Women in the Wilderness
by Niki Kourofsky
I’m really not sure why the folks in Congress chose March—that temperamental mess of a month—to celebrate women’s part in our collective story. But since they did, we should pause a moment, wipe the mud from our soles, and tread into the fairer side of Adirondack history. There are about as many tales of strength and passion as there are women in these wilds. In the interest of time management, though, I’ve teased out just a couple of colorful characters.
Jeanne Robert Foster was born in the not-so-merry month of March 1879 and grew up in an equally difficult setting: a hardscrabble homestead in Johnsburg. From those Warren County roots, she went on to fame as a poet and war correspondent, mixing with the likes of John Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound and James Joyce. Noel Riedinger-Johnson, who edited Foster’s Adirondack Portaits: A Piece of Time, writes that the poet’s rejection of traditional sex roles sprang from her North Country upbringing: “Jeanne could not accept these attitudes that were so different from the stark realities of the Adirondacks, where women worked side-by-side with men in their daily struggle with the elements.… Just as necessity had mandated that she roam the mountains, dense forests, and lakes and rivers of the Adirondacks (then considered a decidedly “masculine domain”), she chose to go beyond the Victorian constraints imposed on the women of her day.”
Inez Milholland came into the world in 1886, about 60 miles north of—and a world away from—Foster’s childhood farm. Milholland’s father, an early civil rights activist, cashed in on the invention of the pneumatic tube and bought a pastoral estate in Essex County’s town of Lewis. Despite her comfortable youth, Milholland followed in her father’s rabble-rousing footsteps. She stirred up quite a kerfuffle at Vassar: Robert Hall writes in “Women Have Been Voting Ever Since” (Adirondack Life, Winter 1971) that “she caused considerable anxiety among the faculty” and “at one time she enrolled two-thirds of her fellow students in the feminist movement.” After graduating from Vassar in 1909, she devoted the rest of her short life to winning the right to vote. On March 3, 1913, suffragists upstaged President Wilson’s first inauguration with a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue led by Milholland on a white horse. She died, possibly of leukemia, in 1916, four years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.
For more tales of North Country trailblazers, check out Sandra Weber’s Adirondack Roots: Stories of Hiking, History and Women (History Press, 2011).