’t want to just work to alleviate the suffering of individuals; she wanted to work to change the conditions that led to their suffering. In order to work within the system and help change the social conditions that prevailed at the time, Alice decided to continue her academic career and enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania to study sociology.  She eventually received an MA and PhD through the University of Pennsylvania, and ultimately an LLB, LLM, and a Doctorate in Civil Law. But before completing these accomplishments, she took a “slight” detour into the real world of activism in England.

Her life-changing trip to England began in 1907 with a scholarship to Woodbrooke, a Friends institution in Birmingham. While there, she also became the first woman to enroll in the commerce department at the University of Birmingham to study economics. This is where she first heard Christabel Pankhurst speak about women’s suffrage. Christabel and her mother Emmeline Pankhurst weren’t in the business of asking men politely to give women the vote. For the previous two years, they had been agitating and getting arrested to raise awareness for the need for women’s suffrage. The press had dubbed them “suffragettes”, to distinguish them from the more “socially acceptable” suffragists, using the diminutive “ette” to insult them. Their motto was “Deeds, not Words” and they wore the suffragette badge with pride.

Alice was a petite, delicate even fragile looking woman. She said herself that she was “not very brave,” and had a fear of public speaking. Nevertheless, once she had been “converted to the cause” she met each fear and challenge. She began simply by marching with the women, but quickly took on other activities. She was a “newsie”, passing out the organization’s paper Votes for Women; she was promoted to street corner speaker; and she eventually was invited to participate in a march on the House of Commons. This invitation came with a warning that they might be arrested, and that she shouldn’t agree to participate unless she was willing to accept that consequence. She accepted.

The women in the Pankhurst organization, the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), had been getting arrested for a couple of years at this point. They would ask to be treated as political prisoners. When this request was denied, they would often go on hunger strikes. This ultimately resulted in force feedings. It was a horrible procedure that consisted of being held or tied down and having a tube thrust into a nostril and down their throat. It was brutal and extremely painful.

When Alice was arrested and force fed, she asked her suffrage sisters not to release her name to the media, so as not to worry her mother, but the word got out and it served to greatly increase Tacie’s concern for her daughter. Eventually, Alice decided that she needed to return home, for the sake of her family and to finish her education. She may have underestimated her fame in the US. When she returned, she found that she was in great demand as a speaker, but she had other goals as well. She joined the National, as NAWSA was called, and became the chairman of its Congressional Committee.

Her first major task was to organize a parade in Washington, D.C. for March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as President. The parade was her idea and she was completely responsible for organizing and raising funds. She contacted Lucy Burns, an American woman she had met during the protests in England, and formed a small committee. This was a monumental undertaking that deserves its own narrative, but suffice it to say that the city had never seen anything like it. She negotiated many controversies, disagreements, obstruction from authorities, and the press. Ultimately, women from all over the country and from all walks of life were represented. Wilson had tried to avoid the issue, but was privately against women’s suffrage. The parade made the statement in a big way that the issue and the women, were not going away.

At first Alice believed that the radical methods used in Britain would not be needed in America, but little progress was being made and she wanted to increase the pressure. There were disagreements about tactics within NAWSA, whose conservative leaders had always been a little wary of Alice, so she finally broke from them in 1916 and formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP.) Through the NWP, she began introducing some of the methods used by the Pankhursts. One of their goals was to shame President Wilson into supporting the suffrage movement. They picketed the White House over the next two years in all types of weather, amusing, confounding and finally angering the authorities. The picketers, including Alice, were arrested, incarcerated in workhouses, and force fed. At one point Alice was confined to a psychiatric ward, but the doctor would not be complicit; his report stated that she was perfectly sane.

The pressure finally worked. In January of 1918, President Wilson spoke to Congress and urged them to pass the Nineteenth Amendment for women’s suffrage. The rest as they say is history. In June of 1919, the Amendment passed both houses of Congress, and finally in August of 1920, it was ratified by the 36th state and signed into law on August 26, 1920.

Many women considered the fight over and resumed their lives, but Alice had a broader vision. She went on to write and campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. Unlike the people who originally wrote the suffrage amendment, Alice was alive to see the ERA pass the Congress in 1972. Unfortunately, only 35 of the required 38 states ratified the amendment before the deadline passed. After suffering a stroke in 1974, Alice Paul died in 1977. No other states ratified the ERA after her death.

I haven’t read all the sources about Alice Paul, but from what I have read, including reviews of other sources, not much has been said about her as a person, her personality, her leisure activities, etc. She doesn’t seem to have had close personal friends. There is an occasional mention of a male companion for dinner or a lecture, but no continuing relationships. Even her letters to and from Lucy Burns are started with “Miss Paul” and “Miss Burns.”  It could be that she was just very private about those aspects of her life, but I’m inclined to think that perhaps this quote from Alice herself explains it best.

“My feeling about our movement, you see, is that it is so pregnant with possibilities that it is worth sacrificing everything for, leisure, money, reputation and even our lives. I know that most people do not feel this way about it but since I do you can see that it cost me a pang to think of anyone abandoning suffrage for any other work.”
~ Alice Paul in a letter to someone preparing to leave the movement.

Resources
Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists by Jean H. Baker
A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot by Mary Walton

Visit the homepage of the Alice Paul Institute which was established in 1984 to “commemorate the centennial of Alice Paul’s 1885 birth and to further her legacy.” (Note: This does not imply any endorsement of me or my post by them, it’s just for your information.)

Frances Willard – Forgotten Feminist

Often when we think about the temperance movement it’s limited to Prohibition, mobsters, and the roaring twenties. Temperance was an idea that was tried and failed in the sense that it didn’t work well for the country resulting in the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment via the Twenty-first Amendment. Because it is an idea that came and went, it is easy to forget the individuals who made their mark in history through the temperance movement. One of these individuals is Frances Willard.

But Frances Willard was much more than a temperance worker. She was a feminist and an advocate for women’s rights in the broadest sense. Her motto: ‘Everything is not in the Temperance Movement, but the Temperance Movement should be in everything‘  was her way of rallying a large number of women all across the country to work for reform in many different areas, but always with temperance at the core.

The Temperance movement was born out of the Second Great Awakening of religious fervor in America in the early nineteenth century. One of the people who found a renewed spirituality and a call to serve was Josiah Willard. In 1841, in order to study for the ministry under Charles Finney, Josiah and his wife Mary took their two children, Oliver and two year old Frances, and moved to Oberlin Ohio. He and Mary both studied at Oberlin College for the next four years until Josiah’s health required a move to the country.

In 1846, the family moved to a farm outside Janesville, Wisconsin, where Oliver, Frances, and younger sister Mary, born in Oberlin, spent 13 happy years. Frances’s talents began to emerge during this time. Mary was more artistic; Oliver played “fort” and wanted to explore; but Frances wanted to play “city” and organize. Their mother taught them at home until public schools were available in the area and was aware of and promoted each of her children’s strengths. When Frances was 17 she went to the Milwaukee Seminary where her aunt taught. In 1858, the family moved to Evanston Illinois where Frances attended the Evanston College for Ladies and graduated valedictorian in 1859.

Between 1859 and 1868, Frances taught school at various places before returning to the Evanston College for Ladies as the President, making her the first woman college president in the United States. When the college merged with Northwestern University in 1871, she became the Dean of Women. This was an ideal position for Frances to use her considerable organizational skills, but it was short lived. She resigned in 1874 after having her influence and responsibilities greatly reduced by the President of Northwestern, Charles Fowler. These may have been typical university political struggles, but they were complicated by the fact that Frances had previously been engaged to Fowler and broken the engagement. This experience left Frances distraught and at a loss as to how to proceed in her life. She had no desire to go back to one small schoolhouse after the other teaching. She also believed that God would use her.

Willard with Anna Gordon and Mary Willard.

These years had been difficult for Frances in other ways as well. Both her father and her younger sister Mary died of tuberculosis and her brother Oliver began to drink heavily and gamble. She found herself without work and her mother’s sole source of support, so after leaving the University, she decided to go on the lecture tour for the cause of temperance. Frances was tireless, over the next ten years she averaged 30,000 miles and 400 lectures a year. Never domestically inclined, this suited the independent non-conformist side of Frances, but she was also ambitious.

In 1874, Frances became the corresponding secretary of the newly formed Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the President of the Chicago chapter, and head of the WCTU publications committee. During her lectures, Frances also began to speak in favor of women’s suffrage. Just as Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony found in the abolition society, this created a conflict with the leadership, in Frances’s case Annie Wittenmyer, the first WCTU president.

This is where Frances’s brilliance as a strategist began to show. As corresponding secretary, no problem or concern was too small to receive a letter from her. Through her travels and letter writing, with the help of long-time companion Anna Gordon, she made personal contacts all over the country. When the time was right, in 1879, Frances ran for president of the national WCTU, and won. She held this position until her death in 1898.

Many women in the WCTU were conservative and involved in the fight against alcohol because they believed that indulgence was sinful and because of the impact it had on the family. The fight for temperance was seen as fighting for the home, family, and motherhood thus an acceptable cause for women to work outside their homes, but many saw suffrage as too radical. Frances had the same values with regard to alcohol; she had seen its devastating effects in her brother’s life, but she also believed that the way for women to affect change in their domestic lives was to have the vote. She insisted that women not view themselves as the “weaker sex” and that they had a place in politics.

Wittenmyer had insisted on uniformity among the chapters of the WCTU. Frances preferred a more liberal approach. As long as the chapters took the temperance pledge and paid their dues they had the flexibility to work for the causes appropriate to their location. “Do everything,” was her motto. This led to work in many different areas, such as free school lunches, 8 hour work days, anti-rape laws, protection for children against abuse, and work relief for the poor. Although some thought that too broad a focus would fracture the organization, Frances’s organizational skills, her intense travel schedule, and prolific correspondence prevented this from happening.

Frances Willard was the first woman to be represented in the Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol.

Frances Willard’s profound belief that she was called by God for this task, her excellent speaking skills, and even her feminine demeanor made her and her message acceptable to some who rejected the message of other suffragists of the time. At the time of her death in 1898, the WCTU had grown to approximately 150,000 women, making it the largest women’s organization in the world at the time, and making Frances one of the most famous women in the nation. She truly had an impact on the fight for women’s rights and should be remembered for her considerable contribution.

Frances was also a prolific writer. Some of her works were
Woman and temperance, or the work and workers of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, 1883
Glimpses of fifty years: the Autobiography of an American Woman, 1889
How to Win: A Book for Girls, 1886
Woman in the Pulpit, 1888
Do everything: a Handbook for the World’s White Ribboners, 1895
A Wheel within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, 1895

Resources
Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists by Jean H. Baker
Glimpses of fifty years: the Autobiography of an American Woman, 1889
The Beautiful Life of Frances E. Willard by Anna Adams Gordon

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