A Black Poet?????

In Boston there is a Women’s Memorial that honors three women from our country’s early beginnings.

By Ingfbruno – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27653635

One of the statutes anyone familiar with American history would recognize. She is Abigail Adams, wife of our second president, John Adams, and mother of our sixth president, John Quincy Adams. One thing she is remembered for is advocating for women to be included in our country’s fight for freedom. Unfortunately, although our Constitution stated that “all men are created equal” it seems that did not include women. It would be years before women were given the same rights as men to take part in our country’s political life.

In her letter to her husband Abigail written on March 31, 1776 she asked him:

and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

A second woman honored there is Lucy Stone.

Lucy Stone

An fervent abolitionist Lucy was one of the first women in Massachusetts to graduate college. Following in her parents’ footsteps she worked with the American Anti-Slavery Society. As she became an outspoken advocate both for freedom of the slaves and for women’s rights she was excommunicated from the Congregational Church.

After the Civil War when the Fifteenth Amendment was proposed giving black men the right to vote, many of the women’s rights proponents argued against it since it did not include women. Lucy supported it because it agreed with her abolitionist viewpoint and she believed it would eventually lead to women also gaining that right.

Lucy rightfully asked the question:

If, while I hear the shriek of the slave mother robbed of her little ones, I do not open my mouth for the dumb, am I not guilty?

The third woman is one that we rarely hear about. Phyllis Wheatley.

By Scipio Moorhead – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a40394. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1629684

She was the first African-American poet to be published. What is so amazing is this took place while she was still a slave, even before our nation had declared its independence from England. Abigail Adams was a fan of her writings as was George Washington.

As her writings became popular and people were told they were the work of a black woman, many could not believe it. A group of prominent Boston men examined her and concluded that she had indeed written the poems. They wrote a preface to her book to attest that it was indeed written by a black woman. Even so, publishers in Boston refused to publish the book so she went with her master’s son to London where it was published.

As I read about this talented woman, it made me wonder just how prejudiced and can I say “stupid” our founding fathers were that they could not believe a black woman (and by inference black people) could be capable of such intelligence. I am so amazed at the courage it took for her to go to London and have the book published.

Here is one of her poems:

Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negro’s, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

I find it ironic that she refers to Cain as black. Clearly although her owners had recognized her abilities and had taught her to read and write, even learning Greek and Latin, they had also taught the false teaching in the Christian church at that time was that the curse God put on Cain was to make him black.

Sad how white slave owners tried to use the Bible to justify their slave society. Sad that even as educated as Phyllis was, she seemed to accept that terrible lie.

Even today, I wonder how many lies our society hangs on to as justification for not reaching out to those not like ourselves.

Do You Know These Women? – Part II

History books are full of the deeds of men – both good and bad.  But what about the women?  Surprisingly women have accomplished a great deal that has never really been given the attention it deserves.

Yesterday I wrote about the women who helped break the codes of the Axis forces in World War II.  If you did not read that post, I encourage you to do so.  I also mentioned a book that gives much more detail about these thousands of women who helped us achieve victory in that war.

Do You Know These Women?

While these women were working to help win the war, another woman created a lot of controversy in her lack of support for the war.

Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to the United States Congress.   She was elected in 1916 four years before the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.

The 19th Amendment did not give women the right to vote, it guaranteed them the right to vote.  Before passage of the amendment, women in many states already had the right to vote.  Montana was one of those states and thus was the first state to send a woman to Congress.

The following states granted women the right to vote prior to the 19th Amendment:

1890 Wyoming
1893 Colorado
1896 Utah, Idaho
1910 Washington
1911 California
1912 Arizona, Kansas, Oregon
1914 Montana, Nevada
1917 New York
1918 Michigan, Oklahoma, South Dakota

A native of Montana Rankins was an activist for much of the 20th century and a heroine to the feminists in the 1960’s.

Her first vote in the House of Representatives – the first cast by any woman – was to vote against a declaration of war against Germany in 1917.  That time she was joined by 50 in the House and six in the Senate in opposing the war.

Years later she was the lone member of Congress who voted against Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration of war against Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  That vote cost her political career.

In retirement she became a world traveler meeting many leaders of other countries.  She also spoke on women’s rights, called for election reform, and continued to advocate for legislation to protect children.

As a member of Congress, she had sponsored a bill with Senator Joseph Robinson to provide much needed health care for mothers and children.

During hearings on the bill a Dr. Howe objected that women should quit fighting for the vote and stay home and take care of their children.  He said babies were even born blind because their mothers did not have the sense to use silver nitrate to prevent the blindness.

Jeanette Rankin:  “How do you expect women to know this disease when you do not feel it proper to call it by its correct name?  Do they not in some states have legislation which prevents women from knowing these diseases and only recently….were women permitted in medical schools.  You yourself, from your actions, believe it is not possible for women to know the names of these diseases.”

Dr. Howe:  “I did not like to use the word ‘gonorrhea’.”

Jeanette Rankin:  “Do you think anything should shock a woman as much as blind children?  Do you not think they ought to be hardened enough to stand the name of a disease when they must stand the fact that children are blind?”

While I personally did not agree with a lot of her political and social stands, I was impressed by what she accomplished as a single woman in that time of history in the USA.  Interesting that we do not hear much about this first woman elected to Congress.  Think you might enjoy learning more.  You can – take a look at this interesting and controversial woman in the book “Jeanette Rankin – America’s Conscience” by Norma Smith.

 

 

(Details of interaction between Rankin and Howe are found in the Montana Historical Society Archives)