Marie Mullaney, Ph.D., Professor of History and specialist in women’s history.
Women’s Historian Highlights Mighty NJ Women (and others) You May Not Know About
Who is the Jersey girl who can be credited with helping women finally achieve the right to vote?
Who is the African American woman from Ohio who refused to march in segregated suffrage parades?
Who is the woman who upstaged Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration with a suffrage parade in Washington D.C.?
What did it mean if you were referred to as a “‘Lucy Stoner”?
In a recent interview, Caldwell University Professor of History and specialist in women’s history, Dr. Marie Mullaney said these women’s stories need to be told when celebrating Women’s History Month.
Mullaney recalled how when she was still a graduate student, she was hired as an adjunct to teach a 15-week night course on “Women in History” at what was then Caldwell College for Women.
“The professor who hired me said: “Tell me what 15 women you are going to cover.” I laughed like you could not believe because true women’s history is not a history of the rich and famous. It’s really not. It’s about issues. It’s about events. It’s about activities. It’s about problems. It’s about different kinds of women. So I laughed at that because it is a gross misunderstanding of what historians of women do,” said Mullaney.
But of course, says Mullaney, “especially if we are trying to educate the general public or young people, it is so much easier to focus on individual names. We have been doing at least 50 years of serious history where we are learning about women other than the “tried and true,” so I think we have to move away from that. I thought about new people whose names I can bring to the equation.”
Who do you think is a woman trailblazer of the 20th century?
Dr. Mullaney: I thought long and hard about that. That was not a really easy question. There are so many women in my head and so many women I have written about…but I seized on Katherine Johnson who was the subject of the book made into the film “Hidden Figures”and worked for NASA for many, many decades, an African American woman who really was a genius and a prodigy, and finally got the acclaim she deserved. She just died last year.
Her story is absolutely amazing for a number of reasons. Number one is that we hear this stereotypical criticism “well girls don’t like math, right?” Johnson’s story tells us women can do math. So let’s talk about a trailblazer in that area! Number two—she grew up in the segregated south under conditions that are incredible. Incredible for us to think about today. The West Virginia town she grew up in had no schools at all for African Americans after the 8th grade. So her father drove her and her siblings to high school and then college to a nearby historically Black college–West Virginia State College–and talk about perseverance in the face of difficulty! That was really absolutely amazing. Then when she did begin to work for NASA in the 1950s, the offices were segregated, the bathrooms were segregated.
Someone asked her later in life, “Were you angry? Did you feel inferior? What do you think about this treatment?” She said her father taught her “You are as good as anybody in this town, but you are no better than anybody in this town.” And I just thought that was a great way for her to deal with this issue.
She said she did not feel this sense of inferiority and when I look at the life she led, I think I would have been very angry myself, but she was not. Her story is great–the math angle, the persistence angle, the family angle.
I’ve done a lot of biographical history and written biographies of women. And their family upbringing is so really important—the role of their parents, the role of their mothers and their fathers, so Katherine Johnson gets my vote for the trailblazer of the 20th century.
Who is a mighty New Jersey woman we don’t know about ?
Dr. Mullaney was involved with Drew University in contributing to the reference book “Past and Promise – Lives of New Jersey Women” by the Women’s Project of New Jersey Inc. Mullaney says it features hundreds of NJ women who are not household names.
Dr. Mullaney: Lucy Stone. She was not born in New Jersey. She was born in Massachusetts but she lived in New Jersey. She lived in Orange, Montclair and Newark and was highly educated. She went to Mount Holyoke (when it was Mary Lyons Academy) and Oberlin College, the first co-educational college in the U.S. She is very well-known as a woman who fought for a women’s right to vote in the middle of the 19th century. She was involved in women’s suffrage causes all her life and she founded The NJ Women’s Suffrage Association when she was living here in the 1850s and 1860s. Why she was so fascinating is the man she married was also very much ahead of his time–Henry Blackwell. He was an abolitionist, so what is interesting about that time is this connection between the abolitionist movement and the women’s suffrage movement. So her husband was a kindred spirit.
When they married–this was a great novelty–she refused to take his name, and people, as you might imagine, were scandalized, and if you never took your husband’s name when you got married you came to be known as a “Lucy Stoner”. They signed a marriage contract. This is the 1850’s, which is really, really amazing. But when she got pregnant and had a daughter, the problem arose ‘what name is the daughter going to have?’ So they named her Alice Stone Blackwell. This is very common today of course, using the maternal name as the middle name, but again, that was really unique in the middle 1800s. But the more famous story involving Lucy Stone was this: her husband was away on business, she was in Orange, and she refused to pay property taxes on their home because she could not vote. So she wrote this very famous letter to the tax collector in Orange, New Jersey. This is 1858—“No taxation without representation”. And the story is that the tax department of Orange came in and tried to auction off some of her personal belongings to pay the bill including her daughter’s baby carriage. I don’t know if that is actually true or not but that is part of the folklore involving Lucy Stone.
Her daughter Alice also became involved in the women’s suffrage movement. And supposedly, Lucy’s dying words to her daughter Alice were “make the world better”. I like that because again family and mothers and what they import to their daughter is I think what is most important about these stories.
This year’s theme for Women’s History Month is the same as last year, “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing To Be Silenced”. Is there someone who comes to mind for you with that theme?
Dr. Mullaney: Well, of course the theme is being repeated because the pandemic cheated us out of our opportunity to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the19th amendment last August.
Alice Paul, hands down, no contest is the Jersey girl who really should be credited with finally helping women achieve the right to vote.
And why she is so important? There’s a long back story about her—highly educated, a Quaker; her religious beliefs played a big role in her activism. She started out as a social worker but she said social work was not doing a lot of good in changing society. She goes to graduate school, gets a Ph.D., and later even goes on to get a law degree. In the early 20th century she spent time in England, and that was the time when the Pankhurst family was involved in all of these shockingly militant activities to draw attention to women’s need to vote. And remember women had been fighting for the vote for decades, and decades and decades and they still had not achieved it by the early 20th century, so Alice Paul is introduced to this militant type of activism. She comes back to the U.S. in the years right before World War I and as a young woman, she brings a new spirit, spark, and energy to what had been the Victorian leadership of the women’s suffrage cause. She gets these ideas—I don’t want to say these publicity stunts—but that is what they were. There were these giant parades that she engineered in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. where you would have all kinds of women marching under the flags and banners of a variety of groups. There were immigrant groups. There were African American groups. There were college women. There were sororities…all these women wearing white and showing, by their actions, “Here we are all united for one cause.” This was really a shocking novelty in the U.S. at that time.
There is a famous story that one of these parades was going on in Washington right when Woodrow Wilson was arriving for his inauguration. He was highly surprised that no one was there to greet him. He supposedly said, “Where is everybody?”. And they said, “Well, they’re all watching the suffrage parade.” So Paul introduces this theatrical aspect to the cause, but even more important is that she draws attention to the hypocrisy of Woodrow Wilson. During WWI of course, his goal for the war is “to make the world safe for democracy.” Well, Paul organizes a whole team of women to picket the White House! They were called the Silent Sentinels and carried signs like “Mr. Wilson take the gleam out of your eyes. You are talking about democracy. What about half of the population of the United States who can’t vote?” These women were arrested and sent to a work house. They were sent to prison. Some of them were horribly abused. They went on hunger strikes to draw attention to this supposed crime—that they wanted to vote. And the government of course could not withstand the bad publicity of women potentially dying for the crime of wanting to vote in a democracy. Some of these women including Alice Paul were forcibly fed. They have written about the horrible pain, the sensations that are engendered if you are forcibly fed with a tube either down your nostrils or down your mouth. So Alice Paul, as well as a cohort of other women, were involved in these activities that drew attention and really bad press to the anti-suffrage cause.
Most historians, as do I, really credit those kinds of events to the ultimate passage of the 19th amendment in 1920. There is no accident that the war years are what is ultimately, in the western world, going to win the vote for women.
But what I also like about Alice Paul is that she never gave up. Talk about valiant women who refuse to be silenced, right? As soon as the suffrage amendment was passed, she wrote the original Equal Rights Amendment that she tried to have added to the Constitution from 1923 on. She lived a very long life, and until she died she was fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment. She died at the age of 92 in 1977.
We just celebrated Black History Month. Do you have a favorite valiant woman of color who refused to be silenced?
Dr. Mullaney: There are so many women who have contributed to the pivotal movements, and unfortunately there are so many women that we do not know about. Last year a fabulous book came out written by a Penn State historian, Catherine Cahill, published by University of North Carolina Press, “Recasting the Vote”. It is a phenomenal book. This book is about Chinese women, Native American women, Hispanic women and African American women who were all involved in suffrage work and suffrage organizations. It is one of the best books I have read recently.
In that book, the woman whose life grabbed me was Carey Williams Clifford from Ohio. Once you start reading these women’s stories, you see commonalities among them. She is greatly influenced by her mother. She is highly educated. She is involved in all sorts of activities especially education, promoting the education of women, getting women together forming organizations. At that time–this is the middle to the late 19th century– you had African American women forming not only suffrage groups but also women’s clubs. And the whole point was self-help, this refusal to be victims. We are going to help ourselves. We are going to uplift other people as we move up in society—the W.E.B. Dubois idea of the Talented Tenth. Carey Williams Clifford knew W.E.B. Dubois. She knew Booker T. Washington, and she was involved with Alice Paul and she was involved in those suffrage parades. She refused to march in segregated groups because that was a big issue with the suffrage campaign—white women leaders did not want to lose the support of white women in the south, which of course in the late 19th and early 20th century was the Jim Crow segregated south. So there is this whole back story of racism among white suffrage groups because they did not want to lose the support of other women or certainly men in the South.
To carry on this theme of women and their mothers, Carey Williams’ mother told her “It is your character as a woman that matters not your color, ” which I think is another great thing to pass on.
Over the last several years you have done comprehensive research on women religious, Catholic sisters. Why do they need to be in the American history books?
Dr. Mullaney: “I am really ashamed to admit that until recently I myself would not think about integrating the stories of Catholic women or Catholic religious sisters into the general narrative. I don’t know whether that was because of how I myself was educated. I went to Catholic schools until I went to graduate school. And it was in graduate school that I focused on women’s history, but we never talked about the impact of Catholic religious sisters… I did not go to a religious institution, so secularization is a big problem and who decides what the acceptable narrative is a key issue.
The more you study American history, the more you learn about the anti-Catholic biases in American history. So I think that if you look at any generic women’s history textbook, you would be shocked at how Catholic religious women are virtually non-existent. I do think that has to do with this bias, and also the idea that sometimes Catholic religious women never looked for any credit for themselves. They were educators. They built hospitals. They were nurses. They established all sorts of institutions but they were very humble, and that is part of the problem. They didn’t until recently draw attention to their own work. Only in recent years have Catholic sisters themselves been attentive to developing archives and having their voices be heard, so the very humility of Catholic sisters may play into their exclusion from the history.
Who are the valiant women who have influenced your life and why?
Dr. Mullaney: Condi Rice, another African American woman, the first female African American Secretary of State, Ph.D. in Russian History, provost at Stanford University. Now she heads the Hoover Institution at Stanford. She wrote a biography of her parents called “Extraordinary, Ordinary People”. And I always recommend it to my students because I love that title. Ordinary people are extraordinary even if they are not written about in the history books. So Condi Rice did not write about herself. She wrote about her parents.
So I think, especially in this pandemic, what I am reminded of, are all of the mothers who are holding body and soul together, holding families together, dealing with anxiety issues among their children and themselves, trying to work at the same time that they’re educating their children who are learning at home. And sadly we have read that many women have dropped out of the workforce because they are just not able to keep all of these balls up in the air, so I do want to acknowledge the extraordinary role that mothers play in life today and in the past.
We all know what Abraham Lincoln said: “All that I am and hope to be I owe to my angel mother.”