"The Most Famous Good Roads Woman in the United States": Alma Rittenberry of Birmingham
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“The Most Famous Good Roads Woman in the United States”: Alma Rittenberry of Birmingham IN 1920, AN ARTICLE IN MOTOR MAGAZINE CALLED ALMA RITTENBERRY of Birmingham “the most famous good roads woman in the United States.”1 That might have been hyperbole, but Rittenberry certainly was the most famous “good roads woman” in Alabama. The Good Roads movement of which Rittenberry was a part was active from the 1880s through the 1920s. At first it sought public financing for hardsurfaced local roads, then it advocated for a network of well-made trunk line (major, interstate) highways intersecting farm-to-market roads. The movement was a loose association of thousands of advocates working alone or through hundreds of local committees and national associations, sometimes in collaboration but often at odds with one another. It was peopled by the well-intentioned and by charlatans , local boosters and U.S. senators, small-town folk and big-city urbanites, improvers of country lanes and champions of vast highway networks. Good Roads proponents were also men and women who negotiated changing boundaries between gender roles as they scrambled to bring their projects to fruition. Rittenberry’s story illuminates those shifting roles and reveals the inner workings of an important movement that is largely forgotten. MARTIN OLLIFF Dr. Marty Olliff is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the Archives of Wiregrass History and Culture at Troy University Dothan Campus. He thanks Norwood Kerr at the Alabama Department of Archives and History for his timely answers to far too many questions, Jim Baggett and the staff of the Department of Archives and Manuscripts at the Birmingham Public Library for their assistance with the Rountree Collection, and Richard Weingroff of the Federal Highway Administration for providing difficult-to-find copies of Alma Rittenberry’s articles. He also thanks the editors and anonymous readers of the Alabama Review for their invaluable comments and suggestions that improved this manuscript. An earlier version of the article was presented at the 62nd annual meeting of the Alabama Historical Association in Tuscaloosa on April 25, 2009. 1 “Good Roads Woman behind the Jackson Highway,” Literary Digest, November 6, 1920, 91. T H E A L A B A M A R E V I E W 84 She joined the Good Roads movement in 1911 as leader of an effort by the Alabama Daughters of 1812 to create a memorial highway to General Andrew Jackson through Alabama that eventually extended from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. As a Daughter of 1812, then founder of the Jackson Highway Association, and finally organizer of the North-South National Bee Line Highway Association, Rittenberry chaired committees, wrote articles, established associations , publicly jousted with her highway-advocate colleagues, and spoke to thousands of Good Roads supporters in large and small gatherings along the trunk line she consistently championed. Although she did not get exactly the highway she wanted, she lived to see her proposed monument to Jackson and her Bee Line route incorporated into hard-surfaced U.S. Highways 41, 31, and 231 in the mid1920s . We know only a little about Alma Rittenberry herself because she left no papers. Biographical traces exist almost solely in the articles she wrote for various advocacy publications, an occasional magazine article written about her, and her obituary. But what we do know provides an important window into women’s dramatically changing roles during the Progressive era, a time of sweeping social and political reform when the middle class exerted its hegemony over American society. Its aim was to build from the chaos of industrialization an orderly community that enjoyed the fruits of modernity, material progress , efficiency, economic development, and greater equality, at least among responsible citizens.2 This was an era, too, when interstices opened in new areas of public life, and some women—Alma Rittenberry among them—seized opportunities to improve their world. Such spaces appeared after the Civil War when elite women began to emphasize efficiency in the delivery of benevolence and incorporated “business skills and . . . unsentimental analysis of social ills” rather than “female morality” alone into charity institutions. Their experience in accessing government 2 Robert H. Wiebe, The Search...