The contribution woman have made to the United States over the years is profoundly important, and probably not recognized to the degree that it should be recognized. This paper reviews and critiques the contributions of women from five periods in history: from 1865 to 1876; from 1877 to 1920; from 1921 to 1945; from 1946 to 1976; and from 1976 to the present day.
Women in America -- 1865 to 1876 -- Sojourner Truth
One of the brightest lights in the movement to free the slaves was Sojourner Truth, likely the best-known person in the abolitionist movement. She was actually very active in the movement to free the slaves before and during the Civil War, and she helped organize and lead the Underground Railroad movement. The Underground Railroad shepherded runaway slaves away from Southern slave states and up into New York State, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota and other states that welcomed them and provide jobs for them. Truth was also a traveling preacher, and became involved with the Progressive Friends, an offshoot of the Quakers, according to an article in Women in History (WIH).
During the Civil War Truth rallied behind the Union (the North) side, and helped black freed slaves become involved in the effort to defeat the South. After the Civil War, in 1867, Truth worked with freed slaves under the Freedman's Relief Association, helping freed men and women find work and a safe place to live. She also worked with the Freedman's Hospital in Washington, D.C. assisting with healthcare issues for recently freed slaves.
In 1870, Sojourner Truth began campaigning for the federal government to offer land to former slaves out west of the Mississippi River. Seven years later after not having much success, Truth gave up this campaign, and began touring on speaking engagements with her grandson Sammy Banks. However he fell ill and she developed painful ulcers on his leg. After an operation Sammy died but a veterinarian was able to remove those ulcers from Truth and she want back on her speaking tour, advocating for women's suffrage, temperance, against capital punishment and for land for freed slaves.
"She was delighted" in 1879 when many freed slaves "began migrating west and north on their own," according to WIH, p. 3. In July, 1883, with the ulcers on her legs again, she was treated in the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who actually grafted some of his own skin onto her leg. But she died on November 26, 1883, at 86 years of age. She is currently a member of the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, the Women's Hall of Fame in Lansing, Michigan, a portion of the Michigan State Highway M-66 is designated the "Sojourner Truth Memorial Highway," and there are many other memorials and tributes to her for her contribution to the abolitionist movement, the temperance movement, women's suffrage and Christianity.
Women in America -- 1877 -- 1920 -- Sara Josephine Baker
In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, a main concern of health officials, physicians and researchers -- especially in larger cities like New York and Boston, was the problem of infectious diseases. Sanitation was very poor, milk was not pasteurized and in fact it was sold in "rusty, open cans," according to an article in Harvard Square Library (HSL). The major health problems were smallpox, dysentery, and typhoid, and the suffering that people experienced because of these diseases was enormous and difficult for the communities and families. Those with smallpox were "covered in painful sores"; those suffering from typhoid went through high fever, delirium and horrendous headaches; and in the summer of 1902, an estimated 1,500 infants died "each week" in New York City's Hell's Kitchen from dysentery and other illnesses (HSL). Doctors were not readily available at that time, and only 1% of physicians in America were female.
Meanwhile, the stage was set for a person -- particularly a leader -- to enter this picture, and her name was Josephine Baker. Baker did not originally intend to become a physician; in fact at the age of 16 she was getting ready to attend school at Vassar by attending a prep school. But before she could attend Vassar her father died of typhoid fever, so she decided to study medicine, a logical choice given her father's untimely death and the terrible conditions in big cities. She attended the only medical school that accepted women students, the Women's Medical College of New York Infirmary for Women and Children (HSL).
She finished her medical school and interned at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston; while there she worked at an out-clinic in a slum neighborhood. What she learned in addition to physician's skills was the knowledge of "how poorly medical science was serving the crowded city populations" (HSL). She worked in New York with the New York Department of Health as a medical inspector. Her task was examine children and send the sick ones home. As a result of her efforts, a citywide school nurse program was launched, and it was so successful that "cases of head lice and the eye infection trachoma -- once extremely prevalent in the schools -- dropped to nearly zero" (Harvard Square Library, p. 2).
Through her intelligent, innovative work with children, she established a respected reputation, and by 1908 she was responsible for visiting private homes where babies had recently been born. Her work was so excellent, that in the summer of 1908 there were 1,200 fewer deaths than the summer of 1907; soon thereafter the city established the Division of Child Hygiene (that later became the Bureau of Child Health), and Baker was hired as director.
Some of her accomplishments include: a) a "long and successful battle to allow midwives to be licensed by the city of New York"; b) the development of a "foolproof dispenser" in order to administer silver nitrate to the eyes of newborn babies; this helped prevent gonococcal infections and the blindness that often followed; c) she helped develop a formula for newborns by taking cow's milk and adding calcium carbonate and lactose; d) she launched the "Little Mothers Leagues" where girls eight and nine years of age were trained to care for their younger brothers and sisters while mothers were in the workplace earning a living (Harvard Square Library).
Baker later got involved in women's suffrage, and was one of 500 women who "marched in the first suffrage parade on Fifth Avenue" and later she met with President Woodrow Wilson at the White House with other women supporting the rights to vote (HSL).
Women in America -- 1877 -- 1920 -- Jane Addams
Jane Addams' mother died when she was two so she was raised by her father and a stepmother. She had good leadership from her family and she graduated from Rockford Female Seminary in 1881, which was a pioneering accomplishment because she was "among the first to take a course of study equivalent to that of men at other institutions" (Lewis, 2008). When she visited the Toynbee Settlement House in London in 1888, it gave her an idea to start a settlement house in the United States. So she and her classmate and close friend Ellen Gates Starr took the old Hull mansion in Chicago and upgraded it into a settlement house for use by immigrants in the neighborhood (Lewis, p. 1).
(A settlement house, according to about.com, was one approach to social reform since it addressed directly the problems of poverty, of injustice, Jone Johnson Lewis explains. The Hull House, founded in 1889, became the best-known settlement house.)
The Hull House was a huge success, because it addressed the real needs of the neighborhood; as a result, it became an institution that had a worldwide reputation for innovation in the delivery of social and human services. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Hull House originally was opened for kindergarten classes, but soon it expanded "to include a day nursery and an infancy care center." Eventually the Hull House became a place where secondary and college-level extension classes were offered as well as "evening classes on civil rights and civic duties" (Britannica).
Using her prominence, Addams began to lecture, publish articles, and performed fundraising for other communities that wished to build settlement houses. She became heavily involved in "wider efforts for social reform, including housing and sanitation issues, factory inspection, rights of immigrants, women and children, pacifism and the 8-hour day" (Lewis, p. 1). In 1912, Addams went out and campaigned for Teddy Roosevelt, who was running on the Progressive Party ticket. Between the years 1911 and 1914, Addams was Vice President of the National Woman Suffrage Association (Lewis, p. 1).
She was also a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union and she worked hard with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Indeed, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her efforts.