Women in Rhode Island

In anticipation of the PPL panel & conversation in acknowledgement of the anniversary of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique scheduled for Sunday, November 3rd, I thought that I'd showcase several items I recently pulled from the Rhode Island Collection related to women's civil rights. 

In a 1914 sermon at the Central Congregational Church in Providence, the minister preached about about "The Right and Wrong of Feminism".  He declared "Like every revolutionary thing Feminism is both a revolt and a quest; a pretest against the established order, a demand for changed conditions.  Against what are women revolting and how far is their revolt justified?  What is it they are seeking, how far ought society as a whole to help them to secure it?  Feminism is probably at bottom the demand of women for a personal place in the world."  (pg. 4)

We have many works in the collection that provide insight into the lives of women in Rhode Island in the early 20th century - items that showcase labor conditions for the thousands of working women in industrial work, pamphlets geared towards immigrant women, poor women, orphan and deliquent girls as well as old women.   The other day I pulled a volume of typescript materials and pamphlets titled History of the Rhode Island Women Suffrage Association and found within it an incredible photograph of Gov. Beeckman signing the RI Woman Suffrage Act in April 1917 surrounded by suffragettes.  (From the way he's surrounded, I don't think those ladies were letting Gov. Beeckman off easy!)

I was intrigued yesterday to pull two directories 90 years apart.  The first, an 1892 Rhode Island Woman's Directory for the Columbian Year, 1892.  Done in coordination with the World's Fair, this volume is an incredible source to document the life of women at the turn of the century.  It has a comprehensive business directory of female professionals across the state, documents on the legal status of women in the state, charitable organizations run by women, and statistical information about women tax payers.  What amazed me was the variety of occupations that women held.  I anticipated domestic service, boarding house operators, mill workers.  But I was surprised to find listings for female botanists, dentists, emigrant agents, lawyers, pharmacists, stable keepers, undertakers and even an inventor!  (Alice Whipple of Providence who invented a foot warmer - check out her patent!)


The second, published 90 years later in 1982 is Feminist Yellow Pages: a Directory of Services for Women published by the Women's Liberation Union of RI and Feminist Resources Unlimited.  I wish this directory was as comprehensive as it's predecessor, however, it still provides an interesting lens through which to view the women's movement.  Less of a business directory than as service directory, this volume points towards the kinds of resources available to women in the state in the late 20th century.  It includes politicial activist organizations, support groups for women's issues, therapists, legal, education and culturual organizations in support of feminist issues.   A comparison of the 1892 list of charitable organizations and those listed in this 1982 directory could be a very interesting research project!  

kwells's picture
Kate Wells

As the Rhode Island Collection librarian at Providence Public Library, Kate Wells helps bring Rhode Island history to light by increasing access to the collection and providing research assistance to patrons. In the “Rhode Island Red” blog, Kate showcases interesting materials from the collection, provides research tip & techniques, and highlights local history. Feel free to contact her if you have any Rhode Island related questions; she is always happy to help. Email: kwells@provlib.org.


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