International Women’s Day

Black and white photograph of five Alaska Native women standing in the foreground wearing white dresses with envelope-style hats and sashes worn across the front that read "ANS". The woman on the far right wears a sash that reads "Grand President." Three women stand in the background with similar outfits.
Image credit: from the Alaska State Library Historical Collections, photograph titled “Group portrait of ANS [Alaska Native Sisterhood] officers”. Front row, from right: Lottie Nannauck; Marlene Sprague; Mary Jones; Theresa Stitt; Gertrude Wolf. Back row, from left: Laura Hotch; and Mildred Sparks.
Today marks International Women’s Day, and an opportunity to shed light on the representation of women in Alaska’s historical newspapers, focusing primarily on women’s suffrage and the Alaska Native Sisterhood.

Alaska’s territorial government granted women the right to vote in 1913, a full seven years before the 19th Amendment was ratified. This right to vote was not extended to Alaska Native women, however.

Alaska historical newspapers focused the bulk of their writing on men, the focus on  women’s suffrage was exception. Despite women being granted the right to vote, news coverage of global women’s suffrage was overwhelmingly negative and often reinforced sexist stereotypes. Alaska newspapers published articles in praise of the “rugged” spirit of Alaska women, often as a stark contrast to their more sheltered counterparts in the Lower 48, as the following articles demonstrate.

Something of Pioneer Women in Alaska: Mrs. Strong, wife of Gov. J. F. A. Strong of Alaska, talking recently to the Providence Journal, said of the women of Alaska: "I do not know of any other women who can equal them in resourcefulness. And they are filled with an energy which makes nothing too hard of accomplishment. If they give an afternoon tea it is in as attractive surroundings as one could find anywhere, with the same appointments as the East affords. Flowers from Seattle will adorn the rooms, the whitest of napery covers the table, while the service is perfect, not to mention the refreshments." The women of Alaska have suffrage, the first bill passed by the new Legislature a year ago giving them that right and women have been members of the board of education and held similar offices. The children are very patriotic, singing their Alaska songs with fervor, as if patriotism meant more to them than to the majority of American children. It is 17 years since the future Governor and his wife first went to Alaska and Mrs. Strong vividly recalls the difference between the two trips made along the Yukon. She says: "Once we made when we first entered the country. It is what is known as the interior trip of the Yukon--over wild mountain passes, behind dog teams, whipsawing our lumber for crude craft when we came to the streams. It was a trip through the primitive, with obstacles on every hand. And, yet, I can recall no circumstance which struck me as a big adventure at the time. One takes the days as they come, overcomes what obstacles appear, and keeps on. "The second trip we made when the Governor had been in office but a short time. It was over the same trail. But, oh, what a different trip! Along the mountain passes in well-equipped trains on the rivers in the palatial Yukon steamships! It was a contrast I shall never forget."
Image credit: The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 16 Sept. 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020657/1914-09-16/ed-1/seq-6/>
Douglas News Thinks Alaska Women All Right: It is evident that the Douglas news does not favor women sufferage as a general proposition, but it thinks it is different in Alaska. The admiration of the Douglas paper for Alaska women is apparent in the following item from its columns: "By the provisions of a recent act of congress, the women of Alaska are to be granted the right of suffrage. Well and good; Alaska women may well be trusted to exercise this right, although they have not asked for it. The women of Alaska are usually of the kind that stay at home and tend to the babies, plan spring bonnets, make over old dresses, and mind their own business, but if the poker-playing, champagne drinking, pleasure-chasing congressmen think they should vote, they will do it with their accustomed grace and modesty, and in an intelligent manner, too. "The women of Alaska, God bless them, are not the pampered dolls of society who drive men to the devil and drink, but they are brave and noble helpers in the development of a frontier country. They have left their cozy homes in the states to take their places by the side of their husband and share with him the battles of life. When the cruel winds of adversity have chilled the blood and appalled the stoutest heart, these women have had words of cheer and comfort for the distressed. Alaskans are willing that they should vote and have no fear of the consequence."
Image credit: The daily Alaskan. (Skagway, Alaska), 18 June 1904. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014189/1904-06-18/ed-1/seq-3/>

To achieve political representation on behalf of Alaska Native women, a group of graduates from the Sheldon Jackson school in Sitka met together in Haines in 1915 to form the Alaska Native Sisterhood, or ANS, for a women’s counterpart to the Alaska Native Brotherhood formed in 1912. Several other chapters formed throughout the state.

Native Women of Douglas Organize Alaska Native Sisterhood. The Alaska Native Sisterhood Society was organized by the native women of Douglas yesterday under the guidance of Henry Stevens, President of the Douglas Camp of the Alaska Native Brotherhood. The women's society will follow the same constitution bylaws as the A.N.B. Officers elected by the women for the first year are: Mrs. Sarah Fontaine, President; Mrs. Edith Johnson, Secretary; Mrs. Henry Stevens, Treasurer. The membership includes Mesdames Sarah Smith, John Dennis, Joe Rogers, Frank Hubbard, Billie Hanson, Thomas Johnson; Misses Bessie Daniels, Daisy Fox, Susie Marshall and Mrs. Mabel Horn. Additional members probably will join in the near future. The new society will meet regularly each week.
Image credit: The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 30 Dec. 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020657/1920-12-30/ed-1/seq-7/>

Historical newspapers in Alaska available on Chronicling America, as a whole, devoted few items to the formation of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. The Alaska Fisherman, the official newspaper of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, will be added as a part of the current grant cycle, which includes news related to the Alaska Native Sisterhood.

There is a great deal of progress to be made towards gender equality in the United States.(It is a telling indicator of the times that the above article mentioned the married members of the Sisterhood in relation to their husbands’ names.) May International Women’s Day be an opportunity to make contributions by women visible to all.

 

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