Forgotten: Women leaders of early 20th century America

March 5, 2016

1905. Johnson was one of the most popular novelists in early 20th Century America. She had published 22 novels, many best sellers. Three of her books were made into films.

In the beginning of the 20th century there were countless changes happening in America. Social and economic advancements forced a re-examination of a number of long-held attitudes, such as gender equality. A handful of brave women decided to challenge the existing cultural standards that applied to women. Many men expressed a natural resistance to this movement. Women were handicapped from the beginning by doubters and skeptics. The full value of their achievements would be questioned, criticized, diminished, but usually dismissed. Women, however, were not deterred.

As the new century began women were still controlled by the attitudes of the past. Shut out from most opportunities, few women enjoyed home or business ownership, higher education, or advanced employment. In 1900 a women’s legal standing was determined by her marital status. Even if married, a woman had no separate legal rights. Her rights were determined by her husband. A woman had no control or say about her own biological reproduction, including discussions about contraception. Women could not sue or be sued since they had no legal standing in court. Most importantly, women were not allowed to vote. Without that right, they would continue to live in a world ruled and owned by men.

The ratification of the 14th Amendment (1870), extended citizenship to formerly enfranchised male slaves. Women, however, were not included in that decision. Under the Constitution it was interpreted that women were not even considered “persons.” A small group of women decided they would be the voice for many, and the Women’s Suffrage Movement was formed. By 1920 the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote. Since then, women have made impressive advancements in all fields and challenged men at every intersection. Despite their many achievements, little is remembered about significant women leaders of a century ago.

Suffragists parade down Fifth Avenue, 1917. Advocates march in October 1917, displaying placards containing the signatures of more than one million New York women demanding the vote. The New York Times Photo Archives
Suffragists parade down Fifth Avenue, 1917.
Advocates march in October 1917, displaying placards containing the signatures of more than one million New York women demanding the vote.
The New York Times Photo Archives

We easily recognize the names of our Founding Fathers, and the great writers, inventors,and sports stars of that time, amongst them Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, and Babe Ruth. Sadly,we do not remember their women counterparts. Is it because their contributions were considered less important? Or, were they as persons, considered less important?

Mary Johnson had wanted to be a Southern Belle. The Virginian fantasized that her life would morph into one of the historic romance stories that she wrote in her leisure time. Her life changed, however, when her mother died and her father became ill, and then bankrupt. All the family responsibilities, including the raising of her siblings, fell upon Johnson. Her fantasy world had ended, but she secretly practiced her writing skills. Within a year she was no longer practicing, but supporting her family with proceeds from published stories. By 1910 Mary Johnson was easily the most popular writer in America. She had numerous best sellers including Audrey (1903); Sir Mortimer (1904) Lewis Rand (1908) and To Have and to Hold (1900), which became the best-selling novel of its time. Mary Johnson had 22 novels published and three were later made into films.

Never married, Mary Johnson was a shy and sensitive women. A restless soul, she changed her life direction a number of times. Johnson used her celebrity to support causes, and became an advocate, not only for women’s rights, but for other things that troubled her — such as racism and lynching. She took voice lessons to strengthen her voice, as well as her courage, which, in time enabled her to speak in front of large groups. Her stardom opened doors to a number of audiences, including the all-male Virginia General Assembly. Later in life, Mary and her sister retreated to the mountains of Virginia where they ran an Inn, until she passed away in 1936.

Gertrude Ederle said her happiest times were between the waves. As a child she fell in love with swimming and even referred to herself as a “water baby.” Raised in New York City she learned to swim on the Jersey Shore and by her teenage years began competing in local contests. By age 19, Gertie Ederle had already set 26 national and world swimming records. Additionally, she won 3 medals in the 1924 Olympics, but received little recognition. Not until 1926 did the world acknowledge her swimming ability.

Gertrude Ederle
Gertrude Ederle in the 1920’s. She was the first woman to swim the English Channel, and she bested the time of all previous male swimmers.

To swim the English Channel is akin to climbing Mt. Everest. From 1873 to 1923 five men had successfully braved the freezing and treacherous Channel to the other side. It was “impossible” even “laughable” to think that a woman could swim the channel. Gertie Ederle not only crossed the Channel, but accomplished the feat during horrendously bad weather. Despite the choppy waters and strong reversing currents, Ederle bested the time of all five previous men swimmers! Her feat had been closely monitored, so that there would be no doubt of her swimming time. Only then was she finally recognized as a world class athlete.

Two million New Yorkers came out to honor Gertrude Ederle in the first ticker tape parade ever held. Bewildered by the attention, the humble “water baby” wasn’t surprised when her celebrity faded within a few years and she was nearly forgotten. By age 27 she was deaf, caused by a childhood illness. As an older woman she was asked if she was sad that the world had forgotten her. She said, “it did not matter “and that she had “lived a good life.”

Even as a young girl in Pennsylvania, Alice Evans yearned for an education. The child of a poor farm family she realized early on that accomplishing her dream depended on her. She worked several years as a teacher at the local elementary school before her life changed. Cornell University offered a free course on nature to rural teachers. Evans enrolled and did so well that she earned a full scholarship in Agricultural Science at Cornell. She furthered her education and earned a Master of Science in Bacteriology from the University of Wisconsin. Her friends and university colleagues encouraged Evans to pursue a Ph.D, but instead she sought employment.

Alice Evans 1915 at work at the Department of Agriculture. Because of her research about raw milk Evans made one of the most significant medical discoveries of the 20th Century.
Alice Evans 1915 at work at the Department of Agriculture. Because of her research about raw milk Evans made one of the most significant medical discoveries of the 20th Century.

By 1910, Alice Evans was hired as the first full-time woman scientist on staff with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Animal Husbandry. She worked directly with the dairy division and researched the bacteriology of milk and cheese. In 1918 Evans published a paper that claimed that she had found a direct link between diseased cows and undulating fevers – – typhoid fever, scarlet fever, diphtheria, diarrheal diseases, streptococcal infections, and more. Evans pointed out that it was through the consumption of raw milk that humans received the bacteria, infection. Other studies found that raw milk had as much bacteria as raw sewage. Because of her findings, she began advocating for the pasteurization of milk.

Alice Evans’ discovery was quickly dismissed by the majority of the medical community. Some thought she had stolen the research from someone else. Many simply believed that her findings were wrong. It was thought unlikely that a women, especially a woman who did not have a doctorate, could make such a discovery. Dairy workers laughed at the idea that raw milk needed to be pasteurized to prevent humans from developing diseases. French microbiologist Dr. Louis Pasteur invented the process of destroying pathogens through simple heat (pasteurization) in 1864. This process of safeguarding food was not accepted immediately in the American medical field. Despite nearly eight years of work, her findings were rejected. Within a decade, however, a number of other scientists came to the same conclusion, and pasteurization of milk became law. Tens of thousands of lives, possibly more, were spared because of Evans’ work. Alice Evans’ discovery was easily one of the most significant medical discoveries of the 20th Century.

An ironic twist to her life came when in 1922 she became infected with undulant fever. This persisted for over thirty years, but it did not prevent her from continuing with her long career. Alice Evans made additional contributions in the field of infectious diseases, including significant findings about meningitis and streptococcal infections.

History has generally been interpreted from a particular point of view. In any society, the decision makers determine how a story is told, and just how it should be remembered. A century ago, the only opinions that mattered were held by men. Women of early 20th Century America were burdened down with the multiple responsibilities of raising families, running households, and many times laboring in either unpaid or low paid jobs. Their tasks were not glamorous, but formed the backbone of American families. Women had an equal investment in America, but they were not seen as equal by men, or by the laws.

1935 Woman's Groups encouraging women to vote.
1935 Woman’s Groups encouraging women to vote.

Resources:

Featured image: Mary Johnson was one of the most popular novelists in early 20th Century America. She had published 22 novels, many best sellers. Three of her books were made into films.
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Virginia Magazine (VHS) Vol. 122 – No 4.
“Escaping the veritable battle cloud: Mary Johnston and the reconstruction of history”
by Clayton McClure Brooks

The Pox of Liberty: How the Constitution Left Americans Rich, Free and Prone to Infection
by Werner Troesken

A History of the U.S. Political System: Ideas, Interests, and Institutions
by Richard A. Harris and Daniel J. Tichenor, Editors