Small — and large — steps for women
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.
Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org