Fearless Females: Sojourner Truth

This is the May column on women in history that I write for the women’s group at my day job. You’ll be hearing more about Sojourner from me in the future.

May is a month full of women’s firsts in sports, women’s suffrage, politics, finance and flight. But we’re going to focus on a woman whose name we all know, but whose story is often reduced to a handful of incidents. Read on to learn about outspoken advocate Sojourner Truth.

Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Bomfree (also spelled Baumfree, the name of her master’s family) into slavery in Ulster County, New York, in 1797. She was sold at the age of nine to an abusive master. By the age of 13, she had been sold several more times, finally to John and Elizabeth Dumont. When she was in her late teens, Isabella fell in love with another slave from a nearby farm named Robert, but they were not allowed to marry because they had two different masters. Instead, she was forced to marry a slave named Thomas who was also owned by Dumont. Together, they had five children between 1815-1827.

Dumont had promised to grant Isabella her freedom on July 4, 1826, “if she would do well and be faithful,” but when the time came, he went back on his word. In 1827, she fled the plantation and sought refuge for herself and her infant daughter, Sophia, with an abolitionist family in another town, the Van Wageners. (Her other children were still owned by Dumont.) Dumont tracked her down and when he attempted to take mother and child back, the Van Wageners bought her freedom for $20 (about $530 today). When the New York Anti-Slavery law was passed later that year, they helped Isabella sue Dumont for the return of her five-year-old-son Peter, who was illegally sold into slavery in Alabama. She was the first black woman to sue a white man in a United States court and prevail.

While living with the Van Wageners, Isabella converted to Christianity. She moved to New York City in 1828 to work as a housekeeper for a series of preachers. In 1843, she felt compelled to follow in their path and “preach the truth,” so she took the name we know her by, Sojourner Truth.

Over the next decade, Sojourner became an outspoken abolitionist, working with famous advocates such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She never learned to read or write, so she dictated her speeches to Olive Gilbert, who would later become her first biographer.

Sojourner gave her most famous speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?” on May 29, 1851, at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. In it, she recounted the discrimination she experienced as a Black woman. My favorite quote from it is, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it. The men better let them.”

In the 1850’s, Sojourner moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where three of her daughters lived. She continued speaking nationally and helped slaves escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad.

When the Civil War started, Sojourner recruited Black men into the Union army and worked in Washington D.C. with the National Freedman’s Relief Association, gathering food, clothes and supplies for black refugees. While she was in Washington, she purposefully rode white-only streetcars as a form of protest against segregation. When a streetcar conductor tried to physically block her from getting into his car and became violent, she got him arrested and he was punished—a rarity in those days. In 1864, she was invited to the White House to meet President Abraham Lincoln.

After the war, Sojourner became involved with the Freedmen’s Bureau, helping freed slaves find jobs and build new lives. She also continued to work for women’s rights and temperance from her home in Michigan as she slowly grew nearly blind and deaf with age. Sojourner died on Nov. 26, 1883. Though her tombstone says she was 105, other records put her age at 86.

Nominate Virginia Minor and/or Victoria Woodhull to be on a Quarter

Ever wanted to see a woman on a quarter? Here’s your chance to nominate her!

In January, the Treasury Department signed the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020 into law. This law requires the U.S. Mint to issue quarters featuring prominent American women from January 1, 2022 through the end of 2025.

The act allows up to five coin designs per year and will feature women who have made significant contributions to U.S. history across a number of fields and categories, including suffrage.

Recommendations are now being accepted through the National Women’s History Museum in partnership with the U.S. Mint, the Smithsonian Institution American Women’s History Initiative, and the Bipartisan Women’s Caucus as consultants for the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020.

Of course, I’m pulling for Virginia Minor and Victoria Woodhull, but you can nominate any woman you want.

Want to help? Copy the following information and fill out this form to nominate Virginia, Victoria or the woman of your choice.

Name: Virginia L. Minor
Year of birth: 1824
Year of death: 1892
Fields: Suffrage, politics

Reason for inclusion: Suffragist, political strategist, and lifelong activist for gender/race race equality, Virginia was the only woman to bring women’s suffrage before the U.S. Supreme Court. She began the world’s first organization dedicated to solely to women’s suffrage two years before Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone created theirs. She also created the New Departure, the official strategy of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association from 1868-1875, which said the 14th  Amendment gave women the right to vote.

Link to supporting material: http://www.virginiaminor.com.

Name: Victoria Woodhull
Year of birth: 1838
Year of death: 1927
Fields: Suffrage, politics

Reason for inclusion: First woman in U.S. history to run for president in 1872. Suffragist, activist and speaker. First woman (along with her sister) to own and run a stock brokerage on Wall Street, first woman to speak before the House Judiciary Committee on behalf of women’s suffrage. Her run, while not successful, opened the door for dozens of women to run for the presidency.
Link to supporting material: http://www.woodhullrising.org.

Thank you to the Alice Paul Institute for making me aware of this initiative. They are, of course, nominating Alice, and I have voted for her as well.

Consequences Novella Now Available for Pre-order!

You may remember a year or so ago (okay two) when I mentioned I was writing a short story for an anthology to aid survivors of human trafficking. Well, the anthology didn’t come to pass, but my story did and it will hit virtual shelves June 16 in ebook format.

It turned out to be a novella, which means its slightly longer than a short story, but by no means a novel–about 10,000 words. It should only take about an hour to read. (If you have another tablet or reader you can always download the Kindle app.)

Pre-order now. The story is free to Kindle Unlimited members and only $2.99 to everyone else.

What’s it about?

Famous for her hospitality, Venerable Catherine McAuley only ever turned away one woman who came to her for help, and that decision haunted her for the rest of her life.

This is that servant’s story.

Dublin – 1824. When a fellow maid is forced to temporarily vacate her position under scandalous circumstances, Margaret finds herself in an elevated position under the watchful eye of their master, the infamous Lord Montague. He believes in total obedience from those in his employ and when she dares to fight back, Margaret is left with no choice but to flee or face his wrath. Desperate, she seeks out a pious spinster named Catherine McAuley who is known for her charity to the poor. The decisions both women make upon meeting will irrevocably change the course of both their lives, as well as everyone in their orbit.

Based on a true story, this heart-pounding historical tale will leave you wondering just how much has really changed in the last two hundred years.

Why June 16?

June 16 is International Domestic Workers Day. Though we may think of abuse of servants as a thing of the past, unfortunately it is not. The United States is one of the few industrialized nations that doesn’t have any official national law or international compact protecting domestic workers or ensuring fair labor practices for them. Plus, thousands are trafficked every year. I chose to Consequences on this date to shed light on this terrible problem.

The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray – Out Today!

My friend and fellow historical fiction author, Stephanie Dray, has a new book out today! She calls The Women of Chateau Lafayette a seven-year labor of love. I know all about books that take years to come to fruition so I can’t wait to read this one. I’ve read her previous books, America’s First Daughter and My Dear Hamilton and loved them, so I’m sure this one will be excellent as well.

Oh and it was picked as one of OprahMag’s most anticipated historical fiction novels, so….Be sure to check it out!

✭✭✭ ABOUT THE BOOK ✭✭✭

An epic saga from New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Dray based on the true story of an extraordinary castle in the heart of France and the remarkable women bound by its legacy.

Most castles are protected by men. This one by women.

A founding mother…

  1. Gently-bred noblewoman Adrienne Lafayette becomes her husband, the Marquis de Lafayette’s political partner in the fight for American independence. But when their idealism sparks revolution in France and the guillotine threatens everything she holds dear, Adrienne must renounce the complicated man she loves, or risk her life for a legacy that will inspire generations to come.

A daring visionary…

  1. Glittering New York socialite Beatrice Chanler is a force of nature, daunted by nothing—not her humble beginnings, her crumbling marriage, or the outbreak of war. But after witnessing the devastation in France firsthand, Beatrice takes on the challenge of a lifetime: convincing America to fight for what’s right.

A reluctant resistor…

  1. French school-teacher and aspiring artist Marthe Simone has an orphan’s self-reliance and wants nothing to do with war. But as the realities of Nazi occupation transform her life in the isolated castle where she came of age, she makes a discovery that calls into question who she is, and more importantly, who she is willing to become.

Intricately woven and powerfully told, The Women of Chateau Lafayette is a sweeping novel about duty and hope, love and courage, and the strength we take from those who came before us.

✭✭✭ADD TO YOUR GOODREADS LIST✭✭✭

✭✭✭SIGN UP TO BE NOTIFIED✭✭✭

✭✭✭ FOLLOW STEPHANIE ON BOOKBUB ✭✭✭

✭✭✭ BUY NOW ✭✭✭

Amazon | Apple Books | Audible | Book Depository | Bookshop.org | Barnes & Noble | Google Play | IndieBound | Books-a-million | Target | Kobo

✭✭✭ ABOUT THE AUTHOR ✭✭✭

STEPHANIE DRAY is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal & USA Today bestselling author of historical women’s fiction. Her award-winning work has been translated into eight languages and tops lists for the most anticipated reads of the year. Now she lives in Maryland with her husband, cats, and history books. For more, see: StephanieDray.com

Madame Presidentess Named “Essential Reading” for Women’s History Month!

I’m so honored that Success Magazine (of which I’m a BIG fan) has named Madame Presidentess as one of their 10 Essential Books to Read for Women’s History Month! This such a huge honor! Especially to be on a list along with Rupi Kaur and Melinda Gates!

 

From Property to Power – A History of Women’s Rights in Marriage and Divorce in the U.S.

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[1] 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.[2] However, despite being one of the oldest in the world,[3] the U.S. Constitution does not. The U.S. is one of only 28 U.N. member nations[4] 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.[5]

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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3]

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.[4]

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?[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

In 1849, New York issued one of the most sweeping changes to marriage law under the Married Women’s Property Act,[10] 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.”[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] Woodhull famously proclaimed that she believed a marriage occurred when two people fell in love and dissolved when they were no longer in love.[14]

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”).[15] Other states attempted to follow, with mixed results. Maryland made wife-beating illegal in 1882,[16] 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.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19] 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;”[20] 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[21] allowed women to marry men of any nationality without loss of citizenship and restored the status of all affected by previous laws.[22]

In 1967, interracial marriage (meaning Black and White) was legalized in the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia,[23] 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.[24]

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.

[1] https://www.nyhistory.org/sites/default/files/newfiles/cwh-curriculum/Module%201/Resources/Resource%201%20Couverture.pdf

[2] https://www.jstor.org/stable/2123970, 360

[3]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.

[4] https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9781315820880.ch3

[5] https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9781315820880.ch3

[6] https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9781315820880.ch3

[7] https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/married-womens-property-act-1848

[8] https://www.library.hbs.edu/hc/wes/collections/women_law/#:~:text=These%20marriage%20and%20property%20laws,legal%20existence%20from%20her%20husband.&text=Widows%20did%20have%20the%20right,third%20of%20their%20husbands’%20estate.

[9] https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/married-womens-property-act/ and https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2017-01-20/timeline-the-womens-rights-movement-in-the-us

[10] https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/married-womens-property-act-1848

[11]https://www.law.yale.edu/sites/default/files/documents/pdf/Faculty/Siegel_TheModernizationOfMaricalStatus.pdf

[12] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1966/11/divorce-and-the-family-in-america/305942/

[13] MacPherson, Myra. “The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age.” New York: Twelve, 2014, 132-133.

[14] MacPherson, Myra. “The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age.” New York: Twelve, 2014, 132-133.

[15] https://www.jstor.org/stable/2702468 2144 – This has not been proven as a fact but is accepted into American and English folklore.

[16] Under the Rule of Thumb: Battered Women and the Administration of Justice. United States: The Commission, 1982., 2

[17] https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/law/crime-and-law-enforcement/domestic-violence

[18] https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2017-01-20/timeline-the-womens-rights-movement-in-the-us

[19] https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/03/17/520517665/that-time-american-women-lost-their-citizenship-because-they-married-foreigners#:~:text=In%20March%20of%201907%2C%20Congress,naturalization%20process%20to%20regain%20citizenship.

[20] Cott, Nancy F. (December 1998). “Marriage and Women’s Citizenship in the United States, 1830–1934”The American Historical Review. New York, New York: Oxford University Press for the American Historical Association103 (5): 1440–1474.doi:10.2307/2649963

[21] https://ballotpedia.org/Nationality_Act_of_1940#:~:text=The%20Nationality%20Act%20of%201940%20outlined%20the%20process%20by%20which,acquire%20U.S.%20citizenship%20through%20naturalization.&text=The%20law%20reserved%20naturalization%20for,individuals%20of%20Native%20American%20descent.

 [23] https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2017/05/18/intermarriage-in-the-u-s-50-years-after-loving-v-virginia/

[24] https://www.stlouisfed.org/publications/regional-economist/january-2008/splitsville-the-economics-of-unilateral-divorce

[1] https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/LFE046219

[2] https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/22984/advancing-equality-how-constitutional-rights-can-make-a-difference-worldwide.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y, 60

[3] https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/22984/advancing-equality-how-constitutional-rights-can-make-a-difference-worldwide.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y, 58

[4] https://ph.ucla.edu/news/press-release/2020/jan/us-protections-constitutional-rights-falling-behind-global-peers

[5] https://www.brookings.edu/essay/100-years-on-politics-is-where-the-u-s-lags-most-on-gender-equality/

Feb. 3 – National Female Physician’s Day and the story of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell

This is my monthly column for the Women in Leadership Newsletter for my day job.

Did you know that Feb. 3 is National Women Physicians Day? That’s because it is also the birthday (1821) of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school and become a doctor in the United States.

Elizabeth was born in Bristol, England, into a Quaker family known for being reformers. Her parents were anti-slavery activists, her sister Antoinette would become the first ordained female Protestant minister, and her brother Henry would go on to marry American suffragist Lucy Stone, founder of the American Woman’s Suffrage Association.

For financial reasons and because her father wanted to help abolish slavery in the United States, the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1832 when Elizabeth was only 11. Six years later, her father died, leaving the family destitute during a national financial crisis. To make ends meet, her mother, two older sisters and Elizabeth worked as teachers at The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies, a school they founded.

One day, as one of Elizabeth’s female friends lay dying, the woman said she believed her suffering would have been less if she had had a female physician. At that moment, Elizabeth knew that was what she was meant to do, despite having a natural aversion to “everything connected with the body…the very thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments filled me with disgust.” But there was one big problem: none of the medical schools in the U.S. would admit women. Her only option was to find a physician who would allow her to apprentice under him for informal training. She found not one, but two doctors in Philadelphia who were willing to help her. Elizabeth worked as a teacher while living with the physicians’ families.

While she was training, Elizabeth applied to all the major medical schools and was universally rejected; even when she applied to the small schools, she only received one acceptance letter, from Geneva Medical College in New York. What she didn’t know was that the faculty had opposed her admission but since she was qualified in all ways but gender, they felt they couldn’t reject her outright. So, they referred the decision to the students, who thought the whole thing was a practical joke, and voted unanimously
to admit her.

Elizabeth arrived in Geneva on Nov. 6, 1847, well after the beginning of the term. Not only did she have to catch up on her classwork, but she faced very strong discrimination. Her professors forced her to sit separately from the male students during lectures and often excluded her from labs, fearing that her delicate female sensibilities couldn’t handle subject matter like the male reproductive system. At the same time, the citizens of Geneva shunned her as an improper woman for defying her God-given roles of wife and mother. She wrote of this time:

“I had not the slightest idea of the commotion created by my appearance as a medical student in the little town. Very slowly I perceived that a doctor’s wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent.”

After graduating on Jan. 23, 1849, with the highest grades in her class, Elizabeth—now Dr. Blackwell—continued her training in London and Paris, though the doctors in those hospitals only allowed her to work in midwifery and nursing. During that time, she realized that doctors often caused epidemics by failing to wash their hands between patients, so she emphasized preventive care and personal hygiene in her departments.

In 1851, Dr. Blackwell returned to New York City, where she encountered even more discrimination against female physicians, who were thought to all be abortionists, though that procedure was illegal and most female physicians did not practice it. This attitude meant she had few patients and was not welcomed at many hospitals and clinics. Like so many women before her, she took matters into her own hands and opened her own small clinic to treat poor women. She is quoted as saying, “If society will not admit of a woman’s free development, then society must be remodeled.”

By 1857, her sister, Emily, had followed in her footsteps to become a doctor, earning her medical degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Together, they opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, along with colleague Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. This medical establishment welcomed aspiring female physicians and nurses and gave them what men sought to deny them: training in practical medical skills.

During the Civil War, the Blackwell sisters trained nurses for Union hospitals and Elizabeth founded the Woman’s Central Relief Association because the male physicians in the United States Sanitary Commission refused to help her.

After the war, in 1867 or 1868 (sources conflict on the date), Dr. Blackwell opened a medical college for women in New York City. A year later, she placed Emily in charge and moved permanently to London, where one of her first acts was to found the National Health Society.

Despite failing health, Dr. Blackwell established the London School of Medicine for Women with Sophia Jex-Blake, one of her students in New York, in 1874. The following year, Dr. Blackwell became a professor of gynecology at the school, a position she held for three years before retiring from medicine.

Dr. Blackwell never married, choosing instead to spend her retirement time advocating for social and moral reform. She also published more than 15 books, including Medicine as a Profession For Women in 1860, Address on the Medical Education of Women in 1864 and an 1895 autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. She died in 1910 at the age of 89.

Today, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell is recognized for her influence on the medical profession in the United States and the United Kingdom. Biographer Janice Nimura has just released a new book on Elizabeth and her sister Emily titled The Doctors Blackwell. Check it out or read this interview with the author on NPR to learn more about these pioneering women in medicine.

Fun fact: The first female physician in western history that we know of is Metrodora, a Greek doctor who lived sometime between 200-400 AD/CE. She wrote the oldest known medical book by a woman, On the Diseases and Cures of Women.

Black History Month: Black Female Health Care Heroes

For those who are not aware, my day job is in health care. This is an article I was asked to write by our Women in Leadership program.

February is Black History Month, so it is only appropriate that we reflect upon the tremendous—and often overlooked—contributions of Black women and men in health care, both within our company and in the United States in general. While doing so, we must also acknowledge and ask forgiveness for the inexcusable discrimination and injustice perpetrated upon our Black brothers and sisters, a pain that continues to this day. As we reflect, let us pray for understanding, unity and love, that our country may become a haven of tolerance for all and celebrate both our differences and our similarities as children of God, equally worthy of respect and dignity.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (First Black Female Doctor in the U.S.)
Rebecca was born in Delaware in 1831 and was raised by her aunt, who frequently cared for sick neighbors. This experience is what influenced her to become a healer herself. At the time there was no formal schooling for nurses, so Rebecca’s training was all on the job. She worked as a nurse in Charlestown, Massachusetts, from 1852-1860, when she was admitted to the New England Female Medical College in Boston. In 1864, she became the first Black American female to earn a medical degree.

(You may see references to a woman named Rebecca Cole holding this distinction, one for which she was given credit for many years. Because she received her degree in 1867, she is now considered the second Black American woman to hold a medical degree.)

Dr. Crumpler practiced medicine in Boston until the Civil War ended and she moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she cared for “a population of over 30,000 colored” in her own estimation. Despite experiencing terrible racism, she worked with other black physicians and the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide food, housing, medical care, education and legal assistance to former slaves.

Sometime later she moved back to Boston. In 1883, she published Book of Medical Discourses, one of the earliest medical publications by a Black American.

Mary Eliza Mahoney (First Black Nurse Licensed in the U.S.)
Mary was born in 1845 in Boston to freed slaves who had moved there from North Carolina. She received a superb education at Phillips School in Boston, which later became one of the first integrated schools in the country. By the time she was a teenager, she felt a calling to become a nurse. She found employment at New England Hospital for Women and Children, which was run completely by women and provided care only to women and children. She worked there for the next 15 years in roles as varied as janitor, cook, washer woman and nurse’s aide.

In 1878, Mary was accepted into a 16-month nursing training program at the hospital. During this program she worked 16-hour shifts attending lectures and lessons led by doctors in the hospital. She was also taught bedside procedures by experienced nurses. The students earned a weekly wage ranging from $1-$4. The course work was so rigorous that out of a class of 42 students, only four graduated, including Mary, in 1879.

After receiving her diploma, Mary found that Black public nurses faced harsh discrimination, and so went into private care nursing in the homes of rich White families on the East coast. She was often treated like a servant instead of a professional and thus worked to distance herself from the household staff. She became renowned for her professionalism, efficiency, patience and bedside manner, a reputation that spread across the United States.

Mary wanted more than anything to improve the reputation of Black nurses across the country. In 1896, she joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, which later became known as the American Nurses Association (ANA). This group was overwhelmingly White and not very friendly toward Black nurses, so Mary cofounded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908.

After her death in 1926, Mary was recognized with numerous honors. In 1936, the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses founded the Mary Mahoney Award, which is still given today to nurses who promote integration in nursing. Mary was inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame in 1976. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1993.

Opaline Wadkins (Nurse and Integration Pioneer)
Opaline Wadkins’ career began in 1938 when she was hired by the Texas Department of Public Health to recruit Black nurses. Two years later she moved to Oklahoma City where she lobbied for the rights of Black patients. It took five years, but in 1945 Opaline finally convinced the city to found its first hospital to treat Black patients, University Hospital South Ward, and establish a school to train Black nurses. Between 1949 and 1953 she trained over 200 Black LPNs.

In 1954, Opaline became the first Black nursing supervisor at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City. While working for there, she was also studying for her master’s degree in public health. She was especially concerned about the lack of access young Black people had to information about their health. When she graduated, Opaline became the first Black person to earn a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Oklahoma.

With her passion for public health, she started new initiatives to provide care to minorities living in Oklahoma. One of her most successful programs was a health and well-baby care initiative for Native Americans which effectively decreased infant mortality by 50%. She also worked with local churches to provide health and diabetic clinics to Black patients living in Oklahoma City and was instrumental in desegregating the University of Oklahoma College of Nursing.

Opaline retired in 1976. The governor of Oklahoma declared Nov. 14 as Opaline Wadkins Day. She was later honored by the VA Hospital Nursing Service and the Oklahoma Public Health Association. In 1993, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame. She died in 2000 at her home in Oklahoma City.

Other Notable Black People in Medical History:

  • In 1721, a slaved named Onesimus described the African method of inoculation against smallpox to Cotton Mather. The technique was used to protect soldiers during the Revolutionary War and was perfected in the 1790s by British doctor Edward Jenner. (To learn more about this, check out The Speckled Monster by Jennifer Lee Carrell.)
  • Born into slavery, Dr. James Durham bought his freedom in 1762. He then started his own medical practice in New Orleans, becoming the first Black doctor in the United States.
  • In 1837, James McCune Smith became the first Black American to receive a medical degree (from the Glasgow Medical School in Scotland) and opened the first pharmacy in the US owned and operated by a person of color.
  • In 1847, David Jones Peck became the first Black person to graduate from a medical school in the United States, Rush Medical College, in Chicago, Illinois.
  • In 1862, former slave Susie Baker (later known as Susie King Taylor) became the first Black U.S. Army nurse during the Civil War.
  • In 1891, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams founded the first black-owned hospital in America, Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses. Two years later he performed the first successful open-heart surgery. In 1897 he founded the National Medical Association because Black people were denied membership in the American Medical Association. He was also a charter member of the
    American College of Surgeons in 1913 and was the first and only Black member for many years.
  • In 1912, Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as the country’s first Black psychiatrist, published the first comprehensive clinical review of all Alzheimer’s cases reported to date. He was also the first to translate into English much of Alois Alzheimer’s work on the disease that bears his name.
  • In 1921 – Dr. Meta L. Christy became the world’s first Black osteopathic physician after graduating from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
  • In 1936, Dr. William Augustus Hinton was the first Black American physician to publish a textbook, Syphilis and Its Treatment.
  • In 1950, Dr. Helen O. Dickens became the first Black woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons.
  • In 1978, Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall was elected the first Black president of the American Cancer Society.
  • In 1981, Alexa Canady became the first Black female neurosurgeon in the U.S.
    and Dr. Mae C. Jemison became the first Black female astronaut in NASA history. In 1992 she became the first Black woman in space, where she researched various vaccines and conducted experiments onboard the shuttle Endeavour.
  • In 1991, Dr. Vivian Pinn became the first woman and the first Black person to hold the title of Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health, National Institutes of Health.
  • In 1993, Dr. Edward S. Cooper became the first Black person elected as National President of the American Heart Association and Dr. Joycelyn Elders became the first Black person to be appointed as U.S. Surgeon General.
  • In 1995, Dr. Lonnie Bristow became the first Black President of the American Medical Association (AMA) in its 148-year history.
  • In 2002, Dr. Roselyn Payne Epps became the first Black woman to serve as President of the American Medical Women’s Association.
  • In 2018, Dr. Patrice Harris became the first Black woman President-Elect of the country’s largest physician organization, the AMA.

Fearless Females: American Women’s Firsts in Politics

I just realized I never posted my January Fearless Females column on women in U.S. History. (If you missed the first one, check it out here.) Perfect timing, though, since today is inauguration day.

The first month of each year is chock full of important dates in women’s history because so many lawmakers take office when the new term of the government begins in January. From our first Lantina elected to the U.S. Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) on Jan. 2, 2017, to Dr. Condoleezza Rice (R) becoming the first Black woman appointed Secretary of State on Jan. 26, 2005, we could extoll a different woman almost every day of the month. If you’re curious as to why the dates are scattered throughout the month, check out this site. It explains when legislators assume responsibility, which varies from state to state.

And this year, we have an extra special first, with Kamala Harris (D-CA) becoming the first female vice president in the history of the U.S. on Jan. 20. She is also the first South Asian and first Black woman elected to that seat. She previously made history on Jan 3, 2017, as the first South Asian and second Black woman elected to the US Senate. In 2016 she became the first woman of color to be selected as the running mate on a major-party ticket, as well as the first multiracial woman, the first South Asian woman, and the first Black woman.

Did you know that the presidential inauguration wasn’t always held in January? The 20th Amendment moved it from March 4 (which had been the designated date since 1789, even though travel delays meant George Washington didn’t actually take office until April 9) to Jan. 20. The four-month gap created by the March date was important historically because it took a lot of time to count and report votes when they had to be gathered from across the nation by hand, on horseback and later by a much slower mail system than we have now. Plus, it gave the incoming president time to choose his cabinet and set up the rest of his administration. However, it also meant that the sitting president, if he wasn’t reelected, often left things to his successor, who had no power to act, a condition often referred to as a “lame duck” presidency. As technology sped up the vote counting process, this period became increasingly problematic, so Congress passed the 20th Amendment, which was ratified on Jan. 23, 1933, and moved Inauguration Day to Jan. 20 and the first meeting of the new Congress to Jan. 3.

Here’s a list of other political female “firsts” in January:

Jan. 2, 2017 – Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) became the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate.

Jan. 3, 2013 – Mazie Hirono (D-HI) became the first Asian-Pacific Islander woman — and only the second woman of color — elected to the U.S. Senate.

Jan. 3, 2019 – Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) became the first Muslim women sworn into Congress.

Jan. 4, 2007: U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA.) becomes the first female speaker of the House. In 2019, she reclaims the title, becoming the first lawmaker to hold the office two times in more than 50 years.

Jan. 4, 2007 – Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) became the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress.

Jan. 12, 1932 – Hattie Wyatt Caraway (D-AR) becomes the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

Jan. 15, 1981 – Jeane Kirkpatrick (D) becomes the first female U.N. Ambassador

Jan. 23, 1977 – Patricia Roberts Harris (D) was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. She was the first Black woman to serve in a presidential cabinet and the first woman to hold two different cabinet positions (the second was Secretary of Health and Human Services).

Jan. 23, 1997: Madeleine Albright (D) is sworn in as the nation’s first female secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.

Jan. 26, 2005 – Dr. Condoleezza Rice (R) becomes the first Black woman appointed Secretary of State.

We thank all of these trailblazing women who were ahead of their time and dared to do what others deemed “impossible.” Because of them, there is only one glass ceiling left in the United States government—one that someone will someday break, proving to women across the nation that there is nothing they can’t do.