This Week in Feminist History

Guest Post, · Categories: Feminist History

femhistory 8-29 to 09-04

Welcome to another week of amazing women in history. I hope you all enjoy it, especially the last one, which I couldn’t resist. Please note, there is a trigger warning for a brief mention of child sexual abuse for the September 2nd entry. It’s in parenthesis, so feel free to skip if needed.

On August 29th in 1917…

Isabel Sanford was born in Harlem, New York. She was the second African American actress to ever win an Emmy Award, and the first to win for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Isabel was the youngest of seven children but the only one of her siblings to survive beyond infancy. Her mother was devoutly religious and discouraged Isabel’s dream to be an actress on the basis that it was “the road to degradation.” Isabel went against her mother’s wishes and began to perform at local clubs and amateur nights. After she graduated high school she joined Harlem’s American Negro Theater and the Star Players, and made her professional stage debut in On Strivers Row in 1946. After several Off-Broadway shows, Isabel married a house painter named William “Sonny” Richmond. They had three kids, but their rocky marriage soon ended in a separation, after which Isabel moved with her children to California in 1960. She joined the national production of Here Today, and in 1965 made her Broadway debut in The Amen Corner. Her role in the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner soon followed. It was that performance which caught the eye of people in Hollywood and lead to her being cast as Louise Jefferson in the show All in the Family. Isabel’s character and that of her TV-husband (played by Sherman Hemsley) were so popular that the creator spun them off into their own show, The Jeffersons. The show was a hit that ran for eleven seasons and netted Isabel five Golden Globe nominations and seven Primetime Emmy Award nominations. She won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1981 and was the first African-American actress to win in that category, as well as the second to ever win a Primetime Emmy. After The Jeffersons went off the air, Isabel went on to appear in several other productions, usually in guest-starring roles in television or movies. In January of 2004 she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her final television appearance was as an animated version of herself on The Simpsons in 2004. She died of natural causes later that year at the age of 86.

On August 30th in 1797…

Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in London, England. She was an author best known for writing Frankenstein, one of the first ever works of the science fiction genre. She was the daughter of political writer William Godwin, and well-known feminist Mary Wollstonecraft—the author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women. Her mother died shortly after her birth, leaving her father to raise her alone with her half-sister. Her father remarried in 1801. Mary never got along with her stepmother, who sent her own daughter away to school but decided that Mary did not need a formal education. Mary instead educated herself within her father’s library, where she was often found reading or writing. Her father’s company published her first poem, “Mounseer Nongtongpaw,” in 1807, when she was only 10 years old. In 1814, at the age of 17, Mary began a relationship with Percy Shelley, who was one of her father’s students. He was still married to his first wife when he and Mary ran away together along with Mary’s stepsister. They traveled Europe together and had a daughter who died a few short days after her birth. It was while on a trip to Switzerland with Jane (Mary’s stepsister), Lord Byron, and John Polidori, that Mary first began writing what would become Frankenstein. The attempt began after the group spent the day reading ghost stories, and Lord Byron suggested they all try and write their own. In 1816, Mary and Percy were finally married after his wife’s suicide. In 1818, at the age of 20, she anonymously published Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The book was often attributed to her husband at first, since he had written the introduction, and was a great success. Mary continued to write through their marriage. Though she loved her husband, the deaths of their children (only one lived to adulthood) and his adultery complicated their relationship. In 1822, Percy Shelley drowned while out sailing, and Mary was a widow at 24. She continued writing, including her novels Valperga and The Last Man (another science fiction book). She also continued promoting her husband’s poetry to ensure his place in history. Mary Shelley died in 1851 of brain cancer, at the age of 53. Her final work, Mathilde, found publication a century later, but her greatest legacy is the novel Frankenstein. Some consider it to be an early example of science fiction. Others view it as the first true science fiction story, since unlike previous stories with similar elements, Frankenstein is the first where the character deliberately experiments to achieve his results. The novel has spawned an entire genre, as well as film versions and many derivative works.

On August 31st in 1842…

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin was born in Boston Massachusetts. A suffragist and civil rights activist, she edited Women’s Era, the first newspaper published by and for African-American women. Josephine was biracial; the daughter of a French-African father and a British mother. As a child she attended public schools in Charleston and Salem and then a private school in New York, because her parents objected to Boston’s segregated schools. After that segregation ended, she completed her studies at Bowdoin School in Boston. She married her husband, George Lewis Ruffin, at the age of 16, and they had five children together. They were active as a couple in the fight against slavery and helped recruit black soldiers for the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1869 Josephine formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in Boston with Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone. The pair had also founded the New England Women’s Club in 1868, and Josephine was the club’s first biracial member when she joined in the 1890s. She worked at The Courant, a black weekly paper, until her husband’s death in 1886, after which she created Woman’s Era. Josephine was the editor and publisher from 1890-1897. The newspaper promoted interracial activities but also encouraged black women to push for civil rights. In 1894, Josephine organized the Woman’s Era Club, which was an advocacy group of black women. She also organized the National Federation of Afro-American Women and convened The First National Conference of the Colored Women of America in Boston. The organization later merged with the Colored Women’s League to form the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. Josephine remained active in the fight for civil rights and helped form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910. She was one of the charter members. She died at home in 1924 at the age of 81.

On September 1st in 1878…

… Alexander Graham Bell recruited Emma Nutt as the world’s first female telephone operator. As of January of 1878 the Boston Telephone Dispatch Company had been hiring boys to work as telephone operators. Though they were successful, the company found that boys had little patience and that their behavior (including pranks and cursing) made them unsuitable for live phone work. The company decided to begin hiring women, and on September 1st they hired Emma Nutt. Her career lasted between 33-37 years, ending with her retirement. Her sister Stella Nutt was the world’s second female telephone operator; she started work just a few hours after Emma. This also made them the first two sister telephone operators in history, though Stella only stayed with the company for a couple years. Customers responded so well to Emma’s soothing and patient voice that all the boys were soon replaced by women.  Emma made $10 a month for a 54-hour week and apparently memorized every number in the telephone directory of the New England Telephone Company. Though the phone companies allowed women to work for them now, they were still restrictive. The companies only hired unmarried and white women; they would not hire African-American or Jewish women. Women also had to be between 17-26 years old, prim and proper, and have arms long enough to reach the top of the tall switchboard.

On September 2nd in 2013…

… at the age of 64, Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Key West, FL, without swim fins or a shark cage. Diana was born on August 22, 1949 in New York City to William Sneed and Lucy Winslow Curtis. Her great-grandaunt was women’s rights activist Laura Curtis Bullard. After her parents divorced, Diana’s mother remarried Aristotle Nyad, who adopted Diana. She began swimming in seventh grade, after the family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She swam under the eye of Jack Nelson, a former Olympian and Hall of Fame Coach. (TW: Child abuse. Diana later said that Nelson had molested her as a child when she was only 11 years old.) Diana won three Florida state high school championships and dreamed of swimming in the Summer Olympics in 1968. Unfortunately, after spending three months in bed with endocarditis in 1966, she had lost speed after her recovery and could no longer compete on the same level. She did not resume swimming until she enrolled at Lake Forest College in Illinois, where she focused on distance events. Buck Dawson, the director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida, introduced her to marathon swimming. After training at his camp she set the women’s world record in her first race when she swam 10 miles in four hours and twenty two minutes. In 1975 she swam 28 miles around the island of Manhattan in under 8 hours. On her 30th birthday in 1979, she swam non-stop without a wetsuit or a shark cage from Bimini (in the Bahamas) to Florida in two days. She began training in 2010 for her swim from Cuba to Florida, and tried several times before she finally succeeded in 2013 on her fifth attempt. A 35 person support team accompanied her and she wore a silicone mask and full bodysuit to protect from jelly fish. She was the first person to make the journey and made incredibly good speed due in part to the favorable Gulf Stream currents. According to Diana, she tends to disassociate during her long-distance swims. She told Ellen Degeneres on an episode of her show that during the Cuba-to-Florida swim she remembers singing, counting numbers, and hallucinating the Wizard of Oz. Diana is still alive today. She is openly lesbian and an atheist, and has stated that part of what fuels her is overcoming the abuse she experienced as a child.

On September 3rd in 1803…

Prudence Crandall was born to a Quaker couple in Hopkinton, Rhode Island. She was an American educator who created the first integrated classroom in the U.S. when she admitted an African-American student to her private girl’s school in Connecticut. Her family moved to Canterbury, Connecticut when Prudence was seventeen years old. After attending the Friends’ Boarding School in Providence, Prudence taught at a school for girls in Canterbury. In 1831, she returned to buy the Canterbury Female Boarding School with her sister, Almira. In autumn of 1832, a young woman named Sarah Harris asked to attend the school. She was the daughter of a free African-American farmer who wanted to learn to teach other African-Americans. Prudence allowed Sarah to attend, despite pressure from the townspeople who demanded to have her dismissed from the school. Prudence refused to cave and several families removed their daughters from her school. Rather than give in, Prudence stopped teaching white girls entirely. She opened her school only to African-American girls, and advertised that on the first Monday of April 1833 the school would open “for the reception of young ladies and little misses of color… Terms, $25 per quarter, one-half paid in advance.” By the first day of school, twenty African-American girls from Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, New York, and Connecticut arrived as the first class at Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color. At the school, Prudence taught reading, writing, English grammar, arithmetic, history, philosophy, chemistry, geography, art, astronomy, music, and the French language.

Unfortunately, the school and the students suffered due to the reaction of the community. The town threatened her, and acted violently against the school. On May 24, 1833, the Connecticut Legislature passed the “Black Law,” which prohibited any school with out-of-state African-American students from operating without the permission of the town it resided in. Under the new law, the town had Prudence arrested, placed in jail, and released under bond to await trial. No one in the town would provide supplies to the school under the law, and others poisoned the well with animal feces. Despite everything, Prudence continued to teach her students. At the first trial, a decision could not be made. At the second, the Superior Court decided against the school but it they appealed it to the Supreme Court of Errors (now the Connecticut Supreme Court) in July of 1834. The high court reversed the decision on the basis of a procedural error and the school remained open. The violence escalated to broken windows and eventually arson. For the safety of her students, Prudence closed the school on September 10, 1834. Connecticut repealed The Black Law in 1838 and in 1886 the state legislature (supported by Mark Twain) recognized Prudence Crandall and awarded her a yearly pension of $446. She died a few years later in 1890, but in 1995 the Connecticut General Assembly designated her the state’s official heroine.

On September 4th in 1981…

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter was born in Houston, TX. She has won 20 Grammy Awards, is the most-nominated woman in the history of the awards, and has sold over 100 million records as a solo artist. She performed in singing and dancing competitions as a child in Houston before rising to fame as the lead singer of Destiny’s Child. Her father managed the group, which became one of the best selling girl groups of all times. During their hiatus in 2003, Beyoncé released her first solo album, Dangerously in Love. The album won five Grammy Awards and two number one singles. After Destiny’s Child disbanded in 2005, she released her second album, B’Day, and began to venture into acting as well. Her third album, I Am… Sasha Fierce in 2008 brought a record-setting six Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year for “Single Ladies.” After she took over managing her own career in 2010, she released her fourth album 4 in 2011, and then her fifth album, Beyoncé in 2013. Her latest album, Lemonade, came out in 2016 along with a short film of the same title. With the combination of her own sales and her sales with Destiny’s Child, she is one of the best-selling music artists of all time. In 2009, Billboard named her the Top Radio Songs Artist of the Decade and their Top Female Artist of the 2000s. Time named her one of its 100 most influential people in 2013 and 2014, and in 2015 Forbes named her the most powerful woman in entertainment. Beyoncé is also known for her philanthropy work. She founded the Survivor Foundation to help victims after Hurricane Katrina, and has joined with other celebrities for several telethons and events to support Haiti Earthquake relief, campaigned against childhood obesity, and raised money for the New York Police and Fire Widow’s and Children’s Benefit Fund. She also joined a campaign to influence the government into changing gun control laws following the Sandy Hook shooting, and worked with a Gucci campaign towards female empowerment. In recent years she has become known as a powerful supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, with her release of Formation, Lemonade, and other related themed performances.


biopicAmy might have studied Literature, but she’s always had a penchant for the past, and frequently wondered just why popular history involved so many boring white men. These posts and her blog, Today in Feminist History, are an attempt to do something about that. She lives in Connecticut where she has too many books, several cats, and lots of tea. She often wishes there was a way to look like snapchat filters in real life.

7 Responses to “This Week in Feminist History”

  1. burningupasun says:

    There were a couple women this week I just couldn't resist. Mary Shelley, of course, because I love her. I took a Science Fiction course in college and she was one of only TWO female authors (out of like 20+) we read. (The other was Ursula LeGuin).

    And I was honestly stumped on what to do for the last day (the site I usually use was comparatively barren), and then I was skimming wikipedia and saw BEYONCE and was like, yesssss.

  2. RoseCamelia says:

    I just finished reading the latest biography of Mary Shelley, the only biography of both she and her mother together in one book. Thanks for this very timely post.

    I was fascinated by the all but unexplored relationship between Mary and her step-sister. They had no genetic link, but grew up together. Mary wanted desperately to be free of her sister, but at times chose to include her in her household. It feels like a push-pull relationship worthy of novel-length treatment. Their roles in each other's lives and in the lives of Percy B. Shelley, W. Godwin, Byron make for further interest. Anyone else have thoughts on these two women?

  3. Rillquiet says:

    This isn't particularly timely, except that The Rise of the Rocket Girls, which came out in April, is currently on my bedside table. But JPL is trying to tell the stories of some of their current female staff, and Khanara Ellers is one of the STEM figures I wish could reach a wider audience. There are 290 views on her video; there ought to be orders of magnitude more.

  4. SimperLegens says:

    OMG. Beyonce's birthday is our anniversary. How fucking stellar!!!!

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