One of the great disappointments in my life as a woman and a feminist is the absurd dearth of women in history. I know we existed; none of us would be here if we hadn't. I am sure we didn't just raise babies and cook (not that there's anything wrong with that! Again, none of us would be here if it weren't for women's performance of the tasks most basic to sustaining our lives) while the men-folk got their names passed down through the generations. There definitely are some famous women (Marie Curie, Cleopatra, and Eleanor Roosevelt, to name a few off the top of my head) but they seem so few and far between. Since I've been running across some less famous but historically significant women, and since it's Women's History Month, I thought we could all share who our favorites are and give each other the lessons in women's history that we never got in school.
Before I begin, I have to tell you about aphra behn, who has a series on historically significant women (including her namesake) that I could only hope to poorly imitate. Hotlist aphra behn if you haven't already; you can also learn about Canadian history and black history along the way! I'm not planning to get as in-depth as she always is, partially because I don't want to steal her idea and partially because I figure, the more women we all talk about, the better.
Feminisms is a series of weekly feminist diaries. My fellow feminists and I decided to start our own for several purposes: we wanted a place to chat with each other, we felt it was important to both share our own stories and learn from others’, and we hoped to introduce to the community a better understanding of what feminism is about.
Needless to say, we expect disagreements to arise. We have all had different experiences in life, so while we share the same labels, we don’t necessarily share the same definitions. Hopefully, we can all be patient and civil with each other, and remember that, ultimately, we’re all on the same side.
Sitting in the anthropology department's student lounge one day, I noticed a magazine for the Kansas State National Register of Historical Places and decided to flip through it. I wasn't paying much attention until I saw something along the lines of "first female mayor in the United States." Of course, I had to read more, and looked her up online the first chance I got.
Her life was fairly typical of a woman in the mid-1800s: she married young and bore 9 children. (In fact, her first historical act was to bear the first baby born in the town of Argonia, KS.) She also joined the Woman's Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU), a move that would cause her name to be carried into my hands over 100 years later.
It was that and the arrogance of men that made Salter famous. This website explains it so well, I don't think I could do any better:
A certain group of men in Argonia felt that the field of politics was their exclusive domain and resented the intrusion of women into their affairs. Two of these men had attended the W.C.T.U. caucus and heckled the proceedings. They were "wets," trying to intimidate the W.C.T.U., but when they attempted to nominate a candidate they were voted down.
A secret caucus was called by this faction. Twenty of them met in the back room of a local restaurant and decided to teach these females a lesson. They drew up a slate of candidates identical with that of the W.C.T.U., except that for the office of mayor they substituted Mrs. Salter's name. They assumed that the women would vote for the W.C.T.U. slate and that the men would not vote for a woman. They thought if Mrs. Salter got only their 20 votes it would embarrass the W.C.T.U. as a political organization. They also felt that such a move would curb some of the W.C.T.U.'s political activities. Mrs. Salter was chosen to be the butt of the prank because she was the only officer of the W.C.T.U. who was eligible for office, the others living outside the town limits.
By forsaking their own caucus nominee, the members of the W.C.T.U. voted for Mrs. Salter in such numbers that she received a two-thirds majority. Instead of the 20 votes intended for her, the faction had given her the election.
This Wikipedia article describes her term as "uneventful", but I take that as a good thing: it means she was competent, even if she wasn't spectacular. In fact, her husband and father had already served in the town's government so she "knew more about politics than her detractors realized." The rest of her life contained no more of these surprises, though she continued to be active in political causes, and she later moved to Oklahoma, where she died near Oklahoma City in 1961 at 101 years old. Her house in Argonia still stands and was added to the National Register of Historic Places 10 years after her death.
It wasn't easy to find information about Myra Bradwell nee Colby; she came to me only as a brief point in one of my classes, remembered solely for the horrible Supreme Court decision that bears her married name. In this decision, even though she had studied law with her husband and passed the bar exam, she was denied her license to practice law in 1869 simply because she had the gall to be married and a woman. Eventually, she won the right to practice law, but only after 25 years of being denied. Sadly, she died only two years later of cancer. The respected newspaper she had begun at a much earlier age, The Chicago Legal News, said of her:
"The future historian will accord her the breaking of the chain that bound woman (sic) to a life of household drudgery. She opened the door of the professions to her sex, and compelled law makers and judges as well, to proclaim that it was not a crime to be born a woman."
Her daughter followed in her footsteps.
---Ida B. Wells---
I'm including Ida B. Wells because I knew absolutely nothing about her myself until just a few weeks ago. I knew she was famous, but that was it. Little did I realize, there is a lot she is famous for and a lot to admire her for.
At age 16, her parents (who had gained their own freedom from slavery and thus their childrens' as well) died in an epidemic of yellow fever. She quit school in order to support her siblings, yet she still managed to attend university in Memphis. She was not just against racial segregation, but also a strong supporter of the women's rights movement. In the movie Iron-Jawed Angels, she is shown refusing to capitulate to the demands of Southern women by insisting that the black women walk alongside the white women or not at all; I don't know if this happened in real life or not but after all I've read about her, it doesn't seem unlikely.
In 1884, she did what Rosa Parks would later became famous for: refused to give up her seat for a white man while riding a train and had to be forcibly removed. I love it when we can hear the story in the person's own words:
I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies' car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn't try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.
Furthermore, she sued the train company for this. She won the first case and would have won every appeal if it weren't for the Tennessee Supreme Court overriding all the lower courts by ruling in support of racist policy.
She became especially famous by exposing the practice of lynching. This page has a link to one of the pamphlets she wrote on the subject (in the righthand column). As you can imagine, this didn't exactly make her popular in the South; she was told that her life would be in danger if she ever returned to the South so she made Chicago her new home. She married the editor of one of Chicago's famous black newspapers in 1895 but only retired briefly from public life; apparently, her incredible desire to see the end of intolerance and inequality would not allow her to stand passively on the sidelines. Even after her marriage, she helped prevent Chicago schools from being segregated, form the NAACP, and became the first black woman to run for public office in the United States. She died in 1931, but if anyone ever deserved immortality, she certainly did.
I could write about thousands more amazing women, but I want to hear what famous (and not-so-famous) women you admire from history!