A Furious Fighter for Justice—Ida B. Wells

1 Comment

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

2 Comments

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

6 Comments

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.