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.

Struggling to be Accepted as an American: Tye Leung Schulze

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
…I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Those welcoming words are enshrined on the Statue of Liberty that towers over New York harbor. But despite that generous offer, America has made it very difficult for many people to enter the country. And few groups have been as badly treated as Chinese Americans.

From 1882 until its repeal in 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned all immigration from China. It was the only United States law ever to specifically ban one ethnic group. While new immigrants were banned, Chinese Americans who were born and raised in the United States were subject to hostility and prejudice. Among those who suffered was a tiny Chinese American woman named Tye Leung Schulze who spent most of her life trying to help Chinese Americans to become valuable members of the community.

Tye Leung Schulze

Born in San Francisco in 1887, Tye Leung was unable to attend public school because California’s segregated school system did not provide schools for Chinese students. Fortunately, she discovered a Presbyterian Mission School where she found education and encouragement.

In 1910, Leung took the civil service exam and became the first Chinese American woman employed by the federal government. Assigned to the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay, she became a translator. Two years later she made history by voting in the 1912 presidential election. (California women had gained the right to vote in 1911). She was the first Chinese woman in vote in a United States election, and perhaps the first to vote anywhere in the world.

Leung valued the importance of voting and she expressed her faith in the importance of women’s suffrage in an interview shortly after she had voted: I think…that we women are more careful than the men. We want to do our whole duty more. I do not think it is just the newness that makes use like that. It is conscience”

While she was working at Angel Island, Leung met her future husband, Charles Schulze, an Immigration Inspector. But once again the government opposed her because of her Asian roots. At that time, California banned intermarriage between whites and Asians. To escape this law, Leung and Schulze had to travel to Washington State to celebrate their marriage. And to add further injury, both Leung and Schulze lost their jobs with the Immigration Service when they returned to Angel Island.

Eventually, Tye found work with the Pacific telephone exchange. She and her husband lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown and raised four children. Although her husband died in 1935, Tye continued to work with the Chinese American community as a bookkeeper for the Chinese Hospital and an operator for Pacific Telephone’s Chinatown exchange. During World War II, she helped Chinese brides to enter the country and become citizens. She remained an active force in the community until she died at the age of 86.

Tye Leung Schulze’s life story has been told in a documentary film available on YouTube .

You can also read more about her life in Julia Flynn Siler’s book The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown (2019).

In 1987, Leung Schulze was designated a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project. She is a woman well worth remembering and honoring.

Stacey Abrams–a Star for the Future

Events in Washington D.C. this past week have been so disturbing that they have dominated all American news outlets. On Wednesday, when Congress gathered  to cast ceremonial votes to accept the reports of the Electoral College, President Donald Trump called on his followers to protest the vote. And protest they did—they broke into the Capitol building, knocking over desks, scattering papers around the floor, and carrying the Confederate flag through the halls.  Their aim, apparently, was to reverse the findings of the presidential election and throw out the votes that had brought Joe Biden a victory. They did not succeed in overturning the election, but they left the country in a turmoil that will last for weeks and affect the political life of the country for months and years to come. 

While we can’t ignore the drama of the attack on the Capitol, it is important not to forget the momentous news that came earlier in the week. In Georgia’s runoff election for the Senate on Tuesday, the two Democratic candidates were elected. This will give the Democrats control of the Senate for at least the next two years. When President Biden takes office on January 20th, he will have more Senatorial support for his policies than anyone had anticipated. The times they certainly are a-changing. What is it that has brought about this change?

Stacey Abrams

One cause of the change was the overwhelming turnout for the election. And much of the credit for inspiring that turnout should be given to Stacey Abrams. We should not become so preoccupied with the crisis at the Capitol that we forget to pay tribute to this young political star who is having a huge impact on the future of Georgia and perhaps of the entire South.

Stacey Abrams was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1973, but grew up mainly in the South where both of her parents were Methodist ministers. She was the valedictorian in her high school class and later graduated magna cum laude from Spelman College where she participated in political activities including burning the Georgia state flag to protest the Confederate flag that was part of its design. She later earned a law degree from Yale University.

After serving for ten years in the Georgia General Assembly, Stacey Abrams ran for governor of Georgia in 2018. Winning the Democratic Primary for that race made her the first Black women ever to be nominated for governor by a major political party. Winning the governorship was a more difficult challenge.  Her opponent, Brian Kemp, was not only the Republican nominee but was also the Secretary of State and therefore was in charge of voter registration for the election. Thousands of registered voters were removed from the roles in questionable actions during the year preceding the governor’s race. Abrams lost the election by 50,000 votes, but she gained countrywide fame and was one of the speakers at the 2020 Democratic convention.

In the years since 2018, Abram was worked energetically to increase voter turnout for all elections, especially in the South. She founded an organization called Fair Fight 2020 to support Democratic candidates. And she continues to encourage all voters, especially those in minority communities, to participate actively in elections. The remarkable turnout in the 2020 election owes a great deal to her hard work and advocacy.

Let’s celebrate Stacey Abrams for what she has achieved and look forward to her further achievements in the years to come.

An Imperfect Suffragist–Jane Grey Swisshelm

Looking back from our perch a hundred years after American women got the right to vote, it’s easy to wonder why it took so long. Allowing women to vote did not cause an upheaval in politics. Neither the fears of frivolous “petticoat rule” nor the hopes for a new, uncorruptible electorate proved true. The political parties continued to nominate men and push for positions that were pretty much the same as the ones they had supported for generations.

Jane Grey Swisshelm

Some women had predicted a new, more just society would be brought about by giving women more rights. Lucy Stone, an early suffragist, wrote “I believe that the influence of women will save the country before every other power”. Things did not work out that way.  Learning more about the women who worked on suffrage helps us understand the mixed motives and beliefs that shaped events.

Jane Grey Swisshelm was one strong believer in women’s right to vote who expected far less of women than Lucy Stone did. Swisshelm thought women were not ready to enter the main arena of politics. She suggested that they earn the vote slowly by proving they were capable of exercising the right wisely in a local setting. “Women should not weaken their cause,” she wrote, “by impracticable demands. Make no claim which could not be won in a reasonable time. Take one step at a time…and advance carefully.”

Jane Grey Swisshelm was born in 1815 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her father and sister died when Jane was eight years old and she grew up in poverty as her mother struggled to support the family. When she was 20 years old, Jane married and moved to Kentucky with her new husband. Here she first encountered slavery and was horrified by the cruelty she saw around her. She was especially outraged by a neighboring slaveowner who impregnated his female slave and then sold his children into slavery.

Jane’s response to what she saw in Kentucky was to write articles for the local press. As the popularity of her articles grew, she decided to start her own paper, but soon discovered some of the disadvantages of being a woman in the business world. The editor for whom she had been writing immediately asked whether her husband approved of Jane working. Then he said she would have to work in the office with him. The idea of working with a man in an office was scandalous, but the editor was a careful gentleman.  They worked in the same office together for ten years, but whenever Jane was there, he drew up the shutters so the room could be seen from the street; and he never offered to walk her home or anyplace else unless he was accompanied by his wife. Jane played her role by deliberately not dressing fashionably and trying to play down her attractiveness. The first copy of her paper Pittsburg Saturday Visiter (She deliberately used an old-fashioned spelling of the word.) was printed on Jan. 20, 1848. It soon gained many readers and Jane moved on to bigger things.

Many of Swisshelm’s articles were about abolition and the struggle over the Fugitive Slave Law. She wrote to Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, one of the most influential newspapers in the country. He hired her to go to Washington and write dispatches for his paper, so she became the first woman to sit in the reporter’s gallery of the United States House of Representatives.

As Swisshelm’s work as a journalist continued, she became a force in anti-slavery circles as well as a part of the women’s rights movement. She was strongly interested in women’s economic rights, an interest brought about in part because her husband claimed that he had a right to the property she inherited from her mother. The couple divorced in 1857 and Jane moved to Minnesota with her daughter to pursue newspaper work. Working in St. Cloud, she campaigned against a local politician, Sylvanus Lowry, who owned slaves despite the fact that Minnesota was a free state. Eventually the quarrel became so bitter that Lowry raised a group of followers who burned her newspaper office and destroyed her business.

Swisshelm was always a strong supporter of freedom for slaves and justice for free Blacks, but her feelings for other groups were not so strong. She did not believe that Indians native to Minnesota had any right to the territory and deplored the fact that they resisted the incursion of settlers. When the Dakota Indian War broke out in 1862, she was appalled at the slaughter of several hundred settlers by the Indian “savages” as she called them. The Indians had been promised money for the land they gave for settlement, but Swisshelm saw no reason why they should be paid. She called for the extermination of all Indians who resisted the incursions of white settlers and she travelled to Washington D.C. to urge Lincoln to punish the Indians more. In recent years many Minnesotans have called for the removal of all monuments and tributes to Swisshelm because of this blot on her record.

Dakota War 1862

Swisshelm’s trip to Washington led her to volunteer as a nurse during the War and she served until the war ended and she got a government post. Afterward she started a newspaper, the Reconstructionist, but when she printed articles critical of the new president, Andrew Johnson, she lost her job and her newspaper.  

So what should we think of Jane Grey Swisshelm? She was undoubtedly a reformer who supported many good causes, especially abolition and women’s rights. But she was also a cantankerous voice against other good causes, opposing rights for Native Americans, and quarrelling with other suffragists over how women should gain their rights. Much of what we know about Swisshelm is found in the autobiography she published in 1881 called Half a Century. It has recently been republished and is available as a free Kindle book on Amazon. If you read the book it will introduce you to a strong, brave, but maddening woman who argued and fought her way through many of the most troublesome issues of the 19th century. Women’s suffrage, like many reforms, was finally won not by heroic angels, but by a mix of women with strengths and weaknesses that both helped and hindered their cause.

Votes for Women Booklet

Today I am announcing a new way for you to use some of the ideas you’ve read about on Teacupsandtyrants.com over the past several years. Some of my readers have mentioned that they like to go back to earlier posts to find titles and authors of books I’ve mentioned. Some have used the blog as a source of ideas for books to read with their reading groups.

As a help for anyone who wants to read on a particular theme, or to suggest one to a reading group, I’ve decided to pull together a few booklets of suggestions. The first themed booklet is now up on my blog home page (on the right at the top). The booklet is a pdf file (leaders voting rights.pdf) that you can download and print or use online. Titled Waging War for Women it is designed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave American women the right to vote. As I write in my introduction:

2020 marks the hundredth anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment that gave American women the right to vote. It is time to look back at the lives of six of the most outspoken and radical women who brought us this victory. The women’s lives span the years from the beginning of the country until the early 20th century; the group includes white women and African Americans, immigrants and American born; some were Quakers, one an atheist, others followed various religions. What distinguishes them is that they all fought actively to make life better for women. They refused to be silent. They rejected the limited role given to women. It took more than one lifetime to win the vote, but they never gave up the fight. Meet the warriors:

  • Lucretia Mott
  • Sojourner Truth
  • Ernestine Rose
  • Victoria Woodhull
  • Ida B. Wells
  • Alice Paul

I hope you and your friends will enjoy reading these introductions and the books that are mentioned. In months to come I hope to post other booklets on other themes growing out of the ideas presented in teacupsandtyrants.com

Politics and Performance: Alice Paul

Born into a wealthy Quaker family in 1885, Alice Paul followed their long tradition of service to the community. After her early education at a private Quaker school, she graduated from Swarthmore College, which her grandfather had helped to found. Next she moved on to the University of Pennsylvania, hoping to discover how she wanted to spend her life. After trying social work in New York City for a year, she decided that would not be her route. Instead she traveled to England to study at the London School of Economics.

Alice Paul

While in London, she met Christabel Pankhurst and her mother Emmeline, two leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the leading suffragette organization in the UK. Both of the Pankhursts recognized Paul’s talent for giving speeches and for organizing. Soon she was invited to join a deputation of women to visit Prime Minister Asquith. The contemptuous response with which the group was met—the women were barred from entering Parliament to present their petition and were threatened with arrest—converted Paul into an enthusiastic supporter of votes for women. She soon agreed to join Christabel for a tour of Scotland and northern England.

As Paul soon learned, the tactics of British suffragettes were far more confrontational than anything American women had tried. In June 1909, Marion Wallace Dunlop staged the first women’s hunger strike by refusing to eat until she and the others were granted status as political prisoners. Dunlop soon grew weak from hunger and authorities were afraid to keep her in prison and so released her early. Other suffragettes realized that the hunger strike was an effective weapon to draw attention and support to their movement.

When a group of suffragettes, including Paul, were arrested after attempting to disrupt a speech by Lloyd George, they were arrested and ordered to pay fines or go to prison. All of them chose prison. They were denied status as political prisoners and ordered to change into prison uniforms. When they refused to comply, they were stripped naked by female guards. This, of course, led to a hunger strike. As the women grew weaker and visibly lost weight, authorities feared that a death would reflect badly upon the government. Finally, doctors were brought in to forcibly feed the women through tubes inserted into their noses.  After five days of this, Alice Paul was released; others were freed during the next few days. All of the women were weakened by the ordeal and Paul suffered for years afterward from the physical effects of the force feeding.

Now completely dedicated to the cause of suffrage, Paul decided it was time to return to America and work for the cause there. She sailed back home in 1910 to the great relief of her mother who had been fretting for weeks over when she would return. Instead of plunging immediately into suffrage work, Paul decided to re-enroll in the University of Pennsylvania to work on a doctorate. While she wrote her dissertation on women’s legal status in the United States, Paul also spoke to Quaker groups about her suffragist activities. She soon joined the American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and became an influential member. 

Although NAWSA had chosen to fight for suffrage on a state-by-state basis, Alice Paul advocated attempting to pass a federal women’s suffrage amendment as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had advocated years earlier. A major factor in choosing to aim for the state-by-state was to keep the support of Southern states, many of which wanted to maintain their repression of all African American voters, both men and women.

Alice Paul’s first major project was a suffrage parade held on March 13,1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration. Suffrage groups from all over the country sent representatives to Washington to participate in what was planned as a triumphant march up Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. Paul worked hard to ensure that the parade was given permission to use that major street, despite attempts by the DC authorities to move the group to a less conspicuous location. Eventually Paul got her way and even obtained the promise of the police commissioner to keep other traffic off the parade route.

At the last minute, suffrage delegations from the various states were told that their groups should be separated by race with African Americans at the rear of the procession and white women up front. This was an effort to keep the support of Southern states, but the order was ignored by a few marchers including Ida B. Wells who triumphantly walked at the head of the Illinois delegation with the white women. There is some confusion about whether or not Alice Paul supported the segregation decision.

Despite all the planning, the march did not go as expected. The event was led by mounted suffrage leaders, most notably Inez Milholland riding a white horse, a scene that was described by the New York Times as “one of the most impressively beautiful spectacles ever staged in this country”. Despite their promises, the authorities provided no police protection and people crowded onto the street holding up the parade and preventing women from moving. Police stood by doing nothing. Finally National Guard troops and Boy Scouts as well as some male volunteers were able to clear the street and allow the women to finish their march.

Inez Milholland

The 1913 procession was a triumph for the suffrage women. More than half a million people are estimated to have watched it, but the stain of the segregated march has lingered. The event is a sad comment on the contrasting event led by Lucretia Mott in 1838 during which the women of both races linked arms and walked together out of a Philadelphia meeting to evade hecklers in the group.

The 1913 march succeeded in bringing suffrage to the forefront of publicity, but years of continuing agitation and political maneuvering were needed before a national suffrage bill was finally passed in 1920. You can read more about Alice Paul’s long fight to get votes for women in Alice Paul: Claiming Power (2014) by J.D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry.       

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

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.