Caroline Earle White
Protecting Animals: A 19th Century Woman’s Take
A Quaker Upbringing
From an early age, Caroline Earle White was exposed to progressive political ideology, identifying with her parents’ causes, namely women’s suffrage and abolitionism. Born in 1833 in Pennsylvania, White was nurtured with Quaker values and reformist pursuits. Her father, the well-known lawyer Thomas Earle who defended not only free, but fugitive African Americans, ensured that his young daughter seized educational opportunities not afforded to most girls of the era. Versed in six languages and a master of astronomy, White was a budding philanthropist and entrepreneur and would find her calling through an unusual conduit: a Catholic.
Likely provoking her conversion to Catholicism, Philadelphian attorney Richard P. White married Caroline in 1854. Richard quickly picked up on his wife’s deep fondness for animals. As a girl, she bared witness to outright animal abuse on Philadelphia’s streets as drivers beat overburdened, overworked horses. Haunted by these inhumane sights, Caroline refused to patron those streets if at all possible. Thanks to the landmark antecedents of Richard “Humanity Dick” Martin and his contemporaries, the actions of the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) in Britain captured the eyes and ears of Americans, including Mr. White, who mentioned the organization’s activities to Caroline. Moved by the RSPCA’s existence, Mrs. White eagerly set off to found her own humane organization.
Snippet of History: New England life in the mid-nineteenth century was riffed with the trials and tribulations of a nation defining itself, its territory and government. During this era, natural rights philosophy as refined by Thomas Paine outlined humanity’s entitlements to inalienable and universal civil liberties. Civil War brought to the table the idea of equality and its unequivocal extension to African Americans. And Charles Darwin’s radical-for-the-time publications, The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), challenged humanity’s socially constructed superiority over non-human animals. These developments along with the continued influx of people into burgeoning, industrialized cities generated consideration for the animals wandering the streets, mistreated in labor practices, and inhumanely transported and slaughtered for food. The popularity of animal welfare as a social and moral issue of the day dramatically rose during this era.
“…animals have certain rights, as inalienable as those of man to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” – Caroline Earle White
Coming Into Her Own
Caroline was a natural mover and shaker. Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in New York, met with Caroline in 1866 and encouraged her to mimic his actions in petitioning well-to-do families for financial and legislative support. That she did with the aid of M. Richards Muckle, a fellow friend to animals, and her husband who drafted the group’s charter and corresponding laws. Their efforts came into fruition on June 21, 1868. With the state legislature’s approval, the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA) was founded, and by 1870 the organization boasted a roster of 600+ members.
Women formed the backbone of American animal protection, starting, funding and volunteering for nonprofit organizations, as was the case with the PSPCA. Their presence in organizational leadership, however, severely lacked. As her husband, Richard represented Caroline’s views on the board of the PSPCA while she ploughed away in the groups’ campaigns. Markedly of this time was the division of roles, whereby men commanded the political, business, and organizational spheres and women were charged with family and domesticity. But as caretakers, it was a natural leap for women to widen their circle of compassion and activity to include non-human animal concerns. As the women’s suffrage and animal welfare movements gained way, ladies of the day were able to undertake more ambitious, gender role-bending endeavors. Part and parcel of this momentum was the formation of women’s divisions of preexisting organizations or entirely new, female-led groups. This was done by a handful of women in order to have autonomy over their initiatives, founding philosophies and tactics, and financial accounts.
The Women’s PSPCA, also known as the Women’s Humane Society, was established in 1869 by Mrs. White and tackled grave animal issues in the city, including homeless dogs and cats. One monumental coup was the opening of America’s first animal shelter, the Morris Refuge Association for Homeless and Suffering Animals (later shortened to the Morris Animal Refuge). By establishing this innovative institution women could safeguard the animals, either through reunions with their guardians, adoption or humane euthanasia practices. Under White’s financially-savvy leadership, the group prospered in its fundraising initiatives and was able to employ three salaried cruelty officers, Philadelphia’s first patrols authorized to prevent and punish animal abuse. The Women’s Humane Society was a revolutionary model that spread its influence throughout the country, instigating other women to create similar nonprofits and municipalities to build upon this original animal shelter design.
WPSPCA supporters also vocalized their animal welfare concerns through campaigns and legislation. Caroline called on her members to boycott cruel carriage horse companies and even go as far as to citizen arrest malicious drivers. In 1909, the group, along with other city humanitarians, secured legislation forbidding the sale or purchase of disabled work horses. Come 1871, the Society successfully joined other humane societies in urging Congress to pass the Twenty-eight Hour Law, a mandate that railway companies provide facilities to feed, water and rest animals in transit every 28 hours. WPSPCA agents were dispatched to assess the railways’ adherence and prosecuted as needed. The group also tackled blood sports, such as the fighting of dogs and roosters; animal baiting, or tethering an animal and allowing other animals to attack him or her; gander pulling, where riders on horseback attempt to decapitate a bird that has been greased and poised; pigeon shoots and fox hunts.
Caroline also viewed humane education as an essential component to animal protection, which notionally engenders the next generation with benevolence for all sentient beings. Her Society issued thousands of leaflets and little books to school age children, including Early Lessons in Kindness, “The Horse’s Petition”, and “Take Not the Life You Cannot Give”. To target young boys whom she viewed as more prone to cruelty because of their biological nature and socialization, White developed The Juvenile Society for the Protection of Animals. Boys were provided free field trips, presentations, and reading material, and given popular incentives such as prizes and badges. Young girls would be invited to join as well some years later. Humane education continues to be a vital program for the Women’s Humane Society, now located in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.
“to teach children…that animals have certain rights…creates in their minds a respect and regard for life…” – Caroline Earle White
A New Issue, A New Direction
As the Women’s Humane Society grew, so did the number of issues it took on. Vivisection, the practice of cutting or dissecting live animals, became a hotly contested issue of the day (and still is). In 1871, physician S. Weir Mitchell penned a letter to Caroline requesting that the WPSPCA relinquish unwanted dogs from their shelter to his research hospital, for experimental purposes. Horrified, White called an Executive Committee meeting which resulted in a strenuous resolution protesting vivisection.
After connecting with and seeking counsel from British antivivisectionist and feminist compatriot Frances Power Cobbe, Caroline resolved to create an organization that specifically addressed the use of animals in testing, research and education. In 1883, she founded the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS), the first of its kind in the nation. Having stirred the pot, however, half a dozen antivivisection groups arose in AAVS’ wake. While abolitionist in its heart, AAVS initially pursued a more flexible approach and attempted to curtail the practice. With a board of directors comprised by and large of physicians, the organization strategically engaged the support of celebrities, politicians and writers, including Mark Twain, to popularize the issue and raise awareness. AAVS sponsored traveling exhibits depicting the horrors involved in animal testing. One significant stop was the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Volunteers passed out millions of leaflets addressing the topics of pets stolen for research and the deplorable housing assigned to lab animals. Partnering with the Massachusetts SPCA, AAVS successfully campaigned to ban vivisection in elementary and secondary schools in Massachusetts. Other states soon followed suit. AAVS continues its critical work today from its headquarters in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.
A Pioneer in American Animal Protection
White immersed herself in many charitable causes and organizations over her lifespan: as president of St. Vincent’s Aid Society (orphaned children), chair of the Ladies Auxiliary of the American Catholic Historical Society, vice president of the Browning Society (literary), and member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She was also a distinguished author, penning a number of travel novels: A holiday in Spain and Norway, Love in the Tropics: A Romance of the South Seas, and An Ocean Mystery. But there is little doubt that her true calling in life was to help the neglected, the voiceless: animals.
In recognition of her contributions advancing the animals’ agenda, the Caroline Earle White Dispensary was opened in 1909 to provide much needed veterinary services for equines and smaller animals in need. In 1916, after several years of declining health, Caroline Earle White passed away. Her legacy perseveres through the activities of the Women’s Humane Society and the American Anti-Vivisection Society and her trailblazing “social feminism,” whereby she pushed the envelope and broadened women’s accepted roles in society, particularly as founders and leaders of nonprofit organizations. She was not only practical and innovative in her campaigns, but a steadfast and relentless opponent to those inflicting harm on animals. Caroline Earle White, abolitionist, feminist and animal advocate, is America’s foremother of animal protection.
For more information on this colorful character and her organizations, we recommend the following text:
• Beers, Diane L. (2006). For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States. Athens: Swallow Press / Ohio University Press.
Caroline (pictured right) stands near the water fountain for horses, erected in honor of Annie L. Lowry, an avid supporter of the WPSPCA.
Photo of Caroline Earle White graciously provided by The Women’s Humane Society.
“Showing a driver how to bandage the leg of his injured horse. Mrs. White at the horses head.”
Photograph and text as depicted in the Philadelphia Record.
Photo of Caroline Earle White graciously provided by The Women’s Humane Society.