Dorothea Dix: Crusader for Humane Treatment

DLDnewUntil 7th grade, I lived on the grounds of a state mental hospital, where my father was a psychiatrist.  So, no wonder my first biography was “Breaking the Chains: The Crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix.” Her crusade began today–March 28, 1841, a cold, blustery day when, in response to a request to teach Sunday School lessons to women prisoners, she went to a jail in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  To her horror she found two indigent mentally ill women confined in cages made of rough boards–disheveled, shivering women whose only crime was their illness. No stove heated their filthy pen.  Why was there no heat, she indignantly asked the jailer. Because “lunatics” don’t feel the cold, he replied. Appalled and outraged, she launched a successful campaign to get stoves installed.  Instilled with a great purpose Dorothea Dix, a brilliant investigator and lobbyist, devoted the rest of her life to providing humane treatment for people with mental illness in the U.S. and abroad. She also served as Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union during the Civil War, raised money to build fountains for horses (there’s a plaque to her on a restored fountain in Boston) and provide life saving boats at stations along the east coast, and advocated for prison reform.  Renowned in her day, Dorothea Dix died in 1887. Tributes resounded from as far away as Japan. The image is the first day cover of a U.S. postage stamp issued in her honor. (On a research road trip for my book about DIx, I drove to Hampden, Maine, and discovered a marvelous stone arch and park dedicated to her memory.)DLDStampCover

Posted in My Books | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Sarah Vaughan: Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday legendary jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, also known as “Sassy” and “The Divine One” who was born on March 27, 1924 in Newark, NJ.  sarahvaughsignThis street sign is in front of NJPAC (New Jersey Performing Arts Center) in Newark.  Whenever I go to a concert there I make sure to salute Sarah Vaughan (and point it out to anyone who is around me).

Posted in Women's History | Leave a comment

Deborah Sampson

Very slowly but surely, 19th century women claimed their right to speak/perform in public.  One of the earliest was Deborah Sampson, a woman who disguised herself as a man and served as a soldier in the American Revolution. She fought in several battles and was wounded. Fearing detection if she was treated by a doctor, she removed a musket ball from her thigh with a penknife and sewing needle. Honorably discharged after serving eighteen months, she eventually received a pension for her military service. On this day–March 26th–in 1802, Deborah Sampson, dressed in a soldier’s uniform, performed her one-woman show “The American Heroine” in Boston. DeborahSampsonStatutecropThis statue of Deborah Sampson in located in front of the library in Sharon, Massachusetts.

Posted in Women's History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Three-Part Story: Julia de Burgos

Juliadeburgossign1The story behind a street sign in New York City is inspiring and sad and heartening. Located at the corner of East 106th Street and Fifth Avenue, the street sign reads–“JULIA DE BURGOS Boulevard.” Curious about the sign and Julia de Burgos, I did research to learn more. That is how I discovered the inspiring and sad and heartening story. First here is the inspiring part:

A teacher, poet, and activist, Julia de Burgos was a tall woman with brown wavy hair, a heart-shaped face, and dark eyes that, according to one of her friends, “looked as if they were trying to penetrate a person’s soul.” 100px-Julia_de_BurgosBorn Julia Constanza Burgos Garcia in 1914 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, she grew up captivated by a river she later celebrated in her famous poem,

Rio Grande de Loiza

Rio Grande de Loiza

Rio Grande de Loiza with the line “My wellspring, my river.”

After graduating from the University of Puerto Rico, Julia de Burgos taught in an elementary school, wrote many poems, and published two books. A fearless advocate for justice and equality, she participated in the fight for Puerto Rico’s independence from the U.S. (Its status is still being debated.) She criticized the treatment of women: “I am life, strength, woman,” she declared. She spoke out for the rights of poor people and of minorities.

Involved in an intense love affair with a fellow activist, Julia de Burgos left Puerto Rico. Together they moved back and forth between Cuba and New York City. When the relationship end, she remained in New York City, where she had relatives and was acclaimed as a poet.

In time, however, and now for the sad part of the story, she was overwhelmed by poor health, alcohol addiction, and debilitating depression. The street sign with her name marks the place where she collapsed on July 6, 1953, and was taken to a nearby hospital, where she died. No identification was found on her body, so Julia de Burgos was buried in a cemetery for unknown or destitute people.

Now for the heartening part of the story: Friends and relatives soon noticed she was missing. Determinedly searching, they finally located her burial place and had the coffin with her body exhumed and returned to Puerto Rico. Poets, writers, activists, political leaders honored her at her funeral and burial in Carolina, a city through which the Rio Grande de Loiza flows.

U.S. Postage Stamp

   U.S. Postage Stamp

Julia de Burgos Park, Bridgeport, CT

Julia de Burgos Park, Bridgeport, CT

Memorial Mural by Manny Vega, 106th Street, between Lexington and 3rd Ave., New York, New York

Posted in Women's History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Spring

My mother’s waiting-for-spring ritual was to start looking for the first snowdrop, a tiny white flower. She’d start looking as early as in February. photoI’ve continued her tradition . . . yesterday I found this one under our back porch, giving me sweet thoughts of my mother and hopes that the piles of snow will soon be gone and spring in full bloom.

Posted in Musings | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Outspoken Advocate: Helen Hunt Jackson

Helen_Hunt_Jackson_NYPLA popular poet, fiction writer, and essayist, Helen Hunt Jackson was a prominent and indomitably outspoken advocate for the rights of Native American people. She produced a barrage of words–letters, speeches, articles, essays, and two important books: “A Century of Dishonor, a searing critique of the U.S. government’s Indian policies, and “Ramona, a romance about a mixed-race woman and her Indian husband that she hoped would change bigoted attitudes. (Ramona sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and spawn four movies, television shows, and a pageant that is performed yearly in the Ramona Bowl in California.)
Born two months apart in Amherst, Massachusetts, Helen (born first) and Emily Dickinson were childhood friends. A mutual friend reconnected them when they were in their late 30s. By then Helen’s two children and her husband had died and she had turned to writing to fill the void, as well as to support herself. Emily, who was living in her childhood home, had disengaged from social activities and focused on her poems, making clean copies of earlier poems and producing many more new ones. (Hundreds of poems in 40 handsewn booklets were discovered after she died,) Sending letters back and forth they rekindled their friendship. Helen visited Emily on two occasions.
Helen was full-bodied with plump cheeks and Emily was a thin-faced, wisp of a woman. A critically acclaimed poet, Helen was nationally known. Emily was an unknown poet. While Helen was trying to change policies and attitudes with her words, Emily was keeping hers private, a fact that exasperated Helen. “It is cruel and wrong,” she fumed in a letter, for Emily to deprive people of her poems. “I do not think we have a right to withhold from the world a word or a thought any more than a deed, which might help a single soul.”
Helen Hunt Jackson died in 1885. A year later so did Emily Dickinson.

Posted in Women's History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Polly Bemis

220px-PollyBemis1894Polly Bemis (1853-1933) started life in China, where she was probably named Lalu Nathoy. As a child her feet were bound, (small feet were considered a sign of wealth, of not having to work). After her destitute father sold her to bandits for two bags of seeds, she was sent to San Francisco, where she was auctioned off to a saloon keeper in an Idaho mining camp. Eventually she married Charlie Bemis, whose life she saved twice. Respected for her many skills–nursing; fishing; gardening; tending to animals, including a cougar; and her sense of humor–Polly Bemis became an honored member of her community.  Today the Polly Bemis Ranch, located on the Salmon River, is designated a National Historic site. She was inducted into the Idaho Hall of Fame.

Posted in Women's History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Selma, Alabama: Shey Webb

Sheyann Webb was named for her great-great-grandmother, who had been a slave. To pronounce her name right, Shey said, “You drop the ‘e’ so it sounds like shy.”  Fifty years ago today, March 7, 1965, a day that would become known as Bloody Sunday, eight-year-old Shey Webb went alone to join a group of civil rights activists who were going to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in downtown Selma, Alabama. As the nonviolent marchers proceeded, troopers on foot and on horseback charged them. “Some of them had clubs, others had ropes or whips, which they swung about them like they were driving cattle,” Shey later recalled.  Escaping the violence she ran home. Her mother held her in her arms. That night she joined other shocked marchers. Suddenly, she recalled, somebody started humming. “I think they were moaning and it just went into the humming of a freedom song. It was real low, but some of us children began humming along, slow and soft. . .It started to swell, the humming. Then we began singing the words: . . .’ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round. Nobody.””  Called the “Smallest Freedom Fighter” by Martin Luther King, Jr., Shey later said: “We were just people, ordinary people, and we did it.”

Posted in Uncategorized, Women's History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Frances Perkins

Yesterday–March 4th–in 1933, Frances Perkins, a sharp-witted, brilliant, compassionate woman, became the Secretary of Labor of the U.S., the first woman cabinet member.  Her condition for accepting the appointment was that President Franklin Roosevelt had to agree to  support her agenda, so he did. With her familiar tricorn hat ( (her mother told her to always wear a hat that is wider than her cheekbones to avoid looking “ridiculous”) set firmly on her head, Perkins prodded, pressured, and persuaded, businessmen, labor leaders, and politicians to respond to the needs of the American people and end child labor, establish safer working conditions, fairer wages, reasonable working hours, unemployment insurance and Social Security.  She accomplished all her goal, except providing health care. The subject of my second biography, Frances Perkins gave me many life lessons, in particular: “You just can’t be afraid . . .if you’re going to accomplish anything.”  PC:TomlinThe photo is me with Frances Perkin’s grandson Tomlin Coggeshall, taken during a talk I gave at Mount Holyoke College, Frances Perkins’ alma mater.

Posted in Women's History | Leave a comment

Claudette Colvin

Today–March 3rd–in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year-old African American girl, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person (nine months before Rosa Parks did the same thing). Kicked by a police officer and forcibly removed, she was handcuffed, arrested for violating the city segregation laws, and locked in an adult jail cell.  Supporters put up bail and paid the fine.
Why did she do it?  In school, she later explained, she had learned about her rights under the U.S. Constitution and about historic women: “I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other–saying ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat.”

Posted in Women's History | Leave a comment