Women in history

A Furious Fighter for Justice—Ida B. Wells

Although born into slavery in 1862, Ida B. Wells lived most of her life as a free woman. Her parents successfully navigated their new freedom and her father became a skilled carpenter. Unfortunately, both parents died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 and Ida, as the oldest of their eight children, struggled to hold the family together. She moved with her young siblings to Memphis, Tennessee, where she was able to find work as a schoolteacher. Eager to express her ideas about race relations as the South adjusted to the post-Civil War society, she gradually assumed a role as journalist. The African American press was flourishing, and she found an eager audience for her articles. Unlike most of the earlier suffrage leaders, she gained fame through the written word rather than through public speaking.

The years during which Wells was establishing her professional life, were difficult years in Nashville and throughout the South. The transition to a world without slavery was long and painful. The high hopes of abolitionists that former slaves would be integrated into society, were destroyed when white Southerners refused to recognize anyone of African descent as an equal. The reconstruction era was one of the most painful periods in American history and Ida B. Well’s life was shaped by the bitterness of the postwar years.

Ida B. Wells

As a well-educated and respectable teacher, Ida B. Wells expected to be able to move around her community freely on the growing network of trains being developed during the 1880s. Unfortunately, many white Nashville citizens did not want African Americans to travel in the railroad cars with them. Wells’s first major clash with authorities occurred in 1884 when she tried to use her first-class railroad ticket in a ladies’ car along with many white women. The conductor ordered her to leave the car; she refused. He called reinforcements and it took three men to roughly pull and push Wells out of the car and off the train.

Refusing to accept such treatment, Wells sued the railroad. She won her case and was given $500 in compensation, but that judgement was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court, which ruled that the railroad had a right to decide where travelers were allowed to sit. Wells was ordered to pay court costs. From that day on, she was determined to spend her life trying to ensure equal rights for all Americans.

As the former Confederate states fought to keep white men in power, they turned to illegitimate forms of control. Lynching became one of their major weapons to maintain white supremacy. When the owners of an African American grocery store in Memphis were lynched, Wells wrote an editorial in which she urged her people to leave the city. “There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” The article outraged many readers and Wells’s newspaper office was burned to the ground in retaliation. Wells soon followed her own advice and left Memphis to move north. She never returned.

In the years that followed, Wells embarked on a major anti-lynching campaign. In 1892, she published a pamphlet called Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. This was followed by an expanded examination of lynching in The Red Report, which included pages of statistics documenting the extent of the practice. She soon became a leading voice against lynching. Along with other African American leaders, she campaigned for the passage of a federal anti-lynching law to end the practice.  

Despite her efforts, Wells found little support in her campaign to persuade Americans to pass a federal anti-lynching law. Finally, she decided she needed support from England and other European countries. In 1894 she traveled to England on a speaking tour. Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), was also touring England at the time. Because the WCTU was one of the few women’s groups that accepted women of all races, Wells hoped that the two of them could work together to build support for the anti-lynching campaign. Unfortunately, Willard focused her efforts far more on temperance than on stopping lynching and she refused to join enthusiastically in Wells’s campaign. The two had a memorable and well-publicized argument with the result that the WCTU never passed an anti-lynching proposal and Wells’s impact on English liberals was not as successful as she had hoped.

Wells was a fighter, not a politician, and throughout her life she engaged in battles with leaders of the African American community such as Frederick Douglas and especially Booker T. Washington as well as with women’s suffrage leaders. Despite Wells’s importance in both the battle for African American rights and in the fight for women’s right to vote, she was often denied the honor and acknowledgement she deserved.

In 1913, National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) planned a massive march in Washington D.C. to mark the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson as President. Suffrage leaders from all over the country were invited to attend. Ida B. Wells went as part of the Illinois delegation. To her shock and dismay, the leaders of the event announced at the last minute that only white women would march in the front of the parade. African Americans were asked to walk together at the end of the entire group. Many agreed, but Ida B. Wells refused. She simply did not move back but bided her time and joined the white women as they approached the Capitol. No one objected. Once more Wells had scored a victory by refusing to surrender.

After the 19th Amendment passed and women finally won the right to vote, Wells continued to fight for Civil Rights and women’s rights. There are several good biographies of her, one of the best is Ida: A Sword among the Lions by Paula J. Giddings (2008). Its 800 pages may look daunting, but the book gives a real sense of how long and arduous the fight for justice and equality has been in the United States.

A Scandal-prone Suffragist–Victoria Woodhull

The struggle to give American women the right to vote lasted more than a century. For the past several weeks I have been telling the stories of some of the women who fought for this right—not the women who are most often honored, but the ones who kept up the fight in spite of being marginalized for belonging to a different race, a different religion, or a different nationality than most of the suffrage leaders. Victoria Woodhull was one of those. Her problem in being accepted arose because she insisted on being honest about her sex life—she believed in a woman’s right to divorce an abusive or unfaithful husband. She also published information about the sex lives of some highly respected men.     

Victoria Woodhull

Born in Ohio in 1838, Victoria Woodhull grew up in an unstable and impoverished family. She declared she had been “a child without a childhood” because her father had put his daughters to work as soon as he realized they could tell fortunes and claim healing powers. Victoria escaped from him by running away at 15 to get married, but the husband she chose was as shiftless as her father. He quickly became an alcoholic and a philanderer. Fed up with his neglect and dependence, Victoria divorced him and decided to make life on her own terms with her two children.

Some women in those circumstances might have struggled to maintain respectability by turning to teaching, but respectability was not high on the list of Victoria’s priorities. She had discovered spiritualism and believed in her power to foresee events to come. Her sister Tennessee was also a clairvoyant and both sisters were quite willing to use their talents as well as their sex appeal to earn money. Both were at various times accused of being prostitutes, but they were clever enough to use their sexual availability to their advantage rather than being punished for it. During the late 19th century at a time when a married woman could lose her husband, children, and livelihood by a single slip into adultery, married men were free to consort with prostitutes and enjoy their sexual adventures without losing anything. Tennessee and Victoria claimed the same privilege. 

Following Victoria Woodhull’s trail offers some tantalizing clues about what 19th century America was like. Victoria was not the only suffragist who believed that spirits speaking from beyond the grave gave them ideas for their campaign for women’s rights Spiritualism, which had started about 1848, the same year the first Women’s Rights Convention was held, attracted many American radicals. Campaigners for both abolition of slavery and for women’s rights tended to gravitate toward the group because it welcomed new ideas and encouraged individualistic thinking. Victoria Woodhull first gained fame, and made a living, by going into trances and predicting what would happen in the future. She believed that spirits spoke directly to her and guided her in her life. Perhaps it was only natural that people who lived unconventional lives were attracted to the idea that they could find truth on their own with the help of spirits rather than through conventional religion with its unbending rules.

Whether or not Victoria found the truth in spiritualism, she certainly found worldly success. At least she, her second husband, Captain Blood, and her sister Tennessee Claflin became rich through their association with Cornelius Vanderbilt. Victoria and her sister met Vanderbilt, whose wife had recently died, when they moved to New York City. Tennie (as she was called) charmed the elderly Vanderbilt, who had been famous for being attracted to beautiful women. When Victoria began to offer him advice about investments, he decided to set up the two sisters as brokers in 1870. The unconventional business attracted many customers and they made a great deal of money. Perhaps it was Victoria’s business success that gave her the courage to enter political life. 

The year was 1872, and Victoria Woodhull, the first woman who declared she wanted to be president of the United States. Her presidential campaign raised questions from the time it started. Whether it was legal or not is still an undecided question. Victoria and other members of her Equal Rights party claimed that women were defined as citizens in the U.S. Constitution and they had the right to vote and run for office. She based her claim on the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Women are persons and are therefore entitled to vote, Victoria decided. The argument persuaded some people, especially women; however, women had never been allowed to vote whether they were citizens or not.

Victoria Woodhull’s declaration that she would be a candidate for President of the United States was a bold move that electrified voters in 1870.  In May 1872, the name of Victoria’s People’s Party was changed to the Equal Rights Party. The party officially nominated Victoria for president, and she chose Frederick Douglass, the well-known ex-slave and public speaker, as her vice-presidential running mate. (He later said that he had never heard anything about it.) Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Isabella Beecher Hooker, who were firm believers in women’s right to vote, supported Victoria’s candidacy, but neither of them believed she had a chance to be president. Because Victoria’s spirit counselors had told her she was destined for high office, she herself firmly believed she would win. This was the first presidential election in which women’s suffrage was an issue. It was the first one held after the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.

The election of 1872 was one of the most tumultuous in American history. Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, was seeking a second term, but the so-called Liberal Republicans split from the main party and nominated Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune. Greeley also got the Democratic nomination. Victoria Woodhull and her campaign got very little attention.

Victoria’s unquestioning faith in her spirits led her astray when it came to politics. In the end it wasn’t the search for voting rights that brought her down, it was the familiar question about sexual purity and scandal. Victoria and her sister had lurid pasts compared to those of the other women leading the suffrage movement, but these respectable women also had secrets to hide. The intrigues and infidelities of leading male citizens touched the lives of their wives and families. Henry Ward Beecher, a distinguished minister and civic leader, was especially vulnerable. His sister Isabella Beecher Hooker was one of Victoria’s strongest supporters, but when rumors about her brother started circulating, she was torn. Unfortunately, Victoria, because of her friendships with brothel managers and prostitutes, knew many of the most scandalous stories in New York.

Victoria Woodhull believed in sexual freedom, as some of the other suffragettes did, but she practiced it more than many others. This made her vulnerable to political opponents who spread stories about her and pilloried her in the press. Thomas Nast in his cartoons made her a special target as “Mrs. Satan”. After that cartoon appeared Victoria’s political life was dead. Her speaking engagements were cancelled, and her supporters fled to other candidates. Embittered by the desertions, Victoria finally printed an article revealing the affairs of Henry Ward Beecher and other leading citizens. This led to her arrest and she spent Election Day in jail rather than going to vote. Some of the women’s suffrage leaders did attempt to vote; Susan B. Anthony cast a ballot, but her vote was not counted, and she was fined $100 for the attempt.

The 1872 election, which seemed to promise vindication for women’s rights, proved to be a miserable failure for the cause. It would be more than forty years before women in the United States finally won the right to vote.

Failing to become president, however, did not stop Victoria Woodhull’s progress toward a better life. You can read about her adventures in Myra MacPherson’s 2014 biography, The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age

The Truth about Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth is an American heroine. She fought for the abolition of slavery and for rights for women. Her story is told in American classrooms, her picture is featured on U.S. stamps, and quotes attributed to her are repeated over and over again. But almost everything we know about her is secondhand and many of her pictures and quotes are distorted or even downright false.

Sojourner Truth is the name she chose for herself after having lived half a lifetime as Isabella Baumfree or Isabella Von Wagener. Born in 1797, or thereabouts, in New York State, Isabella was a household slave for about thirty years of her life. Her first language was Dutch, not English, just as it was for many of the inhabitants of upstate New York at that time.

When slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, Isabella was legally freed. However, after being freed, ex-slaves still owed their former masters several years of labor. Isabella decided in 1826 that she had repaid her owner sufficiently and she walked away from his household carrying her infant daughter. She moved in with a nearby anti-slavery family who negotiated a bargain with her former owner to pay off her labor obligations. To the surprise of many, she remained friendly with her former owner and his family for years afterward. Her experiences as a slave in New York were dramatically different from those of the Southern slaves who were part of the widespread plantation society.

Although she had very little education and never learned to read or write, Sojourner Truth had an impressive physical appearance, a mesmerizing eloquence, and an abundance of courage. When she discovered that her young son, Peter, had been sold illegally to a Southern slave owner, she sued for his freedom, thus becoming the first African American woman to sue a white man in court and win.

Shortly after Truth had gained her freedom, she became an ardent Christian, embracing the emotional religion of the Methodists. Throughout her life Truth remained strongly religious, becoming a disciple of several charismatic religious leaders. After she moved to New York City, where she worked as a housekeeper, she became acquainted with the many of the most prominent free blacks in the city’s religious community.

In 1843 Isabella’s life changed. She named herself Sojourner Truth because she felt called to spend her life urging people to embrace Jesus. She joined a religious community in Massachusetts and began her career as a preacher supporting abolition and women’s rights. Her remarkable physical appearance—she was almost six feet tall—combined with her deep, far-reaching voice, made her a memorable presence wherever she appeared.

Sojourner Truth’s most famous speech, usually remembered as her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, was given at a women’s right conference in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Her speech was reported a month later in the Anti-Slavery Bugle by Rev. Marius Robinson who attended the conference. In his report, and other contemporary reports, no one mentioned her ever asking the question “Ain’t I a woman?” It would be another decade before that question appeared in print.

Anti-slavery coin 1830s

The record of Sojourner Truth’s life has been shaped by the people to whom she entrusted her story. Unfortunately, the gulf between her and the white women who recorded her story was almost unbridgeable, so the written accounts of her life and experiences were often distorted. During the 1850s, Truth dictated her autobiography to Olive Gilbert, who wrote the book that was later published as the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a book that is still widely available today.

Harriet Beecher Stowe also played a part in publicizing the life of Truth. She wrote an article that appeared in the Atlantic magazine in 1863 called “Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl”. Stowe’s version of the story presents Truth speaking in a Southern dialect as in this exchange:

“Well, Sojourner, did you always go by this name?”

“No, ‘deed! My name was Isabella; but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wa’n’t goin’ to keep nothin’ of Egypt on me, an’ so I went to the Lord an’ asked Him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ bein’ a sign unto them. Afterwards I told the Lord I wanted another name, ’cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people.

But of course, Sojourner Truth never spoke in this Southern dialect. She had never visited the South and never even seen a plantation. Although we have no recordings, she no doubt spoke in the clipped upstate New York accent that she had learned as a child.

In May 1863, a version of Sojourner Truth’s most famous speech was published by Truth’s friend, Frances Dana Gage, but unlike Rev. Robinson’s account of the speech, it was given in exaggerated Southern dialect and featured the question “Ar’nt I a Woman?” Despite its inaccuracy, this was the version of the speech that has been republished over and over again. It is still the one most people remember. We have no recordings of the original speech, but an account of the changes and recordings of the two versions can be found at The Sojourner Truth Project.

During the Civil War, Sojourner Truth recruited soldiers for the Union army. After the war she organized a project to resettle former slaves in Kansas, but was unable to get government funding for her efforts.  She never gave up trying until her death in 1883.

Much of reliable information we have about Sojourner Truth’s life comes from the biography written by Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth; A Life; A Symbol (1997; rev. 2018). Not only does Painter tell the story of a remarkable woman’s life, she also paints a vivid picture of what life was like for both white and African American people throughout much of the 19th century. Reading Painter’s historical account added a great deal to my understanding of the painful controversies that convulsed the country at that time. I highly recommend the book, especially because many of the struggles of those years continue today.

A Radical Message from a Quiet Voice–Lucretia Mott

Visitors to the Capital Building in Washington D.C. can view an austere marble sculpture featuring three pioneers in the struggle for women’s rights. Standing at the front of the group is a demure women in a Quaker bonnet—Lucretia Mott, a woman whose mild appearance is at odds with the fiery spirit that guided her life. She was a rebel who proclaimed her controversial opinions fiercely and effectively for more than half a century.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott

Born Lucretia Coffin on Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts in 1793, Lucretia became aware of the inequality faced by women while she was still very young. When she began teaching as a 17-year-old, she quickly noticed that the male teachers were paid far more than women were. She never forgot that.

It was while she was teaching that she met her future husband, James Mott. The two were married in 1811 in Philadelphia where her family had moved after leaving Nantucket and its shrinking whaling industry. James started a business and the young couple became active in the Philadelphia Quaker Meeting and soon began raising a family.

At Quaker meetings, unlike most religious groups at that time, women as well as men were allowed to speak to the group. Lucretia was such an inspiring speaker that she was soon appointed a Minister, which among Quakers was an honorary, unpaid position.

Lucretia Mott

The most contentious issue of the day was slavery, and Pennsylvania, a free state bordering two slave states, was in the middle of the debate. Although most Quakers were anti-slavery, they differed in how to support abolition. Some advocated a gradual freeing of slaves, some wanted former slaves to be resettled in Africa. Lucretia soon identified herself as one of the more radical Quakers advocating an immediate end to slavery and a full integration of former slaves into American life. To hasten the end of slavery, Lucretia refused to buy products made or harvested by slaves—sugar from the West Indies and cotton from the Southern slave states—even though her children and her husband sometimes complained about her decision.

As her children grew older, Lucretia was able to devote more of her time to social activism. She worked tirelessly for abolition and helped to found the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-slavery Society, a group that lasted longer than any other women’s anti-slavery group in America.

In 1838, Lucretia participated in the week-long celebration of the opening of Philadelphia Hall as a major center for anti-slavery groups. Many Philadelphians objected to interracial meetings. Some yelled insults at participants to protest the presence of mixed-race groups in their city. When Lucretia gave her talk to a women’s group, her listeners could hear men and boys gathering outside the hall, threatening violence. The African American women in the audience were even more fearful than the white women that they might be targeted. To protect everyone, all the women, black and white, linked arms and walked outside together. Violence was averted that night, but the struggle was far from over.

The World Anti-Slavery Conference held in London in 1840 marked a turning point in Lucretia Mott’s life. Although she was already an outstanding spokesperson for the anti-slavery movement, neither she nor any of the other women who attended the meeting were allowed to participate in the conference. All of the women were required to sit in a separate section of the room where they could listen to the men make speeches. Despite this slap in the face, Lucretia benefited from attending the meetings because it was there that she met the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The two soon became close friends.

World Anti-slavery Conference 1840

Together Stanton and Mott organized a meeting in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, a meeting which is usually considered the official start of the campaign for women’s right to vote. At the close of the meeting, both of them signed the Declaration of Sentiments, a document that concluded with these words: 

Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation—in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.

Together Lucretia Mott, the quiet little Quaker, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, her more flamboyant friend, energized the women’s rights movement in America for the next half century. Neither of them lived to see women win the right to vote, but neither of them ever gave up the struggle. If you’d like to read more about Lucretia Mott, there is an excellent recent biography by Carol Faulkner called Lucretia Mott’s Heresy: Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America.

As for the sculpture in the Capital that honors women’s rights, that too had a long, painful path to achieve its present position. It was unveiled in 1921, but soon moved to the Crypt of the Capitol where it stood among the brooms and mops stored there. In 1995, women’s groups finally pushed Congress to vote for its return to the Rotunda. And it was finally moved there in 1997.

Winning the right to vote required great courage, persistence, and patience on the part of many women. Like those I mentioned in previous blogs, Abigail Adams, and the Grimke Sisters, Lucretia Mott deserves to be remembered as one of the strongest and most dedicated of the pioneers in women’s suffrage.

Sisters against Slavery

As I noted in my last blog post, when America’s Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they did not address the question of whether women should be allowed to vote. Although Abigail Adams urged them to consider the rights of women, they laughed that idea off. Instead, they turned their attention to a big question the new country had to face—whether or not its citizens should be allowed to own slaves. That issue continued to grow as the 19th century began. And it had an overwhelming impact on the question of women’s rights.

By 1804, the states were almost equally divided between those which allowed slavery and those that outlawed it. The movement to abolish all slavery in America began in the northern states and by the 1820s a number of people in Pennsylvania and New England were speaking out about the evils of slavery. Although almost all Southerners supported slavery, there were a few who opposed it. Among the anti-slavery Southerners, two women stand out—Angelina and Sarah Grimke. They became the only known Southern women to work actively for the abolitionist movement.

Blake-Grimke House, 321 E. Bay St. Charleston Historic District Charleston County Photo By: Kate Stojsavljevic, Clemson University Graduate Program in HP

The Grimke sisters were born in Charleston, South Carolina, into a wealthy slave-owning family. Sarah was the older, born in 1792, while Angelina, the youngest of the family’s 14 children, was born in 1805.  Although their brothers and sisters accepted the traditional slave-owning views of their family, Sarah and Angelina rebelled. They were both devoutly religious and decided that Christian beliefs were incompatible with owning slaves. Teaching slaves to read was forbidden in South Carolina, but nonetheless the two of them enraged their father by secretly teaching some of their household slaves to read.

Eventually both Sarah and Angelina Grimke decided that living in the South was incompatible with their moral beliefs, so they moved to Philadelphia where they joined the Quakers and became active in the anti-slavery movement. Angelina admired the anti-slavery writings of William Lloyd Garrison, but when she wrote him a letter of support, he published it in his magazine The Liberator. Even though her opinions were compatible with the views of most Quakers, she was disciplined for speaking out without permission.

The idea of women speaking in public, especially when there were men in the audience, remained controversial even in the abolitionist movement. As both Angelina and Sarah Grimke became well known speakers for the anti-slavery movement, they drew more and more criticism. Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrote that women should remain silent and let men speak for the cause. In response, Angelina wrote a series of letters to Beecher asking for an explanation of exactly what a woman’s role should be. In one of her letters she wrote:

No one has yet found out just where the line of separation between them [men and women] should be drawn, and for this simple reason, that no one knows just how far below man woman is, whether she be a head shorter in her moral responsibilities, or head and shoulders, or the full length of his noble stature, below him, i.e. under his feet.  

None of the traditionalists could answer Angelina’s question to her satisfaction, so the Grimke sisters continued to be active public speakers in the anti-slavery movement. Angelina met her future husband, Theodore Dwight Weld, at an anti-slavery convention in 1836. Although Weld supported the activism of both Grimke sisters, he discouraged them from continuing their public speaking. Nonetheless because the invitations continued to arrive, neither sister completely gave up speaking before both men and women.

Abolitionist meeting

In 1838, Angelina spoke about the anti-slavery movement before the Massachusetts Legislature, thus becoming the first woman to address such a body. She also defended a woman’s right to petition as both a moral and political right. Because women could not vote, petitioning a governing body was the only means by which they could influence legislative policy and assert their status as citizens. Over time, Angelina’s speeches came to focus more on women’s rights than on abolition.

After Angelina and her husband had children, she stepped back from public speaking and devoted more of her time to correspondence and taking care of the household. Theodore Weld had serious economic problems, so he and his wife decided to open a school to support their growing family. Sarah moved in with them and both sisters taught at the school.

In1870, after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment which stated that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State…”.  Angelina and Sarah Grimke took their last public action. Both of them had grown old by this time but nonetheless they made their way to the polls during a blinding snowstorm to cast their votes. Men and boys jeered at them for the attempt, but because they were elderly women, they were not arrested. Neither, of course, were they allowed to vote. Nonetheless at least they had tried.

When the Grimke sisters died, women were still not considered full citizens. That victory would have to wait for younger generations. But in their lifetimes, both Angelina and Sarah Grimke pushed the country a little closer to acknowledging that women should indeed be allowed to be active participants in the country.

Carrying the Torch for Immigration

This week, as usual, has been filled with chatter about what people in Washington are saying about immigration. Several people commented on the familiar poem by Emma Lazarus especially the final words, which are framed as a quotation from the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”.  

Statue of Liberty

Who was Emma Lazarus and why did she write those words? Well, one thing is certain, she wasn’t thinking about the current immigration debate. Born in 1849 in New York City, Lazarus came from a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family which had been settled in America since before the American Revolution. Lazarus was educated at home by tutors. She studied German and French as well as American and British literature and started writing poetry while she was very young perhaps inspired by the fact that her great-great-grandmother had been a poet.

Lazarus published her first book of poems and translations when she was eighteen and became a successful writer while she was still in her twenties. She published translations from European literature including works by Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich Heine, and Victor Hugo. She also wrote novels and plays. Her work was admired by critics such as William Cullen Bryant and was  well-received by readers.

The Lazarus family, including Emma, was part of a cosmopolitan social world in New York and did not attend religious services or participate very much in Jewish events until the 1880s.  It was the pogroms in Russia, which followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, that awakened Lazarus to the danger facing many Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe. Lazarus became an activist, working to help the thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who fled to the United States during the last decades of the nineteenth century. She volunteered to work with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society and also helped to found a technical high school for immigrants.

While Emma Lazarus was pursuing her writing career, other people were promoting the idea of building a Statue of Liberty. In 1865, Edouard de Laboulaye, a French philosopher and a strong abolitionist, had proposed that a monument be built as a gift from France to the United States. He wanted the statue to commemorate the perseverance of freedom and democracy in the United States and to honor the work of the late president Abraham Lincoln. Ten years later, in 1875, an agreement was reached by which France would pay for the statue while Americans would provide the pedestal on which it would be installed.

Fundraising is never easy and the Americans who supported the building of the statue tried a number of ways to finance it. President Grover Cleveland was asked to give $50,000 of public money to help pay for the pedestal, but he refused. Congress also refused to authorize any payment. The money would have to come from ordinary citizens. Fundraisers then got the idea of holding an auction of art and manuscripts to support the effort. It was at this point that Emma Lazarus was asked to write a poem to be donated to the auction. The sonnet she wrote was “The New Colossus“, a copy of which is now enshrined in the pedestal of the statue.

Although Emma Lazarus is now the poet most closely identified with the Statue of Liberty and with immigration, she did not live long enough to know about the honor given her work. She was not mentioned when the statue was installed in 1886, and her poem was not engraved and placed inside the pedestal until 1903. By then Emma Lazarus had died, probably of leukemia, in 1887 at the age of 38. Her poem about immigration and the role it has played in the development of America, however, remains very much alive and people still quarrel about its meaning.  

Cooperating across Borders to Save the World

The news has been so filled with disaster stories these past weeks that it’s hard to decide which of them to worry about first. But probably the one that tells us about the greatest threat to the world is the story of disastrous climate change. A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us about how changing weather conditions may affect the food supplies of millions of people. Scientists and governments will have to work together to help people make changes that may save many of us from starvation.

Sometimes we forget that science has always been international. The search for knowledge about the natural world and the forces that control it has ignored national boundaries and spread to governments and people worldwide. Some of the best examples of scientific cooperation came about a couple of centuries ago when America was seen, from the European viewpoint, as a new country. Botanists were among the early explorers who discovered and described the plants and animals that Native Americans had long known about but were unknown in other counties. Last year, I wrote a post about David Hosack, an early botanist who shared his knowledge and his plants with scientists across Europe.

Botany was recognized as an important science because at that time most medical treatments depended on using medicines derived from plants. Fortunately, it was also a science that did not require expensive equipment or training. One of the earliest American botanists was a woman who lived and died years before the United States was formed.

Jane Colden

Jane Colden was born in Orange County, New York, in the Hudson River Valley in 1724. Her parents had emigrated from Scotland and the family lived on a large estate where they observed many plants and animals unfamiliar to them. Jane was an intelligent and curious child and even though women were not generally encouraged to embark on serious studies, her father helped her to study and draw the plants that surrounded them. He also taught her the system developed by the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, to classify plants.

Jane soon began corresponding with botanists in both Europe and America. She was a skilled illustrator and developed a technique for making ink impressions of leaves. Between 1753 and 1758, she catalogued more than 300 species of plants that she found in the area near her home. She also asked Native Americans and some of the Dutch settlers in the region about medicinal uses for these plants and was able to share that information with other scientists. Her scientific work was cut short when she married and a few years later died, apparently in childbirth, at the age of 42. Unfortunately, few of her letters have been preserved and we know about Jane Colden mainly through comments about her written by better-known botanists. Her only remaining manuscript is at the British Museum in London.

Jane Colden drawings

It is inspiring to read about the way Jane Colden and other 18th century scientists exchanged information and specimens across national boundaries. Without these exchanges, difficult though communication was in those days, science would not have enriched the lives of so many people. Have we lost the ability to do that just when global cooperation is most urgently needed?

Now that we have established lightning-fast communication that allows information to flow across the globe, it is time for many countries to work together even more than in the past. The threats brought by global warming require worldwide cooperation. Let’s hope the scientists and private citizens will be able to keep the work going without allowing political struggles to build walls between countries. Tariffs and secrecy may protect corporations but they often work against the welfare of ordinary people who depend on shared knowledge to maintain their wellbeing. We have to remember that we’re all in this together on one small, troubled planet.