Read by Millions–Forgotten by All–Elsie Robinson

If you were asked to name the most popular woman author of the early twentieth century, what names would you recall? Perhaps it would be Edna Ferber, author of Showboat and Giant, Pearl Buck, who wrote exotic stories about China, or Betty Smith whose novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn topped the best-seller list for weeks.

But what about Elsie Robinson? Her name is unlikely to spring to mind, yet during the first half of the 1900s, she was the most widely read female author in America. Why has she been forgotten?

Elsie Robinson was born in 1883, in Benicia, California, a town at the outer edge of the San Francisco Bay area. The community had been developed during the last years of the California gold rush and was still filled with the adventurous spirit of the miners who had built it. Elsie was sent to the only public school in town and was an excellent student, but when she graduated, her parents did not have the money to send her on for higher education.

There were few opportunities at that time for an ambitious girl to get education or to find work, so Elsie turned to the traditional option of marrying an educated and prosperous man. Elsie felt that she was lucky when the pastor of her church introduced her to Christie Crowell, a young widower, who had come to California to visit friends and recover after the death of his wife. He was introduced to Elsie by the pastor of her church and soon found they had many interests in common. After months of courtship, Elsie and Christie became engaged, but their path to marriage was not smooth. Crowell’s family refused to sanction the marriage unless Elsie travelled to their home state, Vermont, and attended finishing school. Elsie agreed, so she took the train across the country by herself, to spend a year at the boarding school. After graduation, she and Christie had a quiet wedding at the Crowell family home. Elsie’s own family was not at the wedding because they could not afford the long trip across the country.

Elsie tried to fit herself into a traditional married life, but there was trouble from the start. She did not feel at home with the Crowell family and had difficulty fitting in with their conservative ideas, while her husband accepted their views completely. In those days women were often told that having a baby would ensure a happy marriage, but even that didn’t work for Elsie. Her only son, George, was born in 1904 with severe asthma, which he did not outgrow. Even after he started school, he was frequently confined to his home when he should have been in the classroom. Elsie, of course, was confined with him.

During her long, quiet days at home, Elsie began writing and illustrating stories to entertain her son and soon realized that she was good at the work. She began to search out opportunities for publishing her stories. When she gathered her courage and sent a story to the local newspaper, they published it and asked for more. Finally she found an agent who specialized in publishing articles and stories for children and distributing them by mail. At last she had an outlet for her energy. Before long she was hired to illustrate two books for children and she began to believe she might have found a career for herself.

But still she and her husband continued to drift apart and George continued to suffer from bouts of asthma. Eventually, Elsie made up her mind to take George to California where she believed his health would improve.

Elsie took George to California in 1912 and was able to find several jobs in writing and editing. Her ability to illustrate her own work made her more valuable than most other writers. Unfortunately, she was not able to earn enough money writing books to support herself and her son.

But Elsie would not give up. In 1915, she moved to a mining community and started working as a laborer in the gold mines. Few other women would have attempted such hard, physical labor, but Elsie was determined to survive. It was a difficult life, and she was the only woman working in the mine. As months went by, she was able to succeed and to earn the respect of the other miners. Gold mining, however, was a dying industry in California and the mine closed in 1918.

Elsie moved back to San Francisco, more determined than ever to find a career in writing. She persisted, sending material to newspapers and publishers. She wrote articles for newspapers in both Oakland and San Francisco and her readership grew with each new column. Her most famous column was called Listen World, which soon became known nationwide.

By 1921, she was hired by William Randolph Hearst to write for his string of newspapers. She signed a contract for $20,000 a year, making her the highest paid journalist in the country. After that, Elsie Robinson did not have to worry about being able to earn a living.

A few years after reaching this goal, however, in 1926, Elsie lost her son George. He had never completely overcome his asthma and died of a respiratory illness. Elsie never got over his loss. Her life then became filled with work. Having lived through a scandalous divorce from her first husband, Elsie wrote a memoir that sold well. She had two other husbands, both of whom seemed better at spending her money than in earning their own.

When Elsie died in 1956, she was still writing columns and influencing people. But today most of her work has disappeared from public view. Fortunately, we now have a biography, Listen World: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman by Julia Scheeres and Allison Gilbert (2022). It is good to see samples of Elsie Robinson’s columns available again.

Women Demanding a Ballot–Susan B. Anthony, Louisa May Alcott and My Grandmother

The idea of women’s right to vote grew slowly during the years after the American constitution was adopted. The idea that ordinary men—farmers, merchants, and other non-royal citizens should vote was radical enough for the founding fathers. When Abigail Adams asked her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies” as he and others wrote the document, he laughed and ignored her request.

Years went by and American men expanded voting rights to other men, but they apparently never thought of giving women the same rights. Some women realized they would never be given voting rights unless they took dramatic action. Sending petitions and making speeches was not enough.

The presidential election in 1872 marked a turning point. In Rochester, New York, fourteen women, including the suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony, decided they would vote in the presidential election. When Anthony cast her vote, she was arrested, but not jailed. It was not until two months later that her trial began. While she waited, Anthony went on a speaking tour around the area to tell people what she had done and why it was important for women to be allowed to vote.

The judge, however, did not want to hear her arguments. Nor did he give her an opportunity to voice her concerns. He wrote his decision in the case before the trial even started and he directed the jury to find Anthony guilty. They obediently did as they were told. Anthony was fined $100, which she refused to pay. She hoped to make public the reasons for her refusal, but the judge made that impossible. He released her despite her failure to pay and because she was not jailed, she was unable to speak in court and unable to appeal the case to a higher court as she had planned.

Even though she was not able to appeal the court’s decision, Anthony did manage to call attention to the cause of women suffrage. She won many supporters who worked with her during the years it took for women to finally win voting rights. Unfortunately, Anthony died in 1906, long before the 19th amendment gave American women the right to vote, so she was never had a chance to legally cast a ballot in an election.

Susan B. Anthony was not the only American woman who attempted to vote. In 1880, Louisa May Alcott, author of the Little Women and other classic stories, seized the chance to vote. Her opportunity came in Concord, Massachusetts when the town decided women would be allowed to vote in school committee elections.

Alcott led a group of twenty women to the town hall to cast their ballots. They were able to do that, but after their votes were cast, the polls closed so they could not have a voice in any other decision. For several years afterward, Alcott led efforts to have women vote in school committee contests, but she found it difficult to keep them interested. With such a limited voice allowed in city affairs, most women did not think voting was worth their time.

For the rest of her life, Alcott continued to support women’s suffrage, but just like Susan B. Anthony, she was never able to vote in a national election. She died in 1888, more than thirty years before the Women’s Suffrage amendment was passed.

America was not the only country in which politics were tumultuous as the world moved into the twentieth century. Liberal ideas such as women’s suffrage gained support during the late 1800s and during the early 1900s, more and more people believed that radical changes were needed to improve the lives of ordinary people. As usual, the upper classes tried to preserve their privileges and prevent change.

In Southampton, England, a large port city on the southern coast of England, shipping companies found an ingenious way to keep the men who manned the ships from casting their votes and having a voice in elections. Whenever an election was called, the owners made sure that all the ships would leave port before election day. This effectively kept the seamen from voting and allowed the prosperous owners to be sure that only Conservative candidates would be sent to the House of Commons. 

During one bitter election season, however, at least one woman, Ellen Mongan, took a stand. On election day, after the ships had left port and the children were in school, she marched down to the polling place and demanded to be allowed to vote.

“I know how my husband wanted to vote, and I can cast his ballot,” she insisted.

Her demand caused consternation among the voting officials, while some of the bystanders began to cheer her on. Other women had not demanded such a privilege, but the idea made sense to some observers. Such rebellion might cause dramatic changes in the city’s voting pattern.

Eventually the forces of tradition won. Ellen was not allowed to vote. A few years later, in 1910, she and her husband moved to the United States and settled in Brooklyn. Women could not vote there at the time, of course, but at least her husband, Patrick Mongan, could vote as soon as he became a citizen.

In 1920, women at last got the vote in the United States. From that year on, Ellen voted in every election until her death in 1943. Unlike Susan B. Anthony and Louisa May Alcott, she had the satisfaction of being an active, engaged citizen. And in the years since her death, her children and grandchildren, including me, have understood the importance of voting and the value of a ballot.  

None of the women I’ve mentioned had success in their first efforts to vote, but at least they had the satisfaction of knowing they had  taken a stand. And over the years, their courage has made a difference. During this month’s midterm elections, many analysts have acknowledged that the votes of women have been a major force in preserving the values enshrined in Roe v. Wade and ensuring that American women will continue to have the right to control their bodies and their medical decisions.

Words, whether in speeches or writing, may give people new ideas, but it is ballots that give them the power to turn those ideas to action. As Herbert Hoover wrote, A whole people with the ballot in their hands possess the most conclusive and unlimited power ever entrusted to humanity.

Witches–They Weren’t Who You Think They Were

Every year when Halloween comes along, images of black-robed witches suddenly appear in ads and on social media. It is curious that witches still remain a prominent part of our culture even though more than 300 years have passed since witches played an important role in American history. [The witches who were part of the culture of indigenous people in America are not the ones who are remembered at Halloween. The black-robed women who are pictured on candy boxes and Halloween cards come from the European tradition.]

Modern Halloween costume

Witchcraft accusations have a long history in Europe, but at the time when the American colonies were being settled, the fever was dying down in England and most of Europe. As witch trials dwindled in England, they grew in the American colonies which had been settled by people from England. But there were differences. In the New England colonies more women than men were punished for witchcraft. And the victims were not just a random group of cranky old women who annoyed the neighbors, put spells on livestock and in general caused trouble. What was it that made the accused so vulnerable to being described as witches?

In recent years, historians have studied the records of accusations of witchcraft in early New England, especially the Salem witch trials that occurred during 1692 and 1693. It turns out that many things we thought we knew about witches are not accurate. It is true that most of the people accused were women but they were not necessarily the oldest women around or the poorest. What they had in common was that they were past child-bearing age. That was the crucial thing. Also, most of the women were either unmarried or widows. They did not have a husband to support them.

To understand what made some women particularly vulnerable to charges of witchcraft, we have to look at the laws of inheritance that governed the economy of the Massachusetts colony at the time of the trials. Most workers in the colony depended on farmland to support them and their families. When a man died, it was important that his land was passed on to his children so the family fortune could be maintained. The normal pattern of inheritance was designed to keep farmland in the family.

Most men who owned farms and had families, started distributing land when the children got married. The oldest son generally got one-third of the property when he married. Younger sons received a smaller portion of land or money upon marriage. Daughters were given a settlement upon marriage, usually about half as much as the eldest son would receive.

When a man of property died, his wealth was distributed in this way to unmarried children. His widow, however, was entitled to one-third of his property for her use for the rest of her life. This pattern kept widows from being a charge on the community while they lived. They could not, however, sell the property. It was only theirs for their lifetime. Upon their death, whatever was left was distributed to the remaining children.

It is important to remember that married women owned nothing at all. When a woman married, everything she owned became the property of her husband—even her clothes, her jewelry and her wedding ring. She did continue to have whatever dower her father had given her upon marriage. Her children or stepchildren could not take this money or property from her.

New England wife spinning

It is easy to see that this situation provided some motivation for children and stepchildren to hope the women who held the land did not continue to live on it and enjoy it for an unreasonable length of time. If that woman happened to be accused and punished for witchcraft, her hold on the property would disappear.

There is no way of knowing how many accusations against witches were made by people with an interest in her property, but it must have been a continuing temptation for some, especially younger sons who might have to wait for a young stepmother to die before they could receive some of their father’s land.

The history of witchcraft in America is a fascinating study that can help us understand why some of our ancestors acted the way they did. One book I highly recommend is The Devil in the Shape of a Woman by Carol F. Karlson (Norton 1998). You will probably be able to find that in your local library or in bookstores.

Knowing the stories behind the way our ancestors lived helps us to understand the forces that have shaped our country and our attitudes even today. The persecution of witches may seem strange, but the more we know about how people of colonial times lived, the better we can understand the way they acted.

Music, Movies, and Much More–Dolly Parton

Anyone who has been listening to popular music during the past fifty years or so has some impression of Dolly Parton. They may remember her as one of the feisty heroines of the movie Nine to Five and the song inspired by it. Or perhaps they remember her blue grass period or her recent recording “A Holly Dolly Christmas”. Parton’s career has been a long one and her music has won many awards, but her life has consisted of far more than movies and music.

Born in Eastern Tennessee in 1946, the fourth of twelve children, Parton grew up poor in a  rural community in Tennessee. Few people would have predicted that she would have a long, successful career which would have a dramatic impact on all of Eastern Tennessee and on many young children around the world. But that’s exactly what has happened. Not only has Dolly Parton become one of the richest musicians in the world, according to Forbes magazine, but her work has changed lives in America and abroad.

Dolly Parton

Parton and her family lived on a small farm and her parents struggled to support their large family. Like most people in the region, they were active in their church and that is where Dolly started her musical career. She sang in church and soon began performing on local radio stations. She also composed songs, encouraged by her uncle who gave her the first real guitar she ever owned. At thirteen she appeared on Grand Ole Opry and met Johnny Cash, who encouraged her to build her career.

Parton graduated from high school in 1964 and moved to Nashville the next day to start her career. She found success as a songwriter, often working with her uncle, Bill Owens. Her first recordings were of popular songs, but she soon moved to country music, which she preferred. From that time on, she found success writing and singing in several different genres.

Two years after her arrival in Nashville, Dolly Parton married Carl Thomas Dean. In 2016, the couple celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Although her husband remains in the background of her career and seldom appears at public events, the couple remain close and are important figures in the lives of their siblings and other relatives. They do not have children of their own.

The largest business venture that Parton started the Dollywood Company, which operates a theme park and several restaurants. The tourism brought by this venture has stimulated the economy of Eastern Tennessee and provided jobs for many residents.

Despite being such a successful businesswoman, Dolly Parton still retains her image as a glamourous entertainer. Although she is in her mid-70s, she is frank about the amount of time and effort she has spent on maintaining her spectacular appearance. She once told Larry King, “I look at myself like a show dog. I’ve got to keep her clipped and trimmed and in good shape.”

One of Dolly Parton’s most unusual ventures, and perhaps the one which will have the most lasting impact on people around the world is her Imagination Library organized by the Dollywood company. This Library started as a local Tennessee project to send each child enrolled in the program a free book every month from the time of birth until the age of five. It has grown and now includes groups in several countries.  

Parton has said that she decided to provide books for children because her own father was illiterate and she realized what a difference that made in his life. The books sent to children are carefully chosen and include both classic children’s stories and current books in both English and Spanish.

It is impossible to sum up the life and career of Dolly Parton in one short blog post. The Wikipedia article about her provides an overwhelming amount of information. Someday, I am sure, a full biography will appear. Until that happens, we should all recognize, when we see her slim, attractive appearance on the screen, that we are looking at a powerful woman who has had an impact on many areas of American life.

America’s First Female President? Edith Galt Wilson

A century ago, before American women were allowed to vote in presidential elections, one woman took the reins of presidential power and held them firmly for almost two years. Edith Galt Wilson had never been elected president, of course, but because of her position as Woodrow Wilson’s wife, some unfriendly commentators claimed that she had seized an illegitimate amount of power over her husband.  How did this happen? Well, 1919 was a very different world from the one we live in today, and Woodrow Wilson’s presidency was far more of a one-man operation than any recent presidencies have been.

Wilson, unlike most recent presidents, had not been engaged in national politics before he became president. He had started his career as a college teacher, a very popular teacher, who moved up through the ranks to become president of Princeton University and later the governor of New Jersey. When he was elected President in 1914, he moved to Washington, but did not move into the active society of political circles. His first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, was shy and very family oriented. She preferred quiet family life to mixing in Washington society,  and not many people were invited to the White House. Shortly after Wilson’s first election to the presidency, she became seriously ill with Bright’s disease. During her illness, she and the President became even more isolated. When she died in 1914, she left behind a a bereft President and three daughters.

Edith and Woodrow Wilson

Wilson accomplished a great deal during his first term in office. He introduced the graduated income tax, which put government finances on a much firmer basis than it had ever had. Unfortunately, he also segregated government agencies, a destructive move that lessened the status and weakened the financial position of Negroes for generations to come.

Wilson’s personal life was not happy after the death of his first wife. He worked hard but had few friends and became very isolated. Friends tried to introduce him to other women and in 1915 he met and was attracted to Edith Bolling Galt, a young widow from Virginia. She had grown up in an elite family with deep roots in the South. One of her ancestors was Pocahontas, who had married John Rolfe, one of the earliest colonists in Virginia. Edith was one of eleven children and had been given most of her education at home. Her father believed that education money should be spent on sons, but he provided a large library and Edith’s grandmother tutored her and her sisters.

Wilson and Edith were attracted to each other and he persuaded her to become engaged, but they decided not to get married until more time had passed since the death of his first wife. They were married in a small ceremony at home in 1915. 

The major issue that dominated Wilson’s later years in the White House was the war in Europe. During his first term in office, Wilson pledged to keep America out of the European war. He won a narrow election victory in 1916, but the following year Germany’s introduction of submarine warfare led him to request Congress to declare war. In April 1917, Congress voted to support the war. A draft was initiated and thousands of Americans went to fight in the war.

Wilson was a firm opponent of war and his major preoccupation as World War I drew to a close was to ensure that another European war would never occur. In 1919, he and Edith attended the Paris Peace Conference where Wilson worked hard to draft plans for a League of Nations. Unfortunately, he worked mostly alone, with help from other Democrats, but without involving any of the many Republicans who wanted to participate in postwar planning.

After Wilson had completed his draft proposal, he returned to the United States to urge the Senate to sign his plan. That was when disaster struck. In October 1919, Wilson suffered a serious stroke that left him partially paralyzed. It was then that his wife became an active participant in protecting her husband and concealing the extent of his illness. With the support of his doctor, Edith demanded that all communication with the President must be approved by her.

Rejection of League of Nations

For the next year and a half until his presidency ended, Edith Wilson controlled her husband’s life. She examined all letters and other communications addressed to him and decided which he should see. She ruled on who could visit the President and how long they could occupy his time. Even the Vice President, who had never been active in the administration, was not allowed to see him. Wilson was reluctant to have any changes made in the peace plan that he had developed and Republican Senators were unable to see or to influence him. In the end, the Senate did not approve Wilson’s Peace Plan and America did not become a member of the League of Nations.

Ever since this bitter ending to Wilson’s term as President, historians have argued about how influential Edith Galt Wilson was in his life. During Wilson’s last year in office, several opponents accused Edith of trying to seize power and take over his role. Others supported her in her claims to have been only a loving wife trying to protect her husband.

If you want to learn more about the dramatic events of Wilson’s last years, you might want to read Gene Smith’s When the When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson (2016). The details of the struggle are fascinating, although none of us will ever know the full story of what happened during those hectic postwar years. That is why history is so fascinating—very few accounts can tell the true inside story of other people’s lives.     

A Foreign Queen for England—Charlotte II

If you watch news on TV these days, you can scarcely miss seeing pictures of crowds in London paying tribute to Queen Elizabeth II. Her funeral on September 19 has attracted the attention of many people in Europe and beyond. She served as queen of England for seventy years before dying this month at the age of 96. Pictures of the preparations for her funeral and speeches of tribute have been broadcast around the world. Her funeral on September 19 will be marked by an outpouring of love and respect from celebrities as well as ordinary people.

More than 200 years ago, in 1818, England was mourning the death of another queen, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. Queen Charlotte was not a monarch, as Elizabeth was, but she was England’s longest serving female consort. (The only royal consort who served longer than she did was Prince Phillip, who was consort to Queen Elizabeth II for almost seventy years until he died in 2021.) 

Charlotte was born in 1744 in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a small duchy in Germany. When George III of England inherited the British throne in 1760, his advisors recognized that he needed a queen, so they looked around Europe for suitable royal wives. Charlotte was an obvious choice. She was the right age and came from a royal family. Like most women of the time, she had been given very little education and was unlikely to question anything the king or his advisors might choose to do. So Charlotte was quickly sent off to England with only a few servants and attendants. She had a difficult voyage through stormy weather, and the wedding took place less than six hour after she had arrived in England.

Queen Charlotte and two of her children.

The king and his new queen must have had a difficult time getting to know one another. King George spoke no German, and Charlotte no English, but they did share a love of music. Somehow they seem to have achieved a reasonable relationship. Charlotte worked hard at learning English, although, according to reports, she always spoke with an accent. She and King George III had 15 children and 13 of them survived to grow up. That was quite an achievement for the time when so many children died in infancy.

The king, unfortunately, was not as healthy as his children were. During the first years of their marriage, everything went well. King George III spent a good deal of his time negotiating with England’s far-flung colonies. Charlotte’s name is memorialized in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as in several cities, bays and other places in Canada and New Zealand. She introduced the tradition of Christmas trees to England and supported the expansion of Kew Gardens.

King George III, however, developed mental problems as he grew older and was forced to step back from his royal duties. Charlotte was overwhelmed by the illness of the king. The novelist, Fanny Burney, who served as one of the queen’s attendants described her reaction to the news of his serious attack in 1788. “My poor Royal mistress! Never can I forget her countenance—pale, ghastly pale she looked; …her whole frame was disordered, yet she was still and quiet.”  

The king’s mental problems grew worse as he became older. Eventually his two oldest sons served as regents. Charlotte remained a supportive wife and mother. She continued to act as hostess at palace events during the regency of her sons, but her relationship with her husband was difficult. By the time she died in 1818, it is unlikely that the king was able to understand that she was gone. He died a little more than a year later.

Although much of Charlotte’s legacy has been forgotten over the years, she had a lasting influence on English royalty. Two of her sons became kings  of England—George IV and William the IV. Another son was the grandfather of Queen Victoria, another long-serving queen.

And questions about her legacy continue to come up. In recent years, a few articles have raised the issue of Charlotte’s racial heritage. Several writers have suggested that she had African ancestry. This idea is based mainly on pictures of Charlotte and on some accounts  of her written by people who claim she looked like a mulatto. Very few historians accept this idea of African ancestry and, of course there is no way of going back to find evidence one way or the other about her DNA. But people can continue raising questions about Charlotte’s ancestors. We’ll never know for sure. That is what makes history so fascinating—there are seldom permanent answers. We continue to read and study evidence, but final truth remains an elusive goal.

Another Note on Labor Day

Yesterday I paid tribute to Frances Perkins, who served as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Roosevelt and was responsible for many of the gains working people have made in America. Labor Day is a good time to remember how our lives have changed as governments have set guidelines for workers and employers to keep society safe and make life better for all of us.

Labor Day is not always celebrated in September. Many countries celebrate it on May 1. Australia has chosen a March date. Yesterday I got a notice from Amazon Australia about royalties paid on sales of the Charlotte Edgerton mystery books. That reminded me that Labor Day is an appropriate time to think about Charlotte and her adventures.

Why Labor Day? Well, Charlotte was a nineteenth century working class girl, born in England, who came to America to build a good life for herself. In the first book of the series, A Death in Utopia, she is living in a community based on the idea that the division between workers and leaders can be eliminated. (That doesn’t work out well.) In the second volume, Death Visits a Bawdy House, Charlotte moves to New York City where almost the only way for a woman to make a living is to become a prostitute. (But brothels are dangerous places.)  Later Charlotte and her husband go to England during labor riots as the Chartists demonstrate against Queen Victoria in Death Calls at the Palace. (Facing a  hostile militia is no fun.) And in the final book of the quartet, Death Enters the Convent, Charlotte and Daniel are in Florence, Italy, where entering a convent is the road to employment for many women. (But even quiet nuns in convents have secrets).

Yes, Labor Day is a good day to celebrate the adventures of Charlotte Edgerton and her family. You can find all four of the Charlette Edgerton mysteries in print and as ebooks on the Amazon website.

The Fire that Changed How America Lives—Frances Perkins

Most Americans spend Labor Day weekend shopping or having picnics with their families. We don’t often think about what we are celebrating. Labor Day doesn’t mark the end of a war or the birth of a famous man. Instead, it celebrates a revolution for the average person. The biggest changes in American life have come about not through wars and heroics, but through the ways that the lives of average workers have been changed. And the woman who played a major role in bringing about this major change in people’s lives is seldom mentioned today—Frances Perkins.

Frances Perkins was born in Boston in 1887 into a prosperous family, but she spent most of her life in New York and Washington D.C. Like many women of her time, she was given a good education but was not expected to use her education in a job or career. Her destiny, as her family saw it, was to marry a prosperous husband and raise children to follow the same path as her mother and aunts. But Frances saw life differently.

Frances Perkins

During the late 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, America was becoming a business powerhouse. Farming was no longer the only option for young people growing up. Manufacturing, mining, and trade developed requiring an increasing number of workers. Also during these years, there were few job opportunities for working class people in Europe, so many of them fled to America to find peace and security in which to raise their families.

Employers were able to hire workers for a few dollars a week and require them to work for ten or twelve hours a day six days a week. Most immigrant families could not survive on the wages of one person, so children were sent to work as young as seven or eight years of age. Jacob Riis’s book, How the Other Half Lives, revealed to many middle-class people the difficulties faced by immigrant families. Frances Perkins read Riis’s book and was inspired to move to the city to see what could be done to improve conditions.

After Perkins moved away from New England, she became a social worker in Philadelphia and New York, but a dramatic fire in 1911 changed the course of her life. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which caused the death of 146 workers, occurred in her neighborhood. It opened her eyes to the overwhelming unfairness of the problems faced by workers. She began to realize she could do more through politics than she could through providing care to individuals as a social worker.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 1911

Perkins began working in New York with a government committee to ensure fire safety. Working with politicians meant mingling with men who were unused to seeing women as anything other than wives and mothers. During this period of her life, Frances realized that the men she worked with were uncomfortable confronting a young, well-dress woman and did not know how to treat her. The solution Frances found was to try to appear older than she was, to wear somewhat dowdy clothes, and to project a motherly image. This was her way of not frightening off her male colleagues and she became famous for looking like someone’s wife rather than a politician.

By the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he was aware of work Perkins had been doing in New York and appointed her the Secretary of Labor in in Cabinet. She was the first woman ever to serve in such a position and she served for twelve years, becoming the longest-serving cabinet member.

Frances Perkins was responsible for some of the major achievements of the New Deal—including the minimum wage law, unemployment insurance, and Social Security. She tried to introduce healthcare as a benefit for all workers, but the American Medical Association killed that provision.     

Social Security is probably Frances Perkins’ most lasting achievement. Today about half of people over 65 get fifty percent of their income from Social Security and 25 percent  get ninety percent of their income from that program. Some Republicans have tried over the years to end the Social Security program, but it has made such a lasting impact on American society that it is unlikely that it will end.

Behind the scenes of her political life, Frances Perkins led a difficult personal life. Her husband, an engineer, became mentally ill and had to be cared for or institutionalized for many years. Frances Perkins tried to keep her private life very separate from her public service in government, but her biography by Kirstin Downey, The Woman Behind the New Deal (2009) fills out the picture of this fascinating woman. She deserves a thank-you from all the Americans who benefit from the programs she supported.

Working Behind the Scenes: Abigail Adams and Her Sisters

Watching the results of the primary elections in many American states over the past few months, I’ve been struck by the number of women running for office. We’ve watched ads and heard speeches about policies supported or opposed by a wide range of women. It makes me wonder how government functioned back in the days when women, supposedly, did not participate in elections at all.

One of the unacknowledged stories about the history of American is that it was not only the famous “founding fathers” who set up the basic structure of government. Hovering in the background were a number of women some of whom contributed important ideas. Among them the three Smith sisters of Massachusetts. Their stories have been told by  Diane Jacobs in her book Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters (2014). 

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, was the best known of the sisters. She is famous for writing to John in 1776 while he was helping to prepare the Declaration of Independence: “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” 

Those were brave words, but Abigail did not persuade her husband or any of the other men who were writing the basic documents on which the United States still depends. Although considered very outspoken women for their times, Abigail and her sisters accepted the role of women as helpers to their husbands rather than leaders. I wonder what they would think of the women in politics today.

Abigail Smith Adams was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1744, the middle sister of three girls in a clerical family. Although at the time girls were barred from the colleges where their brothers and future husbands were being educated, the Smith girls were lucky. All three sisters were well educated by their mother and had access to large book collections. All three had high ambitions. Abigail’s life is much better documented than the lives of her sisters, but in Jacobs’ book we learn more about the lives of all three of the women.

Unlike most history books, which focus on the meetings, battles, and speeches of prominent figures, Jacobs also tells the story of what was going on among family and friends of the politicians. While John Adams was traveling to Europe to negotiate with Great Britain, for example, Abigail was at home keeping their family going. She was the one who maintained the farm and household. She hired workers, supervised the building and repair of several houses, educated their children, and handled the family’s investments.

Women’s lives were filled with endless labor. Because there were few doctors, women were the main providers of medical care to their families. It is surprising to learn about the number of illnesses that occurred routinely—from yellow fever in Philadelphia when Congress was meeting there, to tuberculosis for which no cure was known, as well as long periods of depression which several family members endured. Some of the men in the family also developed alcoholism. This is the first history book I have read that mentions the tragedy of spousal abuse that alcoholism sometimes causes, but it was a problem that was not recognized or discussed.  

Abigail was her husband’s most important adviser during his long career in politics. He relied on her help while he served in diplomatic posts abroad and later when he served as Vice President and later President of the young country.

Despite being aware of how important their contributions to public life were, Abigail and her sisters were apparently willing to accept the fact that they were never allowed to vote, much less run for election. All of their work and all of their ideas were accepted as normal gifts that women ought to give to their husbands and families without expecting acknowledgements or rewards. It would be more than a century before women’s contributions were recognized as important enough to earn her the right to vote. And it took several generations of more confrontational women to win that right.

Now, at a time when women are losing some of the rights they have long enjoyed, is a good time to remember that rights are seldom gained by asking patiently for them. They must be won by actions, arguments and a refusal to take “no” for an answer.

Bad Girl Makes Good—Miriam Leslie, Scandalous Tycoon

During the 1800s, life for women was a constant battle to stay within the rules of society while still winning the battle for security and prosperity. For a beautiful girl born in poverty, this battle could be won or lost by one indiscrete kiss. Miriam Leslie, who is better known by the name of Mrs. Frank Leslie, was one woman who managed to escape this trap, but it was not easy.

Miriam Leslie

Miriam Leslie was born in Louisiana in 1836. Her father’s family had emigrated from France and settled in the area at some time during the 1700s. They started out as farmers, but by the time Miriam was born, they had lost their farm and were struggling businessmen. Miriam’s birth was never recorded. Her father was divorced at the time and we have no record of who her mother was; however, she acquired a stepmother when the family moved to New York a few years after her birth. It seems most likely that Miriam’s mother had been an enslaved woman, but no one has been able to prove that. (Many years later, that elusive mother became the basis for an attempt to keep Miriam from disbursing her fortune.)

Miriam’s life was never well-documented and she tried hard to keep much of it secret, so there remain many patches of uncertainty about her biography. She often made-up stories about her ancestors and her family, so historical sources differ. Where she was educated, and by whom, is not clear, but, somehow, she managed to get a better education than most women of her time. Her father encouraged the girl to read widely and Marion had a gift for languages. As an adult she spoke French, Italian, and Spanish fluently.

Despite giving Marion a good education, her father continued to pile up debts and neglected to provide for his family. It is not unlikely that both Marion and her stepmother engaged at least part time in prostitution, which was one of the few options women had for earning money. Eventually, however, Miriam’s skill with languages helped her to get a job with the dancer and actress, Lola Montez. They became a successful entertainment team and Marion learned how to dress and keep herself looking fashionable and attractive.

Miriam, however, fell out with Lola after their successful tours. She found other acting jobs but was not content to remain an entertainer. Her ambition was to become a socialite and join the highest ranks of New York society  As soon as she had a chance, she left the stage to marry Ephraim Squier (usually known by his nickname, E.G.) a scientist and businessman with plans to build a railroad across Argentina.

Unfortunately, like Marion’s other husbands, E.G. was not a successful businessman. He soon discovered that building an Argentinian railroad was not feasible and turned to other schemes. He started writing travel pieces for publication in the growing market of magazines in New York. Marion soon began to write for publication and both of them were encouraged by meeting Frank Leslie, editor of Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine.

Leslie soon became a family friend. He left his wife and moved in with Marion and E.G. and the three of them continued to have an active social life. Marion soon found that her unconventional living arrangement meant that she was unable to gain entry into the highest New York society, but she had a wide circle of friends and entertained lavishly. Her writing and her editorial skills kept the family afloat for several years.  

Both Frank Leslie and Marion were eventually able to divorce their inconvenient spouses and get married. When they did, Marion legally changed her name to Mrs. Frank Leslie thus firmly leaving behind her birth family and her other marriages. After Frank Leslie died in 1880, Marion was able to take over his publications and keep her place in the ever-changing publishing world of the early twentieth century. She divided her time between New York and Europe and maintained her social contacts on both continents.

The greatest irony of Marion’s life was that despite having never supported the idea of women’s suffrage in any of her publications, she nonetheless left all of her money to Carrie Chapman Catt. Despite efforts by long lost relatives to break her will, it survived. The fortune was eventually spent on supporting the 19th Amendment that gave American women the vote and on founding the League of Women Voters to help women take advantage of their new rights.

Despite the limited documentation available about Marion Leslie’s life, we are lucky this year in having a valuable biography recently published: Betsy Prioleau’s Deadlines and Diamonds: A Tale of Greed, Deceit and a Female Tycoon (2022). Prioleau paints a vivid picture of Marion Leslie’s life and the times in which she lived. Reading it helps us understand how one woman managed to triumph despite poverty and the limitations placed on women. Marion Leslie deserves to be remembered.