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  • Writer's pictureTrista Lara

The Unrecognized Women of the Early Suffrage Movement

Since the beginning of our nation’s history, women’s voices have been suppressed despite being some of the most influential. With the United States being built on ideas and policies that solely benefit white, heterosexual men, it has brought along an injustice towards all those who do not meet those criteria.

More specifically, transgender women and women of color have been two of the most oppressed, marginalized groups. Not only have they been disregarded, but also often met with extreme hate and invalidation for speaking up against inequities. It is vital to acknowledge that transgender rights are women’s rights; the two coexist, as we are all facing the same struggles. By treating them as two separate entities, we are only re-enforcing the same gender stereotypes that have held back cis-gendered women for centuries. Recognizing them as one and the same will result in nourishing the fight towards gender equity.

Due to the widespread whitewashing of U.S. history, many prolific, influential voices have been forgotten. Whether it be due to gender identity, race or sexual orientation, these five women’s grand steps towards gender and racial equality have long been undermined. Their fearless acts of rebelling the societally correct view of a woman’s role should not be lost to the bigoted, one-sided recount of U.S. history.

1. Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876)

(Credit: Homo History)

Born on July 23, 1816 in Boston, a city enriched by arts, it is no doubt that this environment is what influenced Charlotte Cushman to pursue her four-decade career as one of the most famous American actresses of the 19th century. Cushman was known for her many performances in both Europe and the United States, often playing male and female roles of Shakespeare’s plays.

At age 13, after the death of Cushman’s father — Elkanah Cushman, a successful West Indian merchant who lost his fortune — she began musical training from her father’s friends. This exposed her to the world of opera and theater, which encouraged her to forego formal education and continue on the stage.

She made her opera debut at 18, but it was not until a seasonal engagement in New Orleans a couple years later did she suffer from great musical tragedy. Her voice failed after having strained to reach notes too high for her natural contralto range; it was here that she was encouraged by her theater manager to pursue acting instead.

Cushman received even more acclaim and recognition as an actress. While cross-dressing was a common occurrence in nineteenth-century theater, Cushman completely revitalized the practice of it. More times than not, she capitalized on her masculine features to play male roles. Rather than utilizing conventional beauty standards to rise to the top in an aesthetics-dominated field, she relied on charisma and energy. Decades into her career, after playing a tour across America, Cushman had enough acclaim to insist on equal pay to that of other male actors. As a result, the widespread success she brought with her roles led to a more respectable environment for women in theater.

Although Cushman retired in late 1852, she made guest appearances in various shows then became a dramatic reader. After traveling across the world many times in light of her career’s accomplishments, Cushman had many romantic relationships with women on and off stage; it is suspected that much of her story has been intentionally lost over time due to her sexuality. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1869, she spent her last days in her villa at Newport.

Cushman died of pneumonia on February 18, 1876 at the age of 59. Her legacy left an imprint on women’s gender roles in theater; she normalized versatility for the roles women play and encouraged the dismantling of conventional beauty standards.

2. Frances Thompson (1840-1876)

(Credit: Wikipedia)

As the first disabled Black transgender woman to testify before Congress, Frances Thompson made a distinct impact on early women’s rights and transgender rights in America. Born into slavery in 1840, she was a free woman by the age of 26. However, this did not stop her from being at the epicenter of violence due to her race and gender.

The “Memphis Massacre” of 1866 occurred in Thompson’s place of residence in Memphis, Tennessee. This tragic event began when white police officers caught sight of a group of Black men, women and children hosting a street party and incessantly harassed them. The riots ensued once an officer tried to arrest a black ex-soldier, which resulted in nearly fifty Black people arriving to stop the arrest and refusing to leave. Violence arose as tension unfolded into three days of numerous murders, rapes and arson to Black people and their property.

During this, Thompson and a 16 year-old girl she was living with, Lucy Smith, became victims to the brutal antics of seven men of the white mob. The men demanded freshly cooked food and took turns sexually assaulting and beating the girls. The entire interaction lasted for four hours, and upon leaving the men stole a variety of Thompson and Smith’s belongings.

Once the riots ceased, a Congressional committee was created to further look into the massacre. Thompson and four other survivors — of which she encouraged personally to speak up with her — testified to Congress about their experiences. Not only did her and the other courageous survivor’s efforts lead to the ratification of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, it also brought to light the judicial need for reform of rape culture in the U.S. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s testimony is thought to be the first woman to testify in court; however, hers took place 12 years after Thompson’s in 1878, making this title rightfully Thompson’s.

Unfortunately, Thompson’s mistreat did not end there. In 1876, she was forcibly examined by four physicians after rumors were circulating that she was biologically male. Once the physicians proved this to be true, she was both fined for “cross-dressing” as well as lost all credibility in the public eye for her testimony and advancements toward anti-rape activism. Unable to pay the $50 penalty — what is more than $800 today — she was sentenced to a men’s chain gang. Thompson later died of dysentery in a medical facility due to the copious amounts of abuse she endured.

Despite the nature of her all-too soon, tragic passing, Thompson is remembered for her bravery in standing up against inadequate rape laws. Her courageous actions unfortunately stripped her of safety, as well as the freedom to live the life she deserved.

3. Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

(Credit: Blackpast)

Mary Eliza Church Terrell was an influential racial equality and women’s suffrage activist in the late 19th and early 20th century. Born on September 23, 1863 to former slaves who became successful business people, Terrell was exposed to the importance of education and hard work from a young age. She earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Oberlin College.

However, the impetus for her work in activism stems from an event that took place in 1892. Thomas Moss, one of Terrell’s friends, was lynched because his business was competition to the whites that murdered him. She then took part in numerous anti-lynching campaigns alongside Ida B. Wells, another leading figure in the civil rights movement. Terrell believed that Black people could do their part in ending racial prejudice through education, work and community activism. She founded and was the president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. Her beliefs influenced the group’s motto “Lifting as we climb.”

Terrell’s position of presidency required her to relentlessly do campaign work involving public speaking and writing, even picketing the Wilson White House alongside other members of the National Woman’s Party for woman suffrage. She later became one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which has become the largest civil rights organization in the United States.

Once the 19th Amendment passed, Terrell moved her focus towards civil rights at large. A breakthrough in Terrell’s career arose in 1953 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of her challenge of segregation in public places in John R. Thompson Co. v. District of Columbia. Not only did this decision federally declare it unconstitutional for segregated eating facilities, but it also paved the way for school integration in Brown v. Board of Education.

Unfortunately, Terrell would never get to see her hard work paid off in this way. She passed away of cancer just two months after the initial case was passed on July 24, 1954 at the age of 91. While she was unable to reap the benefits of her labor, the mark she left was insurmountable in the pursuit for racial and gender equality.

4. Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935)

Born in New Orleans on July 19, 1875, Alice Dunbar Nelson was part of the first generation born free in the South following the Civil War. As a poet and essayist, she used her Native American, Creole, African-American and Anglo upbringing as the basis for many of her works centered around gender, race and ethnicity.

After graduating from Dillard University, Dunbar-Nelson published her first book in 1895. Her second book, The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories (1899), touches on the adversity that comes with being creole in America at the time. Much of her work struggled to find success due to the close-mindedness of consumers as well as those in the industry who tended to stray from voices speaking out on racial injustice.

As a queer woman, Dunbar-Nelson experienced much backlash in her relationships with men. In 1898, she and Paul Dunbar married after her photo caught his attention in a literary magazine. The four year long relationship proved to be tumultuous with Dunbar’s alcoholism as he was reportedly troubled by her lesbian affairs. After Dunbar almost beat her to death in 1902, Dunbar-Nelson left him and fled to Delaware.

It was in Wilmington, Delaware where Dunbar-Nelson leaned more into activism. While still writing poetry and short stories, she became more involved with African American and women’s rights. She became a woman’s suffrage movement field organizer for the Middle Atlantic states in 1915, and was a Woman’s Committee of the Council of Defense field representative in 1918. All the while, she began writing more frequently on political topics.

Dunbar-Nelson broke barriers by being an African-American poet, journalist and diarist in the early 20th century using her work as a means to uplift activist movements. As a woman of color trying to make her way in a male-dominated literary field, often met with inept pay and inadequate recognition, Alice Dunbar-Nelson continued shedding light on social justice issues up until the day she died on September 18, 1935.

5. Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886-1954)

Lucy Hicks Anderson, born in 1886, became a prominent figure in Black transgender women’s rights. In a time rampant with racial segregation and criminalization for expression of sexuality and gender identity, she was fearless in her pursuit for equality.

From a young age, Anderson knew she was transgender before the term was even coined. Assigned male at birth, Anderson insisted on wearing dresses and being referred to as “Lucy.” At age nine, Anderson’s parents took her to the doctor where they were encouraged to let her express herself however she wanted.

When she was 15, Anderson dropped out of school and left Kentucky. Following the divorce from her first husband in 1929, she moved to a small town in Ventura County, California called Oxnard where she worked as a domestic. Here, she made a name for herself. The small town housed a major sugar factory that attracted many blue-collar workers. Anderson noticed that there was no place in the surrounding area for them to blow off steam after a long hard day of work; an observation that she capitalized on. She became the owner of a speakeasy — a bar that sold illicit alcohol during the Prohibition era — then branched out to brothels.

Within the next decade, Anderson owned various businesses in Oxnard and became extraordinarily wealthy. She threw lavish parties and became a well-known and adored socialite in the area. She was able to happily soak in her successes for a few years until World War II broke out and its accompanying soldiers came into Oxnard; they were her best clients for the brothel. However, a group of sailors visited and one reported to the sheriff that he had contracted a sexually transmitted disease at her brothel. This required the medical examination of everyone associated with the brothels — including Anderson herself.

When a doctor found that Anderson had been lying about her sex, Ventura County officials brought perjury charges against her. The primary charge was that since she signed her marriage certificate that she is a woman, she committed perjury. When on stand, Anderson insisted that one could look to be of one sex but truly belong to the other. She is famous for saying, “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman.”

Lucy Hicks Anderson showed her 20th century peers to the best of her abilities the difference between sex and gender identity. In this, she proved herself unabashedly ashamed of her identity and likely encouraged many others in her time to do the same. The court sentenced her and her husband to jail time and an additional 10 years of probation. Upon release, they were banned from Oxnard and Anderson was prohibited from wearing women’s clothes. She and her husband then moved to Los Angeles and remained there until she passed away in 1954, living a peaceful life away from the public eye.


Trista Lara is a rising sophomore at the University of California, Irvine double-majoring in Philosophy and Criminology. She is an Opinion Writer for the New University, UC Irvine’s official campus newspaper, and was a 2022-2023 College Corps Fellow. In her free time she loves to bask in the sun with her cats, read and heavily annotate books, and make oddly specific Spotify playlists.

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