Trying to add some her to history

Bill would create statewide women’s rights trail

HISTORY HAS ALWAYS  BEEN a big draw in Massachusetts, but the focus has overwhelmingly been on men.

The Granary Burying Ground on Boston’s Freedom Trail features the graves of John Hancock, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and other luminaries of the American Revolution-era. Tales of Boston Tea party leaders and the Kennedy political dynasty tend to consume the time and money of most tourists.

But now a pair of state legislators are arguing that it’s time to draw attention to women who shaped the state’s history. Reps. Hannah Kane, a Shrewsbury Republican, and Carolyn Dykema, a Democrat from Holliston, are pushing a bill that would create a statewide women’s rights history trail, with a specific focus on the suffrage movement. The plan is to include monuments or landmarks that already exist, along with additional ones proposed by municipalities. The bill won initial approval unanimously in the House on Wednesday.

Kane and Dykema think a trail (not a physical path but markers on physical and digital maps) would draw attention to women who have long been overlooked in history books, provide some variety for student tour groups, and give a shot in the arm to the state’s tourism industry. But making the trail a reality won’t be easy. The bill provides no funding and leaves options open for municipalities to recommend properties and monuments to be listed on the trail. It asks the executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism and the state secretary of transportation to make it happen, and leaves the execution open ended.

Kane and Dykema say there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Several organizations are already cataloging important monuments or landmarks and the lawmakers say the state trail can piggyback on and add to those efforts.

The legislation does mandate four stops on the trail – the home in Adams where Susan B. Anthony, a leader of the suffrage movement, was born; the Orchard House in Concord, the former home of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott; the location of Brinley Hall in Worcester, where a women’s rights convention was held in 1850; and the Northampton memorial to Sojourner Truth, the African-American abolitionist and civil rights activist.

Representatives Carolyn Dykema and Hannah Kane prior to the passing of the Women’s Rights History Trail in the House.

Kane’s interest in the suffrage movement took off when she read the book Patriots in Petticoats: Heroines of the American Revolution, which underscored for her that many women don’t get the credit they deserve for shaping the nation’s history.  “This one woman, Deborah Sampson, was declared a spinster at 21, sewed herself a uniform, disguised herself as a man, and fought in the war,” Kane said. “It’s like saying, there’s nothing stopping a woman from what you want to do.”

There is a statue of Sampson outside the public library in Sharon, her husband’s hometown. She was originally from Plympton and joined a Continental Army unit from Middleborough.

All too often, Kane said, the role of women is overlooked. She cited the Smithsonian Institution’s Art Inventories Catalog, which indicates there are 5,200 public statues nationwide depicting historical figures. Fewer than 400, or eight percent, are of women.

Aside from the inadequate attention to female historical figures, Kane and Dykema say there are practical reasons for a trail. In an attempt to boost local economies, the lawmakers are advocating for vacation itineraries to be created with listings for lodging, farms, restaurants, and attractions near stops on the trail. The bill also authorizes the posting of signs along roadways to alert people to stops on the trail.

“We don’t want to lose the economic impact of the trail,” Dykema said. “This is an opportunity for Massachusetts to really bring people all across the state to celebrate women but also to support our local businesses.”

Kane said there’s also an important educational component. “In Shrewsbury in third grade they learn about the town’s history,” she said. “This could be a chance for a classroom field trip to a site.”

A lot of activity is already going on in connection with sites and monuments commemorating the contributions of women to history. The Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, for example, offers a series of self-guided and guided walks through different parts of Boston, focusing in each area on women such as Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley, Amelia Earhart, Chew Shee Chin, Julia O’Connor, Clementine Langone, and Melnea Cass.

Michelle Jenney, president of the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, said she has offered to help with the statewide trail. She stressed that educational programming is important to making any trail successful. “It can’t just be markers on houses,” she said.

A National Votes for Women Trail is being developed through the nonprofit National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites and the Syracuse-based William G. Pomeroy Foundation. The trail will consist of markers honoring distinguished historical figures who were active in winning the right to vote for women. Massachusetts is one of five states that will get funding for five markers for the national trail.

Left to right: Mary Louise Baldwin, Sojourner Truth, and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.

Locally, the Women’s Suffrage Celebration Coalition of Massachusetts is preparing for the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020 and trying to narrow the list of Massachusetts candidates for the national trail down to five. Fredie Kay, president of the coalition, said whatever sites are chosen for Massachusetts will have white and purple trim “suffrage colors, so they can be identifiable through the country as women’s suffrage centennial sites.”

Last month, the coalition hosted an event on Boston Common highlighting the work of three black suffragists with ties to the Bay State – Cambridge education pioneer Maria Louise Baldwin, civil rights leader Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, and Sojourner Truth.

The three are being considered for inclusion on the Massachusetts leg of the national trail. Truth has a statue commemorating her work in the village of Florence in Northampton. Baldwin, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was the principal and later the master of the Agassiz School in Cambridge, where she pioneered a number of innovative teaching approaches. She was the first to add a nurse to the school staff. The Agassiz was renamed after her in 2004.

St. Pierre Ruffin was a journalist, civil rights leader, and suffragist. She was the editor of Woman’s Era, a publication for African-American women. Her Charles Street home in Boston is a site on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Dorchester resident Marydith Tuitt, a member of the local Women’s Suffrage Celebration Coalition, likes the idea of a statewide trail, and says there are plenty of candidates. One possibility is Elizabeth Freeman, the first African-American slave to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts in 1780. The landmark case is a major reason why slavery ended in Massachusetts in 1783. Freeman lived in Stockbridge and is buried in a cemetery there.

“I think it would be an awesome thing,” Tuitt said of the statewide trail. “It would bring more knowledge that women are not just here to be wives and mothers and helped form this country from beginning to now.”