The familiar picture of Charlotte Rumbold, early twentieth century social activist, shows a middle-aged woman with a soft smile, rimless spectacles, tucked back hair, and the shirtwaist and tie of a no-nonsense professional. She is, frankly, plain; but that smile lights up the whole portrait and thoroughly engages my interest.
The daughter of a successful physician, Charlotte Rumbold grew up well-educated and secure. Yet she knew from intense observation that too many of her fellow St. Louisans lived in unacceptable conditions: substandard housing, filthy streets, meager health and recreation services. Eager to make a difference, she compiled a report on housing conditions for the city’s Civic League, rallied support for public bathhouses, organized the enormous Forest Park Pageant and Masque in 1913, and supervised the neighborhood playground movement for the city. The list of her accomplishments goes on, and by 1915 she could look around her city and smile at the steady improvements to which she had contributed.
That smile no doubt faded a bit when the city denied her request for a well-deserved raise – on the grounds that she wasn’t a voter! (In 1915 no woman could vote.) She packed up her many talents and went to Cleveland where she spent the next thirty years working to eliminate slums and improve housing and public spaces. St. Louis lost out, but she left a permanent legacy that we are pledged to remember and recount.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society