Contextualizing Elizabeth Fisher Read

During leap years, women rise up and claim our power in ways we typically cannot get away with. For example, there is an Irish tradition by which women may propose to men on Leap Day, 29 February, based on a legend of Saint Bridget and Saint Patrick. 1872 was a leap year, and it was an especially auspicious year for women.

Born on January 20, Julia Morgan became an American architect and engineer, who designed over 700 buildings in California during a long and prolific career. She is best known for her work on Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. Morgan was the first woman to be admitted to the architecture program at l’École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the first woman architect licensed in California. She designed many edifices for institutions serving women and girls, including several YWCAs and buildings for Mills College.

On February 4, a great solar flare, and associated geomagnetic storm, made the northern lights visible as far south as Cuba. (OK, this is not obviously auspicious for women, but I personally am enamored with the Northern Lights, and kind of wish I could have seen the display.)

Born on May 10, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to be nominated for President of the United States, although she was a year too young to qualify and did not appear on the ballot.

Born on October 27, Emily Post was an American author, novelist, and socialite, who became enduringly famous for writing about etiquette.

On November 5, in defiance of the law, American suffragist Susan B. Anthony voted for the first time. On November 18 she was served an arrest warrant, and in the subsequent trial she was fined $100, which she never paid.

Within the context of those births and events, Elizabeth Fisher Read was born on September 8, 1872, in New Brighton, Pennsylvania. She was a woman of her time and a woman ahead of her times, graduating first from Smith College and then from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In the early 1910s she was active in the women’s suffrage movement, fighting ardently for women’s right to vote. In the 1920s she was a classic example of the 1920s “New Woman”—independent, financially self-supporting, politically active, and socially emancipated.

Read worked as a lawyer for all of her adult life. She was director of research for the American Foundation, a private organization dealing with national and international public affairs issues. She was also a scholar, the author of International Law and International Relations 1926; and the translator of a book on the World Court.

But she was not only a woman who worked. Elizabeth Fisher Read lived with Esther Lape, an educator and publicist, in Greenwich Village, and together they worked for a variety of social and political causes, including the New York state branch of the League of Women Voters. In 1920, Read and Lape were editing the group’s weekly legislative review, City, State and Nation. And it was through that work that Read and Lape first met Eleanor Roosevelt as Roosevelt was working as the director of the league’s national legislation committee. Impressed with one another’s skills, abilities and brains, the three women quickly cemented what became both a political partnership and a warm friendship. Both Read and Lape were Eleanor Roosevelt’s earliest female political and feminist mentors. Among their professional projects was a multiyear effort to encourage American participation in the World Court, an organization created as part of the League of Nations.

In their Greenwich Village home, Read and Lape created an atmosphere that reminded Eleanor Roosevelt of her schooldays with her teacher, Marie Souvestre, and the three women spent many hours there reading poetry and discussing political issues. As first lady, Roosevelt rented a floor in Read and Lape’s building, which she used to escape the pressures of her public position. The three women also spent time at Salt Meadow, the Connecticut country house Read and Lape owned. Read became Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal attorney and financial advisor. Roosevelt regularly consulted both Read and Lape on political issues, from recognition of the Soviet Union to the 1935 Social Security Act.

On December 13, 1943, Read died at the Greenwich Village apartment. 1872 was a very good year for women. 1943, not so much.

If you enjoyed reading about Elizabeth Fisher Read, you might just want to take a look at my novel, Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt, where she words and wisdom along with the words and wisdom of 90 other women are woven throughout the story.

If you enjoy learning about women’s words, wisdom & works, you might enjoy my bimonthly, odd months newsletter, Behold the Women. You can subscribe here.

What were some of your reactions to reading about Elizabeth Fisher Read? What other women did her life call to your mind?

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