Fanny Wright and Her Impossible Dream

2021 has been one of the most divisive years Americans have endured. But if we look back at history, this is by no means the worst we’ve seen. The early years of the 19th century found Americans bitterly divided over the institution of slavery, the power of the federal government, and the importance of religion. Some people wanted nothing to change, but many others were determined to change society in a way that would eliminate slavery and ensure justice for everyone. The question was—how could that be done?

One of the most ambitions dreamers of a new, more just America was a young immigrant named Fanny Wright. Born into a wealthy family in Dundee, Scotland, in 1795, Fanny Wright was orphaned as a young child. She was raised mostly by an aunt of her mother’s and an uncle who was a professor of philosophy in Scotland. In the university library, she read every book she could find and soon began writing poetry and plays. When she read about America and how it was dedicated to a just and fair society for all, she determined to visit the country.

Fannny Wright

At the age of 23, she was able to fulfill her plan and sailed to America with her sister. She was delighted by the freedom of American society, but shocked when she discovered the realities of slavery. In the book she wrote about her travels she said, “The sight of slavery is revolting every where, but to inhale the impure breath of its pestilence in the free winds of America is odious beyond all that the imagination can conceive.”

After her book was published in Great Britain, many important people admired it and wanted to meet the young author. One of her most congenial new friends was the Marquis de Lafayette. In fact, they became such close friends that she moved into Lafayette’s house for a while and was rumored to be his lover. Whether that was true or not, when Lafayette was invited to return to the United States in 1826 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the United States, Fanny and her sister followed in his footsteps.

On her second visit to the country, Fanny was even more troubled by the continued existence of slavery and the failure of Americans to confront the issue and find a way to end it. One popular idea in the 1820s and 1830s was that slaves should be freed and then transported out of the country. Very few people liked the idea of having free Blacks live in the same areas in which they had been enslaved. Two popular destinations for these people were Liberia, in Africa, and Haiti, the Caribbean Island that had won independence from France in 1804 and had abolished slavery.

Fanny Wright conceived an ambitious plan to demonstrate how slavery could be abolished in the United States without slaveowners losing the money they had invested. She proposed starting a farming colony where slaves could buy their freedom through the products they raised and sold. Unfortunately, the location she found was Nashoba, Tennessee, a swampy, isolated area that did not offer good soil for farming. It was also far from the markets where produce could be sold  and there were no roads. Fanny Wright had never farmed, and she apparently did not consult anyone who could give her practical guidance.

The bad start soon grew worse. Fanny had hoped to form a utopian community, but the Black residents were still slaves and were not given any responsibility for running the organization. Instead, Fanny recruited white men and women who wanted to form an ideal society, although they did not know much about how to farm or to run a business. Nonetheless, the trustees made all the decisions, while the slaves that Fanny had purchased, did the practical farm work.

When Fanny got sick, probably with malaria, and she left the colony under the supervision of the white trustees while she traveled to Europe to find treatment. When she returned to the farm a year later, she found that nothing had gone well. The farm was failing, most of the trustees had left, and the man who was left in charge treated the slaves just about as badly as they had been treated by their old masters.

When Fanny published a paper to justify her plans, she got herself into more trouble. For one thing, she suggested that the free Blacks could intermarry with white citizen and the differences between the races would disappear. She also revealed that she was an atheist and did not believe religious services would help the community. Both of those beliefs caused Wright to lose the support she had enjoyed earlier. Many people could hardly decide which was worse—believing in inter-racial marriage or being an atheist.

That was the end of the Nashoba colony. Fanny was able to purchase freedom for the eight slaves she had brought there and eventually to send them to Haiti, but the community never recovered. And the failure of Nashoba led to the end of Fanny’s dream of freeing all the slaves in America.

Fanny Wright spent the rest of her life traveling between Europe and America, lecturing on rights for women and sometimes on the abolition of slavery, but her reputation was damaged beyond repair. She died in 1852, years before the Civil War had finally led to the abolition of slavery in the United States.  

Happy Birthday to an Immigrant Child—Madeleine Albright

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

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

Madeleine Albright

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

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

Examples of Madeleine Albright’s Collection of Pins

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

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

Happy Birthday, Madam Secretary!

It’s Labor Day But Who Is Celebrating?—the Rana Plaza tragedy

May 1 is Labor Day (or Workers Day) throughout most of the world, but despite the celebration, these are not good times for many working people. Over the past several years, injustices and tragedies have struck around the globe.  And now workers who were already suffering from low wages and poor working conditions are among those hit hardest by the pandemic. But while wealthy countries struggle to help India and other third world countries to overcome the tragedy of illness, we should not forget that even ending that plague will not end the suffering of many workers caught in a cycle of unfair working conditions.

Eight years ago this week in Bangladesh, more than a thousand garment workers were killed when a factory building collapsed. The Rana Plaza tragedy brought an immediate outcry and urgent calls for reform. An international chorus of voices were raised to decry the conditions that led to this tragedy. Even the pope was moved to respond.  

Rana Plaza Protest in Bangladesh

On May 1, 2013, Pope Francis spoke out: A headline that really struck me on the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh was ‘Living on 38 euros a month’. That is what the people who died were being paid. This is called slave labour. Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us – the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity. How many brothers and sisters find themselves in this situation! Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God.

From the amount of publicity surrounding the Rana Plaza tragedy, many people have probably assumed that conditions must have improved. Surely changes would have been made to ensure that workers received better wages and safer working conditions. That is what happened after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City a hundred years earlier.

But, this is not what has happened to today’s workers.  As reported in Vogue this month In November 2020, 12 people were killed in an explosion at a garment factory in Gujarat, India. In March this year, 20 people were killed and dozens left injured after a fire tore through a clothing factory in Cairo, Egypt, with a further eight killed and 29 injured when a 10-storey building collapsed in the same city later that month. (Vogue 27 April 2021)

The worldwide pandemic has brought greater suffering to the workers in India and other countries because fashion companies cut back on their production of clothing. Orders were cancelled and workers lost their jobs. Now that many developed countries are once again ramping up production, they are looking to cut costs and are encouraging lower wages and fewer safety rules.

How can Western consumers help? Primarily by pushing clothing manufacturers to support reasonable wages and to insist on better safety measures in factories. Of course prices will have to rise, but do most consumers really want to save a few dollars on an outfit at the price of costing a human life? Clothing production is a woman-dominated field. From the factory workers in Bangladesh to the fashionable professional woman in New York or London, it is women who drive the market and purchase the products. It is up to women to make sure that our clothes are not causing suffering and death.

Several organizations have been begun to describe what a consumer can do to help improve the fashion business. One website (fashionabc.org) offers suggestions on how to fix the problem, starting with the resolving to buy less clothing. You can also examine labels and find companies that support international labor agreements. You could also shop in thrift stores for some items and perhaps take the time to learn basic sewing skills at your local adult education classes.

The threat of Covid 19 will eventually fade, but let’s not forget that the struggle against unfair labor practices will continue. The time to start fighting for better lives for all is now.

Playing Poetry with the Big Boys—Amy Lowell

What does a woman poet look like? They are frequently pictured as frail and waiflike.  Think of Emily Dickinson floating about her family home, a recluse dressed always in white; or Elizabeth Barrett Browning retreating to her sickbed to write her poems. Often these maneuvers have helped women to find time to do their writing and achieve the art they wanted. But not all female poets fit these stereotypes.

Today, to celebrate Poetry Month, we will talk about a poet who turned all these stereotypes around. Amy Lowell was never frail, seldom shy, and looked nothing like a waif. She was a strong, heavy woman who used her strength and power to influence the course of poetry in America and all of the English-speaking world.

Amy Lowell

Born in 1874 into an old New England family that had provided leaders for generations, Amy never suffered from a lack of money or influential friends and relatives. She attended private schools but was not popular with other girls. She grew up believing that she was ugly and of less value than her four brothers. She was not sent to college because her family believed that college was inappropriate for girls.

Instead of a conventional education, Amy turned to books and later to travel. When she was in her twenties, she started writing poetry. Her first work was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1910 when she was in her mid-thirties. She may not have been an early bloomer, but once she started writing and publishing poetry, she had a major impact on the literary world. Her most famous poem, “Patterns” is still widely taught in schools today. The opening stanza introduced many American readers to a new type of poetry—free-flowing and often unrhymed.

I walk down the garden paths,

And all the daffodils

Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.

I walk down the patterned garden paths

In my stiff, brocaded gown.

With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,

I too am a rare

Pattern. As I wander down

The garden paths.

Source: Selected Poems of Amy Lowell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002)

Amy Lowell was soon recognized as one of the most prominent modern poets of the early 20th century. She travelled to Europe and met Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and others who were part of the imagist movement. She conceived the idea of publishing an anthology of imagist poetry, which she did in 1915. Unfortunately, she ruffled the feathers of some of the early leaders of the postwar literary scene, especially Ezra Pound, who suspected she was trying to take over the imagist movement. The ruling men of the poetry world did not welcome a woman intruding on their ranks.

Lowell not only wrote poetry and published anthologies she also went on speaking tours throughout America and England. She was a vivid presence on the stage and introduced many audiences to modern poetry. Her poems continued to be popular with the public throughout her life, although reviews by literary critics were mixed. Many of the men who dominated literary criticism found it difficult to accept a spinster who wrote about love and sexuality as easily as about more ladylike subjects. Lowell never married, but she had a long and loving relationship with her partner, Ada Dwyer Russell. The strength of their bond and what it meant in Lowell’s life was seldom mentioned, however, because of the prudery of readers and critics during that time.

During the early 1920s, Lowell took several years off from poetry to write a biography of John Keats, one of her favorite poets. During these years, unfortunately, her health deteriorated, and she died of a stroke in 1925 at the age of 51. The Keats biography was published after her death and in 1926, she was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. You can read a detailed account of Lowell’s life and death in Carl Rollyson’s biography Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography (2013).

It is almost a century now since Amy Lowell died and she is often ignored or treated as a minor figure in the history of American literature. During the 1930s and 1940s her achievements faded from public notice as tastes in poetry changed. But critics are not always right in their assessments and, as many readers have found, Amy Lowell’s poems are well worth rereading. They speak to modern concerns just vividly as they spoke to the people of her time—like these final unforgettable lines of “Patterns”.

And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace

By each button, hook, and lace.

For the man who should loose me is dead,

Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,

In a pattern called a war.

Christ! What are patterns for?

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.

Giving Women Control—Margaret Sanger

For more than a century, suffragists fought for women’s right to vote, but voting wasn’t the only thing on women’s minds at that time. What good was the right to vote if women weren’t entitled to get an education so they could learn about political issues and develop their opinions? And being able to vote was small comfort to women who were barred from holding a job that would make it possible for them to earn a living. But even the right to learn and to get a job were not enough to give women control of their lives.

Margaret Sanger

Deciding when to have a child and how many children to have made a huge difference in women’s lives. Today It is hard to realize how the lack of birth control affected families. Employers often refused to hire married women because they might become pregnant. Graduate schools rejected married women applicants with the excuse that an unplanned pregnancy could derail a degree plans at any time. And lots of women, especially poor women, often had far more children than their family could support. But during the 19th and early 20th century it was very difficult to get information about birth control. Christian reformers had passed laws declaring that information about birth control was obscene and therefore distributing it was illegal. In many states even married couples were forbidden to use contraceptives.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, progressives began to recognize this problem. One woman, Margaret Sanger, devoted most of her life to changing the way women experienced motherhood. Born in 1879, the sixth child in a family of Irish immigrants in Corning, New York, she saw at first hand the result of having a large family. Each year as another child was added to the family, Michael Higgins, their father, who was a sculptor of gravestones, became less able to support them all. Maggie Higgins, Margaret’s mother, gave birth to 22 children of whom eleven survived to grow up. She died at the age of 48 leaving the family to struggle on without her.

First Birth Control Clinic

Margaret Sanger was fortunate in having older sisters who helped her to get an education and to become a nurse. After getting her degree she married, quit work, and settled down to raise her three children. For several years she was a traditional housewife and mother, but she wanted a more active life. When she went to work in New York City as a visiting nurse, she saw for herself the way women’s lives were restricted by the number of children they bore. Most of the women she worked with were immigrants with little money and no way of finding out how they could limit the number of children they had. Sanger decided that she had an obligation to give these women information. In 1916, she opened the first birth control clinic in the city and was promptly arrested for distributing obscene material. That arrest inspired her to become a lifelong crusader for birth control.

Sanger has become one of the most controversial leaders of the early feminist movement, but much of the criticism directed at her has been misinformed. She has been reviled for supporting abortion, but in fact she always opposed it. She knew that many women were driven to having abortions because they had suffered through too many pregnancies. These illegal abortions sometimes led to illness and death. Sanger promoted birth control as a way of preventing abortions by allowing families to limit the size of their families. She founded birth control clinics in Harlem and in the Lower East Side. She worked with African American leaders to make sure that both Black and White women could control the number of their pregnancies.    

Margaret Sanger founded the American Birth Control League which later became Planned Parenthood and has become a national source of support for women’s health across the United States. Sanger’s interest in the eugenics movement during the 1920s, has led to much criticism, but she was only one of many people who were searching for ways to encourage Americans to have fewer, but healthier babies. She was a woman of many enthusiasms who spoke out about her beliefs and incited both strong support and bitter hatred. Several biographies have been published. For a well-balanced account of her life and accomplishments, you might want to try one of the more recent ones—Jean Baker’s Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion (2011).

Breaking Up the Big Boys—Ida Tarbell and the Defeat of Standard Oil

During 2020, we celebrated the suffragists who a century ago won the struggle to give women the right to vote. But voting is only part of what increased women’s power to shape their own lives. Many women were unable to get a job and earn money, so whether they could vote or not they continued to be dependent on their fathers, brothers, or husbands to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables. This year we should celebrate some of the women who opened up new economic opportunities for women.

Ida Tarbell was someone who showed how powerful a woman’s voice could be. Like many women she used the power of words to even the playing field.  But unlike most women of her time, she did not write fiction, nor did she write about “women’s issues”. She plunged into the wider world of industrial competition and politics and she succeeded. Her writing and editorial work made her one of the most powerful voices influencing politics and business practices during the late 19th century.

Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1857, Ida Tarbell was encouraged to go to school and to read widely. Both her mother and father had been schoolteachers, but when oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, her father became an oil dealer. After Ida graduated at the top of her class in high school, she went on to Allegheny College where she was the only woman in a class of 48. She studied biology and earned an MA as well as a BA. Job opportunities were limited after she graduated. She tried teaching, the traditional woman’s career,  but didn’t like it, so she decided to earn her living by writing.

Ida Tarbell

Tarbell began her career by writing articles for The Chautauquan, a magazine designed for readers interested in home study courses. Her scientific studies had trained her to search for facts and to check them carefully. In 1891, after she  had established her credentials as a writer, Tarbell decided to move to Paris and try to earn her living by independent writing. Although she dipped into fiction, she soon realized that her real talent lay in nonfiction.

While she was in Paris, Tarbell had an active social life and met many French intellectuals as well as visiting Americans. One of the visitors was Samuel McClure, the founder and publisher of the influential McClure’s Magazine. Recognizing the value of Tarbell’s work, McClure invited her to work with him. Even though she was reluctant to leave Paris, Tarbell decided to move back to New York where she became one of the most influential writers of the years around the turn of the 20th century.

During the 1890s, magazines were becoming the most important form of mass media in America. Unlike newspapers, which were limited geographically and by the tight schedules they had to maintain, magazines could publish authors who had time to investigate the background and history of current events. Ida Tarbell’s series of articles on Napoleon and on Abraham Lincoln made her one of the best-known and most influential writers in the country.

The story for which Ida Tarbell is best known is her account of the growth of the Standard Oil Company monopoly. Because her father had run a small oil company in Pennsylvania, Tarbell was especially interested in how the Standard Oil Company had taken over oil production and had destroyed many small oil companies. She spent months investigating how the Company had developed. She researched articles diligently, interviewing executives and reading archives. Between 1902 and 1904, her work was published in nineteen articles in McClure’s Magazine. They were also published as book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, which became a best seller. The impact of her work changed the way politicians and the public viewed the large corporations that had reshaped American business.

Ida Tarbell’s attitude toward women’s suffrage puzzled her friends and has caused consternation among some later writers who studied her life. Although her mother was strong in support of women’s suffrage, Ida Tarbell herself often downplayed its importance. She believed that many women found fulfilment and lived full lives without the vote, and that they would not gain much by suffrage. Perhaps one of the reasons for her attitude was that her life was very different from the lives of other women of her time.

Most women at the turn of the century knew men only as fathers, brothers, husbands, or sons. Ida Tarbell, however, worked with men as colleagues, bosses, and employees. She played an active and influential life, one that would not be changed much by an ability to vote. And at times, she seems to have seen the suffrage movement as an anti-male campaign. After the 19th Amendment was passed, however, she did support other women especially working women who had no choice but to work outside the home.

Ida Tarbell is a fascinating figure who had a great impact on the world of business and politics. There are several good biographies available. One recent one, which gives a lively account of her years with McClure’s Magazine, is Stephanie Gorton’s Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell and the Magazine that Rewrote America (2020).  

Women’s Work Is Never Done—or Paid For. Ellen Swallow Richards

These days as we try to cope with a frightening pandemic, we are accustomed to seeing pictures of women hovering over test tubes in laboratories developing vaccines and other medicines. News broadcasts feature pictures of doctors, both men and women,  swaddled in bulky protective equipment administering treatment for Covid 19 patients. Women in labs and hospitals have become the norm.

Now that science and medical services, not only in America, but around the world, are heavily dependent on women, it’s hard to believe that generations of women had to fight to be allowed to study and become part of these life-saving processes. What on earth were the men thinking?

Ellen Swallow Richards

In 1870, when Ellen Swallow, a graduate of Vassar College, who also held a masters degree in chemistry, tried to find further education, she was turned away from every laboratory and school where she applied. After great effort, a former professor of hers was able to get her admitted into the brand new Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but only on the grounds that her admission “did not establish a precedent for the general admission of females”. Were men really so frightened of women taking over their schools?

After two successful years of studies at MIT, Swallow’s thesis was accepted, but she was not given the PhD she had earned, because the school did not want to award an advanced degree to a woman. Nonetheless, Swallow stayed on at the school, married one of her fellow students, and continued to do research and to teach. She did not receive a salary but was supported by her husband who also continued to teach at MIT. It seems the men who claimed women did not have the ability to teach or do research, were perfectly willing to accept the benefits of women’s unpaid labor.

As time went by, Swallow was able became a consultant and helped to develop safe and sanitary water systems. In Massachusetts, she was responsible for the first state-wide sanitary water system in the United States. She applied her scientific knowledge to helping women to improve the domestic sanitation in their homes. Her book Food Materials and Their Adulterations (1885)  led to the passage of the first Pure Food and Drug Act in Massachusetts.  

Swallow continued to be tireless in her work to develop the scientific study of Home Economics and has often been called the founder of the ecology movement. During her long career, she received many honors and became a mentor to women who wanted to enter the fields of science and medicine. I have to wonder whether the men who tried so hard to keep her from studying science ever wondered how they could have gone so wrong.

There seems to be no easily available biography of Ellen Swallow Richards, but there is a long article about her in Wikipedia which includes a list of her many publications. For lighter touch, you can also read about Ellen Swallow as a character in Matthew Pearl’s mystery story, The Technologists (2012). Although the story is fiction, Pearl sticks close to the facts about the background of life at MIT in the years after it was founded and the experiences of Ellen Swallow.

When the Doctor is a Woman–the Blackwell Sisters

During 2020 we celebrated the suffragists who worked to gain votes for women. They won that right in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was passed. But during the same years that the suffragists were fighting for women’s right to vote, many women paid little attention to voting but pursued other paths to empower women. When we consider how women’s lives have changed over the past century, we can see that women’s right to participate in business and professions may have been just as important as winning the right to vote.

One example of women’s changing role is the number of women doctors in the United States. In 2019, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, one-third of practicing physicians were women. And in that same year, the Washington Post reported that the majority of medical students were women. We take these figures for granted now, but the battle to allow women to practice medicine was long and difficult.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to become a medical doctor, made great strides for women, but never bothered to support women’s right to vote. This year has seen the publication of a new biography of Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Emily, both of whom were pioneer doctors. Janice Nimura’s recent biography The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine (Norton 2021) gives a vivid picture of how difficult it was for women to be accepted in the medical profession.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Through the years, centuries even, men have found it hard to accept women into the schools and professions. Elizabeth Blackwell was accepted as a student at Geneva Medical College in New York mainly because the medical students were allowed to vote on whether or not she should be admitted. Faculty members refused to make that decision, but many students thought it would be a good joke to have a female student in their classes. No one apparently expected Elizabeth to become a real doctor. That idea was outlandish.

After completing medical school and earning high grades in her classes, Elizabeth Blackwell was unable to find a hospital that would allow her to observe patients and to learn from practicing doctors. She had to travel to Europe—to both England and France—to find hospitals that gave her the chance to observe patients and practice her skills.

Elizabeth Blackwell demonstrated an almost superhuman persistence and strength in seeking entry to the field. Early in her life she decided that women should be treated by female doctors who could understand their symptoms and establish more useful doctor-patient relations than men could. She did not, however, seem to believe that many other women could follow her path. Her relations with women did not demonstrate great understanding or sympathy. Although she found a number of male mentors in her tireless pursuit of medical training, she was critical of the women she encountered. When she met the wives of doctors with whom she worked, she complained about their dress and manners. “Women so dressed out,” she declared, “don’t look like rational beings and cannot be expected to be treated as such.”

The Blackwells were a large family and they worked together well. Elizabeth encouraged her younger sister, Emily, to become a doctor even though she recognized how hard a path that was. After several attempts to be accepted at an American medical school, Emily was finally able to earn her degree. Like Elizabeth, she had to go to Europe to find the practical experience to complete her skills. Along the way, both Blackwell sisters encouraged other women to follow their path.

Emily Blackwell

Ever so slowly, women gradually entered the medical field. More of them became nurses than doctors, but nonetheless, generations of women discovered they could support themselves and sometimes their families by entering medicine. This movement into economic freedom was probably as important in most women’s lives as the movement to gain votes. Nimura’s book about the Blackwell sisters shows us both the importance and the difficulty of their pioneer work. It is well worth reading.   

Pointing the way toward a new world—Shirley Chisholm

Like most Americans, I spent the early days of this past week worrying. Would there be violence at the Inauguration? Would armed intruders try to disrupt the ceremony?  It wasn’t until after President Biden was safely sworn in that I was able to take a long, peaceful breath.

Although the ceremony was held the midst of a pandemic, as well as in the aftermath of an unprecedented assault on the U. S. Capitol, everything went well. The in-person audience was small, but the virtual audience was huge. History was made and a new team entered the White House. Life is returning to normal.

Now I’ve had a few days to savor the feeling of having a Vice President who is the first woman, the first Black person, and the first Indian American to hold that office. It is time for us to rejoice and to pay homage to some of the pioneers who paved the way for that innovation.

Kamela Harris

I am not alone in celebrating the foremothers who provided models for Kamala Harris. Many women at the Inauguration ceremony wore purple, a color that has become associated with women in government. And, according to the New York Times, Representative Barbara Lee of California wore a pearl necklace which once belonged to Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman who was a serious candidate for the presidency.

In 1968, Shirley Chisholm made history by becoming the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. Once there, she made her mark by refusing to be quiet and follow the dictates of politicians in her party. She fought to serve her constituents by supporting bills to provide federal funds for childcare facilities, and she opposed the Vietnam War writing “Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies in our own country, poverty and racism, and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free.

When she was unable to change the focus of the country through legislation, Shirley Chisholm decided to run for President. Her 1972 campaign was not taken seriously by political leaders. She spent very little money on the campaign and was not able to hire strong staff for her efforts. The country was not ready for an African American president and especially not for one who was a woman. Despite her failure to gain support for her nomination, (Senator George McGovern became the Democratic candidate.) Chisholm continued to be an active member of Congress until 1982 when she retired.

Shirley Chisholm continues to be an inspiration to Kamala Harris and all the other women who are moving into public office in the country. Because of her strength and courage America’s government has become more representative of all the people of the country. This week is a good time to remember and honor her.