Forgotten Foremothers

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

By Kathryn S. Gardiner


Victoria Earle Matthews

A woman freed from slavery by the 13th Amendment authored works on the arduous internal struggles of life, including forgiving oppressors, while she actively worked to improve the lives of women of color in the post-war era.


“The quick, vengeful flame leaped in her eyes, as her mind, made keen by years of secret suffering and toil, traveled through time and space; she saw wrongs which no tongue can enumerate; demoniac gleams of exultation and bitter hatred settled up her now grim features; a pitiless smile wreathed her set lips, as she gazed with glaring eyeballs at the helpless, hopeless ‘victim of the great fire,’ as though surrounded by demons; a dozen wicked impulses rushed through her mind—a life for a life—no mortal eye was near…”

 

Though Aunt Lindy is Victoria’s only short story still easily available to the public, records of her other writings reveal multiple tales of forgiveness.

 

As a writer, Victoria Earle Matthews told the story of Aunt Lindy, a woman—once enslaved, but now free—who finds herself alone with her former master. The man is gravely injured in a fire and entirely at Lindy’s mercy. And mercy it indeed becomes as Victoria’ protagonist fights against the “vengeful flame” and instead heals the man. She is rewarded for this by the man’s changed soul and the return of one of the sons who had been stolen from her by that same slave owner.

 

Though Aunt Lindy is Victoria’s only short story still easily available to the public, records of her other writings reveal multiple tales of forgiveness. “Matthews’s career,” reads the Oxford Reference, “was driven by a belief in converting her people’s internal devastations into brilliant external accomplishments.” It would be a story Victoria would play out in her own life, and one she had to begin the day she was born in slavery in Fort Valley, Ga., on May 27, 1861. Her mother was an enslaved woman named Caroline Smith and her father was likely the man who claimed them both as property.

 

The homeowner caught Victoria reading and fortunately did not condemn the practice.

 

While Victoria (born Ella Victoria Smith) was still young, mother Caroline fled Georgia for New York at the start of the Civil War, leaving Victoria and an older sister behind. However, she returned in 1869 and mother and daughters reunited. Now emancipated, all three relocated to New York City.

 

For a brief time in this new city, Victoria attended public school, but the small family’s financial pressures soon forced her to drop out and gain work as a domestic servant. The home in which Victoria worked had an expansive library. The homeowner caught Victoria reading and fortunately did not condemn the practice. Victoria was granted permission to read after her work was done. Victoria, of course, began to work much faster to make time for reading.

 

“When home has been devastated, hearts only may feel and know the extent of the void; no pen or phrase can estimate it,” wrote Victoria…

 

At age 18, Victoria married William E. Matthews, a coachman, and the two had a son they named Lamartine. As a young wife and mother, Victoria started working to establish herself as a journalist and writer. Those ambitions blended well with her greater interest in politics and she turned her focus to the struggle of African Americans following the Civil War. In 1892, she co-organized a testimonial dinner for Ida B. Wells and her anti-lynching campaign. These events lead to the creation of the Woman’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn. Victoria would serve as the first president of the WLU, a civil rights organization.

 

In September of 1895, Victoria would be challenged once again by the pain life can bring when son Lamartine died around the age of 16. “When home has been devastated, hearts only may feel and know the extent of the void; no pen or phrase can estimate it,” wrote Victoria in Aunt Lindy. With this tragedy still fresh, she turned her energies to helping young people Lamartine’s age, including a brief return to the South where she looked into what educational opportunities were provided to black citizens and immigrants. Soon enough, though, a minister persuaded her to return to those in need in New York.

…she noted the specific issues plaguing the cities African Americans, namely “limited economic opportunities, inadequate housing, poverty, prejudice, and racially motivated violence,”

Victoria spent her time as a leader and an organizer, but never lost sight of the day-to-day practical challenges of life. In neighborhoods where need seemed the greatest, she would go house to house, offering whatever help she could, from laundry to making family meals for overworked mothers. In this intensive work, she noted the specific issues plaguing the cities African Americans, namely “limited economic opportunities, inadequate housing, poverty, prejudice, and racially motivated violence,” she said.

 

Victoria’s own relationship with racial prejudice was a curious one. As a woman of mixed race, her features favored her white ancestry. This fair-skinned appearance, as well as her education, allowed her to move through circles of society often locked to her peers with darker skin regardless of their background or education. Victoria, however, consistently aligned with African Americans of every community and took great pride in her race. At the time, she was best known for her speeches “The Value of Race Literature” and “The Role of Afro-American Women,” both of which were rooted in her racial pride and sense of self-worth.

…when Victoria observed that new arrivals to the city, especially women, were often victimized at the train station, she arranged for volunteers to meet new people and escort them to safe housing.)

Victoria Earle Matthews

“and the memory of their oppressors awoke but to the call of fitful retrospection.”

As Jim Crow laws tightened in the South, more and more black men and women moved North looking for work and opportunity. In this Great Migration, Victoria spied a need within all the need—namely that of the young women who lacked safe places to stay and job skills. She soon provided those in the form of an apartment house, afforded with the help with Winthrop Phelps, a white philanthropist. The White Rose Industrial Home for Working Class Negro Girls opened on Feb. 11, 1897, providing young black women a home and training in domestic work. (Revealing her eye for detail, when Victoria observed that new arrivals to the city, especially women, were often victimized at the train station, she arranged for volunteers to meet new people and escort them to safe housing.)

 

“…in the busy life that freedom gave them, oft, when work was done and the night of life threw its waning shadows around them, their tears would fall for the scattered voices—they would mourn o’er their past oppression,” Victoria wrote in Aunt Lindy. “Yet they hid their grief from an unsympathizing generation, and the memory of their oppressors awoke but to the call of fitful retrospection.”

 

Victoria died at only age 45 in New York City on March 10, 1907, but what she’d begun would have no end. The White Rose Industrial Home, also known as the White Rose Mission, became the blueprint for similar organizations such as the YMCA and other programs still in operation to this day.

 

Forgotten Foremothers

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

By Kathryn S. Gardiner

“If this is a Great Society, I’d hate to see a bad one.”

Fannie Lou Hamer

In 1962 – August 31 to be precise – Fannie Lou Hamer, at the age of 45, traveled with other activists to Indianola, Miss., determined to register to vote. Upon arriving, Hamer and the other black women and men were quizzed on the facts of de facto law. “I knowed as much about a facto law as a horse knows about Christmas Day,” Hamer said. When they couldn’t answer the questions, the would-be voters were turned away.

“I didn’t try to register for you,” Hamer told the man. “I tried to register for myself.” 

Hamer returned to her plantation home in Mound Bayou. There, she found her “boss man raisin’ Cain,” she recalled, and he demanded she withdraw her registration because “we’re not ready for that in Mississippi.”

It had been true of Fannie Lou Hamer all her life and would be true until the end of it: She wouldn’t back down when she knew she was right.

“I didn’t try to register for you,” Hamer told the man. “I tried to register for myself.” For this, Hamer was fired and kicked off the plantation. Her husband, Perry, could not go with her as he was required to stay until the harvest’s end.

The words of Hamer’s former boss proved true as, for the next several months, Hamer was repeatedly harassed and threatened by white Mississippians. She moved from home to home, rarely staying in one place long for safety. In the worst incident, in September, white supremacists shot at the home where she was staying with a friend. The next day, Hamer and her family—Perry and their two adopted daughters—moved to Tallahatchie County in the hopes that the Ku Klux Klan threats would not follow them.

The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”

On December 4, Hamer returned to Indianaola to register to vote. She once again failed the arbitrary test given her by the white staff and was turned away. “You’ll see me every 30 days until I pass,” she told the registrar.  

“I guess if I had any sense, I’d have been a little scared,” she said later, “but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”

Fannie Lou had been born Oct. 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Miss., to Ella and James Lee Townsend. She was the youngest of 20 children and the Townsends enjoyed some comfort before their livestock was poisoned, most likely by a local white supremacist. “We knowed this white man had done it,” Hamer recalled. “That white man did it just because we were gettin’ somewhere. White people never like to see Negroes get a little success. All of this stuff is no secret in the state of Mississippi.”

After this setback, the Townsends relocated to Sunflower County and got work as sharecroppers on a plantation. By age six, Hamer was out in the fields picking cotton with her family. Despite a disfigured leg from a bout of polio, she had to pick as much as 300 pounds of cotton daily by age 13. During the winters, Hamer and the other plantation children attended a one-room school where she found a love of reading and demonstrated a keen mind for spelling bees and poetry. Unfortunately, she had to leave school at age 12 to help care for her aging parents, but she continued what studies she could through Bible school. Her knowledge and ability to interpret scripture would be a powerful aspect of her activism in her adulthood.

Hamer became involved in civil rights in the 1950s after hearing speakers from both the Regional Council of Negro Leadership and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It was from this latter group that Hamer first learned of the constitutional right to vote.

On January 10, 1963, Hamer returned to Indianaola. This time she passed the “literacy test” and was officially a registered voter in the state of Mississippi. However, when she went to vote that fall, she was stymied yet again. She was now informed that the county required voters to have two poll tax receipts to be eligible to vote. This law emerged in the United States in 1870 after the 15th Amendment granted all men the right to vote, regardless of race. It was used almost exclusively to prohibit black and Native American voters from exercising that right.

“If I am truly free, who can tell me how much freedom I can have today?” Hamer asked once.

“Sometimes it seem like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed,” she said. “But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I’m not backing off.”

After her own experiences, Hamer began working more closely with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She focused her energies on informing and enfranchising black voters, especially those in impoverished areas. Though she eventually acquired her two poll tax receipts and was able to cast her vote, she ran into those familiar roadblocks again and again in trying to help others. Occasionally she and her fellow activists experienced much worse.

During 1963, Hamer and members of the SNCC traveled from one conference to another by bus. They stopped at a local café in Winona, Miss., for food and a bathroom. First, the waitress refused to serve them. Then, a highway patrolman threatened them with his billy club. When one of the travelers exited the cafe to write down the patrolman’s license plate number, a police chief arrived and arrested them. Hamer had been on the bus during these events. She stepped off the bus to inquire after her fellows and a bystander cried for her to be arrested as well. While in police custody, Hamer and the others were subjected to intense violence and sexual assault. More than one individual was brutally beaten for not addressing an officer as “sir.”

When she was finally released, it took a full month for Hamer to recover, though some injuries would plague her for the rest of her life. Beyond the psychological damage and emotional strain, she also suffered permanent damage to her kidneys and a blood clot over one eye. But as soon as her health allowed, she returned to her county seat in Mississippi to organize voter registration drives. “Sometimes it seem like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed,” she said. “But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I’m not backing off.”

It is difficult to imagine that these experiences, including the violence she received at the hands of police in Winona, did not rob years from her life—and thereby rob the world, and her loved ones, of her.

She didn’t. The timeline of her life reveals a truly impressive list of activist causes, all with equality at their core, from advocating for black sharecroppers and voter rights, to land and home ownership. She co-founded (with Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, and others) the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, believing in the power that women could have as a voting majority. “A white mother is no different from a black mother,” she said. “The only thing is they haven’t had as many problems. But we cry the same tears.”

Hamer died on March 14, 1977 at age 59. Over 15 years earlier, at age 44, before her battle for her voting rights began, Hamer had surgery to remove a tumor. During this procedure, the white doctor also gave her a hysterectomy without her consent. This was relatively common at the time due to Mississippi’s compulsory sterilization plan to reduce the number of black children born in the state. (It’s believed Hamer coined the euphemism “Mississippi appendectomy” for this practice.) Hamer’s daughters were both adopted and well-loved. One died, however, of internal hemorrhaging. The local hospital refused to help the girl because of her mother’s activism. The early years of the 1970s saw her hospitalized with nervous exhaustion and she was in very poor health from 1974 until her death three years later.

“…it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to [kill me] a little bit at a time since I could remember,” Hamer had said. It is difficult to imagine that these experiences, including the violence she received at the hands of police in Winona, did not rob years from her life—and thereby rob the world, and her loved ones, of her.

Her memorial service was standing room only, so an additional overflow service was held at a local high school. Over 1,500 people attended. Andrew Young, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, spoke at the service. “None of us would be where we are now had she not been there then,” he said.

Her gravestone bears what is likely her most famous quote: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

This article will end with another
of her most famous quotes:

“It is time for America to get right.”

“I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

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.

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

 

Nannie Helen Burroughs


By The Rotograph Co. – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b46093.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, Link

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.

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. 

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.”

Celia, A Slave by Melton A McLaurin

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.

Profiles of Lesser-Known Heroines in the Fight for Women’s Rights

Rose Pengelly @ the Women’s Hall exhibition @ Tower Hamlets Local History Library

Rose Pengelly

At age 14, Rose Pengelly led her fellow workers at the Backs Asbestos Pipe Factory in a strike. Her red hair at the head of the procession, she blazed the trail all the way to the Women’s Hall. Conditions at the factory were unacceptable. Men and women were expected to haul equally heavy loads, though women were paid a third of the wage the men received. In addition, women were expected to perform domestic duties for the boss, tasks that were never assigned to the men despite their greater pay.

             Even with the wage advantage the job was hardly a joyful one for the men. All the employees of Backs Asbestos Pipe Factory worked in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. When two men attempted to form a union, they were immediately fired. It was in protest and solidarity with these men that young Rose Pengelly—a member of the Junior Suffragettes Club of the East London Federation since age 12—led the march to the Women’s Hall. The next day, Rose, too, was fired.

             With her bravery, youth, and activism, she earned the nickname “Little Sylvia” after notable suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst. Rose devoted her time and talents to the suffragette cause. She often danced and played the pan flute at fund-raising picnics.

Little is known about Rose beyond her teenage years. Writer Deb Scott-Lovric, in a story accompanying a sketch of “Little Sylvia” at the Bancroft Road Library, tells of a workplace injury Rose experienced in 1916. A blade for box-making sliced Rose’s flute-playing fingers. When she awoke from the shock and blood loss, 16-year-old Rose was given a sip of brandy and fired from the job. The factory had no first aid and no obligation to its injured employees, regardless of the dangerous machinery. Rose had to make her way to the hospital alone; none of her coworkers could afford to take half-day wages or lose their job altogether to escort her.

After this, Rose’s story is seemingly lost to history. Considering her spirit, it’s likely she stayed involved in the call for unions at London’s factories. It is equally likely, however, that the necessity of making a living demanded more and more of her time. At age 16 with a physical disability, Rose may have slipped even lower in the working social class she’d been fighting so hard to help. Though she did not see personal success in her efforts, what she did was not wasted. In 1914, with her green eyes and red hair, Rose Pengelly was one of the youngest at the head of a line, a line of strong activists and committed workers that continues today, fighting for equal pay and ethical workplaces.

 

*Editor’s note: Picture found on Flickr includes information about Rose Pengelly, including her married name. Click the picture above to visit the post.

Forgotten Foremothers
Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights
By Kathryn S. Gardiner

Coralie Franklin Cook

“Rochester has been proud of the citizenship of Frederick Douglass, it has honored Booker T. Washington, and now it is to have an opportunity of responding to a claim on its interest and consideration from a woman of the same race of these men,” declared the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, New York on Nov. 28, 1902. Coralie Franklin Cook was to speak at the Unitarian Church for their Political Equality Club. She was an active and notable member of the National American Women Suffrage Association, alongside Susan B. Anthony and other leaders of the day.

In its noting of the event, the Democrat and Chronicle quoted The New York Tribune’s coverage of a similar engagement featuring Cook: “It was left for a young colored woman to impress the Council of Women as it had not been impressed before during its sessions. Mrs. Cook came to the council as a fraternal delegate from the National Association of Colored Women. It is not too much to say that in voice, simple dignity and ease of manner Mrs. Cook is the peer of any woman in the council. The force of this may be appreciated when it is added that it is the general feeling among the women themselves. It was a revelation. There has been nothing finer in unconscious grace, nothing stronger than this young woman’s plea for the womanhood of her race. It stirred the council to the depths of its highest, noblest feelings.”

Coralie Franklin was born in Lexington, Virginia, in 1861, two years before she and her parents, Albert and Mary Elizabeth, would be freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. She was a descendent of Brown Colbert, an enslaved man owned by Thomas Jefferson and living on his Monticello property. In 1880, Brown Colbert’s great-grandaughter Coralie would graduate from Storer College, becoming the first of the Monticello descendants to earn a college degree.

Susan B. Anthony hosted the Rochester event showcasing Cook. Initially, the two women held each other in high regard. Cook once described Anthony as one of “the immortal few who have stood for the great principles of human rights,” and just two years earlier, in 1900, Cook had been the only African-American speaker invited to give an address at Anthony’s 80th birthday celebration.

In her speech honoring Anthony, Cook spoke poignantly about a weakness she saw in the movement, namely that the cause of white women remained the priority. While pursuit of the right to vote ostensibly crossed racial and socio-economic lines, the leaders remained primarily white, educated, upper- to middle-class—and largely guilty of prejudice against those who were not. (Indeed, much is revealed in The New York Tribune declaring a mannered and intelligent Black woman to be “a revelation.”) White suffragists generally believed that the racism experienced by women of color was a racial issue and therefore not within the bounds of their cause.

“No woman and no class of women can be degraded and all womankind not suffer thereby. …and so Miss Anthony,” Cook said, addressing Anthony directly before the audience, “in behalf of the hundreds of colored women who wait and hope with you for the day when the ballot shall be in the hands of every intelligent woman; and also in behalf of the thousands who sit in darkness and whose condition we shall expect those ballots to better, whether they be in the hands of white women or Black, I offer you my warmest gratitude and congratulations.”

The 19th Amendment granting the women the right to vote in 1918 was certainly a victory. However, for women who were not white, wealthy, or educated, it remained an incomplete one. Black men had been granted the right to vote in 1870 with the 15th Amendment, yet actual attempts to exercise that right had been repeatedly met with mob violence and lynching. Black women now faced those same obstacles to their rights, and women like Cook who had carried the suffrage banner found themselves standing alone in facing them. Seemingly, as far as white women were concerned, the battle was over.

Cook felt she was “a born suffragist,” but in 1921, she left the National American Women Suffrage Association, disappointed and disheartened by the apathy of her white peers. The Women Suffrage Association, she wrote, “had turned its back on the woman of color.”

With her husband George Cook, Coralie Franklin Cook converted to the Baha’i faith in her 50s and turned her energies to empowering African-Americans and fighting racial inequality. Cook died in 1942 at the age of 81.