Women have been consistently left out of the story of the Hoosier state. On paper, historians agree that including the histories of women and other marginalized groups provides a more complete understanding of the events that shaped our communities, state, and world. However, in practice, few historians are researching, publishing, or posting on women’s history. Having identified a dearth of resources on Indiana women’s history, organizers from various institutions, both public and private, came together to develop an annual conference. This conference strives to energize the discussion of Indiana women’s history and make the papers, presentations, and other resources resulting from the conference available to all Hoosiers. This year, the Indiana Historical Bureau and the Indiana State Library will host the second annual Hoosier Women at Work Conference.
This conference also aims to address and work towards correcting the pervasive lack of resources on Indiana women’s history. Even historians sensitive to the issue often follow established practices of treating the history of government and business and military as the “real” and “significant” history. However, these are areas where women have been categorically denied entrance or discriminated against directly or through lack of education or opportunities. These areas exclude women of color, poor women, and native women even more disproportionately than white women of means. To point out our own complicity, of the over 600 state historical markers created by our agency, only thirty-nine are dedicated to women’s history. Several are simply wives or mothers of influential male notable Hoosiers, some only tangentially include women, and only ten include native women or women of color. We have work to do too.
It is essential that we, as historians who want a complete picture of the history of our state, do the work – the digging through newspapers, letters, photographs, and interviews; the comparing, analyzing, interpreting, writing, posting, and publishing; and the pushing back, organizing, and speaking up – to tell these stories at the local level. These are the stories that in turn inform the national narrative of who we are as Americans and world citizens. Half the story is missing!
Write an article, make a podcast, start a blog, edit a Wikipedia page, and join us for the Hoosier Women at Work Conference to hear speakers on a myriad of women’s topics and get inspired to contribute to the Hoosier story.
The Hoosier Women at Work 2017 Conference: Science, Technology, and Medicine
On April 1, 2017, the Indiana Historical Bureau and the Indiana State Library will host a symposium on the history of Indiana women at work in the fields of science, technology, and medicine. The one-day conference aims to expand the scholarship and ignite discussion on topics as diverse as inventors/inventions; medical breakthroughs; agriculture and technology; public health; sanitation; exposure to hazardous materials in the work place; access to medical care; hospitals; women’s access to training and employment in any of these fields; and the impact of science, technology, and medicine on complicating or improving women’s lives.
The keynote speaker is Sharra Vostral, Associate Professor of History, Purdue University and author of Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology. The conference will take place at the Indiana State Library and Historical Building in downtown Indianapolis and registration is open now. Visit www.in.gov/history/hoosierwomenatwork to register and check back for updates.
See Part One to learn about Phillips’s contributions to physics via the Oppenheimer-Phillips effect and her work to prevent the future use of atomic energy for war.
The Second World War, particularly the use of the atomic bomb, gave way to the Cold War. Living in the shadow of the threat of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union induced anxiety among many Americans. While Senator Joseph McCarthy became the public face of fear of homegrown communists, many other paranoid and xenophobic senators participated in the witch hunts. In 1950, Nevada Senator Pat McCarran sponsored the McCarran Internal Security Act, which allowed for investigation of “subversive activities;” made an “emergency” allowance for detaining people suspected of such activity; and even made picketing a courthouse a felony if it “intended” to obstruct proceedings. The act also provided for a five-member committee with the Orwellian title of the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB), which was headed by McCarran and tasked with rooting out communists, communist-sympathizers, and other “subversives.” The SACB, or the McCarran Committee as it was more commonly called, went to work immediately.
In 1952, Melba Phillips was called to testify before the McCarran Committee of New York, the state version of the U.S. congressional committee, on her political activity. She was called because of her involvement with the Teachers Union. According to an October 14, 1952 New York Times article, a witness claiming to be “a former Communist official” testified that “he helped set up secret units of Communist teachers” and that “300 of the 500 dues-paying Communist teachers in this city went into a secret set-up whose top unit consisted of leaders of the Teachers Union.” Several prominent New York teachers refused to confirm or deny communist leanings, while outside of the courthouse students and teachers gathered in protest, chanting “Pat McCarran, hit the sack. We want our professors back!”
According Dr. George Salzman, a University of Massachusetts at Boston professor who was a student of Phillips’s at that time ,
“She let the Committee counsel know that her lineage went back to the Mayflower, and she wasn’t about to take part in the witch hunt.”
Phillips was subsequently fired from her university positions due to a law which required the termination of any New York City employee who invoked the Fifth Amendment. Bonner explained, “McCarran was a specialist at putting people in the position in which they had to invoke the Fifth Amendment. It was a deliberate expression of the McCarthyism of the time.” In a 1977 interview, Phillips briefly discussed the incident (although she was reluctant because she was trying to keep the interviewer focused on her scientific accomplishments). She stated: “I was fired from Brooklyn College for failure to cooperate with the McCarran Committee, and I think that ought to go into the record . . . city colleges were particularly vulnerable, and the administration was particularly McCarthyite.” Phillips stated that she wasn’t particularly political. Her objection to cooperating had been a matter of principle.
Phillips did not let her dismissal extinguish her passion for science education. While unemployed, she wrote two textbooks, which became university classroom standards: Classical Electricity and Magnetism(1955) and Principles of Physical Science (1957).
In 1957, Phillips became the associate director of the Academic Year Institute of Washington University in St. Louis, a teacher-training school. Her appointment came at the behest of Edward Condon who had also been named as a security risk by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s. On Condon’s decision to hire her, Phillips stated, “there was much discrimination against people who had had any trouble of a ‘political’ kind, and it took a lot of courage, It took courage to hire any of the people in trouble during that time.”
At the institute she developed programs instructing high school teachers about how to teach elementary science and physics. She remained at Washington until 1962 when she joined the faculty of the University of Chicago. Among her accomplishments there, she worked to make science accessible to non-science majors. She also made laboratory work an important part of the student experience. She explained that “we worked very hard in our laboratory in Chicago . . . unless the students get ‘hands on,’ it seems they don’t fully understand the material.”
In 1966, she became president of the American Association of Physics Teachers, of which she had been a member since 1943. This respected organization was founded in 1930 as “a professional membership association of scientists dedicated to enhancing the understanding and appreciation of physics through teaching.” Phillips became not only AAPT’s first female president, but one of its most memorable and effective leaders. Phillips was proud of the work of the organization and wrote the official History of the AAPT. She worked to make physics more important to teachers at the high school level in addition to college. She stated,
“The people in the universities whose future depends on their writing more and more research papers have very little patience with the problems of education at a lower level. This has to do in part with why the Association of Physics Teachers ever got started.”
Phillips remained at the University of Chicago until she retired as Professor Emerita in 1972. Even after her retirement from the University of Chicago, she continued to teach at other schools as a visiting professor. She taught at the State University of New York, Stony Brook from 1972 to 1975, and at the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing in 1980. Phillips was awarded more honors than can be mentioned without compiling an extensive list. Notably, however, in 1981, the AAPT awarded her the first Melba Phillips Award, created in her honor, “for exceptional contributions to physics education.”
In 1987, Brooklyn College publicly apologized for firing Phillips, and in 1997 created a scholarship in her name. Melba Phillips died on November 8, 2004 in Petersburg, Indiana at the age of 97. The New York Times referred to Phillips in her obituary as “a pioneer in science education” and noted that “at a time when there were few women working as scientists, Dr. Phillips was leader among her peers.” Her accomplishments helped pave the way for other women in the sciences. In a 1977 interview, Phillips addressed the problems women face in aspiring to science careers an a 1977 interview, stating:
We’re not going to solve them, but, as I’ve been saying all the time; if we make enough effort, we’ll make progress; and I think progress has been made. We sometimes slip back, but we never quite slip all the way back; or we never slip back to the same place. There’s a great deal of truth in saying that progress is not steady no matter how inevitable.
Indiana native Melba Newell Phillips pioneered new physics theories, studied under the famous J. Robert Oppenheimer, worked passionately to improve science education, and advocated for women’s place at the forefront of science research. After the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II, Phillips and other scientists organized to prevent future nuclear wars. She took a great hit to her career during the Cold War as she stood up for the freedom to dissent in the oppressive atmosphere of McCarthyism. Colleagues and students have noted her “intellectual honesty, self-criticism, and style,” and called her “a role model for principle and perseverance.”
Phillips was born February 1, 1907 in Hazleton, Gibson County. According to Women in Physics, Phillips graduated from high school at 15, earned a B.S. from Oakland City College in Indiana, taught for one year at her former high school, and went on to graduate school. In 1928, she earned a master’s degree in physics from Battle Creek College in Michigan and stayed there to teach for two years. In 1929 she attended summer sessions on quantum mechanics at the University of Michigan under Edward U. Condon. When she sought Condon’s help on a physics problem, her solution, rather than his, ended up being the correct one. This led to a lifelong friendship and Condon recommended Phillips for further graduate study at the University of California, Berkley. Here she pursued graduate research under Oppenheimer and earned her Ph.D. in 1933. Within a few years she was known throughout the physics world because of her contribution to the field via the Oppenheimer-Phillips effect.
The 1935 Oppenheimer-Phillips Effect explained “what was at the time unexpected behavior of accelerated deuterons (nuclei of deuterium, or ‘heavy hydrogen’ atoms) in reactions with other nuclei,” according to a University of Chicago press release. When Oppenheimer died in 1967, his New York Times obituary noted his and Phillips’s discovery as a “basic contribution to quantum theory.” Manhattan Project scientist and professor emeritus of chemistry at the State University of New York, Stony Brook Francis Bonner explained in the release that normally such an accomplishment, now considered “one of the classics of early nuclear physics, “would have meant a faculty appointment. However, Phillips received no such appointment, perhaps due in part to the Great Depression, but also likely because of her gender.
Instead, Phillips left Berkley to teach briefly at Bryn Mawr College (PA), the Institute for Advanced Study (NJ), and the Connecticut College for Women. On February 16, 1936, the New York Times reported that she was one of six women to receive research fellowships for the 1936-1937 academic year as announced by the American Association of University Women. The announcement read: “Melba Phillips, research fellow at Bryn Mawr, received the Margaret E. Maltby fellowship of $1,500 for research on problems of the application of quantum mechanics to nuclear physics.”
In October of 1937 Phillips served as a delegate to the fall conference of the association at Harvard, where the discussion centered around the prejudices against women scientists that halted not only their careers, but scientific progress more generally. According to a 1937 New York Times article, Dr. Cecelia Gaposchkin, a Harvard astronomer, detailed the “bitter disappointments and discouragements” that faced women professionals in the field of science. Certainly, Phillips related, as her career moved forward slowly despite her achievements in physics.
Finally, in 1938, she received a permanent teaching position at Brooklyn College. In 1944, she also began research at the Columbia University Radiation Laboratory. Phillips was highly regarded as a teacher and Bonner noted she became “a major figure in science education” who “stimulated many students who went on from there to very stellar careers.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. officially entered World War II with the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. No previous war had been so dependent on the role of science and technology. From coding machines to microwave radar to advances in rocket technology, scientists were in demand by the war effort.
In July 1945, the Manhattan Project scientists successfully detonated an atomic bomb in the desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico. In August 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, forcing the country to surrender and effectively ending World War II. Over 135,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and 64,000 in Nagasaki. Many thousands more died from fires, radiation, and illness. While a horrified public debated whether the bomb saved further causalities by ending the war or whether it was fundamentally immoral, scientists also dealt with remorse and responsibility.
Henry Stimson, Secretary of War in the Truman administration, stated, “this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice.” Oppenheimer, however, reflected, “If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and of Hiroshima.” More bluntly, Oppenheimer told Truman, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” Many physicists retreated to academia, but some became politically active, especially in regard to preventing further destruction through scientific invention.
Representing the Association of New York Scientists, Phillips and leading Manhattan Project scientists helped organize the first Federation of American Scientists meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1945. The goal of the Federation was to prevent further nuclear war. That same year Phillips served as an officer in the American Association of Scientific Workers, an organization working to involve scientists in government and politics, to educate the public in the science, and to stand against the misapplication of science by industry and government. On August 16, 1945 the New York Times reported that Phillips and the other officers of the Association signed a letter to President Truman giving “eight recommendations to help prevent the use of atomic bombs in future warfare and to facilitate the application of atomic energy to peacetime uses.”
By the end of the 1940s, Melba Phillips’s accomplishments in physics and science education were well-known throughout the academic physics community. However, by the early 1950s, she was accused of being affiliated with communist subversives and fired from her university positions. What happened to this Hoosier physics pioneer?
Find out with Part Two, Melba Phillips: Leader in Science and Conscience.
In the early and mid 1800s, girls and young women in Indiana had limited access to educational opportunities. Indiana historian Richard Boone noted that the state held “a prejudice against the education of girls with their brothers,” but “an impulse was early manifested” to establish schools for young women.
By 1850, approximately 14 schools for girls existed within the state. Young women also found it more difficult to obtain access to higher education during the early and middle 1800s. Most universities only allowed men to attend classes; Indiana University did not admit its first female student until 1867. During this time, however, there were dedicated individuals who worked to change the status quo. During her lifetime, Saint Theodore Guérin, recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 2006, provided educational opportunities to Indiana’s girls and young women through the establishment of schools, most notably Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.
Saint Theodore Guérin was born and baptized at Etàbles in Brittany, France on October 2, 1798. Her parents, Isabelle le Fèvere and Laurent Guérin, named her Anne-Thérèse Guérin. During the first twenty-five years of Guérin’s life she faced numerous hardships. Before she reached the age of 13, she reportedly lost two brothers. When she was 15 years old, thieves robbed and murdered Guérin’s father, a French naval officer who served under Napoleon near Avignon, France. He was on furlough and heading home. After the loss of a husband and two sons, Guérin’s mother came down with a “severe illness,” leaving Anne-Thérèse Guérin to care for her mother and nine-year-old sister Marie.
Guérin was a devout Catholic from a young age. She took her first communion at the age of ten. After ten years of caring for her mother, Anne-Thérèse Guérin left home and committed herself to becoming a nun. At the age of 25, she became a postulant at the Sisters of Providence in Ruillé, France on August 18, 1823, and received the religious name Sister Saint Theodore Guérin. Immediately following her entrance into the
convent, Sister Saint Theodore suffered from a severe illness that impaired her health for the rest of her life. She could never eat solid foods again. After her recovery, the Sisters of Providence assigned Sister Saint Theodore Guérin to missionary work in Pruilly-sur-Claise.
After a short period of time as a postulant, Sister Saint Theodore recited her first vows on September 8, 1825. She professed her perpetual vows on September 5, 1831. Around the same time she declared her first vows, Sister Saint Theodore received the appointment of Superior to the Sisters of Providence educational establishment in Rennes. For ten years, Sister Saint Theodore assisted the convent in establishing numerous schools and orphanages in Rennes, but a dispute with the Superior General of the Sisters of Providence resulted in a transfer of Sister Saint
Theodore. Her new assignment relocated her to Soulaines, a small country mission where her talents, as one biographer stated, “would find a much narrower scope.”
After only a year in Soulaines, France, Sister Saint Theodore Guérin was “voted medallion decorations” by the French Academy Board of Education in 1836. One year earlier, in 1835, the Reverend Simon Bruté, the first Bishop of Vincennes, Indiana, visited Rennes, France. He and the Reverend Célestine de la Hailandiére, soon to be Vicar-General of the Vincennes Diocese, became acquainted with the various charitable works of the Sisters of Providence. Four years later, in 1839, Bishop Bruté sent his Vicar-General on a recruiting mission to France from Indiana. The Reverend Hailandiére searched for sisters of the Catholic faith willing to move to the United States and create schools and orphanages for the Vincennes Diocese.
When the Reverend Hailandiére reached France, he received news that Bishop Bruté had died on June 26, 1839. He also obtained confirmation of his own appointment as the new Bishop of Vincennes. While in France, Bishop Hailandiére convinced six members of the Sisters of Providence to come to the United States and start a school in his Diocese. Hesitant because of her frail health, Sister Saint Theodore Guérin initially did not accept Bishop Hailandiére’s invitation, but, after careful consideration and prayer, she finally took a leadership position in the operation.
* * *
On July 12, 1840, Sister Saint Theodore and the other sisters began their journey, departing from Ruillé, France. Fourteen days later on July 26, 1840, they left for Vincennes on the ship, Cincinnati. On September 4, 1840, the Cincinnati dropped anchor in New York. After traveling from New York by train, stagecoach, and steamboat the sisters rested in Madison, Indiana. On October 1, 1840, Bishop Hailandiére and three other men told the sisters they would not be starting a school in Vincennes. The Vincennes Diocese decided Terre Haute needed their services more. After various difficulties, Sister Saint Theodore and the other nuns arrived in the middle of a thick, village-less forest four miles outside of Terre Haute on October 22, 1840. Eventually, this became the site of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.
The sisters lived with a farmer, Joseph Thralls, and his family during construction of their motherhouse and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods school. Workers also cleared land for farming and chopped wood for winter. During the school’s construction, Bishop Hailandiére visited the sisters on November 12, 1840, and awarded Sister Saint Theodore the title of “Mother.” Soon thereafter the Sisters of Providence began accepting new women ready to join the convent.
The first postulant arrived on May 1, 1841. On October 9, 1841, the Wabash Courier (published in Terre Haute) advertised the “Convent and Academy,” headed by “Sister Theodora Guerin.” After the establishment of their first school at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, the sisters’ educational influence spread quickly throughout the state. On March 21, 1842, the Sisters of Providence opened a Girls’ Boarding School in Jasper. Despite terrible hardships, the convent opened 19 schools and orphanages between 1842-1856, spanning from Evansville to Vincennes to Fort Wayne.
Perhaps the most significant difficulty faced by the sisters was a fire that destroyed their barns and granaries on October 2, 1842, burning various provisions needed for the upcoming winter. Impoverished by fire, Mother Theodore Guérin, Sister Mary Cecilia and other unnamed sisters left Terre Haute for France on April 26, 1843 in search of financial aid. One month later, Mother Theodore and her traveling companions arrived in France upon the Silvia. During their stay, Mother Theodore Guérin and Sister Mary Cecilia met with Queen Marie Amelie of France, and secured money for the voyage back to the U.S. The Queen also began taking donations that later helped fund new schools.
On November 28, 1843, Mother Theodore and the sisters left France on the Nashville. The boat headed to the Gulf of Mexico and docked in New Orleans. The passengers and crew faced numerous hardships on the voyage back to the United States. The Nashville nearly sank during a hurricane, and Mother Theodore became “seized with fever” while in New Orleans. The sisters then traveled up the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash rivers to return to Terre Haute. Mother Theodore Guérin and the other sisters finally returned to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods on April 1, 1844.
Mother Theodore Guérin continued to advance women’s educational opportunities after she returned from France. Mother Theodore Guérin and the Sisters of Providence established a seminary of higher education for women at St. Mary-of-the-Woods. On January 14, 1846, nearly six years after arriving in Terre Haute, Governor James Whitcomb approved the Articles of Incorporation for the Female Seminary of St. Mary’s of the Woods (Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College).
After 12 more years of continuous educational service with the Sisters of Providence, Mother Theodore Anne-Thérèse Guérin died on May 14, 1856. She was buried on the grounds of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. On December 3, 1907, Mother Theodore’s remains were moved from the burial plot to a crypt. During the re-burial process workers discovered what is considered the first sign of Mother Theodore’s holiness: her brain was still intact.
Almost a year later, on October 30, 1908, the first miracle attributed to Mother Theodore Guérin occurred. Sister Mary Theodosia, who was suffering from cancer, stopped at Mother Theodore’s tomb to pray for another ill sister, Sister Joseph Therese O’Connell. The next day Sister Theodosia’s ongoing pain vanished. A medical examination later could not find the cancerous tumor.
This unexplained occurrence piqued the interest of the Indianapolis Diocese. Two months after Sister Mary Theodosia prayed at Mother Theodore’s tomb, Bishop Joseph Chartrand of the Indianapolis Diocese wrote to the Sister’s of Providence Superior General, Mother Mary Cleophas Foley, to indicated that initial “proceedings regarding” Mother Theodore’s canonization would be discussed on December 6, 1908. Many members of the Diocese began to diligently gather the needed information about Mother Theodore Guérin, including interviewing people such as Mother Anastasie Brown who worked with the foundress.
In January 1914, the Reverend Alphonaus Smith and the Reverend John T. O’Hare officially initiated the rigorous process of canonization for Mother Theodore Guérin when they left for Rome with about 500 sealed typewritten pages of evidence. Years passed as different Catholic committees performed the needed tasks to complete Mother Theodore’s canonization. In June, 1975 members of the Indiana Academy elected the late Mother Theodore Guérin into their organization. The academy was created by the “Associated Colleges of Indiana to honor Hoosiers who have enriched the cultural and civic life of the state.”
During the 1990s the canonization of Mother Theodore gained momentum. In November 1996, Vatican medical consultants approved the healing of Sister Mary Theodosia as a miracle. Four months later, in March 1997, the Sister Theodosia miracle was approved by Vatican theologians, and acknowledged by the Cardinals in June that same year. On October 25, 1998, Pope John Paul II beatified Mother Theodore Guérin in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. The church gave her the title, Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin. Pope John Paul II stated at the ceremony that
“Her life was a perfect blend of humanness and holiness. She was fully human, fully alive, yet her deep spirituality was woven visibly through the very fabric of her life.”
In 2001, doctors diagnosed Phillip McCord, an employee at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, with a swollen cornea. Physicians told McCord that he needed a risky surgical procedure to transplant a new cornea. Although not a Catholic, McCord prayed to Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin for help. Slowly his condition improved over a matter of weeks, and doctors were amazed at his recovery without surgery. According to a 2006 article in the Criterion, McCord had “better than 20/20 vision in both eyes.” With the approval of this final miracle, Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin was canonized and officially determined to be a Saint on October 15, 2006. The Vatican gave the new Saint the religious name Saint Theodora Guérin, but the Sisters of Providence refer to her as Saint Mother Theodore Guérin.
In addition to her sainthood, Guérin’s ongoing legacy features her efforts to spread learning throughout Indiana. As of 2008, her most prominent endeavor, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, continues the mission it began under Saint Theodore Guérin, to provide women with educational opportunities. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College enrolls 1,700 students and offers campus-based undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificate programs. After 175 years of operation, the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods’ Board of Trustees voted for the college to become fully co-educational in 2015.
To view the citations and annotations used in this post click here.
Women’s rights advocate, poet, and author of “Paddle Your Own Canoe” and “Indiana,” Sarah Tittle Barrett was born in Newport, Kentucky circa 1814. Commonly known as Sarah Bolton, she moved to Indiana as a young child, when much of the state was still unsettled. According to theLife and Poems of Sarah T. Bolton, while growing up on her family’s farm near Vernon, she was exposed to the pioneer experience, living in a log house and clearing the fields.
The Life and Poems of Sarah T. Bolton reports that she published her first poem in the Madison Banner when she was not yet fourteen and that she later wrote regularly for the papers of Madison and nearby Cincinnati. Bolton authored over 150 poems during her lifetime, many of which were featured in newspapers across the country. Her writings were included in numerous anthologies in the 1800s and 1900s, and several of the melodic verses were set to music, including Bolton’s “Indiana.”
In 1831, she married Indianapolis Gazette co-editor Nathaniel Bolton and the couple moved from Madison to Marion County, Indiana soon after. Between 1836 and 1845, they owned and operated a tavern, “Mt. Jackson,” on the National Road. In 1845, the Boltons sold their property to the State and it eventually became the site of the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, later renamed the Central State Hospital.* While in Indianapolis, Sarah’s poetry output continued to increase, and she wrote some of her most popular works there. She lived in the city for many years by the time she became involved in the women’s rights movement.
Bolton aided social reformer Robert Dale Owen in his fight for women’s rights of personal property in the 1850 State Constitutional Convention. Owen sought to add a provision to the new constitution that would allow women to retain control of their personal property after they entered into the contract of marriage. Bolton wrote letters to women across the state to build support for the movement, but Owen’s measure was voted down.
Bolton summarized her involvement in the effort to secure personal property rights for married women in a letter to William Wesley Woollen, stating:
“I was writing articles setting forth the grievances resulting from women’s status, as under the common law, and the necessity of reform and scattering these articles through the newspapers, over the state to make public opinion. At length the measure passed, but was reconsidered and voted down. Then we rallied the few women who were in favor of it and went to the Convention in a body to electioneer with the members. The measure was brought up and passed again, reconsidered the next day & again voted down. This, to the best of my recollection, was repeated five or six times before it was finally lost.”
In a July 6, 1851 letter to Bolton, Owen credited her efforts, stating “by dint of perseverance through many obstacles, you have so efficiently contributed to the good cause of the property rights of your sex.” Decades later Bolton reflected on her work, writing in 1882 “I am not a ‘woman’s rights woman’ in the common acceptation of the phrase. I have taken no part in the present crusade, but am proud of my action in that long ago battle for the property rights of my sisters.”
In 1855, Bolton’s husband was confirmed as Consul to Geneva, Switzerland, and she spent the next three years dividing her time between Missouri and Europe. She spent her final years, 1871-1893, at her home “Beech Bank” in the community of Beech Grove, focusing on her family and writing. Bolton died August 4, 1893 and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. The legacy of the “Hoosier poetess” endures through her poetry, such as “Paddle Your Own Canoe,” which has been translated into several languages and sung around the world.
Learn more about Sarah Bolton from the sources cited in this IHBreport, and plan a visit to Bolton’s historical marker.
*IHB staff is currently conducting research for a Central State Hospital marker. Stay tuned to learn more!