Meet four nineteenth century Fredonia-area women who made a huge difference. The above link is to the archives of the Dunkirk Observer, March 2013 column. Since the archives are available only to subscribers, the article appears below in document form.
March is Women's History Month. You know what that means. But we don't have to limit our homage to the usual famous heroines to appreciate the hard-fought political and lifestyle gains of three centuries; our own neck of the woods gives us role models worthy of honor.
Some 19th-century women fought for equal pay in an era of "Republican Motherhood" that dictated they be good housewives raising responsible male citizens. Some women lived out dress reform, understanding that comfortable clothing was better for their health and mobility. Women mobilized in groups to march on taverns, demanding tavern-keepers stop serving liquor because it fueled violence in the home and wasted money needed for the support of children. And of course, local women fought for suffrage, the overarching right that would empower all other fights for justice, dignity, and equal treatment, whether women lived out the imperative to be wives and mothers or sought a means of supporting themselves instead.
Take Harriett Mason Ely, a woman of abundant energy whose son described her as "the type who never grew old." In 1843, at the tender age of 13, she became a schoolteacher near Ripley. Knowing her male counterparts received two to three times her weekly salary, which in those days was around $2.50, she argued for the higher salary and won. Her other feats included teaching painting at the Fredonia Normal School and selling her artwork to put her children through college. How modern her accomplishments seem to us.
Harriett Walker was another who asserted her independence, living out the pact of "single blessedness" many girls in the 19th century adopted in order to retain their decision-making and financial autonomy. While recovering from illness at the Dansville Sanitarium, Harriett learned about a style of comfortable clothing that countered the hoops, and later, bustles, of encumbered womanhood. For the rest of her 90 years, she wore the short dress and pants that earned her the nickname "Pantsy" Walker. Along with other members of the Baptist Church, "Pantsy" supported temperance activities and most likely suffrage as a way to bring women's voices to legislation that could regulate the serving and consumption of alcohol. Whether by design or default, Harriett never married, supporting herself by teaching and selling corsets.
Most people in this area know the Fredonia Grange as the first of its kind in the United States. There was a previous trial run in Washington, D.C., but Fredonia certainly had the first agricultural Grange. Less known is the long and honored tradition of gender equality, which informed the advocacy and structure of this organization. Eliza Gifford was another Chautauqua County woman fueled by a silo-full of energy. Between running a farm with her husband and raising six children, Eliza headed Grange #244, wrote for state and national magazines, and spoke out for "equal civil and political rights for women" at state conventions in her role as Superintendent of Franchise. Largely (there are always exceptions), the Patrons of Husbandry supported women's suffrage and political opportunities, as well as opportunities within their organization for women to hold leadership roles.
Carrie Twing, another Grange woman who lived near Westfield, also supported suffrage and temperance. As a Patrons of Husbandry Lecturer, she spoke to audiences in several Northeastern States. We would never raise our eyebrows at this, but in the 19th century, a woman speaking to “promiscuous audiences,” as mixed groups of men and women were called, was shocking. Carrie also served as President of the New York State Spiritualist Association, which afforded her more opportunities to speak to "promiscuous" audiences.
What courage it must have taken for these women to step out of their prescribed spheres of home and hearth, adopting unconventional clothing, taking on shocking roles, and in so many ways, connecting the dots between ideological fairness and practicality. These women understood that expanding the female sphere meant bringing the distaff virtues from the hearth to a world that so desperately needed them. As the anonymous author of an 1870 article in Arthur's Home Magazine stated, "The world needs women--true, generous, earnest, wise, and womanly, working women."
The saga continues to unfold, most recently with the ban on women in combat being lifted; many wise people see this influx of women's energy as a positive. Perhaps no expression of this idea has been crafted so beautifully as by the poet James Oppenheim in his "Bread and Roses": "The rising of the women means the rising of the race."
Ladies, we have come so far. But still we rise, and still it is good.
4th of July
Independence Day celebrations now and in the 18th century. The link is to the Dunkirk Observer archives, a record of publication of this column on 7/3/14. For non-subscribers, the text follows.
John Adams was prophetic. In a July 3, 1776 letter written to his wife Abigail, during the creation of the Declaration of Independence, Adams prescribed eternal celebration of the occasion “from one End of this Continent to the other” with a list of activities familiar to us still: “Pomp and Parade...Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations.”
Adams' festive enumeration puts in relief the Declaration's list of justifications for separation from England. Both have given continuity to a sense of nationhood that has been battered by political and military strife since that first Independence Day, when a band of well-heeled rebels set in motion a unique striving toward a nation of freedom and equality.
Amid the parades and illuminations, the games and “pomp” that form unique celebrations of the Fourth, founding principles of liberty, freedom, and equality continue to be re-fashioned. The founders recognized how fragile their creation was, how susceptible to threats from within and without, including Colonials equivocating over whether to cast their lots with the known and familiar or with this new entity.
Crazy as it seemed, the American experiment has endured to our comfortable vantage point of fireworks and barbeques.
But a look back underscores the divide between ideals of freedom and equality and lived experience. Despite Abigail Adams' spousal plea to include the ladies as equal partners in this fledgling enterprise, her husband and his peers manifested their vision of a nation built on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—for white men who owned property.
A lot of people were left out of that Revolutionary vision. For a long time. Frederick Douglass explored the cruel irony of commemorating an event that signaled liberty for some and bondage for others in his July 5, 1852 speech in Rochester. The Fourth of July was everything but a celebration of freedom for blacks in America, he said. Hindsight reveals a plodding, forward-moving journey toward racial equality. It reveals a Revolution that simultaneously failed to empower all its stakeholders while leaving room for growth toward that ideal.
The 20th-Century French writer Albert Camus expressed a simple idea that Americans should always keep in sight: “Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.” Isn't that what Americans have striven to achieve, a progression toward expanded equality based on the idea that freedom is a universal longing? There is ample good will in America; at our national best, we find ways to live with diverse opinions about the details. In the best of times, our representatives carry the country forward with grace and civility. If only that were always true.
Unrolling an imaginary time line backward reveals some facts. I was born with the right to vote; my grandmothers were not. Abigail Adams was right, but manifesting her right idea took too long.
Slavery created prosperity for some and cruel misery for others. Every legislative compromise set the cause of emancipation back, but freedom did happen, at great cost, as every student of the nineteenth century knows.
The story of freedom and equality in America is a tale of steps forward and backward. The Constitution allows us to vote, create laws, argue and debate. It provides opportunities to throw the bums out and elect new people and to try contentious laws in court. Americans gain and lose equality over issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but we do so in a tripartite framework. It is our choice to make our government a workhorse for progress or for its undoing.
Steps forward, steps back.
Yet again we reach the juncture of a long weekend of grilling and horseshoes, festivals and beaches. And of course, this century's version of John Adams' “illuminations.”
The “Pomp and Parades” will once again reinvigorate a national sense of the sanctity of freedom and liberty. After the celebration, the forces of forward and backward will continue to tug away. We can disagree about how to handle the challenges of the day while moving forward through debate, election, petitions to our representatives, and a shared goal of liberty and justice for all.
Or we can choose the backward path by throwing monkey wrenches into the beautiful tripartite experiment that some thought would never last. Words like “impeachment” and “filibuster” come to mind.
There's a bumper sticker that conveys all the wisdom we need: Bless the whole world; no exceptions.
Despite our differences, the act of blessing our countrymen should linger past the grand finale over the lake.
It is quite possibly the best way forward.