This Week in Feminist History

Clever Manka, · Categories: Feminist History

On April 24th in 2004…

…. Estée Lauder, the co-founder of Estée Lauder Companies, died at the age of 95. She was born Josephine Esther Mentzer on July 1, 1908, to Hungarian-Jewish immigrants. The nickname “Estee” (pronounced ES-tea) was a typical Jewish nickname for “Esther,” which was the name of her mother’s favorite Aunt. As a child she attended school and worked at her family’s hardware store along with her eight siblings. It was her first experience with retail, but she found her true passion when she began helping her uncle with his business. Dr. John Schotz, a chemist, owned New Way Laboratories, which sold creams, fragrances, and other beauty products. Through her uncle’s company she began to sell products to her friends and later to women at her local beauty parlor and salon. She met her husband, Joseph Lauter (later changed to Lauder), in her early 20s, and they married in January of 1930. Together they created a perfume company. Around that time Estée added the accent over her name (to make it appear French) and began pronouncing it the way her Hungarian father had once pronounced it (ES-tay). In 1953 she introduced her first fragrance, Youth-Dew. The perfume, which doubled as a bath oil, sold over 50,000 bottles in its first year. By 1984 there had been 150 million bottles sold. In 1998, Estée was the only woman on Time magazine’s list of the 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th century. She was also the first woman to receive the Chevalier Commendation (in 1978), and also received a Presidential Medal of Freedom. The company she founded with her husband is still popular today, with their son William Lauder as the executive chairman.

On April 25th in 1942…

Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson, an activist and administrator for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Ruby was the second oldest of seven children and grew up in Summerhill, a middle-class black neighborhood in Atlanta. In 1958 she graduated from Price High School, and in 1965 she earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Spelman College. Influenced by her experiences of racism, Ruby became involved in the civil rights movement. In April 1960, she was present at the founding of the SNCC during a mass meeting of college students at Shaw University. Ruby became a SNCC field representative and was responsible for organizing chapters of the organization in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee. As an activist she served 100 days in prison. Among them were 30 days for sit-in protests in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and 45 days for participating in the 1961 Freedom Rides. Ruby went on to serve as the assistant secretary in the Atlanta SNCC office, organized the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign, directed the Sojourner Truth Motor Fleet, and became the first and only woman to serve as the SNCC’s executive secretary. Only a year after beginning that position, she contracted terminal cancer. She died in October of 1967 at the age of twenty five.

On April 26th in 1476…
Simonetta Vespucci, an Italian noblewoman and the muse of several Renaissance painters, died at the age of 22. She was born Simonetta Cattaneo around 1453, in an area of Genoa that is now part of Liguria, in Italy. The exact location is unknown, but a poet named Politian once wrote that she was born “in that stern Ligurian district up above the seacoast, where angry Neptune beats against the rocks … There, like Venus, she was born among the waves.” Her father was a Genoese nobleman, and when she was 15 or 16 she married Marco Vespucci (a distant cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer). Simonetta moved to Florence to marry Marco, and there she became renowned for her beauty and popularity in the local court. She caught the eye of the Medici brothers, who let her hold her reception at one of their villas. It was in Florence that Sandro Botticelli and other painters discovered her as well. After Giuliano Vespucci entered a jousting tournament with a painting of Simonetta on his banner (inscribed La Sans Pareille, or “The Unparalleled One”), she became known as the most beautiful woman in Florence.  Simonetta died a year later at the age of 22, probably from tuberculosis. Reportedly the entire city of Florence mourned her death and thousands of people followed her coffin to the burial site. Before and after her death she was the subject of portraits by several artists, including Piero di Cosimo, and Sandro Botticelli. There are at least six paintings by Botticelli that Simonetta inspired, including Portrait of a Woman, and the famous Birth of Venus. Botticelli himself was buried at her feet, per his own request, 34 years after Simonetta’s death.

On April 27th in 1927…

… Civil rights leader and activist Coretta Scott King was born in Heiberger, Alabama. She graduated from Lincoln High School as valedictorian in 1945. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in music and education from Antioch College. After graduating, she received a fellowship to the Conservatory of Music in Boston, Mass. While in Boston, she met her husband, Martin Luther King Jr. In the early 1950s, Coretta earned her second degree in voice and violin from the Conservatory, and in 1953 she and Martin married. They moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where they got involved in civil rights activism. In supporting her husband and her devotion to the cause, Coretta sacrificed her dream of being a classical singer. Alongside her husband, Coretta participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, marked Ghana’s independence in 1957, served as a delegate for the Women’s Strike for Peace Conference in Geneva, and helped to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Though she is obviously associated with her husband’s work for the movement, Coretta was an activist in her own right. In January 1966, she criticized sexism in the movement with a statement in New Lady magazine: “Not enough attention has been focused on the roles played by women in the struggle. By and large, men have formed the leadership in the civil rights struggle but…women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.” Following her husband’s assassination, Coretta continued to work in activism. She founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which she ran until 1995, when she passed the reins to her son. She continued to work, however, writing articles and publishing a newspaper column. She fought for 15 years to have her husband’s birthday made a national holiday, and published a memoir titled My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1969. Coretta died in January 2006 at the age of 78.

On April 28th 1924…

Blossom Dearie, an American pianist and jazz singer, was born in East Durham, New York. Her birth name was actually Margrethe Blossom Dearie. She was supposedly given the middle name Blossom because a neighbor delivered peach blossoms the day of her birth. Blossom learned classical piano as a child, and in high school joined the band, after which she switched to playing jazz. Blossom moved to NYC after high school, dropped her first name, and began to sing in groups like the Blue Flames and the Blue Reys. In 1952 she moved to Paris and started the Blue Stars (later The Swingle Singers) with several others. In the late 50s and 60s, she returned to the United States and made six albums for Verve Records as a singer and pianist. She continued singing through the 70s, recording her own albums and establishing her own record label, Daffodil Records. One of her most well-known songs is Dusty Springfield, an ode to the British popstar. She also did voice acting for the series Schoolhouse Rock!, singing on several tracks. Blossom died in her sleep in February 2009 at the age of 84.

On April 29th in 1899…

Mary Petty, an illustrator for books and magazines, was born in New York City. Little is known about Mary’s childhood, except that her father was a professor and that she grew up in a brownstone house on West End Avenue. She graduated from the Horace Mann School in New York City, and was a self-taught artist. Mary started her career in illustration after she met Alan Dunn, a cartoonist for the New Yorker. She published her first drawing in the New Yorker on October 22, 1927 and was best known for the series of covers she did for that magazine, which featured her creation, the Peabody Family. The series was a lightly satirical portrayal of an upper class family, usually featuring Mrs. Peabody and her maid Fay. For thirty-nine years, Mary submitted work to the New Yorker, totaling 273 drawings and 38 covers. She also illustrated several books and published one that included all of her New Yorker cartoons. The New Yorker published her last cartoon on May 16, 1966. Mary’s health suffered after a mugger assaulted her in December of 1971. She never fully recovered, and died in a nursing home five years later, aged 76.

On April 30th in 1961…

Jessie Redmon Fauset, an American editor, mentor, and writer of the Harlem Renaissance, died at the age of 79. She was born on April 27, 1882. Her family didn’t have much money, but placed a high value on education. As a result, Jessie attended the prestigious Philadelphia High School for Girls and was the only African-American in her class. She wanted to attend Bryn Mawr College, but the school didn’t want to accept a black student. Instead they helped her get a scholarship to attend Cornell University, where she joined Phi Beta Kappa and graduated in 1905. She couldn’t work as a teacher in Philadelphia because of her race, so she worked in Baltimore and Washington D.C. While teaching, she submitted work to The Crisis; a magazine founded by W.E.B. Du Bois, who convinced her to become their literary editor in 1919. As an editor, Jessie encouraged a number of writers during the Harlem Renaissance, including Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes. She also wrote for the magazine, and co-edited The Brownies’ Book; a magazine published to teach African-American children about their heritage. Frustrated by the portrayals of black people in books written by white authors, Jessie decided to write a novel. There Is Confusion (1924), her first novel, featured African-American middle-class characters, which was rare for the time. Jessie left The Crisis in 1926, but couldn’t find work in publishing because of her race. She went back to teaching, during which time she also published three more novels: Plum Bun (1929), The Chinaberry Tree (1931) and Comedy: American Style (1933). Her middle-class characters still faced racism and prejudice, among other issues. Some praised her for her portrayal of a different aspect of African-American lives, but others criticized the settings of her novels. Her work slowed after two less successful (and final) novels. Jessie is perhaps better known for helping to develop many prominent authors of the Harlem Renaissance, though she was a prolific writer on her own.

Amy is a former literature major with a penchant for the past and a tendency to wonder why popular history involves so many boring white men. 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.


4 Responses to “This Week in Feminist History”

  1. Absotively says:

    This is excellent as usual!

    But it does have a typo that confused me a little bit, in the year in "She founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which she ran until 1955, when she passed the reins to her son."

    From the Wikipedia reference, it looks like the year should be 1995.

  2. Heathered says:

    I knew it would be a good day at my health food store gig if someone was playing Blossom Dearie. She's so deliciously New York-y.

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