This Week in Feminist History

Guest Post, · Categories: Feminist History


On October 31 in 1860…

Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of Girl Scouts of the United States of America, was born in Savannah, Georgia. As a child, Juliette was prone to accidents and illness; she caught brain fever, broke two of her fingers, and had recurring bouts of malaria. She also tended to focus more on art and poetry than on her actual school work; starting a newspaper with her cousins and performing and writing plays. Her family and friends found her eccentric and said that you never knew what she would do next but that “she always did what she made up her mind to do.” She attended several boarding schools and then took painting lessons in New York, before eventually marrying William Low. After a period where she hosted many parties and events at the house (which included guests such as the Prince of Wales and Rudyard Kipling), she became unhappy with her husband. They separated after she discovered his affairs and eventually he pressured her to agree to a divorce. Her husband died before they finalized divorce (which had gone on several years). Following his death, his papers revealed that he had lied to her, changed his will, and left almost everything to his mistress. Juliette’s sisters contested the will on her behalf and she eventually received an inheritance. After her husband’s death Juliette traveled, doing charity work and taking sculpting classes while searching for a new project. In May of 1911 she met the organizer of the Boy Scouts (in Europe) and then became involved with the Girl Guides; an offshoot of the Boy Scouts. Upon returning to the U.S. in 1912, she spread the word about the Girl Guides and formed the first two American Girl Guides patrols with eighteen local girls. Her extensive social connections helped the movement grow. The Girl Guides learned practical skills, including map reading, cooking, and first aid. Some of their competition included a group called the Camp Fire Girls, run by the executive of the (American) Boy Scouts—a proponent of strict gender roles who thought the activities of the Girl Guides were inappropriate. In an attempt to help spread the movement, Juliette renamed it to the Girl Scouts—much to the annoyance of the executive of the Boy Scouts, who thought it would “trivialize” the name. The Scouts soon began to grow, and though Juliette eventually retired as President she always remained active in the organization. In the 1920s however, she developed breast cancer, which she kept secret. She tried treatments, which ultimately failed, and she died in January 1927 at the age of 66. An honor guard of Girl Scouts escorted her casket to her funeral, and 250 Girl Scouts left school early to attend. Relatives buried her in her Girl Scout uniform with a note in the pocket which read: “You are not only the first Girl Scout, but the best Girl Scout of them all.”

On November 1 in 1915…

Margaret Taylor-Burroughs was born in St. Rose, Louisiana. She was an artist, poet, and educator. Her family moved to Chicago in 1920 when she was five years old. She went on to attend Englewood High School with Gwendolyn Brooks (now a Nobel Poet Laureate), and together the pair joined the NAACP Youth Council. After graduating, Margaret founded the South Side Community Arts Center for African-American Artists, and later earned a Bachelor of Arts in art education and a Master of Arts in the same field. She taught humanities, as well as African American Art and Culture during her career as an educator. Together in 1961, she and her second husband Charles Gordon Burroughs co-founded the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art, now the DuSable Museum of African American History. It was originally located in the living room of their home, and Margaret was the first Executive Director. It eventually moved to a location in Washington Park where it remains today. The museum is the oldest museum of black culture in the U.S. Margaret has also created many works of art on her own. One of her more well-known pieces is a linocut called Birthday Party, featuring black and white children mingling together at a party. In many of her other pieces she depicts people with half-black and half-white faces. President Gerald Ford awarded her the President’s Humanitarian Award in 1975, and she also earned the Paul Robeson Award (1989) and the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Women’s Caucus for Art (1988). She passed away in November 2010.

On November 2nd in 1913…

Beryl McBurnie was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. She was a dancer who promoted the arts and culture of Trinidad and Tobago and became one of the greatest influences on its modern popular culture. She began dancing and performing as a child, when she would set up concerts and perform in dances and plays at her girls’ school. She often performed British folk dances, but longed for something more connected to her own culture. After leaving school she trained to become a teacher, but decided instead to pursue a career in folk-dance. Beryl rescued and promoted many of the folk dances and melodies of Trinidad and Tobago that were on the brink of vanishing. She was the first person to promote Caribbean dance, including ritual chants and dances. She alternated her time between Trinidad and New York, where she trained with other dancers, and taught as well. At the height of her popularity in 1945 she returned to become a dance instructor with the Trinidad and Tobago government’s Education Department. In 1948 she created Little Carib Theatre, the first permanent folk-dance company and theater in Trinidad. In time the company found recognition over the world and—along with Beryl herself—helped influence how the world understood Caribbean culture. Beryl received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) (1959), the Hummingbird Gold Medal of Trinidad and Tobago (1969), and the Trinity Cross (1989). She died in March 2000 at the age of 84.

On November 3rd in 1793…

Olympe de Gouges died, executed by guillotine during the Reign of Terror. She was a French playwright, feminist, and abolitionist, known for writing her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. “Marie Gouze” was born into a petit bourgeois family in southwestern France, and believed she was the illegitimate daughter of the Marquis de Pompignan. (He rejected her claims, which may have influenced her later defense of the rights of illegitimate children.) Of her first husband (a caterer) she once wrote: “I was married to a man I did not love and who was neither rich nor well-born. I was sacrificed for no reason that could make up for the repugnance I felt for this man.” Luckily for her, he died a year later. She moved to Paris with their son, and took up the name Olympe de Gouges. She went on to have a long relationship with a wealthy man named Jacques Biétrix de Rozières, but never remarried. Instead she lived with several men who supported her financially, allowed her to visit the salons and meet with writers, artists, and politicians. In 1784 she began her own writing career, which in time spanned forty works. Her first play was Zamore and Mirza, which was an anti-slavery play later performed under the title L’Esclavage des nègres (“Slavery of the negroes”). She wrote frequently on the right of divorce and also argued in favor of sexual relations outside of marriage. Many of her plays were about the rights of slaves, but she was also a supporter of human rights and equal rights. She originally supported the Revolution but grew disappointed when it became clear that women would not have equal rights expanded to them. In 1771, in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, she wrote the Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne (“Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen”). It included her famous statement: “A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform.” She earned the ire of republicans for opposing the execution of Louis VXI (she opposed capital punishment but also preferred him living to the idea of a rebel exiled regency). Eventually her writings became more vehement, and the Jacobins arrested her and searched her home for evidence. When they could find none, she voluntarily brought them to her storehouse where they found her papers, including an unfinished play that involved Olympe giving advice to Marie-Antoinette. They used it as evidence in her trial, where the judge also denied her legal right to a lawyer and instructed her to represent herself. She managed to publish two texts from her imprisonment before she died at the age of 45.

On November 4th in 1980

Elsie MacGill died at the age of 75 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was a Canadian engineer and the world’s first female aircraft designer. She was born in Vancouver, Canada, on March 27, 1905. Her father was a lawyer and journalist, and her mother was a journalist and British Columbia’s first woman judge. At first she attended a home school and then later a secondary school where her rigorous education eventually lead to her entering the University of British Columbia at age 16. She earned admission to the applied sciences program, but asked to leave after only one term. Instead she chose to study engineering at the University of Toronto, where she became the first Canadian woman to earn a degree in electrical engineering. She contracted polio right before her graduation, and defied claims she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair, learning to walk by supporting herself with two metal canes. The Michigan firm she worked at after graduation began producing aircraft, leading her to begin part-time graduate studies in aeronautical engineering. In 1929 she became the first woman in North America (likely the entire world) to earn a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. She became known as “Queen of the Hurricanes” when her company factory began to build the Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force (RAF). Her task during the war was to streamline operations, and also design solutions to allow the plane to operate during winter. By the time production shut down, they had produced over 1,400 Hurricanes, and she wrote and presented a paper about the experience. She had many other achievements which included being the first woman to search as Technical Advisor for the International Civil Aviation Organization (1946), and the first woman to chair a UN committee (the UN Stress Analysis Committee in 1947). In 1953 she wrote a biography of her mother’s life, which inspired her to focus on women’s rights. She once stated: “I have received many engineering awards, but I hope I will also be remembered as an advocate for the rights of women and children.”

On November 5th in 1974…

Ella T. Grasso became the first female governor in the U.S. elected without being the wife of a former governor. She was born in Windsor Locks, Connecticut in May 1919, and attended Mount Holyoke College where she earned a B.A. and an M.A. She won election to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1952 and served until 1957, during which time she was the first woman elected Floor Leader of the House. She was Secretary of the State of Connecticut, and was the first woman to chair the Democratic State Platform Committee. In 1970, she won the election as a Democratic representative to Congress, and was re-elected in 1972. After winning the election to become Governor, she easily won re-election in 1978. One of the high points of her career was in the handling of “The Blizzard of 78,” where she controversially closed the entire state, included all public roads and businesses. The move allowed the rescue and cleanup crew to focus on emergency services and cleanup rather than helping stuck cars, and allowed the crisis to clear up within three days. She developed ovarian cancer in 1980 and resigned from office on December 31, 1980. She died a little more than a month later on February 5, 1980, at the age of 61. President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

On November 6th in 1894

Opal Kunz, an early American aviator, was born. She was the first president of the “Ninety-Nines” (a women pilots’ organization) and a feminist. She also claimed to be the first woman to race with men in open competition in the American Legion Air Meet in Philadelphia in 1930, where she won first prize. Opal organized several aviation clubs, including the “Betsy Ross Air Corps” (a semi-military service to support the Army Air Corps) and the “Lady Birds.” She often spent much of her resources trying to form a Women’s Reserve Corp. During World War II she started teaching aviation students and became an instructor at the Rhode Island State Airport for Navy cadets, as well as a Civilian Pilot Training Program. She trained men who would fly fighter aircraft in combat, and considered it to be the highlight of her career. Her seven year marriage ended in divorce and she spent the rest of her life living alone with her three dogs. In 1961, at the age of 67, she wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy, volunteering her services as an astronaut. Though she was elderly, her history and credentials earned her serious consideration, as well as a reply directly from the President. She died alone at her home in May 1967, at the age of 72.

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.

2 Responses to “This Week in Feminist History”

  1. Crivens_the_hag says:

    I was only a Girl Scout for a few years, but the recap of JGL's life had me a bit weepy. <3

  2. CleverManka says:

    You are not only the first Girl Scout, but the best Girl Scout of them all
    <img src=""&gt;

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