In 1995, the Massachusetts legislature established a Senate Select Committee to choose “a woman, who through her actions, has made a major contribution … or who … has represented a group of women who made such a contribution.”
After consulting with experts, the committee recommended that, rather than one woman, six individuals be recognized:
Dorothea Dix (1802-1887), advocate for the mentally ill, Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union Army
Lucy Stone (1818-1893), abolitionist, suffrage leader, publisher and editor of the Woman’s Journal
Sarah Parker Remond (1824-1894), African-American abolitionist who took the anti-slavery crusade to Great Britain, physician
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842-1924), suffragist, leader in national women’s club movement, founder and editor of the Woman’s Era newspaper, civil rights activist
Mary Kenney O’Sullivan (1864-1943), trade unionist, settlement house worker, campaigner for the rights of women workers, factory inspector, pacifist
Florence Luscomb (l887-1985), suffragist, labor organizer, candidate for public office, advocate for civil liberties, racial equality, and world peace
Dorothea Lynde Dix was born on the Maine frontier when it was still part of Massachusetts. After an unhappy childhood, Dorothea left home at the age of 12 to live with relatives in Boston and Worcester. She was 14 when she opened her first school for young children in 1816. For the next 20 years, she combined teaching with writing textbooks, poetry, and religious tracts for young readers. Often in poor health, she travelled to England where she met reformers who were changing the way the mentally ill were treated.
In 1841, when she was nearly 40, she reached a turning point in her life. Teaching a Sunday school class for women in the East Cambridge jail, she realized that a number of the inmates had committed only one “crime”: they were mentally ill. Angered by what she saw, she brought the matter to a local court. Although her charges were denied, the women’s living conditions were improved.
There were a few institutions which provided humane treatment for the insane, but they were the exceptions. Most people who suffered from mental illness lived in harsh conditions either at home, in prisons, or in poorhouses. Dix devoted the rest of her life to changing this; with singleminded fervor, she became the “voice for the mad.”
She began by surveying every jail, poorhouse, and house of correction in Massachusetts. In January 1843, she delivered a lengthly and dramatic report to the state legislature. With the support of several influential men, she succeeded in persuading the legislature to appropriate money to expand the state hospital for the insane at Worcester.
Encouraged by her victory in Massachusetts, Dix took her crusade to other states, covering over 30,000 miles in three years of non-stop travel. She prepared “memorials” designed to inform lawmakers and shame them into acting. In 1843, there were 13 mental hospitals in the country; by 1880 there were 123, and Dorothea Dix played a direct role in founding 32 of them. She lent her support to other causes, especially prison reform and education for the blind, but the mentally ill remained her primary concern.
Her skill as a lobbyist made her the most politically active woman of her generation, but her most ambitious campaign–for federal land grants to endow state mental hospitals–failed. When the Civil War broke out, Dix hoped to become the American Florence Nightingale, but her tenure as Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union was not a success. After the war, she worked on behalf of the mentally ill until she herself became too infirm. She spent her last years in the guest quarters of a state hospital she had helped found 35 years before; she died in 1887 at the age of 85.
(Born April 4, 1802, Hampden, Maine; died, July 18, 1887, Trenton, NJ. Buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge. Photo courtesy of The Boston Athenaeum.)
Born on a farm in West Brookfield, Lucy Stone was one of the very first women from Massachusetts to earn a college degree. She was 25 years old before she had saved enough money to enter Oberlin, the first American college to educate women alongside men. When she graduated with honors four years later, she was invited to write a commencement address. Stone refused because she would not be allowed to read it herself. Even at Oberlin, women did not participate in public exercises with men.
A few months later, Lucy Stone gave her first public address from the pulpit of her brother’s church in Gardner. Soon, she began traveling the state as an agent for the American Anti-slavery Society. On weekends she lectured on abolitionism; during the week, she spoke out for woman’s rights. In 1850, she helped organize the first national woman’s rights convention. Held in Worcester because the city was easily accessible by train and known to be hospitable to reform, the two-day convention drew more than a thousand people to a downtown hall. Called to test the proposition that a political movement for woman’s rights could garner national support, the convention was covered by both hostile and sympathetic reporters from all over the country.
Over the next few years, Stone proved to be a powerful and popular orator. She earned a good living-and a national reputation-giving public lectures on the injustices faced by blacks and women. She toured the country, organizing anti-slavery and woman’s rights conventions, collecting petitions, lobbying legislators, and, whenever she had the opportunity, speaking to state legislatures. She even traveled to Ottawa to address the Canadian Parliament. In May 1851, she spoke before the Massachusetts legislature on behalf of an amendment to the state constitution giving full civil rights to women. In the gallery that day was Henry Brown Blackwell, a struggling businessman, idealist, and aspiring poet from Cincinnati. The son of a reform-minded family — two of his sisters were pioneer physicians-Henry Blackwell set out to persuade Lucy Stone to overcome the objections she had long held to marriage. After a two-year, peripatetic courtship, he succeeded. At their wedding ceremony in April 1855, they read a protest “against the present laws of marriage [which] refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being.” In her marriage vows, Stone promised to love and honor her husband but omitted the word “obey,” and she defied custom by keeping her own name.
After her marriage, Lucy Stone continued to lecture, drawing large and enthusiastic audiences. In 1857, she gave birth to her only child, Alice Stone Blackwell. When the baby was a few months old, Stone refused to pay the bill for the taxes on her house on the grounds that it was “taxation without representation.” The town responded by auctioning off her household goods. Stone curtailed her lecturing during the first years of Alice’s life and was just returning to the lecture circuit when the Civil War began.
Like her fellow reformers, when war came Stone devoted all her energies to the Union cause. In 1863, she helped organize the Woman’s National Loyal League, formed to urge the immediate emancipation of all slaves and to support the war effort. As the end of the war neared, she joined her friend Susan B. Anthony in calling for a new organization that would advocate political rights, including the vote, for newly emancipated slaves and women. When the 14th Amendment passed Congress, it gave equal protection under law to the former slaves but, to the dismay of woman suffragists, it introduced the word “male” into the Constitution for the first time. Although Stone was deeply disappointed, she supported ratification of both the 14th Amendment and the 15th, which enfranchised black men.
Stone’s old friends and allies Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed ratification. The result was a bitter division in the woman suffrage movement, which lasted for more than 20 years. Stanton and Anthony led one wing; Stone and Blackwell the other. From her base in Boston, Lucy Stone founded the American Woman Suffage Association, and, with the help of her husband and later her daughter, published The Woman’s Journal, the influential paper which was known as “the voice of the woman’s movement.” The two factions were not reconciled until 1890, three years before her death at age 73 and three decades before American women cast their first votes in a national election.
(Born August 13, 1818, West Brookfield; died October 18, 1893, Dorchester. Photo courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.)
Sarah Parker Remond was born in 1826 in Salem. Her mother Nancy was the Newton-born daughter of a man who fought in the Continental Army; her father John was a free black who arrived from the Dutch island of Curacao as a boy of ten in 1798. The Remonds settled in Salem, where they built a successful catering, provisioning, and hairdressing business. Although they were prosperous free citizens of Massachusetts and protective parents, they could not shield their eight children from racial discrimination. The family set great store on education, and in l835, Sarah and her sister passed the examination to enter the Salem High School. Within a week, they were forced to leave the school by a segregationist school committee. Outraged, the Remonds moved to Newport, RI, where Sarah attended a private school for blacks. John Remond mounted a campaign to desegregate the Salem schools, and when he succeeded in 1841, the family returned home. Sarah continued her education by reading widely and attending concerts and lectures.
Salem in the 1840s was a center of anti-slavery activity. The Remonds were all ardent abolitionists. They played host to many of the movement’s leaders, including William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, and to more than one fugitive slave. Her father was a life member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society; and her older brother Charles Lenox Remond was the American Anti-Slavery Society’s first black lecturer and the nation’s leading black abolitionist until Frederick Douglass appeared on the scene in 1842. Along with her mother and sisters, Sarah was an active member of the state and county female anti-slavery societies. Although her sisters followed their parents’ trade and became caterers, bakers, and hairdressers, Sarah made a different–and for the time, highly unusual–choice. With the moral and material support of her family, she became an anti-slavery lecturer.
In 1856, at the age of 30, she went to work for the American Anti-slavery Society. She had first come to public notice three years before when she was ejected from a Boston theater because she refused to sit in a segregated gallery. She was handled roughly by a policeman, and successfully sued the theater’s owners for $500 in damages. In 1856, she began her career as a public speaker, touring New York State with a team of lecturers that included her brother Charles and another courageous Massachusetts woman, Abby Kelly Foster. Abby Foster’s example and encouragement were critical in Sarah Remond’s decision to take the step of becoming an anti-slavery lecturer. “I feel almost sure,” Sarah wrote to Abby, “I never should have made the attempt but for the words of encouragement I received from you. Although my heart was in the work, I felt that I was in need of a good English education. … When I consider that the only reason why I did not obtain what I so much desired was because I was the possessor of an unpopular complexion, it adds to my discomfort.”
Although she was inexperienced, even early on, Sarah Remond was an effective speaker. William Lloyd Garrison praised her “calm, dignified manner, her winning personal appearance and her earnest appeals to the conscience and the heart.” Over time, she became one of the Society’s most persuasive and powerful lecturers. She addressed crowded anti-slavery meetings in Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. ( Susan B. Anthony was sometimes on the same tour.) In May 1858, she appeared at the national woman’s rights convention in New York City.
Sarah Parker Remond proved to be such a good speaker, and such a good fundraiser, that she was invited to take the anti-slavery message to Great Britain, something her brother had done ten years before. When she sailed in September 1858, she told Abby Kelly Foster, she feared not “the wind nor the waves, but I know that no matter how I go, the spirit of prejudice will meet me.” In fact, she met with acceptance in Britain. “I have been received here as a sister by white women for the first time in my life, she wrote; “I have received a sympathy I never was offered before.” She was the first educated, cultivated black woman — described by one as “a lady every inch” — that the British had ever seen. She spoke out against both slavery and racial discrimination, and stressed the sexual exploitation of black women under slavery. She played an important role in drawing British abolitionists’ attention to the disabilities suffered by free black people throughout the United States. In her short autobiography, written in 1861, she stressed that “prejudice against colour has always been the one thing, above all others, which has cast its gigantic shadow over my whole life.”
A clear and forceful speaker, Sarah Remond lectured to enthusiastic crowds in cities throughout England, Scotland and Ireland, and raised large sums of money for the anti-slavery cause. Once war began, she worked to build support in Britain for the Union blockade of the Confederacy and did much to influence public opinion in Britain in support of the Union cause. At the end of the war, she lectured on behalf of the freedmen, soliciting funds and clothing for the ex-slaves. During her years in Britain, she combined lecturing with studying at the Bedford College for Ladies (now part of the University of London). In 1866, she left England for Florence, Italy and at the age of 42, entered medical school. She became a doctor, married an Italian, and as far as we know, never returned to the United States. (In fact, two of her sisters joined her in self-imposed exile.)
(Born June 6, 1826, Salem; died December 13, 1894, Florence, Italy. Photo courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.)
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin‘s story has an interesting connection to Sarah Parker Remond. Her mother was an English-born white woman, and her father was the son of a Frenchman from the island of Martinique. John St. Pierre was a prosperous clothes dealer and founder of a Boston Zion church. Since the Boston public schools were still segregated, the St. Pierres sent their daughter to Salem, where thanks to John Remond’s efforts, the schools were integrated. By the age of 16, Josephine had graduated from a Boston finishing school, completed two years of private tutoring in New York, and married George Lewis Ruffin, the son of another one of Boston’s leading African-American families. He would later graduate from Harvard Law School, serve on the Boston City Council and in the state legislature, and as Boston’s first black municipal judge.
Shortly after their marriage in 1858, the Ruffins went to England. We’re not sure why. Was it to escape discrimination or to improve and enjoy themselves as many well-off white newlyweds did? In any case, it’s another connection with Sarah Remond, and one wonders if as two black women from Massachusetts, they might have met in London. But unlike Sarah Remond, they returned home after six months. They got involved in the war effort, helping to recruit soldiers for the Mass 54th and 55th regiments and working for the Sanitation Commission. They bought a house onBoston’s Beacon Hill, and began a family.
Over the next few years, Josephine and George Lewis Ruffin took an active part in many different reform organizations. Josephine was an ardent supporter of woman suffrage, and she became friends with prominent white suffragists like Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone. A group of these women had founded the New England Women’s Club in 1868; Ruffin was its first black member when she joined in the mid l890s. She was often the link between wealthy white reformers and the city’s black elite (and vice-versa). She wrote for the black weekly paper, the Courant and became a member of the New England Women’s Press Association. When George Lewis Ruffin died at the age of 52 in 1886, Josephine herself was only 44. She used her financial security and organizational abilities to start the Woman’s Era, the country’s first newspaper published by and for African-American women. Financed by Josephine Ruffin and edited by her and her daughter Florida, this monthly, illustrated magazine (which lasted seven years) urged its readers– mostly middle class black women– to become informed about and actively involved in public issues such as suffrage and civil rights. While promoting interracial activities, the Woman’s Era called on black women to demand increased rights for their race.
Although Josephine Ruffin socialized and worked together with white women reformers, the era of Jim Crow brought with it growing resistance to integration. In 1893, Ruffin founded a club for black women–the Woman’s Era Club. Within two years, it had more than 133 members who met twice a month and paid annual dues of one dollar. The Woman’s Era club was “not necessarily a colored woman’s club, but a club started and led by colored women.” There were “so many questions which, as colored women, we are called upon to answer.” It’s motto was “Make the World Better.” Virtually every city and rural community in the country had at least one organization like this for black women, usually led by a small elite of educated, middle class matrons, who believed they could solve the problems of the race through intensive self-help activities aimed at improving the home and the community. Like white women’s clubs, they raised funds for scholarships, held classes in civics, domestic science, literature, sponsored kindergartens, organized clinics (They also put on musicals, literary events, art exhibits). Like white clubwomen, they believed in the importance of the home and the moral influence of women within it. But, black women felt a special calling –racial uplift. Mary Church Terrell wrote that the club members “have determined to come into the closest possible touch with the masses of our women, through whom the womanhood of our people is always judged.” Middle class black women came together to vindicate their own respectability and uplift the downtrodden of their race. What they did for women they did for the race.
Josephine Ruffin believed a national organization of black women’s clubs was needed; and in 1895, she convened the first national conference in Boston, which was attended by 100 women from 20 clubs in 10 states. In her opening address, she urged the audience to protest against the stereotyped images of black women.” We are not drawing the color line … we are only coming to the front, willing to join any others in the same work and cordially inviting and welcoming any others to join us.” This organization was the National Federation of Afro-Am Women, which in 1896 merged with the Colored Women’s League to form the National Association of Colored Women, with Mary Church Terrell as President. Josephine Ruffin was one of several vice-presidents of the new organization.
Just as the NACW was forming, Josephine Ruffin was de-segregating the New England Women’s Club, and when the General Federation of Women’s Clubs met in Milwaukee in 1900, she planned to attend as a representative of three organizations–the New Era Club, the New England Women’s Club, and the New England Woman’s Press Club. But southern women were in positions of power in the General Federation, and when the Executive Committee discovered that all of the New Era’s club members were black women, they would not accept Ruffin’s credentials. Some even tried to snatch her membership badge from her chest on the convention floor. Ruffin was told that she could be seated as a representative of the two white clubs but not the black one. She refused on principle and was excluded from the proceedings. These events became known as “the Ruffin Incident” and were widely covered in newspapers around the country, most of whom supported Ruffin. (Booker T. Washington, on the other hand, did not: Despite numerous appeals, he refused to use his influence or take a stand on the matter.) Afterwards, disillusioned, The Woman’s Era Club made an official statement “that colored women should confine themselves to their clubs and the large field of work open to them there.”
The New Era Club disbanded in 1903 but Josephine Ruffin remained active. In 1910, she was one of the charter members of the Boston chapter of NAACP (which was the first local branch of the national association) and, along with other women who had belonged to the New Era Club, she co-founded the League of Women for Community Service which still exists today.
(Born Boston, August 31, 1842; died Boston, March 13, 1924. Buried Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge. Photo courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library.)
Born in Hannibal, Missouri, she was the only child of working-class Irish immigrants; at the age of 14, she went to work and by 18 she was a skilled bookbinder. Frustrated by the low wages and poor working conditions that were the lot of women workers, she became a trade unionist. In 1888, she and her widowed mother moved to Chicago where she began organizing women in the printing trades. Through her efforts, the women bookbinders of Chicago became part of the American Federation of Labor and Kenney was elected a delegate to the Chicago Trades and Labor Assembly. In 1892, she was hired as the first woman salaried organizer for the American Federation of Labor and she moved to New York. Although her appointment lasted less than a year, she organized garment workers, printers, binders, carpet weavers and shoe workers.
While in Boston in 1893, she met and became engaged to John O’Sullivan, a former seaman and streetcar driver who was now labor editor at the Boston Globe. Living at a settlement house in the South End, she organized women workers in the Boston area; unlike most women, she continued her career even after her marriage in 1894. Without the money to hire household help, Mary Kenney O’Sullivan counted on her husband to help with their three children so she could remain actively involved in the labor struggle. She organized rubber makers, shoe workers, and women laundry and garment workers, achieving her best results in the immediate Boston area where her connections to the women’s reform community were strongest.
In 1903, a year after being left a widow with three children to raise, she joined a New York settlement worker to found the National Women’s Trade Union League. As a leader of the WTUL during its formative years, O’Sullivan brought together affluent women, professionals, and women workers to promote protective legislation, such as the minimum wage, and trade unionism among women. She was a leader in Massachusetts reform circles, focusing her efforts on woman suffrage, housing for the poor, prohibition, pacifism, and — the cause with which she is most closely identified — legislation to protect women and children in the workplace.
In the early 1890s, Mary Kenney had successfully lobbied the Illinois legislature to pass that state’s first factory law and had worked briefly in the Illinois factory inspection department. Two decades later, after intensive lobbying efforts on the part of O’Sullivan and other reformers, Massachusetts passed similar legislation, and she was hired to enforce the new laws. For the next 20 years, she worked as a factory inspector for the Massachusetts Department of Labor and Industries.
(Born January 8, 1864, Hannibal, Missouri; died, January 18, 1943, Medford. Buried St. Joseph Cemetery, West Roxbury. Photo courtesy of The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.)
Florence Hope Luscomb grew up in the 1890s and died in the 1980s. During her long life, she embraced and advanced a range of causes from woman suffrage to civil liberties. She was 33 years old when the Nineteenth Amendment finally enfranchised women; she was still active when American women rediscovered feminism in the 1960s and 1970s.
Born in Lowell in 1887, she moved to Boston with her mother two years later when her parents separated. Her mother was an ardent and active supporter of suffrage and other radical causes, and Florence followed in her footsteps. She remembered going with her mother at the age of five to hear Susan B. Anthony speak, and she spent many Saturday mornings in the 1910s selling the suffrage paper, The Woman’s Journal, outside the Park Street Station.
Florence Luscomb was among the first women to graduate from M.I.T. with a degree in architecture. From 1909 to 1917, she was a partner in a woman-owned firm in Boston, but her true love was the suffrage cause. She helped organize rallys, trolley tours and street meetings; in 1915, she logged more than 220 speeches in 14 weeks during the campaign for an amendment to the state constitution. When World War I caused a building slump, she left architecture to become executive secretary of the Boston Equal Suffrage Association. She helped organize and was president of a Boston local of the United Office and Professional Workers of America. She held paid positions with the Boston League of Women Voters, the Massachusetts branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and organizations concerned with prison reform and factory safety. Beginning in the 1920s, she served on the board of civil rights, civil liberties, and other liberal organizations, including the NAACP and the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union. After her mother’s death in 1933 gave her financial independence, she became a full-time social and political activist.
Florence Luscomb ran for public office four times, including a race for Boston City Council in 1922 which she lost by less than one percent. Her campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1936 and again in 1950 were meant to educate voters and expand the two-party system. In 1952, she ran for Governor of Massachusetts on the Progressive Party ticket, a third party that opposed the anti-Communist policies of the Truman administration.
She fought McCarthyism and was called upon to defend herself before a committee of the Massachusetts legislature. In her pamphlet Blacklisting the Constitution, she condemned the anti-Communist investigations as un-American attempts to suppress dissent. In the early 1960s, she wrote the first anti-Vietnam War leaflet distributed in Boston, and visited both China and Cuba. When 1970s feminists turned to her as a “foremother,” she encouraged the new movement to be inclusive. Just as she had once urged labor unions to include women, in the 1970s she reminded feminists to reach out to poor women and women of color. A lifelong radical, at age ninety she was living in a Cambridge commune. She died in l985 at age 98.
(Born February 6, 1887, Lowell; died, October 27, 1985, Watertown. Photo courtesy of The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.)