Women in Civil Society

The debate over women’s equal rights and full access to all areas of society is persistent, and the archival records at the MA repeat a single story of limited access for over three centuries. What is inspiring is the unrelenting struggle for education, property, labor rights, suffrage, and quality of life. And most unnerving is the history on repeat.

We’ve recently begun documenting and highlighting within our collection guides the unique instances in which women spoke and government responded. The pull quotes from these original documents highlight the fears, attitudes, judgements, and expectations we often find ourselves still challenging. Our focus here is on the language—that which we’ve found to be shocking, inspiring, insulting, and sometimes just laughable—so that we may continue to change the conversations, to shape and inspire a lexicon of human rights.

Bill of Sale for Betty, 1814, Common Council Papers

In 1799 the New York State Legislature passed an “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” which granted freedom to all children born of slave women after July 4, 1799. However, the children were required to serve a period of indenture to the slave owner; males until the age of 28; females until the age of 25. After this period of servitude they would become free. Enslaved individuals who were born before July 4, 1799 were not included in the 1799 act.

Emma Goldman, Cause of Arrest: Incitement to Riot, 1893, Court of General Sessions

Speaking to a crowd of people, Goldman’s efforts to galvanize unemployed New Yorkers after the effects of the Panic of 1893, lead to her indictment. Goldman’s anarchist philosophies and the differing testimony at her trial, lead to her being sentenced to Blackwell’s Island.

International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, 1916, Mayor John P. Mitchel Subject Files

Established in 1900, the ILGWU began by organizing local unions in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland to improve working conditions. The ILGWU’s work to organize protests and engage social reformers and government in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911, lead to a significant victories and further spurred their mission.

Suffragists vs. Anti-suffragists, 1914, Mayor John P. Mitchel Subject Files

Sophie Tucker Playground, 1943 Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia Subject Files

A Matter of Simple Justice: The Report of the President’s Task Force on Women’s Rights and Responsibilities, 1969, Mayor John V. Lindsay Subject Files

Virginia R. Allan led the task force to promote the role of women in government. The Task Force outlined recommendations that would ultimately facilitate a change in women’s roles in the workplace. The Task Force was established soon after Vera Glaser, a news correspondent, noted that only 3 of 200 high-level cabinet and policy appointments in Nixon’s administration were women.

“Woman as an Industrial and Moral Factor,” 1895, Mayor William L. Strong Subject Files

Charlotte Odlum Smith was among the early women’s rights supporters, organizing and calling for significant changes in support of pay equity and working conditions and hiring practices. Odlum Smith challenged legislation, and sought to solidify women’s roles in science, journalism, and government.