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The (Past) is Female 

Friday, March 23, 2018

I found an archive back in 2008 when I was working at the Pennsylvania SPCA in Philadelphia. It was just an office cabinet in a garage bay and it was full of old annual reports, press clippings, and board minutes. 

Caroline Earle White

140 years of animal rights history, just sitting in a garage bay in Kensington, Philadelphia. I was so excited. 

I pulled out the oldest documents and started reading them– that’s where I found Caroline Earle White. I had been told that the Pennsylvania SPCA was founded by Colonel M. Richards Mucklé, a businessman who wanted to help prevent cruelty against the horses being exploited and abused every day in the streets of Philadelphia. An oil painting of him hung in a hallway near my office. His name was in our “about us” section on the website. But that wasn’t the full story– White was there too. In the shadows maybe but standing just as tall.

A suffragette who was raised Quaker with abolitionist parents, White was inspired to help non-human animals by women anti-vivisection leaders in Europe like Frances Power Cobbe. It was women in England who were so moved by watching dogs and cats tortured in “teaching” amphitheaters, that they loudly told stories like that of the little brown dog who died in front of a crowd of medical students, finally breaking the Cartesian hold on Western Europe’s consideration of animals.  

White began organizing independently for a humane organization in Philadelphia and soon aligned herself with Mucklé for the founding of the Pennsylvania SPCA in 1868. But despite her smarts, wealth, and connections, White was kept from a position of leadership because of her gender– her husband was put on the board in her stead. 

Rachel speaking on the history of the animal rights movement

Like other women of the era, White worked within a women’s auxiliary branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA but soon realized that she was more radical and wanted actual authority. She founded the first animal shelter in the United States (the ASPCA and the Pennsylvania SPCA were enforcement agencies but didn’t do direct rescue and sheltering work) called the Women’s Humane Society. They were immediately more aggressive and impactful than the work being done at the bigger Pennsylvania SPCA. The Women’s Humane Society lobbied for the passage of the Twenty-Eight Hour Law in 1871, a law that required railway companies to feed and water animals in transit every 28 hours.   

White then founded the American Anti-Vivisection Society in 1883 alongside Mary Frances Lovell. Both groups are still around, speaking to White’s vision and impact! Until her death she lobbied against blood sports (like dog fighting), pigeon shoots, and vivisection of all kinds. She was an animal rights activist before anyone used that term.  

As both a feminist and an animal rights activist, finding the archive that contained Caroline Earle White was such a watershed. She was part of a generation of progressive and radical women who railed against the status quo and the old boy’s power clubs. Even now, a decade later, if I’m ever feeling that old bigoted pushback of resistance against female leadership, I try and channel a little bit of White.  

A few of the strong, hardworking women we’re proud to have on the Sanctuary team

Mercy and compassion were seen as lesser, feminine traits in the 19th Century. But women like White demonstrated that those traits were powerful; and that justice, righteousness, and hard work were just as important to their identities as women. And that those qualities could be extended – and should be extended – to nonhuman animals. As we move toward the next decade of animal rights and feminist activism, women and feminists, along with our nonbinary, gender non-conforming, and trans allies, continue to defy expectations about our identities and we refuse to stay silent in the face of injustice. We owe a lot of that power to the past.

Happy Women’s History Month, Caroline Earle White.

For the animals,

Rachel McCrystal

(For a really accessible but comprehensive look at animal welfare and rights movements in the United States including White’s contributions:


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