These 5 women shaped St. Louis, but are often left out of history books
Generations of women have shaped St. Louis history, from union activists to entrepreneurs.
But you won’t find many of their names in history books — and for historians, it can be difficult to piece together their stories, said Katie Moon, exhibits manager at the Missouri History Museum.
“Often if the women were married, their names just disappeared; they became Mrs. Charles Smith,” she said. “With women's history, we make assumptions that pre-1900, every woman was a housewife and a mother and nobody really worked. That’s just a lie. They have been working and multitasking and raising children since Day One.”
Moon is the author of “Groundbreakers, Rule-Breakers & Rebels: 50 Unstoppable St. Louis Women” and curator of “Beyond the Ballot,” an ongoing exhibit at the Missouri History Museum that traces the history of the women’s suffrage movement in St. Louis.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Shahla Farzan spoke with Moon about five noteworthy women and the roles they played in St. Louis history.
Mary Meachum (c. 1801–1869)
Shahla Farzan: One St. Louis woman who had a fascinating life was Mary Meachum. What did she become known for?
Katie Moon: She was born enslaved, and it was her husband, John Berry Meachum, who founded the first African American Baptist Church in St. Louis in the 1820s, who bought her freedom when they got married.
Both he and she were really committed to educating African Americans. At that point, Missouri actually forbade anyone to teach Blacks to learn how to read or write, so the Meachums opened up — and this is urban legend — a steamboat school. Missouri was a slave state and Illinois was free, so the Mississippi River was this neutral zone. If anybody came after them, they could head to the Illinois side and be fine.
The next record we have of her is in the mid-1850s. She was actually active with the Underground Railroad in the St. Louis area. We have a spot on the Mississippi River that's called the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing. She would help ferry slaves across the river to freedom, and we know that because she was arrested. At this point, she was not a young woman, but she was continuing this work because she was so focused on it.
Mary Hancock McLean (1861–1930)
Farzan: Dr. Mary Hancock McLean was a pioneer in medicine at a time when women were not encouraged to become doctors. How did she move into this field?
Moon: She was educated as a physician and she came back to St. Louis, where she was able to get an assistant physician job at the female hospital. It was built in the 1870s, as the Social Evils Hospital, when prostitution was legalized — so a lot of treatment of venereal disease, lots of babies. She got a job there as the only female physician.
She was really focused on female medical care, so she and another doctor opened an evening dispensary for working women on Washington Avenue. They were open at night, and it was free. These were women who were working in factories 14 hours a day, not seeing the light of day, not getting any exercise, not eating well, probably had never seen a doctor before. They opened this clinic where the women could come and get medical care, and it was pretty groundbreaking.
She submitted her name to be part of the St. Louis Medical Society, but submitted her application as M.H. McLean. They didn’t realize that she was a woman and let her in, so she was the only female in the society for 15 years.
Annie Malone (1869–1957)
Farzan: We can’t talk about influential St. Louis women without mentioning Annie Malone, a very well-known entrepreneur. How did she rise into prominence in St. Louis?
Moon: It's amazing how many of these stories began with women trying to find a way to support themselves despite their circumstances, and [Annie Malone] was one of those women. She started in Illinois and created this haircare product, and it grew from there. She worked with other local African American women and did door to door sales. If you look through some of the old newspapers, you see ads all over the place for the products that she was creating. She really had a mind for marketing and branding.
She was making all of this money, and she decided to build what she ended up calling Poro College in the Ville neighborhood. It took up a whole city block and was five or six stories tall. It was her manufacturing plant and where she shipped everything. But it was also the center of the Black community at that time and she created it specifically for that purpose. It had a cafeteria, it had a hotel, it had an auditorium. At that time, lots of entertainment venues and hotels in St. Louis were segregated, so if Josephine Baker came to St. Louis, she could perform, but she couldn't find a hotel to stay. So this provided that place.
Her empire just kept expanding, not just in St. Louis, but all over the world. At one point, she employed over 75,000 women across the world. She’s considered the first African American female millionaire in the country, but she didn't keep it to herself. She started the orphans home, which is now Annie Malone's home, and gave to historically Black colleges across the country. She just had her hands in so many different things.
Fannie Sellins (1872–1919)
Farzan: She isn't necessarily a household name, but Fannie Sellins was a very influential union organizer in her time. How did she move from being a worker to an activist?
Moon: Fannie Sellins is one of those mysterious characters. She was born in New Orleans, got married and moved to St. Louis. Her husband was a garment worker and he died, so she had to figure out what she was going to do. She had four children and ended up working at a garment factory. We know that unions were up and coming at that point and she was just that person who was willing to stand up and start fighting — not just for herself, but for the other women and men that she was working with.
We don't have a diary [or] a step-by-step of how that
happened. We just know that at some point, she was representing 400 workers to get them better wages and better hours and all sorts of different things. It wasn't like she had somebody that she could look at and say, "That's who I want to emulate." It was very much, "This needs to happen and I'm going to figure out how that works."
She was later recruited by the mining unions, so she ended up in West Virginia and then Pennsylvania, which is where she was murdered during a particularly violent union strike. The story is that she was trying to protect someone else and stepped into the middle of a fight. She wasn’t a shrinking daisy.
Caroline Thummel (1873–1947)
Farzan: One of Missouri’s first practicing female lawyers, Caroline Thummel, faced a lot of uphill battles in her career. Can you tell me more about her?
Moon: She was really dedicated to improving working conditions and challenging the status quo. She investigated the workhouse in St. Louis; it's been around for that long and had issues back then. She believed what the inmates were telling her as opposed to what the mayor and the warden were saying. She was actually able to get in and find proof that prisoners were being beaten and overworked and was able to bring that to light.
She didn't get a lot of credit as a woman and had to really push her way through. The interesting part is that she was on the Federal Bar Association, but she was not on the Missouri Bar; they did not allow women. She actually created the Women's Bar Association in Missouri, so she could try cases in federal court, but she wasn't legally allowed on the Missouri Bar.
One of the things the newspaper paid a lot more attention to was the fact that she made this assertion that women should be able to choose who they get married to. Her argument was if women proposed to men, there would be a lot less divorce. It was scandalous, and she got decimated in the press. They didn't really care so much that she was an attorney doing all of these amazing things. The fact that she said women should be able to propose to men was what they got stuck on.
Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan