This Week in Feminist History

Clever Manka, · Categories: Feminist History

On October 30th in 1919…

… American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox died of cancer at the age of 68. She was born on November 5, 1880, on a farm in Wisconsin. Having started writing at a young age, she had a reputation as a poet within her state by the time she finished high school. Her most famous poem is “Solitude,” and contains the line: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone.” She wrote it after a night spent comforting a young woman stranger while traveling to a party. In 1884, Ella married Robert Wilcox. During their life together in Connecticut and Long Island, they became interested spiritualism and promised each other that if one died before the other they would return and communicate. Ella’s husband’s death in 1916 broke her heart. Her devastation only grew when her husband didn’t follow through with his promise. She reached out to an astrologer who told her she would have to come to terms with her grief and sorrow before her husband would be able to reach her. Spurred by her husband’s death, Ella’s interest in the spiritual grew and began to influence her poetry as well. She wrote booklets and articles that were popular within the New Thought Movement. Her poetry isn’t always thought of highly, in fact, she is often included in anthologies of so-called “bad poetry.” This is likely because Ella’s poetry was very simple and to the point, written in plain, rhyming voice rather than flowery or metaphorical. Instead, it is much more honest and to the point:

Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate;
As we voyage along through life,
‘Tis the set of a soul
That decides its goal,
And not the calm or the strife.

On October 31st….

…  Unable to find a spooky story for to this actual date in history, I decided instead to find a suitably spooky story to mark Halloween with. Enjoy!

On November 4th in 1905, Nannie Doss was born as Nancy Hazel, in Blue Mountain, Alabama. She was one of five children born to an incredibly controlling father, who forced his children to work on the family farm. As a child growing up, Nancy’s one outlet was reading her mother’s romance magazines and dreaming of a future where she would find someone to love and care for her. Her childhood lead to a life of searching for that very dream…even if it meant murdering each husband that didn’t please her. She married her first husband at only 16 years old. From 1923-1927 she gave birth to four daughters and felt trapped by a miserable marriage where her husband often disappeared for days. While this would have made anyone unhappy, Nannie took matters into her own hands. Two of their daughters died of “food poisoning” in 1923, and three years later Nannie’s husband fled with their oldest daughter. The couple later divorced. Nannie, now single, comforted herself by reading romance novels and lonely hearts columns. It was through one such column that she met her second husband, 23-year-old Robert Franklin Harrelson. They met and married when Nannie was 24. A few months later, she discovered that her husband had a criminal record and an alcohol addiction. She remained married to him for sixteen years. During that time, Nannie’s oldest daughter Melvina (from her first marriage) lost both of her sons; one, she swore her mother killed with a hatpin as an infant and the other died of “asphyxia from unknown causes.” Nannie’s marriage to Robert ended in 1945. Years of abuse culminated in a final night of torment during which her husband raped her. Nannie had reached the last straw. She dug up one of the corn whiskey jars he had buried in the yard, filled it with rat poison, and gave it to her husband. She met her third husband through another lonely hearts column and married him three days later. Arlie Lanning, another alcoholic womanizer, died of “heart failure.” A short while later their home, which  Arlie had left to his sister, mysteriously burned down. Nannie got the insurance money, and after her mother-in-law died in her sleep, she moved to her sister Dovie’s home. Poor bedridden Dovie didn’t last long after her sister moved in. Neither did Richard L. Morton, the next man she met through another dating service and married. He died in May of 1953, followed by Nannie’s mother, who had come to live with them for a short while. A month later she met and married Samuel Doss, a Nazarene minister. Unfortunately, Samuel didn’t approve of his wife’s love of romance stories and made the mistake of telling her. Samuel went to the hospital in September with “flu-like symptoms,” came home on October 5th, and died that very night. Unfortunately, the sudden death finally got Nannie caught. An autopsy revealed arsenic in Samuel’s system, and police arrested her. The subsequent media coverage lead to Nannie’s nicknames as Lady Blue Beard, the Lonely Hearts Killer, and—perhaps most creepily—the Giggling Granny. The latter was because of her tendency throughout the trials to smile and giggle and put on a sweet persona for anyone watching. Nannie confessed to murdering four husbands, her mother, her sister, one grandson, and her mother-in-law. This was only a sliver of the deaths she likely caused. The state focused on the murder of Samuel Doss only, for which she plead guilty and received a life sentence. The Giggling Granny spent her life in prison and died of leukemia in 1965, at the age of 59.

On November 1st in 1848…

…Samuel Gregory founded Boston Female Medical College, the first medical school for women in the U.S. Before the founding of the college, women sometimes enrolled in medical school but were often either barred from attending lectures and exams or even graduating. With the creation of BFMC, women could finally attend their own school and receive an education. Gregory founded the school on the idea that female physicians could help other women in childbirth. The idea was semi-sexist, of course, based on the idea that it was improper for men to assist women in childbirth and that childbirth was a more feminine occupation. The creator of the school believed that midwifery was “beneath” male doctors and that such a “simple, mechanical routine” (LOL!) should fall to women instead. Despite the problematic rationale, it did allow for the school’s creation. In addition, the ability to have female midwives at the time was something a lot of women found far more comforting. The college’s first term of classes featured 12 students from New England, New York, and even Ohio. Eight years later in 1856, the school became the New England Female Medical College. They also established the Ladies’ Medical Academy in 1859, which had a free clinic. Over 27 years, the school had over 300 students, 98 of which received doctoral medical degrees. The school merged with the Boston University School of Medicine in 1874.

On November 2nd in 1913…

Beryl McBurnie, a dancer known for promoting Trinidadian culture and arts, was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Beryl’s interest in the performing arts began when she was young. She gathered a bunch of neighborhood children into a group, which performed concerts for the adults in the neighborhood. As a child, she performed at the Tranquility Girls’ School in the Port-of-Spain, doing British folk dances she learned from her instructor. Though Beryl loved all forms of dance, she wanted to learn dances that represented her people and her culture. After leaving school, she worked to become a teacher by training at the Mausica Teachers’ College. Instead of becoming a teacher, however, she toured the country with Andrew Carr, Trinidad’s leading folklorist and decided instead to pursue a career in folk-dance. She rescued dances and melodies that would otherwise have vanished, promoting them to the world and teaching them to others. She performed, taught, and trained across the world, though mainly in her home country as well as in New York. In New York, she taught courses in West Indian Dance and performed in calypso “soundies,” or clips made for film jukeboxes in local restaurants. She was especially popular as a teacher for the New Dance Group. At her most popular, Beryl left the U.S. to work as a dance instructor for Trinidad and Tobago’s Education Department. Three years later, in 1948, she created the Little Carib Theatre. It was the country’s first permanent theatre and dance company. The work of the company featured across the world and Beryl herself was later appointed an Order of the British Empire. She died in March of 2000, at the age of 84.

On November 3rd in 1917…

… Pro-Indian Independence and women’s rights activist Annapurna Maharana was born in Odisha, India. Both of Annapurna’s parents were active in the Indian Independence Movement, which meant that she was active in the same movement from a young age. At 14 she began campaigning, supporting Mohandas Gandhi and joining in his marches. Over her time protesting, British police and authorities arrested her several times, including once during the Quit India Movement civil disobedience campaign in 1942. After India achieved independence, Annapurna focused on advocating for women and children in the country. She opened a school for tribal children in the Rayagada district and joined the Bhoodan (land reform) movement to try and convince the wealthy to give up some of their land. During “the Emergency”—a 21-month period where the country was in a state of emergency that prompted civil rights abuses and mass-sterilization campaigns—Annapurna protested injustices and wrote for a newspaper that the government soon banned. It lead to her arrest, though the government freed her and her compatriots. Annapurna died in December of 2012 at the age of 96.

On November 4th in 1909…

Evelyn Bryan Johnson, the female pilot with the highest number of flying hours in the world, was born as Evelyn Stone in Corbin, Kentucky. She graduated Tennessee Wesleyan College and went on to teach in Tennessee. Her husband, Wyatt Jennings Bryan, was a member of the Army Air Corps. While he was serving, Evelyn learned to fly. In time, she logged 57,635.4 flying hours. On top of being the oldest flight instructor in the world, she trained more pilots and gave more FAA exams than anyone else. Evelyn flew well into her 90s, despite eyesight problems, and only quit after a car accident at the age of 96. Even then she continued to manage the Moore-Murrell Airport in Morristown, Tennessee, which she had been running since 1953. The Guinness Book of World Records listed Evelyn as having the most flying hours not just by a woman but of any living person. She was a member of the Women in Aviation Pioneers Hall of Fame and the National Aviation Hall of Fame, among several others, and received a bronze Carnegie Medal for her rescue of a crashed helicopter pilot. She died in May of 2012, at the age of 102. The Archives of Appalachia at the East Tennessee State University currently has a collection of her papers and memorabilia from 1930-2002.

On November 5th in 1922…

… Pioneering female comic artist Violet Barclay was born in New York City, New York. Her single mother raised Violet, along with her sister and two younger brothers, in Manhattan. Violet attended the School of Industrial Art High School, along with the School of Visual Arts. While she was working as a hostess at a restaurant, she met Mike Sekowsky (an alumnus of the same school), who gave her a job working as a staff inker for Timely Comics, under Stan Lee. She learned to ink there and worked for the company for years, during which her work generally went uncredited. According to The Who’s Who of American Comic Books, she worked on stories such a “Super Rabbit,” “Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal,” and stories for Jeanie, Rusty, Willie, as well as Nellie the Nurse. Her complicated relationship with her mentor lead to her leaving Timely Comics. (Mike had a wife but liked to give gifts to Violet and then get jealous if she flirted with anyone else. According to Violet, he once went to Stan Lee and told Stan to fire her, or he would quit. Stan Lee instead said ‘Well, Mike, it’s been nice knowing you.” He chose to remain instead.) Violet freelanced after leaving Timely and did work for DC Comics, among other companies. A lot of her freelance work was in romance comics. She left the field in the mid-50s, during a downturn in the industry. After supporting herself for some time as a waitress and hostess, she moved into the fashion illustration industry and continued to study art. She retired with the rise of computer graphics, living in New York and painting for personal pleasure, until she died in February of 2010, at the age of 88.

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.

14 Responses to “This Week in Feminist History”

  1. meat_lord says:

    This is a really interesting roundup! I didn't know about Nannie Doss, and now I do, and now I'm creeped out.

  2. ru_ri says:

    Thank you for another great roundup of women in history (along with one man who seems to have Aided in the Cause in Spite of Himself). Honestly, reading about Violet Barclay gives me hope for my (rootless freelancer) life.

    It's good to see you again!

  3. Absotively says:

    Nannie Doss is definitely creepy!

    Though it does look like Wikipedia has a date error – Wikipedia's references say her oldest daughters died in 1927, not 1923. (I went digging a bit because that date seemed odd given the dates of the children's births.)

    …dangit, now I feel obliged to correct a Wikipedia article.

    EDIT: And apparently they were the middle daughters, which at least clears up the claim that their father took the oldest when he fled.

  4. Rillquiet says:

    Aw, Evelyn Bryan Johnson. Reading about older women pilots and the girls who want to grow up that way always reminds me of Kelly Sue DeConnick's Helen Cobb letter:

    "Knew you the second you set foot on my property, kid. Even as young as you were, how could I not? Folks want to blame someone for gals like us. 'Her daddy was unkind' or 'some fella broke her heart'… Hogwash. You and me’ve always been like this. Always a little removed. Always… dreaming.

    "Of higher, further, faster… more. Always more. We came into this world spittin’ mad, runnin’ full bore… To or from what, I ain’t never been able to tell. Over the years, I’ve come to think of these particular traits as the shared attributes of a chosen people… the Lord put us here to punch holes in the sky.

    "And when the soul is born with that kind of purpose… It’ll damn sure find a way. We’re gonna get where we’re going, you and me. Death and indignity be damned… we’ll get there…

    "…And we will be the stars we were always meant to be.”

  5. redheadfae says:

    Yay, glad to see you back! Thank you for another great roundup.

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