Kimberly Hess on Sarah B. Cochran, the Inspiration Behind “A Lesser Mortal”
I grew up with the power of women’s experiences in the stories I heard about female ancestors and relatives. Whether they were politically active, ahead of their time, or overcoming enormous obstacles, each one’s story helped me to understand what I could do. One in particular was Sarah B. Cochran. When my parents and I regularly visited family in southwestern Pennsylvania, I saw artifacts from her life, like the mansion and church she had built, which were being added to the National Register of Historic Places when I was a little girl. I also knew that her decision to put my great-grandmother through college in 1917 still influenced my life many years later.
In that part of the country, it seemed that everybody knew something about her work in the Connellsville coke industry or respected her public and private philanthropy. She was once described to me as the Dolly Parton of the area because of her financially humble origins, generous philanthropy, and humility. As a story, her life struck me as the love child that an Edith Wharton novel might have had with a Nancy Meyers movie: our heroine moves beyond Gilded Age sensibilities and restrictions to inhabit a modern life with purpose, agency, and people who valued her. There is even a fantastic house and a five-minute standing ovation. It was a life that Sarah probably never expected to have and one that historians probably don’t expect to find in its place and time. And, it was a life that I never expected to write about.
Sarah lived from 1857 until 1936 and far exceeded expectations for a woman from that era in southwestern Pennsylvania. But in spite of that, she would be treated as a “lesser mortal” with respect to history; that is, she was left out of the larger historical narrative that featured male contemporaries like Henry Clay Frick or Andrew Carnegie. Born to a poor farming family, she struggled just to have clothes so she could attend school. When she got a job as a maid for Jim Cochran, the pioneer of the Connellsville coke industry, she and Jim’s son fell in love and married. About twenty years into that marriage, her husband and son died prematurely, and Sarah went on to own the coal and coke businesses that had been her husband’s in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee. At the time, it was illegal for women to work in or around Pennsylvania coal mines, and some miners even believed women were an unlucky presence around coal mines. While there was not a clear place for Sarah in an industry that was still male dominated, she didn’t leave it. Newspapers reported that she continued to transact business until she was in her seventies.
She also didn’t retreat to a comfortable life; instead, she engaged with the world by becoming a generous philanthropist for causes that mattered to her. She attributed this to a doctor’s advice to help schools and churches as she mourned the loss of her husband and son. Perhaps the lack of fit in mining also helped to smooth her path into philanthropy, where she would have had greater latitude and where women already had a socially acceptable role. When she died in 1936, her private philanthropy was valued at several hundred thousand dollars and her public philanthropy at $2,000,000 (1936 dollars). From her forties through her sixties, Sarah built college dormitories, endowed department chairs, and was a lifelong benefactor and “mother” of Phi Kappa Psi’s West Virginia Alpha chapter. Her philanthropy at Allegheny College even rivaled that of Andrew Carnegie during a crucial building campaign, and she was the first woman to serve as an Allegheny trustee.
Much of Sarah’s philanthropy went beyond generosity to actually shifting power, and often it seemed to be a tool for improving the lives of future generations. In an era when college degrees were becoming increasingly necessary for higher paying jobs and viewed with suffrage as keys to women’s independence, Sarah quietly paid for local people’s college education. Ahead of Pennsylvania’s 1915 suffrage referendum, she publicly threw her weight behind women’s suffrage by opening her estate to host western Pennsylvania’s largest suffrage fundraiser. Ironically, some might have still viewed the home as a woman’s domain and a refuge from politics. However, Sarah was not afraid to bring politics into the home or to publicly own what differentiated her from business competitors: gender. The following year she opened her home again, this time to host the semi-annual meeting of the world’s all-male Methodist bishops. It was reportedly the first time the meeting had been held in a private home, and it was just sixteen years since women were first allowed to be lay delegates at the church’s quadrennial meetings.
As fascinating as Sarah’s life was, it was a life I expected someone else, namely a historian, to write about. My career was in the corporate world for nearly twenty years, but during that time I was also involved with organizations that forced me to consider issues like investments in women’s education, women’s representation in business school, how women have been left out of the historical narrative, and what people might gain from learning stories about female historic figures. When my husband noticed that he couldn’t find information about Sarah online, I created her Wikipedia entry and moved on to a museum blog post, a National Women’s History Museum biography, and a StoryCorps recording.
I spent two more years researching and writing about Sarah’s life and its context, then supplemented those findings with genealogical research I’d been doing over the course of thirty-six years. Beyond learning more details of her life, I also discovered a woman who became highly productive in the periods we know as midlife and senior years. As a middle-aged woman myself, I thought for the first time about the opportunities and challenges age might have presented to Sarah. I also discovered how difficult it is to find her if you don’t already know she’s there. Sometimes Sarah is portrayed as a coal magnate’s widow, not as an accomplished woman in her own right. She falls through the cracks when writings about the coal and coke region focus on miners’ wives or rely on oral histories from employees of the H.C. Frick Coke Company, one of Sarah’s competitors. Even her occupational information, sometimes portrayed as a blank space or the word “None” on the U.S. Census, wouldn’t suggest any of the responsibilities or influence that she actually had. Because she was involved in organizations and institutions that mattered to her in specific locations – not organizations that would simply help her to self-promote – there are pockets of deep knowledge in unexpected places instead of widespread, general awareness.
This makes her story important to tell for a few different reasons. First, the fact that a woman has remained invisible after her businesses competed with Frick’s and her philanthropy sometimes rivaled Carnegie’s is a good reason to tell her story. I hope this will inspire others to tell stories of the “lesser mortals” who affected their own communities but remained invisible to a wider audience. This might be done through historic sites, books or articles, or it might be the simple act of donating an artifact to a museum or archive. Representation in museums and archives is critical for demonstrating what roles a diverse group of people has played in history and culture, but it also allows researchers from around the world to discover people. Second, despite Sarah’s very specific interests, there is a universality and timelessness to her story. It is a story about using the power we already have, living with purpose, being resilient, championing others, and publicly owning our identities. In some cases she was the first or only person like herself to accomplish certain goals. At times she wasn’t welcome in the broken system where she operated, so she was forced to create her own place in the world. These challenges aren’t going away, and we can benefit from stories about how people have dealt with them. Sometimes we need to tell those stories ourselves if we want people to find them.
KIMBERLY HESS: During her business career of nearly twenty years, Kimberly Hess served in volunteer leadership roles at the global and local levels for Smith College’s Alumnae Association and Office of Admission, and she was a trustee of the Alice Paul Institute and a board member of the Chubb Partnership of Women. Her writing has appeared on the websites of Thrive Global, the National Women’s History Museum and the Forté Foundation, as well as on the blogs of the Women’s Museum of California and the David Library of the American Revolution. She has a B.A. in Economics and International Relations from Smith College, an M.B.A. in Marketing from Rutgers Business School, and a Certificate in Historic Preservation from the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies at Drew University. An avid genealogist and traveler, she lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughter.
You can purchase Kimberly’s Book on Amazon.