Who says you have to come from a big city or a wealthy family to make an impact? This Women’s History Month, we look at five bold Hoosier women who made it possible for today’s women to be an integral part of the workforce, strong political voices and pioneers in various fields.
Polly Strong (ca. 1796 – ?) Freewoman | Vincennes, Knox County
Why she’s idol-worthy: Polly Strong stood up for herself and fought for her freedom despite people trying to hold her back. She used the judicial system to challenge her status as a slave in the early days of Indiana statehood.
Her story: Polly was born about 1796 to Jenny, a black slave. Prominent Vincennes, Ind., resident Hyacinth Lasselle purchased Polly in approximately 1806. Through a series of laws, slavery was prohibited in Indiana. But, court documents show Polly’s bid for freedom was not resolved quickly. Sometime before 1816, a judge of the Indiana Territory ruled Polly and her brother, James, were still slaves. A freedom suit was filed, and Hyacinth was ordered to bring Polly and her brother to the Knox Circuit Court in July 1818. The slave owner requested that the case be dismissed, but for two years Polly and James argued for their freedom. Finally, on July 22, 1820, the Indiana Supreme Court found that the 1816 Constitution banned slavery and that Hyacinth had violated the law by enslaving Strong. Polly was declared a free woman!
Caroline Scott Harrison (1832 – 1892) First lady | Indianapolis, Marion County
Why she’s idol-worthy: Sure, her husband was famous, but Caroline Scott Harrison made her own mark on history by pushing her innovative ideas.
Her story: Best known as the wife of Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president of the United States, Caroline made a difference in many lives. In her short time as first lady, she worked on numerous projects. She founded the largest patriotic association of women – Daughters of the American Revolution – and became its first president-general in 1890. She also convinced Johns Hopkins University Medical School to admit women by helping raise funds for the program.
May Wright Sewall (1844 – 1920) Suffragist | Indianapolis, Marion County
Why she’s idol-worthy: May Wright Sewall was a courageous and groundbreaking woman focused on advancing women’s rights.
Her story: May started her career as a suffragist in the 1880s. Following her passion for education and women’s rights, she founded more than fifty organizations that promoted women’s rights and education. These included the International Council of Women, Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society, the Girls’ Classical School and the Indianapolis Women’s Club. She also became a national leader in the fight for women’s suffrage. A friend of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she led Indiana suffrage groups and was chairman of the executive committee charged with preparation and arrangements for the first national council of women in Washington in 1888.
Gene (Geneva) Stratton-Porter (1863 – 1924) Author | Lagro, Wabash County
Why she’s idol-worthy: This woman did it all! She was an author, photographer, naturalist and had her own movie studio. She showed girls that it’s ok to get your hands muddy.
Her story: Gene grew up on a farm in Wabash County, Ind., and loved to explore the countryside around her family’s home. She married Charles Porter, a druggist, and the couple moved to Geneva, Ind., where they designed and built Limberlost Cabin, named after the nearby Limberlost Swamp. The natural environment of the swamp fascinated Gene, and she wrote about it, studied it and photographed it extensively. Her most famous work, A Girl of the Limberlost (1909), was made into a motion picture in 1924; she also wrote the screenplay. In all, she wrote twenty-six books including fiction, non-fiction, and poetry for adults and children. After World War I, Gene moved to California and continued to write. By this time, she was a world-famous author and had sold more than a million books. She founded the Gene Stratton-Porter Productions film company and wrote for McCall’s magazine.
Albion Fellows Bacon (1865 – 1933) Social welfare activist | Evansville, Vanderburgh County
Why she’s idol-worthy: Albion Fellows Bacon put herself out there to meet with, be kind to and help people in less fortunate situations than her.
Her story: Albion was a housewife-turned-activist who championed a broad range of social welfare causes, benefiting the working class on a local, state and national level. Initially, she did not participate in social welfare causes because she thought it was better left to the experienced. But her conviction called her to take action. She began building relationships with Evansville slum residents. With a group of women, she created Visiting Nurse’s Circle, which paid for a nurse to care for the sick and poor in their homes. She also helped found the Flower Mission, which delivered fresh-cut bouquets to the working class, and the Working Girls’ Association, which provided a lunchroom and boardinghouses for young working women. Albion’s experiences gave her the philosophy that many of a city’s social, civic and business problems could be cured by making its homes better, and she helped initiate and pass legislation improving homes in Indiana.
Bonus! One modern idol-worthy Hoosier woman: Lois Main Templeton.
She reinvented her life at age 55 and proved you can be anyone you want to be. Check out her story and her work in our current gallery: Lois Main Templeton: A Reinvented Life.