By: Louise Krasniewicz
It is sometimes easy to forget, in the midst of all the outrageous attacks on women's reproductive and economic choices, that none of this is new. I am not talking about just going back 30, 40, or 50 years when women my age had to fight simply for the right to use contraceptives legally or even enter certain professions. I am thinking, instead, of how much all the current attitudes of right-wing men remind me of a historic period I am researching, the late 19th century. Yet even in the face of American men asserting their rights to own women's property, children, and bodies, some 19th century women bravely fought back.
I have been looking at two women from that time period who were so audacious that they put most of us, today, to shame. The first is an obscure woman named Emma Allison. She was probably the first woman to run a steam engine and for six months ran one publicly at the Women's Pavilion of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition (a world's fair) in Philadelphia. Can you imagine what that was like in a time when women were not considered proper participants in the public sphere, when they were told that they should not make public statements or scenes or displays of prowess? Emma is described in a series of newspaper articles I have documented here (http://emmaallison.wordpress.com). This remarkable woman is lost to history but I find her so inspiring and such a hopeful spirit in these crazy times. I want to track what happened to her because I can only imagine more wonderful things from this seemingly common woman.
The second woman is more famous. The abolitionist, suffragist, orator, and writer Lucy Stone has always been my mentor and now her powerful words and deeds shout out from the depths of 19th century history, reminding us that these battles we are facing today have already been fought by millions of women across time. It can be discouraging to think that Lucy Stone, the first woman to keep her own name and thus her identity after marriage, would recognize all the rhetoric about women being thrown about today. Lucy was the first woman from Massachusetts to get a college degree (in 1847 from Oberlin College) and was one of the first women to give speeches in public. If she could do that in the face of a society that, although it was 150 years ago, looks strangely like ours today, so can we.
Lucy wrote during the same Centennial year that Emma Allison ran her steam engine, that "We want to make everybody see in this centennial year that the Woman Suffragists are asking for the very same thing that the old Revolutionary heroes fought for, and that the political oppression of women by men of the United States is just as wrong as what was done to them by George III, a hundred years ago....May we both live till the citizenship of women is established, as it surely will be. The work goes bravely on."
Emma Allison disappeared after her triumph at the Centennial Exhibition and Lucy Stone died in 1893, 27 years before women won the right to vote. Yet if we remember their attempts at righting the wrongs of their times, we too can bravely go on. Thank you Emma and Lucy.