Women's History, Here and Now: Inside the Lives of 3 Iconic Women
For sheer importance in American history, it’s hard to match the impact of Ida B. Wells. A fiercely intelligent journalist and civil rights activist in the South, and then in her adopted city of Chicago, she drew much-needed attention to lynchings, fought for black women’s suffrage, and helped found the NAACP.
Yet for many years, the only major place named after her in Chicago was the house where she lived with her husband, a National Historic Landmark that is privately occupied. In February of 2019, the city of Chicago took an important step by renaming a major road for Wells. And her family is raising money to complete a statue they’ve commissioned by sculptor Richard Hunt for a site in the Bronzeville neighborhood.
The story of Wells’ overlooked legacy—and the movement to recognize it now—is the story of much of women’s history in the United States. Actress Hedy Lamarr’s co-invention of advanced radio-wave technology, legal scholar Pauli Murray’s key arguments that set the foundation for important court decisions, and NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson’s influence on spaceflight have gained widespread attention recently, decades after the original accomplishments. “I do think it’s changing,” says Jennifer Scott, director and chief curator of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, named after the activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner and the social settlement she co-founded. “We’ve started to see people asking questions about, ‘Where are the women?’”
The centennial of women’s suffrage in the U.S. is serving as an impetus for historic sites to answer this question. The 19th Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, ostensibly giving American women the right to vote. Reality was more complicated—while some women were fully enfranchised, many women of color were still denied voting rights through state laws and other loopholes. “This is a commemorative year, not a celebratory year,” says Andrea DeKoter, acting superintendent of Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York, and Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn, New York. “We want to recognize that in 1920, some women won the right to vote. It’s an opportunity to reflect on what was missed in that 19th Amendment and who was given power and who was not.”
Pauli Murray, Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, and pioneering Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins were all active in the suffrage movement. In the profiles below, we've highlighted these three extraordinary women and the places most connected with them.
Both the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice and the Harriet Tubman Home received $50,000 grants in 2019 from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund—the nation’s largest preservation campaign on behalf of African American history.
Other significant women whose pasts the National Trust has helped preserve include the singer Nina Simone, through the Nina Simone Childhood Home in Tryon, North Carolina; entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, though her palatial residence in Irvington, New York; and doctor Edith Farnsworth, who commissioned the Modernist masterpiece (and National Trust Historic Site) Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois.
The achievements of countless other women in history are waiting to be unveiled to a public hungry for more. “We need more women’s history sites,” DeKoter says. “But we also need to make sure we’re telling comprehensive stories everywhere. Because women are everywhere.”—Meghan Drueding
Sometime between 1834 and 1836, when Harriet Tubman was a young teenager, she was buying supplies in a village store near the Maryland farm where she was enslaved. An overseer had chased a young African American man into the shop and called to Tubman, then known as Minty, to capture him. When she refused, the overseer grabbed a 2-pound weight and hurled it at the escapee. In the heat of the moment, he missed, and Tubman took the blow, which knocked her out and nearly killed her. For the rest of her life, she suffered from debilitating narcoleptic seizures, even during her dangerous work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
“If you can imagine an escape with 10 or 15 slaves and they’re traveling at night and being hunted, and one of her episodes came upon her, they would just have to wait,” says Deanna Mitchell, the superintendent of Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Church Creek, Maryland. “How could someone go through their life and do what they did with that near-fatal injury? She never lost one person.”
This is just one of the many remarkable stories about Harriet Tubman’s life that visitors may learn at two major sites commemorating her legacy—the Maryland one near her birthplace on the Eastern Shore, and one in Auburn, New York, where she died. In the past few years, both of these historic places have become national historical parks, drawing more visitors and sparking even more interest in Tubman’s significance in American history.
Tubman is famous for emancipating herself and around 70 others from slavery after a childhood of extreme abuse and neglect. While many know her name, few know about the scope of the challenges she overcame, including her catastrophic head injury; her extraordinary skills; and the fact that she also fought for human rights well into her old age. Only five feet tall, she was strong and resourceful. She knew how to harvest timber, trap muskrats, and navigate by the stars. “Even though she could not read or write letters, she could read the world around her—the landscape, the people,” says Kate Clifford Larson, author of Bound for The Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero. “She also had a very dry sense of humor and had an intense love for people.”
After her 13 trips as an emancipator for the Underground Railroad, the governor of Massachusetts tapped her to join the Union cause during the Civil War. She served as a nurse, scout, and spy, and in 1863 she helped lead 150 black Union soldiers on the Combahee River Raid, destroying properties owned by prominent Confederates and freeing some 750 African Americans. After settling in Auburn, she fought for women’s suffrage, mingling with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and electrifying audiences with her oratory. In her later years, pained to see that African American seniors did not have access to social services, she founded a home for the elderly and infirm.
Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Auburn contains the Thompson A.M.E. Zion church, in which she was actively involved; the Tubman Residence; and the Tubman Home for the Aged, where she herself died in 1913 around the age of 90. At Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Church Creek, visitors learn what it would have been like to grow up enslaved in this area, as Tubman did, and gaze northward over the forests and swamps.
“There are some who weep,” says Deanna Mitchell. “The museum doesn’t only speak to Harriet Tubman’s legacy; it speaks to the injustice of so many who endured slavery … We’ve come a long way and we still have a long way to go in our world. But for people to be able to come and learn the story about what this meant—that’s what it’s all about.”—Kate Siber
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Ask any American what they know about the New Deal, and chances are they’ll tell you about the charismatic president who led the nation through the Great Depression. Few would mention Frances Perkins, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s quietly influential secretary of labor and the first woman appointed to a presidential cabinet.
But it was Perkins who pushed the ideas of a social security system, unemployment insurance, and a minimum wage. Shortly after graduating from Columbia University with a master’s degree in economics and sociology, she happened to witness the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 and made workplace safety a top priority for the rest of her career. Fire exits and drills, occupancy limits, child labor laws—Perkins was a driving force behind the implementation of these basic standards. She rose to oversee the improvement of factory conditions in New York state, where she served as chair of the New York State Industrial Board under Gov. Al Smith and then as New York State Industrial Commissioner under FDR.
When FDR became president in 1933, he asked Perkins to join his cabinet. She hesitated—her husband, Paul Wilson, suffered from what would now be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, which at the time required periodic hospital stays. The couple also had a teenage daughter, Susanna, and leaving them both in New York while she worked in Washington would be difficult. But Roosevelt promised he’d support her policy goals, which also included the establishment of a 40-hour workweek and compulsory workers’ compensation. This was a chance to remake the country’s labor system in a way that would give fundamental protections to millions of people, and she knew she couldn’t turn down the opportunity.
Perkins served throughout FDR’s entire presidency, and she was able to put almost every one of her goals into practice. She managed the implementation of the Civilian Conservation Corps and used her position to advocate strongly for the thousands of Jewish refugees seeking entry into the United States. “She was just an unusual figure—unusually committed, unusually brave. [She was] alone in a world full of men, moving into a sphere that no woman had ever moved into before,” says historian Alice Kessler-Harris in the documentary film Summoned: Frances Perkins and the General Welfare, which first aired this past March on PBS.
Though Perkins was devoted to her work, she disliked the attention of the press. Like many cabinet members before and since, she found life in Washington to be stressful. Each August she escaped to the place she called her “one true home”—her longtime summer residence in Newcastle, Maine. The Perkins family had owned the 57-acre property since the 1700s, operating a brickyard there until 1896. The complex of modest brick and clapboard buildings is nestled into a landscape of meadows, forest, shoreline, and farmland between the Damariscotta and Sheepscot rivers.
Perkins viewed the site as a place of much-needed rest and refuge. After her death in 1965 it belonged to her daughter and then her grandson, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, who helped start the nonprofit Frances Perkins Center in 2009. The center educates the public about Perkins’ life and legacy, providing tours of the homestead and hosting exhibits and events at its headquarters in neighboring Damariscotta, Maine. In January, it purchased the Frances Perkins Homestead (also known as the Perkins Homestead) from Coggeshall, ensuring a long-term future for the site.
“[The purchase] will enable us to expand the availability of our programs throughout the year,” says Michael Chaney, executive director of the Frances Perkins Center. A National Historic Landmark since 2014, the homestead remains remarkably intact, and the Center’s plans for change are minimal—better parking and wheelchair accessibility, a 2,400-square-foot addition to a barn on the property, and the re-creation of a porch that had been attached to the main house during Perkins’ time. “It gives us a 57-acre site that is worthy of interpretation in and of itself,” Chaney says. “And it preserves the heritage out of which Frances Perkins became the leader she became.”—Meghan Drueding
Pauli Murray may be one of the most important Americans you’ve never heard of. A lawyer, educator, writer, poet, civil and women’s rights activist, and LGBTQ community member, her life was a series of firsts and onlys. It was extraordinary not just because of her accomplishments, but because of the hardships she overcame.
Born Anna Pauline Murray on November 20, 1910, in Baltimore, she went to live with her aunt Pauline Fitzgerald in Durham, North Carolina, after her mother died. Her father was sent to the Crownsville State Hospital for the Negro Insane, where he was later beaten to death by a guard.
Murray would grow up to continually wrestle with her gender identity and her attraction to women; she is believed to have adopted the gender-neutral first name Pauli around the time she was a student at Hunter College in New York. Despite constant financial and health struggles, she graduated first in her class from Howard University Law School in 1944—the sole woman in the group.
She became California’s first black deputy attorney general a couple years later, and Thurgood Marshall used an argument she devised to help build his winning strategy in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. (He also called her book States’ Laws on Race and Color the “bible” for civil rights litigators.)
Murray co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966 and befriended luminaries from Eleanor Roosevelt to Langston Hughes. Her legal writing also helped inspire Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s work on a landmark brief that argued that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex. Murray’s fiery intellectual drive continued throughout her life—in her 60s, she left her job as a professor at Brandeis University to study divinity at the General Theological Seminary and became the first African American women to be ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1977.
Her life, work, and legacy have contributed to the transformation and liberation of so many Americans, but her achievements have not been simply forgotten. Rather, in most cases, they were never properly acknowledged in the first place.
The Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice in Durham aims to change that. “Pauli Murray was one of the most important 20th-century human rights activists, period,” says Barbara Lau, executive director. The center began after the rescue of the Durham house where Murray lived with her aunt off and on from 1914 to the early 1930s—the only extant structure significantly connected to her life.
The circa 1898 house was owned by Murray’s grandfather Robert Fitzgerald, a brickmaker, Civil War veteran, and educator, and his wife, Cornelia, who had been born into slavery. The deteriorating building was slated to be torn down before the nonprofit Self-Help Ventures Fund purchased it in 2011 on behalf of a community-based effort to highlight Pauli Murray’s legacy. The Pauli Murray Center, which leases the house from the fund, was incorporated in 2012 with the help of the Duke University Human Rights Center’s Pauli Murray Project, which provides some staffing and collaboration on programming.
Thanks to grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other organizations, the building’s exterior has been partially restored, while an interior restoration is under way. The house was declared a National Treasure by the National Trust in 2015 and became a National Historic Landmark the next year.
Other institutions have also started to recognize Murray’s significance. Nearly eight years ago, the Episcopal church sainted her. Yale University, where Murray was the first African American to become a doctor of judicial sciences in 1965 and where she also received an honorary divinity school degree in 1979, named a residential college after her in 2016.
Lau says the Pauli Murray Center will open the house to the public sometime in 2021 and will use Murray’s life story to promote her goal of protecting and advancing human rights. “The center will help us realize the world she dreamed of,” she says.—Lisa Selin Davis
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