The Elisabeth Freeman Blog

March 28, 2020  OK, so it’s the tail end of Women’s History Month, in the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in the U.S., and Corona distractions be damned, I’m going to start this blog! I am fortunate to be the heir and keeper of Elisabeth Freeman’s papers, which consist primarily of a giant scrapbook of clippings and ephemera of her organizing in suffrage, women’s trade union and labor, anti-lynching, peace, and a number of other radical causes.

I got into researching her life shortly after college in the 1970’s and spent several years visiting archives and libraries. Now here is some recent history: there was no internet in the 70s. No Google search that would find that footnote about Elisabeth Freeman, or that letter from someone rich or famous whose papers got saved. And though archivists and librarians are surely the most wonderful people in the world, collections were often not well indexed, especially in looking for a minor figure like Elisabeth Freeman.

I remember with dismay ordering up some papers of the Lusk Commission, who like McCarthy of the 50’s, tried to track down dissidents and “Bolsheviks” during and after the First World War when xenophobia was a national pastime. Several dusty boxes got plopped on my desk, filled with thousands of letters from citizens ratting out a neighbor who seemed odd or secretive. Even when I hit the motherlode as in the Woman’s Journal papers (heart racing), it was not easy to capture the information. I was given a pencil and not even a big pencil but one of those miniature golf sized pencils, and had to copy the information. Or, for a quarter, which believe me, was worth a lot more then than now, you could get a barely legible, very grey copy on this clay coated paper which was the precursor to Xerox.

As a wannabe writer I had thoughts of writing a book about Elisabeth Freeman. But strangers and friends alike assured me, “There is no market for women’s history.” And ultimately, I decided to make history rather than write it. With others, of course, I founded a rape and abuse crisis center, an abortion clinic, a lesbian social club, a cooperative gallery, and public art collective. Which is to say, that I was distracted by the need to make a mark, and a living, much as Elisabeth Freeman devoted her life and career to challenging injustice.

1916: Hughes Women’s Campaign Train Display

But I never forgot Elisabeth Freeman and kept reading and doing incidental research. In 2005, I created an interactive installation at the Cooperative Gallery in Binghamton. Visitors could view a walk in scrapbook of clippings, and pick up letters and handbills in various tableaus depicting her life. My mother, who never forgot the promise of that book about her favorite aunt, was delighted. And the digital images (finally technology, thank you!) became the beginnings of this website.

In this iteration of the website I can add content and photos, correct the random mistake, and contribute to this occasional blog. There are so many anecdotes and bits of history that other generous researchers have sent me that I would like to share.

And Elisabeth Freeman deserves a place to keep stirring things up!

–Peg Johnston