Saturday, August 15, 2009

Jane Addams (1860 - 1935)

At 17, Jane enrolled at Rockford Female Seminary, where her father was a trustee, though she had hoped to go to Smith College and earn a liberal arts degree. Her teachers at Rockford were sure she would make a good overseas missionary, but Jane resolutely refused.

Graduating at the top of her class in 1881, she moved to Philadelphia to begin studying at the Women's Medical College, at a time when few women were doctors. However, plagued by depression and problems stemming from curvature of the spine, she withdrew from college six months later.

She then agreed to join her step-mother on a Grand European Tour, but to her escort's dismay, she seemed far more interested in the plight of the poor in European cities, than in finding a husband or looking at cathedrals. Jane returned to America at 23, still unwell and depressed at the apparent lack of direction in her life.

At 27, she revisited Europe, this time with a friend from Rockford, Ellen Gates Starr, who was destined to become a life-long friend and partner. After visiting settlements in London's East End staffed by Oxford undergraduates, they returned to America determined to start something similar of their own. Having finally found a sense of purpose, Jane's health improved dramatically. The two women used their savings to buy a house in the worst of Chicago's slums.

At first they were met with curiosity from their neighbors, but their deeds spoke volumes, and they were soon drawn into the teeming life of the district. Using their education and upper-middle class social connections, they proved highly efficient at raising awareness and money for their cause. They learned to deal effectively with politicians and the media to improve sanitation, street lighting and housing in their area. They provided day-care for women working in factories, fair legal representation for local people, and meeting space for union organizers. Addams recognized the high cost of assimilation into American culture for immigrants, especially older ones, so she set up a museum and arranged for an arts and crafts center, musicians and story-tellers to help preserve ethnic traditions, while at the same time providing English translators and instructors to those who requested them. She also refused to support Prohibition, arguing that saloons provided an important gathering space for the community, despite the many problems that arose from alcoholism.

The size of the settlement and the scope of its work grew steadily, until it was second in size only to the University of Chicago. Co-ops were formed to purchase housing and coal at cheaper rates. The volunteer staff grew by the hundreds, and included women such as Florence Kelley, Frances Perkins and Mary Eliza McDowell, who were to go on and become reformers in their own right. Meanwhile, Addams published ten books on reform and in 1917, traveled to the Netherlands to beg the British and German Prime Ministers to submit the war to arbitration. Her involvement in peace efforts won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, and at the time of her death, there were settlement houses in every large American city.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Joy Adamson (1910 - 1980)

Joy Adamson's novel, "Born Free," awakened the Western world to the alarming loss of wildlife and habitat in Africa and other areas considered gaming havens. Today's wildlife preservation movement owes much to her popular story of how she raised, and then set free, a lion cub named Elsa.

Born into an upper-class Austrian family, Joy earned a degree in music and took up sculpting. She was taught to ride and shoot at an early age. She killed her first buck at 16, a feat she then refused to repeat. She decided to go on to medical school, but left to get married. Two years later, at 27, she divorced and went to Kenya to visit friends and fell in love with East Africa. Her botanical sketches earned her a place on a scientific expedition, where she met her second husband. She went on to illustrate seven more books of flora, and documented her botanical findings with specimens she forwarded to Kew Gardens in Britain. After this marriage ended, she met George Adamson, senior warden for the Kenya game department. They married in 1944, and she began a life that "amounted to 360 days a year on safari."

In 1957, George brought home three lion cubs, whose mother had been shot, and Joy agreed to nurture them. Raising three lion cubs soon became too much, so two of the cubs were sent away to zoos, hand-picked for their humane treatment of animals, while Elsa, the smallest, stayed behind. Because her infant charge had been born free, Joy was determined that the lioness would not be tamed or domesticated. She was allowed to roam free around the compound. She rode on the top of a Landrover, swam in the Indian Ocean with them, and accompanied Joy on art expeditions. However, as Elsa reached sexual maturity, the Adamsons were forced to prepare for her a return to the wild. After much trial and error, they succeeded and continued to enjoy yearly reunions with Elsa, although Elsa gently discouraged too much interaction with her cubs.

In 1960, at age 50, Joy wrote about the experience in her first novel, "Born Free," which was an instant international success. She used her fame to publicize the plight of wild animals around the world, and pledged every penny earned by her book and its three sequels to wildlife preservation.

In 1966, Columbia Pictures released a movie version of the book, further popularizing Elsa's story. Zoos responded by creating more humane conditions for animals, such as larger outdoor habitats, and a new form of travel known as "ecotourism" began.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Dorothy Arzner (1897 - 1979)

Unlike many women of her era, Dorothy had options. Born into an upper-middle class family in San Francisco, Dorothy was sent to Westlake, a private school for girls, by her stepmother who was concerned about her "tomboyish ways."  Set on medicine, Dorothy underwent two years of pre-med studies at the University of Southern California. During World War I, she left to join the Los Angeles volunteer ambulance corps, then worked in a doctor's office. But she soon tired of medicine: "I wanted to heal the sick and raise the dead instantly."

In 1919, after a chance visit, she found a job as a typist at Paramount Studios. But she was a terrible typist. She soon found another job in continuity. Then she was invited to help edit a film, and proved so adept that she was given another reel to cut, this time without supervision. Dorothy worked day and night, cutting 32 movies in one year and becoming chief editor.

In 1922, she cut Rudolph Valentino's "Blood and Sand."  Her intercuts between stock and original footage in the bull-fight scenes were masterfully executed and saved the studio a fortune. She soon gained a reputation for efficiency and economy. She also wrote several scripts, but what she longed for was the chance to direct. Frustrated, she threatened to quit unless she was given the chance to direct an A movie. The studio acquiesced.

In 1927, at age 30, she was given, "Fashions For Women," to direct, which she completed in two weeks. As Paramount's first woman director, she received more press than the leading actress. The film was a success with the critics and at the box office, so she was signed to a long-term contract with Paramount.  She went on to direct seventeen movies over a thirty year span.

Known for her deep respect for writers, she was also considered a starmaker, and is credited with launching the careers of Clara Bow (The Wild Party), Lucille Ball (Dance, Girl, Dance), Rosalind Russell (Craig's Wife), Ruth Chatterton (Anybody's Woman), and Katherine Hepburn (Christopher Strong). She also worked with Joan Crawford (The Bride Wore Red), and directed Paramount's first talkie, "The Wild Party."

Throughout this period she dressed in men's clothing and was well-known amongst the gay Hollywood set.  She met Marion Morgan, who was to become her life partner in 1927. They lived together in a luxurious Hollywood Hills home, and later in the California desert, until Morgan's death in 1971.  She also directed fifty Pepsi commercials for Joan Crawford; made training movies during World War II for the Women's Army Corps; and taught film at UCLA, to a grateful Francis Ford Coppola, amongst others.

She is the only woman director who survived and thrived in the studio system.  Although often dismissed as a maker of "weepies" by the (mostly male) critics, close analysis of her movies reveals complex characters and an emphasis on female intelligence and loyal friendships.  She was the first woman admitted into the Director's Guild of America, and in 1975, she finally received the recognition she deserved : a gala tribute honoring her as a pioneer woman director.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Helen Caldicott (1938 - )

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Helen grew up knowing that she wanted to help people. She went to medical school, graduated second in her class, and began a general practice in Adelaide, South Australia. She married Bill Caldicott, also a doctor, and had three children. In 1970, while working at a hospital, she contracted serum hepatitis from a contaminated needle and almost died. Upon recovery, she said, "Like many people who have faced death, you feel as if you've been saved for something." She returned to medical school to study pediatrics.

She also became politically active. Having read Nevil Shute's novel, "On The Beach," about the devastation after a nuclear war, she focused her attention on nuclear weapons. In 1971, she learned that the French had been conducting atmospheric nuclear tests in the South Pacific, in direct contravention to the treaty they had signed in 1962. Australia was downwind from the fallout. Helen wrote a letter to her local paper, and was interviewed on television from then on each time the French detonated a bomb.

Radioactive contaminated water was soon detected in Adelaide, and Australians responded with widespread boycotting of French products; postal workers even refused to deliver mail from France. The next year, Helen headed a delegation to Paris. France decided to conduct its future tests underground.

In 1975, mining companies discovered huge uranium deposits in Australia. Helen fought to keep the uranium in the ground. Ignored by the media and the government, she turned to the trade unions. Her speeches at union meetings highlighted the effects of radiation on male genitals and children. The unions passed a resolution banning the mining, transportation and sale of uranium, which lasted for seven years.

Meanwhile, the Caldicotts moved to Boston to teach pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School. Helen published her first book, "Nuclear Madness: What You Can Do," at age 40. She also revived the dormant group, Physicians for Social Responsibility and was the National President until 1983. 

In 1980, she resigned from her medical career to campaign full-time, and founded Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament, a Washington-based lobby group. Four years later her husband followed suit. They made a short documentary called, "If You Love This Planet," which won an Academy Award. Two years later she was back, protesting uranium mining once more. She received the Humanist of the Year award from the American Humanist Association in 1982.

She met with Ronald Reagan, but was so unimpressed that she campaigned full-time for Walter Mondale's election. After Reagan was re-elected in 1986, she announced her resignation from anti-nuclear campaigning, and returned, disillusioned to Australia. Shortly afterwards, Chernobyl occurred. Ironically, that year she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1988, she founded the Green Labor Party, a radical conservation political party, but quit when it became clear that her efforts were being sabotaged by the affiliated Australian Labor Party.
She continues to write books and lecture on conservation and nuclear war. The Smithsonian Institution named Caldicott one of the most influential women of the 20th century.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Julia Child (1912 -2004)

Raised in Pasadena, CA she graduated from Smith College in 1934 with a degree in history, having distinguished herself as a member of the college choir, Sophomore Push, and a "grass cop" for three years.  She then worked as a copywriter for an ad agency in New York.  During World War II, she joined the Office of Strategic Services, serving as a clerk in a document center in Ceylon, where she met her husband, Paul Child, an artist-sculptor.  After the war, the couple settled in Washington until 1948, when Paul was assigned to the American Embassy in Paris.

Paris changed Julia's life: "From the beginning, I fell in love with everything I saw." After taking French lessons and studying at the Cordon Bleu, she began giving informal cooking lessons in her Left Bank apartment. With the assistance of two established French Chefs, the classes eventually developed into L'École des Trois Gourmandes.

The success of this venture prompted a cookbook adapting French culinary techniques to American kitchens: "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."  At age 49, Julia found herself a popular talk-show guest. But it was her appearance as a guest on a Boston educational television show, whisking eggs while she chatted about her book that led to, "The French Chef," a cooking show that ran for nine years and turned her into a national institution.  "At the time," she said, "French cooking was the cat's whiskers.  Most of what people ate in this country was a kind of terrible ladies-magazine food, awful!"

Her sense of humor attracted more than just a culinary audience: a sizable part of her following couldn't tell a truffle from a toadstool.  During one show, after a flipped omelet rained down on the stove, she told viewers, "Well, that didn't go very well.  See, when I flipped it, I didn't have the courage to do it the way I should have. But you can always pick it up, and if you're alone, who's going to see?" 

By 1966, the show was carried on 104 television stations, and Julia appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and in cartoons in the New Yorker. She went on to publish ten more cookbooks, seven more television shows, and six one-hour instructional videos. She has twice received awards from the French government, including the National Order of Merit, and has also won an Emmy, and a Peabody.

In 1981, she co-founded The American Institute of Wine and Food with vintner, Robert Mondavi.  She continued to produce cookbooks, and remained one of America's most popular chefs. She received the French Legion of Honor in 2000, and in 2003, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. She passed away in 2004, having donated her kitchen to the National Museum of American History.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Agatha Christie (1890 - 1976)

Born into a wealthy English Victorian family, Agatha Christie intended to follow a musical career, but found that her temperament was unsuited to public performance.
When World War I broke out, she volunteered as an army nurse in England and became engaged at 22 to a handsome pilot named Archie Christie.  She went on to work in the hospital dispensary, and it was here, during slack periods, that she began planning her first detective story, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," starring Hercule Poirot.  However, its completion would have to wait until after the war and the birth of a daughter, Rosalind.

She was 30 when the book was finally published. In 1923, she left 4-year old Rosalind in the care of her sister, Madge, and traveled extensively throughout the British Empire with Archie, who was working as a financial advisor to the British Government.  Agatha continued writing mysteries, at least one a year until her death.
By 1926, she had become an established writer, and in 1930, she created Miss Marple, her most famous investigator. However, during this period, Archie had grown more fond of golf than his wife, and had fallen in love with another woman. Agatha was distraught. She disappeared for ten days, and a full-scale search was mounted involving hundreds of police and thousands of ordinary people.  She was found to be staying at a spa in Yorkshire, under an assumed name.
After her divorce in 1928, Christie traveled alone to Damascus, Baghdad, and as far as Istanbul aboard the Orient Express.  While visiting the excavations at Ur, she met an archeologist, Max Mallowan.  She was 40; Max was 26. They were married six months later.
From then on, except for a break during World War II when she returned to dispensing, Christie spent part of her time in England, and part on digs abroad with Max.  She became skilled at documenting, cleaning, assembling and photographing finds, and even developed her own film.
As well as mysteries, Christie wrote six serious novels and several plays, an outgrowth of her dissatisfaction with the adaptations of her works by others.  Her most famous play was "The Mousetrap," which enjoyed a 40 year uninterrupted run in London.
At 81, she was made "Dame Commander of the British Empire."  She remains the world's most popular mystery writer.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bessie Coleman: (1892 - 1926)

In Chicago in the fall of 1920, Bessie Coleman was 28 and working as a manicurist when her brother John, an ex-serviceman, entered the barber shop where she worked and declared that the women in France were better than the women in black Chicago since they "could even fly airplanes."  Incensed, Bessie vowed to prove him wrong and set about learning to fly.

Finding a flight instructor was hard enough for a white woman in those days; it was impossible for a black woman. But Bessie had made up her mind. Raised on the stories of Harriet Tubman and Booker T. Washington, she was determined to "amount to something." She found a benefactor in Robert Abbott, editor and publisher of the Defender, who advised her to study French and paid for her to attend flight school in France, where she was less likely to encounter overt racism.

She gained her pilot's license at 29, and went on to train with Anthony Fokker (designer of Fokker Friendship planes) and to develop her skills as a daredevil aerobatics stuntwoman with the help of a German World War I flying ace.  Upon her return in 1922, she gave an exhibition flight attended by several thousand spectators, and received critical acclaim in both the black and white press.  More exhibitions followed in Memphis and Chicago.  Her flying skills, good looks, race and gender all contributed to her growing fame, not to mention her self-designed costume : a military jacket, riding breeches, a long leather coat and a leather helmet with goggles pushed up so the audience could see her face as she climbed into the cockpit.
Poised, self-assured and market-savvy, she soon made a name for herself from Maine to Georgia and Texas, where she insisted on a non-segregated main gate for all ticket holders.  She dreamed of opening a flight school for African-Americans, and spoke about it every chance that she could, in churches, theaters and schools.

On April 30th, 1926, the day before an exhibition in Jacksonville, Florida, she and a mechanic-pilot flew over the field where she was to make a parachute jump.  Too short to see over the cockpit's edge, she wore no safety belt, and, as she leaned over to survey the field below, the plane suddenly accelerated and flipped over.  She fell 1,500 feet to her death.  The plane crashed nearby, killing the pilot.

However, her story survived and inspired millions, including Lt. William J. Powell, who founded the Bessie Coleman flying clubs, and the Tuskegee US Army fighter pilots of World War II.  Every year on Memorial Day, the Tuskegee Airmen fly over Bessie Coleman's grave and drop flowers in her honor.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Takako Doi (1928 - )

Chair of the Japan Social Democratic Party from 1986 to 1991, Takako Doi emerged as a national leader in a tradition-bound country where female politicians have been few and far between. In 1989, she lead the Socialists to a stunning victory over the ruling party in the Upper House elections, thus breaking an entrenched monopoly of power.
"Doi fever" swept across Japan, inspiring hundreds of politically inexperienced housewives and mothers to run for political office, many of whom were elected.
Growing up in a progressive household, Takako initially planned to become a physician, like her father.  However, upon graduating from high school, she decided instead to study law at prestigious Doshisha University.  Towering over her fellow students at 5' 7", she intimidated many of her peers with her bold approach and formidable debating skills.  However, rather than become a lawyer, she took up teaching instead at her alma mater, and later at Kansaigakuin University and Seiwa Women's University.

Her foray into politics was unplanned.  In 1969, at age 41, her hometown newspaper erroneously reported that she planned to run for a seat in the Lower House of Parliament.  Doi immediately went to the mayor's office to explain the error, only to hear him joke, "Wouldn't it be really stupid to run in an election you know you have no chance of winning?" 

Outraged by the sexist remark, Doi decided to run for office.  She won, and was returned to office in seven subsequent elections.  Needless to say, she met with much resistance from her male colleagues, who viewed her self-assuredness as unfeminine, her low-pitched voice as too mannish, and her unmarried status as suspect.  However, she proved popular with the people, so her party duly voted her in as leader of the Socialist Party, making her the first woman ever to head a major political organization in Japan.

In her years as leader, she succeeded in weaning her party from its extreme Marxist-Leninist ideals to a more centrist position, and exposed corruption and sex scandals in the ruling party.  She also convinced more women to enter Japanese politics, making her contribution to the women's movement in Japan indisputable.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Amelia Earhart (1897 - 1937)

In an astounding career of just nine years between 1928 and 1937, Amelia Earhart became America's and the world's most famous aviator. She was an unknown social worker in a settlement house in Boston, and a weekend amateur pilot when she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. Prior to this, she was also a file clerk, an English teacher, a photographer and a truck driver.

Her rocky childhood included an alcoholic father, whom she adored, but who abandoned his wife and two daughters leaving them in poverty. Nevertheless, both girls graduated high school and went on to college: Muriel, the eldest, enrolled at Smith College, (where Amelia also took a brief course in auto-mechanics); while Amelia opted to pursue pre-med at Columbia, only to leave two years later due to a lack of funds.

In 1928, at age 31, while working as a demonstrator and sales representative for Winfield Kinner airplanes, she came to the attention of George Putnam who had published Charles Lindbergh's story. She agreed to his plan to fly across the Atlantic with two other male pilots. Although nominally captain of the flight, Amelia found herself relegated to passenger, and later described herself as "just baggage."  Nonetheless, this flight launched her career as an aviator and made her an international star. Putnam had created his "Lady Lindy," a title Amelia grew to loathe.

Within weeks, Putnam and Sons published an account of the flight, and she went on to break several more speed and endurance records. She married Putnam in 1931 and then repeated the transatlantic crossing in 1932 -- this time solo. In 1935, she became the first person to fly from Hawaii to California.

Between flights, she wrote magazine articles, endorsed products including a popular line of clothing and luggage which she designed, and gave countless speeches on a nation-wide lecture circuit, all arranged by George.  Although shy and modest, Amelia endured the publicity, seeing it as the most effective way to raise money to pay for her great love, flying.  She used the opportunity to speak on behalf of jobs and political rights for women.  She was a founding member of the "Ninety-Nines," an international association of women pilots still active today.  She proved a master of evasion when questioned about her personal life, but the press found her charming, intelligent and witty, and the world admired her for her courage, determination and charisma.

All this activity left her little time to upgrade her flying skills, particularly navigation and communication.  Days before her fortieth birthday, on the final leg of her round-the-world flight, her plane disappeared over the Pacific. The most extensive search for a single plane ever made by the US Navy failed to locate the plane or its crew.  The search continues even today, by individuals determined to solve the mystery of her disappearance.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Betty Friedan: (1921 - 2006)

In 1942, Betty graduated from Smith College summa cum laude, and moved to San Francisco to pursue a graduate degree in psychology. However, she left after only a year, traveled to New York City, and found a job as a reporter for a small newspaper.  She married Carl Friedan in 1947, and after the birth of her first son, moved to the suburbs. She didn't enjoy life as an isolated housewife and mother and soon went back to work. But with the birth of her second son, she returned to life in the suburbs, resigned to her social role. She had a third child, a daughter, and her sense of dissatisfaction and boredom grew.
A year later, in 1957, she was asked by the Smith College Alumnae Association to conduct a survey of her classmates to see how their education had affected them. The results inspired her to write her ground- breaking book, "The Feminine Mystique," which explored the feelings of conflict and unease experienced by women whose identities consisted solely of being "someone else's wife or mother."  When it was published in 1963, it launched the second wave of feminism, and made Betty famous. She was 42.

Encouraged by the success of the civil rights movement, women began organizing to protest gender discrimination. In June 1966, a group of women formed the National Organization for Women, and Betty, now 45, was elected the first National President.  

A string of successes followed. NOW launched a successful campaign to eradicate listing jobs in newspapers by sex. As a result, "Help Wanted, Male" and "Help Wanted, Female" were replaced in all publications with "Help Wanted."  They lobbied successfully for women's access to all-male specialty high schools and colleges. They promoted consciousness-raising groups where women could learn about the social patterns that lead to oppression.  They fought for pregnancy leave and for the right of a married woman to continue working. They instigated sit-ins at restaurants, including the New York Plaza's Oak Room, to protest policies that restricted access to women unless accompanied by a man.
Most successfully, Betty organized the March for Women's Equality in 1970, on a budget of only $10,000, which resulted in marches and related events in several major US cities, including New York City. However, as the movement grew, Betty found herself in conflict with women who wanted to include abortion rights, lesbian rights, and left wing politics in the feminist agenda. She was accused of ignoring women of color and working class women, and was gradually eclipsed by more charismatic leaders like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug.  She continued to write, producing six more books, and lived to see her role as a founding member of the women's movement validated and honored.
She remained optimistic and positive about women's accomplishments, and continued to advocate universal health care and child care in the United States, until she passed away on February 4, 2006, her 85th birthday.

Friday, July 10, 2009

"Grandma Moses" (1860 - 1961)

Anna Mary Robertson left home at twelve to earn her living as a "hired girl" on a neighboring farm.  At 29, she married Thomas Moses, with whom she had five children, and they settled in Staunton, Virginia.  Investing in a cow, Anna started a butter-making operation that produced 160 pounds a week : "Always wanted to be independent. I couldn't bear the thought of sitting down and Thomas handing out the money."  In fact, when Thomas borrowed from her, she charged him interest.

She was just 34 when Thomas died, so she started taking in boarders to make ends meet. She started painting rural scenes when she became a grandmother, and the need to pursue "useful" activities had diminished.  Ever thrifty, she used whatever surfaces she could find : an old window, salvaged canvas from a threshing machine, even tree mushrooms, which when dry turned hard as wood.

At age 78
, she was "discovered" by Louis Caldor, an amateur art collector on vacation from New York City, who chanced upon four of her paintings on display in a local drugstore in the Berkshires.  He bought a dozen of her paintings that day, and began sending her art supplies and letters of encouragement.  Approaching art galleries in New York, he succeeded in arranging an exhibition of her work, which was then reassembled by Gimbels department store, and displayed as part of its Thanksgiving promotion.

Though Anna had declined to attend the art gallery exhibit ("Why bother? I had already seen the pictures") she agreed to go to the Gimbels opening. The New York press descended "like chickens (that) come runnin' around when you go to the door to feed 'em."  She soon tired of all the attention, and expressed indignance at the label 'primitive artist,' claiming that her neighbors said it made her sound illiterate.

Nevertheless, she continued painting, as it proved more profitable than taking in boarders.  Her work appealed more and more to a nation seeking escape from a post-World War II, Cold War reality, and inspired many an untrained artist to try painting. 
In 1946, Caldor licensed her paintings for reproduction as greeting cards, catapulting her to national fame.  She became indisputably associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Other items followed -- drapery fabric, plates, wall murals -- but Anna insisted they make only those products that she herself might use.  With each passing year, her birthday was celebrated by the national press.  She made the cover of Time and many other national magazines.  For many political hopefuls, shaking Grandma Moses'  hand became as compulsory as kissing babies.

In March of 1960, at age 99, she agreed to illustrate Clement C. Moore's famous poem "The Night Before Christmas" and completed the last illustration in November of 1960, after her 100th birthday.
By the time she died, she had produced over 2500 works of art.  While her age contributed to her fame, her work has stood the test of time, disproving those critics who once proclaimed her art as lacking real merit.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Sojourner Truth ( 1797 - 1883)

Sojourner was the first black woman to speak publicly against slavery. Born into slavery, she was sold to a family in upstate New York when she came of age.

She could neither read nor write, and until she was emancipated at age 30, she spoke little English, having learned only Low Dutch from her parents and their masters.

She had thirteen children, most of whom were sold into slavery.

Upon being freed, she moved to New York City and worked as a paid domestic until she was 46. She then spent some years living communally with a group of religious believers and mystics, and it was here that she had the vision which changed her life : "God came to me and gave me the name 'Sojourner,' because I was to travel up an' down the land ... (and 'Truth') ... because I was to declare Truth to the people."

At age 53, having settled in Battle Creek, Michigan, she published her "Narrative of Sojourner Truth," a slave narrative. She sold it, along with small carte-de-visites bearing her photograph, wherever she preached, as a means of supporting herself. During her travels she encountered the early women's suffrage conventions. When Sojourner entered these (largely white) gatherings, all eyes turned to her. She favored a plain gray Quaker woman's dress, to distinguish herself from those who followed fashion, and to present herself as a professional woman, rather than a field hand or domestic. Standing six feet tall, she walked with the air of a queen, and her voice commanded authority whenever she spoke.

On one occasion in Indiana, when accused of being a man in disguise because her voice was so deep, she tore open her robe and exposed her breasts, swiftly ending that argument. But it was her appearance at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851 for which she is most famous. Having listened patiently for two days to men who insisted on the inherent differences between men and women, she rose slowly and declared : "Dat man over dar say dat woman needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches... Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles..." Then raising herself to her full height, and her voice to a pitch like rolling thunder, she proclaimed : "And ar'n't I a woman?... I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns... and ar'n't I a woman? I could work as much, and eat as much as a man (when I could get it) and bear de lash as well -- and ar'n't I a woman? ... And dat little man in black dar, he say woman can't have as much right as man 'cause Christ wa'n't a woman. Whar did your Christ come from? ... From God and a woman. Man had noting to do wit it!" She concluded with: "If woman wants rights, let her take 'em."

In 1864, she was invited to the White House to meet Abraham Lincoln. After the Civil War, she immersed herself in the task of helping to feed, clothe and house recently freed slaves who were living in desperate poverty, especially in Washington DC.

In the nineteenth century, she was known and remembered from the Atlantic Coast to the western frontier. Today, it is her courage, integrity, unflinching allegiance to principle, egalitarianism and vision that immortalize her memory.