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.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—An Activist in Africa and the World

During the early nineteenth century, many people who worked to abolish slavery in the United States, including several women who have appeared on this blog, believed that freed African Americans should be sent to Africa to live. They were afraid that if they remained in the United States, they might be endangered by their previous owners or other supporters of slavery. Most people at that time seemed unaware of the long history of African Americans in America. Many enslaved families had a longer history of living on this continent than their European American neighbors had. Their African roots had been obscured or forgotten after generations of living in America.

Nonetheless, many sincere abolitionists believed that the newly freed people would settle happily in Africa and build a new life for themselves. Between the 1820s and the Civil War, the American Colonization Society raised money to send more than 15,000 people to an area on Africa’s West Coast that would be named Liberia. This, they hoped, would offer a new start for freed slaves. It would also, of course, relieve former slaveowners from having to accept their former slaves as equal citizens of the United States. And so, money was raised, and thousands of people were sent to Liberia.

The newly enfranchised African Americans, however, were not accepted by the Africans who lived in the area. The Africans did not speak English, and the Americans did not speak the languages of the indigenous people. The resettlement was not a success.  Liberia has been a troubled state from its beginning, but despite the difficulties it has faced, it has produced some of Africa’s most important leaders.  

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who served as president of Liberia from 2006 until 2018, was the first women ever elected as leader of an African country. Born in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1938, she was educated at the College of West Africa and later attended Madison Business College in the United States, the University of Colorado, and then Harvard College. When she returned to Liberia she worked as an economist in the government of William Tolbert.

After the Liberian military coup of 1980, Sirleaf fled the country and moved to Washington D.C. where she worked for the World Bank. Later she returned to Africa and worked for the United Nations and for several private banks. It was not until 1997 that she was able to return to politics in Liberia. And it was almost ten years later, in 2006, that she was elected president of the country.

During her years in office, Sirleaf succeeded in bringing women into government and into positions of power in other fields. She promised to bring reconciliation to the country, and to stamp out corruption, although these issues still remain problems. Nonetheless, Sirleaf brought Liberia a long period of peace. Newsweek named her as one of the ten best leaders in the world, and the Economist called her “arguably the best president the country has ever had”.   

In 2011, Sirleaf was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. The three women were recognized “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

Today, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, remains an important figure in Africa and in the world. She is active in causes from women’s rights to healthcare during the Covid pandemic.  In 2018 she started the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development, which aims “to be a catalyst for change across Africa, by helping unleash its most abundant untapped power – its women”.

The Climate Is Changing and So Must We—Fiona Hill’s vision

At the Glasgow Climate Conference this past week, world leaders signed an agreement to cut back on the use of coal and other fossil fuels. Mining, manufacturing and even farming have been revolutionized over the past fifty years and more mines and factories will close as a result of these international agreements. Jobs that used to be central to every modern economy are disappearing. We know that jobs must change, the question is, how can we help people to change so that they can find security in the new economy.

Few people have been able to observe the effects of changing economies on the lives of everyday people as closely as Fiona Hill, the author of There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century.

Fiona Hill

Hill was born in 1965 and grew up in County Durham in Northern England in a community that had been devastated by the closure of coal mines during the decades following the second World War. Although Hill’s family had been miners for generations, both her father and mother were hospital workers during most of the years when they were raising their children. The title of Hill’s book, There Is Nothing for You Here, comes from the advice given to Fiona and her sister as their parents realized that education was the key to moving ahead in the modern world.

During the 1980s when Hill was growing up, education was easier to obtain in England than in the United States or in many other countries. Government support enabled children to move from local council (public) schools to university. Publicly funded stipends meant that poverty was not an insurmountable obstacle for many students, but Hill clearly shows the obstacles that stood in the way of young people who wanted to move ahead. Expenses that were ignored by the government, such as the insufficient supply of books in local libraries and schools, the cost of transportation to cities where scholarship tests were available, and the prejudice shown against students who did not fit into the middle-class mold of most university applicants made entry into the university system very difficult. Hill describes her interview for entry into Oxford as one of the worst experiences of her life.

Despite all the difficulties of moving ahead, Hill managed to acquire a university education at St. Andrew’s where she found mentors who helped her find opportunities for further study. Later, she was able to attend Harvard and earn a PhD. She also spent time in Russia where she could observe the results of the post-cold war economic turmoil on the lives of Russian students. This varied background has given her a wide range of experience about the ways in which different countries are meeting the challenges brought by changing economies.

When Hill moved to the United States, eventually becoming an American citizen, and marrying an American, she observed many similarities between the way working class families coped with change in the two countries. The American Midwest, where her husband grew up, faced the loss of manufacturing jobs just as County Durham had. Towns in the Rust Belt of the Midwest were experiencing the same difficult adjustments as towns in the UK, except that class differences in America are complicated by racial differences which also affect people’s education and job training.

There Is Nothing for You Here is a dense book, filled with the stories of various individuals who are adjusting to a new world. Hill became an expert in National Security and relations with Russia and worked in the White House during the early years of the Trump Administration. She became well known after she gave testimony during Trump’s First Impeachment Trial where the focus was on relations between the United States and Russia. Now she has given us a broader picture of growing up in a changing world. Her book raises questions about how countries can help individuals find a path to changing their lives.

While leaders sign proclamations and declare goals, Fiona Hill reminds us that it is individuals who will bear the brunt of fitting into the new world. There Is Nothing for You Here points the way to some of the changes that are needed.     

Labor Day 2021—to Buy or to Boycott?

Another Labor Day has rolled around. The online world is filled with enticing invitations to buy clothes, cars, electronics and whatever else might catch your eye. It’s hard to remember that Labor Day was originally meant to honor the workers who made all the stuff that’s now for sale. Instead the day has become just part of a long holiday weekend to mark the end of summer and the beginning of the school year.

But 56 years ago, on September 8, 1965, an important movement that would change agricultural workers’ lives forever, was started in California—the Delano Grape Strike. At that time, most agricultural workers in California were either Filipino or Hispanic immigrants. Their wages were below the federal minimum wage of $1.20 an hour and working conditions were abysmal. Hours were long and there were no required breaks. Often water was unavailable despite the heat; housing was inadequate with many workers forced to sleep in barren shacks without beds or toilet facilities.

A group of Filipino workers were the first to revolt and demand better conditions. Soon they joined with Hispanic leaders. The two groups worked together to begin one of the biggest and most effective labor movements in the United States. This led eventually to the founding of the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW) and grew into one of America’s most important labor unions.  

Labor Day is a good time to remember some of the people who made that change possible. And to remember that change occurred only because of shoppers across the country who were willing to boycott California grapes.

The two co-founders of the National Farm Workers Association were Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Today I would like to pay tribute to Dolores Huerta, who is still alive at the age of 91 and still continues her work.

Huerta was born in New Mexico in 1930 and grew up mostly in Stockton, California. During her high school years, she felt discriminated against by teachers because of her Hispanic background. After she went to college and became a teacher, she noticed that many children in her class were suffering from hunger and poverty. She decided that activism was more important than teaching, so she co-founded  Stockton’s Community Service Organization

It was through her work as an activist that Huerta met Cesar Chavez and began working with him. She worked with him to organize the 1965 Delano strike of 5,000 grape workers. When the strike finally ended after five long years, she was the lead negotiator as the workers’ contract was finally written and signed. 

Dolores Huerta

In 1973, Huerta led another consumer boycott of grapes that resulted in the ground-breaking California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which allowed farm workers to form unions and bargain for better wages and conditions. This change revolutionized the lives of farm workers in California and other states.

Labor organizing is not easy work and in 1988, Huerta was badly beaten by police during a peaceful demonstration in San Francisco. Nonetheless, her activism continued. In 2002 she founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation which has continued the work to which she has devoted her life. The list of honors she has received is too long to include here, but you can find them in the Wikipedia article about her life.

Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, and the other activists who fought to make life better for workers would not have succeeded without the support of everyday shoppers who refused to buy grapes during the strike. Enough people supported the effort to ensure that change happened. That’s something to remember as we move into another Labor Day. Perhaps as we browse through the enticing ads for ways to spend money, we should give some thought to the workers who produce those products. Ethical shopping—supporting the fair treatment of workers around the world is well worth considering. Boycotts work. They have made life better for many workers. Think before you click that “buy” button.  

Happy Birthday to an Immigrant Child—Madeleine Albright

Today, when immigration has become a contentious topic for many Americans, is a good day to honor one of the many immigrants who have used their knowledge and talents to improve American life. Today Madeleine Albright, who has served the country in many ways for almost half a century is celebrating her birthday.

Madeleine Albright was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on May 15, 1937. She spent her early years in Prague, and during World War II, in exile in London. Her father was a diplomat who moved the family to the United States in 1948 after the communists took over Czechoslovakia. In 1957, Madeleine became a U.S. citizen.

Madeleine Albright

As the daughter of prosperous and well-educated parents, Madeleine Albright had an easier path to education than many other immigrant children, but it was her own hard work that led her to earn a degree from Wellesley College and a PhD from Columbia University. She married, raised three daughters, and worked as a fund raiser. After her family moved to Washington D.C., she became an advisor to Senator Edmund Muskie as well as other Democratic office holders and she also taught at Georgetown University.     

When Bill Clinton was elected President, he appointed her to the position of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Later she became the first woman to serve as Secretary of State. She was known for her keen insight into foreign affairs and her ability to negotiate with world leaders. News media paid special attention to the signals she sent by her choice of jewelry. Reporters wrote stories not only about what she said, but about what she wore, because she often signaled her message by her choice of pins.

Examples of Madeleine Albright’s Collection of Pins

Her jewelry became so famous that after leaving office at the end of the Clinton Administration, Albright organized an exhibit of her collection of pins and published a book entitled Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box.

In the years since leaving office, Albright has held a variety of posts and worked for several nonprofit organizations. She has also written a series of memoirs chronicling her life from her childhood in Europe through her work on the world stage. Her most recent memoir, Hell and Other Destinations; A 21st Century Memoir was published in 2020. Madeleine Albright is a woman well worth knowing and we are lucky to be able to read her lively accounts of life both inside and outside of government service.

Happy Birthday, Madam Secretary!

Ruth Bader Ginsberg–A Fallen Warrior

The news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death Friday night was a shock to a country that has been absorbing shocks all year. I saw the announcement late in the afternoon as I turned on my email. No sooner had I read the headline than the phone rang as a friend called to ask whether I had heard the news. For the next hour, messages by phone and email came in from friends and relatives the news spread. Many of my friends and relatives felt the loss as a personal grief.

A crowd gathered outside the Supreme Court building in Washington within hours of the announcement, and as the word spread across the country, another crowd of mourners gathered in San Francisco, probably in other cities too. On the weekend crowds in cities across the country gathered to march in a tribute to the Supreme Court Justice who was affectionately known as RBG.

Why has her death resonated with so many people while other justices have died in office without attracting much notice from the general public? The biggest reason is probably that Justice Ginsburg was a warrior in the long fight for equality for women—a struggle that has been part of American history for at least a hundred years

When the upper-class gentlemen who wrote our constitution started their work, Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams who was one of the authors, reminded her husband “Don’t forget the ladies”. But the men did forget them. More than a century passed before women won the vote, and even after they could vote, women—half the population—were still not considered capable of being leaders in government or business. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, like many other women, recognized this injustice. But unlike most women, Ginsberg did something about it.

Ginsberg’s reputation was built on her presentation of a number of cases documenting gender-related discrimination. The media of the past few days has shown the methodical way she went about winning case after case by showing that such discrimination was contrary to the spirit and letter of the Constitution. She never did win the final battle to get an Equal Rights Amendment added to the Constitution, but she supported the effort.

And Ginsberg not only fought for the rights of women, she also supported a series of interpretations of the Constitution that protected voting rights throughout the country. She opposed the Citizens United decision that enables corporations to give unlimited amounts of money to political groups. Throughout her long career she supported the view that all citizens should have equal rights and that the country should not be dominated by an elite group of wealthy people and corporations who bought their way into power.

Justice Ginsberg’s strong voice will be missed on the Court and throughout the country. As Sir Walter Scott wrote many generations ago, a beloved leader has been taken from us and our mourning will be long and painful.

He is gone on the mountain,
He is lost to the forest,
Like a summer-dried fountain,
When our need was the sorest.
The font reappearing
From the raindrops shall borrow;
But to us comes no cheering,
To Duncan no morrow!

An Agitator for Women’s Rights–Ernestine Rose

Ernestine Potowska Rose was an unlikely woman to have an important role in America’s  woman’s suffrage movement. She was a foreigner who spoke English with an accent, a Jew, and a fervent atheist. But during the 1850s, contrary to all expectations, she became one of the most prominent members of the movement.

Ernestine Rose

Rose was born in Poland in 1810, the daughter of a wealthy rabbi who educated her as though she had been a boy. She learned Hebrew and studied the Torah, but from a very early age, she rejected religion and became a committed atheist. After her mother’s death, when Ernestine was 16, her father betrothed her to an older man. Shocked and rebellious, the girl went to the Polish court and sued to reject the marriage and have her dowry returned. After winning her case, she left home and never returned to Poland.

Berlin was Rose’s first stop and she lived there for several years, supporting herself by making and selling air freshener. Later she moved to London where she became a follower of the social reformer Robert Owen. Owen campaigned for workers’ rights, rejected child labor, and supported communal living. Ernestine began her career as a public speaker after Robert Owen invited her to give a talk about his ideas. Her talk was so successful that she soon became a regular speaker at Owenite events.

In 1836, Ernestine married a fellow Owenite, William Rose. Her husband was not Jewish, but, like her, a free thinker and an atheist. He had been trained as a silversmith and jeweler. Soon after their marriage, the Roses moved to the United States, which they considered the best country in the world.

In New York, Ernestine and her husband joined a group of freethinkers who met regularly at the newly built Tammany Hall. While William set up a jewelry business, Ernestine began giving talks to the freethinkers group about abolition and women’s rights.  One of the objectives that the group supported was to change the New York State laws that excluded everyone who was not Protestant from serving in government posts or being witnesses in lawsuits.

As she became active in public affairs, Rose became increasingly aware of the limitations placed on women. In some meetings she was hissed and booed simply for speaking up as a man would. Soon she became an active supporter of the right of women to play an active role in her community. Although a newcomer to New York, she went door-to-door collecting signatures in support of a bill to allow women to own property in their own name. Despite being able to collect only five names, she submitted her petition to the legislature—the first petition ever submitted for women’s rights.

The causes of women’s rights and the abolition of slavery were closely entwined during the years before the Civil War. In one speech, Rose pointed out that “The slaves of the South are not the only people that are in bondage. All women are excluded from the enjoyment of that liberty which your Declaration of Independence asserts to be the inalienable right of all.”

In 1849, Rose joined Lucretia Mott for an anti-slavery speaking tour through upstate New York. Although many reformers based their opposition to slavery on Christian teaching, Mott was a radical Quaker who believed truth was found within the individual rather than in any church. She declared herself a heretic who had no difficulty accepting atheists who fought for the causes she herself supported. She and Rose remained lifelong friends.

During the 1850s, the women’s right movement grew in strength. The first major conference was held in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850. The Convention, designed to address “Women’s Rights, Duties and Relations”, was organized by women who knew Rose, but her name was not on the invitation. She kept a rather low profile because her atheism did not fit in with the attitudes of most of the organizers. Every one of the speakers except Rose specifically mentioned the Christian and Biblical roots of women’s rights in their talks. Nonetheless, Rose was an invited speaker and her contributions were widely praised. She was also elected to the important Business Committee.

Ernestine Rose became a a good friend and colleague of many of the women most active in the women’s right movement, especially Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, as well as Lucretia Mott. During the 1850s, Rose worked constantly for the women’s movement. By 1856, she had given speeches in 25 of the 31 states and was always in demand. She did not take money for her speeches, but was supported by her husband William, who remained her most devoted companion. Nonetheless, her atheism and the fact that she was foreign born set her apart from most of the other activists. She was sometimes accused of being too radical, as when she talked of supporting education for women and mentioned that uneducated girls were often forced to turn to prostitution. And she dared to support a speaker who mentioned, in guarded terms, the importance of contraception in furthering women’s rights. Any mention of sex in a woman’s rights meeting at that time raised a furor and accusations of supporting free love.

Despite her valuable contribution to the women’s rights movement, Ernestine Rose must have felt somewhat estranged from many other activists. Her health was always poor, and after the Civil War, she became a less frequent speaker. The War had unleashed a wave of religious fervor in America and the freethinker groups with whom Rose felt at home dwindled away. Anti-Semitism was more openly expressed and Rose sometimes felt called upon to oppose it publicly.

After the war, Rose and her husband visited Europe several times. Finally the couple moved permanently to England where Ernestine became friendly with suffragists there. Her American friends, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony, urged her to return to the United States, but after William Rose died in 1882, Ernestine refused to leave England again. It seems likely that she felt more at home in Europe than she did in postwar America. When she died in 1892, she received many honors in both England and America, but she was often left out of official histories of the women’s movement and was gradually forgotten.

If you want to know more about Ernestine Rose, an excellent biography by Bonnie S. Anderson called The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter was published in 2016 and is available in many libraries. And in 2018, Judith Shulevitz wrote an account of Rose in the New York Review of Books that is well worth reading.  

A heroine for the Me-too era–Madeline Pollard

Sexism is alive and well in America. We all know that.

Just this week President Trump’s nominee for a post on the Federal Reserve Board had to withdraw his candidacy because of nasty remarks he has made about women over the years. The only surprise is not what he said, but the fact that he was called out for those remarks. Over the years, over the centuries really, powerful men, including our current President have suffered no penalty at all for insulting women.

When did things start to change? If you depend on the media to tell you, the story will probably be about the Me-too movement of the last few years. The backlash against powerful men who thought they could exploit women has been much publicized since the first accusations surfaced a few years ago. But it turns out that women’s power has been an important factor in American political life for more than 100 years.

I know this now because I just finished reading Patricia Miller’s 2018 book Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the “Powerless” Woman Who Took On Washington. Miller tells the story of Madeline Pollard who in 1893 sued a prominent Kentucky Congressman for breach of promise of marriage. Such cases were not unknown, because marriage was almost the only chance women had to obtain a secure life. But things were changing. It was a time when more and more women had to find a way to make a living, even though most jobs and professions were closed to them. Unfortunately, many men, including some of the most prominent citizens, found it easy to take advantage of women and girls who were trying to build their own lives.

Madeline Pollard was an ambitious young woman in her late teens or early twenties (there are still many unanswered questions about her life) who was trying to get an education. She met Congressman William Breckenridge, member of one of Kentucky’s most prominent families and a veteran of the Confederate Army, while she was travelling on a train to her school. He introduced himself to her, she asked him for advice, one thing led to another and soon she became his mistress. This was no short affair. It lasted for eleven years and through the birth of two babies (both of whom died) before his wife died.

William C. P. Breckinridge

Unfortunately, by the time he became a widower, Breckinridge was very short of money and needed a marriage to a wealthy, socially prominent woman to move ahead in his political career. But he had reckoned without Madeline. Unlike most women in her position, she was unwilling to give up and be silent about what he had promised.

Miller tells the story of how Madeline gradually found supporters and brought her suit against Breckenridge. Up until the very end, the Congressman did not seem to realize that he could be held responsible. When he lost the suit, he confidently announced that he would run for Congress again and gathered his usual team of supporters around him.

To the amazement of the politicians, it was the women of Kentucky who finally defeated Breckenridge. Scores of women marched in protest against him. Even though they could not vote, they warned their husbands, brothers, and sons not to give Breckenridge another term in office. And they won! He never again served in Congress.

One final mystery that Miller clears up in her book was the source of money that made it possible for Pollard to pay the cost of going to court. It appears that there were several wealthy widows who financed the trial. They never announced their support, but they provided the resources needed to eventually bring down the Colonel.

That certainly sounds to me like a good message for women today. It will be women standing up for other women that will finally succeed in combatting the double standards that have for so long limited women’s participation in society And if you need some encouragement along the way, you might want to read Bringing Down the Colonel and cheer on Madeline Pollard and her supporters who were among the first to enlist for the cause.

Honoring our pioneers–Geraldine Ferraro

Of the seventeen candidates running in the 2020 presidential race, seven are women. We are growing used to seeing women on the podium at national conventions. But 35 years ago the idea of a woman running for national office shocked the country.

In 1984, Americans found it hard to believe that the Democratic Presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, would choose a woman as his running mate. A woman to be Vice President? Unthinkable! But Geraldine Ferraro already had a history of setting new goals for women.

Many prominent women welcomed  Ferraro’s candidacy. The New York Times quotes Ann Richards of Texas as saying “The first thing I thought of was not winning in a political sense, but of my two daughters.”  It had been 64 years since women had gotten the right to vote, but Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to demonstrate that even the highest office in the land was not off-limits for women.

It’s not easy to be a pioneer and Ferraro suffered from some of the same attitudes that have dogged female candidates ever since she ran. In 1984, candidates were expected to reveal their tax returns so the public could see where their money came from. Unlike male candidates, Ferraro was extensively questioned about her spouse’s finances and eventually she released her husband’s tax records. Of course, today even presidential candidates have been elected without revealing anything about their tax records. Times change.

Ferraro, like most women of her generation, had become accustomed to being disadvantaged because of her gender. When she graduated from college, her mother urged her to become a teacher because that was suitable work for a woman. When Geraldine decided she wanted to go to law school, an admissions officer warned her that she might be taking a man’s place at the school—an argument frequently used to discourage women from entering professional schools.

After law school Ferraro worked only part time until her children were in school and she felt free to accept a job as an assistant district attorney in Queens. (For many years she and her family lived in Forest Hills Gardens, Queens, the same neighborhood in which Donald Trump grew up.) Ferraro moved on to national politics when she ran for Congress in 1978. There she quickly learned to work with Democratic leaders to push through the party’s agenda.

The presidential campaign of 1984 was a difficult one. Ronald Reagan was at the height of his popularity running for a second term with his running mate George H.W. Bush. The Mondale-Ferraro ticket was not given much chance of victory and sure enough it went down to a sharp defeat in November.

But despite not winning the presidency, the Democrats had proven that a woman could be a formidable candidate and a plus for the party in a national election. Ferraro was a very popular draw at party rallies where she was often greeted by cries of “Gerry, Gerry!”

Ferraro changed several small habits in the country such as popularizing the use of “Ms” instead of either Miss or Mrs. During the 1984 campaign, the New York Times refused to use “Ms” and referred to Ferraro as “Mrs. Ferraro”, despite complaints from their resident grammarian William Safire. It was another two years before the NY Times finally allowed “Ms” to be used in their paper.

Geraldine Ferraro continued to be an active participant in political and social activities after the 1984 campaign, although she never again held public office. She died in 2011, after having lived long enough to see the revolution of women’s participation in public life in which she played such a large role. Women candidates today owe her a vote of thanks.  

Celebrate Women’s History Month with Hillary Clinton

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we should note that more women are serving in Congress now than have ever served before. And a majority of the candidates for the 2020 presidential election are women. This week one of the people most responsible for this revolutionary change is leaving the active political scene. Hilary Clinton has announced that she will not be a candidate for president in 2020. It’s about time we recognized all that she has done to make the changes in our political life possible.

Women in Congress

There have been other women candidates for President over the years. The notorious Victoria Woodhull ran for president as long ago as 1872, but no other woman has opened the door for a female president as wide as Hillary Clinton has. She has been opening doors for women now for more than a generation.

How many of us remember when Clinton became first lady in 1993? She took over the role of the previous First Lady, Barbara Bush, and the contrast was sharp. Barbara Bush followed the typical path of women who grew up in the early twentieth century. She dropped out of Smith College to marry George H.W. Bush and to follow her husband around the country while he served in the military and went on to his career. When she became First Lady in 1989, she promised that she would be a “traditional” First Lady.

Hillary Clinton followed a different path. She completed her college degree at Wellesley College and went on to Yale law school. Like Barbara Bush, she met her future husband while she was a student, but she chose not to interrupt her education. She and Bill Clinton moved to Arkansas, but after they married, she continued to use her maiden name. Her decision to keep that name was unusual at the time and apparently caused some dispute with both her mother and her mother-in-law, but Hillary was already forging a path that would be followed by many other women in years to come.

Hillary Clinton

The public career of Hillary Clinton is too well-known to need retelling. She served as First Lady in her husband’s administration and later as Senator from New York. She became Secretary of State in the Obama administration and travelled to more countries than any Secretary of State had done previously. During all of her assignments, her life was made more difficult because she was a woman. Often the comments were just plain silly. These ranged from complaints about her remark as First Lady that she didn’t stay home and bake cookies, to criticism of the pants suits she often wore. She was a true pioneer and the choices she made no doubt seemed threatening to some conservatives at the time, but no one today would give them a second thought. 

During the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton got more votes than the man who became president, but because of our complicated Electoral College system, those votes were not enough to win the office. We will never know how much the 2016 race was influenced by the reluctance of many men, and some women, to vote for a woman for president.

Hillary Clinton’s long service to her country in many capacities has paved the way for the more equitable Congress that we now have and for the number of women who are willing to run for office. Surely we all owe her a vote of thanks for that. 

We owe her more than a vote of thanks. The next government building that is built in Washington D.C. should be named for Hillary Clinton. She deserves the tribute for changing the role of women in our government and ushering in a new era of gender equality in politics. Let’s put this on the agenda. What a wonderful way to celebrate Women’s History Month!