Heroic Women of Jersey City’s History
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we should take the time to reflect on the women throughout history who spent their lives fighting for women’s rights and trailblazing though many different fields of work and education so people of all genders can reap the benefits. Here we are going to spotlight a handful of women who lived and worked in Jersey City and made a significant impact on history.
Famous Women of Jersey City
Jane Tuers (1745-1834)
Jane Tuers was a patriot who lived on the corners of Bergen and Church Streets with her husband during the Revolutionary War.
In order to support the captured Americans soldiers (which may have included her brother Daniel Van Reypen) Tuers regularly took the ferry to British Occupied NYC, to sneak food into the Sugar House Prison. During one of her trips to the city she stopped at the Fraunces Tavern, and was informed by the patriot tavern owner of some gossip he overheard from the British soldiers. Tuers then learned of Benedict Arnold’s plan of informing the British of the location of American troops at West Point. She took this information to her brother Daniel who rushed to inform General Washington, which enabled them to secure West Point for the Americans.
Mary Philbrook (1872-1958)
Mary Philbrook was a suffragette who was the first woman to pass the bar exam to practice law in New Jersey. This was even more impressive as she had attended neither law school nor college. Once passing the exam and able to practice law, Ms. Philbrook began working at the Jersey City firm Bacot and Record, before opening her own. Throughout her career Philbrook gave many speeches on women’s rights, established the New Jersey College for Women, (now Douglas College of Rutgers University), and established the first statewide Legal Aid Association. At the age of 34, Philbrook made legal history again by being the first woman ever appointed to practice before the Supreme Court. She remained active in fighting for women’s rights well into her 70’s.
Mary T. Norton (1875-1959)
Mary Norton was a Congresswoman who was born in Jersey City. In 1912 she established a daycare center in JC, and during WW1 organized a Red Cross workroom for women. Norton became the first female member of the Democratic State Committee, and in 1923, she was elected the first female freeholder of Jersey City. Only a year later she became the Democratic congressional nominee for (then) NJ’s twelfth District, and won in a landslide victory. During her time in the House she was a “New Dealer” taking many of FDR’s progressive values to heart to help her constituents, such as relieving unemployment, improving medical care and reducing infant mortality, and of course promoting women’s rights and their participation in democracy. Norton served 13 consecutive terms as a congresswoman from 1924-1944, and to this day remains one of the most influential women in American politics.
Dr. Lena Frances Edwards (1900-1986)
Dr. Edwards was the first African American woman to be a board-certified OBGYN. After graduating from historically black college, Howard University in 1924, Dr. Edwards moved with her husband (fellow doctor and Howard graduate) to establish their medical practices in Jersey City. After a number of years delivering babies in her own practice, Dr. Edwards began work at the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital. Though she faced constant racism and sexism at work, she persevered and gained her residency, putting focus on helping low-income mothers who had previously received sub-par medical care. Dr. Edwards moved back to DC to teach at Howard University, and was heavily involved in working with the poor and unwed mothers. After that she went on to Texas to work with migrant workers, providing pre and post-natal care for mothers and infants. In 1964 Dr. Edwards was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Shirley Tolentino (1943-2010)
Shirley Tolentino was a Jersey City Native who became the first African-American appointed to the NJ Superior Court. In 1973 Tolentino was appointed as a Deputy Attorney General of the State of New Jersey, and in 1976 was the first woman appointed to the Jersey City Municipal Court. It was in 1984 that the governor appointed her to the Superior Court of NJ. She served as president of National Association of Women Judges, as well as being on the New Jersey Supreme Court TASK Force on Minorities as Chair of its Sub-Committee on Juvenile Justice. Tolentino was also Chair of the Committee on Criminal Justice and Minority Defendants. Throughout her career Tolentino was a community activist who was heavily involved in promoting the welfare and justice of people of color in Jersey City and all of New Jersey. In 2014 a Jersey City post office was named the Shirley A. Tolentino Post Office Building in her honor.
Lois Shaw (1943-)
Lois Shaw was a Jersey City Councilwoman in the 1970s. Shortly after becoming a councilwoman she insisted that issues of gender be addressed by the council’s Human Rights Commission. Her mark on women’s history in Jersey City came when she dismantled an archaic (even for the time) law that made it illegal for women to work in or be served in bars. With the help of her all female “caucus”, they did away with this law and ceremoniously “liberated” the Majestic Tavern bar, once across the street from City Hall.
Reflecting on our Past and Looking Forward
The hometown heroes above did their part to help promote social progress for not only women, but the children and working class people of Jersey City. It’s important to remember that without the actions of these women we would not be where we are today, as Americans and JC residents. We must be grateful for the progress we have come, and continue the journey of gender equality.