This Week in Feminist History

Guest Post, · Categories: Feminist History

On January 23rd in 1881…

Luisa Casati was born in Milan, Italy. Born Luisa Adele Rosa Maria Amman, the daughter of Count Alberto Amman and Countess Lucia Amman, she was an Italian heiress who became a muse and patroness of the arts. After the death of her mother when she was thirteen and her father two years later, Luisa and her older sister Francesca inherited everything and became the wealthiest women in Italy. With her first marriage in 1900 she became the Marchesa Casati Stampa di Soncino, had one daughter, and lived separately from her husband until he died in 1946. Luisa was best known as a muse and a patroness of the arts, but also as a woman with well-known eccentricities. For example, she once paraded with a pair of leashed cheetahs and wore live snakes as jewelry. She influenced numerous artists and writers including Cecil Beaton, Romain de Tirtoff, and Jean Cocteau. Luisa inspired the character of La Casinelle in two books by Michel Georges-Michel, as well as the character of Isabella Inghirami in Forse che si forse che no (Maybe yes, maybe no) by Gabriele d’Annunzio, with whom she also had a long affair. In 1910 she resided in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal in Venice where she hosted legendary parties, patronized fashion designers (such as Poiret and Fortuny), and collected exotic animals. From 1919-1920 she lived at Villa San Michele in Capri, turning her home on the island into a sanctuary for gay men, lesbians, and artists in exile. Italian Futurists like Fortunato Depero, Umberto Boccioni, and F.T. Marinetti considered her their muse and a portrait of her by Augustus John is one of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s most popular paintings. She had portraits painted by Man Ray, Romaine Brooks (another affair partner), Kees van Dongen, and Paolo Troubetzkoy, as well as this amazing portrait by Giovanni Boldini. Unfortunately, 1930 saw her in debt over $25 million and all her possessions faced auction. She fled to London and lived in poverty in a one-room flat. On June 1, 1957, she died of a stroke at the age of 76. She was buried in black and leopard skin clothing, wearing a pair of false eyelashes, and accompanied by her beloved stuffed Pekinese dog. She remained an inspiration following her death. She was the basis for main characters in the play La Contessa (1965), and A Matter of Time (1976). John Galliano’s based his 1998 Spring/Summer Christian Dior collection on her, as did Alexander McQueen for his 2007 Spring/Summer collection, Karl Lagerfeld for his 2010 Cruise-wear collection, and Omar Mansoor for his 2016 autumn/winter collection. She is also the namesake of the Marchesa fashion house.

On January 24th in 1925…

Maria Tallchief, America’s first major prima ballerina and the first Native American prima ballerina, was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Her father was Alexander Joseph Tall Chief of the Osage Nation and her mother Ruth was of Scottish-Irish descent. Born as Elizabeth Marie “Betty” Tall Chief, she grew up on the Osage reservation in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Her father owned property across the reservation and was a descendant of  Peter Bigheart, who helped negotiate oil revenues for the Osage Nation. Her mother Ruth had dreamed of being a performer but couldn’t afford it, so she made sure to enroll her daughter in ballet classes at the age of 3. She also studied piano and performed with the family at local events. She trained under several ballet teachers as a child, eventually working with Bronislava Nijinska, a renowned choreographer under whom Maria decided that ballet was what she wanted to do with her life. After graduating high school in 1942, she took a bit part in an MGM Musical (Presenting Lily Mars, starring Judy Garland), but decided she didn’t want to dance in movies. She made her way to New York with a family friend, and won a place in Serge Denham’s travelling company. Her former teacher Nijinska had recently come to town, and cast her as the understudy to the first ballerina (Nathalie Krassovska) in her Chopin Concerto. Around the same time, the company was staging Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, or The Courting at Burnt Ranch. It was de Mille who suggested that Maria change her name to something more Russian sounding, as was custom at the time. She refused to lose her heritage with her name, and instead changed it to Maria Tallchief (from her middle name, Marie). Maria practiced constantly and when Krassovska’s continual feuding with management lead to her leaving the company, Marie took the lead role. She earned glowing reviews, though she returned to the corps when the Chopin Concerto was complete. Marie continued to press on, earning a solo in Le Beau Danube and a lead in Ancient Russia, but the turning point in her career came when the company hired George Balanchine to choreograph Song of Norway. He assigned Marie a solo, and named her the understudy to the lead. The ballet lead to Balanchine earning a contract for the season and he continued to cast Marie in important roles in his productions, including second lead in Ballet Imperial. In time, they married and were together from 1946-1952. When Balanchine co-founded the New York City Ballet in 1946, Marie became its first star. His difficult choreography and her dancing revolutionized ballet in America and her role in The Firebird in 1949 established her as a prima ballerina. It was Maria, performing as the Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker, which took the ballet was an obscure, unknown piece to the most popular ballet in America. Marie traveled the world and was the first American to perform in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. She retired in 1966 and continued to promote and support ballet as the director of ballet for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She received the National Medal of Arts, and the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievements. She died in 2013 at the age of 88. Ashley Wheater, the artistic director of Joffrey Ballet, stated that Marie “paved the way for dancers who were not in the traditional mold of ballet … she was crucial in breaking the stigma.”

On January 25th in 1890…

Nellie Bly completed her round-the-world journey after 72 days. She was born “Elizabeth Jane Cochran” on May 5, 1865, in Pennsylvania. In 1880 her family moved to Pittsburgh, and she wrote her first important piece: an angry rebuttal to a misogynistic column entitled “What Girls Are Good For” in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. She signed it with a pseudonym of “Lonely Orphan Girl,” and the editor George Madden ran an ad asking for her to identify herself. When she came forward, Madden offered her the chance to write a piece for the newspaper and she wrote her first article entitled “The Girl Puzzle.” Madden then gave her a full-time job. Like many women writers at the time, she took on a pen name. The editor chose “Nellie Bly” from the title character from the song “Nelly Bly” by Stephen Foster. Nellie’s early work for the Dispatch focused on the plight of working women in a series of investigative articles, but eventually the editorial team pushed her to the “women’s pages” which covered society, gardening, and fashion. Nellie took matters into her own hands by traveling to Mexico to be a foreign correspondent. At the age of 21 she spent almost half a year reporting on the lives of people in Mexico. One of her articles reported on a journalist imprisoned by the Mexican government, which was then a dictatorship; the article got her threatened with arrest and she had to return home. In 1887, she left the Dispatch and moved to New York City where talked her way into the New York World under Joseph Pulitzer. In her first piece for him she volunteered to pretend to be insane so that she could enter into an asylum and report on the treatment of women there. She first tricked boarders at a boardinghouse that she was insane, and then the police they summoned to take her away. Several doctors examined her and deemed her “insane” and a “hopeless case.” The judge committed her to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island, where she experienced the horrible conditions firsthand, including spoiled food, dirty water, patients tied together with ropes in the cold, rat infestations, abusive nurses, and baths that consisted of freezing water dumped over their heads. Nellie became convinced that many of the women were as sane as she was, stating: “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?” The asylum released her after 10 days at the request of New York World. The paper published her report as an article and then later she had it released as a book titled Ten Days in a Mad-House. As a result, a grand jury investigated the asylum with Nellie’s help. Her report and the jury’s report let to increased funds and more thorough future examinations for those sent to the asylum. In 1888 Nellie suggested that her next piece for World be a trip around the world, in an attempt to turn the book Around the World in Eighty Days into fact. A year later, on November 14th, 1889, she began her journey by boarding a steamer. At the same time, the New York Cosmopolitan newspaper sent their own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, to try and beat Nellie’s time. Nellie traveled through England, France, Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Columbo, the Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. She sent progress reports over the new electric telegraphs instead of sending them by post. Nellie arrived in San Francisco on the RMS Oceanic on January 21, 1890, and she traveled back to New Jersey on a train chartered by the World’s owner, completing her journey in just over 72 days. Elizabeth Bisland, her Cosmo competitor, was delayed and arrived four and a half days later. Nellie’s journey was a world record at the time, though George Francis Train (who had inspired the original novel) beat it a few months later. Nellie went on to marry Robert Seaman, a manufacturer who was 42 years older than her. She retired from journalism and became president of his Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. While working for Iron Clad, Nellie held the patent for the steel barrel that became the 55-gallon oil drum still in use today. Though the barrel was likely invented by Henry Wehrhahn, it was Nellie herself who invented and patented both a novel milk can and a stacking garbage can. She later returned to journalism and reported on World War I and Women’s Suffrage, before she died of pneumonia in 1922, at the age of 57.

On January 26th in 1892…

Bessie Coleman—the first female African American pilot and the first female Native American pilot—was born in Atlanta, Texas. She was one of 13 children born to Susan and George Coleman, both sharecroppers. Her father, who was of both Native American and African American descent, left in search of better opportunities when Bessie was a child and her mother supported the family on her own. Bessie attended school at the Missionary Baptist Church, then attended the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University for one term before she had to drop out for financial reasons. In 1915 she moved to Chicago with her brothers and worked as a manicurist. It was in Chicago that she began to read stories about World War I pilots, which prompted her interest in flying. Flying schools in the U.S. denied her entry due to both her race and gender, so Bessie taught herself French and moved to France. Within seven months she earned her license from the Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation in France. Bessie longed to open a flight school for African-American women, but soon realized she would have to be a stunt flier to earn money. Unable to find teachers in America, she went to Europe again. She trained in France for two months, then went to the Netherlands to meet Anthony Fokker, one of the world’s best aircraft designers. She also trained with one of his chief pilots in Germany before returning to the U.S. Known as “Queen Bess”, she flew in numerous popular shows, mostly in Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes, and army surplus aircraft. She did daredevil shows and aerial displays, but continued to dream of something more. She very nearly appeared in a feature-length film that she hoped would help advance her career, but backed out after discovering that the film featured stereotypical imagery of African-Americans. She refused the part because, as Doris Rich once wrote: “Opportunist though she was about her career, she was never an opportunist about race. She had no intention of perpetuating the derogatory image most whites had of most blacks.” Though Bessie never managed to establish her school, she was an inspiration for a generation of black women and men, inspiring so many others to follow her. She died on April 30, 1926, when her plane went into a dive and crashed. She was 34 years old.

On January 27th in 1941…

Beatrice Tinsley was born in Chester, England. She was an astronomer and cosmologist whose research contributed to the understanding of how galaxies evolve. Beatrice and her family emigrated to New Zealand after World War II. She studied at the University of Canterbury, earning a B.Sc., and then a Master of Science with First Class Honours in Physics in 1961. While studying, she met and married her classmate, a physicist named Brian Tinsley. Since her husband worked at the University, Beatrice was thus prohibited from working there. In 1963 the family moved to Dallas, Texas, and Beatrice earned her PhD from the University of Texas in 1966, where she was the first student in the department to earn marks over 80%. Her thesis, Evolution of Galaxies and its Significance for Cosmology, showed that internal changes occurred in galaxies over time and that scientists couldn’t determine distance only by morphology (size and shape). Her work was the basis for contemporary studies of how galaxies evolve. Unfortunately, her marriage (and the very masculine atmosphere of science in Dallas) restricted her from finding university work in Texas. In 1974, after trying as best she could to make things work, she divorced her husband and left their two adopted children behind to take a position at Yale as an assistant professor. Her stories over her career focused on how stars age and affect the observable aspects of galaxies. Her models of galaxies lead to the first guesses of what protogalaxies would look like, and her research on changes in galaxies lead to the determination of the size of the universe and how fast it expanded. She organized a conference on “The Evolution of Galaxies and Stellar Populations” in 1977, and in 1978 she became the first female professor of astronomy at Yale University. She died from cancer in March 1981 at the age of 40, after having continued to publish papers until her death. In her short 14 year career she authored or co-authored about 100 scientific papers. After her death, the American Astronomy Society created the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize. It is the only major American scientific society award named after a woman scientist.

On January 28th in 1944…

Rosalía Mera was born in A Coruña, Galicia, Spain. When she was eleven years old she dropped out of school to work as a sales assistant and seamstress in a clothing shop. In 1966, at the age of 22, she married Amancio Ortega Gaona and began designing gowns and lingerie in their home with him. They opened their first Zara store in A Coruña in 1975. The store’s success came in part from imitating popular fashions but making them quickly and for cheaper prices. Zara’s method changed the apparel industry by speeding up the creation of mass-market fashion influenced by the designs of high-fashion houses. In time the store became a multi-billion dollar enterprise. They later established a holding company which comprised their multiple companies, including Zara as the flagship but also Bershka, Massimo Dutti, Oysho, Pull & Bear, Stradivarius, Uterque and Zara Home. The company now has more than 6000 stores in over 86 countries. Rosalia divorced her husband in 1986, but kept a 7% stake in the company. She also owned interest in a company that made fingerprint ID kits for newborns and another that researched cancer-fighting compounds. Per the 2013 Forbes billionaire list, she had a net worth of over $6 billion, making her the world’s wealthiest female entrepreneur. She was the second-wealthiest person from Spain—her ex-husband was the first. Rosalia involved herself into political work, opposing attempts to make Spain’s abortion laws stricter, and also fighting against austerity cutbacks to Spain’s education and healthcare programs. In addition, she created the Paideia Foundation which helps groups at risk of social exclusion. Rosalia suffered a stroke in August 2013 and died a day later. Her daughter inherited her wealth (she also had a son, born with cerebral palsy) and became Spain’s richest woman as a result.

(Note: This is another of our ‘problematic’ entries. I wanted to write about Rosalia for what she accomplished, but it is important to also note that Zara had many issues with their labor conditions and their tendency to steal designs from small artists.)

On January 29th in 1881…

Alice Catherine Evans, a microbiologist whose research lead to the pasteurization of milk, was born in Alexandria, Virginia. She was born on a farm to William Howell (a farmer), and Anne Evans (a teacher). Alice studied at the Susquehanna Collegiate Institute in Towanda, where she later became a teacher. After four years of teaching she took free classes that Cornell University offered to rural teachers. Cornell eventually offered her a scholarship and she earned a B.S. in bacteriology there in 1909. She went on to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was the first woman to receive a bacteriology scholarship and earned her M.S. a year later. Alice took a job with the Dairy Division of the Bureau of Animal Industry in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Her work involved finding methods to improve the flavor of cheddar cheese and in the three years she worked there she coauthored four papers on dairy science research. In 1913 she moved to D.C. to work in the Dairy Division’s new labs, where she began her own study of the bacteria in cow udders. At the time, scientists knew that Bang’s disease (brucellosis) caused abortion in healthy cows, but did not believe it was harmful for humans. Alice’s work and research proved that the disease in cows was in fact the cause of undulant fever and Malta fever in humans. She reported her findings to the Society of American Bacteriologists in 1917 and published them in the Journal of Infectious Diseases in 1918, but her work was met with skepticism due to her sex and lack of a Ph.D. Alice warned that milk needed pasteurization to protect from diseases, but her advice wasn’t followed until other scientists around the world confirmed her findings in the 1920s. The FDA mandated milk pasteurization in 1930, reducing the occurrence of brucellosis in the U.S. Alice continued her work with the U.S. Public Health Service in 1918, studying epidemic meningitis and influenza. In 1922, she infected herself with undulant fever, which affected her health for twenty years until someone created a cure. She retired in 1945, but continued working and giving lectures to women encouraging them to pursue careers in the sciences. She died of a stroke in September 1975, at the age of 94.


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. burningupasun says:

    I was going to write about someone else for 1/23 but then I read "she once paraded with a pair of leashed cheetahs and wore live snakes as jewelry" and I was like… well now I have to write about her because that is incredibly #toowitches, lol.

    • CleverManka says:

      I'm so glad you wrote about her! Can you imagine burning through that much cash in just a few years, though? Wow. I mean, not prudent but at the same time #goals.

      • burningupasun says:

        I cannot, but I assume it was well-spent on cheetahs, self portraits, and lavish parties with all her gay and lesbian friends? And I mean, I cannot entirely fault that!

      • RoseCamelia says:

        I was thinking the US economic crash ~1929 did spread worldwide to some extent and may have devalued her capital enough to put her in debt when she had been in the black previously. Along with burning through a good portion for parties, too witches self adornment, and support of gay and lesbian friends.

  2. redheadfae says:

    I love this assortment of women. I have been attracted to the name Nellie Bly all my life, I think Mum may have sang the song to me as a child, and I'm delighted to read the story of the woman who took it as her nom de plume.

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