Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

Daisy Bates


There are many remarkable images online of Daisy Bates, unfortunately none are free to use. Please take the time to  click this link to see several examples of this strong, dedicated, female fighter for equal rights. 

 

Millie Riley lived a short, brutal life. Only months after giving birth to her daughter in 1914, she was raped, murdered, and her body disposed of in a millpond by three white men. At eight years old, her daughter Daisy Lee Gatson learned what had happened to her mother. She also learned that the men had faced no punishment. At eight years old, she learned that local law enforcement didn’t consider her mother’s murder worth investigating.

“My life now had a secret goal,” Daisy said years later, “to find the men who had done this horrible thing to my mother.” Anger and a desire for vengeance took hold of Daisy at a young age. As an adult, that fire for vengeance would grow into one for justice and she would become a driving force in the integration of schools in the South. But as a young woman, Daisy was full of hate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 If you hate, make it count for something. 

Following the death of her mother, Daisy’s father passed her along to the care of family friends Orlee, a World War I veteran, and Susie Smith. She would never be reunited with her biological father. Young Daisy attended segregated schools and experienced first-hand the poor conditions that were deemed adequate for black students. Orlee Smith died when Daisy was a teenager, which came as a terrible loss. By her own account, she adored the man and couldn’t recall “a time when this man I called my father didn’t talk to me almost as if I were an adult.” Her relationship with Susie Smith was far more fraught and often violent; she “often clobbered, tamed, switched, and made [me] stand in the corner,” Daisy wrote. But it was Orlee’s words and not Susie’s actions that would alter Daisy’s path. 

Consumed by the injustice of her mother’s murder, Daisy sought out the culprits. She caught a man’s eye one day in a commissary and the guilt in his gaze made her certain he’d been involved in Millie’s demise. She became a regular sight at his hang-out, a steady reminder of his crime as the man lived a life of drunkenness. He would once plead to Daisy, “In the name of God, please leave me alone.” He later drank himself to death.

“You’re filled with hatred. Hate can destroy you, Daisy,” Orlee said to her as he lay on his deathbed. “Don’t hate white people just because they’re white. If you hate, make it count for something. Hate the humiliations we are living under in the South. Hate the discrimination that eats away at the South. Hate the discrimination that eats away at the soul of every black man and woman. Hate the insults hurled at us by white scum—and then try to do something about it, or your hate won’t spell a thing.”

 “The perseverance of Mrs. Bates and the Little Rock Nine during these turbulent years sent a strong message throughout the South that desegregation worked and the tradition of racial segregation under ‘Jim Crow’ would no longer be tolerated in the United States of America.”

Daisy Bates became the president of the Arkansas Conference of the NAACP in 1952. With her husband L.C. Bates by her side, she poured her energy into the Arkansas State Press, a newspaper that shined a light on the achievements of the black community in the area, as well as the injustices they faced. She was at the fore-front of the battle for school desegregation when the eyes of the nation turned to Little Rock and the Arkansas governor’s refusal to comply with the federal law established by Brown v. Board of Education. Every step of the way, Daisy experienced resistance, violence, insults, and protests from the white community. The Ku Klux Klan burnt crosses on her lawn at dusk.

It was Daisy who lead the Little Rock Nine, the nine students selected to attend and integrate Central High School, through the hateful, screaming crowds. One of the students, Elizabeth Eckford, recalled the day. “I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd,” she said, “someone who maybe could help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.” Daisy was the point of the spear on this battleground of the Civil Rights Movement. 

During this time, Martin Luther King, Jr. sent word to Daisy, urging her to maintain “a way of non-violence,” even as she and the nine students were “terrorized, stoned, and threatened by ruthless mobs.” He insisted, “World opinion is with you. The moral conscience of millions of white Americans is with you.”

(Daisy) moved to the rural black community of Mitchellville where she worked tirelessly for her neighbors, establishing a program that brought water systems, sewer lines, paved roads, and a community center to the area. 

The governor of Arkansas attempted to delay the date of integration, citing the danger of an increase of violence. He neglected to mention, of course, that the violence was almost entirely initiated by whites who launched on a campaign of terror against the black community with Daisy Bates at the center. Her home was a haven for the Little Rock Nine.

Her home would later be declared a Historic National Landmark. Of its significance, a National Parks publication says, “The perseverance of Mrs. Bates and the Little Rock Nine during these turbulent years sent a strong message throughout the South that desegregation worked and the tradition of racial segregation under ‘Jim Crow’ would no longer be tolerated in the United States of America.”

Though her actions in Little Rock would be her most known, Daisy Bates never stopped working for justice. She later relocated to Washington, D.C. to work with the Democratic National Committee. She headed anti-poverty programs while serving in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. When her health demanded, she returned to Little Rock, then moved to the rural black community of Mitchellville where she worked tirelessly for her neighbors, establishing a program that brought water systems, sewer lines, paved roads, and a community center to the area. 

In 1987, Little Rock opened the Daisy Bates Elementary School, paying tribute to a woman who, in her own elementary years, had been a child in pain and burning with hate. Daisy Lee Gatson Bates died in 1999, a formidable, iron-willed woman who channeled her rage into meaningful change for all the children who followed her.

Kathryn S. Gardiner

Author and visionary of this LWV series “Forgotten Foremothers”

Kathryn S. Gardiner received her bachelor’s degree in Telecommunications from Ball State University and her master’s degree in Screenwriting from Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. From 2007 to 2015, Kathryn was the editor of special products for the Hoosier Times in Bloomington, In. There, she spearheaded The South-Central Indiana Wedding Guide, H&L, INstride, BizNet, and Adventure Indiana. She spent more than three years as an amateur mixed martial arts fighter, “retiring” in 2011 with a record of 2-2 (or 3-2, if you count her Muay Thai bout in Las Vegas, which she likes to). Kathryn became a member of the League of Women Voters in 2016, joining her parents who have been members since her childhood. She currently teaches screenwriting at Ball State and lives with a marvelous tabby cat named Cairo.

 

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

Rosa May Billinghurst


https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rosa_May_Billinghurst_demonstrating_(cropped_from_24849570088).jpg#/media/File:Rosa_May_Billinghurst_demonstrating_(cropped_from_24849570088).jpg

“I remember hearing startling stories of her running battles with the police,” said a veteran suffragette of Rosa May Billinghurst. “Her crutches were lodged on each side of her self-propelling invalid chair, and when a meeting was broken up or an arrest being made, she would charge the aggressors at a rate of knots that carried all before her.”

Known as “the cripple suffragette,” Billinghurst was born in Lewisham, London in 1875. A childhood bout of polio left her paralyzed. Throughout her youth, she and her sister Alice worked with underprivileged children, inmates at workhouses, and local sex workers. These experiences, and the injustices Billinghurst witnessed, informed her interest in women’s suffrage and her decision to join the Women’s Liberal Association, and later the Lewisham branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Undeterred, she was back in the action again only days later, now prepared to use her tricycle as a battering ram.

Billinghurst, in her three-wheeled chair, was a frequent sight at peaceful protests organized by the WSPU. However, she was no stranger to the more militant protests—and the police. During a 1910 incident, the police temporarily subdued Billinghurst by throwing her out of her tricycle “in a very brutal manner,” as she recounted later, and forcing her arms behind her back. Police disabled her tricycle and left her “in the middle of a hooligan crowd,” she said. Undeterred, she was back in the action again only days later, now prepared to use her tricycle as a battering ram.

Billinghurst’s first arrest was in 1911, charged with obstructing police during a Parliament Square demonstration. She was also involved in the WSPU’s window-smashing campaign in 1912, a tactic meant to pressure members of parliament to give women the vote in an upcoming bill. She carried rocks on her lap, secreted away beneath the blanket over her legs. During a 1913 demonstration, Billinghurst chained herself to the gates of Buckingham Palace. She endured several prisons terms, some as long as one month of hard labor. Like Sylvia Pankhurst, Billinghurst suffered forced feedings while incarcerated that left her unwell and with broken teeth. 

Yet, Billinghurst’s dedication to the cause, and particularly the plight of the poor and working class, never wavered. She died in 1953 and left her body to science. In 2018, a statue of Millicent Fawcett, a suffragist leader, was unveiled in Parliament Square. A list of 59 individuals who fought for women’s suffrage appear on the plinth. Among them is Rosa May Billinghurst. 

Kathryn S. Gardiner

Author and visionary of this LWV series “Forgotten Foremothers”

Kathryn S. Gardiner received her bachelor’s degree in Telecommunications from Ball State University and her master’s degree in Screenwriting from Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. From 2007 to 2015, Kathryn was the editor of special products for the Hoosier Times in Bloomington, In. There, she spearheaded The South-Central Indiana Wedding Guide, H&L, INstride, BizNet, and Adventure Indiana. She spent more than three years as an amateur mixed martial arts fighter, “retiring” in 2011 with a record of 2-2 (or 3-2, if you count her Muay Thai bout in Las Vegas, which she likes to). Kathryn became a member of the League of Women Voters in 2016, joining her parents who have been members since her childhood. She currently teaches screenwriting at Ball State and lives with a marvelous tabby cat named Cairo.

 

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

Melvina Walker


Melvina Walker and Nellie Cressall. Photograph: Norah Smyth/Institute of Social History

“…keep your eyes open,” Melvina Walker said to her fellow poor and working-class women. “…Organize yourselves, don’t be led away by people with ‘superior brains,’ we have something more than that; we have practical experience.”

From her first involvement with the Women’s Social and Political Union and the leadership of the Pankhursts, Walker strained against the middle-class scope of the suffrage and feminist movements of her time. Walker was married to a dockworker and worked in London’s East End. She criticized the WSPU’s dismissal of the needs of mothers and the organization’s divide from those who had to work for a living, despite their sacrifices for the cause. (Working women often used their one day a week off from work to walk to the city’s center and participate in the WSPU’s protests and speeches, adding their voices to the rallying cry for their rights.

Walker distinguished herself as a powerful public speaker and a leader able to energize the East End workers. “She seemed to me like a woman of the French Revolution,” Sylvia Pankhurst said of Walker’s fiery speaking style. “I could imagine her on the barricades, waving the bonnet rouge, urging on the fighters with impassioned cries. When in full blood of her oratory, she appeared the very embodiment of toiling, famine-ridden, proletarian womanhood.”

In 1914, the East London section of the WSPU was expelled from the organization specifically because of their “socialist” focus that emphasized class as well as gender reform. Walker and others then became the East London Federation of Suffragettes. In the coming years, the name would change again, becoming the Women’s Suffrage Federation in 1916, then the Workers Socialist Federation in 1918, revealing not only the commitment to socialism, but also their support of the Russian Revolution.

Walker often attended political gatherings to meet other working women “who have the same struggle as I to live and who like myself have been chloroformed in the past by parsons and pious ladies who tell poor women that if they want better homes they must wait till they get up above for heaven is their home,” she wrote in The Worker’s Dreadnought, a newspaper published by the East London organization.

 

 

Walker distinguished herself as a powerful public speaker and a leader able to energize the East End workers. “She seemed to me like a woman of the French Revolution,” Sylvia Pankhurst said of Walker’s fiery speaking style. “I could imagine her on the barricades, waving the bonnet rouge, urging on the fighters with impassioned cries. When in full blood of her oratory, she appeared the very embodiment of toiling, famine-ridden, proletarian womanhood.”

Throughout the rest of her life, Walker’s political fire stayed fractured from the mainstream suffrage movement. She turned her energy to creating labor unions, fighting for workers’ rights, and opposing the United Kingdom’s involvement in the uprising in Russia. Wrote Henry Pollitt, who later became general secretary of the Communist Party, “Mrs. Walker of Poplar toiled like a Trojan, on a shopping morning you could rely on seeing her in Crisp Street, talking to groups of women about Russia and how we must help, asking them to tell their husbands to keep their eyes skinned to see that no munitions went to those trying to crush the revolution.”

“Feminism is not enough,” was a common phrase amongst Walker and those activists like her. The Workers’ Dreadnought as a publication summed up their ultimate philosophical disagreement with organizations like the WSPU. They were unable to “assent to the old-fashioned suffragist standpoint that the political activities of women must begin and end with two subjects, Votes for Women and venereal diseases.”

Kathryn S. Gardiner

Author and visionary of this LWV series “Forgotten Foremothers”

Kathryn S. Gardiner received her bachelor’s degree in Telecommunications from Ball State University and her master’s degree in Screenwriting from Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. From 2007 to 2015, Kathryn was the editor of special products for the Hoosier Times in Bloomington, In. There, she spearheaded The South-Central Indiana Wedding Guide, H&L, INstride, BizNet, and Adventure Indiana. She spent more than three years as an amateur mixed martial arts fighter, “retiring” in 2011 with a record of 2-2 (or 3-2, if you count her Muay Thai bout in Las Vegas, which she likes to).

Kathryn became a member of the League of Women Voters in 2016, joining her parents who have been members since her childhood. She currently teaches screenwriting at Ball State and lives with a marvelous tabby cat named Cairo.

 

 

 

 

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

Nannie Helen Burroughs


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In the late 1890s, Nannie Helen Burroughs was unable to find a teaching position in the District of Columbia Public Schools, despite her thorough education and preparation. While the school system did hire black teachers at the time, it preferred light-skinned ones. Burroughs, she was told, was “too dark.” By 1909, Burroughs had founded The National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls, Inc., a vocational school catering specifically to African-American women who were denied other opportunities.

Burroughs’ zeal to “beat and ignore until death” the restrictions society presented to her burned throughout her life. A devout Baptist, Burroughs gained significant attention for her address at the National Baptist Convention in 1900. Her speech, titled “How the Sisters are Hindered from Helping,” launched the fight for women to have a greater say in the decision-making of the church. This demand for change was not entirely well-received.

“Who’s that young girl?” a man in the audience is quoted as saying. “Why don’t she sit down? She’s always talking. She’s just an upstart.”

Burroughs had a ready answer for him. “I might be an upstart, but I am just starting up.”

While still in school, Burroughs founded the Harriet Beecher Stowe Literary Society. At age 17, she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and served in that organization for decades. In 1906, she introduced Woman’s Day to the Baptist Church, a program focused on educating women in public speaking and teaching them to be community leaders. In 1912, she began publishing The Worker, a magazine advocating for missionary work, both foreign and domestic. In 1931, she was appointed committee chairwoman, primarily concerning Negro Housing, by President Herbert Hoover. In 1934, she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, throwing her energy into their demands that the attorney general include lynching in that year’s Crime Conference agenda.

At an NAACP rally, she declared to an energized crowd, “There are enough Negroes in Washington tonight to make Pennsylvania Avenue tremble…”

A white women who heard Burroughs speak in Florida that same year said, “She is not only up-to-date in her understanding and analyses of great questions, but she is 50 years ahead of her time.”

“Who’s that young girl?” a man in the audience is quoted as saying. “Why don’t she sit down? She’s always talking. She’s just an upstart.”

Burroughs had a ready answer for him. “I might be an upstart, but I am just starting up.”

Throughout her robust work and activism, Burroughs had both allies and detractors. She lost the support of the male-dominated National Baptist Convention, but joined ranks with and gained admirers such as Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King called her “the first leader of Negro Women in America.”

She considered voting both a citizen’s right and their obligation, and pushed for stronger and more unyielding activism in her later years. In September of 1960, at age 81, she spoke at a Women’s Convention meeting. “The day of protest has come,” she said. “It has come out of centuries of suffering but that the ‘weapons’ of black warfare must not be frustration and hate. Rather, African-Americans must use education, improvement of home and family life, and Christian living to achieve their goals.”

Nannie Helen Burroughs died the following year on May 20, 1961 at age 82. It was said in her eulogy, “She is the last of the pioneer women in higher education. She was a voice crying in the wilderness, strong and loud, for equality of women with men.” The school she founded—The National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls, Inc.—was later renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School.

Kathryn S. Gardiner

Author and visionary of this LWV series “Forgotten Foremothers”

Kathryn S. Gardiner received her bachelor’s degree in Telecommunications from Ball State University and her master’s degree in Screenwriting from Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. From 2007 to 2015, Kathryn was the editor of special products for the Hoosier Times in Bloomington, In. There, she spearheaded The South-Central Indiana Wedding Guide, H&L, INstride, BizNet, and Adventure Indiana. She spent more than three years as an amateur mixed martial arts fighter, “retiring” in 2011 with a record of 2-2 (or 3-2, if you count her Muay Thai bout in Las Vegas, which she likes to).

Kathryn became a member of the League of Women Voters in 2016, joining her parents who have been members since her childhood. She currently teaches screenwriting at Ball State and lives with a marvelous tabby cat named Cairo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

Celia, 18


Asserted Control Over Her Own Body

Celia, A Slave by Melton A McLaurin

In August of 1855, Celia, an enslaved woman of 18, stood before a jury of 12 white men accused of the murder of Robert Newsom. Newsom was a successful Missouri farmer who had purchased Celia four years earlier. Facts not in dispute were that Newsom had sexual relations with Celia frequently since purchasing her at the age of 14 (fathering two children by the teenager) and that Celia had bludgeoned Newsom to death. The question before the jury was whether Celia’s actions were murder or self-defense.

The State of Missouri vs. Celia, a Slave remains significant in United States history because it brought before the court another, larger question. Namely: Was Celia a person, or property?

In Celia, A Slave, author Melton A. McLaurin details the events of the trial and its aftermath. Celia herself was not called to testify. On the stand, two men recounted their conversations with her on the morning the crime was discovered. Thomas Shoatman, a defense witness, testified that Celia insisted she hadn’t intended to kill Newsom, “only to hurt him, to keep him from having sexual intercourse with her,” he said. The prosecution objected and the reference to preventing sexual intercourse was removed from the official record.

Celia’s trial laid bare to history the deep racial inequities in the application of the law. While it was a crime “to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled,” this law had never been used to prosecute crimes against black women. The defense argued that the phrase “any woman” included Celia, and therefore her actions were justifiable self-defense against defilement. This argument was not popular in slave-holding states. The Emancipation Proclamation was still 10 years in the future and the abuse of slaves, and particularly the sexual abuse of female slaves, was widespread and entirely accepted by the majority of the white population.

As the jury recessed to make their decision, the defense and prosecution were permitted to submit instructions for the 12 men deciding Celia’s fate. The defense requested that the jury consider Celia’s rights as a woman, “any woman,” under the law. Therefore, if they believed that Celia was defending herself against sexual assault, they must rule the murder justifiable self-defense. Judge William Augustus Hall rejected this request and the jury received no such instructions. In the eyes of the law, Celia was Newsom’s property; he could do anything he wanted to her, including rape. The jury found Celia guilty and Judge Hall sentenced her to be hanged on Nov. 16, 1855.

Believing her a victim of assault who had rightfully defended herself, the men in charge of Celia’s defense felt “more than ordinary interest on behalf of the girl.” Five days before her scheduled November execution, Celia was “taken out by someone,” removed from her cell, hidden, and only returned to prison after the date passed.

Celia’s defense team, lead by John Jameson (who had served as a Missouri State Representative), immediately requested a stay of execution and began preparing a petition to the Supreme Court of Missouri to hear the case. Judge Hall refused to change the date of the hanging, likely intending for Celia to be executed before the Supreme Court could review the petition for her life. Believing her a victim of assault who had rightfully defended herself, the men in charge of Celia’s defense felt “more than ordinary interest on behalf of the girl.” Five days before her scheduled November execution, Celia was “taken out by someone,” removed from her cell, hidden, and only returned to prison after the date passed. Celia was then granted a new execution date of Dec. 21.

The Missouri Supreme Court responded to the defense team’s petition on Dec. 14. “Upon an examination of the record and proceedings of the Circuit Court of Callaway County in the above case,” their reply read, “it is thought proper to refuse the prayer of the petitioner … It is therefore ordered by the Court, that an order for the Stay of the execution in this case be refused.”

Celia was hanged on Dec. 21, 1855.

The contradiction revealed by this case—that Celia was property until punishment—has received scrutiny by historians studying slave law, abolition, and the early days of the United States government. Saidiya V. Hartman writes in Seduction and the Ruses of Power, “As Missouri v. Celia demonstrated, the enslaved could neither give nor refuse consent, nor offer reasonable resistance, yet they were criminally responsible and liable. The slave was recognized as a reasoning subject, who possessed intent and rationality, solely in the context of criminal liability.”

Though Celia’s defense was unsuccessful and the morality of her actions debatable, she is one of the first enslaved women known by name who asserted, both physically and legally, her control over her own body.

 

Kathryn S. Gardiner

Author and visionary of this LWV series “Forgotten Foremothers”

Kathryn S. Gardiner received her bachelor’s degree in Telecommunications from Ball State University and her master’s degree in Screenwriting from Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. From 2007 to 2015, Kathryn was the editor of special products for the Hoosier Times in Bloomington, In. There, she spearheaded The South-Central Indiana Wedding Guide, H&L, INstride, BizNet, and Adventure Indiana. She spent more than three years as an amateur mixed martial arts fighter, “retiring” in 2011 with a record of 2-2 (or 3-2, if you count her Muay Thai bout in Las Vegas, which she likes to).

Kathryn became a member of the League of Women Voters in 2016, joining her parents who have been members since her childhood. She currently teaches screenwriting at Ball State and lives with a marvelous tabby cat named Cairo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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