A native of Staten Island, New York, Arnold moved at an early age to Somerville, New Jersey where she began her childhood friendship with Mabel Reed, a companionship that later matured into a life partnership. Arnold studied business at Drexel Institute, Philadelphia, and agriculture at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. As young women, Arnold and Reed devoted five years (1901–1906) to farming a fifty-five acre plot. They next gained experience as urban organizers in New York City. Their employer, City and Suburban Homes Company, was a philanthropic organization building affordable, decent housing for the working poor.
When Arnold and Reed accepted positions as so-called field matrons on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in the Klamath River Valley of Northern California, they were charged to exert a “civilizing influence” upon the fewer than eight hundred members of the Karok nation, a vagueness they were to exploit to their own benefit and that of the Karok.
Arnold and Reed lacked the social and racial prejudices of the era. Although the Bureau of Indian Affairs expected them to enforce white cultural values, they instead accepted Karok practices and established a close working friendship with Essie, a native woman with three husbands. They were eager, Arnold said, not to be “ladies—the kind who have Sunday schools, and never say a bad word, and rustle around in a lot of silk petticoats”.
In the decades following their breakthrough experience of independent living and community education among the Karok, Arnold and Reed further developed their skills as organizers and activists in cooperative housing, credit unions, adult education, rural development, and Indian rights. Arnold worked in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania.
In Reserve Mines, Nova Scotia, Arnold and Reed helped the mining community establish cooperative housing. Arnold conferred with Antigonish Movement elders Moses Coady and Father Jimmy and she and Reed lived among the miners.
Mary Arnold led a fascinating life: she was by turns an upstate New York farmer, western Indian agent and successful New York City housing co-operator. In 1937, she traveled from New York City to attend the Rural and Industrial Conference at St.F.X. where she met Dr. Moses Coady and Father Jimmy Tompkins and became interested in the Antigonish Movement.
Through her discussions with “Father Jimmy,” she became aware of the need for housing in his parish of Reserve Mines, Cape Breton, and, ready for a new adventure, Arnold brought her housing expertise to help.
Arnold possessed considerable talents in architectural design, planning, management, and community organizing. She embraced the miners of Reserve Mines--not always a passive constituency--and was instrumental in getting provincial cooperative housing legislation passed in Nova Scotia. She also organized the housing co-op, planned the development, and managed its details and money. By the spring of 1939, Reserve Mines residents had erected ten houses and the “Tompkinsville” project, as it was called, was considered a great success. It served as a template for similar housing co-ops in Nova Scotia.
Always a restless spirit, Arnold left Cape Breton in 1940, thereafter working in Newfoundland, Maine, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Latin America. She continued to write co-operative pamphlets, study guides and two books based on her Nova Scotian experience, including The Story of Tompkinsville. Mary Arnold brought new links and resources to the Antigonish Movement and continued to do so after she left, primarily through her correspondence with her life-long friend Dr. Moses Coady and her publications. Perhaps more importantly, her unique life story, which blended obvious competency and grass roots experience with an unwavering commitment to personal choice and belief, served as an example of the different possibilities for women at a time when little room existed for non-conformity.
Arnold was an active Quaker and a finance officer with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
Arnold’s papers and correspondence are housed at Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College and the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
In 2003, playwright Lauren Wilson adapted In the Land of the Grasshopper Song for the stage as a musical comedy, with music by Tim Gray, for production by the Dell’Arte theater troupe.
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
Paperback: 760 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (July 1, 2014)
Amazon: Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time
Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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