Forgotten Women in History—Part 2

After publishing my first “Forgotten Women in History” blog, a number of readers let me know that they found the stories of these amazing women as fascinating as I did. The New York Times continues to make amends for ignoring the accomplishments of women by publishing some of their stories. Here are a few more:

Rosanell Eaton (1921–2018): Robert D. McFadden describes Rosanell Eaton as a “resolute African-American woman who was hailed by President Barack Obama as a beacon of civil rights.” Called out by Obama as an “obscure civil rights pioneer,” her story is one of courage and perseverance. At the age of twenty-one, she went to the county courthouse in North Carolina where she lived to register to vote. When three white men stopped her at the courthouse door and told her she could not register unless she could recite from memory the preamble to the Constitution, she did so flawlessly. These types of “literacy tests” were often used to turn away black voters, not unlike the challenges faced today in many states, but the men conceded that Eaton passed the test and let her in. She cast her ballot in 1942, becoming one of the state’s first black voters since Reconstruction. She continued her work fighting against racial discrimination until her death in December 2018 at the age of ninety-seven.

Madeline Pollard (1867–?): In a review of Patricia Miller’s new book Bringing Down the Colonel: A Sex Scandal of the Guilded Age, and the “Powerless” Woman Who Took on Washington, Gail Collins of the New York Times notes that Madeline Pollard was a #MeToo pioneer in 1893. In a story with clear parallels to Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Brett Kavanaugh, Pollard sued Kentucky congressman William Breckinridge, a powerful politician from a prominent family who was thirty years her senior, for seducing her as a teenager and leaving her a “ruined woman.” Miller contends that Pollard’s sole motivation for the lawsuit was to challenge the hypocrisy of a system that did not hold powerful men accountable—and she won! In her prescient testimony to an all-male jury, she basically said “time’s up”—and they agreed with her—although we know progress since then has been slow.

Shirley Chisholm (1924–2005): It is fitting that we reflect on the accomplishments of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968—fifty years ago—as the largest number of women of color ever to be elected prepare to be sworn in to Congress in 2019. Born in 1924 to a factory worker from Guyana and a seamstress from Barbados, Chisholm taught school and was active in Democratic Party politics before running for and winning national office in 1968. She unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and is still a powerful role model today.

Jackie Mitchell (1913–1987): In 1931, at the age of seventeen, Jackie Mitchell took the pitching mound for an otherwise all-male minor league team in Tennessee and struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game against the Yankees. Talya Minsberg of the New York Times writes that while Mitchell had been signed to a contract just the week before with the Chattanooga Lookouts as the only female pitcher for a professional team, the baseball commissioner voided her contract after the game, “perhaps embarrassed by the episode.” While many contended that the strikeouts had been rigged, Mitchell denied this to her dying day. In an interview shortly before her death, she said, “Hell, better hitters than them couldn’t hit me. Why should they’ve been any different?”

As a new year begins, it’s important to keep talking about the strong and impactful women from the past and present who have changed the world for the better. Are there any unknown women from history who have inspired you?

Photo of Rosanell Eaton courtesy of A Jones (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Photo of Shirley Chisholm courtesy of Wikimedia (CC0 1.0)

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Forgotten Women in History

I have often wondered, “Where are the women in history? Where are the inventors, pioneers, artists, and leaders who must have existed but are missing from our history books and museums? I applaud the New York Times for acknowledging that their paper has historically ignored the accomplishments of women in both news stories and obituaries. In their attempts to make amends, they are now belatedly publishing some of those stories—and they are fascinating! Here are a few: Ada Lovelace (1815–1852): Claire Cain Miller writes of Ada Lovelace, a mathematician in England who, in 1843, “described how the computer would work, imagined its potential, and wrote the first program” as an addendum, entitled “Notes,” to an academic paper that she translated. Lovelace explained that the computer could not just calculate but could also create, as it “weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.” Miller cites Walter Isaacson as saying, “This insight would become the core concept of the digital age.” When her work was rediscovered in the midtwentieth century, the Defense Department was inspired to name a programming language after her. Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823–1893): Mary Ann Shadd Cary was the “first black woman in North America to edit and publish a newspaper, one of the first black female lawyers in the United States, and an advocate for granting women the right to vote,” writes Megan Specia. Shadd Cary’s first published work was a long letter advocating “We should do more and talk less” to improve the lives of black people in America. She wrote her letter to the newspaper published by African American abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass, who published her letter in its entirety. Born in 1823 to abolitionist parents who often gave refuge to fugitive slaves, Shadd Cary and some members of her family moved to Canada when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Shadd Cary threw herself into encouraging hunted black fugitives to migrate to Canada to safety through her newspaper, the Provincial Freeman, which she established in Ontario. She also traveled by horseback or stagecoach at great personal risk to cross the border back into America to talk about how black people would benefit from life in Canada. After the Civil War she moved back to the United States, graduated from Howard University with a law degree, and thrust herself into the suffrage movement, even though black women often found themselves marginalized in the movement by white women. Esther Morris (1814–1902): In 1869, at the age of 54, Esther Morris moved to the territory of Wyoming where that year the women of Wyoming gained the right to vote and hold public office—about fifty years before Congress ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. By 1870, less than one year later, the first women were sworn in as jurors in the Wyoming territory, and Morris was appointed as the first female justice of the peace. Jessica Anderson tells us that while Morris was the first woman in the United States to become a judge, she is not mentioned in the history books. Nonetheless, the state of Wyoming has always honored her as “Mother Morris” with a statue in front of the state capitol, and as one of the two statues every state is allowed to place in the National Statuary Hall at the Capitol in Washington, DC. Morris’s statue is just one of nine women (out of one hundred) represented in the collection in Washington. Madam C. J. Walker (1867–1919): Madam C. J. Walker was one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire. Walker invented a line of African American hair products in 1905 that grew into the manufacture of hair products and cosmetics. She used her savvy business acumen to build an empire that trained sales beauticians who became well-known throughout the black community not only for product sales but for philanthropic and educational efforts among the African American community. Walker was herself known for her civil rights activism and philanthropy involving educational scholarships and homes for the elderly. But the New York Times has yet to pay her a proper tribute—maybe she’ll be next on their list. I now count these women as some of my heroines from long ago. Who are yours?]]>