Esther Everett Lape was born on October 8, 1881 in Wilmington, Delaware and died on May 17 1981 in her home on East 57th Street in Manhattan. She lived a rich and full life, creating organizations that challenged and changed the world for the better and forming friendships with other women who also challenged and changed the world. Her circle of friends included her life partner Elizabeth Fisher Read, her lifelong friend Eleanor Roosevelt and other lesbian couples who were leaders in the Women’s Suffrage Movement such as Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, Molly Dewson and Polly Porter, Grace Hutchins and Anna Rochester.
Esther Lape was a professor of English at Arizona State College, Barnard College, Columbia University and Swarthmore College, who wrote prodigiously, and was the author of many articles on women’s rights and the problems faced by immigrants in the United States.
Her writing attracted the attention of Edward Bok, the former editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal. After World War I, Mr. Bok appointed Miss Lape to head a committee to judge entries in a contest for a ”practical plan to achieve and preserve the peace of the world.” An award of $50,000 was offered for the best plan along with another $50,000 if the plan was accepted by the United States Senate. The committee recommended the award go to a proposal for United States participation in the Permanent Court of International Justice, known as the World Court.
Mr. Bok incorporated the American Foundation in 1924 to promote the effort. Although the United States Senate never ratified United States participation in the Court, by the time it was dissolved in 1945, the Court had 59 member states.
Esther Lape became the founding director of Bok’s American Foundation for Studies in Government. As part of her work with the Foundation, she published, ”American Medicine – Expert Testimony Out of Court,” a survey of the opinions of doctors, documented the inadequacy of medical care and suggested that improvements in the nation’s medical schools. The publication led to a series of White House meetings and President Franklin Roosevelt’s statement about the rights of every citizen to adequate medical care. She served as director of the American Foundation until she retired in 1955.
In addition to her work for Women’s Suffrage and world peace, Esther Lape knew the value of beauty. She owned a beautiful 147-acre country estate, Salt Meadow, in Westbrook, Connecticut. The estate was a haven for Esther, Elizabeth Reid and Eleanor Roosevelt, a place where they could find solace and sustenance in the midst of the demands of their professional lives. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote many of her My Day newspaper columns there during her frequent visits. In 1972, Lape donated the estate to the Government to be maintained as a wildlife refuge. The Government has seen fit to rename the estate the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, erasing recognition of Esther Lape’s generosity and ‘Salt Meadow’ her chosen name for the lands.
I’m tempted to write such has been the lot of women while sadly shaking my head. But I will not. Women work hard, accomplish much, and then are turned into nameless pillars of salt. But no more. It is time to recognize the work of our foremothers. It is time to remember and celebrate their names. Let us wake up each morning and fall asleep each night chanting the litany of names of those who have gone before us. We will stand tall and claim who we are and what we have done, even as we say thank you to the likes of Esther Lape and all of her sisters.