By Kelsey Phipps
Women are total badasses. All around the world, women accomplish incredible things daily. While we still have a long ways to go, we have already come so far, and it is important to remember where we have been in the past and to honor those who led the way in women’s equality. Back before the nineteenth amendment was even being considered, there were women making big moves in the world, working tirelessly for fellow sisters to make a path for us to follow. This series will highlight women from our home state of Missouri who played a part in the movement for equality in the 18-1900s.
- Josephine Baker
Freda Josephine McDonald was born in St. Louis on June 3, 1906. Born into extreme poverty, her single mother was a laundress and Josephine dropped out of school early on in life in order to find work. She was married twice in her teenage years and twice more as an adult. She married Will Baker in 1921 at age 15 and kept his last name. In the early stages of her career, she performed with the Jones Family Band and the Dixie Steppers.
In the 1930s she began working for the Red Cross during the French Occupation in World War II. She entertained troops in Africa and the Middle East while smuggling messages for the French Resistance. Josephine’s military work earned her “Croix de Guerre” and “Legion of Honour” after World War II, which are France’s highest military honors.
By the 1950s, Josephine was back in the United States working for the Civil Rights movement. By now she had gained international fame as a singer, dancer, and actor, working mainly in New York City and Paris. Josephine refused to perform at segregated clubs and venues, and attended the March on Washington in 1963. The NAACP named May 20th “Josephine Baker Day” to honor her work for the Civil Rights Movement.
During her adult life, Josephine developed a strong bond with children wherever she went, and she adopted twelve in total, calling them her “Rainbow Tribe.” The children consisted of varying races/cultures, and Josephine said that was purposeful because she believed “all people could live together peacefully” and wanted to be an example for the world.
Josephine Baker passed away due to a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1975. Her funeral was held in Paris, where over 20,000 people lined the streets in attendance. The French military honored her with a twenty-one gun salute, and she was the first American woman to be buried in France with military honors. Josephine Baker was a Missourian who dedicated her life to unity because of the fierce love she had for all people
- Annie Baxter
Anna (Annie) White was born on March 2, 1865 in Pittsburg, PA. Her family relocated to Carthage, MO in 1876 where her father opened a furniture factory. Upon graduation, Annie was hired by Jasper County Clerk George Blakeney as an assistant clerk. She was later appointed Deputy Clerk by Blakeney’s successor, John N. Wilson.
Annie served as Deputy Clerk for Jesse Rhoads as well. She married Charles W. Baxter in 1888. In 1890, after working for almost ten years, Annie was nominated for Jasper County Clerk by the Jasper County Democratic Convention. Women were not yet permitted to vote, but Annie still won the election against opponent Julius Fischer by over four hundred votes. Fischer filed an election challenge, but the Greene County Circuit Judge upheld the election results.
During her service, Annie earned a reputation as one of the best county clerks in the state. Unfortunately, in 1894 the Republican Party swept the election and Annie was voted out. In 1908, she was appointed State Registrar of Lands by Missouri Secretary of State Cornelius Roach. In 1922, Annie was named Financial Secretary for the Missouri Constitutional Convention, and was a delegate to the 1936 Democratic State Convention.
Annie Baxter blazed political trails for women all throughout her life, even though most of her career took place before women could even vote. Annie died of pneumonia on June 28, 1944. The city of Joplin named Annie Baxter Street after her to honor her legacy, and the Columbia, MO chapter of the American Association of University Women is named after her. Annie was inducted into the Hall of Carthage Heroes in 2012.
- Susan Blow
Susan Blow was born on June 7, 1843 in St. Louis. She was born into a wealthy family that prioritized her education. Her father was a businessman and politician. When she was a child, her riverfront house burned and her family relocated to a suburb of St. Louis, a French settlement called Carondelet. As a teenager, Susan attended private schools in New Orleans and New York City. She returned to Missouri in 1861 due to the Civil War. Susan’s family was pro-union and anti-slavery.
Wanting to return to academia, Susan joined the group “St. Louis Thinkers” to discuss her ideas and beliefs. Four years after the Civil War ended, Susan’s father was appointed the ambassador to Brazil, and she worked as his secretary for a year before deciding to travel to Germany. Susan observed German classrooms on her trip and was deeply inspired by the work of Friedrich Froebel, an important leader in early childhood education.
Susan was introduced to a type of class that didn’t yet exist in the United States: kindergarten. Feeling hopeful about her new discoveries, she returned to St. Louis and together with her father approached Dr. William Torrey Harris, the superintendent of St. Louis public schools, to ask him to open an experimental kindergarten. Susan presented her plan to direct the class without pay if Dr. Harris would provide a classroom and teacher. Because of Susan’s research and work, the first U.S. public kindergarten opened in September of 1873 at Des Peres School in Carondelet. The bright and cheerful room was equipped with short tables and benches and had a variety of plants, books, and toys.
Susan ran the program without pay for a total of eleven years. Not long after she started, other schools began adopting her classroom model. By 1879, there were fifty-three public kindergarten classrooms in the St. louis area. In 1884, Susan became ill and retired from her position. She left St. Louis in 1889 and went to New York City and Boston to write and teach about the kindergarten movement. She toured the country with her work up until early March 1916, and passed away just three weeks later. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat said of Susan: “A great commander is gone, but the soldiers will go on marching.”
- Phoebe Couzins
Phoebe Wilson Couzins was born September 8, 1842 in St. Louis. When she was seven years old, a cholera epidemic swept through the St. Louis region, and Phoebe’s parents led the local relief organization. Her father also served as the Chief of Police for St. Louis and was a member of the Committee of Public Safety, a group that worked to keep Missouri a part of the Union. Her mother was a member of the Ladies’ Union Aid Society. Phoebe and her mother joined the National Woman Suffrage Association, founded by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
In 1869 Phoebe was accepted to Washington University’s law school and was their first female law graduate in 1871. She practiced law for two months before deciding she wanted to focus on women’s suffrage. She traveled all over the United States giving speeches and advocating for women’s rights. In 1884, Phoebe’s father was appointed U.S. Marshal for the eastern district of Missouri, and made Phoebe one of his deputies. When her father passed away three years later, Phoebe was appointed interim Marshal, and was the first woman to serve as such.
In 1890, Phoebe was elected Secretary of the Board of Lady Managers for the Chicago World’s Fair, but her “outspoken and determined nature” caused the men of the board to dismiss her soon after her appointment. Phoebe began looking for work and eventually joined the United Brewers Association. She aided them in attempting to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol, however, she was never compensated for her work and lived in poverty. In the mid-1890s, she criticized the Board of Lady Managers and was essentially shunned by them.
Frustrated, Phoebe left the suffrage movement and denounced the work she had spent her life preaching. After a few years, in 1902, Phoebe decided to return to the movement. She passed away on December 6, 1913 and her grave remained unmarked until 1950. The Women’s Bar Association donated a headstone in her honor to pay tribute to the lifetime of work she did for Missouri and U.S. women.
- Edna Gellhorn
Edna Fischel was born December 18, 1878 in St. Louis. Her father was a physician and Washington University professor of clinical medicine. Her mother was a teacher. Edna grew up in a family that prioritized philanthropy. They were members of the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis, a group which believed in “leading ethical lives that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” Edna graduated from Mary Institute High School and then Bryn Mawr College (Pennsylvania). She was the “lifetime president” of her college class of 1900. In 1903, she married George Gellhorn, a physician and professor alongside her father at Washington University. She had three children: Martha, Walter, Alfred, and George Jr.
Edna had a deep passion for serving others. She strived to be involved in her community from a young age. She helped pass clean drinking water regulations and laws on safety standards for milk production. She was heavily involved in charity work, as well. During the early stages of her post-graduation life, however, she knew her true calling was the suffrage movement. She officially joined the movement in 1910 and worked in the St. Louis and Missouri Equal Suffrage Leagues. In 1916, she headed the “Walkless-Talkless Parade,” a demonstration in which “thousands of women dressed in white with yellow sashes and umbrellas” and “stood on both sides of the street and formed a ‘golden lane’ that Democratic delegates had to walk through to get to the convention on its opening day.”
In 1920, at age 42, Edna helped found the League of Women Voters. She declined an offer to serve as the league’s first president, instead choosing to serve as the first national vice-president under Carrie Chapman Catt. Edna did serve with both the Missouri League and the St. Louis league as president. She was a kind and thoughtful leader, always going above and beyond in her duties. She lobbied, gave speeches, sent letters, and headed up committees. Her hard work paid off when the Nineteenth U.S. Amendment became law and women were given the right to vote. In addition to women’s rights, Edna felt a strong calling to assisting in racial equality matters. She gave the deciding vote on allowing African American women to join the League. In the 1940s, while still working with the League, Edna convinced the entire operation to move locations when she found out the hotel they were working out of would not allow African Americans to use the elevators.
Throughout her life, Edna Gellhorn fought for equality on numerous fronts. Her work played a huge part in human development in the United States. According to the State Historical Society of Missouri, she was active in the following organizations during her career: the St. Louis Urban League, Women’s Central Committee on Food Conservation, Smoke Elimination Committee, Consumer’s Milk Commission, American Association for the United Nations, the National Municipal League, Greater St. Louis Citizen’s Committee for Nuclear Information, the St. Louis Board of Children’s Guardians, the Missouri State Commission on the Status of Women, and the Commission to Revise the Missouri Constitution. She never held public office but undoubtedly had a profound impact on her community.
Edna Gellhorn passed away on September 27, 1970. She was ninety-one years old. When asked about her life’s work in her seventies, she said “I’m glad I was born in a time of stress. I’m glad to have lived through it. And I have infinite faith in the future.” Following her death, she was honored by Senator Stuart Symington on the U.S. Senate floor: “No person could have had more ideals and ambitions for her community; no one ever worked more tirelessly to achieve those goals.” Close friend Irving Dilliard remembered Edna as “wise because her spirit was uncontaminated, because she knew no violence, or hatred, or envy, or jealousy, or ill-will.”