This Week in Feminist History

Guest Post, · Categories: Feminist History

femhistory-11-28-to-12-4pngOn November 28th in 1853…

Helen Magill White was born in Providence, Rhode Island. She was the first woman in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. She was born to a Quaker family who raised her to believe she deserved the same education as a man. They did their best to give her exactly that. She was the only female student in the Boston Public Latin School (where her father taught), and at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where her father was a member of faculty and then the president. She attended graduate school at Boston University and earned her Ph.D. in Greek in 1877, after which she travelled to England to study at the University of Cambridge. She returned to the U.S. and taught for several years, including as the organizer and director of Howard Collegiate Institute and later at Evelyn College for Women (a women’s annex of Princeton). After marrying her husband, Andrew D. White, she retired from academia and travelled with him to his diplomatic postings in St. Petersburg and Berlin. She died in 1944 in Kittery Point, Maine, where she had retired after her husband’s death.

On November 29th in 1910…

Elizabeth Choy, a Singaporean educator and heroine of WWII, was born Yong Su-Moi, in Kudat, North Borneo. She adopted the name “Elizabeth” while attending St. Monica’s Boarding School in Sandakan, after which she attended Raffles College (now the National University of Singapore). Her parents couldn’t afford the tuition fee, so she supported herself by teaching. In August 1941, she married Choy Khun Heng. During World War II, Elizabeth was a second lieutenant in the Singapore Volunteer Corps’ women’s auxiliary. Her nickname was “Gunner Choy,” and she was also a volunteer nurse with the Medical Auxiliary Service. After Singapore fell in 1942, she and her husband set up a canteen in the Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Here, the couple passed cash and parcels of medicine, clothing, and letters to the prisoners-of-war interned in Changi Prison. They also passed along radio parts for hidden receivers, until the Japanese cracked down. The Kempeitai (Japenese military police) arrested Elizabeth’s husband for their smuggling efforts, and after telling her they had no record of him, they lured her back and captured her as well. They imprisoned and tortured her until the Japanese surrendered in Singapore in September of 1945. The governor, Sir Shenton Thomas—to whom she had sent medicine in prison—escorted her to the surrendering ceremony himself. After the war, the Choys received an invitation to recover in England. Elizabeth received the Bronze Cross (from the Girl Guides), and the Order of the Star of Sarawak (from the Rajah of Sarawak). Both she and her husband received the Officer of the Order of the British Empire, and Elizabeth also earned a half-hour private audience with Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) in 1946. Later they returned to Singapore and she continued teaching and involved herself in the politics of Singapore’s attempt to become independent. She was a member of the Legislative Council and spoke about helping the needy and the poor, and developing family planning and social services. She died of pancreatic cancer in 2006 at the age of 96.

On November 30th in 2015…

Fatema Mernissi died in in Rabat. She was a Moroccan feminist writer and one of the founders of Islamic feminism. She was born in 1940 and grew up in the harem of her paternal grandmother. She attended several schools as a child before studying political science at the Sorbonne and at Brandeis University, where she earned her doctorate. She then worked at the Mohammed V University where she taught family sociology, psycho-sociology, and methodology. She was best known for her work analyzing women’s roles in Islam, including the subordination of women that she found rooted in the hadith (sayings and traditions of Muhammad), but not the Qur’an. She wrote her work about gender, life in harems, and public and private spheres. Her most famous book was The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Islam, which was a quasi-historical study of the roles of Muhammad’s wives. Morocco, Iran, and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf all banned it. She also wrote Beyond the Veil (on the sociology and anthropology of Arab women), and Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women (where she interviewed laborers, maidservants, clairvoyants, and peasant women). Her work was an inspiration for many Muslim feminists, including those who founded Musawah (a global movement for equality in the Muslim family).

On December 1st in 1761…

Anna Maria “Marie” Tussaud was born in Strasbourg, France. She was a French artist known for her wax sculptures, and the museum she founded in London. Marie grew up in the home of a local doctor, Philippe Curtius, who was also skilled in wax modeling. Curtius taught Marie how to do wax modeling and she began working for him as an artist; her first figure was of Voltaire, in 1777. She created most of her famous works from 1780 until the Revolution in 1789; including wax portraits of Benjamin Franklin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She was also thought to be somewhat close to the royal family, due to her employment teaching votive making to Élisabeth (Louis XVI’s sister). During the Revolution, the public saw Marie as a royal sympathizer. They had her arrested and she was to the point of having her head shaved in preparation for execution by guillotine. Thanks to Collot d’Herbois (who supported her “Uncle” Curtius), they released her before her execution. After her release she was “employed” (presumably under pressure, considering) to make death masks of the famous victims of the revolution, including Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, and Marat. Revolutionaries carried the masks through the streets like flags. After Curtius died in 1794 he left his collection to Marie, and the following year she married Francois Tussaud, a civil engineer. They had three children, two sons who survived and a daughter who died after birth. Marie went on to tour London and remained there during the Napoleonic Wars. Her husband remained in France and she never saw him again, but her two sons joined her in England. She eventually established her first permanent exhibition on Baker Street, which became her well-known museum. Madam Tussaud’s wax museum was later taken over by her son Francois, then his son Joseph, then his son John. Some of Marie’s sculptures still exist to this day.

On December 2nd in 2008…

Odetta Holmes, known as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” died in New York City. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in December of 1930, and grew up in Los Angeles. She had operatic training from the age of 13 and later studied music at Los Angeles City College, but doubted that she could ever perform Opera professionally. Her first work was at a musical theater as part of an ensemble, and she made her name by playing around the U.S. in several nightclubs. She recorded music with Larry Mohr and had several solo albums during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr., declared her “The Queen of American folk music,” and she is often remembered for singing “O Freedom” at the 1963 March on Washington. Her music was generally American folk music, but also blues, jazz, and spirituals. She was an influence on many artists at the time, including Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. In her later career she performed in the U.S. Bicentennial opera Be Glad Then, America, as the Muse for America. She also released several albums, including To Ella, dedicated to her friend Ella Fitzgerald, who had just passed away before she recorded the song live. In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Medal of Arts. She continued singing and performing almost right up to her death, but though she longed to be able to perform at Barack Obama’s inauguration, she died of her heart condition a month before his inauguration.

On December 3rd in 1842…

Ellen Swallow Richards was born in Massachusetts. She was the first woman both to earn a degree in chemistry and to gain acceptance to any school of science and technology in the U.S. She graduated from Westford Academy in 1862 and earned her degree in chemistry at Vassar College in 1870, after which she became the first woman admitted to MIT. After she graduated in 1873 she also became MIT’s first female instructor. In time she did the work to earn a doctorate, but MIT balked at giving her the actual degree. (They didn’t award an advanced degree to a woman until 1886.) Her work in the fields of sanitary engineering and domestic science was the foundation for the field of home economics. She was the first to apply chemistry to the study of nutrition and also to apply science to the study of the home. Her work included studies of air and water quality which lead to the establishment of the first water-quality standards in American (in Massachusetts), and the first modern sewage treatment plant. She also studied mineralogy, and home sanitation, where she wrote about the use of science in the home; not just for cooking and cleaning but for a cleaner home air environment. She also created the term “euthenics” for the science of bettering home and living conditions. Ellen was later part of the creation of the first school lunch programs (which later became a national law), and served as a nutrition expert for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She died on March 30, 1911 in Massachusetts. Both Vassar and MIT honored her with scholarships and departments in her name, and she received an induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

On December 4th in 1777…

Lydia Darragh allegedly crossed British lines during the American Revolutionary War to deliver information about a pending British attack. She was born in 1729 in Dublin, Ireland, and later emigrated with her husband to Philadelphia, where she worked as a midwife and her husband as a tutor. The Darraghs were Quakers, and had nine children (four died as infants). Though Lydia was a pacifist, her oldest son Charles served with the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Army. By September 26, 1777, British troops occupied Philadelphia and General William Howe had moved in across the street from the Darraghs. Lydia began passing information to her son Charles, gleaned from eavesdropping around town and in her own home. She passed the information by writing it in code on scraps of paper and hiding it in large buttons. General Howe eventually requested the use of the Darragh house, and with the help of a second cousin Lydia had discovered was a British officer, the General allowed Lydia and her husband to remain in the home while the staff used the parlor for meetings. They didn’t consider Lydia and her husband threats, as Quakers were pacifists who didn’t support the war. But in December, when Lydia received a request to retire early, she instead pretended to go to sleep and then eavesdropped through the door. She learned of the British plans to leave the city and make a surprise attack on George Washington’s troops, camped at White Marsh. The next morning she got the General to give her permission to cross British lines to go get flour in nearby Frankford. She dropped off her empty bag and instead headed towards the American camp. On her way there she met an American soldier, gave him her warning (written on a piece of paper rolled up in a needle book), and headed safely back home. The British attempted their attack, only to find the Americans waiting for them. Though an officer questioned her, speculating that someone had overheard them that night, Lydia denied any knowledge and was never questioned further. Contemporary sources claim her story is “historically unsubstantiated” even though George Washington had a number of agents gathering information, many of whom were women.


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.

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4 Responses to “This Week in Feminist History”

  1. kemnitiri says:

    TY for posting this!

  2. meat lord says:

    I had never heard of Fatema Mernissi! What an awesome person. I should look into her work.

    Also, Odetta Holmes getting so close to Obama's inauguration but not making it has me all ;_____________;

  3. CleverManka says:

    Also, fuck yeah Quaker women!

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