On January 14th, 1885, The Pittsburg Dispatch (yes, Pittsburgh was Pittsburg back then) published a column replying to a letter from an “Anxious Father.” The columnist was Erasmus Wilson, a kindly, avuncular gentleman, who wrote under the pseudonym of Q.O. (The Quiet Observer). Wilson’s “Quiet Observations”, in early 1885, were focused on the role of women and his views were strictly traditional. Women’s place was in the home.
In mid January, he received a letter from an ‘Anxious Father’, seeking advice on what to do with his unmarried daughters, aged between eighteen and twenty-six. “I have five of them on hand,” wrote their father, “and am at a loss how to get them off or what use to make of them.”
Wilson did not hold back.
In his column, published alongside the letter, Wilson said he could not help the father. It was the parents’ responsibility to prepare their daughters to run households, he said. Women should be able to spin, sew, cook and clean. If women were not fit to run a home, then who knew, in the future, America might need to adopt the Chinese policy of killing baby girls or selling them as slaves! In the following week or two, as the ‘Anxious Father’ wrote to the paper again, Wilson went even further. Any woman ‘outside her sphere’ was a ‘monstrosity’, he declared, adding that ‘There is no greater abnormality than a woman in breeches, unless it is a man in petticoats.’
Wilson was being deliberately provocative. And the women of Pittsburgh were certainly provoked into responding.
Bessie Bramble was one. The sole female columnist at the Dispatch, Bramble was a passionate writer and one of the few women journalists working at the time. She hit back at Wilson, defending women and rejecting his argument that ‘girls were only good for’ domestic drudgery.
Wilson’s column brought in letters too, including one from a twenty year-old girl called Elizabeth Cochrane. She lived in an Allegheny row house with her mother, siblings and some boarders the family took in, in order to make ends meet. After reading Wilson’s column on January 24th, Cochrane wrote a passionate letter to the paper. She did not include her address or her real name, but signed it “Lonely Orphan Girl.”
Wilson and the Dispatch’s editor George Madden, were intrigued, impressed even, by her response.
But how could they find the letter writer when they didn’t know her address, far less her real name?