Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wait, He Has A What?

Everyday I am privileged with hearing the tales of immigration to America. Most of the time the stories are very heart warming and have a happy ending. Some times you get some tear jerkers. And now and then you get a real off the wall story. That said, one of the most interesting people to immigrate through Ellis Island was Mr. Frank Woodhull. But of the millions of immigrants and stories of their journeys, why would Woodhull's story stand out? Well because Mr. Woodhull was a woman.

The story of Frank Woodhull starts in 1858, in Toronto. Born Mary Johnson she was raised by her single father as her mother passed away when she was a child. Mary never had it easy, she had many manly features, from a deep voice, wide build and a bit of a mustache. This features caused constant teasing during young Mary's childhood. At the age of 20 her father passed away and Mary was now on her own. Seeking a new start she headed to California in search of work. There, her appearance was still subject to criticism, but it was in California that Mary Johnson would transform herself into Frank Woodhull and live out her life as a man.

It was on Ellis Island that the truth about Mary Johnson would come out. For some years already Mary was living as Frank Woodhull and everything about her was the features, qualities and attributes of a man. She made her way from California to New Orleans. Mary entered the doors of Ellis in 1908 after a trip to England. Mary was not an American citizen so she was treated as an immigrate despite her residence in the states. Mary blended into the crowded as they waited in line to be inspected. She had short hair, wore a black suit and had a hat on. However, when the inspectors got to Mary they suspected her of having tuberculosis. As Mary was pulled off line to be examined, she was forced to come forward with the truth, she was a woman.

As the examination was about to begin, Mary Johnson (above) was forced to admit she was a woman in mens clothing. She told the doctor "I might as well tell you all, I am a woman and have traveled in male attire for fifteen years." More importantly she explained why she was dressed as a man. She said that as a woman making a decent wage and working in a safe environment was impossible and as a woman she'd never be able to live a comfortable life. She said at the age of 35 she decided it was in her best interest to dress and portray herself as a man. As Mary was examined she was given a clean bill of health, both physically and mentally. She had enough money on her not to be held as a public charge. However, she was kept on Ellis Island overnight to await a decision of what would happen to her. This then caused a second problem, where to let Mary sleep over night, in the men's or women's dorms. In the end she was given a private room in the hospital to spend the night.

The next day Mary was released and given the ok to reenter the United States. Her story however had made it off the island and Johnson was for the day the most popular person in New York City. She was even interviewed by the New York Sun and the New York Times. In the interviews she again explained her reasons for dressing as a man. Stating, “Women have a hard time in this world,” that "women were merely walking advertisements for the milliner, the dry goods shops, the jewelers, and other shops” and she would rather, "live a life of independence and freedom.” You've got to hand it to her, Johnson knew what she wanted out of life and knew exactly how she would get it. Mary Johnson aka Frank Woodhull would return to New Orleans and live out her life, eventually becoming an American citizen. She would die in 1939 in New Orleans. But more importantly we see that the struggle for women's equality is an intricate part of American History. The dangers and environments women faced in the work place in the early 20th century were barely a step up from that of 19th century. Throughout American History we see this struggle continue and gain much ground. Today we still see women in search of an equal playing field in the workplace and in life. Mary Johnson is the best example of how women will always keep their fight for equality alive and do what necessary to achieve it. 

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