Archive for the ‘Historical Women Who Rocked’ Category

Historical Women Who Rocked: Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)

December 4th, 2013

Margaret Bourke-White was born in New York. She completed her undergraduate education at Cornell University in 1927 and was an original staff member of Fortune and Life magazines. She became the first western photographer allowed to photograph inside the Soviet Union and covered the invasion of the Soviet Union by the German Army as well as the Italian Liberation. In 1945, she accompanied United States troops as they liberated Buchenwald Concentration Camp. She covered Gandhi’s campaign of non-violence in India and apartheid in South Africa. Since her death in 1971, her photographic works have been used by the United States Postal Service as postage stamps and her life as been portrayed on television and on the movie screen.

Historical Women Who Rocked: Ruby Bridges

November 19th, 2013

At just 6-years old young Ruby Bridges became the face of school integration.

Ruby Bridges was born on September 8, 1954. She was born to Lucille and Abon Bridges, who had four other children, giving Ruby three brothers and one sister. At age two, Ruby and her family moved from Tylertown, Mississippi, where her family had been sharecroppers, to New Orleans, Louisiana, because her parents sought better work opportunities.

In New Orleans, Ruby went to a segregated kindergarten. However, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1954, the year that Ruby was born, that all schools must desegregate.   The decision was made in the case of Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education, when the parents of another grade-school girl, Linda Brown, sued the school system of Topeka, Kansas, because Linda had to attend an all-black school outside of the neighborhood where she lived.

The law was put into place in Louisiana at the beginning of Ruby’s first grade year. Ruby and five other African-American girls were given the opportunity to attend a school made up of only Caucasians, after they passed psychological and educational tests. Ruby’s parents were faced with a critical decision.

For this reason, Lucille wanted to send Ruby to the new school. Lucille wanted to give her daughter the opportunities she never had, but Abon, Ruby’s father, was not eager to send Ruby to the new school because he did not want to endanger his family. Over time, though, Lucille convinced Abon that sending Ruby to the new school would be the best thing to do. Read the rest of this entry »

#HistoricalWomenWhoRocked: Bertha Knight Landes

September 17th, 2013

Bertha Knight Landes was a political pioneer and an #HistoricalWomanWhoRocked. She was the first woman mayor of Seattle and the first woman mayor of a major American city. She and her family moved to Washington in 1895 when her husband Henry became a faculty member at the University of Washington.  Landes was the mother of three children and was active in various women’s clubs.  For example, she founded the Women’s City Club and was president of the Washington State League of Women Voters.  In 1921, the Seattle mayor appointed her to serve on a commission studying unemployment.

Landes and Kathryn Miracle became the first women to serve on the Seattle City Council in 1922.  After being re-elected in 1924, Landes became the Council President.  Two years later, in 1926, she ran for mayor of Seattle.  Running on a platform that stressed law enforcement, reform, and morality, she defeated incumbent Edwin J. “Doc” Brown.

Both as the City Council President and as mayor, Landes supported issues like city planning and zoning, improved public health and safety programs, and better hospitals and recreation programs.  She supported public ownership of utilities.  Landes’ administration focused on caring for Seattle’s moral, social, and physical environment.

Even though her administration went well and received high marks, the issue of her sex consistently superseded her accomplishments in office; most people believed a city as large as Seattle should have a male leader.  Knight was defeated for reelection in 1928.  When asked what she saw as the future for women in politics, she said, “Women now wield considerable power along political lines and I believe each succeeding year for some time to come will find them wielding that power more effectively.  But…at present men in general are not ready to yield to women the privilege and right of holding high political office.”

After her political career, Landes wrote extensively for national magazines, encouraging other women to become involved in politics.  Landes wanted women to be treated equally with men and called for public service to be gender-neutral.  She wrote, “Let us, while never forgetting our womanhood, drop all emphasis on sex, and put it on being public servants.”

#HistoricalWomenWhoRocked: Osa Johnson

September 3rd, 2013

Have you ever rubbed down with kerosene oil to ward off mosquitoes? How about burning off leaches that double  in size after sucking your blood? Remaining calm as two-inch cockroaches crawl over you as you sleep?

Well, adventurer, explorer and author Osa Johnson did all these incredible things and more! Osa and her husband, Martin, were pioneering explorers, photographers, filmmakers and authors, who documented the lives of the indigenous people and wildlife of the South Seas Islands, Borneo, and East and Central Africa.  Their films serve as a record of these cultures and a wilderness that no longer exist today.

Osa Leighty was born in Chanute, Kansas on March 14, 1894. On May, 15 1910, at the age of sixteen, she married Martin Johnson of Independence, Kansas.  Martin had recently returned from an excursion to the South Seas with Jack London, who became famous for his wilderness novels, and  was touring the country presenting travelogues of  the trip;  Osa joined the tour after she and Martin married.  It soon became apparent to Osa that her new husband was always going to want a life of adventure, and she was determined to stand as his equal and share it with him.  After several years of traveling around the country, they scraped together enough money for an expedition to the South Seas, where they intended to film the natives in their natural state, not influenced by outside cultures.

Their first expedition left from San Francisco on June 5, 1917 to the island of Malekula in the South Pacific island chain called New Hebrides, where the Big Nambas were considered as savage a group of headhunters and cannibals as existed anywhere on earth.  Once on Malekula, they ascended through steep, thick jungle with a crew of eight natives, a small amount of film equipment and a handful of goods for trade.  They soon found the Big Nambas, and while Osa tried to interest their chief, Nagapate, in their goods, Martin rolled the camera.  It became clear that Nagapate was more interested in Osa than in the goods she was offering, and the crew made a hasty retreat, scrambling down the steep path with the natives in quick pursuit.  Fortunately, they were rescued by a British patrol boat.  The resulting film, Among the Cannibals of the South Pacific, was released the next summer in 1918 to much acclaim. Read the rest of this entry »

#Historical Women Who Rocked: Dr. Gerda Lerner

August 13th, 2013

By: Sydnee C. Winston, Project Coordinator

A pioneer of women’s history, Dr. Gerda Lerner helped to shape this field of study through narrative, theory, and activism for over 40 years. In the 20th century, Lerner played a central role in the establishment of women’s history as a formal academic field. She also founded the first graduate studies program in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College in 1972.  Quoted by President Carter in his proclamation of the first National Women’s History Week, Dr. Lerner proclaimed, “Women’s history is women’s right—an essential, indispensable heritage from which we can draw pride, comfort, courage, and long range vision.”

Dr.  Lerner’s groundbreaking efforts and theories in the field of American history helped to advance the study of history in the second half of the 20th century. By demanding that attention be paid to the study of women’s roles, contributions, and experiences in society, she contributed to the successes of the feminist movement, the struggle for gender and racial equality in the United States, and the diversification and development of historical research. Lerner passed away on January 2, 2013 at the age of 92.

Check out our video series The Keepers of History: The Women Who Preserved One Half of Our Nation’s Story, which explores the life of Dr. Gerda Lerner and other pioneer women historians who spent their lives trying to carve out a place for women in the telling of our national story.

Part 1

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Historical Women Who Rocked: Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus

August 9th, 2013

By: Lily Liu, AARP Historian/Archivist

This summer, I had a chance to speak with college students who are interning at AARP, where I work.  We talked about applying to college and having to write those personal essays in response to questions such as one I faced during my college application process:  “If you could have dinner with one person, dead or still living, who would it be and what would you talk about?”

I know I answered this question back then with an eye to how my response could set me apart from the thousands of other high school seniors jockeying for acceptance at that same institution of higher learning. I know I was trying to elicit a certain reaction from the Admissions Office staff: “Wow, this is so creative!” “Gee, how original!” “This young lady’s essay reflects a maturity beyond her mere 17 years!”

Ah, the innocence of youth!

Now, fast forward a few decades and I really DO wish I COULD have dinner with the woman who founded AARP, Ethel Percy Andrus (1884-1967).  She began her professional career as a teacher and then in 1917 was chosen as the first woman high school principal in California.  In retirement in the mid-1940s, she became a champion of and advocate for the interests and needs of the elders in society after discovering a retired teacher forced by poverty to live in a chicken coop.  In an essay published in the book Who is My Neighbor (1960), Dr. Andrus recalled that pivotal moment when she found another retiree “lonely, unneeded and forsaken.” Read the rest of this entry »

Historical Women Who Rocked: Josephine Baker

July 22nd, 2013

A native of Missouri, Josephine Baker is remembered for her sultry and comedic stage routines that captivated audiences across the European continent as the Jazz Age unfolded in the United States. During World War II, however, the dancer and singer known as “Black Venus,” “Black Pearl,” or “Creole Goddess” performed a much more important role for her adopted country of France: that of undercover operative in the French Resistance.

In addition to serving as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force, Baker maintained an exhaustive performance schedule throughout the war, entertaining both French and American troops. These appearances in many of Europe’s wartime cities provided an excellent cover for the different covert activities she undertook on behalf of the Allied cause.

On at least occasion, Baker smuggled secret military intelligence reports into Portugal from France that had been written in disappearing or invisible ink on her sheet music. (As an element of tradecraft, invisible ink has proved to be a valuable operational tool throughout history. Part of its longevity can be traced to some of the simple and readily available sources for the ink: milk, vinegar, lemon juice, and even urine. In the 20th century, more sophisticated inks resulted from the discovery and introduction of different chemical ingredients.) Read the rest of this entry »

Historical Women Who Rocked: Laura Bridgman

July 15th, 2013

Half a century before famed Helen Keller, the “Original Helen Keller,” Laura Dewey Bridgman, became the first deaf and blind person to learn a language. By the time that Keller became famous in the early twentieth century, Bridgman’s story had faded and been forgotten — but like Keller, Bridgman moved souls around the world by triumphing over her multiple disabilities.

Laura Dewey Bridgman was born in the expansion period of the United States on December 21, 1829, just shy of President Andrew Jackson’s message to Congress to relocate the Native American tribes west of the Mississippi River.  With her parents, Daniel and Harmony Bridgman, Laura resided in Etna, New Hampshire, just a few miles east of Vermont.  Although Native Americans had moved from that area decades earlier, it remained rural.

When she was two, Laura contracted scarlet fever, which eradicated both her hearing and her sight, while seriously damaging her senses of taste and smell.  Touch was the only one of the five senses that was not impaired.

Her early means of communication and expression were through imitation by touch. Laura learned to perform tasks by following her mother’s hands; she even learned to sew that way. However, it was Asa Tenny, a local handyman, who taught her to begin communicating using a system of signs.  That attracted the interest of a professor at Dartmouth College, nearby in Hanover, New Hampshire, and he wrote a newspaper article about Laura. Read the rest of this entry »

Historical Women Who Rocked: July 4th Edition

July 3rd, 2013

In celebration of Independence Day, NWHM presents a special edition of its “Historical Women Who Rocked” series. Take a look at these trailblazers who were major players in the Revolutionary War.

Who: “Agent 355”

When: During the Revolutionary War
About: She is considered by intelligence historians to be America’s first female undercover operations officer. It is speculated that “355” came from a wealthy New York Tory family that would have allowed her access to British forces operating nearby. Abraham Woodhull, speculated head of the Culper Ring spy organization, wrote that she “hath been ever serviceable to this correspondence” and could “outwit them all.” She was given the name “355,” which was the code-number for “lady” from the encryption code system used by the Culper Ring. While defending against the British in and around New York, George Washington came to rely heavily on the information she supplied him. “355” is even credited for helping uncover the treasonous Benedict Arnold-John André plot that eventually led to André’s demise. Agent 355 is heralded as one of the best intelligence officers because her identity is still unknown to us today after almost 230 years. Read the rest of this entry »

Before ‘Cosmopolitan’ and ‘Glamour’ there was “Godey’s Lady’s Book”

July 2nd, 2013

By: Sydnee C. Winston, Project Coordinator

Quick…name as many popular lady’s magazines as you can!

Chances are that popular magazines like Cosmopolitan, Glamour and RedBook immediately came to mind, right? While these magazines have unique features and are read by millions, there is one pioneering lady’s magazine that made it possible for magazines like these to exist. Godey’s Lady’s Book was hands-down, the most popular and widely read lady’s magazine during its heyday from the 1840′s to 1860. The magazine set the standard for etiquette and culture and its influential editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, was regarded as a connoisseur of all things fashion, cooking, literature and morality for middle and upper class woman.

Sarah was born on a New Hampshire farm in 1788.  Like most girls of the era, she received a limited education from family members and what she could teach herself.  After she married lawyer David Hale in 1813, they formed a small literary club with many of their friends and Hale began writing.  After the death of her husband in 1822, Hale turned to writing to support herself and her five children.  Her first effort was to co-publish a book of poems with her sister-in-law called The Genius of Oblivion and Other Original Poems.  The book was relatively well-received and Hale went on to write a novel called Northwood, which also sold well.  Due to the success of the book, Hale was solicited to become the editor of a new magazine aimed at women.  Leaving behind her children temporarily in the care of relatives, Hale accepted the position and moved to Boston in 1827. Read the rest of this entry »