This Week in Feminist History

Guest Post, · Categories: Feminist History

On March 27th in 1724…

Jane Colden, the first female botanist in the U.S., was born in New York City. One of five children, Jane’s parents had her educated at home and her father, a trained physician, gave her botanical training. As a child she learned to take impressions of leaves, and wrote descriptions of plants using Carl Linnaeus’ system of classification. From 1753 to 1758, Jane worked to catalog over 300 species of plants from the lower Hudson River Valley. She developed her skill in illustration by penning ink impressions and sketches of the leaves, often adding in medicinal uses in notes beside her drawings. She sent some of her drawings to botanist Peter Collinson, who later wrote to fellow botanist John Bartram that he believed she was the “first lady that has attempted anything of this nature.” Through her father’s contacts, Jane corresponded with a number of botanists and naturalists of the time. She also discovered and named several plants, but her discoveries were usually claimed by the men to whom she sent them following her discovery. One plant which she named “Fibraurea” or “Coldenella” instead became “Helleborus” after she sent it to Linnaeus. Jane married in 1759 and due to a lack of evidence otherwise, it seems likely that she stopped her botanical work upon her marriage. Seven years later she died in childbirth at the age of 41. Jane was never formally recognized for her discoveries and accomplishments while she was alive. The British Museum holds her original manuscript full of the flora of New York.

On March 28th in 1927…

Vina Mazumdar—an Indian academic, activist, and feminist—was born Vina Majumdar in Kolkata, India. She was the youngest of five children in a Bengali household. Vina was very focused on her studies and attended Banaras Hindu University’s Women’s College, and Asutosh College at the University of Calcutta. While attending Ashutosh, she organized in support of the Rama Rao Committee, a group that sought to expand the inheritance rights of daughters. Later, Vina attended St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she earned a doctorate of philosophy. Vina worked as a lecturer at several institutions before joining the Committee on the Status of Women in India in the early 1970s. The Committee worked to report on the issues faced by women in India, including the rise in poverty and the decline of the sex ratio. The report helped turn the tide of the women’s movement in India, of which Vina took part. She later worked as the Director for the Programme of Women’s Studies with the Indian Council of Social Science Research. In 1980 she co-founded the Centre of Women’s Development Studies in New Delhi. Under her leadership the CWDS worked to organize peasant women in West Bengal and eventually influenced women’s studies in India. Vina was also a founding member of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies. While involved in the women’s rights movements, she  continued her work in academia. Many of her published papers focused on women in India and the women’s rights movement. She died on May 30, 2013, at the age of 86.

On March 29th in 1918…

Pearl Bailey, an American actress of vaudeville, stage, film, and television, was born in Virginia. Pearl’s first performance was at an amateur contest at Pearl Theatre when she was fifteen years old. Later, she won another competition at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem and decided to stay in the entertainment industry. She began dancing and singing in black nightclubs in Philadelphia, before expanding to the rest of the East Coast. During World War II she performed for the troops with the USO. After, she moved to New York, where she performed alongside other entertainers and eventually made her Broadway debut in St. Louis Woman. Pearl toured, recorded albums, and continued to perform both on stage and on the screen. On stage she was best known for playing Dolly Levi in an all-black version of Hello Dolly!. The touring version of the show made it to Broadway due to its extreme success. On Broadway it sold out again and again, and Pearl won a special Tony Award for the role. On the screen she hosted her own variety show, and also voiced several animated characters, including one for Disney’s The Fox and the Hound. Along with her acting and singing career, Pearl returned to school and earned her theology degree from Georgetown University when she was 67 years old. In her later career she was a spokesperson for Duncan Hines, and wrote several books. In 1975 President Ford appointed her a special ambassador to the UN, and in 1988, President Reagan awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Pearl died on August 17, 1990 at the age of 72.

On March 30th in 1806…

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire and an English socialite, author, and activist, died at the age of 48. She was born Miss Georgiana Spencer on June 7, 1757, and was the oldest child of John Spencer (later Earl Spencer). She became the Honorable Georgiana Spencer in 1761 when her father became a Viscount, and then Lady Georgiana Spencer in 1765 when he became an Earl. On her seventeenth birthday in 1774 she married William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire and then society’s most eligible bachelor. He was eight years her senior and one of the richest and most powerful men in the country. Unlike Georgiana (now Duchess), who had grown up in a very emotional and loving family, the Duke was incredibly reserved. He also frequently indulged in adultery and had little patience for his wife, especially when she continued to fail to produce an heir for him. He expected a lot of Georgiana. First he required her to take care of his illegitimate daughter (born before their marriage). Later he began a sexual relationship with her best friend, Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster and moved the woman into their house. Georgiana was emotionally dependent on Bess, and the deep emotion between them caused even more complications within the love triangle. Their relationship may have been more than just a friendship, but it’s also possible (depending on the source) that Bess engineered the entire relationship in order to get involved with the Duke. Though the Duke’s adultery was highly public, it was not considered acceptable for Georgiana to do the same. Regardless, she had an affair with Charles Grey (later Earl Grey) and conceived his child. She gave their daughter, Eliza Courtney, over to his family. (Georgiana would visit her in secret whenever she could, and Eliza in time had her own daughter, whom she named Georgiana.) Her complex and frustrating personal life led Georgiana to delve into her passions, which included gambling, writing, fashion, and politics. Though she was well-known as a socialite in English society (her friends included not only the Prince of Wales and his lover, but also Marie Antoinette of France), she was also deeply involved in the politics of the time as a supporter for the Whig party. Georgiana was the first woman to appear so actively on the political scene, and she was incredibly influential. She inspired women to join and support the Whig party, appearing at speeches, holding parties, and even walking the streets to meet face-to-face with commoners. Despite the tendency of the press to circulate offensive rumors and crude cartoons of her political activities, she was instrumental in the elections of both Charles James Fox and Lord Hood. Eventually she retired from public political support, but continued to work behind the scenes. Georgiana also composed poetry and wrote several novels, and had an interest in scientific experiments and the collection of crystals. After drawing back from politics to focus on her children, especially her oldest daughter, Georgiana died in March 1806, at the age of 48. Only after her death was the true amount of her gambling debt (kept hidden from her husband all her life) revealed to him. Upon discovering how much she owed (what would now equal almost four million pounds), he said “Is that all?” A short while after her death, he married Lady Elizabeth Foster. Georgiana’s involvement in politics, however, remained a pioneering effort in women’s involvement in politics.

On March 31st in 1945…

Harriet Boyd Hawes, a pioneering American archaeologist, died at the age of 73. Harriet was born in Boston, Massachusetts on October 11, 1871. Her father raised her and her four brothers after the death of their mother. Harriet attended Smith College in Northampton, Mass, where she graduated in 1892 with a degree in Classics. Her specialization was in Greek, and she followed that passion to study at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece, where she also worked as a nurse during the Greco-Turkish War. Harriet wanted to study archaeology, but the professors tried to convince her  to become an academic librarian instead. Refusing to cave, Harriet left and went on her own to search the island of Crete for archaeological remains. In the spring of 1900 she led an excavation at Kavousi and discovered Late Minoan IIIC, Early Archaic, and Early Iron Age settlements and cemeteries at two sites. She also dug a test trench at Azoria, one of the most important post-Minoan sites in the area. Later in 1900 she returned to the U.S. to teach Greek Archaeology at Smith College, where she earned her M.A. In between teaching at Smith during the next few years, she left on several excursions, including one where she discovered and excavated a Minoan town in Gournia, Crete. She was the first woman in Greece to direct a major field project, and led a crew of over a hundred workers. She was also the first woman to speak in front of the Archaeological Institute of America. In time, Harriet became a recognized authority on the Crete settlements.

On April 1st in 1865…

Irene Morales Infante—a Chilean nurse and soldier—was born in in Santiago, Chile, in a barrio on the Mapocho River. When she was 11, her father married her to an older man. Her husband died less than a year later, and her mother passed away around the same time, leaving Irene without a family. She sold almost all her possessions to buy a ticket on a boat to a port town in Antofagasta; a Chilean port town then under the control of Bolivia. There she met Santiago Pizarro, a Chilean man in his 30s. They married when Irene was 13. Just a few months later the Bolivian government had Pizarro tried and executed for killing a Bolivian soldier during a drunken fight. Irene found his body by the side of the railway tracks; she took a ring from his finger and wore it for the rest of her life. The Chilean population of the area, who hated the Bolivian government, protested his death. The following year, Chilean military forces entered the region and began the War of the Pacific. Disguising herself as a man, Irene enlisted as a soldier to avenge her husband. Unfortunately someone spotted her deception almost immediately. Rather than make her leave, however, the Captain of the forces allowed her to stay on as an unofficial nurse and cantinière. Irene wasn’t supposed to join in the fighting, but did so anyway. She fought at the Battle of Pisagua, and the Battle of San Francisco, both in November. The men she fought with admired both her skill with her rifle, and her talent at nursing after the battles. Despite fighting on the side of Chile, she also risked her life several times to save Peruvian soldiers from abuse by her fellow troops. The Commander-in-chief of the Chilean military, General Manuel Baquedano, heard of what Irene had accomplished and summoned her to a meeting. He officially gave her the rank and pay of a sergeant, and though she wore the uniform of a cantinière still, she continued to fight alongside the other soldiers. At the Battle of Tacna, she was one of the first to ride into the city; raising her rifle as she rode in on a horse, and crying out “Viva Chile!” She fought at the Battles of Arica, Chorillos, and Miraflores, and was among those who entered Lima after the capture of the city. Despite those who spoke out against her unwomanly activities, she remained in the army until the end of the war. Afterwards she returned home to her birthplace where she was practically unknown. She suffered from illness for several years before dying anonymously in a hospital in August 1890 at only 25 years old. Her actions in the war weren’t recognized until over 40 years after her death, when Col. Enrique Phillips wrote an article dedicated to her.

On April 2nd in 1788…

Wilhelmine Reichard, the first female German balloonist, was born in Brunswick, Germany. In 1807, Wilhelmine married Johann Gottfried Reichard, a physicist and chemist. Johann made his own gas balloons and was the second person in Germany to fly in one. Wilhelmine made her first solo flight in April of 1811, reaching 16,000 feet and landing safely 20.8 miles away. Though she wasn’t the first woman to fly a balloon in Germany—that honor went to Sophie Blanchard, a Frenchwoman—she was the first German woman. During her third flight in 1811 she got over 25,000 feet high and the altitude made her lose consciousness. She crashed in the forest, but some local farmers rescued her. She didn’t fly again for another six years, but continued after that, making flights in Prague and Vienna in an effort to raise money for her husband to buy a chemical factory. Her last flight was in October 1820 at the Oktoberfest in Munich. The following year, the chemical factory her husband purchased opened. They managed the factory together, and after his death in 1844 Wilhelmine managed it on her own, until she died in 1848 at the age of 59.


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.

2 Responses to “This Week in Feminist History”

  1. burningupasun says:

    If you're ever looking for a book to read about Georgiana Cavendish, highly recommend Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman. I really enjoyed it. (I may have gone through a period of reading a lot of non-fic from that era.)

  2. SquirrelGirl says:

    Inspired by this weekly round up of women, I bought a book (Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls) for my god-daughter and her twin sister's birthday in May (they'll be 6). I've been finding these history lessons really informative and inspiring. The book I ordered has 1-page bios of 100 women in history. I figured I'd start'em young!

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