Margaret Higgins Sanger

(Psst! My novel, Cut From Strong Cloth, is out and selling well in both print and Kindle. Here is the Amazon link:  http://amzn.com/1940553024)

Margaret Higgins’s life goal was to become a successful nurse, and after several years into the practice she assured herself that she had chosen a worthy career. But then a patient died without Margaret being able to save the woman’s life. That episode led Margaret Higgins to change her goal; she decided instead to do everything possible to prevent other women from dying unnecessarily… from self-induced abortions.

Born in Corning, New York, in 1879, Margaret Higgins was the sixth of eleven children in a large Irish family and spent most of her childhood helping to care for her younger siblings. When Margaret’s mother died at the age of 49, Margaret noted that her mother had had 18 pregnancies within 22 years, and only 11 children survived.  Perhaps it was this family background that led Margaret into the field of women’s health.

By 1911 she had married William Sanger, given birth three times, and had begun to work as a visiting nurse in the slums of the Lower East Side of New York City. Her husband was an architect and painter and they counted among their acquaintances reformed-mined people like the novelist Upton Sinclair and art supporter Mabel Dodge.

Margaret wanted to help the poor women of the East Side prevent unwanted pregnancies, but she was vehemently opposed to abortion because she believed that life should not be terminated after conception. However, this was a time in America when women were prohibited from gaining access to information about contraceptives, on the grounds of obscenity written into the 1873 Comstock Law.

In 1912 Margaret launched a campaign to challenge the governmental censorship of contraceptive information because it violated freedom of speech.  She began an underground newsletter which she distributed throughout Greenwich Village in Manhattan calling for an action to challenge the federal anti-obscenity laws.

Threatened with arrest, none-the-less, Margaret persevered and began lecturing in women’s clubs, churches, homes and theaters about a woman’s right for access to information about contraception. Several countries in Western Europe were already dispensing both information and contraceptive devices to their female citizens, and Margaret wanted American women to have those same privileges.

In October 1916, Margaret opened a family planning and birth control clinic in Brooklyn, NY; the first of its kind anywhere in the United States. Nine days later she was arrested for breaking a New York state law that prohibited the distribution of contraceptives. She would be arrested numerous times more.

Then in 1918 Judge Frederick E. Crane of the New York Court of Appeals issued a ruling which allowed doctors to prescribe contraceptives, in the state of New York for a medical necessity.

Margaret took her campaign then to other states as well. In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League which eventually became The Planned Parenthood Federation. Noting that doctors could only prescribe contraceptives for medical reasons, she founded the Clinical Research Bureau in 1923 to exploit the wording of ‘for medical reasons’. The CRB became the first legal birth control clinic in the U.S. with one of the major financial contributors being John D. Rockefeller.

But Margaret didn’t stop there. On and on she campaigned for the right of every American woman to have access to legal contraceptives. And every woman, meant not just white women, but all women. Margaret collaborated with African-American community leaders to help establish a clinic in Harlem, New York City, which opened in 1930 and was staffed by black doctors.

Margaret was opposed to censorship in all forms, which often led to her arrests for expressing her views during a time when speaking in public about contraception was still illegal.  In one widely publicized event, city officials of Boston threatened to arrest her if she spoke to an audience. So she climbed up on stage, tied a gag over her mouth, and handed her speech to Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. to read aloud. He did.

One of Margaret’s crowning achievements in the 1950s was that she procured financial backing for biologist Gregory Pincus to continue his research. He eventually developed the birth control pill.

Finally, in 1965, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Griswold vs. Connecticut allowed birth control to become legal in every state in America, 53 years after Margaret had started her campaign.

Margaret died a year later, knowing that her life goal had been met.

Just coincidently, the superhero character of Wonder Woman that debuted in 1941 was created by William Moulton Marston and inspired by the real life character of Margaret Higgins Sanger. But that is another story.

Thanks to Luigi Perini who alerted me to Margaret Higgins Sanger, another incredible strong woman.

If you are new to my blog, please sign up on the right sidebar to become a registered blog follower. My goal is to reach 400 by Dec. 31st and I am only 4 readers away from that goal!

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Ellen Canavan – part two, by Linda Harris Sittig

postcard It was in the summer of 1998 that I stood in front of my mother’s family mausoleum in New Cathedral Cemetery, Philadelphia. The cemetery is located in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, once the textile epi-center of the United States, but now fallen on harder times. Clutched in my hands I had the print out from the Archdiocese Cemetery Office as to who was actually buried in the vaults.

There were twelve souls, ten adults and two children. I read through the names, as memories of my mother’s stories resurfaced from my childhood. There was my great-grandfather, James Nolan and my great-grandmother, Sarah Jane Brady, and a woman named Mrs. James Nolan – whoever that was. In the descending rows were James Nolan’s children: Daniel and Catherine, with spouses and various in-laws. The last two vaults were children.

I reread the paper and began to wonder, who was the mysterious ‘Mrs. James Nolan’ and why wasn’t she buried with her own name?

Contacting the Archdiocese Cemetery Office, I was dismayed that all they could tell me was the date the woman had died, her age, and the cause of death. She had been young, just twenty-nine when she succumbed to tuberculosis in January, 1873.

So, who was she? I found that for some strange reason this unnamed woman began to lay claim to my waking moments and visited my nighttime dreams.  I finally hired an archivist, Christine Friend, from the Philadelphia Historical Archdiocesan Research Center to help me.  Weeks later a letter arrived at my house stating, ‘Her name was Ellen Canavan. She was your great-grandfather’s first wife.’ First wife? Whoa!

With my mother deceased, I called my father. He knew nothing about a first wife. As far as anyone knew, James Nolan had only had one wife—Sarah Jane Brady.

The plot thickened when we remembered that it was supposedly his wife who had helped him with the idea of creating a unique blended cloth for soldiers’ uniforms; the very cloth that had brought him a great deal of wealth during the Civil War.

Hmm. Which wife? Ellen or Sarah?

I became a blood hound hot on the trail of Ellen Canavan’s life. Months literally turned into years as I researched each and every piece of evidence I could find about her. I even traveled to Ireland in search of her roots. Back in Philadelphia, I found the marriage record stating that James Nolan had married Sarah Jane Brady in 1874, with his profession being listed as a ‘Gentleman’.  I knew then it had been Ellen Canavan who had helped him achieve his wealth and good fortune during the Civil War, and most likely Ellen’s idea for the blended cloth.

I delved deeper into Ellen’s life and eventually amassed a thick notebook detailing everything I had learned about her and her birth family, the Canavans. The picture that emerged was one of a strong young immigrant woman who wanted to become involved in the textile industry, but without money, connections, or education had to enlist the help of James Nolan in order to achieve her dream of success. Her quest would take her from the factory floors of Philadelphia to the cotton wharves of Savannah, and just when she realizes she has fallen in love with James Nolan, the Civil War will tear them apart.

It took over three years to compile all the research and write the novel inspired by Ellen’s real story. In the process I realized how many of my mother’s stories had been true all along. Although Ellen falls in love, Cut From Strong Cloth is not a romance novel, it is the story of a young woman who risked everything in order to change the status quo during an era when women were still considered second class citizens.

On December 1, 2014 Cut From Strong Cloth will be released by Freedom Forge Press and be available from their website store and also on Amazon.com, as well as in some stand alone bookstores. The novel tells the family saga of courage and determination, tragedy and love, all exploding on the cusp of the Civil War. If you would like an audio sneak preview of the story, email me at linda@lindasittig.com and I will send you the link to hear the opening scene read aloud. Pre-orders for the novel can be taken now at www.freedomforgepress.com/store, the paperback will sell on their website for $15.00. In December it will also be available on Kindle www.amazon.com.

Ellen Canavan was my first ‘strong woman in history’, the inspiration for my blog and the story behind my motto: Every woman deserves to have her story told.

You may also click on this link to my web page www.lindasittig.com to find out about my other writing activities. And please do forward this blog to your friends and encourage them to sign up as followers. My goal is to have 400 followers by New Years. Thanks!

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Isabelle Romee by Linda Harris Sittig

Isabelle Romée was born in the small village of Vouthon-Bas in eastern France where in late summer bright yellow fields of grain ripen under a sky of azure blue. Born around 1385, she became the wife of Jacques Darc, giving him three sons and two daughters, but retaining her own surname as was often the custom of the time. She inherited a parcel of land from her family, and together she and Jacques farmed 50 acres. They lived a pastoral life in a modest house, following the seasons of planting, growing, and harvesting. While their sons performed the harder tasks of farm labor, Isabelle taught her two daughters how to garden, cook, spin, and keep house. All five children were raised Roman Catholic, and by all accounts the family was well respected.

But then one of the daughters entered her teens and began to act in unconventional ways, announcing that she had no intention of becoming married, but wanted instead to help the French soldiers in their fight against the English.

Isabelle and Jacques surely must have protested, but eventually Isabelle must have also seen the longing in her daughter to leave home. Isabelle spoke to the local priest for counseling, and apparently the priest sanctioned the girl’s ambitions. For the next two years the daughter, dressed now in boy’s clothing, traveled with the military. News would reach Isabelle and Jacques of their daughter’s whereabouts, but she did not return home.

Then malicious gossip started. People said the daughter was acting strange, saying that voices spoke to her with messages of how the military should proceed. Soon the gossip turned ugly and accusations of witchcraft were being whispered. Through a combination of politics and religious power plays the girl was arrested and jailed in a dungeon far from home. Isabelle tried in vain to have the Catholic Church intervene, but to no avail.

After several months of being incarcerated, the jailors started to subject the girl to torture until she confessed to the crime of witchcraft.  She was executed the very next day. To add further insult – the execution was by fire, so that she could not receive a proper Christian burial. By the time that Isabelle and Jacques received the news, the deed had already been done.

Overcome with grief, Isabelle believed her daughter innocent of any witchcraft charges and she knew the family did not have the clout to bring the daughter’s executioners to justice. The only thing Isabelle could do was an attempt to clear her daughter’s name. Almost immediately she embarked upon a campaign to open an investigation into her daughter’s death. No political or religious official was willing to help.

Jacques died a few years later and Isabelle moved to Orleans where she sought and received a widow’s stipend, thereby giving her the financial freedom to step up her efforts in having the Catholic Church look into the injustice of her daughter’s murder.

She diligently pursued her cause for 25 years, going all the way to petition Pope Nicholas V to listen to her pleas. In late 1455 when Isabelle was seventy years old, she traveled in the early winter to Paris, in order to speak in person to the Holy See, the judicial arm of the Catholic Church. On the day that she appeared at Notre Dom Cathedral, the church was packed with hundreds of Parisians who had heard the story of the crazy mother attempting to plead a case for a daughter long deceased. The accounts tell of how Isabelle walked up the long aisle, stood before the judges with her head held high, and delivered an eloquent and impassioned speech about her daughter’s innocence.

The Papal magistrates were so impressed that they advised Pope Nicholas V to have the case reopened. It took eight months, but the appeals court eventually cleared Isabelle’s daughter of all charges of witchcraft. Isabelle died soon after, finally achieving peace.

In 1920 her daughter became canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Young Jehanne Darc became St. Jeanne, or in English – Joan of Arc. Jehanne Darc was her authentic French name, not the modern Anglicized version we recognize today.

Isabelle surely danced with the angels in celebration.

Strong women often become strong mothers.

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Alicia Bewicke Little by Linda Harris Sittig

In order to understand the importance of the crusading work of Alicia Bewicke Little, one has to understand what she was fighting for—or rather, what she was fighting against: the practice of foot binding in China.

The Chinese custom of foot binding was supposedly started back in the tenth century by a favored concubine of the emperor. Renowned for her beauty and dancing, it was said she bound her feet in order for them to appear daintier as she danced across a stage designed in the shape of a lotus blossom. Soon, other concubines were binding their feet in order to impress the emperor. The practice then spread throughout the royal court and into the upper classes where bound feet became a status symbol. By the mid 1700s, foot binding occurred throughout all of China and had become a requisite for a successful marriage arrangement; except among the very poor, where women had to stand long hours on their feet working in the fields alongside their husbands.

The binding process started during the winter months when a girl was between four and six years old. First the child’s feet were soaked in a warm mixture of herbs and animal blood to soften the nails and the flesh. Once the toenails had been trimmed back as far as possible, then the elder females in the family would assist in curling the girl’s toes under and wrapping the feet tightly in cotton bandages. Next the women would press down hard on the feet with as much pressure as possible, breaking the bones of the toes and forcing them up against the soles, not stopping until the arch of each foot was broken as well. Then the feet were tightly wrapped again with additional bandages in order to keep the toes immobile.

A day or two later the bandages would be unwrapped and the feet washed, checked for infection, and soaked in a special solution to help any future rotting flesh fall off. Then the women would trim the nails again and rewrap the bandages even more tightly. The young girl would be rendered motionless for days. The unbinding and rebinding ritual was repeated as often as possible, bending the ball of the foot back toward the heel with the ultimate goal of the girl’s foot being reduced in length to three inches total. The pain must have been horrendous.

Why would women subject their daughters to this? Because it raised the family’s status. Many men in the past apparently felt that the unusual gait of a foot-bound woman, as she swayed slightly on her tiny deformed feet, was sensual and made the woman more desirable. Foot bound women were given tiny embroidered shoes to wear as they slowly stepped-swayed, or were carried in rickshaws.

In 1886, the story changes. Enter Alicia Bewicke, a British novelist who at the age of forty-one married Archibald Little, a highly successful merchant conducting business in China. They moved there in 1887 and established residency. Alicia studied Chinese and taught English, and began to immerse herself in the local cultural customs of the women. She soon witnessed the practice of foot binding. From her western viewpoint, she felt it was a barbaric ritual which eventually rendered women powerless and kept them totally dependent on their husbands.

At first Alicia tried to talk to the women about the health dangers of the tradition and how the women could band together, and change the culture. Then for two years Alicia traveled around China every chance she got and spoke to women about the plausible idea of stopping the custom. She soon became a formidable presence.

In 1895 she formed the Anti-Foot Binding League and enlisted the help of missionary wives who were also opposed to the agonizing practice. Alicia encouraged Chinese women to write poems about the misery of their foot binding and she asked the missionary wives help her to write and disseminate pamphlets calling for a halt to foot binding. Over the course of two years, 8,000 poems and pamphlets were handed out to the Chinese population.

It is interesting to note that certain male rulers in China had attempted to ban the practice before, but the ban was never enforced.

Alicia Little and her league forged ahead. They had their most success eventually in Shanghai where a large majority of families joined the Natural Feet Association and  announced that they would no longer subject their daughters to foot binding. Little by little the tradition began to subside, although it would take the Communist Party of China in 1949 to finally outlaw the practice completely and enforce the decree nationwide.

But Alicia Little had started more than fifty years ahead of the Communist Party, and made a difference in the lives of thousands of Chinese girls.

I think of my own beautiful daughters and grand-daughters—I cannot fathom ever subjecting them to that type of torture. But what if I had lived in China hundreds of years ago and society insisted that foot binding was the only way my daughters could find suitable partners for marriage? It is not up to me to judge civilizations of the past.

And before we criticize the Chinese, remember it was western culture that invented stiletto heels.

Strong women stand tall, regardless of shoe preference.

Follow me on Twitter @lhsittig and please forward this blog to others who would enjoy reading about extraordinary women who made this world a better place, but did not receive the fame they deserved.

 

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Jane Hunt and the Formidable Five by Linda Harris Sittig

While many people recognize the name of Elizabeth Cady Stanton as one of the early activists in the Women’s Rights Movement, Jane Hunt’s legacy is often overshadowed by the more prominent founding  members. The original group of five women who launched the movement included Jane Hunt, Mary Ann M’Clintock, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Martha Wright.

In July of 1848 Jane Hunt, living in Waterloo, New York, hosted a parlor tea for four of her like-minded friends. The purpose of the tea was not merely to discuss the inequities of the laws regarding women, but to devise a plausible plan of action on how to get those laws changed. The five women had a lot in common. They were all married, had children, and were firmly opposed to slavery. Four of them were Quakers.

United in purpose, they became a ‘Formidable Five’.

A misconception about the group lingers, that a woman’s right to vote was their solitary goal. In actuality, voting rights was one of the pinnacles of the Woman’s Rights Movement, but the overarching goal was for women to become legally equal to men in all aspects of the law.

To understand the political and social climate of the 1840s one must remember that slavery was still legal in many parts of the country and women of all races were relegated to second class status. At that time, most women could not vote, hold office, attend college, make contracts, sue for divorce, get custody of their own children, own property, or work in any profession other than as a teacher, seamstress, factory worker or a domestic. In several states husbands were still allowed to beat their wives with a stick, as long as it was no thicker than the man’s thumb.

For female slaves, there were no rights at all.

When the Formidable Five met in Waterloo on July 9, 1848 at Jane Hunt’s house, they decided to host a convention in nearby Seneca Falls where they would present their ideals about women’s rights to the public at large. They recognized the need for their sentiments to be put in writing and labored for several days composing a document based upon the same principles as the Declaration of Independence.

They called this document The Declaration of Sentiments and it began: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights …” In the document they demanded equality in property rights, education, employment, religion, marriage and family, and the right to vote.  Those very thoughts were a radical notion to many Americans and the Formidable Five must have prepared themselves for serious opposition.

They ran an advertisement in the Seneca County Courier about the planned convention to be held July 19 – 20 in the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, and worried that perhaps only a few women might attend.

However, on the morning of July 19, 1848, wagon loads of women descended upon Seneca Falls and approximately 300 women and a handful of men crowded into the Wesleyan Chapel to hear the Declaration of Sentiments read aloud.  After lengthy discussions on the first day of the convention some minor amendments were attached. On the following day all attendees were invited to come forward and sign the document. One hundred signatures were attached, including noted abolitionist Frederick Douglas who was in attendance.

It was only the beginning. After the success of the Women’s Rights Convention, as it is now known, the Formidable Five continued to champion for women’s rights. Elizabeth Cady Stanton became the most notable spokesperson for the national movement. Lucretia Mott went on to help establish the women’s college of Swarthmore in Pennsylvania. Martha Wright became friends with Harriet Tubman and the Wright house in Auburn New York evolved into a safe haven for escaped slaves. Mary Ann M’Clintock eventually moved back to Philadelphia with her husband where they worked diligently with the American Anti-Slavery Society.

What about Jane Hunt? She spent the rest of her life quietly involved with the Underground Railroad and turned the carriage house on her property into a safe station for runaway slaves.

It should be noted that all of the Formidable Five were married to husbands sympathetic to the ideals of equality. While their wives were ridiculed in the newspapers in many parts of America, the men still offered their moral and financial support to help further the cause.

Not one of the Formidable Five would live to see women get the right to vote. That landmark legislation did not fully occur until August 26, 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was put into law. But Jane Hunt and her four friends each had helped to sow the seeds.

At one point Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote: “I would have girls regard themselves not as adjectives but as nouns.”

I would like to amend that: “I would have girls regard themselves not as adjectives, but as verbs.”

Jane Hunt and her friends were surely strong women of action.

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Aranka Siegal by Linda Harris Sittig

I usually only profile women from the past, but with Aranka Siegal I am making an exception.

Aranka Siegal is a writer, a Holocaust survivor, and a woman of passion and perseverance. Her mission for the past seventy years has been to teach about the deadly consequences of prejudice.

The fifth of seven children, Aranka grew up in a small town that at times has belonged to Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and/or the Ukraine. She spent her childhood summers at her grandmother’s home deep in the Carpathian Mountains, where life was full of traditions. The memory of those traditions eventually helped Aranka to survive the horrors of the Holocaust.

In 1939 when Aranka was nine years old she first heard the name, Adolf Hitler. Suddenly life began to change. By the age of twelve she was no longer allowed to attend school in her village because she was a Jew. Next, her father was taken away by the Hungarian soldiers. The family never saw him again. Then when Aranka turned thirteen, the soldiers came back. This time they announced that Aranka’s mother and the four children still living at home were to pack up and leave the house, immediately. Aranka remembers her mother grabbing only a blanket and one or two necessities; leaving behind the small tin container of yeast dough that would have been the starter for their weekly bread.

The family and their Jewish neighbors were herded into packed cattle cars and transported continuously for two long days into Nazi occupied Poland. When the train finally stopped Aranka gazed up at the gates of the concentration camp called Auschwitz. It was at Auschwitz that her concept of home would be destroyed, her family would evaporate, and her compelling story of survival would begin.

As her family entered the camp terrified and confused, a thin emaciated prisoner sidled up to Aranka and whispered, “Tell them you are sixteen.”  “But I am thirteen,” she replied. The prisoner hissed, “Say you are sixteen!”  The soldiers approached and asked Aranka her age. She replied, “Sixteen, and my sister is seventeen.” Then as Aranka watched, her mother and the younger children were marched off toward one building as Aranka and her older sister were herded to a different location. They never saw their mother and siblings again, who perished that day in the crematorium.

For months Aranka and her sister, now each wearing only a threadbare shift and with heads shaved, worked in Auschwitz. Deprived of all human dignity and witness to unspeakable atrocities, they were provided with only the barest amount of food. Each lost significant weight as their health deteriorated. Late in 1944 the two girls were marched for days, along with other prisoners, from Auschwitz to another concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen.  Here they both contracted typhoid, and saw a young Anne Frank die of the disease. Despite all odds, Aranka and her sister managed to cling to life.  When the British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, Aranka was too sick to walk out of the camp. She weighed only 58 pounds.

Seeing that the Allies marked some of the survivors with a red cross on the forehead and then transferred those prisoners to stretchers, Aranka’s sister used spit and perhaps blood to draw crosses on their brows as well. The girls were quickly transported to a hospital and after many weeks of medical care were sent on to Sweden for further recuperation. By the time that Aranka and her sister found passage to America, Hitler had ordered the killing of 6 million Jews. Aranka promised herself that she would find a way of honoring not only her own family, but all those who died.

As an adult, she enrolled in New York University, married, and started a family. Then she began to write. Her emotionally packed books, Upon the Head of the Goat, Grace in the Wilderness, and Memories of Babi, all applaud the remarkable resilience of the human spirit. As her books gained in popularity and were translated into multiple languages, Aranka was asked to tell her story to audiences. She agreed, hoping that her message might help create a world where a Holocaust can never reoccur.  It is her gift back to mankind, because she survived.

I recently watched Aranka, now 84 years old, standing by herself on stage and telling her story to a packed college auditorium. Diminutive and fashionably dressed, her eyes filled with tears as she recounted the events of her life. When she was finished speaking she simply said, “Thank you for listening. I hope that you young people will now understand the deadly power of prejudice and always fight against it.”  She received a standing ovation.

In the words of George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is why I continue to write about strong women in history, so that each reader of this blog and my website www.lindasittig.com  will gain an understanding of how even one person can make a difference.

If you know of a particular woman who deserves to be featured on this blog, please email me:  linda@lindasittig.com.  My two criteria are that the woman be deceased and that her exploits are not well known to modern readers.

Also, if you have not already signed up on the right hand sidebar to become a follower of this blog, please do that before leaving this page. Thank you!

~ Every woman deserves to have her story told.

 

 

 

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Emily Roebling by Linda Harris Sittig

One of the most iconic silhouettes of New York City is the majestic Brooklyn Bridge, suspended more than one hundred feet above the East River and linking the borough of Manhattan to the borough of Brooklyn. Designed by German engineer, John A. Roebling, this ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ owed its final completion to Roebling’s daughter-in-law, Emily Warren Roebling.

Manhattan is situated less than half a mile west from the borough of Brooklyn, but across the cold murky depths of the East River. Before the bridge existed, the only way to get across the river was on a passenger boat churning through choppy water.

By the 1860s John Roebling had already built other bridges, but no one before him had ever dared conceive of building a cable suspension bridge that would span half a mile over water. Plans were drawn, money was secured and then in 1869 when construction was about to start, Roebling had his foot crushed in a freak accident. Tetanus set in, and he died three weeks later.

His son, Washington Roebling, also a first rate engineer, took up the project.

The distance to be covered and the necessity of setting the bridge foundations in sandy soil along the river shore posed the greatest challenges. After many setbacks and accidents, Washington Roebling and several of his workers suddenly became ill with caisson disease, or ‘the bends’ as it is known today.  The men had to enter underwater caissons (pressurized compartments) deep below the East River to ensure that the construction process was being followed correctly. Today we know that after breathing compressed air under water, one must return slowly to the surface to prevent gas bubbles from forming in the bloodstream. In 1871 this scientific knowledge had not yet been discovered and so although Washington Roebling survived numerous bouts of caissons disease, the after-effects left him a permanent invalid.

His wife, Emily Warren Roebling, instantly took on the role as his nurse, and then quickly became his professional assistant and secretary. Already well versed in mathematics and science, she insisted that her husband teach her every necessary component about the bridge engineering. She wrote out his construction directions, helped with his drawings, and together they discussed the various technical issues involved with the bridge. Each day she met with the contractors on the building site and came home to report on the progress. The original concept may have been her father-in-law’s, and then taken over by her husband, but Emily Warren’s dedication to the dream was unwavering and she became her husband’s virtual foreman.  She attached herself to the project with such fervor that some newspaper reporters speculated that she was the real engineer behind the venture.

Although Washington Roebling remained in poor health for the rest of his life, he watched the progress of the mighty endeavor with his binoculars from their home in Brooklyn Heights. By May of 1883 the bridge was complete, having taken 14 years from conception to completion. A few days before the official opening, a horse driven carriage approached the bridge carrying a sole occupant. As the carriage pulled closer to the entrance, workers all along the route stood and removed their caps in respect to Emily Roebling, who had been awarded the honor of being the first passenger to travel the marvel linking the island of Manhattan to the borough of Brooklyn.

A few days later on May 24, 1883 tens of thousands of New Yorkers crowded both shores and flotillas of boats paraded in the East River. American President, Chester A. Arthur, along with New York Governor, Grover Cleveland and Franklin Edson, Mayor of New York City, led a delegation of dignitaries to walk across the span. When they reached the Brooklyn tower, it was Emily Roebling who greeted them and walked with them into Brooklyn. Later the dignitaries attended a party at the Roebling home, orchestrated by Emily, so that her husband could revel in the achievement started decades ago by his father, and helped to completion by his own wife.

During the years that Emily worked with her husband to ensure the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, she became more desirous of a college education. She enrolled at New York University and in 1899, at the tender age of 56, graduated with her law degree. ‘Savvy’, must surely have been her middle name.

In a twist of fate, Emily died of stomach cancer four years later at the age of 60, while her husband lived on for an additional 23 three years.

In a rare instance in the Victorian Age of giving credit where it is due, a plaque on the Brooklyn Bridge commemorates the three people whose intelligence, perseverance, and fortitude made it a reality: John Roebling, Washington Roebling, and Emily Roebling.

Thank you to Glenda Childs, owner of the Doylestown Bookshop in Doylestown, PA for alerting me to Emily Roebling.  If you know of a particular woman who deserves to be featured on this blog, please email me:  linda@lindasittig.com.  My two criteria are that the woman be deceased and that her exploits are not well known to modern readers.

Also, if you have not already done so, please sign up on the right hand sidebar to become a follower of this blog. Thank you!

Appreciation always goes to Dixie Hallaj, who proofreads the blog before it is postedJ

~ Every woman deserves to have her story told.

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