Faces of Diversity in American First-Wave Feminism
Six little-known women from around the world — starting with a Russian-Jewish immigrant and ending with a French former chambermaid — who contributed to first-wave feminism in the United States.
By Victoria Martínez
The first-wave feminist movement in the United States was notable for the bravery and determination of its activists, as well as for racial segregation. Racism, politics, and conflicting backgrounds, aims and agendas all served to marginalize and exclude most African American and other women of color from the mainstream movement, including from more progressive and radical organizations like the National Women’s Party (NWP). Images and narratives documenting the early years of the NWP, which was founded in 1916 as a break-away militant women’s suffrage organization, accurately record an organization comprised largely of white, native-born, middle- and upper-class women.
Though few American women of color were among the NWP’s members and associates, the organization’s international affiliations and America’s important position on the world stage at a critical period in history (during and immediately following the First World War) meant that a handful of diverse women from around the world did circulate within its sphere. While their names rarely appear in narratives about the women’s movement of the period, their faces have been preserved in the U.S. Library of Congress’ digitized photograph collection, “Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party.”
The names and faces of these few women stand out from the bulk of the images, and a little historical digging reveals that their stories do as well. From a French chambermaid to a Cuban feminist to a Chinese doctor, they each brought unique perspective and experience to American feminism during the early 20th century, and their histories add a bit of diversity and some literal and figurative color to the history of the NWP and the mainstream movement.
Nina Samorodin, Russian-Jewish Immigrant
The conditions Nina Samorodin and other NWP suffragists suffered in the infamous Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia in the fall of 1917 were horrific. Arrested on charges of “obstructing traffic” while conducting peaceful pro-women’s suffrage protests in front of the White House, the women received disproportionately long sentences of up to six months. Within the workhouse, they were deprived of basic sanitation and hygiene, were served rancid food, and suffered physical mistreatment and beatings for which they were denied critical medical care. On November 14, 1917, this miscarriage of justice culminated in “The Night of Terror,” when 33 suffragists were systematically beaten by the Occoquan’s male guards. 
Samorodin completed her sentence before this horrific event, but her experience was recorded by her contemporaries as one that far from reflected the land of “industrial and political democracy” she had sought out when she emigrated in 1914 from her native Kiev, Russia (now Ukraine), where Jewish families like hers were subject to persecution and brutal pogroms. One modern account mentions Samorodin’s treatment in Occoquan alongside that of more historically well-known activists, including Lucy Burns.
“…prison guards manhandled the suffragists, pushing Lavinia Dock down the stairs, choking and clubbing Dorothy Day, and stripping Lucy Burns of her prison shift and leaving her to huddle in a blanket. A relative of Nina Samarodin [sic], an immigrant from Kiev, wrote the Russian ambassador begging for health care for prisoners; another supporter, Maria Moravsky, charged that Nina would get better treatment in a czarist prison.”
According to Thomas Wirth of the State University of New York at Cortland, in a biographical essay of Samorodin, “[Her] sister, Vera, who had left Kiev behind for Baltimore, visited Nina at Occoquan and was appalled by the ‘cruelty of the treatment’ for a ‘simple political offense’.”
It was just such injustice that had prompted Samorodin to political activism in the U.S. to begin with. Although she had graduated from Kiev University, she initially took work in a garment factory in New York City. There, Wirth explains, she became “Outraged by injustices she witnessed against immigrant laborers in the city’s shops, [and] threw herself into the struggle to organize women workers, and by 1917 had joined the National Woman’s Party (NWP) in the fight for female political equality.”
Following her release from Occoquan, Samorodin’s political activism intensified. In October 1917, she wrote in the NWP’s publication The Suffragist:
“The President’s act in having peaceful women arrested and sent to the workhouse because on their banners is written, ‘How long must women wait for liberty?’ proves more than anything the old Russian proverb: ‘The truth blinds the eyes.’ I went to picket and to the workhouse to protest to the United States Government for its injustice to women. In the workhouse I thought for hours during the long nights, ‘What is the matter with the American women that they do not come in hundreds to the White House gates? Are they asleep? Are they near-sighted that they do not see that state suffrage does not solve the problem? It is hard to spend a month in prison; yet it is harder to exiled to Siberia. And fear of Siberia did not stop the revolution in Russia.’”
Me-Iung Ting, Chinese Medical Student
When this photo of Me-Iung Ting (1891–1969) was taken in 1919, an extraordinary medical career was ahead of her. Behind her was a bold escape from an arranged marriage and traditional life in China. Her dedication to women’s rights and health were reflected in her actions and activities throughout her life, and her presence at the first International Conference of Women Physicians in New York in the fall of 1919 was significant.
In her senior year as a medical student at the University of Michigan Medical school, she was already committed to smashing the barriers preventing widespread sexual and reproductive health knowledge. She wrote to a friend in April 1919:
“Really no man or woman should be married without some knowlege [sic] of sex hygiene. This subject is important because it concerns the present and the future. This is a new age. We can speak about the reproductive organs as any other parts of the body. I do not know the custom here, but in China we girls were never taught of these things. It was considered something we should not know. I hope to do a good deal of lecture work along these common things. I told you that I wanted to study public health. I guess I might have to go into general practice for a few years first.”
The conference was part of a triumvirate of causes in the U.S. and international women’s movements, as the published proceedings from the conference pronounced:
“The health of women and children is the special care of women. In a movement looking toward improvement, it is natural that women physicians should take the lead. This international women’s meeting to discuss health betterment is one of the three great international efforts being made by women at present to become more articulate, the other two being that for equal suffrage and the promotion of a permanent peace. They are all three part of the universal effort of women toward the expression in the world of their special sense of values. As such, this conference is of profound significance.”
Not surprisingly, Ting pronounced it “the best conference that I have attended yet.”
Exactly what her association with the NWP was is unclear, but it’s likely there was simply a mutual interest and respect between the NWP and her, perhaps established at the conference. The NWP magazine, The Suffragist, reported on various aspects of the conference and possibly had obtained an image of Ting in the event she was included or featured.
Anne Azgapetian, Russian Immigrant
The story of Anne Azgapetian (1888–19??) is more complex than it initially appears. Featured in the NWP archives as a speaker at the organization’s convention in 1921, she is simply described as one of the representatives of women from foreign countries who would be speaking on behalf of Armenian women. This is accurate insofar as she advocated passionately and tirelessly for support and humanitarian relief for the victims of what is now widely acknowledged as the Armenian Genocide, particularly for women and children. But her story becomes problematic and, ironically, less compelling, when the facts of her history are compared to her sensational portrayal in some American newspapers of the day as “Lady Anne Azgapetian, Armenian noblewoman.”
In fact, although many of the details of her early life are murky, Anne was not Armenian by birth or marriage, but rather, apparently by identification. Born in Grodno, Russia (now Belarus), in 1888, she and her family emigrated to the U.S., settling in Indianapolis, Indiana, when she was still a child. She became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1893, trained as a nurse and moved to New York City. It was in New York that she likely met her husband, General Mesrop Nevton Azgapetian, an ethnic Armenian who was born in Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey, in 1865. In 1888, he had emigrated to the U.S., becoming a naturalized citizen in either 1891 or 1893. Though Azgapetian claimed distant noble Armenian descent, both his military rank and a hereditary title of nobility were reportedly bestowed on him by the shah of Persia in gratitude for personal service.
Records show that soon after the couple married in Manhattan around October 1915, they left the United States for Russia to volunteer in that country’s Red Cross, with Mesrop serving as a doctor and Anne as a nurse. In 1916, while in service, Anne gave birth to a daughter in Persia. The entire family returned to the United States in the fall of 1917, settling again in New York City. After the birth of a son in 1919, both Anne and Mesrop Azgapetian began advocating for the cause of Armenia, which eventually brought Anne into contact with the NWP.
Sofia Reyes de Veyra, Filipino Suffrage Leader
The NWP convention held in Washington, D.C. in February 1921, brought together American women’s suffrage activists for the first time as voters. With women’s right to vote secured by the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18, 1920, the time had come to determine the direction the NWP would take going forward. Women’s rights activists from around the world were invited to attend and speak at the convention. Sofia Reyes de Veyra (1876–1953) of the Philippines was one of these women whose image is preserved in the NWP archive.
At the time of the convention, de Veyra was living in Washington, D.C., where her husband was Philippine Commissioner to the U.S. She had long been an activist for women in her homeland, and her time in the U.S. was spent actively lecturing on and advocating for women’s causes, including the right to vote. Colonialization had stripped the Philippines of much of its ethnic identity and political independence, but de Veyra managed to embrace certain western customs while maintaining traditional identity and culture. Professor Mina C. Roces explained:
“Mrs. de Veyra’s engagement in a plethora of activities mirrored the typical response of many prominent [Filipino] women in the era who were becoming associated with all that was ‘modern.’ They spoke English, they still defined themselves within the parameters of the traditional construction of woman as wife and mother and as helpers of men but also agents of change. And yet, they began to add a new dimension to activities classified as acceptable women’s spheres.”
She, like other international women, brought her activism to the U.S., and contributed new perspectives, visions and strategies to the American women’s movement. Undoubtedly, these women also stood to gain a great deal from their association with the NWP and the U.S. women’s movement, including tools to help push the women’s movement forward in their home countries. This reciprocity was clearly very much on de Veyra’s mind around the time she was speaking at the convention.
“When the Nineteenth Amendment granting U.S. women the right to vote went into effect, Sofia de Veyra spoke frequently on the East Coast lecture circuit, stressing the gains of Filipino women. Because of the matriarchal culture on the islands, they enjoyed progressive property rights and professional opportunities unavailable to women in the United States, Mrs. de Veyra noted. She voiced the strong desire among Filipinos for ‘progressive legislation’ particularly in women’s health care, child health, and day care.”
Sofia Reyes de Veyra and her female compatriots finally won the vote in 1937.
Amalia Mallén de Ostolaza, Cuban Suffrage Leader
Following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the NWP and other women’s rights organizations continued the push to obtain full equality for women. In April 1922, the Pan American Conference of Women was held in Baltimore, Maryland, hosted by the National League of Women Voters of the United States. Women from all over North, Central and South America attended the event, which was intended to increase understanding and collaboration on women’s rights issues throughout the Americas. Sofia Reyes de Veyra was there, as was her Cuban counterpart, Amalia Mallén de Ostolaza.
Cuban women would fight for the right to vote until 1933, and de Ostolaza was at the forefront of the that movement for more than 20 years. She founded three organizations in support of women’s rights: Partido Nacional Feminista (National Feminist Party) in 1912, and Partido Sufragista (Suffragist Party) and Partido Nacional Sufragista (National Suffragist Party) in 1913. She was also a writer and the editor of two women’s rights publications, including El Sufragista, the official publication of Partido Nacional Sufragista.
Attending the Conference in her capacity as president of Partido Nacional Sufragista, it’s very likely that she addressed not only the issue of suffrage, but also the cause of society’s vulnerable women. This was a critical issue for de Ostolaza, who “promoted the transformation of formerly disenfranchised lower-class women into Cuban citizens so that the ‘the torch of civilization [could] illuminate completely the spaces occupied by prostitution’.”
Emma Anatole France (Emma Thibault, née Laprévotte), French Suffragist
In 1923, the NWP began publishing Equal Rights as a successor magazine to The Suffragist. The publication featured women’s issues in the U.S. and globally, including the continued fight for women’s suffrage around the world. Featured on the cover of the September 3, 1927 issue of Equal Rights was a rather romantic image of French suffragist Emma Anatole France (1871–1930), who had recently become a member of the NWP’s International Advisory Committee.
Emma is a bit of an enigmatic figure, at least in terms of her role on the NWP committee. Her personal life, however, was nothing if not intriguing. At the time of her appearance on the cover of Equal Rights, she was the widow of French writer Anatole France (François-Anatole Thibault), who had died in 1924. Only seven years earlier, she had been his housekeeper and the former chambermaid of his late mistress, the French literary hostess Madame Arman de Caillavet. Emma and France married in 1920, and the following year France won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The marriage apparently ensured that Emma was well-provided for after France’s death and could spend at least part of her time as a women’s rights activist. Unfortunately, she did not live to see French women secure the vote, a right they finally achieved in 1944.
 Other women of color were also marginalized, including Asian and Native Americans; however, unlike African Americans, many individuals from these groups also faced restrictions on U.S. citizenship that made them — male or female — ineligible to vote. For more on the marginalization of African American from the mainstream suffrage movement, see: “Votes for Women means Votes for Black Women,” Ama Ansah, National Women’s History Museum; “Women’s Suffrage Leaders Left Out Black Women,” Evette Dionne, Teen Vogue; “Black Women & The Suffrage Movement: 1848–1923,” Wesleyan University; “How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women,” Brent Staples, The New York Times; and, “African American Women Leaders in the Suffrage Movement,” Edith Mayo, Turning Point Suffragist Memorial.
 I have been unable to find birth and death dates for Samorodin, or even when, where and how she died.
 For more on the NWP protests, the arrests of its members, and the horrible conditions they faced in jail and the workhouse, see: “1915–1917: Formation of the National Woman’s Party and Picketing the White House,” Library of Congress.
 Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Civil Disobedience: An Encyclopedic History of Dissidence in the United States, Vols. 1–2. London and New York: Routledge, 2015, 336.
 Wirth, Thomas. “Biography of Nina Samorodin.” Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913–1920. Retrieved 5 Nov. 2018.
 Wirth’s biography of Samorodin (see link in note 6) details her continued activism.
 Described in the book, Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter (1997), by Adeline Yen Mah (pages 21–22).
 International Conference of Women Physicians (New York, N.Y.). Proceedings of the International Conference of Women Physicians: a Set of Six Volumes Each One a Valuable Handbook for Physicians, Teachers, Professors, And Social Workers, Boards of Health, Public Libraries, Women’s Clubs, Clergymen, Trained Nurses, Etc. New York: The Woman’s Press, 1920, 8.
 See, for instance: “Lady Anne Azgapetian Gives Graphic Description of Armenia, Hungerland of the World,” in The Republican and Times (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), 1 Feb. 1922, p.5.
 I have been unable to find her maiden name. Nor have I found her date and location of death.
 The information relating to Anne and Mesrop’s birth, naturalization, etc. is taken from U.S. immigration and passport archives. Two conflicting naturalization dates are given on Mesrop’s documents. Some biographical information on Anne was gleaned from an article on her in The Richmond Item (Richmond, Indiana) on 1 June 1921.
 This information appears consistently in published biographical information about Mesrop Azgapetian. For instance: Armenian Relief; “Noted Armenian Will Speak Here”; “The Near East as it is Today”.
 Most information here has been taken from, once again, U.S. immigration and passport archives.
 Roces, Mina C. “Women in Philippine Politics and Society” Mixed Blessing: The Impact of the American Colonial Experience on Politics and Society in the Philippines. Ed. Hazel M. McFerson. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002, 174.
 Kowalewski, Albin, Ed. “Jaime C. de Veyra.” Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Congress, 1900–2017. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 2017, 166.
 I have been unable to find her birth and death dates.
 González, Julio César. “Historia de la mujer en Cuba: del feminismo liberal a la acción politica femenina.” Diez nuevas miradas de historia de Cuba. Ed. José Antonio Piqueras Arenas. Valencia, Spain: Publicacions de la Universitat Jaume I, 1998, 279.
 Davies, Catherine. A Place in the Sun?: Women Writers in Twentieth-Century Cuba. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1997, 18.
 Sippial, Tiffany A. Prostitution, Modernity, and the Making of the Cuban Republic, 1840–1920. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013, 174.
Originally published at abitofhistoryblog.com on November 7, 2018.