A writer, women’s rights activist, one of the first female physicians in Texas, and one of the Texas Equal Rights Association’s founders.
Mary Ellen Lawson Dabbs was born in Rusk County, Texas. Her family owned a cotton plantation, and she participated in activities usually reserved only for men. She received her education at the county school and later attended the Furlow Masonic College in Georgia. She graduated first in her class. Back in Texas, she met her husband – a widower merchant with four children who was twenty years older than her. While taking care of his children and giving birth to five more, she helped him in his business. When his sons were older enough, he deeded over his property to them, and Dabbs realized she needs to be independent with an income of her own, so at the age of 33, she decided to end her tempestuous marriage and pursue medicine.
The first step was not to have more children, and she stopped having sex with her husband. He physically abused her for that until she reported him to the authorities and moved to Sulphur Springs filing for divorce on the grounds of cruelty. Next, she began to study at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Keokuk, Iowa, then midwifery in St. Louis. At the age of 37, she completed her medical degree. At the time, her divorce was not finalized, and her husband bribed the local sheriff and the district clerk not to notify her about the date of the final hearing, which caused the dismission of the divorce case. She moved to Dallas to practice medicine, but that attempt was unsuccessful, so she returned to Sulphur Springs, where she set up a practice presenting herself as a widow.
With her own experience of the unequal results of the divorce prosses, Dabbs began to pay interest in the women’s rights movement. She moved to Fort Worth, where there were already seven women who practiced medicine. She was Texas delegate at the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and was chosen as the state chair of the Woman’s Southern Council. A year later, she co-founded the Texas Equal Rights Association –the Texan women’s suffrage society. At age 41, she was chosen as the president of the “Women’s Congress,” and promoted legislation concerning women’s welfare, such as age-of-consent and the establishment of a women’s industrial school, that became Texas Woman’s University.
During the Spanish–American War, Dabbs volunteered for six months as a contract nurse at Camp Cuba Libre, where she contracted tuberculosis. It affected her health for the rest of her life. In 1899, after her house was destroyed by fire, she returned to Rusk, but eventually, she traded her farm and moved to Oklahoma, where she continued to practice medicine. When her tuberculosis was getting worse, she moved to New Mexico in the hope of being cured, but she took her own life when she realized the stage of the disease. She is buried in an anonymous grave for victims of tuberculosis.
More Interesting Anecdotes:
- She was the only girl of 8 siblings.
- During the divorce, she had to fight for the custody of her daughters.
- She delivered her first grandchild.
- In addition to working as a physician, she wrote for the newsletter of the National Farmers’ Alliance, and in 1892 she served as Texas’s delegate at the National Farmers’ Alliance, at the Industrial Union Convention.
- In her writings, she lobbied for the need for women in politics and promoted women’s rights to all women, regardless of their color or race.