This Week in Feminist History

Clever Manka, · Categories: Feminist History

On December 26th in 1954…

Susan Butcher was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was the second woman to win the Iditarod, and was influential in changing the way others trained and treated sled dogs. After attending Colorado State University and becoming a veterinary tech, she moved to Alaska to train to compete in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. She worked for the founder of the race, Joe Redington, for two years in exchange for dogs for her team. Along with Joe and three others, she made the first dog-sled ascent of Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America. She participated in several Iditarods, including the 1985 race where she had to withdraw early (due to a crazed moose injuring several of her dogs) and Lucy Riddles subsequently became the first woman to win the race. Susan won the next year, and then again in 1987, 1988, and 1990, making her the second person to win four Iditarods in total, and the first to win four out of five sequential years. She also held held the Iditarod speed record from 1986 to 1992, and finally retired in 1995. After retiring, she opened a kennel in Alaska where she housed and trained more than 150 huskies year-round. Because of her, year-round care and training became the standard for sled dogs. She died in August 2006 of leukemia.

On December 27th in 1962…

Olga Preobrajenskaya died in Paris, France. She was a well-known Russian ballerina despite facing rejection due to her crooked spine. Olga was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia in January 1871. Though she was frail and had a crooked spine, she dreamed of being a ballerina. Her parents tried again and again to get her into a dance school until finally, after several years of rejection, they succeeded in enrolling her into the Imperial Ballet School in 1879. Olga developed well under her teachers, though her hunched back remained. She was naturally expressive, and had the grace desired of dancers at the time. Olga also studied singing and piano, and performed opera arias. Her debut was in Kalkabrino, and she followed it with many other performances (including Les Saisons, The Fairy Doll, and The Night of Terpsichore) until she began to perform internationally in 1895. She earned the title of prima ballerina in 1990, and continued to perform until 1914 when she switched her focus to teaching instead. She taught in Russia first and after the Russian Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union, emigrated and taught in Milan, London, Buenos Aires, and Berlin, before finally making her home in Paris. She was one of the most prominent ballet teachers in Paris and taught until she was 89 years old. She retired in 1960, and passed away two years later at the age of 91.

On December 28th in 1816…

Elizabeth Packard, an advocate for the rights of women and people accused of insanity, was born in the Connecticut Valley. She was the daughter of a Congregational minister, who insisted that she marry a Calvinist minister named Theophilus Packard when she was 23 and he was 37.Their marriage was peaceful at the beginning, and they had six children together in their home in Illinois. However, Elizabeth began to question not only her husband and his beliefs but also became more open about expressing her own opinions regardless of whether they went against his. They disagreed on religion and also things like slavery, child rearing, and their finances. At the time in Illinois, people could only commit others to a hospital for the mentally ill after a public hearing—unless they were a woman. A husband could have his wife committed not only without her consent, but without a public hearing. As Elizabeth began to disagree with her husband, he decided she was “slightly insane” and arranged for a doctor to speak with her under a disguise. The doctor pretended to be a sewing machine salesman and had a conversation with Elizabeth, who complained about her husband (including the fact that he had been telling others she was insane). After having the conversation reported to him, Theophilus had Elizabeth committed. She found out when the county sheriff came to take her into custody. Elizabeth spent three years at the Jacksonville Insane Asylum where she refused to change her religious opinions, or to agree that she was insane. Under pressure from her children, Doctors declared her “incurable” and discharged her in 1863. Her husband then locked her away in the home nursery and nailed their windows shut. Elizabeth managed to slip a letter out of the window that detailed her treatment; it found its way to her friend, who delivered the letter to a judge, who ordered a jury trial to determine Elizabeth’s sanity. The couple went to trial, where Theophilus called witnesses to show that Elizabeth had tried to withdraw from his congregation, and that this was a sign of insanity. Elizabeth called her own witnesses, including a Doctor who stated: “I do not call people insane because they differ with me. I pronounce her a sane woman and wish we had a nation of such women.” The jury found Elizabeth sane within seven minutes. She returned to her home, only to find that her husband had rented it out, sold the furniture, and left the state with her belongings, money, and their children. She had no legal recourse because women at the time had no legal rights to children or property. She didn’t see her children again until 1869 when Massachusetts (where her husband had fled to) passed a law allowing women equal rights to children and property. Her husband voluntarily ceded custody and the children came to live with Elizabeth in Chicago. Realizing that she had only won this much out of luck, Elizabeth founded the Anti-Insane Asylum Society. She also published several books about the topic. In 1867, Illinois passed a “Bill for the Protection of Personal Liberty” which guaranteed all people, even wives, the right to a public hearing when accused of insanity.

On December 29th in 1970…

Marie Menken died in Brooklyn, New York. She was an American experimental filmmaker known for her unique filming style. Marie was born in Brooklyn in May 1909, to a Roman Catholic couple from Lithuania. She studied at the New York School of Fine and Industrial Arts, and the Art Students League of New York, while working as a secretary at the Guggenheim Museum to support herself. Originally, Marie worked primarily with painting, however in the mid-1940s she and her husband, Willard Maas, created an avant-garde art group called The Gryphon Group. It was during that time that Marie began to work in film, releasing Visual Variations on Noguchi in 1945. Noguchi was a non-narrative film that featured quick shots of sculptures along with discordant music. She used a hand-held and hand-cranked camera (a 16mm Bolex) for this film and many of her others, which gave her work a more spontaneous quality. She produced several other short films at this time and began to experiment with animation techniques like collage and stop-motion. Her most well-known film, Notebook, featured short snippets taken between 1940 and 1962 and spliced together. According to a later documentary, it was Marie who taught Andy Warhol how to use a 16mm Bolex Camera. She also influenced filmmakers Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage.

On December 30th in 2012…

Rita Levi-Montalcini died in Rome, Italy. She was a neurologist and the first Nobel laureate to live to the age of 100. She and her twin sister Paola were born on April 22, 1909 in Turin, Italy, to a Sephardi Jewish family. As a teenager she wanted to become a writer, but after losing a family friend to stomach cancer she decided to become a doctor. Though her father originally didn’t want his daughters attending school in the belief that it would interrupt their lives as wives/mothers, he eventually came around to supporting them. Rita studied at the University of Turin where she developed an interest in the nervous system. She graduated summa cum laude M.D. in 1936 and remained as an assistant to a former mentor until 1938 when Mussolini’s Manifesto of Race barred Jews from academic and professional careers. Though Rita lost her job, she set up a lab in her bedroom and studied nerve fibers growing in chicken embryos. The work she did during WWII was the foundation for her later work. After the German invasion of Italy, the family fled to Florence where she set up another lab in their home, and also volunteered with the Allied health service. After the war she returned officially to her studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She did her most important work there as a research associate, where she isolated the nerve growth factor from cancerous tissues, thus discovering that nerves grew in a halo around tumor cells. She was award the 1986 Nobel Prize of Physiology or Medicine for that discovery. In 2001, she was also named a Senator for Life and served in the Italian Senate until her death at the age of 103.

On December 31st in 1834…

Mary Jane Safford-Blake, one of the first female gynecologists in the U.S., was born in Vermont. She attended schools in Vermont, Illinois, and Montreal before returning to Illinois to live with her other brother and teach at public school. When the Civil War began in 1861, Mary volunteered as a relief worker in Cairo, Illinois. Trained by “Mother” Bickerdyke, her work there with the sick and injured earned her the nickname of the “Cairo Angel.” In 1862 she went with the army of Ulysses S. Grant to the Battle of Shiloh, where she assisted the wounded there before serving aboard a pair of hospital ships on the Mississippi. After the war she studied medicine and graduated from the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women. She studied at several other schools around the same time, including the University of Breslau where she was the first woman to perform an ovariotomy, and the University of Heidelberg where she befriended Isabel Chapin Barrows, the first American woman opthamologist. In 1872 she became one of the first female gynecologists when she opened a private practice in Chicago. During this time she created a plan for mass housing in a service area frequented by housekeepers; the idea being to reduce the drudgery for women by centering their housing where they worked. Later she became a Professor of Women’s Diseases at Boston University School of Medicine. She was one of only two gynecology professors. In addition she worked as a physician in the South End of Boston where she focused on caring for impoverished inner-city girls and women, especially immigrants. In her personal life, she supported the women’s suffrage movement, believed in free love, and was a supporter of dress reform. She retired in 1886 and died on December 8, 1891 at the age of 56.

On January 1st in 1800…

Clara Brown—a former slave who became a community leader and philanthropist—was born near Fredericksburg, Virginia. She was born into slavery and sold at a young age to a tobacco farmer in Virginia, before moving with the family to Kentucky. When she was 18 she married another slave and had four children, but in 1835 their owner died. The entire family went up for auction and ended up split apart when different people purchased them. Clara went to another plantation owner in Kentucky. At the age of 56 she earned her freedom as per the will of her owner, George Brown. She left the state per Kentucky law, and moved to Colorado where she worked as a cook on a wagon train. She was Colorado’s first African-American woman to take part in the gold rush. In Colorado, she set up a laundry business and invested her earnings in mines. Within a few years she had earned $10,000 in savings and owned 16 lots in Denver, 7 houses in Central City, and property and mines in Boulder, Idaho Springs, and Georgetown. Clara gave to those in her community, hosting services at her house and donating to people in need; both former slaves, newly-settled European-Americans, and Native Americans. Those she helped called her “Aunt Clara” and said that her home was: “a hospital, a home, a general refuge for those who were sick or in poverty.” Clara sent letters in an attempt to locate her family. Eventually she learned that her husband and one of her daughters had both died, and her son vanished. Another daughter had died as a child, but one—Eliza Jane—was still missing. After the Civil War, Clara took all her money and liquidated her holdings so she could travel to Colorado in search of Eliza. She didn’t find her, but helped 16-26 relatives and other former slaves, and later went to Kansas to help other former slaves create a community. It wasn’t until the age of 82 that she received news of Eliza Jane living in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Despite her age she traveled to meet her and returned with her granddaughter in tow. Her daughter Eliza Jane continued to visit her until Clara’s death in 1885. Numerous Colorado dignitaries attended her funeral, and the Central City Opera House dedicated a permanent chair to her name in memory.


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.

9 Responses to “This Week in Feminist History”

  1. CleverManka says:

    I'm disappointed but not surprised that Susan Butcher has never appeared in any due South fic I've read.

    Thank you for writing these, Amy! Reading about these women helps me remember we are all capable of brave and brilliant feats, regardless of how the world is stacked against us.

  2. RoseCamelia says:

    Clara Brown, wow. I want to be more like her. Thank you, Amy, for being part of my education.

  3. ru_ri says:

    Such great stories this week. Wow, Elizabeth Packard's husband was a dick. And Clara Brown is definitely a *best life* icon. Inspiring as always, thank you!

  4. LaxMom says:

    The crazy has GOT to stop!!!!!!

    Just spend 30 minutes hyperventilating because my sister (in Vegas) texted me (in Ohio) about a mall lockdown/fight/teargassing. My son and his gf were in that mall all day, and randomly cancelled dinner plans at the last minute,right when the news said the mall got locked down, and I couldn't get them to answer their texts.
    They are fine. They got out before the stampede/teargas(ETA: pepper spray) event (like, maybe 3 minutes before!) but they were not there. I swear to god 2016 is trying to give me a heart attack.

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