The pictures of ideal characters in fiction even under the most artistic hand, or the power of the greatest imagination, can never surpass in portraiture or characteristics the reality of individual experience. Thinking people are loath to give out to the world their sacred experiences, hidden away within the Holy of Holies of their lives, where none dare intrude.
Rebecca Brown Mitchell
What busy days they were, spinning the wool to be woven into cloth for the winter’s clothing, caring for the lambs of the flock, driving in the sheep and cows at night, no idlers, nor drones, but each did his or her share of the daily work. Behind the farm house was the blooming orchard, laden with its perfume, or rosy with fruit, which was a never ending source of delight.
The country was new and school privileges scarce, while but few books were available, but Scotch-Irish blood and convictions in a deacon’s household made all the family Bible students. From this Christian home I went in my nineteenth year to be a farmer’s wife, but only a few years passed when death entered the home and took the husband and father from my side. Though I was but a child in experience, yet now I must take a woman’s responsibility with a world to face alone. It was at that time when coming in personal contact with existing conditions, that I was awakened and took in the legal restrictions of my sex, which has been as a fire shut up in my bones, permeating my whole being and making me what I am along the lines of independent thought, and willingness to endure hardness, that citizenship for women might be won.
According to the law of the State, the Court appointed appraisers, who came into my house, overhauled trunks, drawers and closets, putting a price on my own goods which I had brought from my father’s house, with one exception, my Bible and hymn book, which they handed me, saying, “These are exempted by law.” Thus I had to buy back that which was my own by personal right. But if I had died, my husband would have gone on in full possession of all the property, to use or to keep as he liked regardless of the rights of the children. This unjust discrimination of the law against women, seeing that they were not consulted as to birth, having no choice as to sex, color or country, was to me in the light of my new experience, heathen and not Christian in any sense of the word. This was to me a violation of the sacred rights of self-government and of the oneness of the marriage relation as taught in the Bible. I was like a prisoner in the iron cage of the law, while I studied and tolled, ever lifting my face upward to a Father which I could never believe cared less for His daughter than His son. The voice of God and of humanity was in my soul, but I chafed in silence, for at that time women were to be seen and not heard, but still the cry from the great mission fields was ever sounding in my ears. I sought the path of duty and opportunity along the lines of the church, but was hedged out by public opinion and sex prejudice from active service into which the Lord called me. When my two boys were grown and married, I went to a missionary training school in Chicago for a few months, in preparation for work, and in June, 1882, turned my face toward the Great Unknown West, not knowing the whereabouts of my final destination, but was led by God, and so I found myself in Idaho, in the town of Eagle Rock, now Idaho Falls, coming as a self-supporting missionary of the Baptist Church.
What this new territory was at that time can hardly be understood by people in the Old World, a part of the Great American Desert as given in our geographies of forty years ago, but the kiss of nature has transformed the desert into fruitful fields, dotted with thousands of homes, and many schools of high grade as well as primary. Through this wild country, the home of the Redman, came a few trappers and hunters, who were largely squaw men, and miners heading to the great mining country to the North. This road crosses the Snake River at this point. The banks of the river are solid walls of lava rock, and the river looks like a great crack in the earth made by and earthquake while in some places it is claimed that the bottom cannot be found, the current is very swift, dashing the water upon the rocks with such force that it lashes into foam and roars like the sea. The town was then a row of company houses, built by railroad employees, with shanties here and there, besides a few business houses and the ever-present saloon plying its trade.
It was the morning of June 5th, 1882, when I stepped from the train and into the new world. No hotel or furnished room could be found where I could find shelter and rest. All day long I waded the sand shoe top deep in some places, going from house to house, where I found a welcome, but no room. Late in the afternoon I found a shanty that I could rent, which had been used for a saloon, into which my daughter and I gladly moved our trunks and were at home, amid such surroundings that a change of world could hardly be greater. I bought a candle, and for a candlestick used an empty beer bottle. After sweeping out the room, I spread a comfort on the bare floor for a bed, and committing our souls and bodied to the care of the ever-present Father, we slept the sleep that faith alone can give.
I found no church or church organization on this line of road from Ogden, Utah to Butte, Montana, a distance of four hundred miles. Neither tree, nor grass, nor bird was to be seen on the streets, but sand, sand everywhere. But when the sandstorms came, it was beyond description. My first work was a day and Sunday school, which I named Providence Mission, because by unexpected and unplanned journeys the Lord had transplanted me into this needy field. As nothing better could be found, I transformed my shanty into a chapel and schoolroom of the most primitive kind imaginable, having no furniture same two benches, which served at night for a bedstead and by day for seats for the larger pupils, each having a box in front for a desk. The smaller children had two boxes, one for a seat and one for a desk. But how those children did study, making progress not without standing for want of everything needful in the way of equipment. I never halted, doubted or hesitated, accepting every privation without murmuring or looking back to the world left behind with regret. My motto was “all things are possible to him that believeth” (Mark 8:23).
Before the end of the first month my purse was empty, the cost of living was much more than expected. I had sent home for funds, but the expected remittance had not arrived. My daughter had been sick and craved some pickles. I had given her the last nickel with the assuring promise on my lips, “The Lord will provide.” That very day at noon, a prominent railroad man and a patron of my school, (Frank Reardon) who had laughed at me for saying “Providence Mission” came and handed me the tuition for his boy. I said with choked emotion, Mr. Reardon, why did you do this? Did you know that I had spent the last cent, and now you come and pay your tuition before it is due? What do you call this but the Lord’s direct provision for our need?” He said, “It does look like it,” and ever after while he remained in this country, he and his family gave me many a comforting word, and more substantial help.
Early in November winter set in, with deep snow and severe cold, which made it impossible to live longer in the shanty. But by this time, a better place, though very small, was secured, which served me to the end of the first year’s work, after which reasonably good accommodations were opened for my school and home. I began at once to raise money by writing letters to people in the East who were interested in Home Missions, to build a church. I was greatly aided by Rev. Dwight Spencer of New York, Superintendent of Baptist Missions in the West. In this work I happily succeeded during the third year, and in November, 1884, the little chapel was dedicated. It was the beginning of a new era in Snake River Valley when the bell rang out the hour of prayer. The Sunday school had prospered; good attendance and faithful co-workers had made the school a landmark to be seen afar. By this time people were coming into this new country to take land and make homes. It was slow work, but year by year the population increased as emigrants realized the fertility of the soil and the healthfulness of the climate. In 1886, a national organizer of the W.C.T.U. came to Eagle Rock and organized a local union of which I was president. Some months later a convention was called at Boise City, when the unions were organized into a territorial union. I was a delegate to that convention, and took my first lesson in convention work. I still followed my school work, but in 1891 I was elected State organize and Superintendent of the Franchise, which put the legislative work in my hands. My daughter being now married, a pastor of the church located, and a public school running, I was free to drop the school work and enter this open door, which gave such opportunities not only to come in contact with people, but to learn much of the social, political and religious condition of the State.
My first legislative work was securing the passage of a Bill raising the age of consent for girls, from ten to eighteen years, at the same time working for an amendment to the constitution granting the right of suffrage to women. In this I failed at first, but kept on knocking until the Bill passed the next session of the legislature. The amendment aroused many women outside the ranks of the W.T.C.U., and much help was given by them, writing letters and personal interviews with the members. But the great battle was to be fought at the Polls at the next general election. In the meantime, earnest prayerful work was to be done.
Justice and truth are fixed eternal principles. But the world of mankind has leaned away from this tower, until the standard of right in heathen lands lies prone upon the earth at right angles with justice. The will or the passions of men being the recognized law. Thus the man holds the life of his wife in his hands as absolutely as the life of his beast, or as any tyrant the life of his meanest subject. Women are bought and sold and driven like cattle or even worse. Then this Heathen Standard moves up a little place, where a man may not kill his wife, though he can sell her. She may eat in his presence and speak to him. It moves again, the woman is consulted as to her husband, though a slave in every way afterward. Thus step by step a whole humanity is now being lifted by the Law of Righteousness and truth out of the deepest degradation and moved upward toward the perpendicular. But as yet there is not a nation in all the world, Christian or non-Christian, that gives to the daughter the same moral, legal, educational and parental rights that the son claims for himself and keeps. But Election Day dawned upon us, with all its momentous possibilities, cold and stormy, but the club women and W.T.C.U. were abroad at work. Coffee rooms were opened, and by every means courteous, we urged upon the voters the justice of our cause. In one place the women hired two boys to go out with placards on their breasts, with this petition “Vote for your Mothers.” A day of deep anxiety and trial to many of us. As I stood as near the polls as possible, speaking to the voters as they went into vote, I said to one of the old pioneer citizens of our town, as he was passing in, “Mr. A., won’t you vote for the amendment?” “It’s not my ticket, it’s not my ticket,” he replied and pushed on and left me. Afterwards a colored man, who was servant in a household opposed to the amendment came along, and I said, “You will vote the amendment, won’t you?” “I don’t know, Mrs. Mitchell, I don’t understand it.” “Do you understand the rest of the ballot?” I asked. “I think I do.” “Well then why can’t you understand this? It is just doing for us what was done for you. You must be willing to do that.” “Don’t know, Mrs. Mitchell, don’t understand,” and so he went in and voted. Some men said, “Women have too many rights now,” and some said other things cruel and hard to bear, cutting deeper than the cold wind. But we won by a good majority, though the opposition tried to claim that it must be a two-thirds vote to amend. So the matter went before the Supreme Court, which decided that the majority carried and the battle was over.
When I first asked for the position of chaplain in the Legislature, the men said, “We never heard of such a thing,” but I said, “Why not Idaho do the unheard of thing and set the example for other States?” But by the next Session I had learned how to work along this line. So I wrote letters to the members elect urging my claims before the opening of the session, was nominated in joint caucus by the Democrats and Populists and elected in open session by unanimous vote. Was re-elected the next session in the same way and by the same political parties. The members and officials have always treated me with all due respect, except in a very few instances where prejudice overruled courtesy. One of the most interesting events occurring while I was chaplain was when the Idaho legislature accepted an invitation from the Utah Legislature to visit them in a body. We were very kindly received and toted around with much honor, receptions and speeches with a band concert at Fort Douglas was Saturday’s program. On Sunday, I found my way to the State Prison, where I talked to the prisoners, went to the Tabernacle in the afternoon, and in the evening out to Fort Douglas to preach to the soldiers. Monday morning went to Garfield Beach, and in the afternoon a joint session of the two State legislatures was held to play at lawmaking, but had the opening rollcall as usual. To my surprise when all was ready, Idaho’s chaplain was called to open the session with prayer. I rose and went forward hardly knowing where I was, but I opened my mouth and the Lord filled it with large petitions, as the hush of the vast assembly was something to be felt. The after comments were all on the side of the woman chaplain.
During all the years given to legislative work, I have held service in our State Prison at Boise, and often between sessions when in the city. The service was always favorably received by the men, winning the attention and the hearts of some to receive the truth and strive for a better life. One man in a letter said, “I am glad I am here, for I have learned about Christ and to read and to love His word.” The “boys,” as I called them, were especially grateful for the parole law which I had helped to secure, they always manifest great pleasure when I visit and preach to them.
My own women were astonished at the boldness of my forward movement in seeding the position of Chaplain, but when they saw that I could fill it all right, they rejoiced with me in the victory. Letters of congratulations poured in upon me from all over the United States, and worn as I was with the long battle for citizenship, I was cheered by the honor given me in my old age, a kid of compensation for long weary miles of stage travel and storm and cold. The jeers of men were forgotten, the haughty looks of women who had all the rights they want, faded away as a cloud before the sun. Not for myself did I care so much, for I had learned to labor and wait, but for womanhood was the victory dear to my heart. History will record that work done for humanity, the helpless and unprotected legally or otherwise pays a dividend far greater than any other investment, even though the recipients may not at the time appreciate the sacrifice and labor which it cost.