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March is Women’s History Month, honoring women who have succeed in business, academics, the sciences, professions and the paid labor force. These are the women who have defeated yesterday’s outdated customs.
Since the first International Women’s Day in 1911, the observance grew until 1988, when U.S. presidents began issuing annual Women’s History Month proclamations and have continued to do so every year since.
“People tend to forget their past,” said Karen Livsey, archivist at the Hall House Research Center in Jamestown. “It especially happens to women because they weren’t pushed out into the limelight in those days.” She pointed out the names of many notable local women who have earned their place in history.
A Strange Irony
“When women gained the right to vote in America,” according to Jennifer Champ, Director of Education at the Fenton History Center, “they earned a place in history by helping to change the Constitution of the United States as Suffragists.”
Jamestown, however, was also home to one of the stranger ironies in the history of women’s rights. The right for women to vote was granted on August 18, 1920 with ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Strangely, though, women in Jamestown had already been helping to build thousands of the nation’s finest voting machines right here at home for at least 25 years before they were allowed to use them, themselves.
By 1920, Jamestown’s own Miss Edith Ainge had already become a seasoned veteran of the fight. She was the first New York State delegate to arrive in Washington, DC more than 100 years ago at the National Woman’s Party headquarters for the party’s national convention. Ainge carried the New York state banner for the delegation of 68 women who demonstrated in the nation’s capital for passage of the 19th Amendment. She and all the others with her risked arrest and imprisonment for their radical ideas and actions, a fate all too common in that day. But when victory came, Jamestown had played an important role.
“Prison was all too common a fate for women like Edith Ainge,” Champ explained while describing an exhibit featuring the work of Ainge and other local suffragists that will open at the Fenton on June 14, titled “Why Not NY? A history of the women’s suffrage movement in New York.”
Taking the Law in Her Hands
Katherine “Kate” Stoneman, born in Lakewood, NY in 1841, was another late 19th and early 20th century suffragist who refused to abide by custom. In 1864 she left the family farm and in 1885, was the first female to pass the Bar Exam of New York State, though she could not join the bar because of her gender. Stoneman then campaigned in her own cause and forced a change in the NY Code of Civil Procedure in less than 1 year to make her the first woman admitted to the Bar Association in the State of New York.
Today, from astronauts to corporate presidents and from Olympic athletes to a US Army 4-Star General, American women have proven to the rest of the nation something women already knew… there are no limits women will not exceed, and Women’s History Month was created to prove it.
“Women’s History Month is especially important,” Livsey added, “because history tends to forget… unless we make the effort to remember.” Many local women have clearly made their mark in history.
Local Color – Two Lucys
There are two kinds of “first” that Women’s History Month celebrates. Some women were the first to achieve what only men had done before. Others gained their place in history by achieving what no one had ever done before.
That’s where local color comes in. The story starts with two famous, local redheaded pioneers, and they were both named Lucy.
Watch the Camera
Lucille Ball, of course, was not only a comic, a celebrity and a movie star. She also invented television techniques no one had ever tried before. She was not only on television, she changed how television itself is done. Lucy’s drive for perfection and realism drove her to create the 3-camera-on-stage technique for capturing the most realistic action for viewers to see, and she pioneered the previously unheard-of and very risky business of creating a broadcast before a live studio audience. The list of Lucy’s many other well-known firsts is the subject of innumerable articles, books and documentaries.
It is said that today there is not an hour of the day, any day of the year, when Lucille Ball is not on TV somewhere in the world.
Then, there is the other Lucy
Dreams of Flight
Girls’ dreams can soar today because of another of Jamestown’s pioneering redheads. Lucile M. Wright, a close flying friend of Amelia Earhart, was a daring pioneer aviator who “helped open the cockpit door for women everywhere,” according to Edward Martini, a docent at the Lucile M. Wright Air Museum in downtown Jamestown.
In 1922, at the age of 21, she took her first flight with General Billy Mitchell, the father of the United States Air Force. Lucile continually battled sexual discrimination to follow her passion – piloting was “a man’s endeavor”. She earned her pilot’s license in 1935, eventually logging 8,000 hours of flying time in the seven airplanes she owned. She also flew regional supply missions during World War II and later became chairperson of the Jamestown Municipal Airport Commission – now Chautauqua County Airport – from 1951 to 1957.
In an age when a man could be called “a leader who knew how to take control”, Lucille was called “authoritarian and strong-willed” for the very same qualities, though even her opponents said she was “well equipped with the ability to get things done.” Lucile also, among many other accomplishments, founded the Jamestown Girl’s Club and served as its president for 26 years, and as a member of the Executive Committee and Board of the Girls Clubs of America.
Women were not the only Americans whose rights were once denied. Throughout the western world the 19th century was a time when slavery allowed some people to believe they owned others as property.
One of Jamestown’s most famous champions against such a cruel and unnatural state of affairs was Catherine Harris, a free-born black woman who pioneered both racial and women’s rights. Because of her work, Jamestown “became notorious for its generous hearts and substantial help…” to escaping slaves.
Harris became Jamestown’s first black citizen when she moved to town in 1831. She lived in a simple, wood-built home only 16 feet wide where she nevertheless found ways to hide as many as 17 escaping slaves at one time in her attic. Hers was one of very few Underground Railway Stations in the United States run by a “colored person” and a woman.
Women’s history is human history and women’s accomplishments will surely inspire both men and women alike. Pioneering environmentalist and cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The month of March, 2017, Women’s History Month, once again celebrates all the women who have proven the truth of Mead’s words over and over again.
The Jamestown Gazette, itself a woman-owned, successful, local enterprise, invites readers to join in celebrating National Women’s History Month.