Unsinkable Molly Brown

Today’s woman was headstrong, badass and, dare I say it… unsinkable.

Day 7: Margaret “Molly” Brown
1867-1932
Philanthropist, activist, socialite

Molly was born to Irish immigrants in Hannibal, Missouri. Even though she had always talked about marrying a rich man, when she met and fell in love with J.J Brown, a mining superintendent, inn 1886, she married for love. The two struggled financially until gold was struck at one of J.J’s mines– the couple, now extremely well off, moved to Denver, where Margaret Brown became a prominent socialite.

Brown used her new-found status to help others, never forgetting where she came from. Notably, she raised money to help Judge Ben Lindsey’s quest to help destitute children and establish a separate court system for young offenders.

In 1912, while visiting France, Brown got news that her grandchild was sick and decided to cut her trip short and hop on a ship heading back to the US– this ship was the Titanic. I doubt I need to go into the details of what happened (we have a handy Leonardo DiCaprio movie for that). Brown made it on to one of the few life boats and survived the ship’s sinking and, afterwards, raised a significant amount of money (even before the ship that rescued them made it to shore!) to help less wealthy survivors. Her story made headlines and history, and she is remembered as the “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” despite the fact that no one called her Molly during her lifetime.

Now Brown had both status and fame, which she used to further the philanthropic causes about which she was passionate. She ran for the US Senate in 1914 (6 years before most women could vote), but ended her campaign when WWI broke out so she could travel to France to work with the American Committee for Devastated France. She was eventually awarded the Legion d’Honneur by the French government for her efforts.

Thus, although popular culture and memory has painted “Molly” Brown as a brash, comical character who happened to achieve fame due to her involvement with the Titanic, the real Margaret Brown was so much more than that.

Today’s recommendation for celebrating women’s history: Think about how completely erasing women’s voices and contributions is not the only way we silence them. Margaret Brown is just one of many women who history remembers more as a character than a person.

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Today’s profile comes a bit late in the day for two reasons that explain most things behind my life: laziness and indecisiveness. In what is maybe the world’s greatest problem, there are just too many badass women to profile and not enough time. Finally, I decided that I’ve been a bit 20th century heavy so I wanna take a step back a few hundred years.

Day 6: Christine de Pizan
1364-c.1430
Author, Poet, Women’s rights activist

Many people call Christine de Pizan the first feminist. I have a few qualms about applying the term feminist to anyone around before the word came into use (pedantic Sophie is pedantic) but if I were going to do it with anyone, Christine de Pizan would be an excellent choice. She was writing about and campaigning for issues that women today are still fighting for… except she was doing it nearly 600 years ago.

De Pizan was born in Venice but emigrated to France at a young age to be with her father, the court astrologer to Charles V. He made sure that his daughter received a full humanist education regardless of her gender, meaning that she learned Greek, Latin, and a wide variety of other subjects that most women of her age were not exposed to.

She married and had three children, but her husband died tragically (allegedly of the bubonic plague), leaving de Pizan to figure out how to care for her family alone. She turned to writing to earn an income.

Christine de Pizan produced a large body of work, but she is best known (rightfully, in my opinion) for her works on women’s rights. She directly challenged the misogynistic writers of her day, such as Jean de Meun, author of the Romance of the Rose, which portrayed court women as crafty seductresses and nothing more. In edition to openly challenging de Meun for his work, de Pizan wrote her best-known piece, La cite des dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), which many have argued to be an early feminist text. In this book, de Pizan details the building of a symbolic city that honors the achievements of women throughout history and challenges misogynistic stereotypes of them, such as those laid out by de Meun. Inside this city, women would be safe from the attacks of men.

After the French defeat in the Battle of Agincourt, Christine de Pizan chose to retreat from public life and enter a French convent. She wrote little more from this point. However, her work proved enormously influential.

To celebrate women’s history today, I leave you with a quote from de Pizan that I think still holds true. Also, it’s quite funny. Ponder it, as well as the continuity between the Christine de Pizan’s struggle and our own fight for gender equality.

“Thus, not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated. But it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did.”

-Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies

Indira Ghandi

Day 5: Indira Gandhi
1917-1984
Prime Minister of India

Indira Gandhi was the first (and so far only) woman prime minister of India. She was the daughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, which put her in the center of Indian politics from a young age. 

In 1960, Gandhi was elected president of the Indian National Congress. Six years later, after the death of her father’s successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Gandhi was appointed India’s third prime minister.

One of Gandhi’s greatest successes was her involvement in the Shimla Agreement after the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. Her work led to the establishment of an independent Bangladesh.

As her career progressed, Gandhi began to rule with a more authoritarian hand. She was accused of electoral malpractice in 1975 and, in response, asked the president to call for a state of emergency. She lost the next election, but was reelected for a third term in 1980.

In the 1980s, Gandhi’s response to a Sikh separatist movement proved brutal and controversial. A group of Sikh extremists gathered inside the Golden Temple and, in what is known as Operation Blue Star, Gandhi ordered approximately 70,000 soldiers to purge the gathering. This resulted in the death of 450 people. Despite growing tensions, Gandhi refused to fire her trusted Sikh body guards and on October 1931, two of them betrayed her and assassinated point blank. She died on the way to the hospital. Following Gandhi’s cremation, millions of Sikhs were displaced and many were killed in anti-Sikh riots.

I wasn’t positive how to encourage you to celebrate women’s history today, so I asked my dear friend Tanya Gupta, who suggested I profile Gandhi in the first place, if she had any ideas. I think her response is important and beautifully put, so I will quote it here:

“I suppose what I like about her is that she was complex and flawed and hawkish in a way that we don’t often regard women politicians. So, by celebrating Indira Gandhi, we can celebrate that women politicians have carried out many controversial and influential political and military acts. People could read up on ‘Operation Blue Star’ and other super badass and flawed missions that she executed, that many men would not have the guts to do. In short, I celebrate her because she was flawed and controversial and not always great, but that’s what I like about her.”

It is important for us to remember that, just like the men in our history books, the influential women of our past were human. They were complex. They had some incredible triumphs and some bloody defeats. Their presence and their voices matter just the same.

Sylvia Rivera

Day 4 (part 2): Sylvia Rivera

1951-2002
Transgender Activist, Gay liberation activist, Drag queen

With her close friend Marsha P. Johnson, Rivera founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in 1970 in an effort to help homeless LGBT youth, particularly trans women of color. They also founded STAR House, which served as a shelter for homeless LGBT youth.

Rivera fought passionately to challenge the marginalization of trans people in the LGBT movement. Like Marsha P Johnson, Rivera was frequently homeless or imprisoned and forced to turn to sex work to support herself. She also struggled with substance abuse. This influenced her activism and made her scornful of a movement started on the back of trans women that proceeded to push them aside in favor of respectability politics.

Among one of Rivera’s biggest battles was her fight against the exclusion of trans people from New York’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act. She tirelessly fought for the rights of trans people and queer people of color. Even as she lay dying of cancer, to which she succumbed in 2002, LGBT activists visited Rivera for advice– she called them out for not being inclusive enough.

Like I urged in my post on Marsha P Johnson, please please please let these women speak for themselves. CN: transphobia, homophobia, violence, sex work

The following speech is truly incredible. It has moved me to tears every time I have watched it.  At a 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day, a rally was held to honor those who had fought at Stonewall. Rivera was scheduled to speak but some gay liberation leaders thought having her present would be too controversial. Rivera responded by literally fighting her way to the stage, grabbing the microphone and delivering an impassioned condemnation of the non-inclusive movement.

“You all tell me go and hide my tail between my legs! I will not, no longer, put up with this shit. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation. And you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all? Think about that!”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QiigzZCEtQ

Marsha Johnson     Sylvia Rivera 1

In the wee hours of the morning of 28 June 1969, the Stonewall Inn, one of the few places in New York that welcomed gay people, was raided by the police. The ensuing riot has gone down in history as the moment that started the movement for LGBT rights. Gay Liberation has historically been put exclusively into the hands of cis white gay men (remember that offensive film where some random dude named Danny started the riot?) With today’s two profiles, I hope to remedy that at least a bit.

cn: transphobia, homophobia, sex work

Day 4 (part 1): Marsha P Johnson
1945-1992
Transgender activist, AIDS activist, drag queen, veteran of the Stonewall riots

Marsha P Johnson, by many accounts, is THE person who initiated the riot. According to many people who were present at Stonewall, Johnson threw a shot glass at a mirror and was among the first people to physically resist the police.

Johnson was one of the most visible members of New York’s gay community. She was by all accounts very poor and turned to sex work to support herself. The people that knew her describe her as almost saint-like, willing to do anything to help people that were struggling. One of my favorite anecdotes I read about her detailed her asking for spare change on Christopher St (basically the center of the gay community in NYC– Stonewall was on this street) and, even though she needed it herself, turning around and giving it to someone else in need so they could buy some food.

She described Stonewall as the moment that began her life of activism. With her good friend Sylvia Rivera (who I’ll profile later this afternoon), she founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). This organization advocated on behalf of homeless drag queens and runaways and the affiliated STAR House (of which Johnson was a “mother”) served as a shelter for this community that was marginalized by the wider gay liberation movement.

Later in life, horrified that the huge numbers of LGBT individuals killed in the AIDS crisis were being largely ignored, Johnson became an important organizer and activist for ACT UP.

In July 1992, shortly after the annual Pride March, Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River. Police quickly ruled it a suicide, despite the vehement assertions of those that knew Johnson that she was not suicidal. It is suspected that Johnson’s death was a result of a hate crime. In 2012, the police reopened the case as a possible homicide.

Today’s recommendation for celebrating women’s history is less a recommendation and more an insistence. PARTICULARLY if this is the first time you have heard Marsha P Johnson’s name, do not let the words of a white cis girl be the only way you think about her and her contributions today. If you can spare an hour of your time, I am providing the link in the comments on this post to the documentary Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P Johnson, which is made up primarily of an interview given by Johnson just two days before her death. Watch it. Remember her.

I’ll see you in a few hours to discuss the co-founder of STAR, Sylvia Rivera.

Ancient History

Today’s woman from history is someone I literally learned about for the first time yesterday but I just thought her existence was too freaking cool not to include. Thanks, Dr. Amanda Foreman, for including this in your documentary The Ascent of Woman! This profile may be a bit rough because ancient history, particularly SUMERIAN history is far from my specialty, but I like to share things that excite me.

Did YOU know the first named author (at least that we have record of) was a woman? I didn’t but I’m glad I do now!

DAY 3: Enheduanna
c.2285-2250 BCE
Priestess, princess, poet, composer

Enheduanna was the daughter of Sargon of Akkad (Agade? I’ve seen it spelled a few ways), the king who unified what we think of as Mesopotamia. In an impressive political attempt to unify the residents of his new empire, Sargon appointed Enheduanna high priestess of Nanna, the moon goddess in Sumerian city-state, Ur. This was an incredibly prestigious, political position that would be held by royal daughters or sisters for centuries.

Enheduanna (whose name translates to “high priestess adornment of the god, An) is exciting because there’s quite a lot of archaeological evidence proving her existence and providing details about her life, including two seals with her name on them. Notably, she left behind “The Sumerian Temple Hymns” and a work known as “The Exaltation of Inanna” written on tablets in cuneiform. In her work, she refers to herself as “I, Enheduanna” naming herself in a way which, as I understand it, was a huge idea for someone of any gender, let alone a woman. According to historians, she is the first named author. Ever.

So here we have records of a woman who was not only literate, but well-respected and occupying an important political and religious role over 4000 years ago.

Women were always there, my friends. Women have always been important.

Today’s recommendation for celebrating women’s history: If you’re at Oxford, go to Soofiya Andry’s talk at 5:30 in Pembroke’s Pitchette Auditorium! I’ll put the link to the Eventbrite in the comments!

Alternatively, check out the 4 part BBC documentary The Ascent of Woman, which is where I learned about Enheduanna! I’ve only watched the first part, but if it continues at that quality, it’s really worth watching. I had a bit of a rough time finding it, but the first part is on Youtube (link also in the comments!)

Claudia Jones

You thought I forgot, didn’t you? On day two? That would be um… rather irresponsible ahem. Today’s lady from history is someone whom I read a book about for one of my essays last week and I rather like her.

DAY 2: Claudia Jones
1915-1964
Journalist, activist, feminist, communist, badass

Claudia Jones was born in Trinidad but her family migrated to the United States when she was young. In the US, Jones became very involved in advancing the causes of black nationalism and feminism by way of communism. She basically took the Marxist framework and was like “hey, what if we talk about race and gender too?” I would definitely call her work a precursor to intersectional feminism. As you can imagine, being an open communist (particularly a black, female, immigrant communist) in post-war United States was far from popular, and Jones was arrested several times for her political activity before being deported in 1955. After deportation, Jones migrated to the UK, where she founded The West Indian Gazette, Britain’s first major black newspaper. Also, in response to the Notting Hill race riots of 1959, Jones organized the first Caribbean Carnival in London. This legacy lives on in today’s annual Notting Hill Carnival.

Jones died in 1964 and is buried in Highgate Cemetery. In a piece of beautiful symbolism of the likes that biographers dream of (because it makes for catchy titles and poignant conclusion chapters), she is buried directly to the left of Karl Marx.

Today’s recommendation for celebrating Women’s History: I have two!
1. Read anything Claudia Jones wrote (in particular her essay “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!”).
2. Take a moment to reflect on the way that women are erased from the history of major political and social movements. Think of any struggle and remember, women were there and they MATTERED. History often erases their voices, but we must do everything in our power to remember them.

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I’m doing a bonus woman today for multiple reasons, the main ones being 1) I should be writing an essay but don’t feel like it, 2) I need to make up for the days I am inevitably going to miss and 3) I noticed it is Saint David’s Day in Wales and it seemed wrong not to find a badass Welsh lady. Welsh friends, if this is a terrible choice, please do not stone me. I spent about twenty minutes with Google.

Day 1 (BONUS!): Tanni Grey-Thompson
1969-
Athlete, Parliamentarian, Badass

Grey-Thompson was born with spina bifida, which caused her to have to use a wheelchair. Not to let that hold her back, she became a Paralympic athlete and went on to win an absurd amount of medals– 16 at the Paralympic Games and 13 World Championship. She retired from athletics in 2007, but certainly did not leave the public eye. Today she sits in the House of Lords, recently blocking cuts to welfare for people with illnesses and disabilities.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/tory-welfare-cuts-blocked-by-house-of-lords-following-emotive-speech-by-paralympic-gold-medallist-a6904791.html

Happy Saint David’s Day, Welsh friends, and Happy Women’s History Month all friends!

ECS

Women’s History Month Day 1: Elizabeth Cady Stanton
1815-1902
Suffragist, abolitionist, activist, all around badass.

As some of you may know, Elizabeth Cady Stanton is my favorite historical figure. She truly was a woman ahead of her time. In 1848, she was arguably THE key figure at Seneca Falls, writing and presenting “The Declaration of Sentiments” which is basically to the women’s rights movement what the Declaration of Independence was to the US War of Independence. She and her lifelong friend, Susan B. Anthony, were the founders and leaders of the National Woman Suffrage Association, the faction of the suffrage movement that developed out of frustration that the fifteenth amendment did not extend the franchise to women. Later, when the suffrage movement resolved their differences and formed the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Stanton served as the first president.

Suffrage is what Stanton is remembered for, but it DEFINITELY wasn’t the only thing she fought for. She advocated women’s rights much more broadly and I would argue that she was the precursor to second wave feminism. Most controversially, in 1895 (with part 2 in 1898), Stanton and a committee of friends wrote The Woman’s Bible, where they took passages from the Bible and added commentary to argue that Christianity had been misinterpreted throughout the ages to oppress women. In a heartbreaking twist, her involvement with the Women’s Bible effectively got Stanton kicked out of the movement she played a key role in creating, and her influence was largely written out of history until the 1960s.

My recommendation for those wanting to celebrate women’s history today: take a look at Stanton’s beautiful resignation speech from NAWSA in 1892, “The Solitude of Self.”

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