Monday, April 29, 2013

Matthew Vassar

Born this day in 1792: Matthew Vassar (1792–1868), founder of Vassar College

Today we give the nod to Matthew Vassar, lest we forget the men who have proved to be more than a product of their time, place, race, and class and have helped to advance the cause of women. At the urging of his niece, Lydia Booth, Vassar donated half of his fortune and 200 acres of land for the establishment of a college for women to rival the leading educational institutions of the day.

Notable Vassar alumnae:
• Edna St. Vincent Millay (1917), the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
• Ellen Swallow Richards (1870), environmental pioneer and the first woman to teach at MIT
• Helen C. Putnam (1878), the first woman gynecologist
• Bernadine Healy (1965), cardiologist, the first woman to head the National Institutes of Health
• Vicki Miles-LaGrange (1974), the first African-American woman sworn in as a United States Attorney

Notable instructors:
• Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1928), a pioneer computer scientist, taught at Vassar before joining the U.S. Naval Reserves
• Maria Mitchell, astronomer, one of the original faculty members at Vassar, was the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Frances Elliott Davis

Born this day in 1877: Frances Elliott Davis (1877–1965), the first officially recognized African American nurse in the American Red Cross

Davis was born Frances Elliott in North Carolina. Her mother, Emma Elliot, was the white daughter of a plantation owner, and her father, Darryl Elliott, was a sharecropper of mixed African American and Cherokee descent. (He had the name Elliott from his mother, who adopted the name as a slave of the Elliott plantation.) Davis’s father left her life early, in preservation of his own, and her mother died when she was 5 years old. Despite her difficulties, Davis, with the quiet determination and perseverance that would come to characterize her career, managed to get herself a basic education.
She completed a teacher training course at Knoxville College in 1907. She taught school for a while, but really wanted to be a nurse. In 1913 she graduated from the Freedmen’s Hospital Training School for Nurses in Washington, D.C., and began working in the area as a private nurse. She applied to the American Red Cross (ARC) and she took the Town and Country Nursing Service course, a program sponsored by the ARC at Teachers College, Columbia University. She was the first African American nurse enrolled in the program. The course, however, did not guarantee official acceptance into the ARC.
Davis worked at the Henry Street Settlement House and for the ARC Town and Country Nursing Service in Jackson, Tennessee. During World War I, the ARC supplied nurses to the Army Nurse Corps. Town and Country Services nurses were automatically enrolled in the Red Cross—all white nurses, that is. After prodding the ARC, Davis received her Red Cross pin, becoming the Red Cross’s first officially recognized African American nurse. (The back of her nurse's pin was labeled with an "A" to indicate that she was an African American—a practice that persisted until 1949.) Even so, she was denied acceptance into the Army Nurse Corps, which did not accept African American nurses until after the war.
Much of the latter part of her career Davis devoted to nurse training, encouraging African American women to take up nursing; working for the Detroit Visiting Nurse Association; working for the Detroit Health Department; and working at the Ford Motor Plant commissary.
Davis died shortly before she was to be honored by the Red Cross at its annual convention in 1965.

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Mary Upton Ferrin

Born this day in 1810: Mary Upton Ferrin (1810–1881), champion of married women’s property rights

In 1848 Upton Ferrin learned that according to the laws of Massachusetts her property belonged to her drunken, abusive husband, whom she wished to divorce. (She was advised that she could maybe steal the silver, but that was about all the property she was allowed.) Finding the laws unsatisfactory, she doggedly petitioned the state of Massachusetts to reform its property and marriage laws.

“The first change in the tyrannous laws of Massachusetts was really due to the work of this one woman, MARY UPTON FERRIN (1810–1881), who for six years, after her own quaint method, poured the hot shot of her earnest conviction of woman’s wrongs into the Legislature. In circulating petitions, she traveled six hundred miles, two-thirds of this distance on foot. Much money was expended besides her time and travel, and her name should be remembered as that of one of the brave pioneers in this work.”
 History of Woman Suffrage: 1876–1885, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Brownell Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Ida Husted Harper

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Friday, April 26, 2013

Sybil Ludington

On this day in 1777 Sybil Ludington (1761–1839) became  a hero of the American Revolution

Sybil Ludington, daughter of a New York militia officer, is New York’s Paul Revere. In 1777 the 16-year-old patriot rode 40 miles in the dark, mustering the militia to face down the British after the British attacked nearby Danbury, Connecticut. After the battle, George Washington traveled to the Ludington home to thank her personally for her role in stopping the British advance into New York. She rode twice the distance of Paul Revere and, unlike Revere, was not apprehended. (And if the paintings and statues of her are accurate—she did it sidesaddle!)

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ruby Doris Smith Robinson

Born this day in 1942: Ruby Doris Smith Robinson (1942–1967), civil rights leader.

In her short 25 years on this planet, Robinson had a big impact on the civil rights movement. As a SNCC field representative she helped organize SNCC chapters in Charleston, South Carolina, Nashville Tennessee, and Macomb, Mississippi. She participated in sit-ins and Freedom Rides and was jailed several times. In By 1966 she she became SNCC’s executive secretary (the first and only woman in that role). She died of cancer the following year.

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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Eudora Welty

Born this day in 1909: Eudora Welty (1909–2001), great American short-story writer and novelist; winner of numerous awards, including several O. Henry awards, the National Medal for Literature, the American Book Award, and a Pulitzer Prize. Welty was also an accomplished photographer (including a WPA photographer), a pursuit supplanted by her writing career.

To read more about her photography, go here and here

To read a short story, go here (“A Worn Path”) and here (“Why I Live at the P.O.”).

A sample of Welty's photography: The Fence, c. 1935

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Clare Boothe Luce

Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, ‘She doesn't have what it takes.’ They will say, ‘Women don't have what it takes.’”

Born this day in 1903: Clare Boothe Luce (1903–1987), member of Congress, diplomat, war correspondent, magazine editor, and playwright noted for her satirical wit

Clare Boothe Luce was born Ann Clare Boothe in New York City. Despite rocky beginnings as the daughter of a moderately unsuccessful show biz couple, Luce was able to receive an education, and by the time she was a young woman she moved in prominent social circles.
In 1923 she married wealthy businessman George Brokaw. Luce, however, was not content to play the role of a wealthy man’s wife, and Brokaw turned out to be an abusive, drunken lout. She divorced him after six years. The couple had one child, Ann.
After her divorce, Luce began the first of several careers. She began writing and editing, and served as editor at Vogue and Vanity Fair. She also wrote a series of short satires about New York society, which were published in the collection Stuffed Shirts in 1931. In 1934 she left Vanity Fair to try her hand as a playwright. Her first play was a flop, but her next three were highly successful Broadway plays (and later motion pictures): The Women, a comedy satirizing high society (1935), Kiss the Boys Goodbye, a satire of American life based on a search for a southern belle to play Scarlett O’Hara in a rousing musical (1938), and Margin for Error, an anti-Nazi play (1940).
In 1935 she married Henry R. Luce, publisher of Time and (later) Life. Luce served as a war correspondent for Life.  She established a reputation as a serious voice on international issues with her account Europe in the Spring (1940).
In 1942 she entered politics, winning a seat in Congress as a representative from Connecticut. She was an outspoken and influential Republican and the first woman to give the keynote address at a Republican National Convention (1944). She was an advocate for equal pay for equal work, fought for racial equality in the armed services, and sponsored bills to establish a department of child health, education, and welfare and a department to promote science and research. She was a strong anti-communist (“Communism is the opiate of the intellectuals with no cure except as a guillotine might be called a cure for dandruff.”)  and a critic of Roosevelt’s foreign policy. After serving two terms, she declined to run for a third (perhaps owing to her grief over losing her daughter to an auto accident in 1944).
She left office to resume writing plays, but remained influential politics. She campaigned for Dwight Eisenhower, who as president appointed her as ambassador to Italy (1953). She resigned in 1956, but in 1959 was again nominated for an ambassadorship—this time to Brazil. Her confirmation was difficult, due largely to the efforts of one man, Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, head of the Foreign Relations Committee.  (Of the difficulty of winning confirmation, she said ''My difficulties, of course, go back some years, when Senator Morse was kicked in the head by a horse.'') Though confirmed, she resigned before taking up the post.
Luce remained active in Republican causes and continued writing for many years. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.

One of the most well-known women in the country, Luce was famous for her acerbic wit. Here is a sampling:
  • No good deed goes unpunished.
  • They say women talk too much. If you have worked in Congress, you know that the filibuster was invented by men.
  • Male supremacy has kept woman down. It has not knocked her out.
  • I refuse the compliment that I think like a man, thought has no sex, one either thinks or one does not.
  • No woman has ever so comforted the distressed or distressed the comfortable.  (About Eleanor Roosevelt.)
  • Nature abhors a virgin—a frozen asset.
  • Money can't buy happiness, but it can make you awfully comfortable while you're being miserable.
  • I'm in my anecdotage.

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Grace Arabell Goldsmith

 Born this day in 1904: Grace Arabell Goldsmith (1904–1975), internationally recognized clinical nutritionist and authority on dietary diseases; established niacin deficiency as the cause of pellagra; established the metabolism and minimum requirements for tryptophan and niacin. Served on the faculty of Tulane University from 1936 to 1975: as dean, School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine (1967–1973); chair, Department of Public Health and Tropical Medicine (1967–1974); and chair, Department of Nutrition (1967­1969); first to introduce nutritional training for medical students.

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Friday, April 5, 2013

Hattie Elizabeth Alexander

Born this day in 1901: Hattie Elizabeth Alexander (1901–1968), pediatrician and microbiologist who developed a successful treatment for influenzal meningitis, a  previously fatal disease

Alexander, a native of Baltimore, Maryland, attended Goucher College as an excellent athlete but an undistinguished student. After graduating with a BA in 1923 she worked for three years as a bacteriologist for state and federal public health services in order to save money for medical school. She was accepted at Johns Hopkins University, where this formerly C student excelled. She received her MD in 1930.
Alexander interned at Baltimore’s Harriet Lane Home, specializing in pediatrics. It was there where she developed an interest in influenzal meningitis, a fatal disease. Next she joined at the Babies Hospital of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, and in 1958 became a full professor in the department of pediatarics. She remained at Columbia for the duration of her career, as physician, teacher, and researcher.
Finding a cure for meningitis was the center of her research. She developed, with the help of immunochemist Michael Heidelberger, a serum that drastically reduced the mortality rate of the disease (from 100% to 10%).  In the course of her research, she became aware that some bacilli became resistant to antibiotics. Alexander began to recognize the role of DNA.  She began studying bacterial genetics, making her one of the earliest geneticists.
Alexander was the recipient of many awards in recognition of her contributions and was the first woman president of the American Pediatric Society.

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