In 1862, nineteen-year-old Sarah Rosetta Wakeman from New York dressed as a man and enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. She served for nearly two years. She finally faced the horror of battle at Pleasant Hill in Louisiana. In letters to her family, Rosetta describes day-to-day experiences as a surreptitious soldier, trying to make sense of her life and hoping to make it out alive.
The Woman Who Soldiered in the Civil War
In 1862, nineteen-year-old Sarah Rosetta Wakeman lived with her parents, six sisters and two brothers in Afton, near Harpursville, in southcentral New York. The Wakeman family ran a dairy farm along the Susquehanna River.
To help the family keep the heavily indebted farm operating, Rosetta worked locally as a domestic.
n August of that year, the five-foot-tall Rosetta cut her hair short, dressed as man, and hired on as a boatman on the Chenango Canal. She ran a load of coal about a hundred miles north to Canajoharie, New York. She fell in with some soldiers, who encouraged her to enlist in the army. Rosetta signed up in Fonda, New York with the 153rd Regiment, Company G, New York State Volunteers.
Rosetta Wakeman enlisted and successfully passed the army recruitment medical exam as Lyons Wakeman. At the time of the Civil War, the entrance physicals were not rigorous. Their thoroughness and validity depended on the perspicacity of the doctors who performed them. Many aspiring soldiers had to merely show that they could handle a rifle and were otherwise healthy and bodily sound.
Entering soldiers faced no boot camp with physical training. Most soldiers bivouacked outdoors and had ample opportunity for privacy in matters of personal hygiene. And since women did not wear pants in everyday society, anyone wearing them was assumed to be a man, no questions asked. Most of the soldiers who served in the armies during the Civil War were young, including many pre-adolescent boys with smooth faces and high voices. Conditions were such one hundred and sixty years ago that as many as four hundred women were able to serve on both sides in the War.
Rosetta (Lyons) Wakeman enrolled as a private, on August 30, 1862, for three years. She sent her signing bonus of $152 (a little over $4,000 in today’s money) to her family for food and clothing. She drew a soldier’s salary of $13 (about $345) a month.
Rosetta in her letters never stated her purpose for joining the Army and going into battle. She talked about the money that she could send to her family, the desire to be a good soldier, making her “stand with the rest,” and giving the rebels “a lick.” At one point, she asked her family members what they thought of the war, without revealing her own opinions and feelings.
Rosetta enjoyed her life as a soldier and told her family in her letters, “You mustn’t trouble yourself about me. I am contented. I want you to get along the best way you can until this war is over. I believe God will spare my life to come home once more. Then I will help you pay your debts.”
Rosetta was stationed in Washington D.C. Her Company G had the duty of patrolling and protecting the area around the nation’s capital. On July 3, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg, in which the Union Army claimed an important victory, was fought about seventy miles from where Rosetta was waiting to go into battle. She stood guard at the prison holding Confederate officers and enlisted men, and at the D.C. camp, depot, and city hall.
On February 18, 1864, Rosetta left Washington, D.C. Her company marched to Alexandria, Virginia and boarded a boat, arriving in New Orleans ten days later. In her camp, soldiers slept five to a bunk. The men were ordered to “strip and wash themselves thoroughly.” Rosetta (and presumably other women in the camp) found ways to do this without being detected.
As she left for battle, Rosetta bid her family goodbye, stating in a letter that she never expected to see them again.
Twenty thousand troops left Franklin, Louisiana for Alexandria, Louisiana on March 15, 1864. The plan was to join other Union land and naval forces and continue up to Shreveport for battle with Confederate troops.
In organizing this movement, the officer in charge issued an order that no women would accompany the command except by express authority from Headquarters. These women were typically support staff and relatives of officers. Headquarters apparently never suspected that a woman would be in uniform.
Rosetta never talked in her letters specifically about her own experience as a woman in the Union Army, but she did mention a woman officer from the Union Army who was confined in the prison she was guarding. The woman rode her horse into a hailstorm of bullets leading her men into battle. Then, she was imprisoned for, as Rosetta called it, “not doing accordingly to the regulation of war.”
After a ten-day, two-hundred-mile march, Rosetta’s company reached Alexandria, Louisiana. They headed on toward Shreveport, only to be engaged in battle by eleven thousand Confederate troops Rosetta was stationed a few miles away, guarding the Union Army’s wagon train. The next day, Rosetta found herself fully immersed in a Union Army victory at the Battle of Pleasant Hill. She was in the front lines during the four-hour skirmish. She witnessed the sights and sounds of wounded and dying soldiers all around her.
After the victory at Pleasant Hill, Rosetta joined in the brutal, forced, forty-mile retreat march. On April 14, 1864, she wrote her last letter home. She talked of her experience, facing enemy bullets, being under fire for hours, laying on the battlefield all night. From her company, three men were wounded, and one killed. Rosetta thanked God that her life was spared, and she promised to return to her family and help buy and run a new farm, if, she said, she “lived to get out of the army.”
After four hundred miles of marching, camping and fighting in the Louisiana climate, and consuming scanty meals and drinking and bathing in unsafe water, many soldiers suffered from scurvy and chronic diarrhea. On May 3, 1864, Rosetta entered the regimental hospital with chronic diarrhea. She was transferred to New Orleans. Because of Confederate attacks on the waterways, the voyage took fifteen days. Then Rosetta was transported over rough roads another three-hundred-fifty miles. She was admitted to the general hospital on May 22, with not chronic, but acute, diarrhea. She lay in one of the nearly six thousand beds in the Federal army hospital. She lingered for nearly a month and died on Sunday, June 19, 1864.
Throughout her nearly two-year experience as a Union solider, Rosetta (sometimes Lyons and sometimes Edwin R. Wakeman) was never found out as a woman. In hospital, if she was discovered, the attendants, nurses and surgeons on the medical staff never noted it in her records. She apparently was never closely examined or prescribed treatment any more aggressive or invasive than bed rest.
Over two hundred thousand Union service members in the Civil War died of disease, half of the war’s casualties. When Rosetta’s own regiment, the 153rd, finally disbanded and mustered out on October 2, 1865, eighty percent of the casualties were victims of disease.
Rosetta’s family was notified of her death. The 1865 Census for her county in New York State included an entry for the death of twenty-one-year-old Private Lyons Wakeman. Rosetta was given a soldier’s burial at the national cemetery in New Orleans. On her headstone is engraved the name, Lyons Wakeman.
Twelve thousand Civil War soldiers are buried at the national cemetery beside Rosetta. We will probably never know how many of those are women, who, against all odds, answered the call to serve their country.
[To read Rosetta Wakeman’s letters and learn more about her life and experience in the context of the Civil War, see An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864, Lauren Cook Burgess, ed. Oxford University Press; Illustrated edition (February 29, 1996.]
The Woman Who Invented Computer Programming
Daughter of poet, Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace studied mathematics from age four. Ada's lineage and natural brilliance put her in the company of prominent scientists. She became a colleague of mathematician Charles Babbage, who developed a computer called the Analytical Engine. Ada provided an algorithm that is considered the first computer program. Ada is seen as the first computer programmer.
The Woman Who Invented Computer Programming
George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a brilliant poet. Here is an example:
She Walks in Beauty
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
Byron was also a wild man. When he died in 1824, despite his renown, Westminster Abbey in London refused to inter his body because of his "questionable morality." He was linked to many women throughout his thirty-six years of life, and reputedly fathered several children. He did marry once, to Annabella Milbanke, Lady Wentworth, in 1815. The couple separated after a month, and the marriage ended in divorce about a year later, but produced a baby girl, Augusta Ada. Ada's famous father died (of a fever) when she was eight, fighting for the Greeks in their war of independence with the Ottomans. Ada's mother asserted that her ex-husband was insane, and supported her young daughter's interest in math and logic to keep her mind from veering into mental instability. Ada had tutors instructing her in science and math, beginning at age four.
Ada married the Earl of Lovelace in 1835 and became the Countess of Lovelace. Her social standing put her in the presence of prominent scientists, which furthered her education and sharpened her skills.
Ada considered her work poetical science (Although she never met her father, she was inspired by his talent.) She claimed that her mind was marked by “a very high order of poetical genius.” She saw herself as an analyst and a metaphysician. She felt her mathematical work developed her imagination, and had the power to transform her into a poet. She saw mathematics as a language that could express "the great facts" of the natural world and allow, as she said, "the weak mind of man [to] read his Creator's works." Ada felt she could bring together the mathematical and poetic traditions.
When she was twelve, Ada had an idea for a flying horse with a steam engine inside, upon the back of which a person would ride. She studied bird anatomy and flight. She investigated materials for immense wings. She conceived a book, Flyology, with her notes and plates.
As a teenager, Ada became a friend, and finally a colleague, of mathematician Charles Babbage.
Babbage worked on the idea of a digital programmable computer, which he called the Analytical Engine. He had developed mechanical computers, the basic design of which were not unlike modern computers. He worked on a Difference Engine, which could tabulate values of polynomial functions by a method of differences. His more complex Analytical Engine could develop and tabulate any function whatever. It took computation from mechanized arithmetic to a multitude of purposes
Ada Lovelace entered Babbage's development of the Analytical Engine. In 1842, she spent nine months translating a sketch of Babbage's Analytical Engine by Italian mathematician and military engineer, Luigi Menabrea. Ada provided her own set of seven notes, A through G, which were three times longer than the Menabrea "memoir" itself. In her notes, Ada explained how the Analytical Engine differed from the Difference Engine. As she explained, the Analytical Engine is an embodiment of the science of operations, constructed with peculiar reference to abstract number as the subject of those operations. The Difference Engine is the embodiment of one particular and very limited set of operations.
Ada's final Note G provided an algorithm for computing Bernoulli numbers (a uniform formula for all sums of powers and their coefficients) with the Analytical Engine. It was determined that had Babbage's Analytical Engine been fully built, Ada's method would have worked successfully. For this fact, Ada's notes are seen as a description of a computer and software. Her method is considered the first computer program. Ada Lovelace is considered the first computer programmer.
Ada recognized the potential of an analytical engine beyond calculating numbers. She foresaw computer applications to any process that had logical symbols as a basis: numbers, letters, musical notes. As she stated, "the engine might even compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent." Her insights built the bridge from calculation to computation. Through the language of mathematics, a machine can compose and create as precisely and beautifully as a poet.
Ada Lovelace garnered little attention in her lifetime for her contributions to computing. When she and Babbage published their results in 1843, few noticed. When the material was republished in 1953, in B.V. Bowden's book, Faster Than Thought: A Symposium on Digital Computing Machines (available on Amazon), just as the field of computer science was burgeoning, Ada gained an audience and her due recognition.
A computer programming language, named Ada, is now in use in real-time systems in aviation, health care, transportation, finance, infrastructure, and space industries.
For a taste of Ada's brilliance, read her Translator's Notes at https://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/sketch.html
For more information on Ada Lovelace and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths), go to findingada.com
The Woman Who Was a Comet
Maria Mitchell was America's first professional female astronomer. In 1847, she discovered "Miss Mitchell's Comet," which won her a gold medal from the King of Denmark and instant fame. During her illustrious career, Maria added immensely to the field of astronomy, was hired as the first professor at Vassar College in 1865, and opened doors to women in science and in life.
The Woman Who Was a Comet
Maria (Ma-RYE'-ah) Mitchell got her own Google Doodle on August 1, 2003, the one-hundred-and-ninety-fifth anniversary of her birth. The above graphic shows her sitting on a carpet on a nighttime roof, looking through a telescope at the stars. Maria started peering through a telescope, helping her father calculate the time of a solar eclipse or observing stars for the U.S. Coast Guard, when she was twelve, in Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1830. Her father worked at a bank, with living quarters. He built a telescope on the roof. It is upon that roof that Maria sits in the illustration.
Maria came from a Quaker family with nine sisters and brothers. Quaker families valued education for all children, including girls, and advocated equality for women (very much against the trend of the time). Maria went through local schools, including her father's, where she was a teaching assistant, and started her own school when she was seventeen. She followed the legacy of independent Nantucket women, who handled life's business while their men folk were away at sea for months or years.
In her hometown, Maria plotted the movements of stars and planets and rated chronometers (devices that determined longitude by celestial navigation) for Nantucket whaling ships.
When she was eighteen, she was hired as the Nantucket Atheneum’s first librarian. During her twenty years on the job, Maria continued her observations and self-study of astronomy.
While still in her twenties, Maria discovered through a two-inch telescope a new, blurry object in the sky. She knew every speck in that night sky. She presumed it was a star, but the next night, the "star" had moved. Maria charted the orbit of what she felt sure was a comet. Indeed! C/1847 T1 was also designated, "Miss Mitchell's Comet." She was the second woman in history to discover a comet and the first woman to win a gold medal from the King of Denmark, who offered a prize for the discovery and identification of telescopic comets (those invisible to the eye). “Not in vain do we watch the setting and rising of the stars,” read the inscription on her medal.
In the wake of her fame as that woman astronomer who found her own comet, Maria left her job at the Atheneum and traveled through Europe, accompanying Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family, and visiting astronomers and observatories.
At age thirty-one, she joined the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office, later part of the U.S. Naval Observatory, to compute the positions of planet Venus.
When Matthew Vassar founded Vassar College in 1865, as the only college for women in the U.S., he personally invited Maria to join the faculty. She became the college's first professor. She established the Astronomy Department and became director of the College Observatory.
Maria and her students at Vassar kept the first daily photographic records of sunspot activity and investigated Maria's hypothesis that sunspots were whirling, vertical cavities, rather than clouds, on the sun's surface. They documented Venus traversing the Sun, a rare planetary alignment, occurring only eight times in four hundred years. They explored and researched the surfaces of Jupiter and Saturn, using apparatus designed by Maria. They studied comets, nebulae, double stars, and solar eclipses. Maria and her students witnessed a total solar eclipse in Burlington, Iowa in 1869 and again in Denver, Colorado in 1878. Maria taught at Vassar for twenty-three years. She was forced to retire by illness in 1888.
Maria was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the only woman elected for nearly a hundred years afterward. She was elected as the first woman to the Association for the Advancement of Science. She founded the Association for the Advancement of Women and chaired its Committee on Women's Work in Science. She was one of the first women elected to the American Philosophical Society and was inducted into the U.S. National Women's Hall of Fame.
An asteroid, "1455 Mitchella," discovered in 1937, was named after Maria Mitchell. A small crater on the north end of the Moon's Caucasus Mountain range is named "Mitchell." Nantucket, Maria's hometown, opened its Maria Mitchell Observatory in 1908.
Looking at the smile on Maria Mitchell's face on her Google Doodle, it would seem that peering through the eyepiece of a telescope was the sole focus of her intellectual and creative energy. But she spent her life educating and empowering women.
Many of Maria's students went on to have significant careers in astronomy, including Christine Ladd Franklin, who was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, Mary Whitney, who succeeded Maria as Professor of Astronomy at Vassar, and Antonia Maury, of the Harvard Observatory. They all later testified to the influence that Maria had on their careers and lives.
Maria was a leader in the women's suffragette movement but decided to put her time and energy into her science and the classroom. She refused second-rate treatment. When she learned that men professors at Vassar made three times her salary, she gave an ultimatum and her salary was made commensurate. Refused entry to the Vatican Observatory during one of her Europe trips because she was a woman, Maria insisted for two weeks and finally was allowed entrance, as the first woman (but only during the day). As a founder and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women, Maria worked with and maintained friendships with leading suffragettes, such as Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony. Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, and Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.
“No woman should say, 'I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be? --Born a woman--born with the average brain of humanity--born with more than an average heart--if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power."--Maria Mitchell
The Woman Who Created a Monster
Mary Shelley wrote the Gothic/Horror novel, Frankenstein, when she was nineteen. Although the book is one of the most famous novels ever published, Shelley long lived under the shadow of her famous poet husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary Shelley's life was filled with triumph, love, and horrible loss. She has emerged in modern times as a gifted writer and original genius in her own right.
The Woman Who Created a Monster
When Mary Shelley was six years old,she and her stepsister hid behind the parlor couch as the adults sitting around the room chatted. She heard the voice of her father’s friend, Samuel Coleridge, reciting his poem,” The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Mary never forgot that moment and mentioned the poem in her later famous works.
Mary Shelley was born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in northwest London, on August 30, 1797. Her parents were the renowned writer, political philosopher, and anarchist, William Godwin and writer and women’s rights advocate, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Baby Mary’s mother died of postpartum infection eleven days after giving birth. Mary was raised and educated by her father, who made available to her his library and exposure to friends such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Charles and Mary Lamb.
When she was four, Mary’s father married a neighbor, Mary Jane Clairmont. Mary did not get along with her stepmother, however, Clairmont started M. J. Godwin Publishing with Mary’s father. Under the Juvenile Library imprint, they published Mary’s children’s book, Mounseer Nongtongpaw; or, the Discoveries of John Bull in a Trip to Paris. Mary Godwin was eleven years old.
At seventeen, Mary Godwin fell in love with one of her father’s political followers, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley was married, but Godwin and Shelley left England for two years in Europe. When they came back, Godwin was pregnant. After their baby girl died and Shelly’s wife committed suicide, the couple married on December 30, 1816. Mary was nineteen.
In the year of their marriage, the Shelleys spent time in Geneva with poet, Lord Byron, and other friends. During the rendezvous, Byron challenged members of the group to write a ghost story. Shelley dreamed of a pale student kneeling in horror beside the thing he had put together and brought to life. The story she wrote was the germ of the idea for her novel, Frankenstein. When Byron heard the story, he ran “shrieking in horror” from the room.
Two years later, Mary and Percy Shelley lived in Italy, where they had two more children, both of whom died. In 1819, they had a son, their only child to survive to adulthood. On July 8, 1822, Shelley’s husband drowned when his sailboat sank in a storm near Livorno. The next year, Mary Shelley returned to England to raise her son and concentrate on her writing. She died on February 1, 1851, age 53, after suffering for over a decade from headaches, numbness, impaired speech, and paralysis, all caused by a brain tumor.
Frankenstein was published anonymously in three volumes in 1818. Mary Shelley put her name on the second edition, published four years later. A one-volume “popular” edition was finally published in 1831. It has become one of the most popular novels of all time.
Frankenstein became the work for which Mary Shelley’s literary reputation was immortalized. She emerged from the shadow of her famous poet husband (whose reputation she championed) by publishing six other novels in a total of sixteen volumes. She also published three volumes of travel narratives, twenty-four short stories, three children’s books, twenty-one articles, six works of biography, eighteen poems, fifteen fragments, letters, and a translation of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s work.
Mary Shelley’s work had been out of print for over a hundred years. Since it again became available to readers in the nineteen eighties, scholars considered Mary Shelley to be a major Romantic figure, according to Professor Betty T. Bennett, significant for her literary achievement and her political voice as a woman and a liberal.
Mary Shelley followed her mother’s feminist principles by offering support to women whom society disapproved. She explored many existential themes, questioned institutional practices, explored gender roles, focused on the roles of family in society and women in family. Professor Anne K. Mellor said that Shelley was "profoundly committed to an ethic of cooperation, mutual dependence, and self-sacrifice."
In 1989, Emily Sunstein published Mary Shelley, Romance and Reality. Independent scholar, Sunstein analyzed Shelley’s works in their full historical context. She clarified Mary Shelley’s long distorted reputation and showed her to be an original genius in her own right.
The Woman Who Kept Her Seat
In 1884, Ida B. Wells was removed from a train for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman. She wrote a newspaper article reporting on her mistreatment. As an investigative journalist, Wells exposed the occurrences and causes of the lynching of black citizens in the post-Civil War South. She worked relentlessly as a crusader to improve the lives of African Americans in the United States.
The Woman Who Kept Her Seat
When Ida Bell Wells was twenty-one years old,she rode a train out of Memphis. A conductor ordered her to give up her paid first-class seat to a white woman and move to the crowded smoking car. When Wells refused, the conductor and two men dragged her out of the car. Wells wrote a newspaper article about her treatment. She hired a lawyer and sued the railroad. She won the case in the local circuit court. and was awarded five hundred dollars. The railroad appealed, and the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling. Wells had to pay court costs. Wells’s response was: “Is there no justice in this land for us.”
Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, less than five months before President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Her parents were slaves. Her father had an interest in politics and was a member of the Loyal League. Like her father, Wells attended Shaw University (now Rust College). She was expelled for confronting the college president. She moved to Memphis and taught school. She was offered a job as a reporter at the Evening Star newspaper in Washington, D.C. In 1869, she was co-owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, an anti-segregationist newspaper.
In 1892, while Wells lived in Memphis, her friend, Thomas Moss, opened a grocery store on the outskirts of town. The store became a success, in direct competition with a white-owned store across the street. After a few confrontations, a group of white men attacked the store. Three white men were shot and injured during the melee. Moss and two other black men were jailed. A white mob overtook the jail, captured the three men, and lynched them. Wells wrote about the lynching in the Free Speech and Headlight, emphasizing the public aspect of the lynching. She urged black people in her article to leave Memphis, a town, she said, that did not protect black lives and property, or gave fair trials in court. More than six thousand people did leave Memphis, or organized boycotts of white-owned businesses in the city.
The event at the Memphis jail started Wells investigating the occurrences and causes of lynchings. She traveled the South, doing eyewitness interviews and studying reports on numerous cases. Wells published her findings in a pamphlet, entitled, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. She reported that black people were lynched more as a matter of social control--for not giving way to whites, competing with whites economically, being delinquent on debts or drunk in public—rather than for actual occurrences of sexual abuse and attacks on white women, as claimed. The pretense of sexually motivated crimes perpetuated by black men on white women helped promote the acceptance of, and silence about, lynchings from the white community, and its acceptance by the educated black community. Subsequent studies ultimately backed Wells’s finding that lynching is a form of community control. Economics played a major role. It was a form of suppression and subjugation.
Wells worked with leaders such as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois to expose racial injustice and the basis of Southern lynchings. She demanded federal policies to protect black citizens from lynching. (The Civil Rights of 1964 finally provided that protection.)
Wells toured Great Britain to give talks to inform the British public about the problem of lynchings in the United States. Her two tours of Europe helped her gain support for her cause. She wanted the people in Britain to put pressure on the American government to protect the safety of its black citizens by boycotting products, specifically cotton, produced in the South.
Wells published The Red Record in 1895 to describe lynchings in the U.S. since the Emancipation Proclamation. It explored the high rates of lynching, which peaked from 1880 to 1930. (The Chicago Tribune reported that 800 lynchings occurred from 1882 to 1891. The NAACP reported 3,436 lynchings from 1889 to 1922. In her own writing, Wells claims that from 1865 to 1895, most than 10,000 lynchings happened.) Before the emancipation, white Americans had not been as aggressive against blacks, Wells reported, because of the economic labor value of slaves. After emancipation, whites feared black political activity and economic progress.
Wells moved to Chicago for her own personal safety. She helped improve conditions for the growing African American population that left rural areas and came to the city for jobs. In 1909, she helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Ida B. Wells died of kidney disease in 1931. She left unfinished her autobiography, Crusade for Justice. It was completed by her daughter and published in 1970.
In 2018, the New York Times published a posthumous obituary of Ida B. Wells, calling her one of the nation’s most influential investigative reporters.
The Woman Who Found the West
Sacagawea traveled five thousand miles through wilderness with her infant son as a member of Lewis and Clark's exploration of the Louisiana Territory and trailblazing to the Pacific Ocean. Her natural skills, knowledge, and resourcefulness ensured the survival and success of the Expedition. Sacagawea is a face of the women's rights movement and one of the most honored women in American history.
The Woman Who Found the West
The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texasforty two years ago inducted a Shoshone woman who lived from 1788 to 1812. The organization honors and celebrates women whose lives exemplify the courage, resilience and independence that helped shape the American West, and foster an appreciation of the ideals and spirit of self-reliance they inspire.
The young woman, Sacagawea (the now-accepted spelling, pronounced with a hard “g”—sac-ah-guh-we-a) not only helped shape with her exemplary qualities the American West, she helped found the American West.
Sacagawea was born a Lemhi Shoshone near Salmon, Idaho. She was kidnapped when she was twelve in a battle by a Hidatsa raiding party and held captive in southeastern North Dakota. In 1801, when she was thirteen, she was sold into marriage to a French trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau.
Sacagawea was pregnant with her first child in 1804 when the U.S. Army Corps of Discovery built a fort in Hidatsa territory. Two officers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark interviewed trappers to interpret and guide on their expedition up the Missouri River to explore and describe part of the Louisiana Territory and find a route to the Pacific Ocean. They hired Charbonneau because he had a wife who spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa. The group would need help from Shoshone tribes on the five-thousand mile wilderness journey. Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and their two-month-old son, Jean-Baptiste, joined the thirty-three member expedition.
In April 1805, one of the Expedition’s canoes capsized in the Missouri in a storm. The canoe tipped and Sacagawea had the presence of mind to rescue all the journals, records, instruments, medicines, and other provisions, while protecting her infant son. She was praised for her quick decision-making and action. The Expedition named a branch of the Missouri the Sacagawea River in her honor.
A few months later, the Corps met a Shoshone tribe. Sacagawea interpreted for horse trading for the crossing of the Rocky Mountains. She discovered that the chief was her brother, who she had not seen in five years. The tribe was from her nation. After the reunion, the Expedition was granted the horses it needed for the journey.
Over the Rockies, the party was reduced to eating tallow candles. Sacagawea located plants and berries and cooked roots to help them survive. On the way back from the Pacific Ocean, she found a mountain pass that allowed the Corps passage through the Rockies. A week later, Sacagawea advised Captain Clark to cross into the Yellowstone River basin. He considered her his pilot. The route she chose was later used by the Northern Pacific Railroad to cross the continental divide. In addition to her wiles and utility, Sacagawea served as a sign to local tribes of the Expedition’s peaceful intention, since a war party would never carry a woman, and her baby.
William Clark wrote that Sacagawea deserved greater reward for her attention and services than the Corps could possibly give her.
After the Expedition, Sacagawea and Charbonneau settled in St. Louis at the invitation of Clark. The Army captain took responsibility for the education of their son. A year after settling in St. Louis, at the age of twenty-four, Sacagawea gave birth to a girl. Four months later, Sacagawea contracted a fever and died. With Charbonneau back in the west fur trading, William Clark adopted the two children.
Oral tradition tells of Sacagawea surviving and marrying into the Comanche tribe. She finally made her way back to the Lemhi Shoshone and died in 1884 at age 96.
Women’s voting rights advocates adopted Sacagawea as a role model and worked to erect a monument to her. In 1963, a monument was erected on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
Sacagawea was the face of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in the early 20th century.
The U.S. government has featured Sacagawea’s on stamps and coins. In 2001, President Bill Clinton posthumously decorated her as an honorary sergeant in the U.S. Army.
According to the United States Mint, more statues, streams, lakes, landmarks, parks, songs, ballads, and poems honor Sacagawea than any other woman in American history.
The Woman Who Wouldn't Take No
Upon graduation from college, Patsy Takemoto Mink was refused admission to medical school because she was a woman. So, she went to law school. No law firm in Honolulu would hire her because she was a woman, so she ran for Congress. She was the first Asian-American woman and the first minority woman to serve. In her 14 terms, she helped pass major legislation, including the Title IX Amendment.
The Woman Who Wouldn't Take No
Patsy Matsu Takemoto ran for student body presidentat Maui High School in Hawaii as a junior in 1941. A month before the election, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Takemoto faced the hostile feelings of her classmates for being of Japanese ancestry and the only female who had ever run for office in the history of the school. She won the election by building alliances, and graduated valedictorian.
At the University of Nebraska, Takemoto was segregated in a dormitory away from white students. She organized a coalition that ended the university’s racist housing policies. After earning a degree at the University of Hawaii, Takemoto was denied entrance to medical school because she was a woman. So, she became a lawyer.
While attending law school at the University of Chicago, Takemoto met and married John Mink. The couple had a daughter and moved back to Hawaii. Patsy Mink was assigned her husband’s residency status and was forced to wait a year before she could take the Hawaii State bar exam. She challenged the law as sexist and passed the bar in 1953. Mink was the first Japanese American woman to practice law in Hawaii.
After being rejected by all Honolulu law firms because she was a woman, Mink worked as a staff attorney at the U.S. Congress. She was elected to the Hawaii Territorial House of Representatives, and then the Territorial Senate. When Hawaii became a state in 1959, she served in the Hawaii State Senate.
In 1966, Mink became the first Asian-American woman (and the first woman of any ethnic minority) to be elected to the U.S. Congress. She served six consecutive terms. She used her skills building alliances as she had in high school to garner support in Congress for the passage of the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act. Title IX prohibits gender discrimination by federally funded institutions.
In 1970, Mink became the first Democratic woman to deliver the response to the State of the Union address, given by Richard Nixon. She introduced the Early Childhood Education Act and wrote the Women’s Education Equity Act, which provided $30 million a year in educational funds for programs to promote gender equity in schools, to increase educational and job opportunities for women, and to eliminate sexual stereotypes from textbooks and school curricula.
In 1972, Mink became the first woman to run for U.S. President. Her run was brief. Nixon won the election.
In 1976, Mink was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as a U.S. Assistant Secretary of State.
In 1990, Mink returned to the House of Representatives.
In 2002, Mink was hospitalized with complications from chicken pox and died of viral pneumonia. She was 74 years old. She died one week before the primary election and was posthumously re-elected to Congress.
Later that year, President George W. Bush renamed Title IX the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.
In 2014, President Barrack Obama honored Patsy Mink posthumous with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Mink is a member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
The Patsy Takemoto Mink Foundation (https://www.patsyminkfoundation.org/) promotes educational access, opportunity and equity for low-income women, especially mothers, and educational enrichment for children.
The Woman Who Painted The Last Supper
When Sister Plautilla Nelli entered a convent in 1548 at age 14, the friar encouraged her to paint devotional works of art. She was the first known Renaissance women painter in Florence, Italy. Florence has the richest tradition in the world of paintings of The Last Supper. In the 1570s, Nelli added her masterwork, as the first woman to paint the subject. Giorgio Vasari called Nelli a virtuosa.
The Woman Who Painted the Last Supper
Pulisena Nelli entered a Dominican convent in Florence, Italy in 1548. At age fourteen, she became Sister Plautilla. Dominican friars ran the convent of Saint Catherine of Siena, following the leadership and teachings of Girolamo Savonarola. Friar Savonarola encouraged religious drawing and devotional painting by women. Sister Nelli’s partially cloistered convent became a center for nun-artists. Women in convents had more freedom to pursue art than married women in Florentine society.
Nelli was a self-taught artist. She held workshops to train other women and used nuns as her models. She copied Renaissance painters to learn her craft. The master, Friar Bartolomeo, was her biggest inspiration. Bartolomeo followed Savonarola’s theories for classicism in art. Bartolomeo left five hundred drawings to a pupil, who passed them on to Sister Nelli.
Nelli was the first-known female Renaissance painter of Florence. She is one of a few women artists mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in his 1550 book, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. He called her a virtuosa. Vasari said of Nelli’s work, “And in the houses of gentlemen throughout Florence, there are so many pictures, that it would be tedious to attempt to speak of them all.”
At that time, women artists, such as Nelli, were highly regarded. A painting by a nun was thought to hold special power. Women artists earned nearly as much as men. In their work, women provided detail about Florentine life and society. Women artists painted portraits that were important in marriage negotiations. Over the subsequent years, women’s artistic accomplishments in Florence were forgotten, and their art works were neglected, stored, hidden from view. The Church cloistered the Saint Catherine of Siena convent a few years before Nelli’s death in 1588, which impinged on the artistic tradition that she helped establish.
Nelli’s works are characterized by the deep emotion expressed on the faces of her subjects and the expressiveness of their hands. Her male figures were criticized (by Vasari) for having feminine features, but Sister Nelli was prohibited by her religious vocation from studying the nude male form.
Most of Nelli’s works are large-scale. They depict religious scenes and include Lamentation with Saints, Saint Catherine Receives the Stigmata, Saint Dominic Receives the Rosary, Saint Catherine in Prayer, Saint Catherine with a Lily, Grieving Madonna, Crucifixion, The Pentecost (exhibited in Perugia), Annunciation, Saint Catherine of Siena, and The Last Supper. Her works are exhibited in museums around Florence, including the Uffizi Gallery.
Plautilla Nelli’s The Last Supper was the only painting she signed. She was the first woman in history to paint the subject, and her work is considered one of the most important paintings by any woman in the history of art. Florence has the richest tradition in the world of paintings of The Last Supper. Nelli’s fresco-like, oil on canvas, painting is her major work. It is over twenty-three feet long and six feet tall and hung on the dining hall wall of the convent in the fifteen-seventies.
[Nelli’s The Last Supper was restored in Florence and went on exhibit in 2019, the first time it has been shown in four hundred and fifty years.]
The Woman Who Stymied Smallpox
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu lost her brother to smallpox in 1713 and contracted the disease herself two years later. When she traveled to the Ottoman Empire as the British Ambassador's wife, she witnessed people being inoculated against the virus. She brought the preventative treatment back to England and faced resistance. After safely inoculating her own daughter, six Death Row inmates, and the children of the Princess of Wales, she gathered global support for innoculaition, which eventually ended smallpox in the world.
The Woman Who Stymied Smallpox
Two months after the birth of her son in 1713,Lady Mary Wortley Montagu lost her twenty-year-old brother to smallpox. Two years later, she contracted the disease herself. Mary survived but was left scarred, physically and emotionally. She made it her life’s work to eradicate the virus.
Mary Pierrepont was born in London in 1689. She was the first daughter of the Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull. Mary was celebrated locally at age seven for her physical beauty. She was also intellectually precocious. She taught herself Latin and read widely from her father’s extensive library. By fifteen, Mary had written two books of poetry, a novel and a romance. She continued to write and publish throughout her life.
At age twenty-three, Mary Pierrepont eloped with Sir Edward Wortley Montagu to avoid a marriage arranged by father. The couple moved to Constantinople in 1716, when her husband was appointed British Ambassador to Turkey. They soon had a daughter. Mary wrote of her experience in the Ottoman Empire in her book, Letters from Turkey. The book became a travelogue classic and was one of the first collections of female observations of Muslim life, especially the lives of Turkish women. The book corrected misconceptions of previous male observers and was seen as much a critique of Western culture as an candid appraisal of Eastern.
While traveling in Turkey, Mary observed the smooth, flawless skin of the locals, unmarked by the prevalent pox. She described the reason in a 1717 letter: “I am going to tell you a thing, that will make you wish yourself here. The small-pox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless. . .There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox; they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what vein you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer her, with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much matter as can lie upon the head of her needle, and after that, binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell . . .”
Mary witnessed variolation, or inoculation, which had been practiced in Asia for thousands of years. In variolation, the practitioner extracted pus containing the virus from an infected person and injected it into a healthy person to initiate an immune response.
Soon after, Mary had the British embassy surgeon inoculate her five-year-old son to protect him against the disease. When she and her family returned to England from Turkey in 1718, Mary brought home her knowledge of, and fervent advocacy for, smallpox inoculation.
Smallpox is caused by the variola virus. The pox virus appears in various forms, and each enters cells differently. The virus replicates in the cytoplasm of cells rather than in the nucleus and it produces specialized proteins not found in other DNA viruses. The virus is transmitted through airborne mucus (coughing, sneezing, the spread of saliva, and involvement with body fluids or bedding). It is carried to, and infects, internal organs through the blood. The virus spreads to the skin, multiplies, and causes pustules. Those people infected have a fever, head- and backache and vomiting twelve days after exposure to the virus. Three days later, the rash appears and turns to blisters, deep in the skin. The blisters eventually disappear but leave scars. Once infection sets in, there is no treatment for smallpox.
The smallpox virus, scientists believe, probably jumped from rodents to humans during the epoch when humans went from hunting and gathering to farming, over ten thousand years ago. Smallpox epidemics began with this transfer of the virus from animal to human host. The smallpox virus is called the world’s worst killer virus. It is estimated that smallpox killed three hundred million people in the twentieth century alone. The virus kills thirty percent of those infected, scarring and blinding survivors. Inoculation against smallpox was the first recorded way of preventing the spread of the virus.
Upon returning to London, Mary faced great skepticism and resistance from the medical establishment to her “folk medicine” approach to the dreaded disease. In 1721, a smallpox epidemic hit London. Mary had the same physician who treated her son in Turkey inoculate her daughter, and Mary publicized the event as the first such treatment in England. She arranged to have six inmates on Death Row at Newgate Prison be given the choice between inoculation from smallpox or inevitable execution. All six chose inoculation, survived, and were released. Amid further mayhem and misunderstanding, the Princess of Wales consented to have her children inoculated. Mary wrote an article under a pseudonym describing and advocating inoculation.
In 1721, health authorities in North American began inoculating people against smallpox.
Seventy-five years later, Edward Jenner developed a safer technique of inoculation, using cowpox rather than smallpox. In 1980, the World Health Organization declared the world to be free of smallpox.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu lived out her life in Europe and returned to England in January 1762 at age seventy-three, where she died of cancer seven months later.
While Mary gained renown for her poetry, essays, and plays, she is best remembered for her correspondence from the Ottoman. Mary’s Letters from Turkey was a best seller. As writer Carolyn McDowall said, “[Her letters] became a model for lively letter writing, inspiring and influencing sensibilities about what constituted an effective and entertaining personal letter. Her description of life inside a harem would go on to influence the work of Orientalist painters, illustrators, and writers in the nineteenth century.”
The Woman Who Schooled Spies
Vera Atkins was an officer in British Intelligence during World War Two. She worked in the French Section of the Special Operations Executive to train women and men to parachute into France behind Nazi lines. Atkins recruited, trained, dispatched, and tracked her secret agents. After the war, she established the causes of death of 117 agents who did not return, including 14 women agents.
The Woman Who Schooled Spies
During World War Two, British Intelligence needed womenand men to parachute into France and join the resistance against the Germany Army. Vera Atkins was the person in England who recruited, trained, dispatched, and watched over these Nazi fighters.
Vera Atkins was born Vera Rosenberg in Bucharest, Romania in 1908. In the mid-1930s, amid rising anti-Semitism in Europe, she moved with her family to London. She adopted her mother’s maiden name. She studied modern languages at the Sorbonne in Paris and attended finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Vera’s father was an influential businessman in Romania. Vera was acquainted with diplomats from British Intelligence, who later supported her application for citizenship in England.
In 1940, Vera traveled to Holland to pay a German officer to get her cousin out of Romania. Vera became stranded when the German Army invaded the Netherlands. She had to go into hiding and was able to get back to Britain with the help of the Belgian resistance.
The next year, Vera took a job as a secretary in the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). She quickly was made assistant to the Section Head and became an intelligence officer. She then joined the French Section.
As intelligence officer in the F Section of the SOE, Vera helped prepare her agents with their use of the French language, their knowledge of laws, rules, and curfews, and the validity of their intricate cover stories with false identities and backgrounds, to be sure they blended undetected into French society behind the enemy line. The agents then underwent commando training to learn how to shoot guns and set off explosives. They completed a survival course and learned how to parachute. Vera accompanied her agents to the airfields for their departure to France. She updated the agents’ families on their situations and status. Vera also waited up nights to receive and decode messages from her secret agents. She was renowned for her loyalty to her four hundred women and men agents.
After the war ended, Vera traveled to France and Germany to find the whereabouts of the one hundred eighteen F-Section agents who were missing in action, fourteen of which were women. She searched records and interviewed personnel at German concentration camps. She interrogated Rudolf Hoess, ex-commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Vera traced one hundred seventeen dead agents (the last one was determined to be a compulsive gambler who disappeared with SOE money near Monte Carlo). She established the places of death of the fourteen women agents, detailed their bravery, before and after capture, and garnered recognition of their service and sacrifice from the British government.
From A Man Called Intrepid, by William Stephenson:
Vera Atkins, the heart and brain of the Baker Street Irregulars' French Section, was a young and highly organized woman with a misleadingly innocent smile and an eagle eye for detail. She had an encyclopedic memory for local regulations in odd comers of Europe and subtleties of behavior that a stranger might fatally ignore. She had private sources of "bits of theater" that reinforced an agent's cover; tram tickets from the region where the agent was going, concert programs, crumpled French cigarette packs. She checked the agent in these last remaining days, at meals, in conversation, at work, and even while sleeping. A slip in the pouring of tea, the wrong use of jargon, a sudden reaction to the sound of the agent's real name-these she caught. Like other COs, she nursed the agent through final briefings in a cozy apartment at Orchard Court, near Baker Street.
Vera spent her life after the war working to keep the memory of the Resistance alive. In 1987, she was appointed Commander of the Legion of Honor, the highest order of France. Vera retired to the south of England, where she died in 2000 at the age of 92.
The Woman Who Perceives
the Cries of the World
This woman who… is a man. This man is a woman. And the bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara, is neither male nor female and is both. She transforms her body into any form she needs to alleviate suffering. We call her Kuan Yin and Kannon. She is known as the one who perceives the cries of the world. Through her, we engage and bring love, compassion and kindness to all beings.
The Woman Who Perceives the Cries of the World
This woman is a man. This man is a woman. And the bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara, is neither male nor female and is both. She can transform the body into any shape or form she needs to alleviate suffering.
Many of us know her as Kuan Yin, from China. She is called Kannon, or more formally, Kanzeon, in Japan. Avalokitesvara (a-VA-lo-kit-esh-vara), in India, is another of her many names. Her name means she “who perceives the cries of the world.” Many know her as the Goddess of Mercy. She is truly an all-powerful bodhisattva who embodies infinite compassion and mercy.
A bodhisattva is a being who has reached enlightenment - perfect realization - on the Buddhist path, but vows to turn back, reenter the world and stay engaged to work for the enlightenment of all living beings - to liberate all beings from their suffering. In a Western frame, she might be more a saint than a goddess.
The earliest texts presenting the teachings of Avalokitesvara appeared in the first century, common era. Throughout ancient Asian cultures, Avalokitesvara has assumed innumerable forms. For centuries, he was worshipped as a male figure. In seventh-century China, because compassion and mercy are thought of as feminine qualities, Avalokitesvara became female.
Kuan Yin can be seen in thirty-three forms. She can have eleven heads and faces, five eyes, four arms, one thousand hands, and eyes on the palms of her hands. So graced, she is best able to see the suffering of beings all over the world and reach out to alleviate their pain and misery.
We find varying images of Kannon - sitting in meditative posture; standing, with a deer skin draped over her left breast, atop a lotus petal or dragon, looking down, perceiving the world; accompanied by a white cockatoo; flanked by warriors or children, holding children; wearing a crown, white robes and necklaces; holding a jewel, white lotus flower, a willow branch, or bundles of rice; pouring pure water or nectar from a vase; offering food - all appearances and attitudes symbolizing and expressing her depthless, unending compassion and love for all beings. Kannon appears in the form or image of compassion and mercy to which any individual can relate.
People throughout Asia pray in faith to Avalokitesvara as a goddess, for direct intervention to help them through their misfortunes. Seen as a bodhisattva, Kuan Yin perceives the world’s suffering. Her healing, transformative power comes when she inspires us to see the suffering around us and do something about it. When we engage, reach out with our compassionate thoughts, words, and actions, to help bring peace and lovingkindness to those around us, Kannon becomes more than a statue or symbol of the woman who perceives the cries of the world. She becomes a living vehicle for love, compassion, and kindness.