Because I love a good theme day/week/month, I kicked off Women’s History Month with a lecture at the Hennepin History Museum. Professor Bill Green (maybe I also love nepotism) explored the life of Nellie Francis, an African American suffragist from Minnesota who fought for the rights of many marginalized communities. She worked tirelessly, not only to pass the 19th amendment, but to shed light on “the race problem,” establish anti-lynching laws, and protect workers’ rights.
Her story runs deep. She stood for so much and faced so many challenges that we can learn a great deal from her life and work even 100 years after she helped win women the right to vote. For her — and for all of us — that was only the beginning of a battle for equity that continues to this day.
We Need Wisdom from Women Who Came Before
Yes, I’m talking, in part, about Nellie’s story, but there are also lessons to be learned in wisdom shared even more immediately. As one of the few women working as a stenographer at the turn of the 20th century, she had to deal with misogyny and advancements from male coworkers. And she had to do it delicately to avoid losing her job. In a time when post cards like these circulated without a thought to the women they represented as mere sex objects, there was no protection for women in the workplace.
Professor Green found it was Nellie’s mother-in-law Hattie who helped her navigate the shark-infested waters of the steno pool. Hattie had worked in households where she learned how to handle inappropriate (to put it mildly) behavior from employers. She passed this wisdom along to her daughter-in-law who soaked it up with immense gratitude. We, too, should connect with the women who came before us and benefit from the knowledge they gained, so we can pick up their torches and continue their fight.
Divided We Will Not Conquer
One of the more disappointing things I learned from the lecture was that there was a moment in history when the fight for the vote for women and the fight for the vote for black men were at odds. I won’t pretend to fully understand the nuances that contributed to this moment, but ultimately it led to white suffragettes disavowing black suffragettes. This divided the movement until a group of white women from Detroit said they would separate from the national organization if they didn’t start “doing more for our black sisters.” They stood behind the black suffragettes saying, “your future is our future.” Nellie cosigned these sentiments through the Detroit Resolution and started the Everywoman Suffrage Club.
She — and the suffragettes from Detroit — recognized that our human rights are intertwined. You cannot support rights for some and not for all. A lesson we should all carry with us in the wake of #MeToo, pay in-equity, and the many other battles we’re fighting right now. These battles are all connected, we can’t win one if we lose the others.
There’s No Place for Shaming
During a period when it was largely accepted that a woman’s role was to civilize the home, you wouldn’t expect motherhood to be a shameful position. But, in the mind of Susan B. Anthony it was. She publicly criticized Ida B. Wells for taking on motherhood. She believed “you can’t pull double duty,” you give everything for the cause or you get out of the way. Nellie faced similar criticism when she went to work at her husband’s law firm. Some shamed her for putting her family before the movement.
The reality of Nellie’s situation was that she had to work with her husband just to keep the firm afloat. Asking her to sacrifice everything for the movement would have literally meant everything. As we work to create a more equitable space for women, in-fighting and unflinching demands have no place. Had Nellie Francis or Ida B. Wells given in to the pressure to step away in light of their shifting priorities, we would have lost two key players in the history of civil and women’s rights.
Everyone Has a Role to Play
Throughout her life Nellie took on different roles in the movements she supported. Some, front and center in positions of leadership and some as a background player. In her quieter years, she supported her husband in his own work as a civil rights lawyer and his time spent fighting slavery in Liberia on behalf of the U.S. government.
Throughout their marriage, they effortlessly moved ahead of and behind each other as the situation called for it. As Professor Green put it, “William Francis was just as remarkable as his wife.” Circumstance, personality and pure exhaustion might mean we’re better suited for support roles at certain times in our lives. But that doesn’t mean our work is any less important.
Mental Health Matters
One of the most unexpected points Professor Green brought up was the impact mental illness had on Nellie and other suffragettes. Not only the illness itself but just how clearly clueless society was about mental and women’s health.
There is little recorded about Nellie’s mental struggles, but reading between the lines, it’s likely she suffered from depression. During her lowest periods, she seems to have withdrawn completely. Imagine all she could have accomplished if a doctor had taken the time to understand what was going on and gotten her the help she needed. (Okay, she accomplished plenty without the aid of an SSRI, but you get my point.)
If we don’t take care of ourselves, our work suffers. Just as certain phases of our lives call for us to prioritize family, sometimes we have to prioritize self-care. We’re getting better about understanding and supporting mental health, but we still have to learn to give each other grace when we struggle.
Progress Isn’t a Checked Box
Nellie’s life demonstrates a great deal of progress made for human rights, but it also shows us just how much is left to be done. After the 15th amendment passed, women still couldn’t vote. After the 19th amendment passed, black men were still being lynched. After Minnesota passed anti-lynching laws, the KKK was burning crosses on Nellie’s front lawn because she had moved into a white neighborhood. After her husband became Minnesota’s first African American diplomat, she still had to fight the U.S. government to get funds to give him a proper burial when he died in the line of duty.
Fifty years after Nellie’s own passing, we’re still fighting harassment in the workplace, pay inequity, lack of inclusivity, the stigma of mental illness and so much more. We’ve made progress, but we are not done. Let’s learn what we can from Nellie and take up her torch to make our world better.
/written by Eliza Green