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Bustable Women

9 Mar

The Hall of Famous Missourians has been in the news recently, igniting debate over who should be honored in our state capitol. Here at Missouri Women, we like to imagine a fantasy Hall of Famous Missourians. One that would include a few more women. Like these ladies:

Virginia Minor

Women can vote today because of women like Virginia Minor. She sued the St. Louis voting registrar for her right to vote as a United States citizen in 1872.

Maya Angelou

Poet, novelist, inspiration. She has changed the way we see ourselves.

Edna Gellhorn

She canvassed Missouri to get support for voting rights and taught countless women how to vote.

Fannie Hurst

Her book The Imitation of Life continues to challenge how we navigate race relations today.

Kate Chopin

Her book book The Awakening became a feminist classic.

Carrie Nation

She to smashed up bars with a hatchet. Her radical activism brought national attention to the issue of alcohol abuse at the turn of the 20th century.

Celia

Slave girl Celia killed her owner after suffering five years of repeated rapes. Her inspiring stand against abuse cost her her life.

Adeline Couzins

This nurse picked up the pieces after Civil War battles and was the first woman to receive a pension from the US government for it.

I’ll be talking about the seven women who are currently in the Hall on our women’s history tour of the Capitol next Sunday the 18th at 1:30pm. I hope you can join me.

Who do you think we should honor in our state capitol?

Molly Brown

21 Dec

Molly Tobin wanted to marry money, but she married J.J. Brown instead. “Finally, I decided that I’d be better off with a poor man whom I loved than with a wealthy one whose money had attracted me,” she said. And it worked out well for her, J.J. Brown invented a system of shoring up mine walls and made millions. But before all that, Molly Tobin was just a poor Irish girl living in the shanty town of Hannibal, Missouri.  

Molly Brown Birthplace

She was born in a little white house on Palmyra street (now Butler street) in Hannibal, just after the Civil War. Her parents were poor, uneducated Irish and had recently immigrated to Missouri. Her father John worked digging ditches for the local gas company. Molly attended school for a few years, but was sent to find a job at 13. She first worked at the Garth Tobacco Factory, where she likely worked 12 hour days six days a week, stripping tobacco leaves from stems. Later she landed a job at the Park Hotel, on the northeast corner of Hannibal’s Central Park.

 When Molly was 18, she left Hannibal for Leadville, Colorado where she got a job in a department store. The next year, she married 32 year old J.J. Brown, had 2 kids and seven years later the family struck it rich. Molly and J.J. bought a mansion in Denver and Molly Brown became an activist, socialite and philanthropist.

Molly Brown might have gone through life a relatively unknown socialite, but for her voyage on the Titanic. She was touring Europe at the time and purchased a ticket on the Titanic at the last minute to return to the United States and visit her ailing Grandson. She was 44 years old.

The "Unsinkable" Molly Brown

When the Titanic hit, Molly Brown took $500 cash, as many clothes as she could wear and an Egyptian talisman she had recently purchased for good luck. She headed to the deck and boarded lifeboat number 6. She took turns rowing the lifeboat with the other passengers and argued to return to the site and pick up more passengers. She worked diligently to raise over $10,000 to aid the poor, immigrant passengers who had lost loved ones and belongings. When she returned to the US, a reporter asked why she didn’t go down with the Titanic and she responded, “because I’m a Brown, we’re unsinkable.”

There’s no doubt that Molly Brown the woman, was a larger-than-life character. She fought for woman’s suffrage, ran for US Senate, established labor unions, and organized the juvenile court system. She combined her nearly 30 years experience living dirt poor with the financial resources of her later years and became a force to be reckoned with. Later in life, she separated from her husband J.J., moved to New York and became an actress.   

The Unsinkable Molly Brown film based on the musical debuted in 1964

After her death in 1932, Molly Brown the legend was born. Books and articles were written about her fictionalized adventures in Hannibal and Colorado and after wide success in the 1940s these books were turned into a musical written in 1960 and later a film version of the musical that was widely popular. She was a main character in James Cameron’s movie Titanic in 1997. Much of the truly inspiring details of Molly Brown’s life have been omitted from her pop culture depiction, but her spirit remains. Live life to the fullest, treat all creatures equally and no matter what, stay afloat.

The Molly Brown birthplace museum is open seasonally for tours and is located on Butler street in Hannibal.

Molly Brown House Museum (Denver, CO)

Encyclopedia Titanica

Molly Brown has a star on the Missouri Walk of Fame in Marshfield.

Molly Brown’s Great Granddaughter Helen Benziger does a program about her and can be reached at: HBenziger@kc.rr.com.

Alma Nash & Her Band

16 Nov

The women’s suffrage parade of 1913 was a big deal. Women from all over the country descended on Pennsylvania Avenue and threw their cause in the face of all the men attending Wilson’s inauguration the next day. As the women began to march, men started to harass. They marched amid jeers, taunts, grabs and shoves from men. Even the police didn’t protect them, but the women kept marching. 100 women were taken to the hospital. Eventually a cavalry troop was called in to work crowd control. Amid the chaos was a group of 23 Missouri women equipped with the power of music, and they were pushed to the front to calm the crowd. 

Maryville Ladies Marching Band

“We did not have time to stop and think about the really important thing we did when our band led the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.” Alma Nash said on her return to Maryville, “We were not right in the lead when the parade started: a number of women escorts, a number of walking officers of the National Equal Suffrage Association, with our band following, was the order when we first started. We had gone but a short distance when the crowd started closing up toward the line of the parade, and men blockaded a place in the street a short distance ahead. One of the suffrage officers came rushing  back to us and told us to march on ahead and lead; that it would be necessary for the band to open the way proved true. We were not molested in the least and although the march was slow on account of the crowds, no one offered to stand in our way down the avenue.”

Alma Nash was the daughter of a Maryville surgeon. She spent her life studying music, and founded the Maryville School of Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar. She held classes in a building on Buchanan Street, where Alma looked to her pupils to form an all ladies concert band.

In late January of 1913 Alma received a letter from the National Suffrage Association and she transformed her all ladies concert band into the first all ladies marching band. The women spent the next month raising money for their trip to Washington DC to march in the Women’s Suffrage Procession on March 3, 1913. 

Maryville Ladies Marching Band in Washington DC

On her return, Alma Nash told a reporter in Maryville, “These women were part of one of many remarkable stands for women’s suffrage.” It would be seven more years before the government granted women equality, and without participation by women all over the country it would not have happened. Alma moved to Kansas City eventually, lived at 207 E 39th Street and played in the orchestra at the Doric theater. She continued to teach music to hundreds of students. 

One of Alma’s trombone players, Maye Shipps Corrough, was in the general store of Arkoe, MO when she heard the news that women had the right to vote. “I got up on the counter and danced!”

This post was made possible by Melissa Middleswart and Meghaan Binkley from the Nodaway County Historical Society, where you can visit an exhibit about the band, see Maye Shipps Corrough’s trombone and one of the lady’s uniforms worn at the parade. The museum is located at 110 N. Walnut in Maryville and is open 1-4 Tuesdays – Fridays or by appointment.

View the official program from the March 3, 1913 Women’s Suffrage Procession.

The Suffrage Song Book

Edna Gellhorn

24 Oct

Edna Gellhorn was an activist: when something needed changed, she worked on it. Lucky for her, she had resources  to help her, an activist mother, and a very supportive husband. She dabbled with food and sanitation issues before WWI, worked to ensure a safe milk supply for babies, and finally found her cause with women’s voting rights. Simply put, she said “I was inspired by the message that women had something to contribute.”

From 1910 until women secured the vote in 1919, when Edna was in her 30′s, she worked with state and local Equal Sufferage Leagues, coming up with fresh ways to make people aware that without voting rights, women weren’t even second class citizens. In 1916 during the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis she helped organize the Walkless-Talkless Parade where 7,000 women clad in white dresses with yellow sashes and parasols lined Locust from 12th – 19th street. There they stared at the male delegates as they walked the route from the hotel to the conference.  That evening, a Post-Dispatch editorial said the parade: “Mutely asks Democracy to throw her a plank in the political sea … She asks why shouldn’t a female have equal rights. Devotees of liberty and equality, look her in the face and tell her why.” Listen to Edna remember the the parade on December 18, 1964.

Edna felt so passionate about voting rights for women that she canvessed the north half of the state, riding freight trains to different towns and talking to anyone she met along the way. Recalling her actions later in her 80′s, she commented that she would not put herself through that experience again, but was driven at the time by a deep passion for women to be allowed the right to contribute to society. Listen to Edna recall her days canvassing Missouri for the right to vote. (1969) After women received the right to vote, Gellhorn travelled the state with the League of Women Voters, educating women about how to vote. Gellhorn managed to have 3 kids during this time in her life, and lived on McPherson Avenue in St. Louis’s Central West End.

Edna stayed active in the League of Women Voters, holding offices and providing reports to the national organization about women’s voting patterns. She was active in many civic groups in St. Louis, served as lifetime president of her class at Bryn Mawr College, worked for slum clearance, smoke abatement, Missouri’s merit system, racial integration and founded John Burroughs school.  She received honorary degrees and awards for her efforts,  often crediting her housekeeping staff for her ability to have the freedom to devote her time to civic issues. She died on September 24, 1970 and is buried in block 269, lot 5514 in Bellefontaine cemetery.

Visit Gellhorn’s portrait in Olin Library, Washington University.

Edna Gellhorn papers at Washington University

Virginia Minor

23 Feb
Every woman who votes has Virginia Minor to thank for it. She launched the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri in 1867, and five years later became a part of a nation-wide throwdown about women’s rights. She first attempted to register to vote and when denied, her husband sued the St. Louis register of voters on her behalf (did you think women could file a lawsuit? Nope). Based on rights outlined in the 14th Amendment, she claimed it was illegal to deny her the right to vote because she was a native-born, free, white citizen of the United States & the State of Missouri over the age of 21. The case was first heard at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, and eventually went all the way to the US Supreme Court, who ruled that suffrage was not coextensive with citizenship. Although she lost the lawsuit, she was still really tough for trying to shake things up.

Her grave is in Bellefontaine Cemetery in Block 51, Lot 1623. And while you’re there, don’t forget to stomp on the grave of Smith Gant, just across the road in block 33, lot 2824, who represented the voting commissioner in Ms. Minor’s Lawsuit.
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