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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

WOMEN - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

WOMEN. Tabitha Stiles, who accompanied her husband on MOSES CLEAVELAND†'s survey expedition, remained on the shores of Lake Erie and was rewarded with a sizable land grant. She was an exception. Women helped tame the wilderness but seldom held title to it. Nor did many women own the homes, stores, and factories that marked the urban landscape in the years that followed. But women nourished and nurtured farmers, laborers, and property owners within the privacy of their homes, and they created their own organizations and institutions to provide individual betterment, social services, and cultural activities. For the first 2 decades, in Cleveland and in the larger WESTERN RESERVE, men built primitive cabins and cleared land for planting. Women--wives, mothers, and daughters--helped plant and harvest, prepared, cooked, and preserved the food. They combed, spun, wove, and sewed the flax grown. Older daughters taught younger children during the frequent absence of schoolmasters. Female family members nursed the sick--often malaria-ridden--when they themselves did not suffer from "fits and agues." By the 1830s, with community health improving and the OHIO AND ERIE CANAL boosting population, transportation, and commerce, social dislocation also increased. Cleveland was ripe for evangelical RELIGION, reform, and charity. For Americans caught up in the religious fervor that emphasized individual salvation, the push from personal perfection to social reformation was a short one. Societal amelioration underlay many of the benevolent societies and reform organizations that were founded during the antebellum period. REBECCA ROUSE† and her husband, BENJAMIN ROUSE†, were examples of this development. Agents for the American Bible Society, they first established regular religious services, but quickly Rebecca Rouse and the wives and sisters of the town's business leaders founded the MARTHA WASHINGTON AND DORCAS SOCIETY to promote TEMPERANCE and provide poor relief (see WELFARE/RELIEF, PHILANTHROPY). They founded an orphan asylum and established a branch of the Female Moral Reform Society to rehabilitate prostitutes and assist unmarried pregnant women. Rouse and her friends visited the sick and distributed food and charity. By mid-century, 225 local women took part in activities on behalf of poor relief; 1,400 belonged to temperance societies. Only when financial needs outstripped the women's resources did they turn over their benevolent social services to male relatives, beginning a persistent pattern.

The property rights of married women were beginning to be questioned and changed at mid-century. Under existing common law, all property and earnings of women belonged to their husbands. New York made significant changes in those practices in 1848,, and Ohio amended all property and contract laws by 1887. Under these slowly changing legal circumstances, women, sensitive to community needs, devised ingenious and successful fundraising methods, such as bazaars, collections, and sale of handmade products. In 1864 thousands of Cleveland women volunteers for the Northern Ohio Soldiers' Aid Society (see SOLDIERS' AID SOCIETY OF NORTHERN OHIO) brought in $78,000 at their NORTHERN OHIO SANITARY FAIR on PUBLIC SQUARE. They also established and staffed a SOLDIERS' HOME in Cleveland for soldiers en route between home and army base. After the war, the women founded a Free Claims Agency and an employment bureau. Transforming benevolence into organized relief, women learned leadership skills while contributing to the war effort.

After the conflict, attention turned to matters at home. In Oct. 1868 600 women from area churches formed the Women's Christian Assn. of Cleveland. Like the antebellum voluntary societies, the initial motivation was benevolent and religious; it focused on young single female women coming to the city in search of gainful employment. The association clearly stated its desire to promote "the spiritual welfare of women, especially the young." Within a year of its founding, the organization created a boarding home for working women, and soon another institution, the Retreat, to reform "the tempted and fallen who had already compromised their purity". By the turn of the century the association, then known as the YOUNG WOMEN'S CHRISTIAN ASSN. (YWCA) (YWCA), had founded homes for aged women (see AMASA STONE HOUSE), for chronically ill women (see ELIZA JENNINGS HOME), and for female transients. It also began educational and social programs for working women and for mothers, and established other projects that eventually developed into independent organizations, such as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the CLEVELAND DAY NURSERY AND FREE KINDERGARTEN ASSN., INC. For decades the YWCA and its activities served as prototypes for other women's associations, such as the WOMAN'S CHRISTIAN TEMPERANCE UNION, NON-PARTISAN, OF CLEVELAND, the SALVATION ARMY, and the PHILLIS WHEATLEY ASSOCIATION Programs that became the centerpieces of SETTLEMENT HOUSES--expanded for mothers and children--were modeled on classes and services first offered by the YWCA.

The dependent women who engaged the attention and concern of the Women's Christian Assn. were rural migrants and European immigrants, who helped double Cleveland's population between 1860-70 (see IMMIGRATION AND MIGRATION). In search of work, they were more successful while the men were away at war. After the war, their economic opportunities, narrowed. By 1880 10,000 Cleveland women were employed, with well over 75% as domestic servants, laundresses, dressmakers, and milliners. At the turn of the century, 20% of Cleveland's labor force was female. By that time, light industries had increased, and women workers clustered in paper box factories, bakeries, cigar and tobacco plants, laundries, and the GARMENT INDUSTRY. Cleveland's working women were predominantly young and single but of varying ethnicity. Ethnic background (American or immigrant) helped determine the kind of employment young women sought, but once employed, early in the century, all women endured long hours (a 60-hour week) and low wages (about $5 per week). Light industrial employment usually was seasonal, and workers experienced periods when no jobs were available. The wages of working daughters were crucial to the family economy, no matter how meager and sporadic. Income was often handed over to working-class mothers, who managed the family finances and who contributed by performing many of the rudimentary services that had characterized pioneer women a century earlier.

Immigrant neighborhoods became the sites of new social-service institutions by the turn of the century. Settlement houses originated in Chicago in 1889 and spread rapidly to other cities. Usually founded by well-educated, religious, and middle-class men and women, they became most closely identified with women. For example, FLORA STONE MATHER† founded Cleveland's Goodrich House (see GOODRICH-GANNETT NEIGHBORHOOD CENTER) in 1897. Programs focused on clubs and classes for women and children. Other institutions quickly developed from Goodrich reform and social-service programs: a library branch; music education, which became the Educational Alliance, founded by the Council of Jewish Women (see NATIONAL COUNCIL OF JEWISH WOMEN (NCJW), CLEVELAND SECTION); and the PHILLIS WHEATLEY ASSOCIATION, founded by JANE EDNA HUNTER† for African American women. MARY INGHAM† wrote Women of Cleveland and Their Work, a tribute to this educational and philanthropic work, in 1893. An associate, GERTRUDE VAN RENSSELAER WICKHAM†, enlisted 216 volunteers to write the early histories of female settlers in as many Western Reserve communities. Their collective tribute was ready for Cleveland's 1896 centennial celebration, when the event's special women's department observed its own day. This flourishing social feminist activity and sense of femaleness also led to increased attention to political rights.

While Cleveland had hosted women's rights and women's suffrage conventions during the 19th century, concerted efforts to improve women's legal and political status were few. The city hosted a meeting in 1852 at which leading activists Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown spoke. The founding convention of the American, Women's Suffrage Assn. took place in Cleveland in 1869. No local organizations formed after national figures left the scene. Improvements in property rights, divorce and child-custody procedures, and related issues had occurred during the century, but primarily in response to pressures exerted from other sections of Ohio. By 1887 the last limitations on women's property rights contracts were removed. In 1894 the Ohio legislature granted women suffrage in schoolboard elections. However, organized efforts on behalf of votes for women did not begin in earnest in Cleveland until 1911. Like the national movement for state-by-state enfranchisement, the Cleveland Suffrage League focused on gaining the vote in Ohio. Leaders and a constantly growing membership organized meetings, trained speakers, distributed publicity, presented pageants, and marched in street demonstrations. They attempted to amend the state constitution and failed; they placed the issue on statewide ballots, but it was defeated; and a bill granting presidential suffrage was recalled in a legally questionable referendum. In spite of great effort, Cleveland suffragists were not enfranchised until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed and ratified. Like suffrage associations elsewhere, Cleveland's organizations then transformed themselves into the LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS (LWV) OF CLEVELAND to educate women on issues and voting procedures. The Cleveland league gained national attention with its candidate interviews, the "founding" of the widespread women's peace movement of the interwar years (see WOMEN'S COUNCIL PEACE PARADE FOR THE PREVENTION OF FUTURE WARS), and the elevation of local president and activist BELLE SHERWIN† to head the national league. The Consumers League of Ohio also gained national recognition. But the 2 leagues, and other women's associations, did not achieve the successes after the mid-1920s that had marked their earlier efforts.

For Cleveland's working women, female experiences after World War I were varied. For immigrant women the 1920s meant the separation of families because of restrictive legislation. However, the reasonably prosperous decade saw some of their daughters join native-born women in the growing areas of white-collar service jobs. By 1930 40% of the city's working women were engaged in sales, clerical, and communication-related employment. Black women replaced immigrants at the bottom of the ladder. Few groups escaped the hardships of the 1930s. Unemployed steel and auto workers meant extra pressure on work-age daughters to seek increasingly limited employment and forced wives and mothers to find innovative methods of homebound "making do." Although the long tradition of female community nurture once more centered on hard-pressed homes, women's public activities did not cease. Rather, women in organizations ranging from foreign-language branches of the COMMUNIST PARTY to the Consumers League protested, against government indifference toward the economically deprived and lobbied on behalf of welfare and relief measures. Women also expanded health services, sometimes in controversial directions, founding, for example, the Maternal Health Assn. birth control clinic in 1928 (later PLANNED PARENTHOOD OF GREATER CLEVELAND). Working-class women took actions independent of social reformers. In the midst of the labor organizing that followed the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), thousands of women struck employers and won union representation (see LABOR). Other women played leading roles in the organizing campaigns in heavy INDUSTRY.

The 1940s brought significant industrial changes. Conversion to war production and the drafting of men meant that tanks rolled off Cleveland's assembly lines and women became a new component of the Cleveland labor force. During World War II, the Consumers League was hard-pressed to maintain working and safety standards for women workers in the face of legislation that undermined work standards. Non-wage-earning sisters and mothers swelled the ranks of the AMERICAN RED CROSS, CLEVELAND CHAPTER, rolling bandages and knitting sweaters while juggling their ration coupons and coping with wartime shortages. Still, given the massive efforts of women at home, at work, and in the community, it is significant that no outstanding leadership or organizational bases arose comparable to the Soldiers' Aid Society of the Civil War era or even the short-lived Cleveland Women's Committee of the Council of National Defense of 1917 and 1918. Government agencies began to fill the roles formerly played by women's voluntary associations and expert advisors.

During the postwar period, women's collective activities reflected their family-oriented concerns. Parent-teacher associations flourished. LWV chapters were founded in new suburban communities. The young mothers of Greater Cleveland communities were the best-educated in history, and in spite of the pervasive ideology celebrating maternity and domesticity, many women looked for voluntary associations that offered intellectual challenge and social companionship. The LWV, emphasizing research and discussion of local and international issues, filled this vital need for some. Domestic workers rode public transportation each day to the SUBURBS so that their employers had the leisure to drive to new shopping centers, PTA functions, and voluntary association meetings. The decreasing and aging membership of other organizations also turned to new issues. The Consumers League focused on the plights of migrant workers and on the country's health needs, advocating national health insurance. Other female activists, often older veterans of the vibrant women's movement of the earlier decades of the century, turned their attention to reducing Cold War tensions and controlling the growing terrors, of nuclear warfare. The post-World War II peace movement never approached the size and female involvement of the one that had flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, but it did engage a number of local women prior to the antiwar protests and the revived women's movement of the 1960s. And FRANCES PAYNE BOLTON† maintained a female presence in the U.S. Congress at a time when women's political visibility was low.

The rebirth of feminism in Greater Cleveland, like the movement nationally, had its roots in civil-rights activism. Unlike in the South, issues involved not Jim Crow laws but rather the de facto segregation that was deeply embedded in housing patterns and neighborhoods. Construction of new public schools in the late 1950s reinforced segregation in EDUCATION and aroused both blacks (see AFRICAN AMERICANS) and white supporters. The cautious black males who spoke on behalf of the city's NAACP chapters were eclipsed by the female head of the more militant Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), who opposed racial inequities in Cleveland. Seemingly overnight, female images and voices were prominent in many areas. Working-class women and CLEVELAND PRESS writers were instrumental in organizing the prototype for the National Committee for Labor Union Women. Middle-class women founded chapters of the NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR WOMEN (NOW) (NOW). The local BUSINESS & PROFESSIONAL WOMEN'S CLUB OF GREATER CLEVELAND (BPW) renewed its efforts on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which made its way out of Congress in 1970. The League of Women Voters, which had opposed the ERA for close to half a century because of its threat to special legislation for working women, joined the BPW. Women successfully assaulted the protective state laws that female reformers had long sought but which, in the light of feminist values and goals, restricted economic opportunity for women. Veteran reformers such as ELIZABETH MAGEE† of the Consumers League, however, remained committed to the older vision.

In 1975 Cleveland was a pacesetter in the celebration of INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S YEAR, GREATER CLEVELAND CONGRESS. For 3 days in November, women's organizations, individual women, and national figures mounted displays, workshops, lectures, and performances celebrating women's activities and bringing to light pertinent issues and problems. WOMENSPACE was founded to coordinate the associations, well-established and new, ranging from the CLEVELAND RAPE CRISIS CENTER to 9TO5, NATIONAL ASSN. OF WORKING WOMEN to the WOMEN'S LAW FUND, INC.. Cleveland women such as Nancy C. Oakley, founder of Project: LEARN, Rubie J. McCullough, founder of the Harvard Community Services Center, and Mother, Mary of the Annunciation Beaumont, founder of URSULINE COLLEGE, began to be chosen for the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame in Columbus (est. 1978).

In the next two decades, women's attention broadened to include battered women (see CENTER FOR THE PREVENTION OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE), sexual harassment, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, AIDS, and issues of sexual identity and acceptance (see GAY COMMUNITY), among other problems. Females moved into nontraditional professional schools, into the labor market, out to more distant suburbs, and out of the area altogether. The women who remained tackled the area's problems from professional and political as well as volunteer positions, including clergy, therapists, legal experts, state legislators, county commissioners, and suburban mayors. Local women continued to plan unique and successful fundraisers, such as the female sporting event, Run, Jane, Run, for the West Side Women's Center (1990s). Although plagued by divisive issues such as abortion and FAMILY PLANNING, women applauded the achievements of a new generation of female leaders of Cleveland. Among the many who broke barriers and cracked the "glass ceiling" in the early 1990s were: Karen Horn, president of Bank One; the city's law director, Sharon Sobol-Jordan; the county prosecutor, Stephanie Tubbs-Jones; college and university presidents Jerry Sue Owens (CUYAHOGA COMMUNITY COLLEGE) and Claire Van Ummersen (CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY); Common Pleas Judge Leslie Brooks Wells; UNIVERSITY HOSPITALS CASE MEDICAL CENTER president and chief executive officer Farah Walters; and the executive director of the CUYAHOGA METROPOLITAN HOUSING AUTHORITY, Claire Freeman.

Lois Scharf

Case Western Reserve Univ.

Abbott, Virginia Clark. The History of Women Suffrage and the League of Women Voters in Cuyahoga County, 1911-1945 (1949).

Ingham, Mary A. Women of Cleveland and Their Work (1893).

Morton, Marian. Women in Cleveland: An Illustrated History (1995).

Scharf, Lois. "The Women's Movement in Cleveland from 1850," in Cleveland: A Tradition of Reform, ed. David D. Van Tassel and John Grabowski (1986).

------. "Cleveland's Labor Force: Women's View, 1880-1930," in Birth of Modern Cleveland (1987).

Wickham, Gertrude Van Renssalaer, ed. Memorial to the Pioneer Women of the Western Reserve (1896-1924).

See also specific women and women's organizations.

Last Modified: 13 Jan 2006 03:22:35 PM

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