March is Women’s History Month so we will be showcasing exceptional Mississippi women and related collections on the blog.

"June 1986 at Caroline Benoist's Home, 410 S. Union, Natchez, Miss." Edna Roberts and Caroline Benoist look at photo albums and reminisce about their times as Public Health Nurses. Call Number: PI/2001.0008, item 4 (MDAH Collection)

"June 1986 at Caroline Benoist's Home, 410 S. Union, Natchez, Miss." Edna Roberts and Caroline Benoist look at photo albums and reminisce about their times as Public Health Nurses. Call Number: PI/2001.0008, item 4 (MDAH Collection)

Caroline Benoist (1896-2000) was a public health nurse and educator. Benoist did not begin working as a public health nurse until 1936, but the occupation itself began in Mississippi around 1915, when the American Red Cross and National Tuberculosis Association jointly sponsored nurses in several Mississippi counties. In 1920, the Red Cross persuaded the Mississippi Board of Health to place a state nurse in their offices to facilitate statewide public health nursing activities. The state nurse determined that maternal and child care, tuberculosis, and communicable disease were the most pressing health problems in the state. Public health nurses were then dispatched to both care for and educate Mississippians about these health issues. The new Public Health Nursing office soon focused much of its efforts on maternal care. It produced the Manual for Midwives in 1922 and thereafter sent out public health nurses around the state to train lay midwives and conduct classes and clinics.1

Maternal and child health were areas in which Caroline Benoist specialized as a public health nurse. A Natchez native, Benoist acquired extensive education and training at several institutions, including Miami University (Ohio), Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, and Vanderbilt University.2 She returned to Mississippi in 1936 to work as a public health nurse in Sunflower County. Benoist said, “I’d never even been to the Delta before, but I liked the Delta, even though the experience was quite different for me. I wasn’t young, but I had always worked indoors. I had worked in Baltimore, but never outdoors.”3

Benoist conducted classes on hygiene and nutrition for local people. She described these “shade tree clinics,” saying:

After we got the plantation people interested and educated, we conducted shade tree conferences, with little folding tables and chairs. We actually took our clinics to the plantation, and hundreds of people would come. While the secretary wrote the patient cards, we nurses would give the shots. The need was so great; we saw vicious typhoid, polio, and an awful lot of VD.4

In addition to the conferences, Benoist designed various items that people could build themselves. Examples of a baby incubator, crib, and potty that she designed are now in the MDAH Museum Division Collection. They were donated by her colleague Edna Roberts, former director of nursing at the Department of Health, in 2001.

Incubator designed by Caroline Benoist. Accession Number: 1990.46.1 (Museum Division Collection)

Incubator designed by Caroline Benoist. Accession Number: 1990.46.1 (Museum Division Collection)

Benoist’s work took her to the front lines of the struggle to improve Mississippi’s health outcomes. She faced many challenges but met them with energy and compassion. The tradition of education and prevention established by Benoist and other public health nurses improved the health of Mississippians in the 1930s and continues to have an impact on healthcare today.

Artifacts from the Museum Division collection that are not on exhibit are available for viewing by appointment. Please contact Nan Prince, Assistant Director of Collections, by email to schedule an appointment.


1 Margaret Morton and Edna R. Roberts, with Kaye W. Bender, Celebrating Public Health Nursing: Caring for Mississippi’s Communities with Courage and Compassion, 1920-1993 (Jackson: Mississippi State Department of Health), excerpt at “1920-1929: Beginnings and Focus of Public Health Nursing in Mississippi,” Mississippi State Department of Health, accessed March 2, 2012, http://msdh.ms.gov/msdhsite/_static/4,10786,204,493.html.

2 Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, “Caroline Benoist Collection: Biographical Information,” University of Virginia School of Nursing, accessed March 2, 2012, http://www.nursing.virginia.edu/research/cnhi/collection/individual/benoist/.

3 Office of Public Relations, Mississippi State Department of Health, “Claim to Title V Funds ‘Poignantly Justifiable,’” Mississippi’s Health 3, no. 2 (Summer 1986), 6-7 [on file with MDAH Museum Division].

4 Ibid., 8.

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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

Nellie Nugent Somerville, 192-. Call Number: PI/PER/S66, item 1 (MDAH Collection)

Nellie Nugent Somerville, 192-. Call Number: PI/PER/S66, item 1 (MDAH Collection)

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

Men dressed as suffragettes. PI/COL/1981.0053, item 47 (MDAH Collection, courtesy Old Court House Museum, Vicksburg)

Men dressed as suffragettes. PI/COL/1981.0053, item 47 (MDAH Collection, courtesy Old Court House Museum, Vicksburg)

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.
3 Ibid.
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.
14 Ibid.

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Hall of Fame: Annie Coleman Peyton

On September 15, 2011, in Artifacts, Portraits, by Amanda
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Nominations are currently being sought for the 2011 class of the Mississippi Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame honors women and men who made noteworthy contributions to the state. Consideration for the Hall of Fame takes place only once every five years and any Mississippian—native or adopted—deceased at least five years may be nominated. The deadline for nominations is October 1, and elections will be held at a special meeting of the MDAH board of trustees in December. Click here for complete nomination guidelines.

This series recognizes members of the Hall of Fame, whose portraits hang in the Old Capitol Museum. Special thanks to Anna Todd, University of Southern Mississippi student and MDAH summer intern, for researching this post.

Annie Coleman Peyton, Hall of Fame portrait. Accession Number: 1978.91 (Museum Division Collection)

Annie Coleman Peyton, Hall of Fame portrait. Accession Number: 1978.91 (Museum Division Collection)

Annie Coleman Peyton (1852-1898) was a driving force in the establishment of the Mississippi Industrial Institute and College (now Mississippi University for Women), the first land-grant college for women in the country. She was born in Madison County and educated at Whitworth College in Brookhaven, where she taught for two years before marrying E. G. Peyton in 1872.

Beginning in 1879, she petitioned the state legislature to establish a state-funded school for girls at Whitworth College. However, the school would not be chartered until 1884. Columbus was selected as the location because the city offered to house the new school in the former Columbus Female Institute and promised $50,000 for improvements to the facility. Peyton, who was recently widowed, became professor of history at the school and taught there until her death in 1898. Her portrait was presented to the Mississippi Hall of Fame in 1912 by the Mississippi Federation of Women’s Clubs.

Hall of Fame: Nellie Nugent Somerville

On September 1, 2011, in Artifacts, Portraits, by Amanda
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Nominations are currently being sought for the 2011 class of the Mississippi Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame honors women and men who made noteworthy contributions to the state. Consideration for the Hall of Fame takes place only once every five years and any Mississippian—native or adopted—deceased at least five years may be nominated. The deadline for nominations is October 1, and elections will be held at a special meeting of the MDAH board of trustees in December. Click here for complete nomination guidelines.

This series recognizes members of the Hall of Fame, whose portraits hang in the Old Capitol Museum. Special thanks to Anna Todd, University of Southern Mississippi student and MDAH summer intern, for researching this post.

Nellie Nugent Somerville, Hall of Fame portrait. Accession Number: 1981.47 (Museum Division Collection)

Nellie Nugent Somerville, Hall of Fame portrait. Accession Number: 1981.47 (Museum Division Collection)

Nellie Nugent Somerville (1863-1952) was the first woman to be elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1923. She was born on a Mississippi plantation in 1863. Her father was a Confederate soldier and her mother died shortly after her birth, so the young girl was raised mostly by her grandmother. She attended Whitworth College in Brookhaven as an adolescent and went on to graduate from Martha Washington College in Virginia in 1880. She was married to Robert Somerville in 1885 and the couple had four children.

During her life, Somerville was a pioneer in Mississippi politics and a leader in the movement for women’s voting rights. In 1894 she became corresponding secretary for the Mississippi Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and she organized and directed the Mississippi Women’s Suffrage Association in 1897. She also served as vice president of the National American Women Suffrage Association beginning in 1915. While in the Mississippi House of Representatives, she served as Chair of the Committee on Ellemosynary (charitable) Institutions and supported several pieces of legislation relating to child labor laws and the improvement of conditions for the blind, deaf, and mentally ill. Her daughter Lucy S. Howorth also served in the state legislature from 1932 to 1936. Following her husband’s death, Somerville moved from Greenville to Cleveland and she died in Ruleville in 1952. She was inducted into the Mississippi Hall of Fame in 1981.