Adventurous Women

Author’s Note:

My Great Uncle Walter Granger was a famous fossil collector and vertebrate paleontologist. He was born in 1872 and died in 1941. I was born in 1944, and my parents named me Penelope Granger Morgan.

All my life, I heard stories about Uncle Walter and his wife Anna, known as “Annie.” How he searched for dinosaurs and extinct mammals and fossil primates throughout the American West and Egypt and China and Mongolia. How he and his assistants discovered the first whole dinosaur eggs and nest. How Annie worked with Walter in China for almost ten years and published several articles in Natural History, including one titled  “Rescuing a Little-known Chinese Art: How an Explorer’s Wife ‘Discovered’ a Fascinating Style of Peasant Embroidery in Far Western China and Helped Save it from Oblivion.”

Walter and Annie Granger were not the only adventurers in my family. There was my mother who compiled a lifetime of adventures in everything from travel to journalism to art to music to fire fighting. Yes, fire fighting; as I write this I am glancing at a photograph of my mother taken shortly after she helped put out a big fire. She is wearily leaning against a pole and holding her helmet in one hand and a cup of something to drink in the other.

My mother was fifty years old when she joined the Chautauqua Volunteer Fire Company, actually she was a few months short of her fiftieth birthday. I remember that because she had to pass the tests before she reached fifty, the age limit for new members.

No wonder I grew up loving adventures and believing that women could have adventures, even though women were rarely, if ever, portrayed as adventurers in books or in the movies or on television.

For me, adventures are about being bold, about defying set ways of thinking and behaving, about taking risks, going beyond the boundaries, the limitations, about overcoming obstacles, about daring to be different. Adventures can happen anywhere—in a laboratory or a library, at home or far away. Adventures do not discriminate: anyone can have one—women, children, men of any age or race, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, religion. I selected women because most adventure stories are about men, especially historical adventure stories. My intent is not to replace men but to add women.

Adventurous Women features eight women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds: Louise Arner Boyd, an Arctic explorer; Mary Gibson Henry, a botanist and plant hunter; Juana Briones, an entrepreneur and family head; Alice Hamilton, a scientist and industrial toxicologist; Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and humanitarian; Katharine Wormeley, a Civil War superintendent on hospital transport ships; Biddy Mason, a former slave, midwife, landowner, and church founder; and Peggy Hull, a journalist and war correspondent. They were all born in the 1800s and died in the 1900s, except Juana Briones who died in 1889 and Biddy Mason who died in 1891. Two of the women–Boyd and Briones–grew up on the West Coast of the United States. Henry and  Wormeley grew up on the East Coast.  Hamilton and Hull grew up in the Midwest. Mason and Bethune grew up in the South.

Four of the women—Henry, Briones, Bethune, and Hull—had husbands (Hull had several and Briones and Bethune eventually lived apart from their husbands).  Briones had eleven children, Henry had five, Mason had three, and Bethune had one. Juana Briones and Biddy Mason had no formal education. Louise Boyd, Mary Gibson Henry, and Katharine Wormeley went to finishing schools. Mary McLeod Bethune graduated from college. Alice Hamilton studied at home and at a finishing school. After that, she graduated from medical school and continued her studies at universities in Europe and in the United States.

All of the women dealt with limitations and stereotypes because they were women.  They all took risks and overcame obstacles. Although a few women had access to family money, most of them generated the resources they needed through gainful employment, fundraising, and business enterprises.

For each one of the women I chose to write about, there were many more I set aside for another writing day.  How did I choose?  I was looking for variety and unknown women as well as known. I was looking for obvious adventures (exploring the Arctic) and not so obvious (starting a school) and for adventures that contributed something to society, that made a difference.

My research involved doing what journalists call “shoe leather research,” or going places, talking to people, and searching far and wide for facts and details and true stories. I visited places that were important in the women’s lives, such as Moosehead Lake in Maine where Mary Gibson Henry first fell in love with a flower, and Los Angeles, California, where Biddy Mason was a midwife. I searched for information in historical societies, libraries, archives, cemeteries, public monuments and historic sites, and on the Internet. One beautiful fall day in New York City, I took my eleven-month old granddaughter on her first library research trip with me to the Health Sciences Library of Columbia University where I located Alice Hamilton’s original reports on lead poisoning.

I also spent innumerable hours of reading.  I read rolls of microfilm that contained photographic reproductions of old newspaper and magazine articles. I read scientific reports, books, letters, and speeches.  I studied numerous photographs and maps. I also consulted with other historians, in particular Jeanne Farr McDonnell, an expert on Juana Briones, who provided invaluable information. Two of Mary Gibson Henry’s granddaughters, Susan Pepper Treadway, president and director, Henry Foundation for Botanical Research, and Betsey Warren Davis, curator of the Mary Henry Gibson Archives, shared their knowledge about their grandmother with me. “I shall never forget the many good times after the day’s work was done,” Davis recalled. “At the dinner table and around the fire, all in her company enjoyed her hilarious sense of humor and her gifts for telling her adventure stories.”

I wrote each chapter as an essay about a particular woman and her adventure, not a comprehensive biography. I made this decision because the essay form allowed me the freedom and flexibility to write about women who had very different adventures and who left behind varying amount of primary source material. The chapters vary in length and structure: Some chapters feature extensive first person and eyewitness accounts, and chapter six has two parts–an essay and letter excerpts. I become a visible author in chapter seven when I write about how I first “met” Biddy Mason. Throughout, however, I maintain a conversational voice. In addition, readers will discover quotations that are in italics and centered in the text. These are “teasers” to pique readers’ curiosity.

The essays appear in the order in which I wrote them, a reflection of many things, including the availability of sources and the twists and turns of my curiosity. Readers, of course, can read them in any order. The back matter includes brief chronologies, a list of places to visit, namesakes, notes, and a bibliography and webliography.

Every book I research and write is an education. This book took me to new places, such as the fiord region of East Greenland (Louise Boyd); and taught me new words, such as “phossy jaw” (Alice Hamilton); and introduced me to things I will never do (I hope),  such as “toppling round at night in little boats, and clambering up ships’ sides on little ladders” (Katharine Wormeley); and to things I would love to do, such as see the sight of “hillsides where thousands upon thousands of roses were abloom in such quantities they made the landscape quite pink.” (Mary Gibson Henry).

Every book is also an inspiration, especially this book, for it is about real women who did real things and in the process created real stories about the many ways there are to live a passionate and productive and adventurous life.