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.” The photo is me with Frances Perkin’s grandson Tomlin Coggeshall, taken during a talk I gave at Mount Holyoke College, Frances Perkins’ alma mater.
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.”
Happy National Women’s History Month!! Over thirty-five years ago, five friends in Santa Rosa, California, noticed that something was very wrong. They realized that few women were featured in schoolbooks. In fact, no more than 3% of the content was devoted to women! So, the friends—Molly Murphy MacGregor, Paula Hammett, Mary Ruthsdotter, Maria Cuevas, and Bette Morgan—decided to do something about it.
Selecting the week of March 8th to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8th, an already established worldwide event, the friends organized a week-long Women’s History event celebrating historic women’s contributions to every aspect of American life.
The week-long events were so successful that Molly Murphy MacGregor proposed the idea at a Women’s History Institute, chaired by the eminent historian Gerda Lerner, at Sarah Lawrence College in 1979. Inspired by Molly’s presentation, the group passed a resolution to create a National Women’s History Week, an idea that President Jimmy Carter made official in 1980.
In 1987, the National Women’s History Project successfully petitioned the United States Congress to designate March as National Women’s History Month. Today National Women’s History Month is widely celebrated across America in offices, museums, libraries, and schools. The President of the United States issues a special proclamation. Happy Celebrating!!
Today is our first 4-birthday day! Twin grandchildren Quinn and Balan were born a year ago on 2/24/14, the same birthday of our twin sons, their father David and uncle Stephen! Amazing coincidence! Happy Birthday to the four of you!!!!
Once upon a time, in New York, not far from where I live in New Jersey, a baby girl known as Isabella Baumfree was born into slavery to a Dutch-speaking master. She was auctioned off at the age of nine with a herd of sheep for $100 to a cruel English-speaking master who beat her for not understanding his instructions, leaving life-long scars on her body. Twice more she was sold. Then in 1826, when her master refused to honor his promise to free her a year before all adult slaves were to be freed in New York, she escaped with her baby daughter Sophie. Discovering that her five-year-old son Peter had been illegally sold to an out-of-state slave owner, she filed a lawsuit and won. About that time, she had a conversion experience and took the name, she said, God gave her–Sojourner Truth. In 1843, at the age of 43, she set out to witness against slavery and for women’s rights. A towering, majestic, fearless presence, Sojourner Truth was a passionate advocate for freedom and equality. I’ve visit a number of landmarks honoring Sojourner Truth. Most recently this extraordinary memorial to her in Esopus, New York, a hamlet in the town of Port Ewen, NY, the area just west of the Hudson River, where she spent almost thirty years as a slave. The bronze statue, by Trina Green, represents her as a girl. There are welts on her hands and back representing the beatings she endured. The jar represent the work she did for one of her masters, who owned a tavern, of carrying heavy jars of molasses and liquor long distances. The following images are: historical marker at Sojourner Truth Memorial “Sojourner Truth Daughter of Esopus”: Home of Martinus Schryver, a tavern owner who bought Isabella in 1808; Van Wagnen House, where Isabella sought refuge when she escaped with her infant daughter Sophie in 1826; Photograph and advertisement for Sojourner Truth, who sold her photograph and her Narrative to support her travels under the slogan “I sell the Shadow to Support the Substance; 1808 Inventory of the Estate of Charles Hardenburgh, who had inherited Isabella from his father, her original owner. This is the first official record of Isabella, whose value is listed at $100. Her mother, Bett, and brother Peet, are also listed.
Here’s a link to the National Women’s History Project’s list of January birthdays and events. In scanning it, I noted that I’ve photographed landmarks for five of the women–Lucretia Mott, Zora Neale Hurston, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, Julia Morgan. I have an autographed photo of Dolly Parton (how I got it is a story for another day), and for years I’ve had this quote by Barbara Tuchman posted above my computer: “Whether biography or a straight history, the writer’s object is–or should be–to hold the reader’s attention . . .want the reader to turn the page and to keep on turning to the end.” The photo is of Zora Neale Hurston’s grave in the Garden of the Heavenly Rest, Fort Pierce, Florida. http://www.nwhp.org/events/january/
Writing about Louise Boyd, the Arctic Explorer who was passionate about ice, in my book Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories About Women Who Made a Difference, whet my appetite for experiencing a glacier. A helicopter with me aboard landed on West Fork Glacier in Alaska. Thrilling!!!!!