Friday, March 13, 2009

Michigan: Women's words as fuel

(Editor's note: We've asked some of our Twitter correspondents to contribute views on women speakers during Women's History Month. Today's contributor, Joni Hubred-Golden is an avid student of women's history. She publishes stories by, for and about Michigan women at Michigan Womens Forum and on Twitter here.) Michigan history rings with the voices of women, speaking out on topics that range from abolition to suffrage to labor and civil rights. Some were born here, others, like Sojourner Truth, came to Michigan later in life. But their stories are woven into fabric of our state, as their words fueled the engine of progress not only for women, but for all Michiganders.

Among the earliest public speakers were women who spoke eloquently in opposition to slavery. Laura Smith Haviland (pictured at left), a Quaker, became not only a "conductor" with the Underground Railroad, but after the war ended, made many public speeches regarding the conditions faced by freed slaves. Perhaps because she knew the emotional impact they would have, Mrs. Haviland carried with her irons, chains and other implements used on slaves to show during her presentations.

During her work with freed slaves, Mrs. Haviland became acquainted with Sojourner Truth, whose life's work centered around her call to be a devoted and passionate champion of abolition, and later, suffrage and temperance. She came to Michigan many times as a speaker, and eventually settled in the Battle Creek area to live out her final years. An example that shows the strength of her message is recounted in The Battle Creek Journal, which reported on the 1863 Sabbath School Convention, held in Battle Creek:
She said that the spirit of the Lord had told her to avail herself of the opportunity of speaking to so many children assembled together of the great sin of prejudice against color. 'Children, 'she said, 'who made your skin white? Was it not God? Who made mine black? Was it not the same God? '' Driving home her point with two hundred similar words she closed with, 'Now, children, remember what Sojourner Truth has told you and thus get rid of your prejudice and learn to love colored children that you may be all the children of your Father in Heaven'....This short speech from Sojourner was perhaps the most telling Anti-Slavery speech that was ever delivered at Battle Creek or in Michigan. Scores of eyes were filled with tears and it seemed as if every individual present sanctioned all she said...

Another prominent but lesser known Michigan woman speaker, Nellie Cuellar began her career as a public speaker and activist when she organized a protest against the murder of three black share-croppers by a local sheriff. She, too, began her activism outside of Michigan, creating political education seminars to teach people how to lobby for their concerns on the local, state and national level. She moved to Michigan with her husband in 1930 and, among other civic and volunteer activities, helped organize coal strikes in Michigan and Virginia and other protest movements.

Olympia Brown, another outspoken woman and suffrage advocate and native Michigander, became the first fully ordained woman minister in the country, at the St. Lawrence Association of Universalists in Malone, New York. Inspired by another minister, Antoinette Brown (not related), she also trained many young women to enter the ministry. But in her tireless campaign for the vote, Brown found her most daunting challenges. She spoke not only in arenas where her words were welcomed, but quite often in places where her message was openly mocked and opposed. She gave more than 300 speeches in one four-month period in Kansas, and even though the suffrage amendment failed there, leaders of the movement considered her work a great success.

Many other women could be named on the roster of outstanding speakers in Michigan's history, from Anna Clemenc, a vocal advocate of the labor movement during the 1913 miner's strike in northern Michigan, to Millie Jeffrey, who was a member of the National Democratic Committee, chairperson of the National Women’s Political Caucus, and by appointment of President Carter, a member of the Commission on the International Women’s Year. The more we search for them, the more we find inspiring role models whose willingness to speak out and ability to speak clearly helped change the course of Michigan history.