In her book, Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America, Karenna Gore Schiff profiled the lives of women who had an enormous impact on social and political history. Here, she tells the story of three women who should have become household names.
Many courageous, groundbreaking women were behind the major political movements of modern America, yet most of them remain virtually unknown. They were marginalized in their day, in part because their ideas were ahead of their time, but mostly because of the bias toward male leadership. What fascinates me is how that very marginalization caused them to find new, creative ways to achieve political change. In this piece, I profile three: Mother Jones, Frances Perkins and Septima Clark.
They were all colorful characters who stood strong for the most disadvantaged in our country, forging real and lasting mechanisms for justice, such as child labor laws, social security and civil rights. In doing so, they were ridiculed, threatened, alienated and even thrown in jail. Their stories resonate today not only because they reveal much about how political change happens but also because they can inspire the many young girls (and I was one) who feel depleted when flipping through history books that feature presidents, generals and judges. We have made great progress breaking the glass ceiling, thank God. But it is also important to recognize that women have always been political leaders in this country, even if they weren't promoted or spotlighted as such.
Mother Jones (born Mary Harris) emigrated from Ireland following the potato famine and eventually became one of the most effective labor leaders and child advocates in history.
She settled in Memphis, married a foundry worker named George Jones and had four children. Although she and her husband both read his union journal-which had the motto "Equal and Exact Justice to All Men, of whatever state or persuasion"-she was not politically active in her early years.
But her life changed in 1867 when a yellow fever epidemic swept through the South, hitting the Memphis area particularly hard. As Jones desperately tried to nurse them back to health, her husband and all four of her children died. Later, in her autobiography, she wrote that afterward "I sat alone through nights of grief. No one came to me. No one could. Other homes were as stricken as mine. All day long, all night long, I heard the grating of the wheels of the death cart. After the union buried my husband, I got a permit to nurse the sufferers. This I did until the plague was stamped out."
Although she rarely spoke of it, this shattering loss clearly transformed Jones' view of the world, deeply internalizing her sense of social injustice. When a disease struck, those that could afford to leave the area did, leaving the poor to suffer the consequences alone. I believe the totality of the disaster may have been what made her endlessly resilient and daring, as well as ever ready to defend the underdog to the death.
Jones moved to Chicago where, and made her living as a dressmaker until the store she worked in was destryed in the great Chicago Fire of 1871 Jones was one of thousands who fled the heavily Irish neighborhood where the fire broke out, rushing toward the lake with whatever belongings she could salvage. Enduring the anti-Irish sentiment that flared up after this tragedy reinforced Jones' resolve to fight back.
This was during the "Gilded Age" when the gap between rich and poor grew and the fledgling labor movement began to gain traction, even as the new industrial titans tried to squelch it. Reading Railroad President George Baer summarized the attitude of many company leaders when he said, "The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country."
But conditions grew worse, and destitute workers began to band together. In 1894, there were a series of economic crises that led to a demonstration of unemployed men. This was when the name "Mother Jones" first appeared in print. She was referred to as a volunteer, making speeches, soliciting donations and looking after the marchers.
Small in stature, Jones often stood on a table or a wagon bed to deliver her increasingly fiery addresses. Her unique, melodic speaking style, matronly appearance and sharp message drew big crowds and, eventually, some media attention. After one rally, a reporter wrote, "Mother Jones made the other speakers seem like tin cans." She seemed very conscious of the power of her style: a long, black dress with long sleeves and a high collar, her white hair swept under a black pancake hat. She also always exaggerated her age, imploring her audience to listen to her now because she wouldn't be around for much longer.
Mother Jones stressed working-class solidarity and warned against racism. "We will join hands together for the emancipation of the human race," she said. "We do not live for ourselves alone." She also was suspicious of the role of religion in the movement, scheduling meetings in town halls or schools rather than churches (as was customary) and telling her followers to "pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."
Soon Jones focused on organizing coal miners, traveling to West Virginia and Colorado, where miners worked in toxic, dangerous conditions for little pay (often much less than they were promised). Each year, thousands of miners died in cave-ins, explosions and other accidents. Many more suffered from "black lung" and the crippling effects of working in small underground tunnels. They often were forced to buy their own tools and were paid in "scrip," which could only be cashed in at the company-owned store. The miners had no recourse not only because they were poor and the mining companies banned unionization but because private security guards kept them in line with the constant threat of force.
Mother Jones marched into these "company towns" and roused the miners to band together and demand better conditions and higher pay. She was arrested and thrown in jail many times, which she not only endured but used to her advantage. She managed to smuggle letters out from her cell. One began, "From out of the military prison walls, where I have been forced to pass my 81st milestone of life, I plead with you for the honor of this nation." Even though the mining companies sought to demonize her-one prosecutor called her "the most dangerous woman in America"-the spectacle of an old woman behind bars drew media attention to the issue and forced the companies to answer to the public at large. Eventually, her efforts lead to major national reforms, such as the miners' right to organize.
Mother Jones' work with the miners led to her greatest legacy: fighting child labor. She had noticed that young boys were sent to work in the mines and resolved to investigate the proliferating textile mills and factories. She infiltrated several and saw the reality: Children as young as 6 were sent to work long hours in deadening, dangerous conditions. They had no recourse for injuries and no chance of an education.
In May 1903, when workers in hundreds of factories in Kensington Pennsylvania went on strike, Jones seized the opportunity to put the spotlight on child labor. After talking with their parents, she convinced about 100 children to go with her from Kensington to New York in what came to be known as "The Children's March."
On July 15, she sent President Theodore Roosevelt an open letter asking "that the children be taken from the industrial prisons of this nation and given their right of attending schools, so that in years to come better citizens will be given to this republic." The letter questioned whether "commercial greatness has not cost us too much by being built on the quivering hearts of helpless children" and asked for a national law banning child labor.
Although the president did not respond, Mother Jones' message resonated with the public. Soon after, the Pennsylvania legislature passed regulating the age of employment. One year after, the National Child Labor Committee was formed to investigate conditions and advocate for reform. In 1907, a federal bill was drafted, but failed. In 1916, a similar bill passed but was ruled unconstitutional. It was not until 1938, under the leadership of Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, that the federal government would regulate child labor. However, Mother Jones was the catalyst. She lead the way from the outside, with creative and daring tactics, changing our nation for the better.
Frances Perkins was the first female cabinet secretary, serving for the entirety of President Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. This in itself is extraordinary, but even more remarkable is that she was the force behind much of the groundbreaking New Deal legislation, including worker's compensation, the minimum wage, unemployment insurance and social security.
Perkins was born in Boston to a conservative, well-to-do family descended on both sides from the Puritan settlers of New England. The first of several turning points in Perkins' life occurred when she was a student at Mount Holyoke college. One of her professors required her students to visit nearby factories and observe the conditions. She was struck by the fact that the impoverished people she saw there were not lazy or drunk (as she had been told by more conservative members of her family) but were toiling long hours in harsh and dangerous condition. Perkins later recalled that this "opened the door" to her view of social inequities. Upon graduation, she began working in settlement houses.
At one such place, she ran a "girls club" for young women ages 14 to 16. One day, one of the members, Mary Hogan, came home to the settlement house having had her hand chopped off by a candy-dipping machine in the factory where she worked. The management bandaged her and sent her home, without any further treatment or support. Outraged, Perkins took up her cause, seeking medical care and financial compensation. The lack of response from the company and meager amount she was able to secure in donations convinced her that the system that workers existed in had to be reformed. Private charity alone could not protect girls like Mary Hogan.
Perkins continued her work in settlement houses (including Jane Addams' legendary Hull House in Chicago), even as she advanced her education, eventually earning a master's degree in political science from Columbia University in 1910. During her research for her thesis on urban malnutrition, Perkins moved into the neighborhood known as "Hell's Kitchen." Rather than just observe, she fought for the hungry, destitute people around her, appealing to the politicians of famously corrupt Tammany Hall for immediate relief. She later recalled that her success in doing this convinced her that it was imperative to work within the system. Even if the Tammany bosses were motivated by a desire for votes, they greased the wheels and delivered.
Another major turning point in Perkins' life came on March 25, 1911, when she was having tea with a friend down the street from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Inside the factory, workers-- mostly women and girls-were working making clothing when a fire broke out. The blaze spread quickly as the panicked workers tried to escape. Although a few managed to cross over to another building on the top floor, most of the others were trapped. There was only one fire escape, which soon collapsed, and the elevators didn't work. Perkins later recalled what she saw when she and her friend got up and went to see what was happening: "Just about that time they began to jump. It was the most horrible sight."
At least 146 young women burned to death or died on the sidewalk that day, creating a public cry of outrage. An investigation revealed that owners regularly kept the doors locked to keep labor organizers out, that no fire drills had been conducted and that the oily sewing machines were squeezed close together while flammable scraps piled up around them.
When the New York State Factory Investigating Commission was formed and called a hearing, Perkins was invited to testify. The vice chair of the commission was a young assemblyman named Al Smith, a fantastic personality who would go on to be governor of New York, and the first Catholic nominee for president. Smith was so impressed with her intellect and thorough knowledge of working conditions that he appointed her director of investigations.
Rather than just writing a report, she took elected officials on unannounced tours through working conditions around the state. She later recalled, "We saw to it that the austere legislative members of the commission got up at dawn and drove with us for an unannounced visit to a Cattaraugus County cannery, and there they saw with their own eyes the little children-not adolescents but 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds-snipping beans and shelling peas." Smith later called these tours "the greatest education" he had ever had.
When Smith became governor of New York in 1918, he took the unprecedented step of naming Perkins to the state industrial commission, a position unprecedented for a woman. Her work was so effective that when Franklin Delano Roosevelt succeeded Smith as governor, he asked her to be the industrial commissioner, beginning a professional relationship that would change history.
Previous industrial commissioners had lived in Albany, but by this time Perkins had a family that she did not want to uproot from New York City. In 1913, she married an economist named Paul Wilson and they had a daughter, Susanna. A complicating factor was that Wilson suffered from a mental illness that became increasingly severe. With the lack of understanding or treatment that we have today, he was eventually institutionalized. Perkins (who, in an unusual move, had kept her own name) was the breadwinner in the family and the caregiver to both her husband and daughter.
When the stock market crashed on October 24, 1929, Perkins' priorities shifted. She focused on enforcing workers' compensation regulations and revamped the state employment service. Refusing to be intimidated by the scale of the problem, she declared "the human race just doesn't lie down under these things."
In 1932, two-term governor of New York Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. Soon after, he made a critical appointment, asking Perkins to be secretary of labor. After being assured that she would have the latitude to propose the bold new initiatives she felt were needed, she agreed, thus becoming the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.
The reaction was intense, almost exclusively because of her gender. The president of the American Federation of Labor, William Green, told the press that she was an inappropriate choice and he would have no dealings with her. Much of the media attention focused on her looks, her emotions and the nature of her femininity.
But Perkins did not let it distract her. Her first act was to root out corruption within the Department of Labor, which she did so deftly that she won many former adversaries over. She also reached out to labor leaders like Green and carefully cultivated healthy working relationships.
At the height of the Great Depression, Perkins refocused the Department of Labor to make it immediately responsive to the needs of workers. Working with key legislators, she successfully shepherded New Deal legislation such as the work-relief programs, the minimum wage and unemployment insurance. The effects were immediate, and the role of government was transformed.
Perkins' most significant legacy is her role in the founding of social security. Roosevelt had specifically authorized her to explore ways to create a form of insurance for the elderly, and she took the task to heart. The bill was drafted during late-night meetings in her home in the days before Christmas in 1934. She was careful that it be drawn up so as to be constitutional as well as sweepingly effective.
When the bill was before Congress, President Roosevelt asked Perkins to deliver his weekly radio address and explain it to the public. "We now stand ready to build the future with sanity and wisdom," she said. "It has taken the rapid industrialization of the last few decades, with its mass production methods, to teach us that a man might be a victim of circumstances far beyond his control, and finally it took depression to dramatize for us the appalling insecurity of the great mass of the population and to stimulate interest in social insurance in the United States. We have come to learn that the large majority of our citizens must have protection against the loss of income due to unemployment, old age, death of breadwinners and disabling accidents and illnesses, not only on humanitarian grounds, but in the interest of our national welfare."
Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law in August 1935, with Perkins standing behind him. But she had no time for celebration after the ceremony. That morning, she had received word that her husband had fled the sanitarium in White Plains. She immediately boarded a train to find and resettle him, as always stoically filling her duties while at the same time making bold visions come true.
Even as World War II came to the forefront of the nation's concerns, she continued to be at the center of the administration's agenda. She worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to protect Jewish refugees fleeing persecution. Standing up to the xenophobia of her time, she argued against a mostly hostile Congress that the United States should not deport those they deemed "illegal" but rather "relieve the strain on a terrorized people." She also developed evacuation plans and assigned the work-relief programs to wartime operations.
Although she offered to step down many times, Perkins remained as Labor Secretary until Roosevelt's death on April 12, 1945. She was frequently embattled by her critics, ridiculed, smeared and even subjected to an impeachment hearing on the charge that she was coddling communism. But her determination never wavered. As she wrote to her friend Felix Frankfurter: "I didn't come here to work for the press anyway. I came here to work for God, F.D.R. and the millions of forgotten, plain, common working men."
Perkins spent the remainder of her life teaching and working on some adjunct government projects. When she died on May 14, 1965, the secretary of labor at the time, Willard Wirtz, paid her tribute: "Every man or woman who works at a living wage, under safe conditions, for reasonable hours, or who is protected by unemployment insurance or social security, is her debtor."
Septima Poinsette Clark
Septima Poinsette Clark was a schoolteacher from South Carolina who became a driving force in the civil rights movement. The "citizenship classes" she pioneered and spread throughout the South prepared African-Americans to get past the "poll tests" in order to vote, to fight segregation and run for office. She had a pervasive and diffusive effect, inspiring the voters, marchers, nonviolent protesters and leaders who transformed the United States.
Clark always credited her parents with instilling her with a sense of strength and patience. Her father, Peter Poinsette, had been born on the plantation owned by Joel Poinsette (a botanist and former ambassador to Mexico who brought back the flaming red flower that bears his name). When he was freed at the end of the Civil War, he met and married Victoria Anderson, a striking and sharp woman who had been educated in a rigorous European-style school in Haiti, where some of her family lived. The Poinsettes were strict and involved parents who insisted that Clark and her seven brothers and sisters apply themselves to their studies rigorously.
Clark later recalled that a turning point in her life came when a teacher recognized the merit of her work. "She praised me for [my paper] before the class. This sudden recognition did something for me," she said. "From then on, I felt better about going to public school." Although Clark's teachers sensed her intellect early on and urged her to go on to college, she knew her parents could not afford it. Thus, she resolved to find work as a teacher and attend summer school to get a degree. (Eventually, she received her bachelor's degree from Benedict College in 1942 and her master's degree from Hampton Institute in 1955.)
Because the Charleston public schools did not hire black teachers, even in the designated black schools, Clark had to look elsewhere for work. In 1916, she found a one room schoolhouse on John's Island, a piece of lush land off the coast of South Carolina that was overwhelmingly African-American and isolated enough that the local residents communicated in "Gullah," a dialect that fused English with various African languages.
Although the conditions were spare and she had to create her own materials, Clark loved teaching. Soon, she was running classes for adults as well as children, teaching literacy and a sort of civics curriculum that was an early model of her political leadership in years to come.
Clark engaged in two political campaigns that confirmed her resolve to change the country through her teaching. In 1919, she returned to Charleston and became active in the campaign to force the state to hire black teachers in the public school system. She joined the NAACP and volunteered her time, playing a key role in collecting more than 10,000 signatures. "I remember the number because of the fact that a white legislator named One-Eyed Tillman had declared [that we] would never be able to get 10,000 signatures." Soon after, a law allowing back teachers to be hired passed. "We had been victorious in this, my first effort to establish for Negro citizens what I sincerely believed was no more than their God-given rights." Soon, she herself was teaching in the Charleston public schools.
The second campaign came years later when she joined the effort to secure equal pay for black teachers, who were paid about half as much as white teachers with equivalent education and experience. She gathered affadavits and evidence, working with Thurgood Marshall, a young lawyer from the NAACP who would go on to be the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. The courts decided in their favor and, after passing a newly mandated examination, her pay tripled. (Years later, after the landmark Brown v. Board decision, Clark would be fired from the school system because she refused to give up her NAACP membership as required by a hastily passed South Carolina law.)
Clark continued to teach and be politically involved, even as her personal life evolved. In 1919, she met and married a handsome Navy cook named Nerie Clark. It was a difficult marriage: Her mother initially disapproved, their firstborn died, and she eventually found out that he had a mistress. Clark ended the marriage but never succumbed to self-pity or anger. When Nerie Clark died some 50 years later, she "pieced together all the sweet notes he had written me so the minister could help the family feel good." She lovingly cared for their son, Nerie Jr., and later her granddaughter, Yvonne. She would never marry again.
In 1953, Clark found the place that would enable her to become the engine of change that she did: Highlander Folk School. Located in rural Tennessee, Highlander was home to integrated workshops that focused on fighting racism. Clark loved the school's daring optimism and delved into the curriculum. The director, Myles Horton, recognized the value of her teaching style and asked her to come back often. Soon, she was developing pamphlets such as "A Guide to Action for Public School Segregation" and running workshops on her own. Eventually, she left her teaching job to be Highlander's education director.
One of the students who passed through Clark's workshop was Rosa Parks. She arrived the summer of 1955, just as Clark had implemented her teaching methods throughout the school. Parks later recalled how Clark "just moved through the different workshops and groups as though it was just what she was made to do." It was only months after she left Highlander that Parks would stun the nation and achieve a giant leap forward for civil rights.
Parks later paid tribute to the effect that her experience in Clark's workshops at Highlander had on her. "I am always very much respectful and very much in awe of the presence of Clark because her life story makes the effort I have made very minute. I only hope that there is a possible chance that some of her great courage and dignity and wisdom has rubbed off on me."
Highlander thrived, and Clark developed a strategy of recruiting attendees and training them to go back to their communities and start their own citizenship schools. She called the effect "like a pebble thrown into a mill pond." But the school also came under intense scrutiny and attack from enemies of integration. The FBI had been monitoring it for a long time, and neighbors had tried to shut it down, but it as not until July 31, 1959, that the state used force to end it.
That Friday night, as the group was watching a documentary after a long day and celebratory dinner, 18 armed law enforcement officers burst into the hall. They raided the entire school and took then-61-year-old Clark and two others to jail. At 2:30 a.m., a Highlander teacher posted the $500 bail needed for her release. As a result of this raid, the court judge revoked Highlander's charter on the grounds that it had "permitted integration in its school work."
Horton and Clark had already developed a contingency plan: They joined forces with Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King, who had visited Highlander the year after he rose to fame in the Montgomery bus boycott, saw the potential synergy. The SCLC records state: "The CEP [Citizenship Education Program] was established in 1960 when Septima P. Clark, a literacy teacher at the Highlander Folk School, convinced Martin Luther King Jr. that literacy training and political education would spur voter registration among African-Americans in the South."
Clark became director of teaching and education for the SCLC and her methods-and talent for turning people into leaders-became an engine for the next phase of the civil rights movement. She ran a headquarters at Dorchester, a former Congregationalist retreat off the Georgia coast, but also traveled extensively in the field to check on the hundreds of proliferating citizenship schools. She did so at great personal risk, constantly harassed by local KKK chapters or White Citizen's Council groups. They would often surround the buildings where she held meetings, and on one occasion, set fire to a church five minutes after she had left.
Clark also kept up with people through writing letters to former students. "Politicians listen to voters," she reminded Mildred Patterson, "You know how to get them registered. It is important to get your Citizenship School started at once." And she made it a point to study and record local hurdles at the polls. Each state had different requirements, and poll testers routinely blocked blacks with unanswerable questions. Congressman John Lewis, himself a graduate of Clark's workshop, recalls being asked, "How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?" Clark did her best to fight back, adding other material to her unique lesson books that included questions such as "What does the 14th Amendment say?" and "Who is a citizen?"
Clark continued her work with the SCLC until 1972, when she retired to her native Charleston, where she did community service such as raising money for daycare centers and scholarships. In 1975, she became a member of the same school board that had fired her for refusing to give up her NAACP membership. As time passed, she continued to see the fruits of her labors such as key civil rights legislation like the Voting Rights Act, and for the increase in African-Americans elected to public offfice. "From one end of the South to the other," she remarked in 1985, "if you look at the black elected officials and the political leaders, you find people who had their first involvement in the training program of the citizenship school." Through grace and vision, Septima Poinsette Clark pioneered a core of the Civil Rights movement, alleviating unspeakable oppression and injustice and bringing our country closer to its founding ideals. Clark died in 1987 in a nursing home on John's Island.
Karenna Gore Schiff is the author of Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America. She previously worked as director of community affairs at the Association to Benefit Children (A-B-C.org). Before that, she was an attorney at Simpson, Thacher and Bartlett. Her other work includes freelance writing, positions on the editorial staffs of Slate magazine and El Pais newspaper and volunteer legal and advocacy work for Sanctuary for Families (SFFNY.org). She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.
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