March is Women’s History Month so we will be showcasing exceptional Mississippi women and related collections on the blog. This post was written by MDAH volunteer Jessica D. Kelly.
The month of March was approved by Congress as a time to reflect upon and celebrate the historical contributions of women. This year’s National Women’s History Month theme is “Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment.”1 Mississippi has a rich history for producing progressive, talented, and intelligent women – women who have opened doors for others and improved the world in which we live.2 The exceptional Mississippi woman profiled in this article understood the importance of education. Therefore, before we delve into her life let’s review a brief history of women’s educational progress as outlined by the National Women’s History Project website.
The fight to learn was a valiant struggle waged by many tenacious women—across years and across cultures—in our country. After the American Revolution, the notion of education as a safeguard for democracy created opportunities for girls to gain a basic education—based largely on the premise that, as mothers, they would nurture not only the bodies but also the minds of (male) citizens and leaders. The concept that educating women meant educating mothers endured in America for many years, at all levels of education.
Pioneers of secondary education for young women faced arguments from physicians and other ‘experts’ who claimed either that females were incapable of intellectual development equal to men, or that they would be harmed by striving for it. Women’s supposed intellectual and moral weakness was also used to argue against coeducation, which would surely be an assault on purity and femininity. Emma Willard, in her 1819 Plan for Improving Female Education, noted with derision the focus of women’s ‘education’ on fostering the display of youth and beauty, and asserted that women are ‘the companions, not the satellites of men’—‘primary existences’ whose education must prepare them to be full partners in life’s journey.
The equal opportunity to learn, taken for granted by most young women today, owes much to Title IX of the Education Codes of the Higher Education Act Amendments. This legislation passed in 1972 and enacted in 1977, prohibited gender discrimination by federally funded institutions. It has become the primary tool for women’s fuller participation in all aspects of education from scholarships, to facilities, to classes formerly closed to women. Indeed, it transformed the educational landscape of the United States within the span of a generation.3
Given the theme of National Women’s History Month this year, an appropriate place to begin our survey of important contributions by Mississippi women is with the Women’s Suffrage Movement. The following portrait examines a remarkable Mississippi woman, Nellie Nugent Somerville (1863-1952). A Greenville native, Somerville was active in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, organized and served as the first president of the Mississippi Woman Suffrage Association, served as vice-president of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, and was the first woman elected to the Mississippi Legislature in 1923.4
Somerville often emphasized the importance of education, especially following the Congressional ratification of the woman suffrage amendment in 1920.5 She stated that “patriotism to your country demands that you prepare to vote” and that “the woman who takes absolutely no interest in any public questions is no longer the typical or the ideal Southern woman.”6 With this in mind, Somerville created a comprehensive educational program aimed at women that covered government and politics even though many people were shocked by the idea of women being involved in the “cesspool of politics.”7 Nevertheless, she encouraged women to acknowledge their new political obligations and rise to the challenge of educating one’s self on political issues and processes.8
However, Somerville faced widespread resistance in her struggle to attain the right to vote for women. The image below illustrates the fact that many Mississippi men viewed women’s suffrage as a joke, as well as potentially disruptive to the status quo in race relations. One contributor to the Clarion Ledger expressed their view by stating, “How will you relish the idea of being jostled in the election booths by your cook or washerwoman, who will have as much right there as the white women who employ them?”9
Somerville’s position that “woman’s place is in the world” was radical when compared to the prevailing view that “woman’s place is in the home.” However, her desire to be an actively engaged citizen, able to have open discourse regarding political issues prompted her to get involved despite the social norms of the time. She recognized that “no great or lasting results could be obtained in temperance or any other reforms, unless backed by the power of a consecrated ballot.”10 Thus, she pursued a life of public service and sought to have her voice heard in government. Somerville’s philosophical perspective was further strengthened through a study of the “evolution of the American woman” while a member of the Hypatia Club. Her findings provided empirical evidence that every advance made, whether industrial, educational, religious, or legal, was “hotly contested by men who considered it their most cherished privilege to define woman’s place and keep her in it.”11
The reality of this obstacle was evident when Somerville received a response to her inquiry regarding the defeat of a “1912 resolution to allow women to serve as county superintendents of education,” which stated that “there was no special opposition . . . Most of those who voted against it appeared to take it as a joke.”12 In spite of the setbacks, she “led the initial attempt to obtain a woman suffrage amendment to the state constitution” and devoted much “of her life not only to the elevation of woman’s position, but to improving the quality of life for everyone.”13 Throughout Somerville’s career, she remained focused on issues such as public health, occupational safety, and protective legislation which included child-custody laws and age of consent laws.14 A true inspiration, the life of Nellie Nugent Somerville reminds us that the actions of one person can impact the lives of many through courage, leadership and determination.
1 “2012 National Women’s History Month Theme: Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment,” The National Women’s History Project, accessed February 29, 2012, http://www.nwhp.org/whm/index.php.
2 Elizabeth Coleman, “Magnificent Mississippi Women,” MDAH.
4 Mississippi Department of Archives and History. “Mississippi History Timeline: Nellie Nugent Somerville,” Mississippi History Now, accessed February 29, 2012, http://mdah.state.ms.us/timeline/people/nellie-nugent-somerville/.
5 Mary Louise Meredith, “Nellie Nugent Somerville,” speech given at dedication of the portrait of Nellie Nugent Somerville in the Mississippi Hall of Fame, Jackson, Mississippi, 13 (“Somerville, Nellie N.” Subject File, MDAH).
6 Ibid., 10.
7 Ibid., 8.
8 Ibid., 13.
9 Ed Williams, “Women’s lib: old Greenville issue,” Delta Democrat-Times (Jackson, MS), April 18, 1971, (“Somerville, Nellie N.” Subject File, MDAH).
10 Ibid., 8.
11 Meredith, “Nellie Nugent Somerville,” 7-9.
12 Williams, “Women’s lib: old Greenville issue.”
13 Meredith, “Nellie Nugent Somerville,” 10-11.