As part of Women’s History Month, I was asked to give a speech last week on the importance of women’s history, why I write it and how we can all participate in women’s history. I’ve cut out the part at the beginning where I introduced myself and my books to the audience to get to the good part. Hope you enjoy.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve had a natural aversion to the idea that anyone’s life can be forgotten. And when I started studying women’s history as part of my research, I realized that has happened to hundreds of generations of women. I have nothing against men, but the reality is, history as we know it was written by white, rich men. That means that people of color, women and other minorities were left out because they weren’t considered important.
That that has to change. How are we as women going to know the breadth of our history and our capacity for strength if we don’t have role models to look back and admire and pattern our lives upon? As women, for a long time all we had in Western history were Cleopatra, Queen Boudicca of the Celts, Elenore of Aquitaine, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, and Susan B. Anthony. And that is slim pickings, especially if you are anything other than white, European or American, and rich.
It is my personal mission to rescue forgotten women, to tell their stories and elevate women’s place in general in history. We need a variety of stories from all time periods. We need to see a large swath of life experiences, of different types of strength. A lot of times when we hear the words “strong woman” or “strong female character” our minds automatically jump to a kick-ass superhero type of woman. But as we all know, that is not the only kind of strength nor is it even the most common. What about the mental, emotional and spiritual strength of women who have overcome rape, abuse, loss of children, war, and every type of calamity to live on? If you have ever visited an old graveyard and seen how young so many women died and paused over the number of tiny graves around them—their children who died in infancy or before—you have witnessed true strength. Of those who survived, some went on to do great things, while others lived quiet lives, but they all mattered. And we need to know their stories so that we feel seen. That is what gives us the courage to make history of our own.
Thankfully, I’m not alone. There are many other authors who write about little-known women. Marie Benedict is one of my favorites. She has written about Albert Einstein’s wife, Hedy Lamarr and Clementine Churchill. There is also Melanie Benjamin, who told the story of Charles Lindberg’s wife; Paula McLain, who wrote about Hemmingway’s wives and Beryl Markham, a famous aviatrix; the duo of Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, who have written about Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Patsy, and Eliza Hamilton; C.W. Gortner, who has told the stories of Coco Chanel, Sarah Bernhardt and Marlene Dietrich; and Mary Sharrat who has written about St. Hildegard of Bigen, mystic Margery Kempe, composer Alma Mahler, and Aemilia Bassano Lanier, who may have been Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, just to name a few.
Your Role in Women’s History But you don’t have to be a writer to have a role in women’s history. That just happens to be where my talent lies and how I best express myself. Yours could be something totally different: music, dance, sculpting, painting, photography—anything. As long as you keep a record. It is those records that will secure your place in history. Keep a journal, a family cookbook, save newspaper clippings or love letters. You don’t ever have to share them with anyone if you don’t want to.
I am of the firm belief that everyone has something to offer the world, something that when looked back upon by future generations, will set them apart from everyone else. You don’t have to be a Ruth Bader Ginsburg or a Kamala Harris to make history. You make history just by being you.
There are so many wonderful “lost” stories that live in our memories or our family traditions that would benefit others if we just told them. Whether they are wisdom that can be gained from the old ways of doing things like family medicinal recipes passed through generations or life lessons that came from surviving hard times, we all have something to share.
That’s why it is important to tell your story. If you want you can write a memoire for yourself, your family or to be published. You can start a blog or keep a journal. Just document your life.
For researchers, journals are one of the best ways to truly understand what living in another time was like. I was lucky enough to find the journal of Elizabeth Merriweather when I was researching the biography I just completed. She was a cousin by marriage of my subjects, Virginia and Francis Minor. While the Minors themselves did not leave any personal papers behind, reading Elizabeth’s diary gave me an up close and personal look at life during the Civil War in the south. But more importantly, it helped me to understand why Elizabeth held the controversial views she did. In another example, the stories of hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who were killed in the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII were saved because a group of 60 of their peers thought to have them keep diaries, take pictures and donate pieces of wartime life like ration books and identification papers. Without those, we would have no idea who those anonymous victims were.
Write down your family stories. We all have that one off-the-wall family member or notorious family story that everyone knows. Why not commit it to paper for future generations, along with everything else you can think of about your family? At some point in our lives, most people yearn to know more about where and who they came from. Recording your family history, not just your genealogical chart, but the stories (whether verified or family legend) that go with it, will be so valuable for future generations, especially in cases were members of the family are estranged or die before others get the chance to ask them the burning questions.
Family stories are more than fact; they are the traditions and lore that are associated with a bloodline. For example, the paternal side of my family has a story about how one member married a Native American woman of the Blackfoot tribe and another about how someone went west with Brigham Young, neither of which I’ve ever tried to verify, but they are part of our lore. On the other hand, we know for a fact that my great-great grandfather helped establish and build Our Lady of the Holy Cross church in Baden, Missouri. On my mom’s side, my grandmother lived through Nazi-occupied Austria during WWII. All of these things provide fodder for telling stories that, while not my own, shape who I am as a person.
You don’t have to be famous in order to set up an archive that will be available to researchers after your death. Most historical societies and some universities will help you with this for a reasonable fee. I know for certain that the State Historical Society of Missouri offers this service. You may not think that your family records, letters, email/social media or other ephemera could ever possibly be of use to anyone. But remember this: When I was researching the family of Virginia and Francis Minor—and trying to reconstruct them from practically nothings—one of the most valuable resources I came across was their family Bible that dated from the early 1800s. I can guarantee you they weren’t thinking “gosh, someday a researcher from St. Louis is going to hold this in her hands and be in awe of the history contained herein” as they were filling in births, deaths and names of slaves in their household. But that is exactly what happened. And letters from Warner Washington Minor to his boss were crucial to me being able to reconstruct his job at the University of Virginia. If these things were important to me as a stranger, imagine how much more a family member would cherish them.
We are all important parts of history, whether we think so or not. Big or small our lives have meaning and impact. Whether or not you consider yourself a good writer, recording your story or those of your family is very important. It is the literary equivalent of carving “I was here” into the universe. You may be fortunate enough to make your mark on history in other ways, but only you know your true story. Tell it or others will tell it for you. You deserve for the world to know who you really are.
If you don’t know where to start, begin by following your dreams and passions. Ben Franklin is quoted as saying, “Write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” Writing about what you love will make it enjoyable and give you a way to focus.
I recently had the chance to read an advance copy of a book written by a friend of mine. I want to leave you with a quote from his book: “Work on what you love. A lot of people are artists in their heads. They have a great idea of what they could create…But the ones who succeed are the ones who are willing to work and thrive on that work. It’s not always fun, but it is wonderful, because the work of an artist is to create something beautiful and offer it on a platter to the world. What greater calling could there be?”
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’ll fully admit to picking Elisabeth out of personal bias. My family is from Austria on my mom’s side and my grandmother was named after Empress Elisabeth. (My middle name is Elizabeth, although I’m named after the saint that was the mother of John the Evangelist. But I still claim Elisabeth, too.) I’ve been to both Hapsburg palaces in Austria and my grandmother and I are convinced we either knew her in a previous life or are related to her somehow. But I digress.
Known as Sisi to friends and family, she helped bring about the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1867, which was a political powerhouse in Europe. Her husband, Franz Joseph, was deeply in love with her, although it doesn’t appear she felt the same. Most biographers report her life being an unhappy one, despite her legacy and noble ranking. Elisabeth was the longest serving Empress-consort of Austria, at 44 years. She was stabbed to death in 1898.
Interestingly, there seems to be a surge in historical fiction about Sisi lately. Recent fictional portrayals include The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin, The Accidental Empress by Alison Pataki and the just published Sisi: Empress on Her Own, also by Alison Pataki.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Phil Konstantin
Wilma Mankiller (please, no jokes about her name; according to Wikipedia, it “refers to a traditional Cherokee military rank; it is Asgaya-dihi in the Cherokee language. Alternative spellings are Outacity or Outacite.”) was principal chief of the Cherokee Nation (beginning in 1985), and was the first woman to hold such a position in a major tribal government. She was also an activist for Native Americans, an interest that work began in 1969 with the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island. She founded the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department is credited with improving health care, education and tribal governance for the Cherokee Nation.
She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in 1998.
Patricia Roberts Harris began her career as a lawyer and political adviser, even working as a director at IBM for a time. She also served as United States Ambassador to Luxembourg under President Lyndon B. Johnson, and was the first African-American woman to represent the United States as an ambassador. In 1977, she became the first African American woman named to a presidential cabinet (under President Jimmy Carter) and was the first woman to be part of the line of succession to the Presidency. She was 13th in line.
Dorothea Dix was an American activist on behalf of the poor and insane who, through a program of lobbying state legislatures and Congress, created the first generation of American mental asylums.
She was made aware of the need for reform during a visit to Britain where she met reformers who were making great inroads on behalf of those suffering from mental illness. After returning to America, Dorthea conducted a statewide investigation of care for the insane poor in Massachusetts. In most cases, towns contracted with local individuals to care for mentally ill people who could not care for themselves and lacked family/friends to do so. Unregulated and underfunded, this system resulted in widespread abuse.
In 1845, she successfully she convinced the New Jersey legislature to authorize an asylum for the mentally ill, and many more states followed suit after a personal visit from Dorthea. She continued investigations in various northern states until the Civil War broke out and she was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses by the Union Army, a position in which she served (often ) until August 1865. After the war ended, she focused her attention on crusading for the imprisoned, poor and mentally ill in the south.
Born in England, Elizabeth Blackwell’s family moved to the United States in 1832 when she was 11. Six years later, the family had a run of bad luck and Elizabeth, her mother and sister were forced to open a school to provide income. In 1847, she was accepted to Genevea Medical College in New York, voted in unanimously by the all-male student body. She graduated in 1849, becoming the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States. She’s also the first woman on the UK Medical Register.
In the 1860s, she created the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, the first medical school for women in the United States. She returned to England at the end of her life, where she continued to teach at the London School of Medicine for Women.
The first black* author to win the Pulitzer Prize.
The first black woman to be poetry consultant to the Library of Congress.
Poet laureate of the State of Illinois.
She had a love of reading and writing from a young age and was only 13 when her first published poem, “Eventide,” appeared in American Childhood. By 17, she was a frequent contributor to the Chicago Defender, a newspaper serving Chicago’s black population. She published her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville in 1945. Throughout her life, she often wrote with politics and civil rights in mind.