Friday, April 4, 2014

A Vision and a Task: Caroline Earle White & the Women's Humane Society

(From The Way-Back Files – Just Cats!, Feb/Mar. 1998)

“A vision without a task is but a dream,” reads an inscription in a church in Sussex, England, “a task without a vision is drudgery and a vision and a task is the hope of the world.”

Caroline Earle White (1833 – 1916), the founder and president of the Women’s Humane Society in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, had both. And she pursued them with what her old friend and colleague, Mary F. Lovell, called her “inextinguishable desire for the righting of wrong and a nice sense of justice and an immense capacity for pity and compassion.” That “immense capacity,” combined with her equally immense drive and political smarts, led to the Society’s founding in April 1869. Under Earle White’s leadership, the organization would go on to set up the first humane education program in Pennsylvania; the first humane veterinary hospital with an ambulance service strictly for horses (the vehicle was equipped with a sling for the horse’s belly in case it needed to stand but was too weak to do so); and the first truly humane animal shelter in the U. S. and abroad.

In the beginning, however, the Society was simply a spin-off of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (1868) that Earle White had been a moving force behind. She had not, according to the American Catholic Historical Society’s biographical sketch of her, expected to take part in the PA/SPCA’s administration. And yet… Earle White, who had converted in her husband Richard’s religion in 1858, was originally a Quaker, and Quaker women had a long history of political activism in this country. (White’s mother, Mary Hussey Earle, was an abolitionist, suffragist -- and cousin to Lucretia Mott, herself a political dynamo.)

Given all this, plus her political savvy and her sense of mission, it’s hard to believe that she would have stayed in the background for long. From the moment that the “Woman’s Branch” was formed in at PA/SPCA president S. Morris Waln’s request, she was throwing herself into every animal-welfare battle that came along. She fought, among other things, for the humane treatment of workhorses; the more merciful – well, more merciful-for-the-times, that is – disposal of stray dogs by gassing; and the passage of a federal law guaranteeing more sanitary transportation for livestock in 1873.

“When you consider that Caroline Earle White was the one who got these men [in the PA/SPCA] together,” reflects Janice Mininberg, the Women’s Humane Society’s Director of Education and Legislative Action and the editor of its publication The Guardian, “it was the socially correct thing to do. Politically, too. Her family were lawyers from beginning to end. She was married to a lawyer, her son was a lawyer, her brother was a lawyer. Things happen when you know people; she was a smart woman, and, considering that she could get people together, it was advantageous to keep her in the picture. I mean, here was a woman who had a good deal of influence in the city of Philadelphia.”

She could talk the most glowing purply-prosy rhetoric, then pack a large amount of political and organizational muscle behind it. And she was very, very sure of herself. “She saw the importance of women,” Mininberg observes. “I mean, look at her name – Caroline Earle White. She didn’t go by ‘Mrs. Richard White.’ She kept her maiden name and her last name, and they were both very influential names in the community. At a time when women were considered chattel, here was a woman in her 30’s who started an organization, the first of its kind in Pennsylvania. And with a good track record behind her, she took the women’s branch and turned it into an entity in itself. She was a workaholic, what we would call today a Type A personality.”

Probably Earle White’s greatest strength as an activist was that she saw what the men in the PA/SPCA missed – “the metropolitan picture,” so to speak. They were focusing solely on cruelty issues, while she and the Women’s Humane Society were looking beyond those to “the unwanted animals, the animals who were sick, the overpopulation on account of litters.”

One of the first things that the organization did after forming in 1869 was to take over the Philadelphia city pound and re-open it under more humane guidelines. By that next year, the “City Refuge for Lost and Suffering Animals” was up and running. Its objective was simply set forth as “the care of homeless animals by finding homes for them in families and, when this is not possible, by finding boarding homes, hospital or refuges for their accommodation and, when there is no other way of providing for them, by giving them a quick and painless death.” Thirty-two years later, the Annie L. Lowry Home for Smaller Animals would open under the Society’s aegis… standing out because of its indoor and outdoor kennels having concrete floors at a time when the outdoor kennels at dog pounds still had dirt floors, heightening the risk of disease. “They were incredibly forward-thinking for their times,” notes Mininberg.

Earle White also marched humane education into the Pennsylvania public and parochial schools and oversaw the formation of the “Band of Mercy.” The latter, the director explains, was not an original idea. Earle White had seen it started up in other states and been sufficiently impressed to bring it back to Pennsylvania with her. Basically, the idea behind the “Band” was to educate troubled boys in compassion and responsible pet care; in turn, they would “not only be nice to animals but also to their fellow men – or, in their case, their fellow children. It was probably also the earliest form – without their knowing it – of pet therapy.”

But Earle White’s work didn’t stop there. She helped start the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS) in 1883 and wrote vehemently about “the frightful cruelty and barbarous experiment[s] perpetrated by science and under the specious plea of doing to human beings…upon helpless animals by vivisectionists.” She also founded and edited the Journal of Zoophily, an animal publication that bore the motto “He who is not actively kind is cruel.”

Those were definitely words that Earle White believed in with all her heart, all her soul, and all her might. She carried out her battles on behalf of cats, dogs, and larger animals, said one colleague, “as though she was conscious of a Divine call.” Another called her “a great woman with the heart of a little child.” And yet a third, her old friend Mary Lovell, spoke of her ability to “suffer long and be kind…her charity never fail[ing].”

Mininberg sums up the indefatigable activist in more down-to-earth terms. “She was a ticket-and-a-half,” the director laughs. “I would not have wanted to have had an argument with Caroline Earle White because I would have lost.”

Update: On October 10, 2013, the Women’s’ Humane Society re-dedicated their veterinary hospital in their founder’s memory. The Caroline Earle White Veterinary Hospital continues to provide “a range of healthcare services for dogs, cats and other small domestic animals as part of our commitment to maintaining the health and wellbeing of animals in our community.” For further information, visit


Gwynn Rogers said...

I applaud women like Caroline Earle White as they have the intelligence, get-up-and-go, and the heart to take on these tasks. Your post is incredible T.J. as I love hearing about the foresight and love this woman had for animals. Thanks for the superb post!

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Gwynn. I think I would've liked knowing her. She also wrote a few books, btw.

Samantha Mozart said...

The Women's Humane Society" founded right in my home town, Philadelphia's backyard, Bensalem, Pa. Who knew? Thanks for writing and publishing this story, T.J. It would take "a ticket and a half" to accomplish all Caroline Earle White did. And, I remember when I began cutting hair in the 1970s that some women would sign their checks as Mrs. James Smith, or whatever, rather than using their own names. To me, that signature made the woman invisible.

“He who is not actively kind is cruel.” --Good thought.

T. J. Banks said...

I love the connection, Samantha. Serendipity, anyone? And you're right about Caroline Earle White: she definitely sounds like a force of nature and very, very book-worthy.

assemblage333 said...

More power to women!

Great post T. J.


T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Robert. She certainly was a very inspiring woman.

Yvonne Mahlape Maserumule said...

Love the opening line in your article: A vision without a task is but a dream. Gets one thinking!

T. J. Banks said...

It's a strong quote, Yvonne. I wonder who wrote it and how it ended up in that church in Sussex?

Sallie Williams said...

Caroline Earle White was an amazing woman during a time when women were second class citizens in this country. Her love and kindness has been carried on as I see my sister love and care for stray dogs and barn cats. We could never even begin to accomplish what Caroline Earle White has done but we can share her beliefs of love and kindness to all living creatures. I thank you for writing about my amazing second great grandmother.

T. J. Banks said...

How lovely to meet one of her descendants, Sallie. I don't blame you for being proud of her. She was a powerhouse of a woman and accomplished so much for animals: I was delighted to learn that the Women's Humane Society had dedicated their veterinary hospital in her memory. It is the perfect tribute.