July 2007 Path Breakers

By Margaret Zierdt 

The July, 2006 Path Breakers introduced five American authors of the 19th Century.  In July, 2007 we highlight another fascinating group of women who added much to American culture and vision.  They solved problems and dreamed of solutions in a variety of professions and skills.  They showed determination, strength, original thinking, and civic responsibility.  Many faced problems of similar to today’s inequality. Maria Van Rensselaer held on to control the estate of her late husband.  Mary Butterworth developed a unique and working technique of counterfeiting pound notes.  Hannah Bailey developed pacifist curriculum materials for all schools.  Harriet Strong invented designs for water storage.  Marion Talbot championed equal education and opportunity for women college students.  

Maria Van Cortlandt Van Rensselaer (July 20, 1645-January 24, 1688/89) was born in New Amsterdam.  Her mother was “well-connected” and her father was wealthy.  When she was only 17, Maria married Jeremais Van Rensselaer and moved to his landed estate near Albany. In their ten-year marriage they had four sons and two daughters.   In 1624, her husband died and Maria had to assume responsibility of running and managing gristmills and sawmills on the 24-mile square property.  In addition she had to hire workers and pay all the bills.  She succeeded in getting a clear title to the property after the English ousted the Dutch in 1673.  She was harassed by male family members who wanted to take over her land and business, but she prevailed.  In 1685, a settlement was reached and she remained in charge of her estate as well as securing it for her children.  Maria Van Rensselaer died at age 43.  She had gained for her children the richest land patent in the colony.  Marriages of her children created alliances with other important clans and established one of the most important families of early New York.  She is an early model of a widow learning business skills to secure a future for her children. 

Mary Peck Butterworth (July 27, 1686,o.s.-February 7,1775)  was born in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, when it was part of the Plymouth Colony. This was during the conflict known as King Phillip’s War, which was one of America’s bloodiest wars.  It was a time of resistance and great bravery on the part of the Massachusetts Indians and the settlers.  In 1711, she married John Butterworth, Jr. This was a time of mixed political loyalty and by the time of her marriage, she along with other members of her family were counterfeiting money.  She used her fine needlework skills, attention to detail and organization acumen to counterfeit at least eight types of bills.  By 1716 she had perfected a method of counterfeiting the 5 pound bills of Rhode Island.  Her new money was made by placing fine muslin on a genuine bill, transferring the image using a very hot iron to clean paper. The muslin was then quickly destroyed.  One her brothers made the pens from crow feathers for lettering the bills.  Other brothers and their wives were part of the kitchen workshop industry.  Friends in Rehobeth, including the town clerk and members of the county court bought her bills for half the face value.  When one of the accomplices confessed to the governor, Mary’s house was searched but nothing was found.  The confessions of the accomplice were impugned and charges were dropped.  Today we do not praise counterfeiters, but Mary Butterworth’s actions led to a few days in jail; no bloodshed, and no conviction.  Mary Butterworth lived to be 89 and died in Rehoboth in 1775. 

Hannah Clark Johnston Bailey (July 5, 1839-October 23,1923) was born at Cornwall-on-the-Hudson, New York.  She was the eldest of 11 children of a family of Quaker pacifists.  Hannah Johnston taught for 10 years and then married Moses Bailey, a well-to-do Quaker factory owner.  After he died in 1882, Hannah Bailey began her work in the Quaker schools, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and from 1891 to 1897 was president of the Maine Woman Suffrage Association.  Her most important contribution to American social reform was spreading the pacifist gospel as superintendent of the Department of Peace and Arbitration of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union from 1887 to 1916.  Working from her home she published the Pacific Banner for adults and the Acorn for children, both monthly periodicals.  She distributed many thousands of leaflets at Sunday Schools.  She traveled widely, worked with women’s groups, ministers, editors and teachers.  Her major target was war, but she also opposed prizefighting, lynching, capital punishment, martial toys, and military drill in schools.  She also opposed conscription.

During the 1890’s she and other WCTU officials strove to get Congress to use arbitration in international disputes.  In 1892, she presented to President Harrison a widely backed protest against American military force in the Chilean crisis.  Bailey was deeply saddened when the WCTU emotionally endorsed the United States entry into World War I.  Bailey directed the greatest women’s peace department of the 19th and early 20th centuries and spread doctrines of lasting influence.  Bailey died in 1923 in Portland, Maine, aged 84. 

Harriet Williams Russell Strong (July 23, 1844-September 19, 1929) was born in Buffalo, New York.  Her parents’ families were 17th century colonial settlers. The Russell family included Harriet and six siblings.  After living in Wisconsin, Nevada and California, the family moved to Carson City, Nevada in 1861.  Two years later, Harriet Russell married Charles Strong, superintendent of a large mine.  In 1864, when her husband suffered a breakdown from overwork and worry, the family moved to Oakland, California where in 1883 he killed himself after a heavy loss from investing in a “salted” mine. 

Harriet Strong who suffered from spinal pain had been a semi-invalid for years.  About 1880, she began to receive treatment from the famous Dr. S. Weir Mitchell. Under his medical treatment, her vigor, versatility and dominating personality were restored, just as she was facing the challenge of her family’s financial debts.  With great energy, she started planting walnuts, citrus fruits, pomegranates and pampas grass on her 22 acres of semiarid land near what is now Whittier, California.  She studied marketing techniques, irrigation, and flood control methods.  In 1887 and 1894 Strong took out patents on designs for a sequence of dams which allowed water to back up to higher dams when necessary.  She also patented several household articles.  She became known as the “walnut queen” and “pampas lady” and won election as the first woman member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.  Her water storage schemes and pampas grass were exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  There she gave a speech on the importance of business training for women.  She was chosen president of a new feminist Business League of America.   Strong was active in Los Angeles cultural groups.  She was a proponent of Federal aid to develop the Colorado River.  In 1918, she appeared before a Congressional committee to urge damming the Grand Canyon.   Strong died in an automobile accident in 1929, aged 85.  

Marion Talbot (July 31,1858-October 20,1948) was born while her parents were vacationing in Thun, Switzerland.  Her mother, Emily Fairbank Talbot, was active in securing college preparatory courses for young women, notably in beginning the Girls’ Latin School in Boston in 1877.  Marion’s father, Israel Tisdale Talbot was a homeopathic medicine supporter and was the first dean of Boston University’s medical school.  Family friends included Julia Ward Howe and Louisa May Alcott.  Marion graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Boston University in 1880. Interested in the science of sanitation in the home, Talbot earned a B.S. degree in 1888 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  In 1881-82 she joined her mother, Ellen Richards, Alice Palmer, and a few friends in organizing college women in the Association of Collegiate Alumnae.  This group focused on providing fellowships and appropriate living facilities for women graduate students.  They also began defining standards for women’s schools and colleges in the United States.  Talbot was first secretary of the Association and then president from 1895 to 1897.  This group became today’s American Association of University Women, with membership of more than 100,000 women and men and more than 1,300 branches.

Marion Talbot joined the faculty of the University of Chicago as full-time dean of undergraduate women in 1892 and assistant professor of Sanitary Science. Interested in healthy nutrition, she wrote Food as a Factor in Student Life in 1894 with Ellen Richards. In 1899, she was appointed dean of women, responsible for developing dormitories with self-government for on-campus living.  By 1905, she was professor of her own department of household administration.  In 1910, her book The Education of Women identified changing roles for women and described the need for educational changes.  After retiring in 1925, Talbot served as acting president of Constantinople Women’s College in Turkey from 1927 to 1932.  Talbot died at age 90 of chronic myocarditis in Chicago. 

Sources used, and for more information see  Notable American Women, 1607 – 1950, a Biographical Dictionary.  Volumes I and III