African American Activists

February 17th, 2017

African American Activists

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The girl who acted before Rosa Parks

February 15th, 2017


by Elissa Blattman, Project Assistant


Colvin at age 15. Public domain.

Colvin at age 15. Public domain.

Every American child learns about Rosa Parks in school.  On December 1, 1955, she, a black woman, was arrested for refusing to give her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white man.  Her arrest led to a boycott of the city’s public transportation that lasted 381 days and ignited the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Nine months earlier, Claudette Colvin was arrested for the exact same thing.  She was just 15 years old.


Growing Up in Jim Crow Montgomery

Colvin grew up in a poor black neighborhood in Montgomery, Alabama.  She was well accustomed with the Jim Crow laws of the South.  She says the first time she realized things were different for her was when she was a little girl and her mother took her to a department store.  A white boy started staring at her and laughing because she looked different than him. She put her hands up to his to show him they both were really the same.  Her mother slapped her for acting out and touching a white person.  She picked up quickly that black people “had to be on their best behavior” while out in public because of Jim Crow.  In school, she learned about inequalities black people in the South faced on a regular basis.  She attended an all-black school, as Alabama did not actually desegregate its schools until years after the 1954 Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision.  Her instructors took the time to teach their students about Jim Crow and about Black History, especially during February.  February was the month during which Negro History Week (as it was then known) was celebrated around the country, but Colvin’s school celebrated Black History for the entire month, as we do now, because her teachers felt black people were absent from history books. Her personal heroes were Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.


Boarding the Bus and Making a Decision

After school on March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin walked to downtown Montgomery with three of her classmates.  She and her friends were going to take the city bus home from school that day.  When they boarded the bus, they sat behind the first five rows, which were reserved for white passengers.  A young white woman boarded the bus after Colvin and her friends and found nowhere to sit because the white section was full.  Bus drivers had the authority to make black passengers move for white passengers, even if they were sitting in the black section.  The bus driver asked Colvin and her friends to get up, which her friends immediately did.  She refused to move.  On her mind were the lessons she had learned throughout her life, especially during Negro History Month at her school just days before. Though her friends’ seats (one next to Colvin and two across the aisle) were now vacant, the white woman refused to sit in them because, according to Jim Crow laws, black people could not sit next to next to white people.  They had to sit behind white people to show their inferiority. When asked again, Colvin refused to get up.  The bus driver alerted the traffic police, and three stops later, a traffic officer came onto the bus and asked her why she was sitting there and why she would not get up.  She replied, “because it’s my constitutional right,” and told him she was not breaking the segregation law by sitting there.  The traffic officer told the bus driver that the police needed to get involved.  A stop or two later, two police officers came onto the bus and instructed Colvin to get up. She refused.  She later said, “I could not move because history had me glued to the seat…Sojourner Truth’s hands were pushing me down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing me down on another shoulder.” The police officers each grabbed one of her arms, kicked her, threw her books from her lap, and “manhandled” her off the bus.  They shoved her in their police car, handcuffed her through the windows, and took her off to jail. She was the first person to be arrested for challenging Montgomery’s bus segregation laws.


Arrested, Afraid, and Awaiting Consequences

On the way to jail, the police officers called her racist and sexist names, “took turns trying to guess [her] bra size…and cracked jokes about parts of [her] body.”  When they got to the jail, other police officers joined in on the name calling.  She was charged with breaking the segregation law, resisting arrest, and assaulting a police officer (one of them got scratched in the scuffle off the bus).  They booked her as an adult and locked her in a cell without permitting her to make a phone call. She had no idea if anyone who could help her would find out where she was.  The classmates that were on the bus with her called her mother and her minister, however, and told them what happened.  Her minister paid her bail and she was released.  This time her mother did not scold her, instead she only asked if she was okay.  Colvin, her family, and her neighbors were all afraid of retaliation from the KKK.  They stayed up all night keeping watch, her father with gun in hand in case they came.  Luckily, they never did.  When she went back to school after her arrest, she found that many parents told her classmates to stay away from her because she was crazy.  As a result of the stand she took, she was made fun of by other teenagers.  She was eventually found guilty on all three charges, but later had two of them dropped by a judge.  The judge upheld the assaulting a police officer charge, knowing it meant she would have “a serious police record that could harm her future, but she could no longer appeal to challenge the Jim Crow regulations.”  She remembers the words her revered said to her on the way home from jail – “I’m so proud of you. Everyone prays for freedom…But you’re different – you want your answer the next morning. And I think you just brought the revolution to Montgomery.”  But the revolution would not actually occur until nine months later.


Colvin’s Stance Paved the Way

Colvin feels her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement have been largely forgotten.  When asked why her arrest did not have the impact Parks’ did, she often sites five reasons. First, Colvin was a minor and Parks was an adult – Parks seemed more trustworthy as the face of a movement than a kid would have been.  Second, Parks had lighter skin than Colvin – a feature more socially acceptable at the time.  Third, Colvin was poor and Parks was more middle class – also more socially acceptable.  Fourth, Parks was already well-known and respected in black political circles.  Fifth, Colvin became pregnant (by a man ten years her senior) a few months after her arrest – black leaders did not believe it would be good for their movement if the face of it was an unwed teenage mother. Additionally, Colvin moved to New York shortly after her arrest and rarely mentioned it to others because people there, she says, were more interested in the growing Black Power Movement and Malcolm X than they were in the bus boycott and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Though her arrest has been completely overshadowed by the arrest of Rosa Parks, Parks’ arrest might not have been such a powerful action if it weren’t for Colvin.  Prior to December, 1955, black leaders in Montgomery had been in talks with the bus company about a boycott if they did not desegregate.  The bus company depended on black passengers to stay in business, so they knew a boycott would really hit them hard and have a large impact.  As secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, Parks was well aware of those talks, as well as other strategies they hoped to use to end the unequal treatment of blacks in Alabama and around the country.  When Colvin refused to get off the bus in March 1955, they got to work developing a plan and preparing for the moment to thrust their cause into the national spotlight.  If they did not have that preparation time, Parks’ arrest might not have gained much more than local attention.  Dr. King might not have become the face of the boycott if he had not had that preparation time between the two arrests.

Though she does not get the notoriety Parks gets, Colvin’s contributions to the cause are still most definitely felt.  A year after she was arrested, Colvin became one of four plaintiffs in a segregation case that reached the Supreme Court. Colvin testified in federal court in the Browder v. Gayle (Gayle was the Montgomery mayor) case and was the so-called star witness.  Her testimony helped the court reach its verdict – that segregation on Montgomery buses was illegal.


Join in on the conversation!  Post comments below, on Facebook, or Tweet us @womenshistory.


Read more about Women in the Civil Rights Movement here.


Sources: Democracy Now, NPR, Mother Jones,

Following the Path of Historical Romance to Women’s History

February 13th, 2017
“Woman Reading” by Laura Muntz Lyall, c1903, private collection
“Woman Reading” by Laura Muntz Lyall, c1903, private collection

It’s so easy to bash historical romance novels. You know you’ve seen them – the paperbacks with covers featuring heroines in billowing dresses, swooning with desire into the arms of a shirtless hero – and you may have laughed and felt superior, and maybe even used one of the cynical, pejorative terms for the genre that I’m not going to repeat here.

But I’m betting that many of you aren’t laughing, because you read these books, and you understand why they’re so popular. And they are popular: romance sales make up over half of all mass market books sales in America. It’s also the single portion of the publishing world where not only are nearly all the readers are women, but so are the writers, and the editors, too.

Yes, like all genre fiction (such as sci-fi, mysteries, paranormals, and so on), historical romances are the books read for escapist fun. A love story set in the past is a wonderful way to forget 21st century problems. But it’s not just any old past: it’s a past filled with women. You know, that sizable part of the population that history textbooks so long forgot existed.


Heroines Experience Everyday Reality of the Past

Too often history is remembered only as the most boring class in school, all dates, wars, and men with white hair. The best writers of historical romance take their research seriously. They can transform history from dry dates into stories filled with real people suffering real joys and real tragedies, and yes, at least half of those people are women.

Historical romances offer a strong heroine living in a vividly recreated world. She’s often adventurous, daring, and accomplished in non-traditional ways that challenge the convictions of the men around her. She may be a healer, a journalist, a scholar, or a spy, a conductor on the Underground Railway or a lady-in-waiting to an English Queen. That she finds the one man who will fall in love with her for who she is will, of course, be what most readers expect from a romance; a happy ending is guaranteed. But readers live through the heroine, and experience what she experiences – not only the joys of true love, but also the everyday realities of women in the past: how they kept warm, what they ate, and how they dressed, what they feared and what they cherished.


Inspiring Curiosity about the History behind the Fiction

“Self-Portrait Reading” by Hilary Coddington Lewis, 1899, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

“Self-Portrait Reading” by Hilary Coddington Lewis, 1899, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

Historical romances can do much more than just entertain, however. They can become gateway books that inspire a lasting interest in history in a more general sense. For many casual readers, a wall of traditional history books or biographies in a bookstore or library can be intimidating. Even if there’s a nearby clerk or librarian waiting to offer suggestions, many readers won’t ask because they don’t know what they want or like, and don’t want to appear uninformed.

But if that reader has read a historical romance set in the court of Henry VIII, she may become curious to learn more, and ask for a book about life in Tudor England, or a biography of Anne Boleyn. A historical romance set in 19th century Texas might lead a reader to begin investigating the women in her own family tree at the local historical society, and the historical romance about the Underground Railway could inspire another reader to take her family to the National Museum of African American History.

Just remember that history – and history lovers – come in many forms. Don’t judge the book by the cover. You might be surprised what you’ll learn from a historical romance.


By Susan Holloway Scott


SHScott author photo @300dpi croppedI, Eliza cover 1118Susan Holloway Scott is the author of over fifty historical romances (written under the pseudonyms Isabella Bradford and Miranda Jarrett) and historical novels, and she is also half of the history blog Two Nerdy History Girls. Her new historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, is based on the turbulent life of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, wife of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, and will be published in September, 2017 by Kensington Books.





Read more about the “History of Romance” here.


Happy Valentine’s Day – The History of Romance

February 8th, 2017

The giving and receiving of valentines or love tokens dates to medieval times, but the origins of the modern celebration lie in the 18th 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



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 – circa 1900. National Women’s History Museum


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.


By Elizabeth L. Maurer, Director of Program


­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. <>.
  • 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. <>.
  • Saad, Lydia. “Fewer Young People Say I Do — to Any Relationship.” Gallup, 8 June 2015. Web. 9 Feb. 2016. <>.
  • 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. <>.



Ask a Museum Educator

January 28th, 2017

During February and March bring a Museum Educator into your classroom and offer your students a glimpse into how museums bring history to life. The National Women’s History Museum is offering free 15 minute electronic field trips for 4th through 11th grade classes. In February the fieldtrips will focus on African American women and the Civil Rights Movement. Then in March the focus will shift to women in STEM. To learn more about these electronic fieldtrips or to register visit

The Nation’s Hostess

January 19th, 2017

From the days of Martha Washington through to modern times, Americans have seen their First Lady as the epitome of American hospitality. The title ‘First Lady’ did not officially appear until sometime in the middle 19th century. Records indicate it was first used in print in the Illustrated Newspaper in reference to Harriet Lane, the niece to the nation’s only bachelor president, James Buchanan. From the outset, the role assigned to the wife of the president or the female relatives closest to the nation’s leader has always been based on being hostess to the nation and the world.

With an oversized emphasis on welcoming guests to the nation’s house, the food, recipes and menus that originated from the White House were often the focus of many magazines and news articles. And can be an important mirror into the time period and lives of the women who took on the role as First Lady.

Through the years, some women relished this public role more than others. While Washington did not live in the White House, she managed the first two presidential homes in New York and Philadelphia. One of her most famous recipes was the Great Cake, famous during the Colonial Era. They were a common dessert in this period and tended to be very large, as reflected by the list of ingredients that varied according to the version of the recipe used.

Martha Washington’s Recipe for Great Black Cake

Take 40 eggs and divide the whites from the yolks and beat them to froth.

Then work 4 pounds of butter to a cream and put the whites of eggs to it asSpoon full at a time till it is well work’d.

Then put 4 pounds of sugar finely powdered to it in the same manner

Then put in the Yolks of eggs and 5 pounds of flour and 5 pounds of fruit.

Two hours will bake it. Add to it half an ounce of mace and nutmeg half a pint of wine a and some fresh brandy. Five and a half hours will bake it.


Eleanor Roosevelt was not much of a cook but she was concerned about the health of Americans. Roosevelt became intrigued by the innovations underway at the Home Economics Department of Cornell University, which under Ellen Swallow Richards, had adopted a very scientific approach to homemaking. According to the New Yorker, Roosevelt “wanted White House meals to set the right example for a struggling populace.” With the country in the midst of the Great Depression, Roosevelt was very conscious of sharing recipes that displayed frugality. She commissioned low-cost menus from the home economics faculty at Cornell. Many of the White House meals during this time were simple and from some descriptions too bland. The common saying at the time was if you’re invited to the White House for dinner, eat before you go.

Gumbo Z’Herbes (Cheapest Soup)

2 tablespoons lard

2 tablespoons flour

1 bunch each of spinach, mustard greens, green cabbage, beet tops, watercress, radishes, chopped onion, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, green onion top, salt, pepper, red pepper pod or drop of Tabasco. Bacon strip, veal or port brisket, or hambone.

Wash well the greens, bacon strip, hot water and boil well. Drain off water and save it. Fry meat in one tablespoon lard, chopping up the while with the greens with the onion and seasoning. Take out the meat and fry the greens, stirring. When well fried, all the flour, stir. Season well. Add meat and the treasured water of the boiled greens; leave all to simmer for an hour or so.



A close confidante to her husband, Claudia Alta ‘Lady Bird’ Johnson entertained with a purpose. She developed camaraderie with the wives of Cabinet members, aides and Congressional leaders. She entered the White House at a time of unrest for the nation, but is said to have remained close to former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Her direct interactions with Congress broke ground for her role.

Lady Bird Johnson Cheese Wafers

1 Cup Margarine or Soft Butter

2 Cups Flour

8 oz. Sharp Cheddar Cheese, Grated

1 Tsp. Cayenne Pepper

1/2 Tsp Salt

2 Cups Rice Krispies Cereal

Cut butter into flour, add cheese and seasonings, fold in cereal. Drop by small rounds on ungreased cookie sheet and flatten with a spoon.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 12-15 minutes, depending oven (careful not to get too brown). Yields approximately 5 dozen wafers.

Cheese Wafers are a *ranch staple* which are served on all occasions: with salads, with cocktails, etc., or just when one of the grandchildren gets the *munchies!*

This spring the National Women’s History Museum is creating a recipe book with a recipe from each First Lady’s time. The book will be a thank you gift to anyone who donates at least $100 to the museum and references it on their donation form. To donate now, click here and select email/social media as option for why you are making this donation.


Gals in Blue: Finding Each Other

December 12th, 2016


“I got a short notice deployment. I am leaving in less than a week. I am missing Thanksgiving and Christmas and everything.”

The call from one of my dearest friends was unexpected but not surprising. This was late 2003, and we were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was all hands on deck, literally. In the early 2000s, when the standing US military force was at its lowest since World War II, you were either deployed, coming home from deployment, getting ready to deploy, serving in some other overseas location, or in training.

I had no doubt she would be awesome while deployed, because she was one of the most talented officers in the Air Force I knew. The fact that she was female, and was being sent into a combat zone, was never an issue.

No Women’s Only Units

It’s really amazing to think about, the incredible amount of change for women in the military in the 60 or so years since the days of the WASPs. Women in the early days were limited to very few career fields, mainly nursing. Those incredible WASP pilots were dismissed without benefits or even veteran status (that was finally granted to them in 1977). Women weren’t allowed to attend military academies or pilot training until the late 70s and early 80s. And thank goodness there were amazing women that were those “firsts,” because that meant when I got my Air Force commission, I could choose from nearly all available career fields.

But even now, when all career fields in the military are open to women – fighter pilot, infantry, submarines, even Ranger qualification – we still make up less than 20% of the force. The military is fully integrated, there aren’t women-only units, but that means you are sometimes one of the only women in your unit. It can get a little lonely.

A Special Skill

I might never have stayed for as long as I did without my closest girlfriends. It’s a special skill of women in particular, I think, to team up and take care of each other. Sometimes they were in my unit, but usually not. Usually I met them working on some extra duty or at the gym or around base. Some were active duty, some reservists, some formerly active duty that stayed part of the Air Force by either job or marriage. And all were a life raft when I most needed it.

Just like my friend calling me, I have made similar calls to her and to others when a crisis of some kind was brewing. Never a crisis like, “my house burned down,” usually something like “I’ve been selected for this prestigious graduate degree program but it means leaving my husband and children for 10 months” or “I’ve been given squadron command but it’s in Iraq for a year.”

Even the most military supporting friends and neighbors would cringe when I said those things out loud, but not my girlfriends. Because they get it. They get that serving your country means sacrifice, but you should still do it. Not only were they there to answer my phone calls, but they also sent care packages and helped out my family when they needed it and I couldn’t be there. Without their knowing it, they have been and remain great examples to my daughter about serving with excellence, and humor, and friendship.

Informal Mentors

That’s why, as I closed out my career in the Air Force, I started my blog, Gals in Blue. I wanted some way to stay involved as an informal mentor, and to help others connect. I love how blogs and social media are helping women in the military to find each other, to reach out for help, and to celebrate each other’s accomplishments. I had someone ask me recently if I missed being in the Air Force. My answer was an unqualified no, and I could say that because the best part, by far, of my military experience, was my girlfriends. And I get to keep them forever.


Author’s Bio: Elisabeth Auld served for 24 years in the US Air Force, including tours in Japan, South Korea, Germany and Iraq.  She currently works in the aviation industry, and resides in Alexandria, Virginia with her husband, also an Air Force veteran, and their two children.



National Women’s History Museum Receives Grant to Rebuild Website with Advanced Content Capabilities

December 6th, 2016


Alexandria, Va.— The National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) announced today it will receive a $370,000 grant from the PwC Charitable Foundation, Inc. (the Foundation) in support of the Museum’s efforts to develop advanced content capabilities for 21st century interactive learning modules, revamped curricula lessons and online exhibits and to optimize the content for mobile. The grant will be distributed over two years.

PwC LLP will complement the Foundation’s grant with pro bono technical advice and support. The pro bono engagement team will work to advise the investment in new interactive content, bringing considerable user experience expertise to optimize the platform.

NWHM is the nation’s largest online cultural institution dedicated to women’s history, both past and present, and its online presence is critical to serving its mission and stakeholder community.

“This grant allows us to expand both our technical and staff capacities to create a unique level of engagement with our diverse audiences,” said NWHM President and CEO Joan Wages. “We are excited to work with the PwC Charitable Foundation to make our exhibits and information available to people across the nation and encourage learning and appreciation for women’s contributions to American history.”

”We see the absence of women’s stories from history as a challenge to education that needs to be addressed,” said Shannon Schuyler, president of the Foundation. “This grant and our pro bono support aim to help the National Women’s History Museum engage future generations of Americans with important stories told in a compelling way.”

The new website will feature optimized, virtual exhibits that are mobile-friendly, and increase NWHM’s reach by 35 percent in the first two years of launch. Efficiencies, cost savings and additional staff capacity will allow for more efficient content management and data capture that will improve the organization’s ability to make more data-driven decisions and to maximize its impact well beyond the two-year grant period. NWHM plans to launch the website Summer 2017.


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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, 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 or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


Remembering Pearl Harbor Day – Honoring the Bravery of Army Nurse Annie G. Fox

December 5th, 2016

annie_foxDecember 7 is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, when Americans commemorate the 1941 attack that brought the United States into World War II. The Japanese attack shocked a nation that had heretofore resisted entering foreign wars by bringing the conflict to its shores. Dozens of stories of heroism emerged after the attacks, including that of the inspiring courage of First Lieutenant Annie G. Fox (Army Nurse Corps), who received a Bronze Star for her actions. The Bronze Star, when awarded for bravery, it is the fourth-highest combat award of the U.S. Armed Forces and the ninth highest military award in the order of precedence.

Lt. Fox was the Station Hospital’s Head Nurse at Hickam Field. The 30-bed hospital opened in November 1941, with six nurses. Lt. Monica E. Conter described the unit as “the happiest group of nurses anywhere, [under] the grandest chief nurse [Fox] who enjoys everything as much as we do.” Fox had joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1918, at the end of the First World War. While no stranger to military service, the surprise attack landed her in combat for the first time. The 47-year-old quickly took control of the situation as bombs rained down on the base.

Firsthand accounts of the attack by hospital staff described a terrifying and chaotic situation. Enemy airplanes flying so close and low that the nurses could see the pilots talking to each other were followed by explosions and masses of black smoke after each dive. Casualties poured into the hospital within minutes of the first bombing run. Hospital staff leaped into action as the constant noise of aerial torpedoes, bombs, machine gunning, and the American anti-aircraft filled the air.

As the attack progressed, causalities multiplied while bombs fell around the hospital itself. One bomb left a 30-foot crater twenty feet from the hospital wing, and another fell across the street. The smoke and fumes were so severe that the hospital staff, fearing a gas attack, donned gas masks and helmets as they tended the wounded. The casualties suffered from serious shrapnel wounds particularly in the abdomen, chest, face, head, arms, and legs. The casualties were so numerous that nurses had time only to administer pain medication before triaging them on to Trippler hospital. The dead also passed through, their bodies a mangled mass of bone and bloody and charred tissue.

As Head Nurse, Lt. Fox rallied the nurses and organized the hospital’s response to the assault. The wives of officers and N.C.O.s reported to the hospital to help, and Lt. Fox organized the civilian volunteers to make hospital dressings by the hundreds and assist with patient care. Lt. Fox herself participated in surgery, administering anesthesia, during the heaviest part of the bombardment. Afterwards, she, with the other nurses, tended to the wounded.

On October 26, 1942, in recognition of her efforts, Fox became the first woman in American history to be awarded the Purple Heart medal. Her citation read in part:

“During the attack, Lieutenant Fox in an exemplary manner, performed her duties as head nurse of the Station Hospital. . . . [She] worked ceaselessly with coolness and efficiency and her fine example of calmness, courage, and leadership was of great benefit to the morale of all with whom she came in contact.”

Four other Army nurses were also recognized for their performance during the attack. Captain Helena Clearwater, First Lieutenant Elizabeth A. Pesut, Second Lieutenant Elma L. Asson, and Second Lieutenant Rosalie L. Swenson each received the Legion of Merit “for extraordinary fidelity and essential service”.

Though at the time the Purple Heart award was most commonly awarded to service members wounded by enemy forces, it was occasionally awarded for any “singularly meritorious act of extraordinary fidelity or essential service.” The Purple Heart Award criteria changed in 1942 to be limited to wounds received as a result of enemy action. On October 6, 1944, Lt. Fox was awarded the Bronze Star Medal in replacement for her Purple Heart, which was rescinded. The Report of Decorations Board cited the same acts of heroism as for the Purple Heart.

The Army Nurse Corps had fewer than 1,000 nurses on December 7, 1941, the day of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Eighty-two Army nurses were stationed in Hawaii serving at three Army medical facilities that infamous day. By the end of World War II, more than 59,000 American nurses had served in the Army Nurse Corps. Nurses worked closer to the front lines than in any prior conflict, providing invaluable service at great personal risk. Nurses received 1,619 medals, citations, and commendations during the war, including sixteen medals awarded posthumously to women who died as a result of enemy fire. Lt. Fox and her thousands of fellow nurses exemplified the courage and dedication of all who served.

Defining Designs

November 20th, 2016

By Rebecca C. Tuite

Elizabeth Hawes and Fashion is Spinach

“I don’t know when the word fashion came into being, but it was an evil day,”[1] Elizabeth Hawes (1903-1971) famously declared, encapsulating her complicated relationship with the fashion industry. Educated at Vassar, Hawes enjoyed a diverse career that took her from being a copyist in the haute couture salons of Paris in the 1920s (also known as a “design thief,” Hawes would sketch the latest French fashions to be copied back home by American companies), to being a successful designer in her own right in the 1930s and 1940s. Constant through her lifetime were her roles as a journalist, an insightful author, a sharp commentator on the fashion industry and an outspoken, politically-engaged advocate for women’s rights. Hawes launched her namesake line in 1930, quickly earning a reputation for innovative and witty fashions, which she gave irreverent names, including her “Alimony” and “The Tarts” dresses and her famous “Guardsman” gloves. By 1940, Hawes had largely retired from the fashion industry, however what continued were her polemics on fashion and style. Indeed, what has most defined Elizabeth Hawes’s legacy is her fashion writing, particularly her first book, Fashion is Spinach.

fashionisspinach_coverFashion is Spinach was published in 1938, with its title stemming from a New Yorker cartoon that sees a young boy looking unimpressed with his plate of spinach, and although his mother implores him to eat, the boy responds, “I say it’s spinach. And I say, the hell with it.” Fashion is Spinach sees Hawes outline why, to her, the fashion industry resembled that unappealing plate of spinach; using her own professional experiences to critique the way fashion was marketed and sold to women. Chiefly among Hawes’s concerns was the important difference between fashion and style. To Hawes, style was about honing an authentic, appropriate, personal look; style was “that thing which, being looked back upon after a century, gives you the fundamental feeling of a certain period in history… Style gives you shorts for tennis because they are practical. Style takes away the wasp-waisted corset when women get free and active.” In contrast, “Fashion is that horrid little man with an evil eye who tells you that your last winter’s coat may be in perfect physical condition, but you can’t wear it. You can’t wear it because it has a belt and this year ‘we are not showing belts.’” Hawes loathed the industry’s incessant pressure for “newness” and, as fashion historian Valerie Steele has noted, held the belief that simply: “You should feel free to wear whatever makes you happy.” Hawes’s also addressed French versus American fashion, at a time when Paris still dictated the fashion agenda. “The difference between French and American style is not very great,” Hawes wrote, “But just enough to make many French designs useless for the United States.” Hawes opened her own line in the hope of questioning the “French Legend” and instead championed homegrown talent and encouraged the American fashion industry to create clothing accessible to all American women that actually suited their lifestyles.

Fashion is Spinach provides not only an important insight into the fashion industry in the 1920s and 1930s, but highlights a number of issues that would inform the changing landscape of the American fashion industry for much of the twentieth century.


Vera Maxwell and the “Weekend Wardrobe”

Having enjoyed early careers as a ballet dancer and a fashion model in Manhattan, Vera Maxwell (1901-1995) transitioned into fashion design, where both her practical tailoring abilities and her intuitive good taste found their greatest expression. A key figure in the creation of the “American Look,” Maxwell established a reputation for quality American sportswear separates, impeccable suiting and timeless dresses, as well as designing the “Rosie the Riveter” coveralls as part of the war effort (the predecessor to today’s ever-popular jumpsuit).

Photo Credit: communing withfabric (

Photo Credit: communing withfabric (

In 1935, Maxwell outlined her design approach as, “Evolving basic silhouettes which are actually studied and precisely fitted but at the same time convey the casual appearance to essential to successful sports clothes.” This encapsulates Maxwell’s legacy: fashions that have an effortless quality but which are carefully thought out and imbued with all the “newness” of the moment, including innovative fabrications (with early forays into Arnel and Ultrasuede), perceptive solutions (in 1975 Maxwell unveiled her “Speed Suit,” a dress with no fiddly fastenings that could be put on in seconds), and unexpected detailing (like lining a jacket with the same fabric as its matching dress).

While Maxwell’s designs are most commonly described as “timeless” and “classic,” she was extraordinarily forward thinking in meeting the changing demands and lifestyles of women. She offered a range of sizes beyond a size 8 when that was unusual and as Richard Martin has noted, Maxwell “never forgot that women were going to be active and working, and she realized more than anyone that air travel was going to be the quintessential experience of the late 20th century.” It was her early recognition of the need for convenient, stylish, versatile fashions for women on the move that gave rise to one of her most famous design innovations: The Weekend Wardrobe.

The “Weekend Wardrobe,” introduced in 1935, was a collection of coordinated garments that could be mixed and matched at will and easily packed for a weekend jaunt. The first Weekend Wardrobe included a collarless, Harris tweed jacket (inspired by one Maxwell saw Albert Einstein wearing at Princeton in 1935), another jersey jacket, pants and two skirts. Emblematic of her powers of “experience and observation,” Maxwell created the kind of coordinated, streamlined collection that she, or any woman, would find easy to take and wear on a short trip.

Maxwell also established the blueprint for effortless separates dressing that would define American fashion for generations. In fact, as the rest of the fashion world caught up with her idea, Maxwell continued to develop her convenient, stylish answer to the traveling woman’s needs. In 1946, Maxwell tested out her capsule weekend wardrobe for air travel (weighing in under the 55lb personal packing limit) and in 1948 she offered a Donegal tweed jacket with oversized pockets that were lined in plastic to carry all the washbag essentials. Maxwell also deftly employed Arnel to make pleated skirts that could survive the crush of a suitcase, and in 1975 she created yet another version of her weekend wardrobe to fit inside a single carry-on garment bag made with the latest, travel-friendly fabric Ultrasuede.

In a career filled with pioneering design moments and timeless fashions, Maxwell’s Weekend Wardrobe defined American sportswear separates dressing and fully achieved her mission to create “easy and attractive clothes for women who worked, traveled and led active lives.”


Donna Karan and the Cold Shoulder Dress

“For me, designing is an expression of who I am as a woman, with all the complications, feelings and emotions,” Donna Karan (b. 1948) once explained. From her iconic sensual, jersey gowns and sleek, stretchy bodysuits, to her versatile wrap-and-tie skirts and practical, professional suiting, Karan has spent her career creating beautiful and functional clothing for every aspect of a woman’s life. Working her way up through the ranks at Anne Klein before starting her own line in 1985, Karan follows in the rich tradition of female American fashion designers who created clothing that not only fulfilled needs in their own lives, but in the lives of women everywhere. Karan’s designs showcase a thoughtful balance between beauty, art, comfort, power, luxury, sensuality and, above all, practicality. Karan launched her line with her “Seven Easy Pieces,” which was a capsule collection of coordinating, interchangeable garments that could transform one’s look and create stylish outfits anywhere, anytime. However, of all her designs, it is perhaps the Cold Shoulder dress of the early 1990s that has become most iconic.

karancoldshoulder_harpersbazaarDebuting in 1992, Karan’s cold shoulder dress was a sleek, black, matte jersey dress, with long sleeves, a high neckline and deep cutouts at the shoulders to expose the skin beneath. Karan felt that this cut-out silhouette, in a bodysuit, top or dress, lent itself well to her established system of dressing, as she explained, “What I love about it goes back to my original concept. Wear it under a suit and it looks like a turtleneck. Wear it at night without the suit and it’s totally different.” However, Karan also emphasized its almost universal flattery: “A woman never gains weight in her shoulders, so everyone is happy to bare them.”

Although the dress initially received a cool reception from the fashion world, when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton wore the dress to the Governors Dinner in 1993, one of her first official engagements in her new role, the cold shoulder dress became a hot topic. At a moment when all of America, and the world, was looking to see how Clinton would juggle her roles as a wife, mother, leader of health-care reform and as First Lady, fashion took center stage. So began, as writer Alice Hines, has observed, “a tradition of (often sexist) HRC outfit commentary still going strong 23 years later.” National media outlets mused on everything from the traditional connotations of a lady’s exposed shoulder (“A bare shoulder radiates demure sexuality, like Grace Kelly’s in To Catch a Thief,” suggested Hal Rubenstein in the New York Times, “It conjures up images of a stolen nuzzle in a hansom cab, the sweetness of prom night. It’s a great roadside stop on the way from the neck to the breast”), to how the dress helped a concerted effort to reframe Clinton’s public image by emphasizing her role as First Lady, and all its associated responsibilities in the White House, first and foremost. The conversation was heightened all the more given Karan’s status as a designer who unashamedly championed the idea that a woman could be more sensual in her style and still convey power, confidence and capability. The cold shoulder dress followed hot on the heels of Karan’s most openly feminist advertising campaigns in 1992, which resulted in one of the most iconic fashion images of all time: A model dressed in Karan-designed pinstripes and pearls being sworn in as president surrounded by American flags and gentlemen, with the campaign line simply written below: “In Women We Trust.”

The cold shoulder dress has come to stand not only as a masterclass in Karan’s approach to form, fabrication and sensuality but as a touchstone for the myriad of attitudes and public media negotiations regarding a woman’s place in the professional, political and private spheres of life in the early 1990s.


Anna Sui and the “Barbie & Lady Diana Cooper” Collection, Spring Summer 1992

Anna Sui, born 1964, is an American fashion designer, known for her witty and whimsical fashions and her global lifestyle brand. Born in Detroit, Sui graduated from Parsons in 1986 and debuted her first collection in 1991. Since then, Sui has earned a reputation for glamorous “boho” style, diverse cultural references (cowboys, 1930s Hollywood starlets, Seventeen magazine, Busby Berkley musicals to name a handful), vivid colors, unusual fabric choices and for the unique ability to romp nostalgically through different historical time periods while still creating clothing that feels current (particularly favoring 1960s London, 1970s disco, 1990s Paris and Victoriana).

annasuispring92Sui is also synonymous with Americana, frequently co-opting hallmarks of classic American preppy style; reimagining Bermuda shorts, Liberty-print Villager dresses, or cable-knit sweaters for her own playful world. Importantly, Sui deftly weaves her own life, experiences, memories and nostalgia through her work. One collection that defines many of the key motifs and themes that recur throughout her career, and which places her work in the broader scheme of American fashion history, is Sui’s Spring/Summer 1992 collection.

Spring/Summer 1992 drew its central inspiration from two figures: Barbie and Lady Diana Cooper, a beautiful British socialite. As Andrew Bolton has observed, these are “figures who reflect two enduring and dichotomous influences in Sui’s work – American popular culture and English aristocratic traditions.” As such, the collection could be described as “Sophisticate Barbie:” crisp white and navy striped jackets, shorts and sleek overall dresses created a youthful freshness that contrasted with Sui’s grown-up, sensual lace babydoll dresses; while bold, oversized-gingham crop-tops were tamed when paired with matching, demure pencil skirts. There was even elegant suiting, inspired by the French couture traditions of Chanel and Balenciaga.

Testament to Sui’s deeply personal approach to design, these varied inspirations also form a commentary on her youth and experiences: As a child, Sui made clothes for her Barbies and she featured some of the ensembles she so vividly remembered, and she used a vintage Balenciaga advertisement she had kept for her take on suiting.

Above all, the collection shows what would become Sui’s enduring deference to the traditions of America’s most influential fashion designers, particularly those responsible for the “American Look” in the 30s and 40s. Following in the footsteps of sportswear stars Claire McCardell and Anne Fogarty, Sui used every day, casual fabrics, like denim and cotton piqué, to create imminently wearable clothes, including denim jeans, rolled at the ankles for the ultimate relaxed look, and simple, nipped-waist cotton dresses.

When the New York Times reviewed the collection, they wrote, “The first number out set the mood. It was a blue and black gingham shirtdress with a full, calf-length skirt. Sounds like the 1950’s, right? But the skirt was left open to show matching shorts, and the model’s head was encased in a towering black straw hat.”

Indeed, Sui used the vocabulary of American sportswear to speak a new language, as she explained, “You can’t just pull a concept out of nowhere and say this is the look of today, because it doesn’t happen that way. Fashion is a reflection. […] You have to bring it back so that a person can walk down the street and not look like she walked out of a costume epic or a time machine. It’s got to fit into how people are dressing today.”

The Spring/Summer 1992 collection, then, sets a precedent for the way in which Sui blends inspirations from seemingly disparate worlds and eras, explores nostalgia and personal experience and delivers innovative design with a firm grasp on the traditions of fabrication and style in American fashion history.


Want to learn more about the history of fashion? Visit NWHM’s exhibit “Fashioning Yourself!


Works Cited and Referenced

  • Hawes, Elizabeth. Fashion is Spinach. New York: Random House, 1938.
  • Martin, Richard. American Ingenuity: Sportswear 1930s-1970s. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998.
  • Steele, Valerie. Women of Fashion: Twentieth Century Designers. New York: Rizzoli, 1991.
  • —- Steele, Valerie. “American Fashion.” In Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference. Edited by Pat Kirkham. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000.
  • “A Designer Packs for her Own Flying Weekend Wardrobe.” Women’s Wear Daily. April 12, 1946. 38.
  • Cotier, Virginia. “Designers of Today and Tomorrow: Vera Maxwell.” Women’s Wear Daily. October 30, 1935. 3.
  • Kirkham, Pat and Kohle Yohannan. “Vera Maxwell.” In Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century. Edited by Susan War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. 422-423.
  • Klemesrud, Judy. “Good News for ‘Vera’s Ladies.’” New York Times. October 21, 1970. 52.
  • Martin, Richard. American Ingenuity: Sportswear 1930s-1970s. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998.
  • Morris, Bernadine. “Timeless Fashions at a Vera Maxwell Retrospective.” New York Times. 12 December 1980. B6.
  • Ozzard, Janet. “Vera Maxwell Remembered.” Women’s Wear Daily. January 23, 1995. 23.
  • Schiro, Anne-Marie. “Vera Maxwell is Dead at 93; Legendary Sportswear Designer.” New York Times. January 20, 1995. B8.
  • Sheppard, Eugenia. “Olympic Uniforms Inspire Vera Maxwell’s ‘Speed Suit.’” The Toledo Blade. March 11, 1975. 15.
  • Warren, Virginia Lee. “Vera Maxwell: Timely Yet Timeless Fashion: Designer’s Creations Remain Wearable Year After Year.” New York Times. November 25, 1964. 32.
  • “About Donna.” The Official Donna Karan Website. Accessed Online:
  • “Cold Shoulder,” Women’s Wear Daily, Feburary 2, 1993, p. 24.
  • Hines, Alice. “Donna Karan and the First Female President.” NY Mag – The Cut. October 25, 2015. Accessed Online:
  • Karan, Donna. My Journey. New York: Ballantine Books, 2015. 164.
  • Karimzadeh, Marc. “Donna’s Iconic Moments.” Women’s Wear Daily. January 11, 2007. 9.
  • Quinn, Sally. “Look Out! It’s Superwoman.” Newsweek. February 15, 1993. 24-25.
  • Rubenstein, Hal. “The Cold Shoulder.” New York Times. February 7, 1993. V10.
  • Wilson, Eric. “Now You Know: The Evolution of Donna Karan’s Seven Easy Pieces,” InStyle, July 1, 2015. Accessed Online:
  • Bolton, Andrew. Anna Sui. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2010.
  • Schiro, Anne-Marie. “Nostalgia With a Look That’s Now.” New York Times. December 1, 1991. 68.
  • —- “From 3 Designers, a Lighthearted View of Spring.” New York Times. November 8, 1991. B10.
  • —-   “Collection by Sui Spans the Decades.” New York Times. April 13, 1994. C12.
  • Spindler, Amy M. “Behind the Seams.” New York Times Magazine. November 14, 1999. Accessed Online: