As this is penned, many are planning Mother’s Day celebrations, though when you read this year’s feting of mothers, grandmothers and other kinds of mothers will be nearly forgotten. Time tilts us ever toward what’s next, until we pause to collect our memories, to tell ourselves the stories that affirm what we value.
Thus, it’s fitting to tell again the tales of a few Hoosier women who cared for the marginalized and poor, who challenged injustice, who stood up to mobs and sought life, liberty and equity for all, and who served the nation. A handful of such amazing Hoosier women include: Polly Strong, Albion Fellows Bacon, Helen Beardsley, Daisy Riley Lloyd and Kathleen Flossie Bailey.
In 1816, when Strong was about 20 years old, she filed a legal suit to win freedom from her Vincennes-area owner Hyacinth Lasselle, Strong and her brother James fought legal battles for over two years, arguing that the 1816 Indiana Constitution granted slaves in Indiana freedom when because it outlawed slavery. At first, the Strongs lost, because they’d been sold to their Hoosier owner a decade prior to the ratification of the Hoosier Constitution. Nevertheless, they persisted. In July 1818, the Indiana Supreme Court declared their owner had violated the law by enslaving them and granted them freedom. Though Strong’s challenge did not immediately free all slaves in Indiana, it triggered the eradication of all chattel slavery in the state.
In 1901, mother of four Bacon began volunteering in Evansville’s Monday Night Club, a charity-minded group of influential citizens. She organized a “flower mission” to take flowers to beautify the lives of impoverished women. The visits opened her eyes to abuses of slumlords, so she began writing and lobbying for housing reform in Evansville, The local government refused to improve building codes or hold the property owners accountable, so she organized and took her efforts to the state. In her article “The Awakening of a State-Indiana” (1910) she wrote that the tenements her volunteers visited were “shabby rattletraps, dark and damp with sodden yards of ash pile and rubbish” whose residents had no resources to challenge legally. Albion met with national social reformers in 1908 and drafted legislation, which took to every Indiana General Assembly from 1909 to 1917. The Assembly passed piecemeal reforms in 1909, 1913, and 1917, but never a statewide housing reform bill. For the rest of her life, Bacon lectured, lobbied and wrote. She penned poetry, religious tracts, journal articles, children’s stories and her autobiography “Beauty for Ashes.” She also worked on child welfare reform, juvenile probation, child labor and school attendance.
In 1911, before there was an Indiana League of Women Voters, women formed the “Women’s Franchise League” of Indiana. (Local note: On April 12, 1911, Dr. Martha Griffiths of Montgomery County became one of the directors.) The Franchise League led women to partial suffrage in the state, but the near ratification of the 19th Amendment led to it being disbanded. Women reformed as the League of Women Voters and Beardsley of Elkhart took over as its president. She oversaw the moving of the headquarters to Indianapolis, and the League evolved its goals from obtaining suffrage to teaching citizens how to vote responsibly.
Perhaps the boldest of the women was Bailey, who in 1930 tried to prevent the lynching of two young men in Marion. The mob murdered Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith that day. She turned her energy towards anti-lynching legislation, which passed in Indiana the following year. Bailey and her husband opened their home to be the hub of the NAACP locally, then she served as the state president.
Around 1950, Lloyd moved to Indianapolis with her husband so they could pursue their careers. In 1964, she was elected the first Black woman to a term to the Indiana legislature, but shortly thereafter, was diagnosed with breast cancer. After surviving her cancer, she left politics and tackled home ownership for Black Hoosiers. She was an activist for Black Realtors who sought to open home ownership for Black Hoosiers affected by redlining, racial covenants and economic and communal sabotage caused by the destruction of Indiana Avenue’s community. Later, Bailey earned her M.A. in psychology and religion and her doctorate in human development and family studies. She built a counseling practice that integrated faith and focused on women. She went on to earn an MDiv and to serve on the boards of nearly a dozen Indianapolis organization.
What do we take from these women who lived not for themselves alone? That “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is a national, collective effort, not an individual mantra. Hats off to the women who made other lives better and made our nation kinder, wiser and more just.
The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.