Throughout the month of March, I have been featuring Buffalo women who have made history, in celebration of Women’s History Month. You all know what a history nerd I am, and so this was a labor of love for me. I’ve chosen six women who are vastly different from each other, but whom I respect immensely for various reasons.
In this post, I have compiled all of my social media offerings from the month, on this subject, into one post. And I have added to them extra snippets of information I thought you might enjoy.
My blog posts this month, however, told the stories of three fabulous Buffalo women making history in Buffalo right now, each in their own way. Links to those posts are at the end of this article. Grab a cuppa whatever you like to drink, sit back, and enjoy these stories. You’re gonna love this first one.
Minnie Gillette, Buffalo Woman
Minnie Gillette was a black woman born in 1930. She became the first African American woman to be elected to the Erie County Legislature when all women were just beginning to spread their wings as feminists. Imagine what she lived through to accomplish that!
Gillette led the movement to save the Old Post Office Building on Ellicott Street, so that it could be re-purposed as Erie Community College City Campus. She worked alongside Joan Bozer, who was also a member of the Erie County Legislature to do so, with much opposition from powerful men, at a time when men were in charge and weren’t used to women in government. I cannot imagine the downtown core without this building! This was just one of Minnie’s many, many achievements in Buffalo. She is memorialized with a plaque in the building.
Obviously, Gillette was not your typical politician. Minnie was known as a feisty woman who crossed party lines in the interest of her constituents. She clearly wasn’t in it to win fame or fortune. Minnie only cared about what was right. She was a woman who saw something that needed to be done, and put her efforts into working toward achieving it. Even after her time in office she continued to work voluntarily for the poor, the homeless and the needy.
Sadly, she passed away at the young age of 62, leaving three children and two grandchildren. In this photo, I see a no bullshit woman, who has kindness and compassion in her eyes. To me, she is beautiful! Wish I could have met her.
Minnie Gillette is indeed a Buffalo woman who made history!
Francis Folsom, Buffalo Woman
Frances Folsom was born in Buffalo in 1864. When Frances was just 21 years old, she married Grover Cleveland (27 years her senior) becoming the youngest first lady in history. She still holds the title.
Here’s a fun fact, when Cleveland became president in 1884, the press speculated that he would propose to Emma Folsom, Francis’s mother! Her husband, Oscar Folsom, who was a good friend of Cleveland’s, had passed away some years earlier. In reality, Grover and Francis had been quietly courting since Francis entered Wells College, with Mrs. Folsom’s blessing.
When the two women left for Europe towards the end of 1885, the press assumed Mrs. Folsom would be shopping for her trousseau. So when the ship landed back in the states, the Folsoms were taken aback by the attention and questions. They said nothing. But the next day the White House issued a statement explaining that Cleveland was engaged to Francis Folsom, not her mother, Emma.
I should add that it was not all that uncommon at this time that a young woman like Francis would marry someone 27 years her senior.
Frances was incredibly popular all over the country. Women and designers alike copied her clothing taste, and businesses openly used her likeness in their advertising (something that was legal at the time). Sort of a Jackie O kind of thing, but in the 1880’s. By all accounts Francis (Frank as she was called) was quite unaffected by all the attention.
Grover Cleveland died in 1908. After his death, Francis made history again by being the first widowed First Lady to remarry after the death of her spouse. In 1913, she married Princeton Professor Thomas Jex Preston, Jr. She remained popular and in the public eye until her death in 1947.
Born and raised in Buffalo, Francis Folsom was obviously a Buffalo woman who made history. To me, in this photo she appears very self assured and comfortable in her own skin. Wonder what she was really like?
Mary Talbot, Buffalo Woman
Mary Burnett Talbert was born in 1866 in Ohio. She graduated from Oberlin College when she was nineteen years old, no small feat for a black woman! Her first job was as a teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1886. Just one year later she became the first African American high school principal in Arkansas, man or woman! Imagine that in 1887!
She moved to Buffalo in 1891 when she married Buffalonian William Talbert. Together they had one child, Sarah May.
Mary, William & Sarah May attended the Michigan Street Baptist Church (they lived next door) which was the first Black religious congregation in the city.
She served as a board member of several organizations that fought for civil rights for African Americans. She was a founding member of Phyllis Wheatley Club of Colored Women, which was the first affiliate of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in Buffalo.
In 1905, together with her husband, she hosted 30 people in her home (secretly) including W.E.B. Dubois, to start what they called the Niagara Movement, and later became the NAACP, of which she served as vice president.
Mary’s accomplishments are numerous, both here in Buffalo and abroad. The latter during WWI when she served as a nurse in France. Movers and shakers in Buffalo respected Mary’s intelligence and grace, and she was often an invited guest in their homes. As always, breaking down barriers in a quiet but intelligent way.
Mary passed away in 1923. She is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery.
I am proud to call her a Buffalo woman who made history. In this photo she looks to be a pretty, proper lady. But there’s a gleam in her eye that tells the real story.
Abigail Fillmore, Buffalo Woman
Although she wasn’t born and raised in Buffalo, Abigail and her husband, Millard Fillmore, settled in Buffalo in 1826.
Abigail was a teacher by profession, and get this, 19 year old Millard was one of her students! That would never fly today! In her defense, she was just one year older. Both shared a propensity for learning, which is reportedly what brought them together. The two married when Abigail was 27, and Milliard, 26.
They settled in East Aurora first, and Abigail continued to work as a teacher. She was the first wife of a president who did so. When Milliard became more established in his career, they moved to Buffalo. They had two children together.
Millard wrote to her often while travelling, filling her in on important matters of state. She would respond with advice. He often refused to make an important decision without first speaking to Abigail. She gave her opinion in all matters of politics, and by all accounts, Milliard treated her as an intellectual equal. This was really something in 1850.
When Millard became president, Abigail was shocked that the White House did not have a library. She appealed to Congress, and was given $2000 to purchase books for the establishment of an official White House library.
In a time where women had virtually no rights as we know them today, Abigail Fillmore was known by all to be a highly educated, intelligent woman, who worked after marrying, paving the way for other women.
And that, my friends, is why Abigail Fillmore goes on the list of Buffalo Women Who Made History. From the look of this photo, I cannot imagine any President looking for advisement from her. Clearly, you cannot judge a book by it’s cover.
Maria Love, Buffalo Woman
I first became aware of Maria Love when I read City of Light by Lauren Belfer back when the book first came out. If you’ve read the book, keep in mind that it was a novel. Some of the people were real, but the bulk of the story was fictional.
To tell you a little bit of her background, Maria (pronounced Mariah) was born in 1840, into a very wealthy family. But her parents didn’t completely shelter her the way most wealthy families sheltered their young daughters. She witnessed at a young age the difficulties of immigrant families, especially working mothers and their children.
Back in the day, unless they were wealthy, when a woman lost her husband, she faced a life of very hard work for very little money. In many cases they were barely able to get by.
Maria’s father told her about the concept of a creche, which had become common in France at the time. It was where working women could have a safe and loving place for their children to stay while they worked. Love arranged for Benjamin Fitch to donate a building on Swan Street to be used as the very first day care center in the U.S. This was in 1881!
She called it the Fitch Creche, and Maria, never having married, worked tirelessly for the next 50 years empowering other Buffalo women to create a better life for themselves. She didn’t only help by providing day care, she helped to put better opportunities in front of these women by arranging positions for them in her society friends’ businesses etc.
In 1903 she fundraised among her wealthy friends to raise funds for grants for women and children convalescing from illness. That part of her legacy lives on in the Maria M. Love Convalescent Fund, still operating today.
Maria Love most definitely was a woman who made history in Buffalo! It doesn’t get any better than a woman who empowers other women to succeed. She appears to be a loving (but tough) grandmother in this photo! Can’t judge a book…
Louise Blanchard Bethune, Buffalo Woman
Louise Blanchard Bethune was the first professional woman architect in the country! That’s right, Buffalo was home to the first woman who worked as an architect in the U.S.
Louise’s family moved to Buffalo when she was a child. She graduated from Buffalo Public High School in 1874. In 1876, Louise was offered an apprenticeship with Richard Waite, a respected architectural firm in Buffalo.
In 1881 she started her own firm, and Robert Bethune, a former colleague from Richard Waite, joined her shortly thereafter. The two were married later that year, and her firm became Bethune & Bethune. The 1880’s was a perfect time to open an architectural firm in Buffalo. The city was growing by leaps and bounds.
In 1888, Louise was accepted as the first female member of the American Institute of Architects, and one year later she was named the first woman Fellow of the AIA. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2006. Louise was the principal designer of the Hotel Lafayette and it is considered to contain some of her best work. Read more about Louise and the Hotel in my post detailing both.
Quite obviously, Louise Bethune was a Buffalo Woman Who Made History. This photo looks so traditional, but is of a woman who was anything but.
In case you haven’t seen my posts about women in Buffalo making history right now, they are:
There is another woman on deck who I’ve met with and have written a post about, but due to the Covid-19 virus, she is temporarily closed down. I’ll publish a post about her when she is back up and running. She’s overcome some incredible things in the past, I have no doubt she’ll overcome this as well!
I’ve really enjoyed writing these posts about women in Buffalo who have either made history, or are making history right now. I hope you have enjoyed reading them!
Know an amazing woman? Let me know about her in the comments below!
**Lead Image Photo Credit: Lakeside Women’s Hospital