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Alabama Women and the Progressive Movement

Pattie Ruffner Jacobs and Sue Berta Coleman, Reformers: When studying Alabama women and Progressivism, we can examine the lives of leaders of major organizations and we can also look at lesser known women whose contributions were not as visible to the public but were vital to the overall accomplishments of the period. The lives of Pattie Ruffner Jacobs and Sue Berta Coleman contrast with each other but each woman left a legacy of reform. Jacobs came to state-wide prominence as the president of the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association and subsequently moved into national leadership positions. Coleman's contributions as a teacher and social worker were known primarily to African Americans living in the industrial area of western Jefferson County.

Born in West Virginia in 1875 to a well-respected family of educators and ministers, Pattie Ruffner grew up in a world that narrowly defined the proper sphere of women. Loving school, she relished her years at Ward's Seminary in Nashville, but her desire to obtain an education beyond the secondary level was denied her because of the economic circumstances of her family. The depression of the 1890s had reduced her family to "genteel poverty." When the marriage of her mother and father disintegrated, she and her mother moved to Birmingham and lived with a married sister. Pattie chafed under the situation. She desperately wanted to go to college and she resented her dependence upon the family of her older sister. As she watched the marriage of another sister fail, she questioned the entire institution and the subordinate and vulnerable position in which it placed women.

Pattie's teen-age experiences and observations fostered an independence of thought and action that rebelled against Southern society's constraints on women. Ironically, it was her marriage to a rising young Birmingham businessman, Solon Jacobs, that gave her the economic security to pursue her interest in a variety of reform causes in the Progressive era. In addition to caring for her two daughters, she became involved in campaigns to abolish child labor, the convict lease system, and prostitution. She was active in the Salvation Army and the Jefferson County Anti-Tuberculosis Association. But it was the lack of success in several attempts at civic improvements, particularly in regard to schools, that brought her into the suffrage movement for which she would become best known.

Concluding that women would not be effective in reform issues until they had the vote, Pattie became the primary organizer of both the Birmingham and Alabama Equal Suffrage Associations (AESA) and the long-time president of each. After a masterful but unsuccessful campaign in 1915 that would have allowed a state-wide referendum on women's suffrage in Alabama, she persuaded the AESA to endorse the federal suffrage amendment. In 1915 she moved to the national scene, accepting an office in the National Woman Suffrage Association, campaigning for the amendment across the United States, and speaking on behalf of the amendment before Congressional committees.

After the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, her political involvement continued. She became the first national secretary of the League of Women Voters, Alabama's first national Democratic Committee Woman, the first woman on the National Democratic Executive Committee, director of the Woman's Division of the National Recovery Administration, and Alabama's representative on the TVA board.A contemporary of Jacobs, Sue Berta Rankin Coleman had a very different life experience but also used her talents to effect a number of reforms. Sue Berta was born in 1883 in Huntsville, Alabama. Although her father died when she was three, her mother not only supported the family working as a cook for a white family, but also managed to send Sue Berta to Fisk University, a private black college in Nashville.

After marriage, Sue Berta moved to Birmingham, gave birth to four children, and began teaching in a rural Jefferson County school. In 1914 she moved into a company school system sponsored and funded by the United States Steel subsidiary in Birmingham, the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI). By then, she was the primary supporter of her family.

In an effort to stabilize the work force and to lessen the appeal of organized labor, TCI implemented a paternalistic program of welfare capitalism which included not only an award-winning company school system but also health programs and community activities organized by community or social workers for the miners and their families. In the segregated society of Alabama, the company appointed white and black community supervisors to work within the company towns. Sue Berta became the first black community supervisor in Muscoda, an ore-mining community outside of Bessemer.

Since the workers were being recruited from rural Alabama, Sue Berta thought of them as immigrants coming into a semi-urban setting. Because of this conclusion, she took a remarkable action. She borrowed money from a Bessemer bank, traveled to Chicago, and spent six weeks studying with Jane Addams, the renowned founder of settlement house work in the United States and one of the foremost Progressive reformers in the United States. Addams' pioneering social work ministered to the needs of European immigrants in Chicago's ethnic ghettoes.

Sue Berta returned to Muscoda and instigated innovative programs in nutrition, kindergarten work, mothers' clubs, baby clinics, sewing, and library facilities for the families of the black workers in the company town. She eased the transition for a rural people into an urban environment and improved their quality of life. When the Great Depression struck and the company laid her off, Sue Berta began directing a New Deal program in vocational training for young black women. Although the initial concentration was on "domestic" skills, most of the women later attended college and became teachers.

Pattie Ruffner Jacobs and Sue Berta Coleman never met each other, but each was a "Progressive reformer" who saw needs in her community and made a commitment of time, talent, and energy to bring about change.