September is the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Women in Medicine Month, which celebrates the accomplishments of, and showcases advocacy for, female physicians, while also highlighting health issues impacting female patients.
Did you know that the AMA, which was founded in 1874, didn’t have its first female president until 1998? It didn’t even have any female leaders until 1969, when Louise C. Gloeckner became vice president. That’s nearly 100 years after today’s subject, Sarah Hackett Stevenson, became the first woman to join the AMA.
Sarah was born in the small town of Buffalo Grove, (now Polo), in northwestern Illinois, which her father helped found. As a young woman, she attended Mount Carroll Seminary and State Normal College, in Bloomington, Illinois, and graduated with honors as a teacher. After several years of teaching and serving as a principal in public schools in Bloomington, Mount Morris and Sterling, Illinois, she moved to Chicago to study anatomy and physiology at Woman’s Hospital Medical College as one of its earliest students.
During her course of study, Sarah spent a year in England at South Kensington Science School in London learning from famed biologists Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. After returning to America, she graduated from the medical college with the highest honors in 1874, becoming one of Illinois’ first female physicians. She went back to Europe to continue her studies under Huxley and Darwin at hospitals in London and Dublin. During this time, she was appointed by Illinois Governor John Beveridg as a delegate to the International Sanitary Conference in Vienna, which was the fourth of 14 conferences organized to standardize international quarantine regulations against the spread of cholera, plague and yellow fever.
Back once again in the United States, Sarah began her medical career as physiology chair at the Woman’s Hospital Medical College in Chicago, a role she held for five years. In 1875 she was elected as a member of the Illinois State Medical Society and appointed head of the Illinois State Medical Society’s committee on progress in physiology. The following year, she was named an alternate delegate to the AMA convention in Philadelphia, becoming a full delegate and the organization’s first female member when the original male delegate was unable to attend. She appears to have met with surprisingly little resistance and even boldly listed her full name on the official delegate roster instead of using first and middle initials like many of her male colleagues.
She served as a delegate again three more times and in 1878, was chair of an AMA special committee for advancing physical sciences. In 1879, she presented a paper on the sympathetic nervous system. Sarah was also the first woman appointed on the State Board of Health and the first woman to be on staff at the Cook County Hospital. She wrote several books, including the well-known The Physiology of Woman.
Sometime in 1880, Sarah resigned from her position at Woman’s Medical College because she believed that men and women should be taught together, rather than segregated by gender. She wrote, “I hope that men and women will be educated in one institution–educated as physicians without any regard to the sex question at all. It seems to me, if we be physicians, that the first necessity is equality of opportunity, and that is all the woman physician asks.”
Advocacy for Women
Sarah was also actively involved in the temperance movement, serving as the first superintendent of the Department of Hygiene of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) from 1881-1882. In 1886, the Chicago WCTU organized the National Temperance Hospital (later renamed the Frances Willard Hospital) with the express purpose of providing care without using medicines containing alcohol, and Sarah served as staff president.
Sarah was also a passionate advocate for women’s rights. Her writings on the plight of women in late 19th century Chicago are available online. But she didn’t only write about injustice; she acted to end it. In 1880 she co-founded the Illinois Training School for Nurses, along with Lucy Flower. In 1893, Sarah proposed to the Chicago Woman’s Club to create a safe home for women and children who did not have money but needed shelter. Her proposal was accepted and funded by donations as the Woman’s Model Lodging House. Those who could pay were charged 15 cents/night, but women who could not worked instead. She also spoke in support of admission of a black member to the Chicago Woman’s Club, of which she was president.
Sarah retired in 1903 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage that left her paralyzed and bedridden. She died in 1909 at the age of 68.
August 1 was the anniversary of Mary Elizabeth (Eliza) Mahoney becoming the first Black woman to graduate from an American school of nursing. She’s considered the first officially trained Black nurse in the United States.
Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in April or May of 1845 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, to parents who were freed slaves, originally from North Carolina. She attended the Phillips School, one of the first integrated schools in Boston (and the United States), for her early education, which is said to have influenced her later decision to become a nurse.
But in order to do that, she faced an uphill battle. Nursing schools in the South rejected applications from Black women and even in the North their opportunities were limited. For 15 years, the closest she could come was to work 16-hour days as a cook, maid and washerwoman at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston – which was dedicated to providing health care only to women and their children and had an all-female staff of physicians.
When the hospital (now the Dimock Community Health Center) opened a nursing program in 1878, Mary Eliza applied. Despite being two years older than the technical admission criteria, she was accepted at age 33 to a 16-month program, alongside 39 other students. Of this entire class, Mary Eliza and two white women were the only ones to receive their degree. (Mary Eliza’s sister, Ellen Mahoney, also decided to attend the same nursing program but was unsuccessful in receiving her diploma.)
It’s not hard to see why. The training was rigorous with the shift running from 5:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. for only meager wages. Students were required to spend time over the course of a year in all the hospital’s wards so that by the time they graduated, they understood each one intimately. Outside of lectures, they were taught bedside procedures such as taking vital signs and bandaging. The last two months of the program required the nurses to use their newfound knowledge and skills in environments they were not accustomed to such as hospitals or private family homes. Mary Eliza chose to work as a private-duty nurse.
On August 1, 1879, Mary Eliza became the first Black woman to graduate from an American school of nursing and is considered the first officially trained Black nurse in the United States.
Mary Eliza worked for many years as a private care nurse, predominately in white households with new mothers and newborns. During the early years of her employment, Black nurses were often treated as if they were household servants rather than professionals. Nevertheless, families who employed her praised her efficiency in her nursing profession. Mary Eliza’s professionalism helped raise the status and standards of all nurses, especially minorities. As her reputation spread, she received private-duty nursing requests from patients in states in the North and on the southeast coast.
In 1908, Mary Eliza worked closely with Martha Minerva Franklin and Adah B. Thoms who founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN.] This organization attempted to uplift the standards and everyday lives of Black registered nurses and had a significant influence on eliminating racial discrimination in the profession until it was integrated into the American Nurses Association in 1951. From 1910 to 1930 alone, the number of Black nurses doubled, thanks to Mary Eliza’s efforts.
From 1911 to 1912, Mary Eliza served as director of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum for Black children in Kings Park, Long Island, New York, a home for freed Black children and elderly. After one year on the job, she decided to retire.
Her nursing career complete, Mary Eliza focused her attention on women’s suffrage. In 1920, after women won the vote, she was among the first women in Boston to register.
In 1923, Mary Eliza was diagnosed with breast cancer, a battle she fought for three years until her death at the age of 80 on January 4, 1926.
In recognition of her outstanding example to nurses of all races, the NACGN established the Mary Mahoney Award in 1936. It is still given out today by the American Nurses Association every two years in recognition of significant contributions in advancing equal opportunities in nursing for members of minority groups.
Mary Eliza received many posthumous honors and awards for her pioneering work. She was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976 and into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. Her name also graces a health center in Oklahoma City, a dialysis center in Boston and a lecture series at Indiana University Northwest.
March is National Women’s History Month and March 8 is International Women’s Equality Day. Despite representing 50.8% of people in the United States and coming a long way since our nation’s founding, women are still considered a minority group. That is because, like people of color of both sexes, they have fewer rights compared to white men. In fact, 85% of the constitutions in the world now contain wording that protects the equal rights of women. However, despite being one of the oldest in the world, the U.S. Constitution does not. The U.S. is one of only 28 U.N. member nations that doesn’t guarantee equal rights between men and women in its laws. Overall, we are 53rd out of 153 countries that the World Economic Forum studies regarding gender equality.
This is one of many reasons why we celebrate women’s history in March. I decided to write about how women’s power evolved in the United States for this blog. There was so much fascinating information that it turned into a three-part series.
Part 1 will focus on how women gained power within marriage.
Part 2 will cover women in the workplace.
Part 3 will show how women went from not even being considered citizens to holding the second highest office in the land.
Women Under Coverture
No discussion of women’s rights* in the United States can begin without an explanation of coverture. In 1769, the American colonies formally accepted the English system of law called coverture, which had prior to that time been in place informally but not committed to paper. Under this system, women were “covered” under the law by a man from their first moment of existence. At birth, a woman’s rights were subsumed by her father. Upon marriage, they passed into her husband’s hands, so that during her entire life—unless she became a widow—she had essentially the same rights as a child, a slave, or a person declared mentally unfit.
The actual language of the law stated, “by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.” Therefore, women did not legally exist. This made women highly dependent on the men in their lives for everything, especially as it related to money and the law. They couldn’t vote, enter into contracts, or be sued. As historian Catherine Allgor explains, “They could not own or work in business. Married women could not own land or any other property, not even the clothes on their backs, and upon the death of her husband, a woman’s legal agency would transfer to her nearest male relative…. [A husband] owned her labor and could even lease her to work for someone else, taking her wages. He had absolute ownership of his wife’s children. If he chose, he could take custody of children after a divorce and could refuse to allow his former wife to ever see them again; and he could seize her property from other heirs upon her death… And of course, a husband could legally beat his wife, or ask that she be remanded to prison or an asylum…When it came to their rights as specifically women and wives, legally the only difference between a slave and a married woman was that a husband could not sell his wife…and even these distinctions were sometimes shaky.”
In the American colonies, ending a marriage was even more difficult than being in one. While some marriages were “dissolved,” divorce as it is defined today was rare until the late 19th century. For women in the southern colonies, divorce was not an option because they followed English law. However, women in the northern colonies had it little better; they could only divorce their husbands if they could prove adultery, desertion or bigamy.
These restrictions eased somewhat after the Revolutionary War, partly because people began to think that if colonies could leave their king, why couldn’t a husband leave his wife? However, proof of cause still had to be provided, i.e. that one spouse had committed the crimes listed above, or were physically cruel, had threatened their life, did not provide economically or refused their marital duty in the bedroom.
Laws Begin to Change
The first American law that permitted a woman any control over her own property was passed in Connecticut in 1808. It allowed a woman to leave a will and have her bequests honored. But that was power only after death. Similarly, widows had the right of “dower,” which is the right to property they brought into the marriage, as well as to one-third of their husbands’ estate. But again, this power only came after his death.
From 1821-1931, a series of marriage reform laws began to chip away at the stranglehold coverture had over women’s lives. For most of the 19th century, states passed a series of marriage reform laws aimed at granting women greater property rights, but they varied widely by state. The first state to act, in 1839, was Mississippi, which granted women the right to hold property in their own names with the caveat that they had to have permission from their husbands.
In 1849, New York issued one of the most sweeping changes to marriage law under the Married Women’s Property Act, which granted a married woman separate control over any rent or profit earned from property she held at the time of her marriage and protected it from her husband’s creditors. In addition, if a married woman was given property during her marriage through a grant or bequest, such as inheriting from her father, it was under her control, not that of her current or future husband. New York expanded women’s rights in 1860 with a reform statute stating “the earnings of any married woman, from her trade, business, labor or services, shall be her sole and separate property.” For the first time, women had full control over the money they earned.
During this period, divorce became increasingly common, though adultery or cruelty still were really the only grounds. This was due in part, at least to the increasing economic independence changes in marriage law gave to women. Divorce was expensive, so previously only the higher classes could afford to bring suit, which many did not out of fear for their reputation and social standing. But now some women’s rights advocates—including Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States in 1872—began to advance the belief that the law and religion should have nothing to do with marriage or divorce. Woodhull famously proclaimed that she believed a marriage occurred when two people fell in love and dissolved when they were no longer in love.
In 1871, cruelty, one of the most common reasons for divorce, became illegal for the very first time when Alabama became the first state to outlaw the beating of one’s wife. Previously, according to lore, a husband was only allowed to whip his wife with a switch no bigger than his thumb (which is where we get the phrase “rule of thumb”). Other states attempted to follow, with mixed results. Maryland made wife-beating illegal in 1882, but it wasn’t until 1920 that it was formally illegal in all states, and not until 1970 that domestic violence was treated as a serious crime under the judicial system.
20th Century Progress
By the year 1900, every state had passed legislation granting married women the right to keep their own wages and to own property in their own name. The fight for the next three decades (1907-1931) was to allow women to marry foreign men (especially Asian men) without losing their own citizenship, which began with the Expatriation Act (also known as the Married Women’s Citizenship Act) of 1907. The Cable Act of 1922 (also called the Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act), partially reversed this ruling, stating “the right of any woman to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of her sex or because she is a married woman;” however, a wife’s nationality was still dependent upon her husband’s status. This law was amended four times and repealed before the Nationality Act of 1940 allowed women to marry men of any nationality without loss of citizenship and restored the status of all affected by previous laws.
In 1967, interracial marriage (meaning Black and White) was legalized in the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia, but is still not accepted in some places today. Two years later, California adopted the nation’s first “no fault” divorce law, allowing divorce by mutual consent. By 1975, no-fault divorce was common in all states.
But the ability to own property, keep one’s wages and marry and divorce at will is just the beginning of how modern women gained the rights we have today. In the next edition, we’ll look at women in the workplace and how we went from being regarded as the “angel of the house” in Victorian times to working women, wives and mothers today.
Please keep in mind that women’s history is very complex, so these articles can only scratch the surface. In addition, these articles are written in general terms. In reality, women of the upper classes experienced the world very differently from those of the lower and each race of women has their own history and their own struggles that continue to this day.
Allgor. Catherine. “Remember…I’m Your Man”: Masculinity, Marriage, and Gender in Hamilton.” Historians on Hamilton. Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter, eds. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rugters University Press, 2018, 104-106.
I know it’s been a few months since I’ve blogged. Just been busy writing (the biography of Virginia and Francis Minor is done and is on submission with publishers!) and working.
Speaking of work, we have a group that is specifically for women leaders and is all about promoting women’s accomplishments and helping one another and the community. I’m not a member because you have to have a certain level title and I’m not that high up. Anyway, they found out about my interest and research into women’s history and asked me to write a monthly column for their newsletter, along with compiling a list of “This Day in History” anniversaries of major U.S. female accomplishments. So I thought I would share that information here as well.
I’m going to share them as I finish them. This one is technically Dec. 2020.
The Making of a Movement: Wyoming Women Get the Vote
Wyoming Women Voting. Source: WikiMedia Commons
December is a month full of not only holidays but also important anniversaries in women’s history. Household names such as Rosa Parks, Carol Moseley Braun and Jane Addams made history this month. We’ll talk about them in the future, but since this year marked the centennial of women winning the right to vote in the U.S., I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the history-changing event that started the 51-year battle for women of all states to be able to legally vote. No, not the Seneca Falls Convention—though that is widely considered the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement. I’m talking about Wyoming becoming the first territory to grant women the right to vote on Dec. 10, 1869.
Wyoming wasn’t even a state yet when it took the bold step of enfranchising women. While this may sound like a noble move to us in hindsight, it was far from it at the time. The area had fallen on hard times, with the workers who had braved the wild to build the railroad and pan for gold just a few years earlier having moved on to more lucrative areas. Lawmakers were desperate to bring their territory some good publicity so that more people would move to the area, especially women. There were six adult men in the Territory for every adult woman, and there were very few children—a population makeup that could not sustain itself for long.
The Democrats figured that if they gave women the right to vote, the women would thank them by voting for them, rather than the Republicans who opposed women’s suffrage. In addition, the attorney general had recently ruled that no one in the territory could be denied the vote on the basis of race, so former slaves and Chinese men were now allowed to vote; the men of the territory reasoned that women may as well be included, too.
The bill to give women over the age of 21 the right to vote in all elections held in Wyoming territory was introduced by legislator William H. Bright, a saloon keeper with no formal education, in 1869, possibly at the urging of his wife, Julia. Tradition says the bill was heavily debated, but no record of the proceedings exist. The bill passed 6-2 in the upper house and 7-4 in the lower house. Much to the Democrat’s surprise, Republican Governor John Campbell signed it into law on Dec. 10, 1869.* Women voted for the first time in September 1870.**
The 1871 legislature tried to repeal the law but failed. In 1890, when Wyoming became a state, it also became the first state to allow women to vote.
*Legend has it that Democrats wanted to use the bill to embarrass the Republican governor, whom they expected to veto the bill. Suffrage leader Esther Morris later told The Woman’s Journal on March 9, 1872, that the passage of the law “was the result of a bitter feud between the existing political parties, and it was done in a moment of spite – not out of any regard for the movement.” Interestingly, Wyoming was the first, and possibly the only, state to enfranchise women without the influence of suffragists.
** This was not the first time women legally voted in the United States. Women had the right to vote in New Jersey from 1776-1807, when the state government wrote female voting out of the state constitution. It would be another one hundred and thirteen years before women in New Jersey would vote again. On February 9, 1920, New Jersey became the 29th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.
Important Dates in U.S. Women’s History – December
Dec. 1, 1955: Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala, helping to launch the civil rights movement.
Dec. 9, 1999 – Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) became the first Black woman and the first woman of color to be elected to the U.S. Senate. She had also been the first Black woman to win a major party Senate nomination.
Dec. 10, 1869 – Wyoming becomes the first territory to grant women the right to vote. In 1890, when Wyoming became a state, they also became the first state to allow women to vote.
Dec. 10, 1870 – Ellen Swallow Richards becomes the first woman admitted to MIT (which made her the first accepted to any school of science or technology), and the first American woman to earn a degree in Chemistry.
December 10, 1931 – Jane Addams became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a social worker and activist.
Dec. 13, 1923 – The Equal Rights Amendment, written by suffragist Alice Paul, is first introduced into Congress. It has still not passed into law.
Dec. 15, 1985 – Wilma Mankiller became the first woman to serve as chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Dec. 16, 1891 – City Health Dept. Inspector Marie Owens is appointed to the Chicago Police Department as a police officer assigned to the Detective Bureau, becoming the nation’s first female law enforcement officer.
I’ve been kind of cagey about the biography I’m working on (not Rose Ferron, which is on the back burner at the moment, this is another one), but I’m getting close to finishing my research and submitting to agents, so I’m now comfortable with talking about it. I am working on a dual biography of husband-wife suffragist team, Virginia and Francis Minor. I happen to have a guest post today about Virginia over on author Suzanne Adair’s website, if you want to see a summary of her life.
I first heard about Virginia when I was researching Victoria Woodhull for my book Madame Presidentess. Virginia was a contemporary of Victoria’s. While we can’t prove that they knew one another, it is likely. Virginia was a big deal in the National Woman’s Suffrage Association and she is the one who originated the idea that the Fourteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote, and idea Victoria used when she spoke before Congress. Even if Victoria didn’t personally know Virginia, she almost certainly had heard of her.
You know me and stories of forgotten women. There was something about Virginia that I was immediately attracted to. I haven’t yet been able to put my finger on what. But I knew I had to tell her story. This one didn’t strike me as right for historical fiction, though. I did some digging and found that no one has ever written a biography of her. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!
The book started out just being about Virginia, but then I realized that her relationship with Francis was integral to her work and highly unusual. They lived a life of purposeful equality, beginning in the 1840s, way before that was common practice, so I knew I had to include him as well. They also both lived in my hometown of St. Louis for over 40 years, which is really helping with the research. We have some great archives here with very valuable information. Neither Francis or Virginia is well-known, and so not much about them still exists, but it is possible to find it if you look hard enough. I love the thrill of the chase in research, so I am having a ball. This June I will be visiting archives in Virginia, where they were both born, so hopefully that will shed light on their childhoods, which is really the missing piece at the moment.
I can’t wait to tell you more about them as the project progresses and to hopefully soon have a contract on the book.
P.S. – So far, I have not been able to track down a photo of Francis, which is why there isn’t one in this post. I have, however, held documents written in his own hand. It was so cool!
So by now you likely know that I’m part of a Christmas anthology called Tangled Lights and Silent Nights. I’m really excited because I’ve wanted to be part of an anthology since I was a teenager and read Return to Avalon, an Arthurian anthology. It always felt like it would be such an honor to be asked to write alongside others in your field, and it is! I don’t normally write short, but I challenged myself and managed it – hopefully well. You can be the judge.
There are several cool aspects to this anthology:
All of the stories tie into previously published books by the authors. So, for example, mine is about Victoria Woodhull and crew, who are featured inMadame Presidentess.
It is multi-genre, so there should be something in there for everyone. We have women’s fiction, crime thriller, fantasy (epic, urban and contemporary), historical, romance (contemporary and dark), mystery (cozy and general), humor and LGBT stories.
All proceeds benefit Life After, a charity dedicated to educating about and helping those who suffer from suicide, substance abuse, and domestic violence.
My Story: A Vanderbilt Christmas Victoria Woodhull may seem like an odd choice for a Christmas story, and I agree. Actually, she wasn’t my first choice. I had two drafts of stories involving Guinevere from my Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy Arthurian legend novels. But given our strict word limit, I was having problems explaining the Celtic winter solstice rituals and telling my story in the allotted space. Anything winter solstice or even early Christian Christmas is so different from what we know today that I didn’t want to risk not doing the stories justice. (For example, in fifth century Christianity, there was no Advent season yet and the Christmas celebration actually included three different Masses, each with their own symbolism and meaning.)
Then I remembered that one of the scenes I deleted from Madame Presidentess took place at Christmas. (It involved Cornelius Vanderbilt asking Victoria’s sister, Tennie, to marry him, which really did happen. She had to say no because she was already married to a gambler who abandoned her. Seriously, history is stranger than fiction.) This was a much better choice because the Victorian period is when some of our most beloved Christmas traditions became popular: Queen Victoria made Christmas trees a widespread thing, Christmas cards began being sent in the mail, and Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol.
As it turned out, the story I submitted was totally different from the scene I started with, but it got me on the right track. And I had a lot of fun researching what was served at Victorian Christmas dinners, what people wore and what the decor would have looked like. If you want a sneak peek into my brain, check out my Pinterest board on the story. (That hideous plaid dress is what Victoria’s mom wore to the party.)
I ended up placing the story right when Victoria and Tennie were starting to become comfortable in their life working with Cornelius Vanderbilt. Victoria is ambitious as always and she sees her coveted invitation to Christmas Eve dinner at Mr. Vanderbilt’s mansion as a way for her to get a foot in the door with the New York elite, whom she longs to be a part of. But as happened so many times during her life, Victoria’s low-class family comes along and nearly ruins it by inviting themselves to the dinner. You’ll have to read the story to find out how, but it involves a brawl, a fire and some stolen Christmas gifts… (Thank you to Pat Wahler for some of those ideas.)
As usual, when Victoria’s family is around, trouble is sure to follow.
Pick up your copy of Tangled Lights and Silent Nights today! And please, leave a review when you’re done!
Surprise! I’ve got a short story (the first one I’ve ever successfully completed) in an anthology, which is a dream come true for this writer.
Here’s all the official info:
Tangled Lights and Silent Nights: A Holiday Anthology
Publication Date: November 4
This holiday season, twenty talented, award-winning, and bestselling authors have crafted never before released Yuletide-themed tales about their most beloved characters.
From murder to magic, love to loss, the past and the future, this multi-genre collection of poems and stories has something for everyone.
In the spirit of giving, the authors have generously opted to donate all profits to The LifeAfter—Visions of Hope Project, whose passion is to shatter the stigma and spread awareness to three taboo topics that underscore society today: Suicide, Substance Abuse, and Domestic Violence.
Nicole Evelina’s story:
A Vanderbilt Christmas
A companion story to the award-winning novel Madame Presidentess.
In 1872, Victoria Woodhull made history by becoming the first woman to run for president of the United States. But four years earlier she was still struggling to overcome her shameful past and establish herself in New York’s high society. She has finally secured an entre into that glittering world by way of an invitation to Christmas Eve dinner at the home of railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. But when her uncouth family crashes the party and threatens to send her social status spiraling, it will take a Christmas miracle to recover her reputation and keep her dreams on track.
Want a sneak peak?Since the story is so short, all I can give you is the first few paragraphs…
If anyone had told me a year ago that I would be spending Christmas Eve at the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the country, I would have booked them a room at Blackwell’s Island with the other lunatics. Me? The guttersnipe daughter of a confidence man and a religious zealot whose favorite hobby was blackmailing people? Even with my gift of clairvoyance, it would have been too much to believe.
But then again, much had changed over the last year. When my sister Tennie and I moved to New York at the direction of my spirit guide, Demosthenes, we had no idea the good fortune that awaited us. Our Pa, no doubt sensing a way to make a quick buck, had arranged an introduction to Commodore Vanderbilt in the hopes he would employ us as mediums and magnetic healers. But the tycoon did him one better. After I successfully channeled the spirit of his long-dead mother and gave an accurate prediction of the stock market, he took us in as his assistants. Although, this may have had more to do with my sister’s beauty than our skill.
No matter. We were here now. An invitation to Christmas Eve dinner was a rare honor, one much coveted by New York society. Ma and Pa would be fit-to-be-tied when they found out we were invited but they were not; but I thanked God their troublesome selves were back in the slums of Five Points where they belonged.
No matter. We were here now. An invitation to Christmas Eve dinner was a rare honor, one much coveted by New York society. Ma and Pa would be fit-to-be-tied when they found out we were invited but they were not; but I thanked God their troublesome selves were back in the slums of Five Points where they belonged.
My husband, James, Tennie, and I, on the other hand, were seated along one side of a massive dining table that could easily seat twenty and was laden with china, crystal, and silver. The other chairs were occupied by a handful of the Commodore’s close friends and business associates – including his rival Mr. Fisk – plus several generations of his family. Around us, wreaths of evergreen and holly decorated the damask covered walls and pine boughs dripped from an elegant gold chandelier, while wreaths of orange, bay, and cinnamon perfumed the air.
Across the table, the eldest Vanderbilt son, William, shot daggers at me and Tennie. Clearly his disposition toward us hadn’t warmed any with time, nor had he grown in trust of us.
“Tell me, what will be your parlor trick tonight?” He picked at one of the starched white lace napkins. “Will you channel the angel who announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds, or perhaps even the baby Jesus himself?”
“If you are so certain you know, perhaps you should place a bet on it,” I shot back, referencing William’s secret vice of gambling.
As August 2020 and the centennial of women’s right vote in the United States grows closer, we’re starting to see some really creative projects highlighting the brave, groundbreaking women of American history. Unfortunately, none of them include Victoria Woodhull yet (trust me, I’m contacting each one as I learn of them), but they do include many of her contemporaries. Here are three projects I’m keeping an eye on:
Rebel Women – A project to get more statues of amazing women of American history built in New York City and throughout the country. The author of the article I linked to is asking for nominations for women from your home town. I’ve already nominated Victoria for New York City and Virginia Minor for St. Louis. Please, feel free to nominate your own or second one of mine by emailing email@example.com.
Embrazen Wines – This is by far the most clever of the three projects. A winemaker has created three special vintages with labels that highlight the accomplishments of three women in American history: Josephine Baker, Nellie Bly and Celia Cruz. A special app called Living Wine Labels allows you to scan the bottle and hear Beginning August 26 (National Women’s Equality Day, which many groups are lobbying to make a Federal holiday), you can nominate women of history or today to be added to the next group of wines. If you nominate a contemporary woman, she could win a $25,000 grant. You bet I will be making them aware of Victoria when the Trailblazer campaign opens on August 26.
Where Are the Women? – This Kickstarter campaign aims to create sculptures of 20 notable women of U.S. history. Even though Victoria is not among them, her friends Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone are. I have backed it and I have also recommended Victoria to them. Please help them reach their goal. It’s so important that we spread the word about women’s history and all those whose accomplishments have not received the attention they deserve.
Why am I telling you about these? Well, besides oversight of not including Victoria, I’m still working on a proposal for a book on the history of feminism in the U.S., which I’d love to have published near the centennial. Cross your fingers!
Some of you may be aware that I’m working on a proposal for a non-fiction book on the history of U.S. feminism that I hope to have published on or near the 100th anniversary of American women getting the right to vote, which is August 19, 2020. This week, Diana at Creating Herstory is featuring a four-part article I wrote on this very same subject and I thought I’d repost the article each day as it runs on her site. It will give you a rough idea of what the book will include, although the book also will have a section on colonial feminist thought that this article doesn’t cover.
Image purchased from Adobe Stock
For me, every day is Women’s History month because I’m currently researching the history of the feminism movement in the United States for a book.
Honestly, although I’ve considered myself a feminist for more than 20 years, I never really thought much about the movement in general or how it came to be. But then I researched my historical fiction novel Madame Presidentess, which is about Victoria Woodhull, a suffragist and the first woman to run for president in the U.S. in 1872 – 48 years before women won the right to vote. Because she was friends with the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, I came to learn a lot about how feminism and women’s rights came to be in our country.
Historians generally agree that there have been at least three “waves” or intense periods of activity around women’s rights. But that is where the consensus ends. Exactly when these waves took place and what they encompassed is a serious matter of debate, especially where later waves are concerned. Some people (like me), believe we’re currently living in a fourth wave of feminism, while others say we’re still in the third or even in a fifth. There is even some debate on whether or not feminism in American dates back to colonial times, far before the generally accepted seminal event of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.
While one article could never do justice to the many facets of the feminist movement (that’s what the book is for, and even then it is impossible to hit all points), here’s a brief summary of the three accepted waves, as well as my theory of a current fourth wave. All dates are approximate.
Wave One: 1840-1920 – Women Fight for Citizenship and Suffrage Key figures: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt, and others.
Susan B. Anthony (standing) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Beginning in the 1830s, women started to quietly talk amongst themselves about their rights and to question why, under United States law, they were not considered full citizens. This eventually led to the first public debate on women’s rights at Oberlin College in 1846 and the first public address about women’s rights the next year. The first women’s rights convention in the United States took place the following July in Seneca Falls, New York. From this meeting came the Declaration of Sentiments, which was modeled on the Declaration of Independence, was all about woman and her rights, or lack thereof, in the country at that time. It became the basis for the women’s rights movement until the Civil War disrupted the whole country and placed the public’s attention squarely on abolition.
After the Civil War, the women’s movement split into two groups divided over the idea of enfranchisement of blacks as well as whether universal suffrage should be granted at the Federal or state levels. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were the leaders of the radical National Woman Suffrage Association, whose members believed that the enfranchisement of black and immigrant men would make it more difficult for women to be given the vote and called for a federal agreement for women suffrage. On the other side of the fence were Lucy Stone and the American Woman Suffrage Association, whose members supported the 15th Amendment and worked for women’s suffrage on a state-by-state basis.
This division hampered the efforts of both groups, by weakening resources, causing in-fighting within the movement and fracturing public attention. As time went on, some states granted suffrage on a case-by-case basis, usually beginning with school suffrage. The first state to grant women full voting rights was Wyoming in 1869. In 1872, Victoria Woodhull ran for president, even though she wasn’t technically old enough and the vast majority of women didn’t have the right to vote for her. Despite the odds, Susan B. Anthony succeeded in voting in that election (not for Victoria, as the two were bitter enemies by this point) but was arrested and found guilty of illegal voting. But she made history and headlines with her act, and her widely publicized trial spurred on flagging suffragists across the country. In 1875, Virginia Minor, a suffragist from Missouri, argued before the Supreme Court that women already had the right to vote under the 14th amendment of the Constitution, which that states suffrage is a right of all citizens of the United States. But the Supreme Court ruled against her, stating that all “men” had the right to vote, and the suffragists realized that the Federal government wasn’t going to help them. Thus began the decades-long campaign
Women’s Rights National Historical Park. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.
for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would enfranchise women.
The two warring factions of women’s suffrage finally reunited in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), under the united cause of getting suffrage state-by-state. Twenty-six years later, tired of this slow, tame approach, Alice Paul formed the National Woman’s Party, a militant group focused on the passage of a national suffrage amendment. The following year, more than 200 members of this group – known as the Silent Sentinels – were arrested while picketing the White House. Many of them went on hunger strikes in prison and were subjected to torture and barbaric practices like forced feeding. (These women were the Iron-Jawed Angels of the 2004 film of the same name.)
Despite these setbacks, the women’s movement continued under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, who focused whole-heartedly on the national amendment from 1916 on. Women finally gained the right to vote on a Federal level on August 20, 1920. But it took a long time for the states to catch up (Mississippi was the last state in the union to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment in 1984) and it wasn’t for several decades that African-American women were truly able to vote without fear of discrimination and harm.
Tomorrow’s Part 2 will talk about the Second Wave of feminism, which lasted approximately from 1960-the late 1980s.