This Week in Feminist History

Guest Post, · Categories: Feminist History

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On September 26th in 1937…

Bessie Smith, an American singer known as the “Empress of the Blues,” died in a tragic car accident. She was born in Tennessee somewhere between 1892-1894, and by the time she was nine years old, her mother, father, and brother had all passed away. Her older sister Viola raised her, and Bessie helped support the family by busking on the street with her brother Andrew. He would play guitar while she danced and sang, often in the city’s African-American community. Her brother Clarence left home shortly after to join a small traveling troupe and returned in 1912, allowing Bessie to audition as well. The troupe hired her as a dancer and in time she performed in shows on the black-owned Theater Owners Booking Association circuit. Columbia Records eventually signed her for a contract and she became the T.O.B.A. circuit’s biggest star. Her recording career began in 1923, when she was living in Philadelphia. Both sides of her first record were hits, and she went on to become the highest-paid black entertainer of the day. Columbia had nicknamed her the “Queen of the Blues” but the media upgraded her to “Empress.” She made over 160 recordings for Columbia as one of the greatest singers of her era and influenced a number of other jazz singers who followed. The Great Depression put a stop to her career when it nearly ended the recording industry, but she continued touring and performing in clubs. She made her last record in 1933, when she recorded several swing-era songs for John Hammond. Though both Bessie’s ex-husband and her lover and common-law husband were men, she was bisexual and had several affairs with women. She was 43 or 45 years old when she passed away after her common-law husband crashed their car into a truck. Her unmarked grave had no headstone until August 7, 1970, when Janis Joplin (the singer) and Juanita Green (a former employee who had done housework for Bessie as a child) paid to have a stone erected over her grave.

On September 27th in 1874…

Myrtle Reed was born in Norwood Park, Chicago. She was a philanthropist and an American author of poetry, novels, and cookbooks. Her father was a preacher and the founder of a literary magazine, and her mother wrote books on Persian and Hindu literature. A juvenile magazine published her first story when she was in elementary school. Later, she stated: “I must have been born with a pen in one hand and a sheet of paper in the other, howling for ink.” She graduated from West Division High School, where she edited the school’s paper and contributed both stories and poems to it as well. She never attended college however, allegedly due to a breakdown she had in her teens. Though she lived with her parents, she continued to write, and she submitted her work for print. Her first book, Love Letters of a Musician, came into her head while riding a streetcar. Myrtle completed the book—a novel containing a year’s worth of a violinist’s unmailed love letters —in only five days, and eventually sold it to G. P. Putnam’s Sons in New York for publication. She wrote a romance novel once every year by locking herself away in February and March and emerging with a manuscript by her publisher’s birthday on April 2nd. Her romance novels were incredibly successful commercially, as were the cookbooks she wrote under the pen-name Olive Green. In the course of her life she published seventeen novels, as well as six cookbooks. After 15 years of written courtship, she married her long-time pen pal, James Sydney McCullogh. The pair hosted parties for their select circle of friends and acquaintances in the flat they called “Paradise Flat.” They gave off every appearance of a perfect happy couple, but the marriage was often unhappy; involving shouted arguments and a dip into alcoholism by her husband. Myrtle’s unhappiness in her marriage began to be reflected in her writing, which grew a little darker over time. The last of her published books (Threads of Gray and Gold, 1913) includes this line: “The only way to test a man is to marry him. If you live, it’s a mushroom. If you die, it’s a toadstool.” The novel was published two years after her death. In 1911, Myrtle committed suicide by taking sleeping powders. In her suicide letter to her maid, she stated in part: “If my husband had been as good and kind to me and as considerate as you, I would not be going where I am.”

On September 28th in 1839…

Frances Willard was born in Churchville, New York. She was an American suffragist and educator known for helping pass both prohibition and the women’s suffrage amendments. Frances’ mother was a schoolteacher, and her father was a farmer and legislator. They moved several times during Frances’ childhood, until she attended North Western Female College in Illinois and became a teacher. Evanston College for Ladies appointed her President in 1871 and when it became the Woman’s College of Northwestern University in 1873, she was the first Dean of Women. After resigning from the post following a confrontation with the University President (her former fiance), she focused on the women’s temperance movement. She formed the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and was the first Corresponding Secretary, then later the head of the Publications Department. She sought the presidency of the organization in 1879 and held the post until her death. She connected her belief in the temperance movement to that of the suffrage movement, describing her goals as “to secure for all women above the age of twenty-one years the ballot as one means for the protection of their homes from the devastation caused by the legalized traffic in strong drink.” She believed that without women having the vote, it was too easy for men to get away with the violent crimes they committed on women under the influence of alcohol. This argument, known as the “Home Protection” argument, gave women a socially-appropriate reason for working towards enfranchisement in a time when patriarchal media tended to label the suffrage movement as dangerous. Frances was also known for her work towards labor reforms (such as an eight-hour work day), prison reform, and a push to raise the age of consent. She died in her sleep in 1898 at the age of 58, after contracting influenza. She left her home to the WCTU and in 1900 it opened as a museum, which the U.S. government made a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

On September 29th in 2001…

Mabel Fairbanks passed away at the age of 85, in Burbank, California. She was the first African-American figure skater inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Mabel was of African-American and Seminole descent and was born in Florida on November 14, 1915. She never met her father and became an orphan at eight years old when her mother passed away. At first she lived with a teacher, but ran away after the woman treated her like a maid. She joined her brother in New York, but his wife didn’t want her to stay. A wealthy woman spotted her sleeping on a park bench in Central Park and offered her a job as a babysitter. It was after watching children skating in the Central Park ice rink that Mabel bought herself a pair of skates and decided to join them. Her original skates were two sizes too large (she stuffed them with cotton), and she was the only black person skating in the park, but she persevered. Eventually she practiced on a 6×6 foot rink her uncle constructed in her room. A local rink denied her access due to her race, but she kept coming back until a manager allowed her in. However, she was never allowed to participate in any competitions or in any qualifying events due to her race. She performed on her own until the 1940s, toured internationally, and then became a coach for both singles and pairs. Some of the skaters she coached included: Tiffany Chin, Billy Chapel, Scott Hamilton, Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudy Galindo, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, Leslie Robinson, Michelle McCladdie, Richard Ewell, Debi Thomas, Atoy Wilson, and Jean Yuna. On top of her induction into the U.S. Hall of Fame, the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame inducted her into their ranks in October 2001. Doctors diagnosed her with acute leukemia in 2001 and she passed away later that year.

On September 30th in 1875…

Anne Henrietta Martin was born in Reno, Nevada. She was a suffragist, author, and the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate. Anne was the daughter of William O’Hara Martin, who served as a Nevada State Senator. She earned several degrees over her lifetime, including a BA in history from the University of Nevada, and a second BA as well as an MA in History from Stanford University. She established the University of Nevada’s Department of History, but left to study at numerous Universities in Europe. It was after her father’s death that she had a revelation, after which she claimed it “suddenly made a feminist of me! …  I found that I stood alone in my family against a man-controlled world.” She experienced the women’s revolution in England, and police arrested her during an attempt at helping them enfranchise. After returning to Nevada, she became president of the Nevada Equal Franchise Society and organized a suffrage campaign in the state. She then became a speaker and executive committee member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She was one of the Silent Sentinels who picketed for suffrage in front of the White House on July 14, 1917. In 1918 she represented Nevada when she became the first woman to run for U.S. Senate. She ran on a platform that included better working conditions (for men and women) and a nationalization of railroads and public utilities. Both of her Senate campaigns ended in defeat. She died in Carmel, California, in 1951.

On October 1st in 1847…

Annie Besant was born in Clapham, London. She was a prominent British socialist, women’s rights activist, and writer, known for her support of Indian independence. She was born into a middle-class Irish family, and proudly supported the cause of Irish self-rule as an adult. Her family was almost penniless after the death of her father when she was five, and, as a result, her mother’s friend, Ellen Marryat, raised Annie. Thanks to Ellen’s influence she grew up believing in duty towards society, but also in the power of independent women and what they could achieve. She married a clergyman at the age of 20, but her anti-religious views eventually led to their separation. She became a writer as well as a speaker for the National Secular Society. One of her close friends was Charles Bradlaugh, who became M.P. for Northampton after he and Annie famously and scandalously published a book by a birth control campaigner. In her later years Annie became interested in theosophy (a collection of mystical and occultist philosophies) and lectured on the topic. She also became more involved in politics in India, where she helped to establish schools but also joined the Indian National Congress and launched the Home Rule League to campaign for democracy in India. She was president of the Indian National Congress in 1917 and later adopted a son from India as well. She continued to campaign for Indian independence and orate on the causes of theosophy until her death.

On October 2nd in 1850…

Sarah Biffen died at the age of 66. She was a Victorian English painter who was born with no arms and only vestigial legs. Despite her physical handicap she learned to read, write, do needlework, and use scissors (with her mouth). When she was twelve her parents apprenticed her to a man who exhibited her in fairs and sideshows where she sewed, drew, and eventually learned to paint. She would draw landscapes or paint and sell miniature portraits that received high praise. After the Earl of Morton saw her paint without assistance, he sponsored her lessons with William Craig, a Royal Academy of Arts painter. The Society of Artists of Great Britain awarded her a medal in 1821 and Royal Academy accepted several of her paintings. The Royal Family also commissioned her to paint miniatures of them, which resulted in a surge in her popularity and allowed her to set up a studio. She ran into trouble after the death of her sponsor, the Earl of Morton, following which her manager spent most of her money and left her nearly penniless. Queen Victoria awarded her a Civil List pension, which allowed her to retire in Liverpool. (You can see samples of her art here.)


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.

3 Responses to “This Week in Feminist History”

  1. Onymous says:

    Bessie Smith! The right corners of Chattanooga are very proud of her.

  2. Heathered says:

    This is a powerful week! Jeez.

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