Cover Reveal: The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray

My friend Stephanie Dray’s newest historical fiction, The Women of Chateau Lafayette, has a beautiful new cover for its paperback release and I wanted to share it with all of you.

My Review

I’m currently on my second time reading this book. I don’t know if I have words to tell you how much I love it.  It is a triple-time period story that is woven together expertly to join the lives of three strong women who lived and loved through wartime. My favorite storyline is Adrienne Lafayette because of my love of all things Hamilton (and also a connection to a book I’m writing), but they are all great.

This is Stephanie’s best novel yet. The voice and atmosphere is incredible and grabs you from the opening pages. Her passion for the subject was obvious and as always, her attention to historical accuracy and detail was perfection. Her characters were so well rounded I felt like they were people I would enjoy having tea with (that’s a bit of an inside joke for those who have read the book).

If you have any interest in reading this book, don’t hesitate. It’s long, but well worth the read.

About the Book

A founding mother…

1774. 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…

1914. 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…

1940. 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.

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Fearless Females: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Dr. Walker wearing her medal.

In 245 years of American History, only one woman has ever received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the government’s highest and most prestigious military honor, and she did it back on Nov. 11, 1865. Meet woman of many trades – doctor, spy, abolitionist, P.O.W. – Dr. Mary Edwards Walker.

Mary Edwards was born Nov. 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York, to abolitionists Alvah and Vesta Whitcomb Walker. From a young age, they encouraged Mary to think for herself and allowed her to ditch the corsets and skirts expected of women in favor of “bloomers” (a dress combined with short pants), which would later lead her into the dress reform movement, which advocated for more reasonable and comfortable clothes for women.

Her parents believed that both boys and girls should be educated equally, so they started the first free school in Oswego, New York, to ensure their five daughters would learn the same things as their son. After that, Mary and two of her older sisters went to Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York. Mary never did stop wearing men’s clothes, as she felt they were more comfortable and hygienic.

Although Mary studied teaching, her real ambition was to become a doctor, something few women at the time dared contemplate, much less attempt. For her, teaching was a way to earn money for medical school. She attended Syracuse Medical College and received her medical degree in 1855—she was the second woman to graduate from the college, after Elizabeth Blackwell, whom we profiled in February.

Not long after graduation, Mary married fellow medical school student Albert Miller in a ceremony just as unconventional as fellow suffragist Lucy Stone’s. She refused to include “obey” in her wedding vows, kept her maiden name, and wore a short skirt and trousers instead of a traditional wedding dress. Husband and wife started their own medical practice in Rome, New York. Unfortunately, it was a complete failure because people did not trust a female doctor. The couple later divorced.

Her gender worked against her during the Civil War as well, when she was denied a post as a medical officer because she was a woman. Undeterred, Mary decided to volunteer as a surgeon at the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington, but she was only allowed to be a nurse, not a surgeon. During her time there, she wore only trousers and shirts because they made her work easier. She also organized the Women’s Relief Organization to help families of the wounded.

In 1862, Mary moved to Virginia and started treating wounded soldiers near the front lines. She also wrote to the War Department in September of that year requesting to become a spy, but she was rejected. However, in 1863 her request to practice as a surgeon was finally accepted. She became the first female U.S. Army surgeon as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” in Ohio.

Because she cared for all, Mary often crossed over Union and Confederate lines. In an ironic twist of fate, she was arrested in April 1864 by Confederate soldiers as a spy, the very occupation denied to her by the government. For the next four months, she was held as a prisoner of war in the notoriously brutal Castle Thunder outside of Richmond, Virginia, all the while refusing to wear the dresses provided to her. Later, when she was arrested in New Orleans for being dressed like a man, she famously said, “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.” She was eventually released as part of a prisoner exchange.

After the Civil War, Mary was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service by President Andrew Johnson for her time as a P.O.W, the result of which was partial muscular atrophy that qualified her for disability. She became a suffragist and even attempted to register to vote in 1871 under the popular suffragist philosophy that the Fourteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote but was turned away. Inspired by other women in politics like Victoria Woodhull, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Belva Lockwood, she ran for the U.S. Senate in 1881 and for Congress in 1890, both of which she lost.

In 1916, Mary’s Medal of Honor was revoked after the government decided she wasn’t really eligible, but she continued to wear it until her death in 1919 at the age of 86. She was buried wearing a black suit, still refusing in death to wear a dress. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter legally restored Mary’s Medal of Honor.

Mary told the world what she wished to be remembered for in 1897: “I am the original new woman…Before Lucy Stone, Mrs. [Amelia] Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were, I am. In the early ’40’s, when they began their work in dress reform, I was already wearing pants…I have made it possible for the bicycle girl to wear the abbreviated skirt, and I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers.”

Fierce Females: Annie G. Fox

Although American women couldn’t join the military on a permanent basis until 1948, they had been enlisting since Loretta Walsh became the first woman allowed to serve in any branch of the military in 1917. This month, we’re introducing you to Annie G. Fox, an Army nurse who was the first woman to receive the Purple Heart.

Annie Gayton Fox was born on Aug. 4, 1893, in East Pubnico, Nova Scotia, in Canada to Annie and Charles Fox, a doctor. Nothing is known of her life before 1918, when she enlisted to serve in the Army Nurse Corps in World War I or why she chose to do so. After her tour ended on July 14, 1920, she was based in New York, then Fort Sam Houston in Texas, and Fort Mason in San Diego. Annie was then transferred to the Philippines where she served at Camp John Hay in Benguet and then in Manilla.

In 1940, she returned to the United States, where she was stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii. There, she passed her exam to become Chief Nurse, was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and was transferred to Hickam Air Field Station Hospital, a small 30-bed hospital with six nurses.

Less than a month later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Victims were sent to hospitals all over the island, including Hickam, where Annie was in charge. The noise of torpedoes, bombs, machine guns, and anti-aircraft guns was deafening and bombs fell all around the hospital, one leaving a 30-foot crater 20 feet from the hospital and another exploded across the street. Hospital staff, wearing gas masks and helmets, reported trying to save the wounded while enemy aircraft flew so close overhead that they could see the pilots conversing.

Annie not only cared for the wounded and assisted in surgery during the attack, but also organized civilian volunteers to provide assistance and make bandages. For her “outstanding performance of duty and meritorious acts of extraordinary fidelity” during this ordeal she was awarded the Purple Heart on Oct. 26, 1942, becoming the first woman to receive it. (At this time, recipients were not required to have been seriously wounded to receive this honor.)

The citation describes what Annie experienced and how she reacted:

“During the attack, Lieutenant Fox, in an exemplary manner, performed her duties as head Nurse of the Station Hospital… in addition she administered anesthesia to patients during the heaviest part of the bombardment, assisted in dressing the wounded, taught civilian volunteer nurses to make dressings, and worked ceaselessly with coolness and efficiency, and her fine example of calmness, courage and leadership was of great benefit to the morale of all with whom she came in contact….”

Two years later, the military added the stipulation that recipients of the Purple Heart had to sustain wounds during enemy action. As a result, on Oct. 6, 1944, Annie, now a Captain, was given a Bronze Star in lieu of her Purple Heart. The Bronze Star Medal is “awarded to members of the United States Armed Forces for either heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.”

After the war, Annie continued her military career in San Francisco, and then as Assistant to the Principal Chief Nurse at Camp Phillips, Kansas, where she was promoted to Major. She retired from active duty on Dec. 15, 1945, two years before President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into law, allowing women to serve as full members of all branches of the Armed Forces.

Annie eventually moved to San Diego to be with two of her sisters. She never married.  She died January 20, 1987, in San Francisco, at the age of 93.

In March 2017, Hawaii Magazine ranked her among a list of the most influential women in Hawaiian history.

Fearless Females: Sarah Hackett Stevenson

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.

Early Life
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.

Medical Career
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.

Another Book Contract!

After a lot of waiting and years of research, I’m so happy to announce this contract:

I am so thrilled to be sharing her “forgotten” story with the world. The biography is really a dual biography of her and her husband, Francis, because they were “partners in crime” on the subject of suffrage–and equal in all things (which was unusual for their time). However, there is far more information available on Virginia, but I was able to reconstruct a good portion of Francis’ career as a lawyer, as well as his suffrage work.

One of the reasons this book is so important to me is that the way we’re taught about the Suffrage Movement in school is that is was pretty much taken care of by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a handful of other women. But that is far from the truth. The movement was actually progressed by thousands of women of all races and class levels. Writing them back into history is so important to a fuller understanding of the movement and its repercussions to us today.

America’s Forgotten Suffragists is a cradle to grave biography because it is the first one ever written about Virginia and Francis. Among the things you’ll learn about them:

  • Their early lives, education, courtship and wedding.
  • Virginia’s work during the Civil War in the health department and Francis’ work as a war claims agent.
  • Virginia’s founding of the Woman’s Suffrage Association of Missouri two years before Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone formed their national organizations.
  • How Virginia and Francis came up with the New Departure (the 14th amendment theory) and argued it through the court system all the way to the Supreme Court.
  • Virginia’s tax revolts (refusing to pay her taxes until women get the vote)
  • Her work with Susan B. Anthony to campaign for women’s suffrage in Nebraska
  • Virginia’s unorthodox funeral and will.
  • Posthumous honors for both

If you want a little preview of the biography, go to virginiaminor.com, a companion website I built for the book.

An Incredible Year
I’m going to take a minute to brag. This is my fourth book contract in six months (the one you may not know about is with our local chapter of the League of Women Voters for a book on 60 years of their history), along with a contract for a magazine article related to America’s Forgotten Suffragists.

HOWEVER, this explosion of luck is a long time coming. There is no such thing as overnight success, though it can appear that way. I have been writing seriously 13 years. In that time, I had one agent, got a lot of rejections, left her, self-published six books, got a book optioned for a movie/TV, got a wonderful new agent, Amy Collins, racked up more rejections and then finally everything hit. Hard work, never giving up (and believe me, it was tempting) and a great agent were for me the recipe for success.

I am firm believer that you have to work hard to achieve great things. That is what I have done from the beginning and that is what I will continue to do.

And for those of you who have noticed my contracts are all for non-fiction, don’t worry, I’m still writing fiction as well. I have four books I want to complete in 2022, in addition to my non-fiction on Fierce Females on Television. I may not finish all of them, but two are already started so it’s possible. I’m hoping to be able to slow down a little after next year, but this is what I mean about working hard to get my career jumpstarted.

Thank you all for your love and support!

Fearless Females: Mary Elizabeth (Eliza) Mahoney

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.

Early Life

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.

Nursing Training

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.

Career

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.

Later Life

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.

If you’d like to learn more about her, check out Susan Muaddi Darraj’s book Mary Eliza Mahoney and the Legacy of African-American Nurses.

Fearless Females: The First Black Woman to Receive a U.S. Patent

Did you know there is a bit of a debate over who was the first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent? Judy Woodford Reed, Sarah E. Goode, and Miriam Benjamin are all credited with that feat, though there may have been others before them who did not reveal their race or gender. Learn more about each of these women below.

Judy Woodford Reed

The debate begins with Judy Woodford Reed (1826-1905). She was issued patent 305,474 for a “dough kneader and roller” on September 23, 1884. Her invention was for “improved design of rollers that helped the dough to mix more evenly while it was kept covered and protected.”

The patent is the only documentation that exists of her life. Historians have been able to piece together her birth and death dates, but little else is known about her—not even a photo remains. Judy was a former slave who likely could not read or write, as she signed the patent with an X instead of her name. Her attorney wrote her name on the patent for her, using her initials, J.W. Reed. And this is where the controversy comes in. Because Judy didn’t actually sign the patent with her name, some wonder if it was technically fully executed.

Sarah E. Goode

Those who follow the line of thought that Judy Woodford Reed’s patent wasn’t fully executed, credit Sarah E. Goode with being the first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent. She was issued a patent (322,177) for the cabinet bed on July 14, 1885, which was a pre-cursor to the better-known Murphy Bed.

Sarah was born into slavery in 1855 in Toledo, Ohio, and was described as being of mixed White and Black ancestry. She was granted her freedom at age 10 when the Civil War ended.

Sara was the daughter of a carpenter who married a “stair builder.” Later in life, she sold furniture in Chicago. Her invention came about when she heard customers from New York mention that space was at a premium in the city thanks to new laws that limited the height of buildings. That meant most tenements were only around 25×100 feet in size. Sarah’s creativity resulted in a fold out bed that when retracted, looked and functioned like a roll-top desk complete with compartments for storing pens, ink and stationery.

Miriam Benjamin

Though only a few sources credit Miriam Benjamin (1861-1947) with being the first, she is widely held to be the second (or perhaps third) Black woman to be granted a patent. She was born in Charleston, South Carolina, as a free Black woman. Miriam attended high school in Boston and eventually became a teacher in Washington D.C. before attending law school at Howard University and becoming a “solicitor of patents.”

Her first patent was for the gong and signal chair for hotels. As a frequent traveler, Miriam noticed that many hotels and restaurants seemed overstaffed for the number of customers needing service at any moment. This resulted in her devising a chair with a gong and signal attached meant to “reduce the expenses of hotels by decreasing the number of waiters and attendants, to add to the convenience and comfort of guests and to obviate the necessity of hand clapping or calling aloud to obtain the services of pages.” To summon a server or other attendant, a patron would press a button on the back of the chair, which would send a signal to the server as well as illuminate a light so the server could see which guest needed help.

Later on, Miriam’s system was adopted by the United States House of Representatives to summon pages and was the precursor to flight attendant call buttons in airplanes.

Miriam went on to patent other inventions and is believed to be one in the same with composer E.B. Miriam who wrote marches, including “The Boston Elite Two Step” and “The American Bugle Call,” which was adopted as the campaign song for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 presidential campaign.

The Life of Catherine McAuley (1778-1841)

If you’ve read my novella, Consequences, or even just the back cover copy, you’ll notice it takes place during the life of Catherine McAuley, a woman most people, especially outside of Ireland, have never heard of.

I found out about her nearly 18 years ago when I started working at my current day job. We can trace our history directly back to Catherine and her ministry. Here’s a brief summary of her life and if you want more details, I recommend the definitive biography of by Mary Sullivan titled The Path of Mercy.

Early Life and Culture

No images of Catherine McAuley exist from her lifetime. This is believed to be the most accurate depiction of her as a laywoman.

Catherine was born on September 28, 1778, into comfortable, middle-class circumstances. But at an early age she began to notice the poor and disadvantaged who were all around her on the streets of Dublin. Crop failures destroyed the agricultural economy and caused terrible famines. Desperate people migrated to the cities to work in factories, where they suffered horrifying working conditions, and those without work often ended up in poorhouses.

It was a time of extremes in Ireland. Social and religious prejudice was pervasive, especially against Catholics like Catherine. The ruling class was Protestant and education was available only to those with property and land, both of which most Catholics did not have thanks to earlier Penal Laws (more on those in a future post) that stripped Catholics of most of their rights. Wealth and poverty sat side by side but there were few resources available to help the poor.

Catherine felt great sorrow when she observed the suffering of the poor, especially disadvantaged women and children. As a girl, her own situation offered her many comforts, although after the death of her father Catherine’s family suffered economic hardships.  She felt called to change the environment in which she found herself and found supporters among both Catholic and Protestant connections.

Catherine’s Life Changes

The House of Mercy with a statue of Catherine out front.

When she was 25, Catherine was invited to live with a Quaker family, the Callaghans, at their country estate, Coolock House. She stayed with them for nearly 20 years, never marrying and taking care of them into their old age. At the age of 44, after having already created a network of services for poor people near Coolock, Catherine received a large inheritance when the Callaghans died within a short time of one another.

With that money she built a large home on Baggot Street in Dublin, bordering a fashionable neighborhood, to serve as a shelter and educational center for young women from poor neighborhoods. Skeptics called the house “Kitty’s Folly,” because her intentions were so daunting. On September 24, 1827, she opened the House of Mercy house on Baggot Street, where it stands today.

The Sisters of Mercy

A painting of Catherine made after her death depicting her as a Sister of Mercy.

The purpose of the House of Mercy was to prepare residents, nearly all women and children, for employment, self-sufficiency. Catherine’s determination and example attracted companions willing to give their time and money to help, but the Church didn’t like that they were lay women and insisted they form a religious order. In 1831, these women became the religious congregation known as the Sisters of Mercy, called “the walking sisters” because of their active involvement among the community.  Thus, in an era when the cloistered life was the norm for women in religious congregations, Catherine McCauley, at the age of 52, founded not only a charity, but also a religious congregation and a new form of religious life.

Catherine McAuley believed that God intended for the poor and the sick to be loved and cared for through action, prayer and philanthropy.  She never wavered from that mission in spite of the difficulties she faced. The Sisters of Mercy fought tuberculosis, cholera epidemics and the ravages of disease, prejudice and poverty. Terrible economic conditions forced many Irish to immigrate to other countries, and the Sisters extended their mission accordingly. The community expanded to 14 locations in Ireland and England before Catherine’s death in 1841.

Today the Sisters of Mercy sponsor a diverse range of ministries and professions.  Their mission is to serve the poor, the sick, and the uneducated through direct service, especially for women, children and the elderly, and to advocate for changes to the systems that create poverty and suffering.

Virtue Recognized by the Catholic Church
On April 9, 1990, Catherine was declared venerable by the Catholic Church. This is the first major step on the road to sainthood and means that her life and writings were closely examined and she was found to possess “heroic virtue.” Additional inquiries into her life will continue until two miracles are declared as occurring by her intercession, at which point she will become a saint. This could take hundreds of years, especially with advances in science making miracles more and more difficult to prove. (The process is much more complex than this, but this is the nutshell version.)

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.