This Week in Feminist History

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On September 18th in 1587…

Francesca Caccini, composer of the oldest opera by a woman, was born in Florence, Italy. She had a wide education in Latin, Green, literature, and mathematics, alongside her training in music with her father, who was also a composer. In fact, her first known public performance was singing works composed by her father. She performed with many members of her family before the Medici court hired her as a performer, teacher, coach, and composer. She composed prolifically, writing a wide variety of songs and duets, most of which are no longer available. In 1625, she composed the music for a “comedy-ballet” known as La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina. She wrote the 75-minute opera for the crown prince of Poland, on his visit to the country. Though she composed many others, La liberazione is her only surviving stage work. It is also the oldest known opera composed by a woman. Francesca married twice; both husbands died early and left her a widow. She returned to service for the Medici’s, performing and composing for the women’s court before she left service at last in 1641. She vanished from public record after leaving court; as such, historians know little of her life after that time, including the year of her death.

On September 19th in 1887…

… American jazz blues musician Lovie Austin was born as Cora Taylor in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her name changed several times, first to Cora Calhoun (after her marriage as a teen to a movie house operator) and then again to Cora “Lovie” Austin (after her second marriage, to a vaudeville performer). Lovie attended Roger Williams University, as well as Knoxville College, studying music theory at both. She settled in Chicago and stayed there for the rest of her life. (She was often spotted driving around in a Stutz Bearcat that had leopard skin upholstery, which sounds absolutely fabulous.) Her career began in vaudeville, and singing or playing piano as an accompanist to blues singers like Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, Ethel Waters, and Ma Rainey. Later she formed her own band, the Blues Serenaders, which developed their own unique jazz sound. Lovie also composed and wrote music, including a “Down Hearted Blues,” which she co-wrote with Ma Rainey. (It later became a hit when Bessie Smith recorded it.) At the end of the classic blues era, Lovie began to work as a musical director at the Monogram Theater in Chicago. She stayed there for twenty years on and off, taking breaks during the war, when she allegedly worked as a security guard at a defense plant. She made her last record in 1961 when she became part of Riverside Records’ “Living Legends” series with Alberta Hunter with Lovie Austin’s Blues Serenaders. She died eleven years later in 1972, at the age of 84.

On September 20th in 2012…

Tereska Torrès,  a French writer who wrote the first paperback book featuring lesbian relationships, died at the age of 92. She was born Tereska Szwarc on September 3, 1920, to Polish-Jewish parents. In 1940, she fled the country when France surrendered to Nazi Germany. Then only 19, Tereska enlisted in the Volontaires Françaises, a women’s army corp run by Charles de Gaulle. Sometime in the next few years, Tereska married Georges Torrès. She was five months pregnant when her husband, a soldier with the 2nd Free French Armoured Division, died in battle. Tereska survived the war; in fact, she was one of the few women of the Volontaires Françaises that did survive. In 1947, she traveled alongside Meyer Levin while he filmed a documentary about Jewish refugees who fled Poland in an attempt to reach Palestine. They journeyed through Poland and Western Europe’s displaced persons camps, and to Israel, where British Forces briefly imprisoned her. The journal she kept about this time was later published in Germany. A year later, she and Meyer Levin married, and her new husband encouraged her to write about her experiences. Rather than publishing her actual diary, Tereska wrote and published a fictional account titled Women’s Barracks in 1950. The book was an instant success and the first paperback original bestseller. It sold over 2 million copies in the first five years. More importantly, the book featured lesbian relationships; the first of its kind to do so. Though the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials decried the book at the time (insert eye roll), many consider it to have inspired a wave of feminist and lesbian writing. Tereska continued to write for much of her life, finishing over 14 books. She published most in French and her husband translated them into English.

On September 21st in 1884…

Ethel Percy Andrus—the first woman high school principal in California—was born in San Francisco, California. She earned four degrees in total: a bachelor of philosophy from the University of Chicago, a bachelor of science from the Lewis Institute, and a master’s and doctorate from the University of Southern California. She began teaching after earning her first degree; at regular schools during the day and then offering classes at night to members of Hull House and Chicago Commons. After her family moved back to California, she started teaching at Santa Paula High School, and then Manual Arts High School. In 1916 she transferred to East Los Angeles High School—which she later renamed Abraham Lincoln High School—where she became principal at only 32 years old. Ethel was incredibly involved within her school, working on community-involvement programs, trying to help her students reach higher standards, and offering night-school programs for their parents. She did this all while continuing her own education. In 1944, Ethel retired from the high school to take care of her mother. As a result, her focus soon shifted to helping a different set of people. She began volunteering with the California Retired Teachers Association, and when she found out the depth of what retired educators were lacking (health insurance, pensions, etc) she founded the National Retired Teacher’s Association. At the time, there was no Medicare, and as a result, there was no national health care program for people over 65 years old. Ethel worked with insurance companies, pleaded with dozens of them before she finally found one that agreed to offer a health plan for NRTA members. She established the resulting insurance—which was so popular that non-educators wanted it as well—as AARP, in 1958. Ethel lived to the age of 82, dying in Long Beach, California, in July of 1967.

On September 22nd in 1904…

… The first female flight attendant, Ellen Church, was born in Cresco, Iowa. She graduated from Cresco High School and went on to study nursing. Ellen worked in a hospital in San Francisco as a registered nurse and was also trained and licensed as a pilot. Unfortunately, the manager of the local Boeing Air Transport (BAT) office wouldn’t hire her as a pilot, because of her gender. Ellen suggested as a compromise that the airlines should start putting nurses on all flights, to help calm down people who were afraid of flying. The manager of the BAT took her suggestion, and in 1930 he hired Ellen as the head stewardess and first ever flight attendant to actually fly. She, in turn, recruited seven other women to start on a three-month trial basis. The original guidelines for BAT’s “sky girls” included that they had to be registered nurses, but also had to be: “single, younger than 25 years old, weigh less than 115 pounds, and stand less than 5 feet, 4 inches tall.” Despite the somewhat ridiculous requirements, the flight attendants did a good amount of work and some manual labor and were well-paid (then) at a salary of $125 a month. Ellen’s first flight was on May 15, 1930, on a Boeing 80A that traveled from Oakland/San Francisco to Chicago. It was a 20-hour flight with 13 stops and 14 passengers. Over the next few years, other airlines followed and began hiring their own flight attendants. Ellen, unfortunately, had to retire after 18 months, when a car accident caused her too much injury. She went back to school and earned a bachelor’s in nursing. By 1936, she was the supervisor of pediatrics at Milwaukee County Hospital. A few years later, she served in World War II as a captain and flight nurse in the Army Nurse Corps, where she earned an Air Medal. Ellen moved to Indiana after the war and went on to become director of nursing at Union Hospital. She died in August of 1965 as the result of a horse riding accident.

On September 23rd in 1869…

Mary Mallon,  better known as “Typhoid Mary,” was born in Cookstown, Ireland. She immigrated to the U.S. when she was 15 years old, coming to live with her aunt and uncle, and taking a job as a cook. Over seven years, from 1900 to 1907, Mary worked for seven families in the New York area. Generally, somewhere between half to all the members of each of these families developed typhoid during her time in their homes. Each time people began to get sick, Mary would move on to a new job, with the outbreaks following in her wake. Her role in these illnesses didn’t come to light until one of the families hired a typhoid researcher in 1906. George Soper traced down a cook the family had recently hired and discovered that she had worked with several other families, which had all suffered typhoid outbreaks. In time he tracked her down—a tough feat as she often left no forwarding information—and attempted to inform her of her role in the illnesses. As an “asymptomatic carrier” (the first identified for this disease), Mary showed no symptoms of the illness. As a result, she refused to believe that she was ill, let alone that she could be the cause of all these other illnesses. Perhaps she didn’t understand, or she thought they were blaming her because of her status as a low-income cook among more well-off families. In the end, the NYC Health Department sent a female physician to speak with her. When that had no result, the physician brought several cops back with her and forcibly took Mary into custody. They put her into prison and then later held her in isolation at a North Brother Island clinic for three years, all against her will. After three years, the NY State Commissioner of Health offered to release her if she agreed to stop working as a cook and to be more cautious. Mary agreed and was finally released in February of 1910. Unfortunately, the job she took as a laundress paid far less, too little to support herself. Mary changed her name and returned to working as a cook. Outbreaks of typhoid followed her yet again, as they had before. In 1915 she started an outbreak at the Sloane Hospital for Women; 25 people caught the disease and 2 died. A short time later, police and health officials arrested Mary yet again and brought her to quarantine. She refused to have her (infected) gallbladder removed, and as a result, they kept her there in confinement for the rest of her life. She had a paralyzing stroke at the hospital in 1932. Six years later, in November of 1938, she died of pneumonia. An autopsy found typhoid bacteria still present in her gallbladder.

On September 24th in 1825…

… African-American suffragist, poet, and abolitionist Frances Harper was born in Baltimore Maryland. When her mother died in 1828, her maternal Aunt and Uncle raised her. Her uncle was the Rev. William Watkins, a civil rights activist who ran the Academy for Negro Youth. Frances attended his school as a child. Over her life, she worked both as a writer, and as a teacher. She published her first volume of poetry, Forest Leaves, in 1845. A few years later she moved to Ohio and took a job at the Union Seminary as their first female teacher. In 1853, she joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and began traveling for the group, giving speeches and lectures. Frances gave her first anti-slavery speech, “Education and the Elevation of Colored Race,”  the following year. Between traveling, she continued to write. She published her second book, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, in 1854. In 1859 she became the first Black woman to publish a short story when “The Two Offers” appeared in Anglo-African Magazine. In time she had three novels printed as serials in a Christian Magazine, but her best-known work was Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, in 1892. It is one of the earliest published novels by an African American writer. Frances’ writing reflected the causes she spoke for; abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and prohibition. 100 years before the well-known Rosa Parks, Frances refused to give up her seat in a segregated trolley car in Philadelphia. She also spoke before the National Women’s Rights Convention and reported on the living conditions of freedmen in the South during the Reconstruction Era. Among the many other groups she joined, Frances was a co-creator of the National Association of Colored Women, along with Mary Church Terrell. Frances died in February of 1911, at the age of 85.


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.

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