America’s 22nd state, Alabama has long played a key and very dramatic role in the civil and human rights history of the United States. Also proudly known as “the Heart of Dixie,” Alabama has transitioned from the almost totally agricultural society of its Confederate/post Confederate Civil War Reconstruction days to today being a thriving hub for aerospace, health care, education, banking and various technical manufacturing industries.
Although Alabama is sometimes unfortunately associated with some of the worst violations of civil rights, especially against African Americans, in the late 19th/early 20th century, two of the strongest reformers and leaders of the “Progressive Movement” that would forever impact the United States were two Alabamian women, Pattie Ruffner Jacobs and Sue Berta Coleman. After reconstructionism forced Alabama to become an increasingly industrialized and urbanized society, many Alabama women found that their constraining, traditional “ladylike” Southern belle roles had to be abandoned as necessity led them away from being simple homemakers to working in the public arena. They encountered prejudice, disease, illiteracy and many other social problems that they attempted to address and ameliorate.
Pattie Ruffner Jacobs was white, Sue Berta Coleman was black, and the two women never met each other. Early 20th century Alabama ‘s society was still segregated, so while black and white women worked on many of the same issues, it was through separate organizations. However, both groups worked for social and humanitarian reforms in Alabama such as child welfare, temperance, health issues, neighborhood improvements and literacy programs. Some of these important organizations were the Alabama Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Alabama Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, the Alabama Child Labor Committee, the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association and the Alabama Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
Although complicated by the campaign to disenfranchise black voters in Alabama and, indeed, throughout the South, many Alabama women were led into the women’s suffrage movement in their desire to gain more power and influence in Progressive reform issues. Alabama’s suffrage leader Pattie Ruffner Jacobs was instrumental in the national ratification of the 19th Amendment, (the women’s suffrage amendment), and by 1920, Alabama Progressive Movement accomplishments included education, prison and industrial reforms, as well as schools for girls and boys.
For her part, Sue Berta Coleman began innovative programs for Alabama ‘s black families in nutrition, childcare, literacy and vocational training, especially for young black women. Although the initial concentration was on family and domestic skills such as cooking and sewing, most of the women later attended college – unheard of just a few years before — and became teachers. This is indeed apropos to the fact that recent historians have called the actions of these brave Alabama women in the Progressive Movement “social housekeeping,” or the traditional nurturer/caregiver female role extended to the public sphere.