My research keeps circling the same issues. Women take two steps forward only to be told to take a step back. And yet, we have persisted. Attitudes are slow to change. When Harriot Kezia Hunt first applied to medical school, the 1851 class of Harvard is left with the notoriety of stating, “We could allow you to attend medical lectures – but of course you cannot earn a degree. We are not opposed to allowing woman her rights, but do protest against her appearing in places where her presence is calculated to destroy our respect for modesty and delicacy of her sex.”
Wow! I get it! Men fear us. But why do they feel threatened? And why have we let them? Even a 12 year old prodigy in 1783 was denied admission to Yale simply due to her sex. Yale’s first female reject went on to a career as dutiful wife, mother of 10 and to a private life. What a waste to the world (except in her procreating of 10, of course).
Here is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who is credited as the “smallpox savior.” While living in Turkey with her ambassador husband, she learned about the local custom of inoculating healthy folks against smallpox, using a mild form of the live virus. It was estimated that there were 60 million deaths annually. She took this practice back to England, immunizing her own daughter and then the children of the royal family. She herself had been scarred by the disease, and her pursuits had soon crossed the ocean to the America’s. By her death, a dozen years later, the death rate from smallpox had dropped from 30 percent to 2 percent.
Now we come to the first signed print of the Declaration of Independence. As the proprietor of the Baltimore Journal, Mary Katherine Goddard, a lifelong single woman and the first postmaster of Baltimore, was awarded the job of printing the nation’s most sacred document in 1777. Every part of publishing, from book binding to setting type and ink, editor of select projects and running a bookstore, she did. One of her special projects was bringing out the American edition of The Letter of Lady Mary Montagu, the literate humanitarian who’d brought the smallpox vaccination to Europe and the American colonies.
As a “freebie”, Mary Katherine paid couriers to deliver the “Declaration” throughout the thirteen colonies. After fourteen years running the post office, she lost her job. Cutbacks? Hardly. Her cushy federal post was thought “too difficult for a woman” by bureaucrats who had other “favors” to win.
How about blacksmithing? The colonies had many women who were skilled with red-hot metals. While husbands were away defending, women were the backbone of keeping the muskets and broken guns repaired, say nothing of the re-shod of horses.
And this brings me to Hannah Harris, a Virginia slave on the plantation Leo, one of eighteen belonging to slaveholder planter Robert Carter. Besides being literate, Hannah was a talented weaver and was often rented out for her flax-weaving skills. Even though Carter held thousands of human chattel, after the Revolutionary War and the enlightened new laws passed by Virginia, his religious conversion led him to begin the proceedings to free his slaves. Not all at once, as this would cause inconvenience. Over twenty-one years 500 slaves won freedom. When 1792 rolled around, Hannah got the news. She was thirty-seven and sat down to write Carter a letter, having thought long and hard about her future. In it she asked that she buy back her own loom so to make a living once free. Between 1782-1800, more than 10,000 slaves like Hannah were given their freedom.
Last but hardly least, comes some Quaker irony. After her husband’s untimely death, Rebecca Pennock Lukens, went full speed ahead to fulfill her husband’s contracts to deliver metal plates for the first American ironclad warship. From that stressful beginning, Rebecca built her company into a major player in the iron plate biz. Besides seagoing vessels, she won contracts to make locomotives and Mississippi steamboats. Quakers held a philosophy that women had brains and potential and besides her studies, she’d tag along to her father’s mill to watch and learn.
Over time, Rebecca became a woman of wealth, a leading citizen and an enlightened employer. She built houses for her workers, awarded bonuses and provides working conditions that were better than most of her era. Five years after her death, the company honored her by renaming itself Lukens Iron Works (later Lukens Steel Company), which it remains today.
So, ladies, keep the faith. We’ve come a very long way. Be better by supporting each other to be better, do better. We’ve got this!