Reformer and Suffragist Charlotte Smith


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Charlotte Odlum SmithIn the world of women’s rights, there has been great progress across many issues that are still being debated. A North Country native stands at the forefront of the ongoing battle, taking on a number of concerns: jobs for single mothers; equal pay for equal work; the negative effects of drugs and cigarettes on young women; the horrors of trafficking in women for sexual purposes; food labeling; the restriction of food additives; the rights to patented and copyrighted works; women’s ability to serve in the military; and the issues faced by families of soldiers serving overseas.

If you follow the news, you’ll recognize most of those topics from current or recent headlines. They are the very same issues that were current between 1880 and 1900, when St. Lawrence County’s Charlotte Smith was American’s groundbreaking and leading reformer in the fight for women’s rights.

Smith was also a moral reformer, which personally makes me cringe. I could never subscribe to some of what she believed and fought for, but that just means we disagree. Otherwise, I admire her remarkable achievements. It’s lamentable and mystifying that she’s not among the notable heroes of the women’s movement that took hold in the 1960s and has changed the country significantly.

In many ways, her professional accomplishments encompass the American dream. Without any great advantages in life, she combined focus and intelligence with hard work, attaining many of the goals she targeted early on.

There is scarcely room here to provide other than a snapshot of her work, but it’s still enough to appreciate who she was and what she stood for. As a magazine publisher and journalist in the 1870s, beginning with Inland Monthly, it appeared her career path was set, but Charlotte’s strong opinions and full recognition that women were decidedly second-class citizens led her to become an activist.

To promote women’s causes in 1877, she worked towards establishing a national school of journalism for women. In 1882, the refusal of the government’s Interior Department to hire any women applicants was her impetus for action on a national scale. In protest, she immediately formed the Women’s National Labor Organization, calling on America’s women to unite on behalf of those who needed jobs outside the home to earn a living.

Smith was elected president of the group and proved to be a wise choice. Virtually the entire government was composed of men, and many resented her “interference” in their world. But Charlotte’s sincerity and eloquence won her some key friends among them, and from that foothold, she made inroads and changed the country. She doubtless cared about people in general, but her focus was on the rights of women.

Imagine the guts it took to begin by attacking a government institution: the hiring by congressmen of women who were pretty and submissive. Their intent in doing so was clear, but unspoken―that is, until Smith came along. That hiring practice was part of the good-old-boy system, but Charlotte didn’t care.

She addressed a congressional panel and refused to hedge the issue, leaving many of the men red-faced when she stated it was “… a common practice among senators and members of Congress to compel vicious concessions from female clerks for whom they obtain places in the departments.” She urged the passage of a law creating specific punishments for anyone engaging in the practice. Besides the implied immorality, those jobs were being denied to fully qualified but less-physically attractive candidates.

Smith was absolutely fearless, presenting the argument many times before Congress and various department directors. Her foresight in recognizing the power of organizing women is what gave the movement strength. Though suffrage remained decades away, women could sway voters and influence men in powerful positions, often to great effect.

1903 Smith headlineWhile the leaders of movements often become the story, that wasn’t the case with Charlotte Smith. She certainly used her fame and notoriety to achieve goals for herself and others, but it’s surprising to learn the depth of her dedication and the sincerity of her beliefs. She led national organizations and was an effective speaker and negotiator on behalf of thousands of women.

But she also did the same for many individuals. One example (and there are many) was the pregnant wife of a senator who had since married someone else. Smith was livid about men’s callous treatment of women, and she offered to help.

Letters that had been sent by the wife in hopes of avoiding the marriage were not received by the archbishop, and after investigating, Charlotte accused the senator of using his influence to prevent the mail’s delivery. It sounded a bit far-fetched, but a government inquiry confirmed it. As it turned out, the clerk in question had been appointed by the senator―and was promptly fired by the postmaster general. Whether Smith was fighting for an individual or a large group of women, she was all in.

While defending individuals and promoting the cause nationally, she supported those same themes in her private life. Over the course of several decades, Charlotte expended a personal fortune in financing homes and refuges for “fallen women,” underpaid workers, the sick, and the poor. As the saying goes, she talked the talk and walked the walk.

Nothing seemed to escape her attention, and there were no sacred cows as far as Smith was concerned. Personal pleas, letters, and petitions found their way to city leaders, governors, congressmen, senators, cabinet members, presidents, and the pope.

In several highly publicized incidents, she went toe-to-toe with members of Congress on issues she felt strongly about, acquitting herself well, winning many battles, and earning widespread admiration. She also earned the disdain of her enemies, another excellent measure of success. Had she been ineffective, they wouldn’t have cared, but dismissing her was out of the question. Like her or not, tangle with Charlotte Smith and you’d surely have your hands full.

The results were impressive. She is credited with a leading role in the passage of fifty or more bills, and her efforts led to thousands of new jobs for women. For more than three decades, she was one of the most famous women in America.

Smith fought for the addition of female immigration inspectors in New York City, unionization of many working groups of women, and was said to have revolutionized factory work as governed by law in New York and Massachusetts. The list of her accomplishments goes on and on. It was often noted that she attended more congressional sessions than many senators and congressmen. Her devotion suggests she would have been a great advocate no matter what the cause.

Incidentally, she is sometimes referred to as Charlotte Odlum Smith. You may recognize the name Odlum. Her brother Robert was the subject of a recent piece here as a public safety advocate and the first person to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge.

Since her death, Charlotte Smith’s deeds were largely forgotten until 2009, when author Autumn Stanley penned Raising More Hell and Fewer Dahlias: The Public Life of Charlotte Smith, 1840‒1917. I haven’t read it, but I do hope to when time allows. While I disagree strongly with some of Smith’s moralizing opinions, she was smart, strong, a go-getter, and one heck of a leader.

Photos―Charlotte O. Smith; 1903 Smith headline story.

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