This Week in Feminist History

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On February 27th in 1933…

… Franklin Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor, making her the first woman in the U.S. Cabinet. Frances graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1902 with a B.A. in chemistry and physics, and then from Columbia University in 1910 with a Master’s in political science. Between her studies she worked as a teacher at several institutions and also volunteered at settlement houses like Hull House in Chicago. Frances was working as the head of the New York Consumers League when she witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The fire prompted her to leave the NYCL and instead become the executive secretary for the Committee on Safety of the City of New York. Frances held several positions in New York, including as a member of the Industrial Commission in 1919, and the inaugural Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor in 1929. In these positions, Frances was responsible for reducing the workweek of women to 48 hours, expanding investigations at factories, and pushing for unemployment insurance laws and minimum wage. She held the position as the Secretary of Labor for 12 years, the longest of any U.S. Secretary of Labor. As a result of being the first woman in the U.S. Cabinet she was also the first woman to be part of the presidential line of succession. As the Secretary, Frances helped write the New Deal legislation (including its minimum wage laws). As the chairwoman of the President’s Committee of Economic Security in 1934 she helped create the Civilian Conservation Corps (a work relief program for unemployed single men) and supported the creation of a sister organization, the She-She-She Camps, proposed by Eleanor Roosevelt. After her time as Secretary ended, she served on the U.S. Civil Service Commission at the behest of President Truman until 1952 when she resigned after her husband’s death. She also published a sympathetic memoir of FDR’s administration: The Roosevelt I Knew. Frances continued to work as a teacher and lecturer until her death in 1965. She was 85 years old. The U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. renamed their headquarters as the Frances Perkins Building in her honor.

On February 28th in 1813…

Queen Pōmare IV of Tahiti was born Aimata Pōmare IV Vahine-o-Punuateraʻitua in Pare, Tahiti. Her name “Aimata” meant “eye-eater,” after an old custom where the ruler would eat the eye of their defeated foe. Aimata was the daughter of Pōmare II, and became ruler at the age of 14 when her brother, Pōmare III, died. During Aimata’s rule in 1843, France declared Tahiti a French protectorate. Aimata fought back against the invasion as best she could, petitioning the British for help and exiling herself to Raiatea in protest. The French-Tahitian War that followed lasted from 1843 to 1847 and eventually the Tahitian forces were defeated. Due to the war settlement, Queen Pōmare’s allies in Bora Bora, Raiatea, and Huahine remained independent but Tahiti stayed a French protectorate (France could not annex the island because of pressure from Great Britain, who had admonished France but never provided support to Tahiti). Eventually Aimata caved and ruled under the French administration from 1847 until her death in 1877. Her son took the throne after her. He was the product of her second marriage; Aimata divorced (“repudiated”) her first husband because he was sterile. She had ten children with her second husband. Her son, Pōmare V, reigned until 1880 when he gave Tahiti to France, and lived afterwards on a pension from the French government.

On March 1st in 1863…

Naomi Anderson, a black suffragist and poet, was born Naomi Bowman in Michigan City, Indiana to free black parents. The Bowmans were one of only two black families in Michigan City, and as such there was no school for black children, so her mother hired private tutors for her daughter. Thus was Naomi introduced to segregation and discrimination and the methods of overcoming them at the same time. Eventually the all-white community noticed Naomi’s talent for poetry and granted her access to an all-white school at the age of twelve. Though her mother believed education was important and dreamed of her daughters graduating from Oberlin, her father didn’t have the same priorities, and kept Naomi from going to college after her mother passed away. Naomi volunteered with several groups, originally those with a religious bent, including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Later she began to speak out about women’s suffrage. She was a speaker at the first Woman’s Rights Convention in 1869, where she gave a “fiery, controversial speech.” (Unfortunately I cannot seem to find the content of said speech anywhere.) Between her work as a writer and speaker, she also supported her sick first husband and their children by working as a hairdresser, an organizer and manager of a black orphanage, and then as a teacher. While living in Wichita, Kansas with her second husband, she helped to campaign for one of the first state suffrage referendums for women. Around that same time she continued to write, speaking out to criticize whites who viewed blacks as foreigners as well as blacks who wanted equality but also separatism, saying in part: “We are one and the same people, made so by the strongest ties of nature, bone and flesh of every nationality of white men in this country… We are not Negroes, but Americans, because we were born here in America.” One of Naomi’s strengths was in speaking to once-enslaved black men and helping them to understand that black women would remain enslaved until they could vote. She continued her suffrage work after moving to San Francisco, where she received praise from noted suffragists. After around 1895 though, her name did not appear in proceedings for the American Woman Suffrage Association and there is little documentation about her later life. The exact date of her death is unknown.

On March 2nd in 1831…

Metta Victoria Fuller Victor—a pioneer of the “dime novel” and the detective novel—was born in Erie, Pennsylvania. Metta was the third of five children born to Adonijah and Lucy Fuller. The family moved to Wooster, Ohio in 1839; it was there that Metta and her older sister Frances (also a writer) attended a female seminary. Both sisters published stories in the local newspaper and then the Home Journal before moving together to New York City in 1848. Metta later married Orville James Victor, an editor and publisher who happened to be the brother of Frances’ husband. At first Metta worked as an editor for the Beadle and Company monthly Home magazine, as well as the Cosmopolitan Art Journal. Later she pioneered the dime novel genre by writing them (anonymously, or under numerous pen names) for her husband’s Beadle series. Beadle published the first, “Alice Wilde, the Raftsman’s Daughter” in 1860. All together she wrote and published over a hundred dime novels, though none under her own name. One of these was her most popular, Maum Guinea, and her Plantation “Children,” which both antislavery activists and President Abraham Lincoln publicly praised. Under the pen name Seeley Regester she also published The Dead Letter in 1866; which is one of the first American detective novels. She died of cancer in June 1885 at the age of 54.

On March 3rd in 1873…

… The U.S. Congress enacted the Comstock Law, which made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” books through the postal mail. Officially known as the the Act for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use,” Congress instituted the law partially in reflection of an anti-pornography movement at the time. However it was frequently used to prevent distribution of contraceptive devices as well as information about them, or any information about sexuality and STDs. This included brochures about birth control, or even advertisements for pills that helped with the “obstruction of monthly periods.” During the height of the law (and Anthony Comstock’s power) the law was even used a few times to prevent the mailing of anatomy textbooks.The only organized group that continually resisted the laws was the Free Love Movement, who believed the law represented attempts to sexually oppress women. One of the methods of breaking the law came after the courts charged both Margaret Sanger and her husband William Sanger (also proponents of free love) in 1915 for distributing information about contraceptives. The court convicted Margaret but she appealed and had it reversed on the grounds that contraception functioned as prevention and a cure for disease and thus promoting it was legal. Years later in 1932, her husband purposefully arranged the delivery of diaphragms from Japan to a friendly doctor in NYC. When the postal service confiscated them as illegal, he filed a lawsuit, and in 1936 a federal appeals court ruled that the federal government couldn’t stop doctors providing contraception to patients. The Comstock Law itself wasn’t terminated until 1957, but contraception laws remained in several states, including Connecticut and Massachusetts. In 1965 the courts struck down the laws for married people, but it wasn’t until 1972 that the ruling extended to single people as well.

On March 4th in 1913…

Marie-Louise-Taos Amrouche was born in Tunis, Tunisia. Under the nom de plume of Marguerite-Taos, she was the first Algerian woman to publish a novel. Marguerite-Taos had six brothers, and was born to a family of Kable Roman Catholic converts who had moved to Tunisia after their conversion to escape persecution. Her mother, Fadhma Aït Mansour, was a famous Kabyle singer and later had a deep impact on her daughter’s literary style. Marguerite-Taos attended school in Tunis and then studied at the École Normale at Sèvres in France in 1935. The following year she and her oldest brother began to collect and interpret Kabyle songs along with their mother. Marguerite received a scholarship to research ties between Berber and Spanish songs at the Casa Velazquez in Spain. She published her first novel, Jacinthe noir, in 1947. It was autobiographical and was the first novel ever published in French by a North African woman. In 1966 she published a collection of poems and tales known as La Grain magique. Like her mother she also sang in Kabyle; her first album in 1967 was a collection of traditional Kabyle songs translated into French, known as Chants berbères de Kabylie. In addition to recording a few other albums she was also a Berber activist, and helped to found the Académie berbère in 1966. She died in April 1976 at the age of 63.

On March 5th in 1948…

Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo writer known as a key figure in the Native American Renaissance, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Leslie has identified herself as a quarter Laguna Pueblo, as well as Anglo-American and Mexican-American. Though she grew up at the edge of the Laguna Pueblo reservation, she was not allowed to take part in any rituals. As a child her grandmother and great-grandmother cared for her during the day. Both were storytellers who told her the traditional stories of the Laguna people, teaching her their heritage as best they could. She once stated: “I am of mixed-breed ancestry, but what I know is Laguna.” She earned early acclaim for her short story “The Man to Send Rain Clouds,” which won a National Endowment for the Humanities Discover Grant. She is also well known for her Laguna Woman: Poems publication in 1974, which is a collection of short stories and poems written from 1968-1974. Some of her other works include Ceremony (1977), Storyteller (1981), the novel Almanac of the Dead (1991), and a collection of essays titled Yellow Woman and the Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today (1996). Leslie’s writing and poetry revolves around making people aware of the Laguna Pueblo culture as well as of white cultural imperialism, racism and women’s issues. Her books often feature the theme of characters trying to balance Native American traditions with modern America. Ceremony, a novel about a wounded WWII veteran with mixed-Laguna heritage, became popular after veterans of the Vietnam War embraced it. It is still featured on college syllabi and is one of the few pieces of Native American woman to receive book-length critical response. Leslie was the original recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Grant (now known as the MacArthur Genius Grant) in 1981, and also won the Native Writers’ Circle of the America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. She is currently living in Tucson, Arizona. Her most recently published work was The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir, published in 2010.

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.

7 Responses to “This Week in Feminist History”

  1. burningupasun says:

    I'm baaaaack, did you miss me? Haha. Also I had fun with this post. I did not know that a woman had been the first big dime novel writer, and was very excited about it.

  2. Heathered says:

    Yes, you were missed! I tend to read these posts on Tuesdays & always try to identify who the people in the photos are before reading, which really points out how necessary these history lessons are. Dime novels and eye eaters, what a world.

  3. beaucoup1314 says:

    Thank you for this

  4. ru_ri says:

    Welcome back! Hope you had a great trip. It's lovely to see another Monday Feminist History post–thank you!

  5. beaucoup1314 says:

    I am actually the old white lady who lives here. No, it is not a picture in your life – it is one in mine. I live a life talking to young people.

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