This Week in Feminist History

Guest Post, · Categories: Feminist History

On July 24th in 1866…

Mary Bartelme, an American lawyer, suffragist, and judge, was born Chicago, Illinois. After graduating from a teachers’ college and working as a teacher for five years, she decided to enroll in law school. She enrolled at Northwestern University School of Law at the age of 25, and by the age of 28, she was a member of the Illinois Bar. A few years later, Mary was the first woman named a Cook County Public Guardian, an office responsible for providing attorney and guardian services for abused and abandoned children. Her career was the perfect place for a woman whose main focus was advocating for children, especially girls, in a society that often neglected them. The children she helped called her “Mother Barthelme” or “Suitcase Mary,” for her efforts to give every girl in her care a new suitcase filled with clean clothes before she sent them to their foster homes. Rather progressive for her time, Mary encouraged parents to be more open with their daughters about sex education. (Talk about sex? To girls? Shocking!) Taking her support of girls and young women to higher levels, she convened a special Girls’ Court in 1913. The court contained all female personnel and heard cases for delinquent or dependent girls. When some of these girls weren’t able to go home to their families for a variety of reasons, including prostitution, she opened three Mary Clubs rather than send them to state institutions. Unfortunately, the first two clubs, opened in 1914 and 1916, only accepted white girls. Her third club, which opened in 1921, finally allowed girls of color as well. In time, over 2,000 girls went through the group homes. Later, in 1923, Mary won the election for Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County. She was the first woman elected as a high jurisdiction judge in the state. Mary retired in June of 1933 and moved to California, where she took on speaking engagements about improving the juvenile justice system. She died in July 1954 at the age of 88. Her will stated that instead of flowers, mourners should donate to the Mary Clubs in her honor.

On July 25th in 1923…

… Actress and comedian Estelle Getty was born Estelle Scher in New York City, New York, the daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants. Most people know her as the delightful Sophia Petrillo, from Golden Girls, but Estelle got her start in Yiddish theater and doing comedian routines at the Catskills borscht belt resorts. (Side-note: If you’re unfamiliar with borscht belt resorts, think Dirty Dancing. These resorts were the inspiration for the Kellerman Resort.) Estelle unfortunately struggled for over 40 years to have a successful career. The work she got was sporadic, but it did include a role in Torch Song Trilogy’s original Broadway run. Her big break came when she was cast in Golden Girls. She was 62 at the time and was, in fact, a year younger than Beatrice Arthur, who played her daughter. She received seven Emmy nominations (once each season) for her role on the show and won the award in 1988. During her time on the show, she wrote an autobiography titled: If I Knew Then, What I Know Now… So What? After her role on the show, Estelle did several guest appearances on popular shows at the time, including The Nanny, Touched by an Angel, Fantasy Island, Mad About You, Blossom, and Cagney & Lacey. She also acted in several films, albeit very few that were well-known. In the early 200s, doctors diagnosed Estelle with Lewy Body Dementia, from which she soon deteriorated. She died of Dementia with Lewy Bodies in July of 2008, three days shy of her 85th birthday.

On July 26th in 1906…

Irena Iłłakowicz, a Polish second Lieutenant and intelligence agent, was born Irena Morzycka in Berlin, Germany. She moved with her family to Finland after the October Revolution, only returning to the new Second Polish Republic after the end of the First World War. Irena continued to travel for her education. She studied first in Poland and then at Grenoble University in France. In Paris, she met and married Aris Zangenah, the son of the prince of Iran, and lived with him for some time in a palace in Persia. Being away from her family was torture to Irena, so after two years she left her husband (with his permission) and went to Teheran, where Polish diplomats helped to bring her back to Poland. A few years later she returned to Paris, where she met and married Jerzy Olgierd Iłłakowicz. When the Germans invaded Poland in October 1939, Irena joined the Polish resistance movement. A polyglot who spoke seven languages (Polish, French, English, Persian, Finnish, German and Russian), she was the perfect candidate to conduct reconnaissance and gather information. The resistance sent Irena to Berlin to work with a subsection there. Within the next couple of years, the Germans destroyed her section of the resistance, leading to her arrest by the Gestapo in October of 1942. Despite their harsh interrogation, she never cracked, and also never used the vial of cyanide provided to her by her organization. Her husband arranged a scheme to help her escape, bribing a guard to send her with a group of non-political prisoners and then sending in a group of fighters dressed in Gestapo uniforms to free her. Irena returned and continued to work for the intelligence. She and her husband separated again when the Polish military sent him to London and she was not allowed to join him. If she had been, she might have survived. Unfortunately, while he was gone, she received an unexpected summons to what the message claimed was an important meeting. Though she was worried enough to ask a friend to tell her resistance contact if she didn’t return, Irena nonetheless went to the meeting. She never returned. Her husband came home to search for her and found her body in an infirmary. Her murderers were never caught or named. Irena’s family buried her under her false name, Barbara Zawisza, and attended her funeral disguised as cemetery workers in order to thwart potential Gestapo agents, who would come to funerals to identify family members. Her mother was not able to place Irena’s true name on her gravestone until five years later. The National Armed Forces of Poland posthumously awarded her the Krzyż Narodowego Czynu Zbrojnego (Cross of the National Armed Forces) in 1955, but outside of Poland her story is not very well know. Though why no one has decided to make a movie about a woman who gives up life married to a Prince and living in a palace to become a spy and resistance agent, I have no idea.

On July 27th in 1875…

… American educator, editor, librarian, and politician Mary Kryszak was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She attended St. Mary’s Academy, the Spencerian Business College, and finally the University of Wisconsin. While married and caring for three children, Mary worked in turn as a school teacher, music teacher, bookkeeper, librarian, and newspaper editor. She was also an assistant manager and bookkeeper for the Nowiny Polskie, a daily Polish language newspaper, before becoming managing editor of a weekly Polish women’s magazine named Glos Polek. With her three children now grown, and her marriage recently dissolved by divorce, Mary decided to get into politics. In 1928, Mary ran against Republican Assemblyman Louis Plewczynski, who represented the Eighth Milwaukee County district. During the race, several stories ran about her in the national press. Despite her long career and her thorough education, the articles about her were sexist (not surprising), and included ridiculous tidbits such as this: “Mrs. Kryszak ‘takes in’ hemstitching work at home when not engaged in lawmaking.” The more things change, the more things stay the same, right? Despite the sexist coverage, Mary won the local election and unseated the incumbent. She was not only the first woman elected to the legislature in that county but also the first female Democrat elected to any state office in Wisconsin. While in the legislature, she worked on committees for public welfare, and education. She died on July 16th, 1945, at the age of 69.

On July 28th in 1855…

Louisine Havemeyer—a philanthropist, art collector, and feminist—was born Louisine Waldron Elder in New York City. Louisine’s deeper interest in art began when she and her family traveled to Europe following their father’s death. Louisine and one of her sisters, Addie, joined their cousin’s sister at the home of Mme. Del Sarte, the widow of famous art teacher François Del Sarte. During that time, Louisine met Mary Cassatt, an American painter who became Louisine’s mentor and encouraged her to start acquiring art. Her first acquisition was a pastel painting by Edgar Degas. Louisine and Mary became lifelong friends, and when Louisine married Henry O. Havemeyer, she brought on Mary as an advisor to help them create their art collection. It was through Mary that Louisine built a relationship with several Impressionist Artists, including Mone, Degas, Manet, and Pissarro. Mary also painted several pastels of Louisine and her children, including this portrait with her daughter Electra. Louisine built what may have been the best collection of art in America, at least at the time. She filled her home in New York with art by all the aforementioned Impressionists, as well as work by Rembrandt, El Greco, and Corot. But Louisine was far more than an art collector. After her husband died in 1907, she became a member of the suffrage movement. She offered up her collection to the cause, putting it on display at a gallery and raising money for the suffrage movement several times. Along with Alice Paul, she founded the National Woman’s Party in 1913 and gave Alice the financial backing to start several confrontational protests for the cause. The best known of these was the 1913 National Suffrage Parade on the eve of President Wilson’s inauguration, as well as the picketing of the White House during the war. Louisine herself marched several times down Fifth Avenue in support of the cause, did a nationwide speaking tour that ended with an address at Carnegie Hall to a standing-room-only audience, and participated in an attempt to burn an effigy of President Wilson outside the White House in 1919. Louisine accomplished all of this when she was in her late 50s and 60s. She died in 1929 at the age of 74. Her will, as well as a later bequest by her children, left much of her collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

On July 29th in 1846…

… German pianist and composer Sophie Menter was born in Munich, Germany. The daughter of a cellist and a singer, she studied music from a very young age. Siegmund Lebert and Friedrich Niest were her mentors in piano, and by the time she was 15 she was performing in public. Soon she began to travel, performing in Stuttgart, Switzerland, and in Frankfurt. Her skill and popularity gave her license to perform music that many others considered untouchable. A prime example w in Vienna in 1869, where she performed her interpretation of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto. 12 years earlier, the piece had premiered in the same city to disastrous effect. Later, Liszt was one of Sophie’s mentors and teachers, and she continued to perform his work to acclaim. In fact, one of her most popular pieces was a composite of his three Hungarian Rhapsodies (2, 6, and 12), along with smaller pieces of others. Liszt considered her his favorite student—no wonder, considering she brought several of his pieces to fame where he had failed. Through her career, other composers and critics described Sophie as “a blend of virtuosity and elegance,” “[the producer of] an effect of magnificence,” and “irresistibly impetuous.” All in all, she was one of the greatest piano virtuosos of the time and inspired composers, musicians, and artists alike. Russian painter Ilya Repin once painted her portrait, and it would be a lie to claim that her position and smirk in the painting did not inspire this write up. She died in Stockdorf in 1918, at the age of 71.

On July 30th in 1956…

Anita Hill, an American attorney and professor, was born in Lone Tree, Oklahoma. Her great-grandparents and her maternal grandfather were born into slavery, but by the time of her birth, her parents were working as farmers in Oklahoma. She was the youngest of their 13 children. After graduating valedictorian of her high school, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Oklahoma State and a law degree from Yale Law. Anita began her law career at a Washington, D.C. firm, before becoming an attorney-advisor to Clarence Thomas, then Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. In fact, most know her name due to the sexual harassment suit she filed against Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, whom President George H. W. Bush nominated to the Supreme Court. Someone leaked Anita’s private FBI interview about him to the press, and the Senate reopened hearings. They called Anita to testify about the harassment, during which they questioned her, judged her, and made her describe in detail the harassment she faced. This included pointed, offensive commentary from the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee (shocker!) about why she had chosen to follow him to a second job, despite the fact that he had already begun harassing her. Not only did the men questioning her indulge in their usual sexism and victim-blaming, several dipped into conspiracy theories as well. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch accused her of colluding with “slick lawyers” and other groups to ruin his chances of becoming a Justice. But of course, the patriarchy won out, as usual, thanks especially to a private deal between Republicans and, of all people, Joe Biden. (Yep! Beloved, ice cream fan and former Vice President Joe Biden.) Thomas became a Supreme Court Justice despite Anita’s testimony. Anita’s efforts were thankfully not in vain. After her testimony, President George H. W. Bush stopped his opposition of a bill that allowed harassment victims to seek back pay, reinstatement, and federal damages. A year later, EEOC harassment complaints were up 50 percent from the previous year, and private companies had begun developing anti-sexual harassment training programs. Anita’s testimony and her treatment by the committee also inspired the election of a wave of women to Congress in 1992, and the mobilization of a wave of black feminists. This wave included an attempt by a feminist group to endow a professorship at the University of Oklahoma Law School in her honor. The state’s conservative lawmakers threw a hissy fit, first demanding Anita’s resignation, then trying to prohibit out-of-state donations, and finally trying to literally close down the school. Criminy. Anita resigned under pressure and the University defunded the professorship without ever having filled the position. Anita went on to work at the University of California: Berkeley, and joined the faculty at Brandeis University. Over the years since, she has spoken about race and gender issues on national programs like Meet the Press, 60 Minutes, and Face the Nation. She has written an autobiography, published newspaper articles, contributed to academic publications, and co-edited a book about the Hill-Thomas hearings. She is currently 60 years old and still working as a professor and speaker.

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.

One Response to “This Week in Feminist History”

  1. redheadfae says:

    I am going to have to read Estelle's autobio now.
    ..and someone needs to write that screenplay for Irena, for sure.

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