This Week in Feminist History

Guest Post, · Categories: Feminist History

On October 16th in 1831…

Lucy Stanton Day Sessions, the first known black woman to graduate from an American college, was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Both her parents were free-born. Her father died when she was two years old, after which her mother married a wealthy black businessman named John Brown. Brown was active in the Underground Railroad, and the family often kept runaway slaves safe in their home. Her step-father also organized the first school for African-Americans in their city, which at the time barred them from attending public schools. Lucy herself attended the school before enrolling in what is now Oberlin College, and which was then an abolitionist institution. She completed a Ladies Literary Course from the college in 1850. Though at the time, the school did not award graduates of that program with a bachelor’s degree, they have stated for over a century that the program was equivalent to a degree program. As such, Lucy was the first African-American woman to graduate from college. (Oberlin awarded the first bachelor’s degree to a black woman when Mary Jane Patterson graduated from there in 1862.) Lucy worked as a principal for two years in Columbus, Ohio, before moving back to Cleveland to marry a fellow Oberlin classmate, William Howard Day. William edited an abolitionist paper, and Lucy had a story about slavery published in his newspaper, making her the first African-American to have a fictional story published. The couple then moved to Canada to teach fugitive slaves. There they had a daughter, Florence. A year later, William abandoned his family, moved to England, and asked for a divorce. Lucy returned to Cleveland, where she worked as a seamstress to support her daughter. She remained an active abolitionist and later married her second husband, Levi Sessions. The couple lived together in Tennessee, where Lucy was the president of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She continued her work in philanthropy and abolition until she died in 1910 at the age of 79.

On October 17th in 1891…

Sarah Winnemucca, the writer of the first published autobiography by a Native American woman, died of tuberculosis at the age of 47. Sarah was born as Thocmetony (“shell flower”) in 1844, to Chief Winnemucca of the Northern Paiute, and his wife Tuboitonie. Her grandfather, Chief Truckee, believed that Thocmetony should experience more of the language and culture of the white settlers arriving at that time, so he brought her west with him to live in central California. Over the next seven years, Thocmetony learned English, Spanish, and a few other Native-American dialects. She adopted the name Sarah in 1857 when they returned to Nevada where she lived with a white family. After her grandfather died in 1860, Sarah attended a white school in San Jose to fulfill his wish. Unfortunately, several white families complained about her presence and essentially forced her to leave. When she returned home to Nevada, the Paiute War was beginning. The war lead to the death of several members of her family, after which Sarah decided to use her language skills to help. As an interpreter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Fort McDermitt, she interceded on behalf of her tribe when she could. Despite her attempts, the tribe had to move to a reservation in Eastern Oregon. She continued working there as an interpreter until the arrival of a replacement forced her out. Two years later the Bannock War broke out, and Bannock forces took Sarah’s father and other tribe members hostage. After offering assistance to U.S. Army General Oliver Howard, Sarah traveled over 200 miles, coming back with the freed hostages and military intelligence info. Despite her help, the U.S. government exiled both the Paiute and Bannock tribes to the Yakama reservation, where mistreatment and disease ravaged the tribe members. Sarah began to travel across California and Nevada to speak out about her tribe’s plight. She also went to D.C., where she spoke to President Rutherford B. Hayes and the Secretary of the Interior. They promised to allow the tribe to return to the Malheur reservation, but the promises came to nothing. They were, as Sarah said, “like the wind, heard no more.” Sarah continued traveling and lecturing, and later wrote Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. It was the first book written in English by a Native American woman, and documents the effect white settlement had on the indigenous Native American tribes and communities. Sarah presented Congress with thousands of signatures calling for an allotment of land for the tribe. They granted the request, passed the bill, and never followed through. Sarah returned to Nevada and founded a Paiute school, which she had to shut down a short while later due to lack of money. The next year the Dawes Severalty Act passed, forcing Native American children to assimilate and attend white schools. Sarah died a few years later after becoming ill with tuberculosis.

On October 18th in 1919…

… Operatic soprano Camilla Williams was born in Danville, Virginia. Camilla was the youngest of four siblings born to a laundress and a chauffeur. Though the family was poor, music was an important aspect of her family life. Camilla learned to play the piano at a young age, and by age 8 was singing in school and at the family church. She trained at Virginia State College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music education. After winning a scholarship to study music in Philadelphia, she learned under voice instructor Marion Szekely Freschl and began to take part in vocal competitions. In 1946 she made her debut with the New York City Opera, as the first African-American to have a regular contract with a major American opera company. Her first role was the title role in Madama Butterfly. Over the next six years, she performed in many operas, including as Nedda in Pagliacci, Mimi in La Boheme, and Aida in Aida. Camilla also sang the part of Bess in the first complete recording of Porgy and Bess, now considered the most authentic recorded performance of that opera. Camilla was also the first African-American to sign a major role with the Vienna State Opera, on top of touring and performing across the U.S., Africa, Asia, and more. As part of the civil rights March on Washington, she sang the Star Spangled Banner at the White House, and in front of 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial, right before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Later in life, Camilla taught voice at several notable institutions. She was also the first African-American Professor of Voice at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, and at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China. She died in January of 2012 at the age of 92.

On October 19th in 1936…

Johnnetta Cole, the first black female president of Spelman College, was born in Jacksonville, Florida. Her grandfather was Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida’s first black millionaire, and her great-grandfather was a slave owner who married his former slave. Johnnetta herself enrolled at Fisk University when she was 15, before transferring to Oberlin College. She earned her B.A. in Sociology at Oberlin in 1957, before going on to earn a master’s and Ph.D. in anthropology at Northwestern University in 1959 and 1967, respectively. She completed her dissertation field research in Liberia, West Africa, as part of an economic survey of the country. Johnnetta was a professor at Washington State University from 1962 to 1970, during which time she co-founded one of the first black studies programs in the U.S. She later worked for the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she helped develop the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of African-American Studies. In the 1980s she worked at Hunter College as the director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program. Johnnetta became president of Spelman College in 1987 and served for ten years, during which time she increased their enrollment, raised the school’s ranking among liberal arts colleges, and increased the school’s endowment. She went on to become president of Bennett College for Women and founded an art gallery there. She is currently the chair of the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute at Bennett and has been Director of the National Museum of African Art in the Smithsonian Institution.

On October 20th in 1862…

… American social worker and suffragist Maud Nathan was born in New York City. Her family was a prominent Sephardic Jewish family, descended from Gershom Mendes Seixas, who had been the minister of Congregation Sherith Israel in New York during the American Revolution. Maud’s sister, Annie Nathan Meyer, went on to found Barnard College, and her cousin Emma Lazarus wrote the poem on the Statue of Liberty. Maud herself attended school in Wisconsin, before moving back to New York, where she married Frederick Nathan (her first cousin) at the age of 17. As a young wife, she involved herself in charity work and became the director at Mount Sinai Hospital as well as at the Hebrew Free School. She helped found the New York Consumers League (NYCL), which supported an eight hour workday for children and women. Maud’s focus on these issues shifted after the death of her daughter at 8 years old. She began to work more intensely to support working women, and became president of the NYCL and later a member of the Executive Committee for the National Consumer’s League. Her work agitating for worker’s rights lead to her involvement in the suffrage movement when she began to see how little legislators cared about the issues pushed by non-voting women. As part of her work for the movement, she published The Wage Earner and the Ballot; a pamphlet about the higher standards of child labor laws, literacy, and wages found in suffrage states. Maud died in December of 1946, at the age of 84.

On October 21st in 1904…

Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss explorer and writer known for dressing as a man to obtain more freedom, died at the age of 27. She was born in Geneva, Switzerland, the daughter of a father who was an anarchist former priest, and a mother who was the secretly-illegitimate daughter of a German and a Russian Jew. Isabelle herself was illegitimate, the result of an affair between her married mother and the man who tutored her then-husband’s children. Isabelle was home-schooled by her father and well-educated. She spoke French, Russian, German, and Italian, and also knew Latin, Greek, and classical Arabic. She began to wear male clothing when she was young, and her father never protested. But their home was restrictive nonetheless, and at a young age, Isabelle began to correspond as a pen-pal, with a soldier stationed in the Sahara. She dreamed of escaping home with her favorite brother and moving to Algeria. Her brother did just that, but Isabelle couldn’t escape with him. She began to publish stories under a male pseudonym, many of them about the North African region, often with an anti-colonial theme. In time, she met Algerian-French photographer Louis David, who had read her work and offered to help her establish herself in Algiers. It was Louis who took the well-known photo of Isabelle in her sailor’s uniform. Isabelle moved to Algiers with her mother in May of 1897. Unhappy living with the European settlers, they avoided the French residents and moved away from the European quarter. Isabelle began dressing as a man in a  burnoose and turban to give herself more freedom. She became fluent in Arabic and converted to Islam. Isabelle devoted herself to the religion, but broke some of its laws; including drinking, smoking, and having several male lovers. After the heartbreaking death of her mother, Isabelle traveled Europe before returning to Geneva to nurse her dying father. After the death of her father, she became a vagabond, as she’d always wanted. She changed her name to Si Mahmoud Saadi, wore male clothing, and lived as a man. When asked why, she said: “It is impossible for me to do otherwise.” Isabelle suffered money trouble and had to move around a lot. At one point she was in Paris, where she met the widow of the Marquis de Morès, who an unknown assailant had murdered in the Sahara. When his widow learned of Isabelle’s familiarity with the area, she hired her to investigate. The French, however, wouldn’t co-operate with her and so she made little progress. The widow cut off her funding, but while she was there she met an Algerian soldier named Slimane Ehnni, who she lived with openly. Later, Hussein ben Brahim initiated her into his zawiya without any formal examination, due to the breadth of her knowledge and passion for Islam. The quick initiation lead the French to be sure she was a spy or agitator. They blacklisted her and transferred her lover as punishment. After Isabelle was nearly assassinated, by what she believed was a man sent by the French, she and Ehnni finally reunited. Unfortunately, his superiors wouldn’t allow them to marry, and Isabelle had to leave the country. She returned only long enough to testify at the trial of the man who tried to assassinate her. After the trial, Isabelle returned to live with her brother Augustin in France, where she worked at the docks as a man and wrote her novel Trimardeur. Her lover Ehnni transferred to a regiment near Marseille, and the couple married in October of 1901. They returned together to Africa, living in Algiers where Isabelle worked for a newspaper. Her health began to decline, (possibly due to syphilis) and in her last months, she and her husband went to live together in a small mud house. There was a flash flood the very next day, and Isabelle died, though her husband survived. Victor Barrucand, the publisher of the newspaper she worked for, collected her works, reconstructed them, and published many of her stories posthumously.

On October 22nd in 1834…

… Writer, editor, and women’s rights advocate Abigail Scott Duniway was born Abigail Jane Scott in Groveland, Illinois. She was the second of nine surviving children in her family. In March of 1852, her father organized a wagon party to travel to Oregon via the trail, over 2,400 miles away. Her mother died of cholera, and her youngest brother Willie died a short while later. The family reached Lafayette in October of that year, where Abigail taught school for a short while before marrying a farmer named Benjamin Charles Duniway. For a time, Abigail’s focus was on her children and the family farm. After a farm accident left her husband disabled, she began to support her family by opening a boarding school. Later, she taught in a private school in Albany, before opening a millinery and notions shop. It was there that she became exposed more to the troubles faced by other married women, who relayed their stories as they shopped in her store. With her husband’s encouragement, Abigail moved the family to Portland, where she founded a weekly women’s rights newspaper called The New Northwest. She published the first issue on May 5, 1871, and the paper ran for another 16 years. Her biggest competition was her brother, Harvey W. Scott, who edited The Oregonian and published articles about how women didn’t want the vote. Though she faced opposition, the backing she and her paper provided to the Sole Trader Bill and the Married Women’s Property Act helped lead to their passing. The laws gave Oregon women the right to own property. In 1912, Oregon became the seventh state to pass women’s suffrage, and she was the first woman to register to vote in her country. She died three years later, in October of 1915, at the age of 80.


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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6 Responses to “This Week in Feminist History”

    • burningupasun says:

      A friend: “What are you, a stranger, doing amongst all these nomadic warriors?” Isabelle: “I’m obeying my destiny.”

      ISABELLLLLLE.

  1. burningupasun says:

    I am so fascinated with Isabelle Eberhardt. I need to find out if there's a good biography about her, because honestly.

    • CleverManka says:

      I find it so interesting that there are (that I know of) two western women (in)famous for converting to Islam and adopting the traditional male dress of the area. I wonder if anyone's written about that, and posited theories on why.

  2. redheadfae says:

    So lovely. I was only vaguely familiar with Sarah Winnemucca due to living in NV and probably reading a wall item in a casino in the town named for her father.

    Trivia point: Winnemucca means "one moccasin".

  3. snickies says:

    This was wonderful! Thank you.

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