This Week in Feminist History

Guest Post, · Categories: Feminist History

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On October 24th in 1901…

Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel. (Yes, you really did just read that correctly.) Annie was born on the same day in 1838 and was one of eight children. She became a schoolteacher in New York and later married, but her son died as an infant and her husband died shortly after, leaving her a widow. After his death Annie ended up in Michigan where she opened her own dance school. She later taught music in Sault Ste. Marie, then traveled to Texas and then Mexico City to find work. In an attempt to secure her finances in her later years (and avoid ending up in a poorhouse) she came up with a plan: to be the first person to ride over the Falls in a barrel. She had a custom-made barrel constructed of oak and iron and padded with a mattress. The process met with delays, mostly because she had trouble finding anyone willing to help her. Two days before her attempt, her helpers sent a cat over in the same barrel to test it; it survived and they found it with a bleeding head 17 minutes later. On her 63rd birthday, Annie climbed into the barrel (which they held over the side of a rowboat). She brought her lucky heart-shaped pillow with her and curled up inside as her friends screwed down the lid and used a bicycle tire pump to compress the air. Annie’s barrel was set adrift near the shore, and the currents of the river eventually carried her over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. Rescuers found her barrel twenty minutes later, with Annie inside, alive and uninjured except for a small gash on her head. Later, she told the press: “If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat…I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.” She earned some money after her stunt, but her manager ran away with the barrel and she used most of her savings hiring investigators to find him and get it back. She spent her final years earning money posting for photographs with tourists, as well as working as a clairvoyant, before dying in April 1921 at the age of 82.

On October 25th in 1783…

Deborah Sampson received an honorable discharge from the Continental army after serving for one and a half years under disguise as “Robert.” Deborah was born on December 17, 1760, in Plympton, Massachusetts. She was one of six siblings. Though her mother told her that their father disappeared at sea, evidence showed that he actually left, moved to another state, and took a common-law wife there. With his abandonment her mother couldn’t afford to support all her children, so she sent them to live with friends and relatives. Deborah eventually ended up with Jeremiah Thomas, for whom she worked as a servant. Mr. Thomas did not believe in the education of women and so denied one to Deborah. She educated herself as best she could by sharing school work with his sons. After her time as an indentured servant ended, she made a living teaching school and weaving. In early 1782 she joined an Army unit in Massachusetts under the name “Timothy Thayer” while dressed in army clothes. The army discovered her deception and forced her to repay the bonus they had given her. She was not discouraged, however. Later that year she enlisted again in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, this time under the name “Robert Shirtliff.” She joined the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, which consisted of 50-60 men. She fought in several skirmishes during her time in the army. In her first battle she took two musket balls in the thigh and her fellow soldiers brought her to the hospital despite her begging them to let her die. She fled before they could treat her wounds, and removed one of the musket balls herself with a penknife and sewing needle. Unfortunately, she couldn’t reach the second and her leg never fully healed. She earned a promotion on April 1, 1783 and served for seven months as a waiter to General John Paterson. During the summer of 1783 her regiment went to Philadelphia to quell a rebellion of American soldiers protesting pay delays. She took ill during her time there and sought treatment from a Doctor, who removed her clothes and discovered her secret. He treated her without revealing her secret until September 1783, after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. With the war formally over, the Doctor sent Deborah with a note to the General, revealing her sex. Unlike other women who had pretended to be men to serve, and were later reprimanded, the General gave Deborah an honorable discharge, a note of advice, and money to travel home. She later married and had three children before adopting a fourth. In January 1792 she petitioned the state legislature for the army pay that had been withheld because she was a woman. The legislature granted it and awarded her the back-pay. She began to give lectures about her wartime service where she would start by talking about the virtues of traditional gender roles, but would then leave and return in uniform to perform complex military drills. With the help of her friend, Paul Revere, the government placed her on the military Pension Roll; the first woman to ever receive one. She died of yellow fever in 1827 at the age of 66.

On October 26th in 1911…

Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel,” was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. The granddaughter of a slave, Mahalia grew up under the care of her strict Christian aunt after her mother died when she was five. She started singing as soon as she could walk and talk, and was especially fond of church hymns, but also the wide range of New Orleans music. She quit school to earn money as a laundress and eventually moved to Chicago. While earning money as a hotel maid, she also sang in the choir and as a soloist at her church. Eventually she became so well known that she received invitations to sing in Black churches across the country. In the 1950s she appeared in Carnegie Hall, as well as on radio and television, and her fame grew. Despite her fame she faced racism in the form of boycotts and death threats. Her attempts to buy a house in Chicago met with refusal by white owners and real estate agents, and when she finally found a home in a white neighborhood, unknown locals fired shots at it. In spite of this she continued her participation in the civil rights movement, where she sang at rallies to raise money. Mahalia was present at Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, where she inspired the crowd by singing an old slave protest song. She recorded over 30 albums (mostly for Columbia Records), won numerous Grammy Awards, and earned posthumous induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Harry Belafonte once described her as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States.”

On October 27th in 1940…

Maxine Hong Kingston was born in Stockton, California. She is a Chinese American feminist author, and a Professor Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. Maxine’s parents were first generation Chinese immigrants. Her father was a laundry worker (in China he had been a scholar and teacher) and her mother was a trained midwife. Maxine was the third of eight children and the first of her siblings born in the U.S. Maxine began writing at a young age, winning her first prize ($5) for an essay she wrote for Girl Scout Magazine called “I Am an American.” Maxine began writing her first novel in 1967 after marrying and moving to Hawaii. The Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts found publication in 1976. The book discussed both gender and ethnicity and how they affected women’s lives. Her works were often a reflection of her cultural heritage and tended to blend nonfiction and fiction. The Woman Warrior won a National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, and China Men (1980) won the National Book Award. In 1997 President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Humanities Medal. In 2003, police arrested her during an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C., on International Women’s Day. She refused to leave the street after local police told her to, and thus stayed in a jail cell overnight with fellow authors Alice Walker and Terry Tempest Williams. Her anti-war beliefs have also influenced her work. In 2013, President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts. She currently teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.

On October 28th in 1856…

Carolina Benedicks-Bruce—a Swedish sculptor and women’s rights activist—was born in Stockholm, Sweden. She was born to a wealthy family which included two half-siblings from her father’s previous marriage (one of whom was the physicist Carl Benedicks), and many artists on her mother’s side of the family. Carolina attended the August Malmström art school for women and went on to become the first female student in the sculpture class at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. She studied in France under the sculptor Alexandre Falguière, and eventually formed a “salon” with other artists called Le Salon des Opposants. Her work was mostly in sculpting (predominantly in the French style of the 1870s-80s), but she also did watercolors (mostly landscapes and animals) and etchings. She exhibited at the Salon in Paris, and then later in the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. She also made busts in bronze and marble, including a well known one of Michelangelo (Michel Angelo) which featured him as a thoughtful ordinary man. Carolina was sometimes known as a Swedish “Mrs. Pankhurst.” She fought for women’s right to vote, and established the Swedish Women’s Voluntary Defense Service. She married and settled with her husband William Blair Bruce in Gotland, buying properties that later became known as Brucebo. She remained there after her husband’s death in 1906, turning the estate into a social hub for artists, musicians, and scientists. She died there in February 1935, and her will stated that Brucebo should stay a place where young artists could live and develop. In 1972 the Brucebo cottage became the destination of those awarded the Brucebo Fine Art Scholarship, created in her honor.

On October 29th in 1837…

Harriet Powers was born in Clarke County, Georgia. She was an African-American slave and folk artist, whose quilts are among the finest examples of Southern quilting from the nineteenth century. She was born to slaves and lived most of her early life on a plantation owned by John and Nancy Lester. Harriet learned to sew either from her mistress, or from other slaves. Though she was once reported as being “ignorant” and “illiterate,” research showed that she was in fact literate and learned from bible stories. She married at the age of eighteen and had at least nine children. After she and her husband gained their freedom at the end of the Civil War, they owned four acres of land on which they had a small farm. Harriet began exhibiting her quilts in 1886. She showed her first quilt at the Athens Cotton Fair in 1886; this quilt, known as the Bible Quilt, is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution. The origins of her second remaining quilt, Pictorial Quilt, are unknown (one story has it commissioned by wives of faculty at Atlanta University, another states it someone purchased it in Tennessee), but Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall of New York City had it presented to him in 1898. It was later sold and then donated to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Both of her quilts consist of pictorial squares of either biblical scenes or celestial phenomena. They were hand- and machine-stitched, and show both African and African-American influences. Though the reason for Harriet’s interest in the stars is unknown, some theories suggest that they had religious significance for her. Though only two quilts remain, she described at least four in total; one (still missing) she referred to as the Lord’s Supper quilt. Harriet died on January 1, 1910. Her grave was unknown for some time and then rediscovered in January of 2005. She was posthumously inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement Hall of Fame.

On October 30th in 1886…

Zoë Akins, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright, was born in Humansville, Missouri. She was the second of three children born into a family that was heavily involved in the local Republican Party, and one of her mother’s ancestors was George Washington. Zoë attended school at Monticello Seminary and then Hosmer Hall preparatory school. At Monticello she wrote her first play, a parody of a Greek tragedy. She wrote plays, poetry, and critical essays for magazines and newspapers following her graduation. Much of her work was in comedic plays. Her first plays, Papa  and The Magical City were not successful, but her third, Déclassée became “something of a sensation.” In 1930 she had a large success with her comedic play The Greeks Had a Word For It, which was later adapted three times into movies: The Greeks Had a Word For Them (1932), Three Blind Mice (1938), and finally How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), which starred Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall. During her career she also wrote several screenplays, including Sarah and Son (1930) featuring Ruth Chatterton, and Morning Glory (1933), which featured Katharine Hepburn. Both actresses received Academy Award nominations for their roles; Katharine Hepburn won hers. In 1935, Zoë won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her dramatization of The Old Maid by Edith Wharton. She also co-wrote the screenplay for Camille in 1936, for which Greta Garbo won her third Oscar nomination. Zoë married in 1932 and returned to writing plays and spending time with her family (which included her great-niece, the actress Laurie Metcalf). She died in her sleep on the even of her seventy-second birthday on October 29, 1958.


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.

5 Responses to “This Week in Feminist History”

  1. Heathered says:

    I can't help but love that her manager stole her barrel. If Lifetime Television had existed then, this would have been the best movie of the week ever. Oh, and I was excited to learn about Zoe Akins. Laurie Metcalf is IMO criminally overlooked as a comic actor.

  2. beaucoup1314 says:

    I have been in the Mahalia Jackson Theater here in New Orleans many times. Thanks for giving her a mention.

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