Diversity and strength:

A symposium in Baltimore will explore the many ways in which women shaped the history of the city and the state

April 16, 2006|By KATHLEEN WATERS SANDER AND CAROLYN B. STEGMAN | KATHLEEN WATERS SANDER AND CAROLYN B. STEGMAN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A booming mercantile center in a border state, 19th-century Baltimore was home to a fascinating mix of women - for and against suffrage, rich, poor, black, white, native, immigrant, progressive, traditional, Southern, Northern. Together they played a vital role in shaping the history of Baltimore and Maryland, setting the stage for important advances for their sex in decades to come

Each, in her own way, helped to build the city from the ground up, reforming and shaping its institutions, asserting their rights and creating vibrant institutions - all the while having no political vote and little money.

Baltimore offered fertile ground for women's activism and advancement. With its diverse population, its unique geography and its rich tradition of civic engagement and philanthropy, the thriving, industrial port city opened its doors to immigrants and progressive ideas not welcomed elsewhere.

Of the city's African-American inhabitants in the antebellum years, half were enslaved and half were free. Female wage earners labored in the city's waterfront factories, fueling the city's prosperous economy and creating their own identity. Immigrant women formed strong civic and religious associations, while well-to-do women were often at odds over polarized expectations for women in the 19th century.

Baltimore women were active catalysts of change, not passive bystanders, in the city's economic, political and cultural growth. They shared a common vision: to elevate their status in a society that treated them as second-class citizens. Despite their political disenfranchisement, they reinvented and expressed themselves in highly creative ways.

They started businesses and new professions for women, formed powerful reform associations, established schools and medical clinics, and ministered to the needy. Their 19th-century resourcefulness paved the way for future advancement in women's civil rights, educational equity and economic opportunity.

From their political and economic activism to their philanthropy, there are hundreds of untold stories that capture the lives and essence of Baltimore - and Maryland - women. Each story reflects a historical struggle that is relevant to women today.

There are the works and words of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the nation's first black female novelist, and the life of Henrietta Szold, founder of the country's first night school and later a Zionist for the future nation of Israel. A founder of Bryn Mawr School and one of the nation's most influential philanthropists, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, helped to bring the 1906 suffrage convention to Baltimore and financed the country's first graduate-level, coeducational medical school at the Johns Hopkins University. African-American women started anti-slavery societies and self-help organizations.

The lives these and other extraordinary 19th-century Baltimore women will be explored Friday through Sunday at a symposium titled "Rich in Vision, Catalysts of Change: Women in 19th Century Baltimore," sponsored by the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion.

The symposium's lectures and tours will examine the struggles and sacrifices Baltimore women made to break down gender barriers and open the doors of opportunity for women today.

From art to music, female dress reform to female wage earners, the Women's Civic League to the Woman's Industrial Exchange, the symposium will bring to life the remarkable and rousing stories of the Baltimore women who helped to change their city and their nation.

Carolyn B. Stegman is the author of the 2002 book "Women of Achievement in Maryland History," now the subject of a documentary film being produced by Maryland Public Television and the Maryland State Board of Education. Kathleen Waters Sander is the author of "The Business of Charity: The Woman's Exchange Movement, 1832-1900," and is the author of an upcoming biography of Mary Elizabeth Garrett.

Baltimore women who changed their world

Mary Elizabeth Garrett

Heiress to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad fortune, Mary Elizabeth Garrett chose to use her wealth and status to create educational opportunities for women. She financed the trailblazing Bryn Mawr School, with its high academic standards, and gave money to open the country's first graduate-level, coeducational medical school at the Johns Hopkins University.

Ellen WatkinsHarper

A native of Baltimore, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper devoted her life to supporting the major reform movements of the 19th century: the abolition of slavery, temperance, women's rights, civil rights, and international peace. Writing novels, poems and essays filled with political purpose, Harper also traveled the country, lectured and visited homes to inspire those in need.

Julia Friedenwald Potts

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