In the late 1800s, the treatment of animals was not a topic of concern or conversation. Animals were considered utilitarian, and consequently, inhumane treatment was commonplace. But a small group of extraordinary women, led by Caroline Earle White, raised their voices to fight animal cruelty in the most profound ways. The historic impact they made continues to this day through the work of the Women’s Humane Society.
Initially, it was the mistreatment of carriage horses in Philadelphia (e.g. drivers beating their exhausted and malnourished charges) that spurred Caroline, a devoted humanitarian and highly educated woman from a prominent family of abolitionists and suffragists, to go on a passionate crusade to improve conditions for all animals. Putting thought into action, she was instrumental in establishing the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or PSPCA in 1868 (the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or ASPCA was founded in New York one year earlier).
Photo circa the late 1800s from the Women’s Humane Society archives
However, despite all the work she did to get the PSPCA up and running, Caroline was not given an official position with the organization because… she was a woman. In fact, there were several important meetings she “attended” where she had to send her incredibly supportive (and refreshingly progressive) husband, attorney Richard P. White, into the room to be her mouthpiece, as women were not allowed to be present.
Undeterred – and 50 years BEFORE women even had the right to vote – Caroline set out to found her own organization in which she and other women could play an active, leadership role in the fight for the welfare and compassionate treatment of animals. So on April 14, 1869, her Women’s Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (WPSPCA) was born, and still operates today, 147 years later, as the Women’s Humane Society (the name was officially changed in 1988).
Caroline Earle White lending a kind and compassionate hand to a horse on the streets of Philly as it receives medical treatment from her team
Under the direction of Caroline’s all female board of directors, an organizational specification Caroline drafted in the original bylaws that are still in effect today, the Women’s Humane Society quickly became a powerful force in the humane community.
May 1910: Caroline Earle White dedicating one of the Women’s Humane Society’s animal drinking fountains…. notice she is the ONLY woman
In the organization’s first year, their animal welfare efforts shifted from just horses to include small animals when Caroline and her dedicated team established the very first animal shelter in America. It was designed to reunite cats and dogs and other small animals with their owners or re-home them by offering the country’s first animal adoption program.
By 1874, the Women’s Humane Society started the first, formal humane education program in the country, known as The Band Of Mercy, which was designed to teach children how to treat animals with compassion. In 1909, the women raised enough money to open a dispensary in Philadelphia where owners could bring animals for medical attention. And in 1911, they erected 35 drinking fountains for horses and small animals throughout Philadelphia, some of which still exist today.
Circa 1911: Caroline Earle White and the women of the WPSPCA (a.k.a. Women’s Humane Society) at one of the horse drinking stations they set up in Philly
In carrying on the inspiring legacy and mission that Caroline Earle White started in 1869, the Women’s Humane Society saved over 1,800 animals, last year alone. Through the humane and compassionate work they do today – adoptions, quality medical care, affordable veterinary care, education programs and a commitment to control animal overpopulation – Caroline’s pioneering spirit lives on and continues to touch the lives of countless animals in need.