Happy Birthday to a Real Pro—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Many people have listened to one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most familiar sonnets which begins: How do I love thee/ Let me count the ways… These words are often recited as a part of wedding celebrations. The sentiment expressed is just as relevant for couples today as it was when the sonnet was written more than a century ago. Barrett’s picture may look old-fashioned, but her ideas live on. All the little-girl curls and flowing skirts mask a very modern woman.

Today is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 216th birthday. She was born on March 6. 1806 in Durham, England. Her father, Edward Moulton-Barrett came from a family that had lived for several generations on the island of Jamaica, which was then a British colony. The family became wealthy by producing sugar on plantations that relied on the labor of enslaved people. Like many other families who lived in the West Indies, there was considerable mingling and sometimes marriage among the European settlers and their African workers. Elizabeth Barrett, like her siblings, had dark skin and eyes and she always considered herself to be of mixed-race. Although there is no evidence to prove this one way or the other, the fact that she believed it had an important influence on her life.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Many of Barrett Browning’s poems express feelings and ideas that speak to readers now as clearly as they did when they were first written. But the times during which Elizabeth Barrett lived, meant that she had to struggle to become a poet. She lived in a society where women were supposed to be readers, not writers. Fortunately, Elizabeth’s parents did not entirely agree with this idea and they provided her with a good education and encouraged her writing.

Elizabeth was the oldest of the twelve children and they formed a close-knit family group. Each child had a nickname—Elizabeth was known as “Ba”, a name she used all of her life. Like her siblings, Elizabeth never had to look far for companionship. The girls in the family were educated at home while the boys were sent to schools to be trained for business.  Living on a country estate, the children turned to books and writing for entertainment. Elizabeth started writing poetry at the age of four, and when she was 14, her father had some of her poems privately published for distribution within the family.

Life at the Barrett’s was not without hardship though, especially after Elizabeth fell ill with a spinal disorder during her early teens. From that time on, she was an invalid and led a very restricted life. She took opiates to ease the pain of her spinal injury, but this medication led to further deterioration of her ability to live normally. On the other hand, being an invalid meant she was relieved of the household duties that kept her sisters busy and allowed her to work diligently at becoming a poet.

Almost everyone who has read and studied English poetry knows the story of EBB’s adult life. After living in seclusion with her family until she was almost forty years old, she eloped with the poet Robert Browning. Her father disowned her when she married, and the two were never reconciled. For the rest of her life, EBB lived in Italy, although she often visited London and kept in touch with many old friends. Her life centered around her poetry and her family. She and Robert had one son, but family life never kept her from being a dedicated writer. She wrote about current social issues such as child labor, the abolition of slavery, and the right of every woman to have a life of her own. Her reputation as a poet grew steadily after her marriage, culminating with the publication of her novel in verse, Aurora Leigh,  which the critic John Ruskin called it “the greatest long poem of the nineteenth century”. This poem was an immediate best seller and is still read and studied.

In 1861, a year after the publication of Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died at the age of 55. 

During the late 19th century and down to the present day, EBB has been famous more for her life than for her work. Thousands of people have seen the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street either on stage or in one of several movie versions. But this presentation concentrates on the romantic elopement of Elizabeth and Robert and downplays her long career as a writer. For all of her crinolines and curls, EBB was a serious poet who worked steadily at becoming a great writer. Her husband and child were important in her life, but she never gave up her artistic ambitions.

There have been several biographies of EBB and last year the British scholar Fiona Sampson gave us a new one that sheds a great deal of light on Barrett’s life. Two Way Mirror: the Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Norton 2021) shows us Barrett as a social activist and a thinker. I highly recommend the book and as an introduction you might watch the video webinar that Fiona Sampson made for the National Library of Scotland.  

You may not want to read Aurora Leigh. Few people today have the patience to read a novel in verse, but we all should remember the poet who was perhaps the first woman to be recognized as a professional poet. She was even nominated to be Poet Laureate when that post became empty, although that honor finally went to Tennyson. EBB is often pictured as a frail, semi-invalid, which she certainly was, but she was much more. Rather than being defeated by her physical weakness she used it as a springboard into a successful career as a professional artist.

An Anniversary and a New Focus—Savitribai Phule

2022 is the tenth anniversary of this blog. It is hard to believe that I’ve written almost 300 posts—287 to be exact. I hope to hit 300 this year. As I wrote in my first post in February 2012, I started this blog to share my ideas about the connections I have found with the men and women who went before us. From the beginning I have concentrated on women because their lives and ideas have often been neglected.  

As I look back over my posts, I see many familiar names spanning a wide history. I’ve written about Hatshepsut, the Egyptian “female pharaoh” who was born about 1485 BC and about Greta Thunberg who was born in 2003. That’s quite a range of time, but I’ve not ranged as widely in geography. Most of the women in my posts lived either in the United States or Europe. This year I am going to cast a wider net and include more women who lived in Asia, Africa, and other places on our globe. Even though I have travelled widely and visited countries around the world, I know far less than I should about their histories and peoples. This year I’ll try to broaden my vision.

Savitribai Phule is an important figure in the history of India. Born on January 3, 1831, in Maharashtra province, she is remembered now and honored as the country’s first female teacher. Her family belonged to the Mali caste, whose members traditionally grow flowers, spices, and other crops. Although Savitribai’s family was prosperous, they did not consider it appropriate to educate women, so she was illiterate when she married Jyotirao Phule. Her husband was a reformer and a strong believer in education. One of his first projects was to teach his young wife to read.

Phule Savitribai and Jyotirao

Savitribai studied with her husband and soon realized that education was the key for improving the lives of all women, especially those of the lower castes. With her husband’s support, Savitribai attended a teacher-training institute and later the two of them set up a school for girls. Soon they were running four schools for—the first schools for girls in India that were run by Indians. When they started to enroll girls from the lower castes—at that time called untouchables—however, both Savitribai and Jyotirao encountered strong opposition from many Brahmins and other higher caste Indians.

 Opponents to women’s education told Jyotirao that he would die young because he had allowed his wife to be educated. They claimed that educated women might use their skill to write letters to men outside of the family. Some protesters did not stop at making predictions. They also followed Savitribai as she walked back and forth to school and threw rotten fruit and dung at her to frighten her away from teaching. But the young couple was not deterred. They persisted in keeping their schools open and eventually they had 150 or more girls enrolled.

 Savitribai and her husband worked all of their lives to make life better for people born into the lower castes, and especially women. They introduced the name “dalit” instead of “untouchable” and helped people to enjoy the benefits of education and enjoy a more satisfying life. They campaigned against child marriage and called for better treatment for widows.

Even in the midst of her busy life, Savitribai found time to write and publish several volumes of poetry. After Jyotirao’s death, Savitribai continued his work with the help of their adopted son. When the bubonic plague struck India in 1897, she and her son set up a clinic to help victims of the plague. Savitribai died while doing this work.

Today Savitribai’s birthday on January 3, is celebrated as Balika Din in the province of Maharashtra, especially in girls’ schools. In 1998 she was honored by being the first Indian woman to appear on a postage stamp.

English language information about Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule is not widely available in American libraries, but there are a number of videos about this extraordinary couple posted on YouTube. Most of the films are produced in India and narrated in Hindi, but some have English subtitles. One that I enjoyed very much is Episode 45 of Bharat Ek Khoj entitled Savitribai

Savitribai Phule is remembered in India, but her life and work deserve to be known throughout the world.   

Julia Ward Howe and her Ever-Changing Battle Hymn

Last weekend’s Fourth of July celebrations included many musical tributes to the United States and its history. One of the most familiar of these is the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, a popular and honored patriotic song, but one that has had a long and contentious history. Most Americans will recognize these lyrics:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He has loosed the fateful lightening of his terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on

Glory, Glory halleluhja
Glory, Glory halleluhja
Glory, Glory halleluhja
His truth is marching on

The author of these lyrics, the version that we usually hear at concerts, in schools and other public occasions, was Julia Ward Howe, one of the most notable poets of the 19th century. She was also an activist for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. Her inspiration to write these verses came during a visit to Washington DC in 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War. From her hotel window she heard Union soldiers singing a popular wartime song:

John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
But his soul goes marching on
.

John Brown, of course, was the insurrectionist who had attacked federal property at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 hoping to lead a revolution that would end slavery. He failed in his mission and was executed, but he remained a hero to abolitionists and to Union soldiers during the Civil War. Julia Ward Howe wrote her new lyrics to make the song a more unifying and uplifting tribute to justice and freedom for the entire country to sing. Her version appeared in the Atlantic magazine and made her famous.  

Howe’s lyrics for the song are the ones are still the most famous ones, but her version is only one of many variations. In 1915, half a century after the Civil War had ended, and five years after Julia Ward Howe’s death, a different set of lyrics were written for the familiar tune by Ralph Chaplin, a labor activist.  His song was composed for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the Wobblies. It soon became an anthem for a number of labor unions under the title “Solidarity Forever”.

It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
But the union makes us strong.

Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
For the union makes us strong.

We don’t know what Julia Howe thought of radical labor unions like the IWW, but she probably would have enjoyed knowing that the tune she made famous has indeed gone marching on.

AN UNUSUAL OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU THIS MONTH:

One of the women who inspired Julia Ward Howe in her career was Margaret Fuller, the most famous female journalist and author in early 19th century America. The ebook version of my biography Margaret Fuller an Uncommon Woman is now on a special summer sale at Smashwords.com. The price is right—it is free! Just click on the website and order your copy. The sale ends on July 31. (If you prefer a print version of the book, you can find it at Amazon.com)

Ruth Bader Ginsberg–A Fallen Warrior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.  

The Truth about Sojourner Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-slavery coin 1830s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A heroine for the Me-too era–Madeline Pollard

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

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

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

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

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

William C. P. Breckinridge

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking Truth to Power

Last Monday we celebrated Labor Day, but the day did not offer much reason for working people to celebrate. The president struck a blow at the spirit of the day by cancelling scheduled salary increases for federal workers, citing a need to save money. It seems that the tax breaks for executives and corporations have to be paid for by workers lower in the hierarchy.

Still, there are bright spots on the horizon. This week we have also had a chance to see a

Ruth_Bader_Ginsberg1
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

number of women who are working hard to protect all Americans. Even though women were the last major group of citizens to be given the right to vote in the United States, they have finally come into their own as powerful voices for all of us.

The week started with the presentation of the documentary film, The Notorious RBG, a tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has devoted much of her career to persuading her fellow judges of the importance of women’s rights. When Justice Ginsburg completed law school and looked for positions, she found that women were consistently discriminated against in employment. She was turned down for a clerkship on the Supreme Court because, she was told, women just were not appointed to such positions. When she was hired to teach at Rutgers law school, she was frankly told that she would be paid less than a man would be because women  did not have families to support.

Over the years, Justice Ginsburg has worked patiently, supporting small changes such as using “gender” instead of “sex” when talking about discrimination. It’s a small change, but it has moved discussion away from the emotion-laden word “sex” to a more neutral term.

Gradually Justice Ginsburg and others have gained acceptance for the idea that women and men should be paid equally for equal work and hired for their skills rather than

Dianne Feinstein
Senator Dianne Feinstein

their gender. And women must be allowed to speak out on issues of importance.  Having a voice and speaking out is an important part of being a citizen.

If you ever want a quick refresher in the history of how women have been silenced over the years, you should read Mary Beard’s short book called Women; a Manifesto.  Beard, a well- known classical scholar, tells how women’s voices have been silenced over the centuries. Perhaps it started with Telemachus, the

Kamela Harris
Senator Kamela Harris

young son of Odysseus, when he rebukes his mother for expressing an opinion: “go back up into your quarters” he said. “Speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.”

But women are no longer willing to be silenced. It has taken hundreds of years to develop their voices, but at last we are seeing it happen. More women are running for elective positions in 2018 than have ever run before. And this week we were able to see some of the results.

At the Senate Judicial Committee hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, some of the most memorable questions came from Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamela Harris. Whatever the outcome of the appointment may be, thousands of people across the country have had the satisfaction of seeing troublesome questions raised—questions about a woman’s right to choose, about limitations on presidential powers, and about the future of health care in America. Women spoke and attention was paid.

Now it is up to all of us to keep on speaking up—with our votes, with our actions, and with our voices. Democracy is not a spectator sport.