Archive for the ‘All News’ Category

Raising a Glass to Irish American Women

March 24th, 2016

On the day Ellis Island opened on January 1, 1892, an Irish girl named Annie Moore became the very first person processed through what became the world-famous immigration center. After joining her parents in New York, Annie married Joseph Augustus Schayer, a young German American who worked at the Fulton Fish Market. She bore 11 children, six of whom died before adulthood; she died at age 50 in 1924. She never left New York’s Lower East Side, living the rest of her life in a few square blocks that is today remembered as a notorious immigrant slum. Though Annie would not be remembered if not for being a first, her story nonetheless offers insights into the American experience precisely because she was so very typical.

Ellis Island

The Irish, before and after Annie Moore, had a tremendous impact on American history and culture. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 36.9 million Americans claim Irish roots. The Irish are the second largest heritage reported by Americans after German. But the Irish were unique among all immigrant groups. In immigrating to the United States they accomplished something that no other group even attempted.

 

THE IRISH SENT MORE DAUGHTERS THAN SONS.

 

By the end of the nineteenth century, single women accounted for 53% of Irish immigrants. The Irish were the only nineteenth or twentieth century immigrant group in which women outnumbered men. Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States and by the 1840s—at the height of the Potato Famine—they comprised nearly half. After the crisis of the Famine passed and Irish emigration slowed, Irish women continued to migrate in increasing numbers.

 

Who were these women and why did they come?

 

Irish women moved to American for the same reasons as men: opportunity and freedom. Young Irish women and girls left behind hard scrabble farms where they worked as long and as hard as men to bring in a crop while also maintaining homes and assisting with children. The Potato Famine devastated the Irish economy. Poor Irish women had few employment opportunities and diminished marriage prospects. So they left Ireland for America.

 

When they left, they did not try to replicate their rural lives. Instead, they settled in cities where many took jobs as servants or domestic workers. More than 60% worked as maids, cooks, nannies, or housekeepers. Domestic work came with several advantages. Living with wealthy or middle class American families intimately exposed Irish women to American culture, speeding acculturation and assimilation. The greatest advantage was financial. Not only were the wages higher than those for factory workers, as live in help domestics had no housing expenses, which enabled them to save more money.

 

Women helped women

 

Strong female networks sustained the immigration flow of Irish women, even during times of economic depression. Women sent money back home to support families but they also paid the passage for their female relatives. Irish women were the only immigrant group to establish immigration chains. They brought over nieces, sisters, cousins, and friends. They were young, under age 24, and unmarried. These women had the freedom to migrate and the desire for independence. Whereas other ethnic groups sent their sons to America, Ireland sent its daughters.

Irish Maid 1898

In America, those daughters developed a reputation for independence. They became education advocates, civil rights leaders, and cultural critics. They changed America.

 

American Irish prioritized education. The Catholic Church in Ireland launched an education initiative in the late 19th century expanding access to educational opportunities. The Irish Catholic Church in American built on that teaching mission, establishing parochial schools throughout the country that educated generations of Irish Americans. And Irish-Catholic sisters founded scores of schools and women’s colleges. In 1900, Irish American girls attended school at higher rates than any other group, including American-born boys. Before coeducation in the 1960s opened American colleges to more women, more American women earned degrees from Catholic women’s colleges than from Protestant or nondenominational institutions. Education aided social and economic mobility for successive generations.

 

Education facilitated Irish American women’s entrance into the workforce. Second generation Irish women entered the professions at higher rates than any other immigrant group, becoming teachers, bookkeepers, typists, journalists, social workers, and nurses. By 1910 Irish American women represented the majority of public elementary school teachers in Providence, Boston, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. And by 1939, 70% of Chicago’s schoolteachers were Irish American women. Domestic work provided the first generation’s entry point into the American economy. But the second generation turned its back on servitude, preferring the relative autonomy and regular hours found in government and business.

 

Once in the workplace, Irish women demanded justice and equality. The second generation protested obvious discrimination and were among the first to organize and join labor unions. Though they were underrepresented among manufacturing workers, Irish American women were overrepresented among union leadership. Moreover, they introduced unions to service and professional fields. They organized teachers unions in order to eliminate male and female pay discrepancy.

Laundry Workers Union

Irish American women also made their mark through literature and journalism. Advanced education produced a generation of literary women, many of whom became professional journalists and novelists. Their subject matter often addressed women’s social inequities. Crusading journalist Elizabeth Cochrane, known by the pen name Nellie Bly, revealed abuse of the mentally ill in her newspaper expose “Ten Days in a Mad House”. Kate Chopin’s classic novel The Awakening criticized the stultifying confines of traditional American womanhood. Margaret Culkin Banning wrote over 400 articles for the leading women’s magazines of the day addressing taboo subjects like body image, alcoholism, and the difficulties of marriage. Their collective bodies of work demonstrate a commitment to fairness and social justice.

 

Irish women in America made an impact

 

The documentary evidence gathered from letters and journals suggests that Irish women found the adventure of their new lives in America as compelling as the economic opportunities. Living and working in the United States offered Irish women opportunities for autonomy and self-sufficiency lacking in the more patriarchal structure of “home”. Once in America, they firmly established themselves as a force with which to be reckoned. Their strong networks, formed by immigration patterns and sustained by shared membership in the Catholic Church, nurtured a culture and pride among Irish American women that continues to this day. During Irish American Heritage Month, let’s toast the strong and determined Irish women who became Americans.

Irish Women 16 Infographic

Further Reading

 

Diner, Hasia R. 1993. Erin’s daughters in America: Irish immigrant women in the nineteenth century. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins university press.

 

Ebest, Sally Barr. “Irish American Women: Forgotten First-Wave Feminists.” Journal of Feminist Scholarship 56, no. 3 (Fall 2012). Accessed March 23, 2016. http://www.jfsonline.org/issue3/pdfs/ebest.pdf.

 

Graham, Ruth. “What American Nuns Built – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. February 23, 2013. Accessed March 23, 2016. https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/02/24/what-american-nuns-built-what-american-nuns-built/IvaMKcoK8a4jDb9lqiVOrI/story.html.

 

Nolan, Janet. 1986. Ourselves alone: female emigration from Ireland, 1885-1920.

NWHM Honors Trailblazing Women in Public Service, the Arts, and Music

March 16th, 2016

Aesha Ash, Ann Veneman and Christine Walevska accepted awards

 

Washington, DC – March 15, 2016 – The National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) recognized three trailblazing women, whose accomplishments helped to pioneer pathways for other women to serve in similar fields, at its 2016 Women Making History Awards held at the Mayflower Hotel. This year’s honorees included Ann Veneman, the first female secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Christine Walevska, the only living female master musician and Aesha Ash, one of the first black ballerinas for the New York City Ballet and founder of The Swan Dreams Project.

 

Through their professional and philanthropic efforts, these trailblazing women overcame unique challenges in their individual fields and paved paths for other women to follow.

 

Secretary Veneman, who was the first woman to serve in six of her leadership posts before being named Secretary of Agriculture, accepted an award for her contributions to public service here in the United States and on the international scene as executive director of UNICEF.

 

Christine Walevska, an internally acclaimed cellist, was honored for her 30-year plus career in classical music, a field still primarily dominated by men. Walevska gave a mini-concert playing Bach and Ennio Bolognini, a composer who asked that only Walevsa perform his music. Walevska dedicated one of her selections to the National Women’s History Museum and its President, Joan Wages.

 

Aesha Ash, one of the first black ballerinas to join the New York City Ballet and the only one during her seven-and a half year career with the corps, had an outstanding career here in the United States and internationally before turning her attention to inspiring the next generation of dancers, in particular those of color. So was born The Swan Dreams Project, an effort by Ash to promote positive and alternative images of black women.

 

“This event is a true tribute to many unsung heroes in our midst,” said Wages, NWHM President and CEO. “The countless achievements and contributions women have made in shaping this nation have been left out of the historical narrative and it’s beyond time to correct the record. We are committed to integrating women’s history into the American mainstream; and ensure that future generations will recognize the tremendous value women bring to society.”

NWHM’s mission is to educate, inspire, empower, and shape the future by integrating women’s distinctive history into the culture and history of the United States. A key element of advancing that mission is tobuild a world-class museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

 

For more information on NWHM or to become a member, please visit www.nwhm.org.

 

 

 

 

About the National Women’s History Museum

Founded in 1996, the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM, Inc.) is a nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the general public about the diverse historic contributions of women and raising awareness about the critical need for a national women’s history museum in our nation’s capital. Currently located online at www.nwhm.org, the Museum’s goal is to build a world-class, permanent museum on or near the National Mall that will herald and display the collective history of American women. A Congressional Commission has been established that is charged with producing a feasible plan, which would include the governance, fundraising, location and organizational structure of the museum. For additional information visit NWHM.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Media inquiries:

For press inquiries or credentials, please contact Melissa Williams at mwilliams@nwhm.org or 703-461-1920.

 

 

What Did Girls Want? Independence, Challenge, and a Cool Uniform

March 9th, 2016

One hundred years ago, in 1916, a newly published book encouraged girls to build electromagnets, study the aerodynamics of flight, and send messages using Morse code. It instructed girls in the mechanics of pitching a tent, building a campfire, and using a compass. In a society that adhered to Victorian beliefs that there were “boy” activities and “girl” activities, emboldening girls to become knowledgeable and proficient in non-traditionally feminine skills was somewhat radical.

What was the title of this revolutionary publication? How Girls Can Help Their Country: A Handbook for Girl Scouts. The author was Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA.

1

Low was introduced to scouting in Great Britain, becoming close friends with Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, and his sister Agnes Baden-Powell, who founded a sister organization. The overwhelmingly positive reaction of girl to becoming British Girl Guides encouraged Low’s belief that all girls would benefit from scouting. She formed the first American Girl Scout troop in Savannah in 1912.

The turn of the 20th century saw many changes and challenges old ideas. Women increasingly confronted social conventions that discouraged them from going to college, finding constructive work, or participating in civic life. In a changing world, many parents feared that scouting would encourage girls to become tomboys. Low and the women who helped her to establish troops understood the challenges but also the potential rewards. “If you asked her daughter [why she wants to participate],” Low said talking about the rewards of scouting, “She would probably reply, ‘Because Girl Scouts have real Fun. “But,” she continued, “if I were to analyze the result of Scouting I would tell that mother that the most valuable asset her girl would gain is a sense of Individual Responsibility . . . brought about by Team Work.” Girls who embraced scouting did so precisely because it was a creative program that recognized changing roles.

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The 1916 Girl Scout Handbook was the second American edition. It expanded upon the requirements for earning awards and changed the name from merely “proficiency” badges to “merit” badges. While girls earned badges that reflected traditional women’s roles, such as Child Nurse, Invalid Cooking, and Housekeeper, several others required deep exploration of technical and scientific concepts, i.e. “boy” stuff. Girls responded to the opportunity in droves.

Merit Badges

 

Two Savannah, Georgia troops in 1912 with 18 girls had grown to 70,000 members nationwide in 1920. At Girl Scouts’ silver anniversary in 1937, more than 430,000 girls were enrolled. Girl Scouts numbered over 2.8 million scouts and adult leaders in 2014. Today’s girls honor Low’s mission to foster their individual growth, character, and self-sufficiency. NWHM joins with millions of alumni and supporters celebrating National Girl Scout Week.

 

By Elizabeth L. Maurer

Director of Program

 

Further Reading

 

“Juliette Gordon Low – Girl Scouts.” Girl Scouts of the USA. Accessed March 08, 2016. http://www.girlscouts.org/en/about-girl-scouts/our-history/juliette-gordon-low.html.

 

General Research Division, The New York Public Library. “Twenty-five years of girl scouting, 1912-1937″ New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 8, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/a98caf45-1a0a-088e-e040-e00a18067403

Cordery, Stacy A. 2013. Juliette Gordon Low: the remarkable founder of the Girl Scouts. http://ebook.3m.com/library/BCPL-document_id-q6rwz9.

 

Low, Juliette Gordon, Agnes Smyth Baden-Powell, and Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell Baden-Powell of Gilwell. 1916. How girls can help their country. [Savannah, Ga.]: [Press of M.S. & D.A. Byck Co.].

 

 

 

Women’s History Month

March 8th, 2016

Every year March is designated Women’s History Month by Presidential proclamation. The month is set aside to honor women’s contributions in American history.

Did You Know? Women’s History Month started as Women’s History Week

Women’s History Month began as a local celebration in Santa Rosa, California. The Education Task Force of the Sonoma County (California) Commission on the Status of Women planned and executed a “Women’s History Week” celebration in 1978. The organizers selected the week of March 8 to correspond with International Women’s Day. The movement spread across the country as other communities initiated their own Women’s History Week celebrations the following year.

In 1980, a consortium of women’s groups and historians—led by the National Women’s History Project—successfully lobbied for national recognition. In February 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation declaring the Week of March 8th 1980 as National Women’s History Week.

Carter womens history

Subsequent Presidents continued to proclaim a National Women’s History Week in March until 1987 when Congress passed Public Law 100-9, designating March as “Women’s History Month.” Between 1988 and 1994, Congress passed additional resolutions requesting and authorizing the President to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month. Since 1995, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have issued a series of annual proclamations designating the month of March as “Women’s History Month.”

Each year the National Women’s History Project selects and publishes a theme. The 2016 theme is “Working Together to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government.”

women in public office

 

#HelpUsBuildIt – Social Media Campaign Going Strong

March 7th, 2016

Who are the women you think belong in a National Women’s History Museum?

On March 1st, the National Women’s History Museum launched the #HelpUsBuildIt social media campaign. The campaign encourages members, friends, and social media followers to join together to build the Museum. NWHM believes that if everyone pulls together, the American people can build a national women’s history museum—the first of its kind in any nation’s capital—in Washington, DC on the National Mall.

The #HelpUsBuildIt campaign’s social media followers have personalized their messages of support and rallied their friends.

Alanis Ava Gale Mercedes Robi

 
Click www.HelpUsBuildIt.org to learn more or join the conversation and #HelpUsBuildIt @WomensHistory.

NWHM President Delivers Inspirational TEDx Talk

March 2nd, 2016
Why is women’s history important?
NWHM’s President & CEO Joan Wages explained to a TEDx audience that history provides role models for our nation’s women and girls. Women have been excluded from the popular historical narrative, their contributions ignored. Exclusion deprives women and girls from knowing their past and seeing a future.

“To remain great, our nation must utilize the talents of all of our citizens. To do that, girls must overcome the pervasive gender gaps in our society to become our next CEOs, entrepreneurs, scientists, and senators. They need female role models,” explained Wages.

Mentors guide us on our pathway to achievement, but role models provide the vision to which we aspire. Having both role models and mentors lays a foundation for women to achieve their goals. Wages charged the audience to seek role models in fields where women remain dramatically underrepresented, to promote stories of women, and to aspire to those things that never before seemed possible.

Wages spoke on October 23, 2015 for Ursuline College’s TEDx seminar at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

View the talk >>

Unlikely Friends – Julia Wilbur and Harriet Jacobs in Civil War Alexandria

February 25th, 2016

HospitalThe opening volleys of the Civil War rang out on April 12, 1981 at Fort Sumter, dividing a country. Over the next four years, battles and politics dislocated thousands of Americans, placing them into theretofore unimaginable situations. For some, the War was an opportunity. Thousands of enslaved men, women, and children fled to Federal territory with little more than the clothes on their backs for the promise of freedom and protection. The immense need faced by the recently enslaved, called Contrabands, aroused individuals and organizations—most affiliated with the Abolitionist Movement—to organize a humanitarian response. Julia Wilbur and Harriet Jacobs answered the call. Thus, two women from opposite ends of the country and social order found themselves brought together.

The dividing line between North and South was drawn just south of Washington, DC, encompassing the small, port town of Alexandria, Virginia. George Washington’s adopted home town voted with the rest of Virginia to secede from the Union. Its proximity to Washington, DC, just across the river, was a threat to the Federal government’s security. Moving quickly, federal troops swarmed the city and placed it under martial law. It remained under Federal control for the duration of the war, much to the chagrin of the city’s loyal, Confederate citizens

Beginning in 1862, thousands of individuals self-emancipated from slavery by fleeing behind Union lines. They migrated to Alexandria in large numbers, causing a refugee crisis. The city lacked the capacity and resources to feed, house, and care for destitute, sick, and exhausted people. The Federal government built barracks and a hospital to house the refugees, and Northern aide societies collected donations to alleviate the suffering. Julia Wilbur arrived in late 1862 as an agent of the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Wilbur, who had trained and worked as a school teacher, was initially sent to organize a freedman’s school in Washington, DC. Her supervisor sent her to Alexandria instead where she discovered that the need for food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention was equally great.

Harriet Jacobs came to Alexandria for a similar reason but from an entirely different background. While Julia Wilbur grew up in relative affluence in New York State, Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina. Jacobs slipped away from her master’s house in 1835. Her grandmother, who was a freed woman, hid Jacobs in a 3’x7’ crawl space over her porch for seven years, until Jacobs could be smuggled out of town on a schooner. Jacobs spent the next several years after her escape living and working as a nanny in New York. She published her slavery and escape narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861 to moderate acclaim. While living and working in New York, Jacobs became involved with abolitionist societies and met famed abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, who were both impressed by Jacobs’ story. After hearing of the refuge crisis in Alexandria, Garrison encouraged Jacobs to move to Alexandria as an aid worker. She arrived in January 1863.

JacobsJacobs and Wilbur encountered each other soon after Jacobs arrived. Wilbur was surprised, particularly as the two women had met briefly years before in Rochester, New York when both were involved in the City’s anti-slavery community. They were not friends at first, but they soon were brought together by their shared frustration with Alexandria’s military governor, John Slough. Neither cared for his governing tactics, which they decried as cruel and counter-productive. Both women worked long hours to provide for the Contrabands’ basic needs including food, shelter, medicine, and education. Both were outsiders to Alexandria, a community that began the War defiant of the Union but came to despise the Federal government as the occupation wore on and life became increasingly difficult. Few native Alexandrians were interested in socially embracing an abolitionist meddler and an escaped slave. The women’s friendship flourished, fostered by their work, shared goals, and mutual respect.

When the war ended in 1865, Wilbur and Jacobs went their separate ways. Wilbur moved to Washington, DC where she secured a clerical position in the Patent Office. Jacobs and her daughter moved south to continue their Freedmen work before relocating to Boston. After several years in Boston, Jacobs and her daughter moved one last time, in 1877, to Washington, DC, where she opened a boarding house. It was in DC that she reconnected with her old friend Julia Wilbur, who was still working at the Patent Office. They remained friends until Wilbur died in 1895. Jacobs died two years later. Their friendship was forged by circumstance but sustained through respect.

 

Written By: Elizabeth L. Maurer, Director of Program

 

Further Reading

 

Roedner, Lauren H. “First Step Toward Freedom: Women in Contraband Camps in and Around the District of Columbia During the Civil War.” The Cupola – Scholarship at Gettysburg College. 2012. Accessed February 25, 2016. http://cupola.gettysburg.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=student_scholarship.

 

“Harriet Jacobs.” Harriet Jacobs. Accessed February 25, 2016. http://www.harrietjacobs.org/bio.html#escape.

 

Wilbur, Julia. “D Iaries of Julia Wilbur, March 1860 to July 1866.” Alexandria City Government. Accessed February 25, 2016. https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/civilwar/JuliaWilburDiary1860to1866.pdf.

Three women who did things their own way who were also named Bessie

February 25th, 2016

Black History Month was established to recognize and honor African Americans’ contributions to American history and culture. Too often, women are not included on lists of notables and role models. NWHM recognizes women who have made a difference in history.

 

Bessie Coleman Flew Airplanes Upside Down

Coleman“Brave Bessie” Coleman became the world’s first female African American licensed pilot. Inspired by the Wright brothers and Harriet Quimby (the first American woman to fly a plane), Coleman believed that she could fly too.

While living in Chicago, Coleman attempted to enroll in flight school but quickly found that no American school would enroll a black woman. She looked abroad instead. Coleman applied to French schools and worked long hours managing a chili parlor by day and studying French at night to prepare. She embarked for France in November 1920. In 1921 she became the first female African American pilot in the world when the French Federation Aeronautique Internationale awarded her pilot license number 18310.

Cheering crowds and scores of newspaper reporters greeted Coleman’s return to the US. They were fascinated by her risk taking behavior that was so far removed from their perceptions of how young, black women were to behave. Coleman barnstormed her way across the country, performing daring aerial acrobatics at air shows wherever she could find an audience. She looped de looped and barrel rolled her way into the hearts of cheering—and integrated—crowds. Coleman refused to perform anywhere African Americans were not welcome. And when asked to conform to demeaning stereotypes, she refused saying, “No Uncle Tom stuff for me.”

Coleman dreamed of opening a flight school where other African American women could discover the same excitement and freedom she found in flight. Tragically, Coleman was killed on April 30, 1926 when she fell from an airplane while practicing for an air show. She was 34 years old.

 

Following in Her Wake

Coleman achieved a milestone that continues to elude African American women today. She supported herself as a pilot. While women earn pilots licenses, very few become pilots-for-hire. Almost none are African American.

  • 6.6% of licensed pilots are women (2013)
  • 4.1% of airline or commercial pilots are women (2014)
  • 2.7% of airline transport pilots are African American and a fraction of those are female (2014)

 

Nice Girls Do So Ride Motorcycles

Stringfield“The Motorcycle Queen of Miami” Bessie Stringfield loved riding so much that she would drop a penny on a map and ride to wherever it landed. Over sixty years of riding, she proved that “nice girls” did indeed ride motorcycles. And ride them well.

Born in Jamaica in 1911 and adopted by a white Boston couple at age five, Stringfield was naturally drawn to motorcycles, learning to ride at 16. Though her first motorcycle was a 1928 Indian Scout, she was a Harley woman at heart, owning 27 over her lifetime.

By age 19, Stringfield was taking solo cross-country trips, calling them her “penny rides”. Like most African American travelers in the 1930s, Stringfield faced prejudice and intimidation. Motels refused to rent rooms to her. A pickup truck driver once forced her off the road. But she did not give up on adventure.

“If you had black skin you couldn’t get a place to stay,” she said. “I knew the Lord would take care of me and He did. If I found black folks, I’d stay with them. If not, I’d sleep at filling stations on my motorcycle.”

Stringfield financed her road trips by performing motorcycle stunts at carnivals where she astounded audiences with her skill and daring. A favorite trick was to ride standing up on the saddle.

During World War II, Stringfield joined the Department of the Army as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider. She crisscrossed the country eight times delivering messages between military bases. After the war was over, she re-located to Miami, Florida where she continued to perform as a stunt rider and earned the “Motorcycle Queen” moniker. Stringfield rode well into old age, and before dying at age 82 in 1993 reflected to her biographer,

“I was somethin’! What I did was fun and I loved it.”

 

Today’s Women are in the Saddle, Not Just the Calendar

Today, women make up14% of US motorcycles riders, and it’s especially popular among millennials. Much of the increased popularity is a direct result of US manufacturer Harley Davidson’s focused outreach and marketing to women. After profits dropped in 2009, Harley developed a strategy to appeal to women as riders, rather than passengers. They hosted “garage parties” where groups of women were taught motorcycle basics. And Harley introduced new models designed to fit a woman’s frame. It worked. Thirty three percent of female motorcycle owners have a Harley in their garage. When asked why they ride, their responses would warm Bessie Stringfield’s heart. Riding makes them feel sexy, confident, and happy.

 

Bessie Smith Sang the Blues

SmithAcknowledged as one of the greatest blues singers of the twentieth century, Bessie Smith reigned as the “Empress of the Blues” throughout most of the 1920s.

Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the early 1890s. Her earliest performances were on the streets of Chattanooga where she and her brother Andrew busked for spare change. Smith left home in 1912 to join Ma and Pa Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels troop and traveled throughout the South on the minstrel and vaudeville circuit. Smith developed an expressive and distinctive style whose emotional intensity connected with audiences. Bessie didn’t just sing the blues; she told stories of love, loss, and heartache.

Smith toured the black vaudeville circuit for ten years before making it big on the national scene. The Theater Owners’ Booking Association (TOBA) booked African American performers in mostly southern venues for black audiences. Entertainment was strictly segregated. Black performers occasionally appeared before white audiences but never in reverse. Tours were grueling. Companies traveled relentlessly, playing short gigs in run down venues.

Smith’s rise to stardom corresponded to an awakening interest in black music by white patrons. Prohibition went into effect in 1920 just as American society liberated itself from straitlaced, Victorian notions of propriety. Music like jazz and the blues with their earthy and sexual themes became a popular accompaniment to speakeasy culture and the liberated flapper.

Smith was overlooked in the first wave of African American performers who crossed over into white venues, in clubs and on records. Her “look” did not conform to the period’s popular standard of prettiness. She was full figured and dark skinned. Her interpretation of the blues was deeply rooted in the African American culture that created it, imbuing it with an unmistakable authenticity. A little too authentic for early cross-over audiences. Smith’s charisma and talent propelled her onto the national stage.

Smith’s first record, “Down Hearted Blues” (1923), was a smash hit, selling 780,000 copies in the first six months. By the end of the 1920s, Smith was the most successful black performer, male or female, in the US. At the height of her career, she earned up to $2000 per week or the equivalent of about $26,000 in 2016 dollars performing in both black and white clubs, predominantly in the South and Midwest. She made 160 records over a ten-year recording career fueling her popularity.

The Great Depression and changing musical tastes stalled Smith’s career in the 1930s. After losing her recording contract in 1933, she transitioned to jazz and big band music and continued to tour. She performed with both black and white musicians including Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson, and Benny Goodman. Smith was slowly climbing her way back up to the top when she died in 1937 as the result of a car accident in Mississippi. Though she was no longer a super star, her funeral drew 5000 loyal friends and fans.

In the words of biographer Chris Albertson, “Bessie had a wonderful way of turning adversity into triumph, and many of her songs are the tales of liberated women.”

 

Written By Elizabeth L. Maurer, Director of Program

 

Further Reading on Bessie Coleman

Baldwin, Davarian L. 2009. Chicago’s New Negroes Modernity, the Great Migration, and Black Urban Life. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. http://public.eblib.com/choice/PublicFullRecord.aspx?p=4322089.

Goyer, Mireille. “Five Decades of Female Pilots Statistics in the United States. How…” Women Of Aviation Worldwide Week. 2011. Accessed February 23, 2016. http://www.womenofaviationweek.org/five-decades-of-women-pilots-in-the-united-states-how-did-we-do/.

Gubert, Betty Kaplan, Miriam Sawyer, and Caroline M. Fannin. 2001. Distinguished African Americans in aviation and space science. Westport, Conn: Oryx Press.

Zirulnik, Michael L. “Airlines’ Flight Decks Lack Diversity.” The Hill. 2014. Accessed February 23, 2016. http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/transportation/218401-the-company-isnt-going-to-hire-black-pilots-anymore.

 

Further Reading on Bessie Stringfield

Ferrar, Ann. 2000. Hear me roar: women, motorcycles, and the rapture of the road. North Conway, N.H.: Whitehorse Press.

Fleming, Charles. “More Women Riding Motorcycles, Study Says.” Los Angeles Times. December 18, 2015. Accessed February 23, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/business/autos/la-fi-hy-more-women-riding-20151217-story.html.

Penhollow, Steve. “Harley-Davidson and the Quest for Female Customers.” Harley-Davidson and the Quest for Young and Female Customers. June 4, 2014. Accessed February 23, 2016. http://www.brittonmdg.com/the-britton-blog/Harley-Davidson-targeting-women-and-young-customers-in-marketing.

 

Further Reading on Bessie Smith

Albertson, Chris. 2005. Bessie. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=187671.

 

Five African American Women Who Changed America

February 11th, 2016

Black History Month was established to recognize and honor African Americans’ contribution s to American history and culture. Too often, women are not included on lists of notables and role models. Here are five African American women who changed history.

1. In 1957 Althea Gibson became the first African American to win a Wimbledon title. She was also the first African American to play at the U.S. Nationals when, in 1950, the tournament was desegregated. In 1956, Gibson became the first black athlete to win the French Open. In 1957 and 1958 Gibson won Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals, the first African American to win either. Gibson retired after winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1958, having earned 56 titles during that decade alone.

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2. Attorney Marian Wright Edelman was the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, after graduating from Yale’s law school in 1963. As an attorney with the NAACP, she represented civil rights activists in 1964during Freedom Summer. She moved to Washington, DC to continue her civil rights work with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She founded the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973 to advocate for poor children, children of color, and children with disabilities. The CDF has urged passage of laws that promise equal educational opportunities for all children, among other issues. As founder, leader and principal spokesperson for the CDF, Mrs. Edelman worked to persuade Congress to overhaul foster care, support adoption, improve child care and protect children who are disabled, homeless, abused or neglected.

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3. In 1862, Mary Jane Patterson became the first African-American woman to receive a BA degree when she graduated from Oberlin College Patterson graduated with a B.A. degree and highest honors in 1862

Patterson went on to teach in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and eventually settled in Washington DC. She served as principal of the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (now known as Dunbar High School) in DC during the 1870s – she was the school’s first African-American principal. During her administration, the school grew from less than 50 to 172 students, the name “Preparatory High School” was dropped, high school commencements were initiated, and a teacher-training department was added to the school. Patterson’s commitment to thoroughness as well as her “forceful” and “vivacious” personality helped her establish the school’s strong intellectual standards. Mary Jane Patterson died at her Washington, D. C. home, September 24, 1894, at the age of 54. Although she is a not well-known figure, Mary Jane Patterson was a pioneer in black education and paved the way for other black female educators.

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4. Gloria Richardson was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. She was born in 1922 and grew up in Cambridge, MD. Richardson attended Howard University and earned a degree in sociology. She then worked as a civil servant during World War II. After the war, she tried to get a job as a social worker but the Maryland Department of Social Services would not hire her or any other African American social workers. Richardson helped create the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee in 1962. The organization fought to desegregate public institutions. Despite the name, the group refused to commit to non-violence. One protest resulted in Maryland Governor J. Millard Tawes sending in the Maryland National Guard, which remained in the city for about a year. Richardson’s work influenced a rising generation of Black power leaders, including H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, and Cleveland Sellers. She was also on the program to speak at the March on Washington, but was only given the chance to say hello before the microphone was taken away.

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5. Aesha Ash is an internationally acclaimed, talented dancer who founded a nonprofit to inspire young black girls to pursue their dance dreams. A student of the legendary School of American Ballet, Ash joined the New York City Ballet at age 18 as its first black ballerina in its corps. She has performed numerous solos and as principal. She has performed internationally, working with the Berjat Ballet in Switzerland and across Europe. She also worked with the renowned Alonzo King’s Lions Ballet when she returned to the United States in 2005. Since retiring, Ash created a nonprofit organization called the Swans Dream Project which uses imagery and Ash’s own experience to present an alternative view of African American women to young girls.

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Ms. Ash will be honored at NWHM’s Women Making History gala in Washington, DC on March 14, 2016.

Click here to purchase tickets.

 

 

 

 

The History of Romance

February 10th, 2016

An estimated 145 million greeting cards will be bought for Valentine’s Day this year, according to the Greeting Card Association, and that’s not counting the boxed sets that children exchange at class parties. Valentine’s Day is the second most popular greeting card holiday of the year. Americans love to express their feelings by exchanging paper declarations of affection.

The giving and receiving of valentines or love tokens dates to medieval times, but the origins of the modern celebration lie in the eighteenth18th century with the rise of romantic marriage. During the 18th century, society encouraged young people to select their marriage partners based on their romantic attachments. This was a decided change from past practice when marriages had been arranged to cement relationships between families or clans and to consolidate fortunes. Brides’ and grooms’ feelings were not of paramount consideration. While love and respect might be a byproduct of marriage, young couples had not entered into marriage with that expectation. That changed in the eighteenth century.

You know what to expect from me, as you have seen my character of a good wife. Suppose I tell you now, what I, in my turn, expect, and how you may best please me and make me happy.—Thus then I begin—Let me ever have the sweet consiousness of knowing myself the best beloved of your heart—I do not always require a lover’s attention—that wou’d be impossible, but let it never appear by your conduct that I am indifferent to you. ~ (Margaret Davenport Coulter to John Coulter, May 10, 1795)

As expectations increased that marriage would be built on a foundation of love rather than mutual, economic interest, the way that partners were selected had to evolve. When parents stopped making the selection, prospective lovers needed to find one another and then determine the extent of mutual attraction. Courtship became a distinctive phase of partner selection, and familiar rituals evolved. Young women, perhaps more than young men, often enjoyed the process of courtship as it represented a time of freedom and choice. The selection of a husband was the most important decision a girl would make, but it was also the most autonomous. Courting empowered young women. They decided who to accept or reject, and some wielded their power ruthlessly.

You know I have never with all my faults betrayed one symptom of vanity, but now if you should discover a little spice of it can you Wonder—just at this moment are at my entire disposal two of the Very Smartest Beaux this country can boast of… . There is much speculation going on as to the preference I shall give & tho I do not intend to practice one Coquettish air … yet for my own amusement do I intend to leave these speculating geniuss to their own conjectures … till I have made up my mind. (Letter from Eliza Ambler to Mildred Smith, February 1785.)

Courtship requires that prospective lovers reveal their feelings and that they do so more creatively and sincerely than their competitors. Exchanging Valentines became a popular way to express those feelings. A popular eighteenth-century Valentine form was a homemade love-letter puzzle. The writer intricately folded the paper, writing a different sentiment in each section. As the beloved unfolded the Valentine, her lover’s feelings were revealed. Many were sentimentally preserved and reside in museum collections today.

 

Reproduction Love-Letter Valentine: National Women’s History Museum
Reproduction Love-Letter Valentine: National Women’s History Museum

 

 

Nineteenth Century Romance Evolves

Romance blossomed in nineteenth-century American culture. Both men and women were encouraged to express their most intimate thoughts in letters. High literacy rates and a reliable postal service facilitated romantic communication. Letter-writing culture flourished. Letter-writing manuals provided sample love letter language for those who were not naturally adept at self-expression. Or, lovers could quote their favorite poets, drawing from an abundance of romantic literature.

 

The Fashionable American Letter Writer or the Art of Polite Correspondence. Containing a Variety of Plain and Elegant Letters on Business, Love, Courtship, Marriage, Relationship, Friendship, &c. Published by Benjamin Olds, 1839

The Fashionable American Letter Writer or the Art of Polite Correspondence. Containing a Variety of Plain and Elegant Letters on Business, Love, Courtship, Marriage, Relationship, Friendship, &c. Published by Benjamin Olds, 1839

Elizabeth Barrett published the love poems she composed to her future husband Robert Browning, at his insistence, after overcoming her reluctance to share their intimate correspondence.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height. My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight for the ends of being and ideal grace. I love thee to the level of everyday’s most quiet need, by sun and candle-light. I love thee freely, as men strive for right; I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. ~ (“How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways,” Sonnets from the Portuguese, Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

More casual lovers, those of less intimate acquaintance, were able to purchase ready-made Valentines in the mid-nineteenth century. The first commercial Valentines sold in the United States were produced by Mount Holyoke graduate Esther Howland. Following her college graduation in 1847, Howland began to produce and sell fancy, paper Valentines. In 1850 she expanded her operation, hiring local women to craft elaborate creations with ribbon, glitter, and paper lace in an assembly line fashion. Howland ran her New England Valentine Company until 1881 when she sold it to the George C. Whitney Company, headed by one of her former employees. The New England Valentine Company had annual gross sales of $100,000 at the end, demonstrating that romance could turn a profit.

 

Post Card Valentine – 1907 Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Post Card Valentine – 1907 Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Securing a Mate

Throughout the nineteenth century, middle and upper class married women were idealized for their role as mothers and helpmates. Whereas earlier generations recognized women as making economic contributions to households and family businesses, nineteenth-century social conventions diminished their role. Instead, their part–often called the Cult of Domesticity–was to create a pleasant and restorative environment for their husbands while raising children to be contributing citizens. When households began to be constituted as a breadwinner husband and homemaker wife, the practical advantages of marriage, such as the wife’s ability to economically manage a household, were minimized. While romantic love flourished, there was an increasing idealization of women as mothers and wives.

Women’s eligibility for marriage became increasingly tied to their appearance and social ability, though wealth and familial connections remained important factors to prospective partners. Men took the lead in partner selection, choosing which women to pursue while women waited to be selected. There was an expectation that everyone would eventually marry, both men and women, but men were expected also to establish a career and a public persona. For women, becoming a wife and mother was an achievement to aspire to. Therefore, women were discouraged from participating in activities that might make them less suited to marriage, such as higher education. Society was furthermore suspicious of women who did not marry, often characterizing them as deviants or old maids, and limiting their options.

Modern Romance

While romance remains a prime consideration in partner selection for twenty-first century women, the interest in selecting a partner has waned. In 2006, the Pew Trust found that only 16% of uncoupled Americans were actively looking for a partner. And when they are searching for love, marriage is not necessarily the romantic goal. In 2012, 23% of American men and 17% of women–over age 25—had never married, doubling from 1890 when 11% of men and 8% of women had never married. While marriage rates are down, cohabitation for unmarried men and women has increased. About a quarter (24%) of never-married young adults ages 25 to 34 lived with a partner in 2015. Social scientists have explored factors contributing to a decline in the marriage rate. They point to shifting public attitudes towards cohabitation, increasing acceptance of singledom, difficult economic times, and women’s increased economic independence. Romantic love in modern times has a different feel when women no longer see marriage as an end goal but rather a partnership between equals.

 

 

­Additional Readings

Coontz, Stephanie. 2006. Marriage, a history: from obedience to intimacy or how love conquered marriage. New York, NY [u.a.]: Penguin.

 

Elliott, Diana B., Kristy Krivickas, Matthew W. Brault, and Rose M. Kreider. “Historical Marriage Trends from 1890 – 2010: A Focus on Race Differences.” (n.d.): n. pag. May 2012. Web. 9 Feb. 2016. <https://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/marriage/data/acs/ElliottetalPAA2012presentation.pdf>.

Lystra, Karen. 1989. Searching the heart: women, men, and romantic love in nineteenth-century America. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Madden, Mary, and Lee Rainie. “Romance in America.” Pew Research Center Internet Science Tech RSS. Pew Research Center, 12 Feb. 2006. Web. 9 Feb. 2016. <http://www.pewinternet.org/2006/02/13/romance-in-america/>.

 

Saad, Lydia. “Fewer Young People Say I Do — to Any Relationship.” Gallup.com. Gallup, 8 June 2015. Web. 9 Feb. 2016. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/183515/fewer-young-people-say-relationship.aspx>.

 

Wang, Wendy, and Kim Parker. “Record Share of Americans Have Never Married.” Pew Research Centers Social Demographic Trends Project RSS. N.p., 23 Sept. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2016. <http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/09/24/record-share-of-americans-have-never-married/>.