Reforming Their CommunitiesMarch 05, 2009
When I worked at the National Women’s History Museum, I had the opportunity to read and write about scores of amazing American women, including several whose community activism created important social reforms in the United States. Here is a glimpse at three of these women I appreciate and admire.
When she volunteered to teach Sunday school class to women in a Massachusetts jail, Dorthea Dix (1808–87) was appalled at their living conditions. She visited and documented conditions at other jails and hospitals and mental institutions in the state and then lobbied the state legislature for more sanitary, humane conditions. She succeeded in her state, and then she worked to reform institutions in every state east of the Mississippi River. Her revolutionary reform methods were put into practice in Europe. Dix also founded several hospitals and schools for the mentally ill.
Native Alaskans experienced blatant discrimination and segregation during the 1930s and 1940. In 1945, the Alaska Territorial Senate met to discuss racial discrimination. Support for “separation of the races” was strong until Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich (1911–58), a representative of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, gave an impassioned speech. The passage of the Alaska Civil Rights Act is often attributed to her strong anti-segregation stance and eloquence. In 1988 the Alaska Legislature established February 16, the anniversary of the signing of the anti-discrimination bill, as the “Annual Elizabeth Peratrovich Day” in her honor.
After decades of working in the fields, Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–77) became a leading civil rights activist in the 1960s. One of her earliest forms of activism was to fight for African American voting rights in Mississippi through several strategic attempts to register to vote. She worked to desegregate her community by sitting in “whites only” restaurants, which led to her jailing and a brutal beating. Later in her activism career, she helped pioneer various political and humanitarian efforts, including the National Women’s Political Caucus and a farm cooperative for African American cotton field laborers.
Who are women you admire for their social activism?
This post is part of a special Women’s History Month series.