This Week in Feminist History

Guest Post, · Categories: Feminist History

On January 30th in 1971…

Winifred Goldring, an American paleontologist, died at the age of 82. Winifred was one of nine children (eight girls and one boy) born to an orchid specialist and a local school teacher. As a child she attended The Milne School in Albany, New York, where she graduated as valedictorian in 1905. She ]enrolled in Wellesley College where she changed her major from classical languages to science. She earned her Bachelor’s in 1909 and her Master’s in 1912. She began working as a geology professor at Wellesley and then as a Scientific Expert in Paleontology at the New York State Museum. At the museum she specialized in exhibits on invertebrates, and also took over an unfinished study on Devonian Crinoids. In the process of identifying the taxonomies of the crinoid fossils over seven years, she identified 2 new families, 18 new genera, and 58 new species. She was so skilled at identifying the fossils that other paleontologists and scientists began sending her their own fossils to identify. On top of her fossil identifying, Winifred created several well-known dioramas at the New York State Museum, including her most famous, which recreated a living fossil seed fern forest from the Devonian period. Her skills at creating educational displays lead to her publishing several books on geology, later used in secondary education. Over ten years she rose from Assistant Paleontologist to Associate Paleontology, and then to Assistant State Paleontologist. In 1939 she became State Paleontologist of New York, the first woman to hold that position. Ten years later in 1949, the Paleontological Society elected her as president, making her the first woman to hold that office and one of just three women to hold that position to this day. She worked for forty years in her field before retiring in 1954 and living out her last sixteen years in her family home. She devoted her life to her education and career, and never married.

On January 31st in 1902…

Alva Myrdal, a Swedish sociologist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was born in Uppsala, Sweden. She graduated from her university in 1924 and married Gunnar Myrdal the same year. Together they coauthored the book Crisis in the Population Question (Kris i befolkningsfrågan), which was about finding the social reforms needed to allow citizens (especially women) to have liberty, while also encouraging them to have children. The book was a response to the low fertility rates in Sweden, which had lead to a population decline, and a reduced standard of living. Alva and her husband suggested support for families with children, such a free school lunches, free medical care, better affordable housing, subsidized rent, and child benefits. This included a revision of the patriarchal family system to allow both parents to work, while trained staff watched and cared for the children.  Their work was a major influence on the design of welfare policy in Sweden. Alva was also responsible for helping design Collective House in 1937; a communal living building built by architect Sven Markelius which featured a shared kitchen, meeting spaces, and childcare facilities. Alva was a prominent member of the Swedish Social Democratic Party and was also involved with the United Nations, where she led the section on welfare policy in 1949. From 1950-1955 she was the chairman of UNESCO’s social science section, making her the first woman in the U.S. to hold such a high position. She also served as a Swedish envoy to several countries. In 1962 she won election to the Swedish parliament. Much of her focus was on disarmament, and she served as a delegate to a UN conference on the subject in Geneva. The Nobel Committee awarded her the Peace Prize in 1982 for her work towards disarmament of the USA and the USSR.

On February 1st in 1959…

Madame Sul-Te-Wan, the first African-American actor to sign a film contract, died of a stroke at the age of 85. She was born as Nellie Crawford on March 7, 1873, to freed slaves Cleon De Londa and Silas Crawford. Her father left when she was young and her mother became a laundress for Louisville stage actresses to support them. Nellie developed a love of acting from a young age simply from watching the actresses rehearse while she delivered their laundry. When she was older she moved to Cincinnati and joined a theatrical company known as Three Black Cloaks, where she acted as Creole Nell. Later she moved to California and officially began her acting career as Sul-Te-Wan in uncredited roles with director D. W. Griffith. She appeared in his controversial film Birth of a Nation, and again in Intolerance a year later. In the early 1900s she  married Robert Reed Conley, with whom she had three sons before Robert fled three weeks after the third son’s birth. Sul-Te-Wan continued acting, appearing frequently in the “Mammy” role alongside popular silent film actors like Mae Marsh, Mildred Harris, Harry Carey, and Robert Harroon. Some of her more popular silent films included College (1927) and Queen Kelly (1929). When the era of “talkie” films came along, Sul-Te-Wan easily made the transition but was limited by her race. She often played minor characters, usually domestic servant, convicts, or “native women;” like in King Kong (1933) where she played a “Native Handmaiden.” Despite these limits she continued to find work in the 30s and 40s, including a part as Tituba in the movie Maid of Salem (1937). Sul-Te-Wan continued to act through the 50s, appearing in the musical drama Carmen Jones in 1954, which had an almost all-black cast that included Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte, and Diahann Carroll. It was Sul-Te-Wan’s first major role where she was not typecast as a “Mammy”. Though in her 80s at the time, she found work in several films, mostly in smaller, uncredited bit parts, until her death at the Motion Picture Actors’ Home in Woodland Hills, California. The Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame inducted her into their ranks in 1986.

On February 2nd in 1841…

Sarah Hackett Stevenson, the first female member of the American Medical Association, was born in Illinois. She attended Mount Carroll Seminary and then Illinois State Normal University, where she graduated in 1863. Sarah taught, and was later a principal at a school in Sterling, Illinois, but left to study medicine in Chicago at the Women’s Hospital Medical College. She earned her MD there in 1874, after spending a year studying with Thomas Huxley in England. After graduating, she started a private practice in Chicago, became a professor of physiology and histology at the Women’s Medical College, and published a book titled Boys and Girls in Biology; a textbook for high school students. In 1876 she attended the American Medical Association convention as a representative of the Illinois State Medical Society. Though the AMA had refused to allow membership to women up until then, they accepted her presence and she became their first female member. Later, Sarah became a professor of obstetrics at the Woman’s Medical College, and also served as the first woman physician on staff at Cook County Hospital. In 1880 she and Lucy Flower (a social reformer) founded the Illinois Training School for Nurses. That same year, Sarah published The Physiology of Women. Sarah worked frequently with homeopathic and allopathic doctors (usually women), whom she recruited to treat more than three thousand patients during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1983. She retired in 1903 after suffering from a cerebral hemorrhage and died six years later after a long battle with her illness.

On February 3rd in 1961…

Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star, died at the age of 56. She was born as Wong Liu Tsong on January 3, 1905, to Wong Sam Sing and Lee Gon Toy, second-generation Chinese-Americans. She was the second of seven children. They lived a few blocks away from Chinatown, which allowed Anna to easier assimilate with American culture. Originally, she and her older sister attended public school, but transferred to a Presbyterian Chinese school after being the target of racist bullying. The school educated her in English but she attended a Chinese language school on the weekends. While she was growing up, motion picture production began to move to the Los Angeles area. Anna witnessed movies filming around her neighborhood and developed a hobby of going to local movie theaters as often as possible. By the time she was nine she had begun begging filmmakers to give her small bit roles (they called her “C.C.C.” or “Curious Chinese Child”) and by age 11 she had given herself the stage name of Anna May Wong by merging her English and family names. Her first role was as an uncredited extra in The Red Lantern, and she continued working as an extra for several years. In 1921 she dropped out of high school to pursue acting full-time. Her first screen credit was on Bits of Life (the first anthology film), where she played the wife of Lon Chaney’s character. She had her first leading role in The Toll of the Sea when she was 17, and received much praise for the part. Her ethnicity prevented her from earning starring roles because they couldn’t see her as a leading lady. They forced her to fit the roles of providing “exotic atmosphere” in supporting roles, such as her part in The Thief of Bagdad in 1924, when, at nineteen, Anna played a Mongol slave in a stereotypical “Dragon Lady” role. She was also limited by miscegenation laws at the time which forbid her from sharing an on-screen kiss with any actors of another race—even a white actor playing an Asian role. She continued to act in supporting roles such as an Eskimo in The Alaskan, Princess Tiger Lily in Peter Pan, and an “Oriental vamp” in Forty Winks. Tired of the parts she had play, Anna left for Europe in 1928, where she became a popular sensation. She was especially popular in Germany, where she fluently carried German-speaking parts, and had several large roles in British films, including Piccadilly; a silent film where she reportedly stole the show from the actual star. Despite rave reviews she was still not allowed to kiss her white love interest in the film. In the 1930s she returned to Hollywood, where execs looking for “fresh European talent” offered her a contract with Paramount Studios. She worked in several films in the early sound era, including Daughter of the Dragon, Daughter of Shanghai, and Shanghai Express; all of which featured very stereotypical roles. Ironically, despite her typecasting, in 1935 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer refused to consider her for the role of O-Lan, a Chinese character in The Good Earth. Instead they cast a German actress (Luise Rainer) in the leading role. Anna left the U.S. and spent a year touring China and visiting her family’s ancestral home. When she returned to the U.S., she focused on roles in B movies which showed Chinese-Americans in a better light, and during World War I she devoted her energy to helping the Chinese cause against Japan. Though she eventually retired from film, she made history in 1951 with her TV show The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which was the first U.S. television show to star an Asian-American lead. Over her life, Anna’s close friendships with several women, including Leni Riefenstahl (a German director of Nazi propaganda) as well as Cecil Cunningham and Marlene Dietrich, where very well known. This lead to rumors of lesbianism which also damaged her reputation. She was also known for several affairs with men in the film industry, but never married. Once asked if she had plans to do so, she replied, “No, I am wedded to my art.”

On February 4th in 1987…

Meena Keshwar Kamal, an Afghani activist and feminist, died as a result of political assassination. She was born on February 27, 1956, and attended Kabul University, where she founded the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. The purpose of the organization was to support education for women, promote equality, and “give voice to the deprived and silenced women of Afghanistan.” She left university to focus on being a social activist within her cause, and in 1979 she started a campaign against Russia’s puppet regime. She organized meetings and processions in schools and colleges to help raise public opinion against the regime and motivate them to fight back. In 1981 she launched a bilingual magazine for women known as Payam-e-Zan (Women’s Message), which promoted the cause of RAWA and also exposed fundamentalists groups and their criminal activities. On top of her magazine work, Meena established Watan Schools, as well as a hospital and handicraft center to support refugee women and children in Pakistan. At the end of 1981, she represented the Afghan resistance movement at the French Socialist Party Congress, by invitation of the French Government. Cheers in response to Meena waving a victory sign caused the Soviet delegation to flee the hall in shame. Her social work enraged the Russians and the fundamentalist forces in her country. Agents of the KHAD (the Afghanistan branch of the KGB) assassinated her in Quetta, Pakistan when she 30 years old. RAWA, the organization she founded, said of her: “Meena gave 12 years of her short but brilliant life to struggle for her homeland and her people. She had a strong belief that despite the darkness of illiteracy, ignorance of fundamentalism, and corruption and decadence of sell outs imposed on our women under the name of freedom and equality, finally that half of population will be awaken and cross the path towards freedom, democracy and women’s rights. The enemy was rightly shivering with fear by the love and respect that Meena was creating within the hearts of our people. They knew that within the fire of her fights all the enemies of freedom, democracy and women would be turned to ashes.”

On February 5th in 1848…

Belle Starr, a notorious American outlaw, was born Myra Maybelle Shirley in Carthage, Missouri. She grew up on a farm with her father John Shirley, the black sheep of a well-off Virginian family, and her mother Elizabeth Hatfield Shirley, a distant relative of the Hatfields known for the famous family feud. The family later moved to Carthage where her father owned an inn, blacksmith shop, and livery stable. Belle attended and graduated from the Carthage Female Academy, where she received a classical education and learned to play piano. During the Civil War the family moved to Scyene, Texas, where they became involved with several criminals, including Jesse James and the Younger brothers, who Belle had grown up with in Missouri. Belle didn’t get much involved with crime until after the Civil War, when she married a man named Jim Reed. Two years later, she gave birth to their daughter, Rosie Lee. Even then Belle had a  “strong sense of style,” which included wearing a velvet riding habit and a plumed hat and riding sidesaddle while carrying two pistols. Her husband Jim involved himself in criminal activity, at one point becoming wanted for murder and later falling in with the Starr clan (a Cherokee Indian family). In 1874 they committed a stagecoach robbery, and though there was no evidence she had taken part, a warrant was issued for Belle’s involvement. Later that year her husband died in Paris, Texas, where they had recently settled. In 1880 Belle married Sam Starr, a Cherokee man, and moved with his family to the Indian Territory. From them she learned to organize and plan for the rustlers, bootleggers, and horse thieves, and also to help hide them from the law. Belle’s own work gave her enough money that she could easily bribe the law to free her friends when needed. She faced arrest more than once, and served nine months at the Detroit House of Corrections for horse theft. In 1886 she escaped conviction on another charge of theft, but her husband wasn’t so lucky. In December of that year he got into a gunfight with an Officer, and died. Belle spent the next two years linked to a number of men. She eventually married a younger relative of her second husband, Jim July Starr, so that she could stay on Indian land. On February 3, 1889, she was riding home from a neighbor’s house when someone ambushed and shot her dead. Her death remains unsolved, though there are several different stories attached to it. One story reported that her own double barrel shotgun was used to kill her. Another claimed a man who followed her after she refused to dance with him did the deed. In another, one of her sharecroppers murdered her to prevent her turning him into authorities. The year of her death an author picked up and wrote her story as a dime novel, which made her famous as The Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James.


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.


11 Responses to “This Week in Feminist History”

  1. burningupasun says:

    Belle Starr is this week's: Your Fave is Problematic But Still Fascinating entry, obviously. Mostly because I like her style but also we always here stories of the male outlaws and not the women, of course.

    • littleinfinity says:

      Also filed under Problematic But Still Fascinating:

      Anna’s close friendships with several women, including Leni Riefenstahl (a German director)

      Calling Leni Riefenstahl "a German director" reads a bit like a euphemism, given her role as a well-known creator of Nazi propaganda. I'm sure that's not how you intended it… but no time like the present to start calling out Nazi sympathizers, right?

      • burningupasun says:

        I actually got the list of names of her "friends" from a biography about Anna and it definitely did not mention that Leni was a Nazi propaganda creator. It just called her a director. I hadn't personally heard her name before so I didn't make the connection either, or I 10000% wouldn't have just labeled her as a director, yikes.

        I'll ask Manka to edit it for me, thank you for pointing that out!

        • CleverManka says:

          Edited, and again, apologies for not pointing that out before I published it. I thought you were slipping it in as a subtle "everyone is problematic" thing. Next time I'll mention it before posting, just to make sure!

        • littleinfinity says:

          Thanks for making the change!

        • Rillquiet says:

          If anyone's interested in learning more about Riefenstahl, Dietrich, and, tangentially, Wong, there's a decent bio called Dietrich and Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin and a Century in Two Lives. Dietrich became a public opponent of the Nazi regime and supported America as part of the Hollywood morale wing during WWII. Riefenstahl denied until very late that she knew anything about the Reich's unsavory goals, claiming that she was a disinterested artist who wanted only to explore cinema and mountaineering and that her art was coopted by Hitler and Goebbels, but her assertions have been widely discredited.

  2. Rillquiet says:

    AMW is forever associated in my heart with the beloved Toast of glorious memory/fame.

    <img src=""&gt;

  3. Onymous says:

    not really 'historic' feminism but:
    Missy Elliot dropped a new single

    I'm not a huge fan of the song (I kept waiting for the drop/break down it did not happen) but the video continues Missy's glorious tradition of–as one toastie put it–oblique afrofuturism.

    • dancingcorvid says:

      Oblique Afrofuturism (clearly should be capitalized!) Is apparently also Very Shiny

    • Xolandra says:

      THAT"s why the song felt weird, it had no break! TY for the articulation!

      Everything else about it leaves me panting for more, it is so beautiful.

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