Niagara University professor of history Dr. Shannon Risk sheds new light on the life and work of Elizabeth Upham Yates (1857–1942), a nationally known activist and missionary to China, in her recently published book, “The Life and Times of Elizabeth Upham Yates: A Crusader for Women’s Suffrage, Temperance, and Missionary Work.”

Dr. Risk notes that Yates’ name often appeared on major suffrage and temperance speaker rosters, but very little had been written about her by modern historians.

“She was one of the leaders,” she points out, “but her role in social movements of the time was forgotten after she burned most of her papers.”

So Dr. Risk set out to reconstruct Yates’ life in ways many historians engaged in minority histories understand well—supplementing Yates’ own writing with sources such as regional histories, shipping passenger manifests, and archival papers at the Library of Congress.

“With women’s and minority histories, we often cannot simply walk into an archive and ask to see someone’s official, organized papers, unlike those of well-known men,” Dr. Risk explains.

Dr. Risk’s book sheds light on Yates’ early life in coastal Maine; her experiences as a Methodist missionary to China; her work as an activist for women’s rights, including her run for political office in Rhode Island; and her two-decade battle with brittle bone disease.

Historical biographies like this one can help us to see long-term trends and challenges, notes Dr. Risk, and may provide solutions or even a blueprint on how to move forward. Examining Yates’ work for white women’s suffrage, in particular, can give us “a sense of how institutional racism functions,” she said.

Dr. Risk joined Niagara University in 2009, where she directs the public history minor as well as the M.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies. Her current research focuses on organizational structures of U.S. progressive-era women’s rights organizations. She holds a Ph.D. and a master’s degree in history from the University of Maine, and a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Northern Iowa.

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