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.
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.
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.
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.
As August 2020 and the centennial of women’s right vote in the United States grows closer, we’re starting to see some really creative projects highlighting the brave, groundbreaking women of American history. Unfortunately, none of them include Victoria Woodhull yet (trust me, I’m contacting each one as I learn of them), but they do include many of her contemporaries. Here are three projects I’m keeping an eye on:
Rebel Women – A project to get more statues of amazing women of American history built in New York City and throughout the country. The author of the article I linked to is asking for nominations for women from your home town. I’ve already nominated Victoria for New York City and Virginia Minor for St. Louis. Please, feel free to nominate your own or second one of mine by emailing email@example.com.
Embrazen Wines – This is by far the most clever of the three projects. A winemaker has created three special vintages with labels that highlight the accomplishments of three women in American history: Josephine Baker, Nellie Bly and Celia Cruz. A special app called Living Wine Labels allows you to scan the bottle and hear Beginning August 26 (National Women’s Equality Day, which many groups are lobbying to make a Federal holiday), you can nominate women of history or today to be added to the next group of wines. If you nominate a contemporary woman, she could win a $25,000 grant. You bet I will be making them aware of Victoria when the Trailblazer campaign opens on August 26.
Where Are the Women? – This Kickstarter campaign aims to create sculptures of 20 notable women of U.S. history. Even though Victoria is not among them, her friends Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone are. I have backed it and I have also recommended Victoria to them. Please help them reach their goal. It’s so important that we spread the word about women’s history and all those whose accomplishments have not received the attention they deserve.
Why am I telling you about these? Well, besides oversight of not including Victoria, I’m still working on a proposal for a book on the history of feminism in the U.S., which I’d love to have published near the centennial. Cross your fingers!