Earlier this month millions of American women went to the polls to cast their ballots in the mid-term elections. Most of us know that women fought for 70 years for our right to vote, but how many of us really realize just what they had to endure? Nov. 15 marked the 105th anniversary of the Night of Terror, in which 33 suffragists were imprisoned and tortured for peacefully demonstrating in front of the White House.
In January 1917, groups of suffragists, all members of the National Women’s Party, began silently protesting in front of the White House, holding signs bearing slogans like “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” In all, these “Silent Sentinels,” as they were known, numbered more than 2,000.
For the most part, these protesters were quietly ignored by both conservative suffragists who disagreed with their tactics and the White House. That is until the U.S. entered WWI and the public began seeing their protests as unpatriotic. On Nov. 10, 1917, when 30 suffragists including Alice Paul, Dorothy Day (yes, the same woman who founded the Catholic Worker’s Union), and Lucy Burns were arrested for obstructing traffic in front of the White House. Or at least that was the official charge. Everyone knew they were really being arrested for protesting.
They were taken to District of Columbia Jail and then remanded to Virginia’s Occoquan Workhouse. There, the women who ranged in age from X to 73, demanded to be treated as political prisoners, which the prison guards laughed at. Who were these women to demand such things? They were denied legal counsel, so Dudley Field Malone, a lawyer for the Wilson administration, resigned his position and agreed to represent their legal rights.
On Nov. 14, 1917, the superintendent of the workhouse ordered the guards to beat the suffragists into submission. They were tortured and left for dead. Dora Lewis was knocked unconscious; Alice Cosu suffered a heart attack and was denied medical care until the next morning; and Lucy Burns was awkwardly handcuffed with her hands above her head, forcing her to stand overnight. Many were thrown against an iron bench or their iron bedframes, one violently hitting her head to the point the others thought she was dead.
In response to this mistreatment and horrible living conditions—rats roamed the halls, there were maggots in the food, the water was filthy, and the restrooms were very public—the women staged hunger strikes. The government wasn’t about to have them die in jail, so they were force-fed through tubes. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Library of Congress records that they suffered “unprecedented psychological intimidation.”
This event, dubbed the “Night of Terror” caught media attention, turning public sympathy toward the suffragists. They were released on Nov. 28. About a month and a half later, President Wilson finally announced his support of women’s suffrage. In March of the following year, a D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the arrests were unconstitutional. Silent Sentinels continued to protest until Congress passed the 19th amendment on Aug. 18, 1920. Then the women went back to their home states to campaign for state ratification.
To learn more about the Night of Terror, read Jailed for Freedom, a first-person account of the events by Doris Stevens, or watch the movie Iron Jawed Angels.
This book is both nostalgia and critical commentary. The nostalgia comes from me as a 20-something watching the show for the first time, thinking it represented real life. The critical commentary comes from my 40-something self who can look back on it and see what an impact it had on society and where it clearly missed the mark. I tried to be as honest as possible in my criticism because I feel that that is the point of a book like this.
Library Journal LOVED it, calling the book “Insightful… interesting, well-researched.”
If you are or ever were a Sex and the City fan, PLEASE check out this book. I’m really interested to hear what you think!
CELEBRATE WITH ME!
TikTok Live Tuesday, November 15 (tonight!)
Look for me in your live section or search @nicolevelinaauthor
Book Launch Party Saturday, November 19 (this weekend)
The Novel Neighbor Downstairs Event Space (Enter through side of building) 7905 Big Bend Blvd St. Louis MO, 63119 Noon- 2 p.m.
Event is FREE Come and go as you please
Dessert bar Alcoholic & non-alcoholic drinks Nicole will read & speak Books for sale & autographing
When my book, Catherine’s Mercy, comes out next June, you’ll meet a fictionalized version of Anna Maria (or Marie) Doyle. She was one of Catherine McAuley’s closest friends and a main character in the book. September 24 is Mercy Day, the 195th anniversary of the opening of the first House of Mercy in Dublin, Ireland, in 1827. That is why I’ve chosen to share Anna Maria’s true story below. Hope you enjoy getting to know her as much as I did!
Photo courtesy of Mercy International Centre
Anna Maria Doyle was born in Dublin on August 6, 1801, to James and Catherine Doyle. She was the second youngest child of six, two of whom didn’t survive childhood. The Doyles were a respectable Catholic family. James was a merchant tailor, meaning he bought cloth (silk) in addition to tailoring garments. When the Act of Union was passed in 1801, abolishing the Irish Parliament and joining Ireland to the United Kingdom, it allowed the rise of Protestantism among the upper classes and many Catholic businesses suffered, including the Doyles.
We know very little about Anna Maria’s youth, other than she was said to be “distinguished from childhood for sweetness of disposition and tender piety.” Anna Maria’s parents sent their sons to the best schools possible, and Anna was clearly an educated woman, so her biographers speculate that she may have been sent to school in France, for she was fluent in the language and later translated many French prayers for the Sisters of Mercy.
Anna Maria was apparently a beautiful woman, for “she was much sought after” by the wealthy men of Dublin “and harassed with proposals of marriage.” Because of their financial misfortunes since the Act of Union, her parents pressed her accept one, but Anna Maria couldn’t shake an inner calling to religious life. Like Catherine McAuley, she longed to do something to alleviate the suffering she saw in the streets of Dublin. She planned to become a Presentation Sister like her biological sister Catherine had, but she was the only child left at home and her parents were growing old, so she didn’t feel right leaving them.
It is said that when Anna Maria Doyle first saw the House of Mercy being constructed on Baggot Street, she “remarked the building with indescribable attraction.” The man in charge noticed her delight and offered to give her a tour and told her what it’s purpose was. She began to have renewed hope; Catherine’s lay ministry to the poor would allow her to fulfil her dream and tend to her parents as well.
In the spring of 1827, Anna called upon Catherine at her home, the residence of her sister, Mary, and brother-in-law, William McAuley. They lived in a house on the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, just outside of downtown Dublin. There are no records of what was said between the two women, but their first meeting must have gone very well, for Anna Maria later said that from the beginning “we were very much pleased with each other.” Catherine remarked that she “believed Miss Doyle sent by heaven.” When pressed for details, Catherine only replied, “it commenced with two.”
Anna’s joy was short-lived, however, because only a few weeks later, her sister, Catherine, only 33, died of consumption in the Presentation convent in Killarney. Only six months earlier, they had lost her brother, James, and now this. She and her brother, John, an artist In London, were now the only remaining Doyle children.
While Anna was grieving the death of her sister, so too was Catherine McAuley, who lost her dear sister Mary. It appears the two were some consolation to one another, and Anna Maria was a great help to Catherine in tending to the final touches regarding the House on Baggot Street. At the time, Catherine was weighed down by taking care of her five nieces and nephews, whom she semi-adopted upon Mary’s death, tending them while their father worked. Meanwhile, the Superioress of the Presentation convent offered Anna Maria her sisters’ place there, but meeting Catherine had changed Anna Maria’s mind. She was more determined than ever to help Catherine in her ministry.
Seeing Catherine’s need, Anna Maria inquired of Catherine when she might begin working at the House of Mercy. Catherine wrote her back that the House would open on September 24, the feast of Our Lady of Mercy. Catherine Byrn, the 15-year-old daughter of Catherine McAuley’s cousin, Anne, whom Catherine had adopted when her mother died five years previous, was appointed as Anna Maria’s assistant.
On September 24, the three of them turned the five-inch metal keys in the lock at 64A Baggot Street, and the House of Mercy was officially opened. That day, they began lessons at the poor school, which had strong enrollment, and Catherine interviewed the two women interested in living at the residence for working women.
Catherine, still living with her nieces and brother-in-law in Kilmainham, came daily to check on business, but it was Anna Maria who was in charge at the House. By December, the school had five hundred female students and young tradeswomen were staying at the House overnight. Soon, young women of means were inquiring about offering their services on a part-time basis, including two nieces of “The Liberator” and champion of Catholic Emancipation, Daniel O’Connell. Suddenly, volunteering at the House became the fashionable thing to do. In June 1828, Catherine moved into the House permanently.
In late 1828 or early 1829, the Presentation Sisters again contacted Anna Maria, saying that they had obtained an “increase in property” which would allow them to receive her without a dowry. But Anna Maria would not be swayed. She told them her “Merciful Savior had inspired” her work at Baggot Street and there she would remain.
By 1830, it was clear that the women of the House would have to become religious Sisters, so Catherine chose Anna Maria and Elizabeth Harley, whom Anna Maria already knew because they had been part of the same parish of St. Andrews, and whom Anna called “a saintly creature.”
During her novitiate, Anna Maria was in charge of the sacristy until August 1831, when she suffered a severe hemorrhage of the lungs brought on by overexertion, likely commanded by their harsh novice mistress.
On December 13, 1831, Anna Maria, Catherine and Elizabeth took their vows as the first Sisters of Mercy. Elizabeth’s religious name became Sister Mary Ann Doyle. An outbreak of cholera soon followed and all in the House were consumed with caring for the sick.
In March 1835, Catherine named Sister Mary Ann as Superior of the first convent in Kingstown. The following year, she became Superior of the new foundation in Tullamore, County Offaly, on April 21, 1836. She had great responsibility, serving simultaneously as superior of the community, directress of novices, and mistress of schools. Catherine was able to visit her six times between 1836 and 1841, the only times they saw one another before Catherine died. Likely at Catherine’s request, Sister Mary Ann (and all of the other Superiors of the foundations) was not present at her deathbed.
In February 1844. Sister Mary Ann made her first foundation without Catherine, in the city of Kells. There they taught in an existing school and visited the poor and sick in their homes, later also ministering to those in the local workhouse.
In 1847 Mary Ann, who was now ill, to Tullamore, thinking she would live out her days in seclusion. But once again, God intervened through Dr. Maginn of Derry who asked the Sisters to found a convent in his town of Derry. On July 18, 1848, Sister Mary Ann traveled to Derry as assistant to Catherine Locke, who would be the Superior there. She did the same in 1852, only to find that the Sisters of Loreto were already in the town of Omagh.
From 1854 -1866 Sister Mary Ann lived in the Covent in Derry, where she died on September 11, 1866.
Many of you may recall that back in June 2019, I spoke at the Symposium on Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University on the evolution of the character of Guinevere throughout literary history. That led to me being asked to write a chapter for a book on Ethics in Arthurian Legend.
Fast forward three years and I can finally say THE BOOK IS BEING PUBLISHED!! It is called entitled Ethics in the Arthurian Legend and my chapter is “The Ethics of Writing Guinevere in Modern Historical Fiction.” It will be published by Boydell and Brewer by the end of 2023.
I have to say that this chapter is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written because it was written in academic style and had to fit in with essays written by Medievalists, who have a totally different mindset and training from me. Being an author used to writing for the general public who doesn’t have her PhD and writes historical fiction in the modern age is very different than what these people do. But I have fabulous editors in Melissa Elmes from Lindenwood University and Evelyn Meyer from Saint Louis University, from whom I learned a ton. I really appreciate their patience with me, which was unending!
So with this title, I officially have six books coming out in about 14 months. And two other books due on Oct. 31 and Jan. 13. If you see a woman with her hair on fire, it’s probably me!
I’ve been wanting to tell you guys about this since we signed the contract about a month ago, but there were reasons why I couldn’t.
Remember my short story, Consequences? Well…Chalice Media Group has picked it up as a full novel! It will be published June 14, 2023, which is–coincidently (or not, I don’t believe in them)–the two year anniversary to the day I published Consequences. (If you noticed Consequences hasn’t been on my site or for sale for a while, this is why.)
Outrageous. Unprecedented. Irrepressible. Words not often used to describe someone on the path to sainthood. But Catherine McAuley was no ordinary woman.
In 1824, Catherine, a Catholic spinster of 44, unexpectedly inherits millions. However, unlike most women, she doesn’t use it to climb the social ladder or snare a husband; she uses it to fulfil a lifelong dream of building a refuge for the poor and sick of Dublin, Ireland, run by women of faith like herself. That an unmarried woman would dare propose such a thing is so scandalous, even her own brother calls it “Kitty’s Folly.” Dublin society turns against her. The Church tries to take over. To all of these men in positions of power, Catherine must defend her choices or risk losing not only her inheritance, but her reputation and her life’s calling.
One of the first women who seeks Catherine’s aid is Margaret, a maid in the house of Lord Montague, the loudest of Catherine’s detractors. Daring to protect herself from his advances and rebel against his maxim of total obedience, Margaret is left with no choice but to flee or face his wrath. Desperate, she goes to Catherine for help, setting off a series of events that would haunt Catherine for the rest of her days.
Remembering Margaret’s escape, Grace, another of Lord Montague’s servants, soon seeks refuge at the House of Mercy after being dismissed without a reference. There she is taken under the wing of Mary Ann Doyle, Catherine’s closest friend, and becomes an integral part of running the burgeoning ministry. However, unbeknownst to all, she is also one of its greatest threats, for she knows secrets her former employer would do anything to keep and that the Church could use to destroy Catherine’s ministry.
Based on a true story, Catherine’s Mercy, brings to life the exciting tale of Irish reformer Catherine McAuley and the women who helped found the Sisters of Mercy religious order, one of the first to minister in their communities rather than pray behind cloister walls. As a laywoman and then a nun, Catherine is a beacon of mercy and compassion in a world much in need of both.
I’ll let you know when pre-orders are available, but it will be a bit since I’m still writing the book. It’s due on Halloween!
I know, I know, it’s been a minute since I’ve posted anything about writing or life. I’m even late with my August newsletter. But I have reasons.
Health Update First, some of you may have seen on social that I was in the hospital about a week and a half ago. I went in via ambulance thinking I was having a heart attack (shortness of breath, dull pain in my left arm). My heart was fine, but in the course of testing they found I had three small blot clots in my lungs. I would never have known had I not gone in. (Listen to your body! It could save your life.)
They admitted me and pumped me full of blood thinners and now I’m home, back to work and taking blood thinners at home. (Which I will likely be on for the rest of my life.) They couldn’t find a reason for the clots; all my tests came back normal, so that is really scary. I’m paranoid about making sure I don’t sit in one place for too long at a time now.
As a result, I’m stepping back from some of the volunteer things I’ve been doing. I had a potential book project going on, but that fell through, and as much as I would have loved to have worked on it, I’m kind of glad. This situation forced me to look at the manic pace at which I’ve been working for at least two years now and settle down a bit. That is one weight off my shoulders.
Book Announcement – August 15 I’ve been sitting on this one for about a month and a half, but soon I will finally be able to tell you about a historical fiction book I have under contract! I’m really excited about it and I hope you will be, too. It’s a tight turnaround, but I know I can do it. And we have a cover to reveal at the same time! So please mark your calendars!
I’ve Joined TikTok I finally gave in and went to the dark side. I’m on TikTok. (Find me here.) I’ve been lurking for a few months and realized its really not that bad when you find people of like mind. I’m going to try to make videos a few times a week. Right now it is just me trying to get used to how it works, but eventually you’ll see more book stuff on there too. So if you’re on, please follow me and feel free to like or comment on my videos. And if you have suggestions for improvement or things you’d like to see, I’m all ears.
We are just about three months out from the release of Sex and the City: A Cultural History! It is at the printer and I should be getting advanced copies within a few weeks. You’ll be seeing more and more about it as we ramp up marketing efforts.
The League of Women Voters book has a title: Raising Our Voices: The League of Women Voters in St. Louis 1690-2022. It is being sent to the publisher as we speak. More to come.
America’s Forgotten Suffragists is still in copy editing, but they say I should get those files back next week sometime. I’ll have a week to go through everything and then in late September I’ll see the book laid out for the first time in page proofs.
The Arthurian non-fiction book I wrote a chapter for is getting closer to publication. I completed edits that the potential publisher wanted a few weeks ago. Now we wait.
And yes, the Fierce Females on Television book is still happening, but it’s on the back burner right now with everything else that is going on. It’s due January 13. Plenty of time, right?
Chanticleer Conference Summary
I was planning on doing a full write up of the Chanticleer Conference but time got away from me and I don’t have the energy. Short version: It was one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to! I made so many amazing new friends and it was great reconnecting with old friends. America’s Forgotten Suffragists and The Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy both won Grand Prizes! And I got to speak something like four times. It was amazing.
T-minus Two Years (or less) to the Windy City
At the Chanticleer Conference, I made a promise to my Chicago friends that I will move there within the next two years. And life, as it usually does to everyone, promptly gave me a leak in my basement, a hospital stay, and car bills, which takes away from paying off debt and being able to move. Whatever. It will still happen.
I think that’s everything outside of the day job. Oh, my birthday is coming up later this month. Maybe I should update my Amazon wishlist!
Mary Church Terrell may be one of the best-known Black female activists in the late 19th and early 20th century United States. She fought for racial equality and women’s suffrage when neither were the norm. Here is her story.
Mary Eliza Church, nicknamed “Mollie,” was born on Sept. 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee. Both of her parents were mixed-race former slaves, who prospered once given their freedom. Her father, Robert Reed Church, was a real estate broker whose success made him the first Black millionaire in the South. Her mother, Louisa Ayres, owned a hair salon which was patronized by the wealthy and elite during a time when the races didn’t mix and female entrepreneurs were rare.
Although her parents divorced when Mary was young, they still supported their children financially and placed a high value on education. They allowed Mary to attend prestigious schools like the Antioch College Laboratory/Model School in Ohio and Oberlin Public School for elementary and secondary education. She then enrolled in Oberlin College, taking a four-year ‘gentleman’s course’ in the Classics (which included Greek and Latin) instead of the expected two-year ladies’ course, earning her bachelor’s in 1884. She went on to study education and earned her master’s degree in 1888, becoming one of the first two Black American women to earn a master’s degree. (The other was her classmate Anna Julia Cooper.)
After graduation, she taught modern languages at the historically Black Wilburforce College in Ohio for two years before moving to Washington D.C. in 1887 to teach Latin at the M Street Colored High School (now Paul Laurence Dunbar High School), the first Black public high school in the country. It was there that she met and fell in love with Robert “Berto” Heberton Terrell, a fellow teacher. They married in 1891 and had two daughters, one of whom was adopted.
Mary’s life changed forever in 1892, when a dear friend of hers, Thomas Moss, was lynched in Memphis by white men simply because his business competed with theirs. Hurt and outraged, Mary joined forces with Ida B. Wells-Barnett in anti-lynching campaigns, while working as superintendent of the M Street School, the first woman to ever hold that position.
But her heart was really in the philosophy of “racial uplift,” which held that by advancing in education, career and community service, Black people could lift up their whole race and end discrimination. Based on this idea, Mary and six other women formed the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. Her words—“Lifting as we climb”—became the NACW motto. The organization emphasized Black women helping one another and provided opportunities for advancement outside of the traditional church setting, as well as establishing the first kindergarten in the Washington D.C.-area.
Mary’s track record as a teacher, superintendent and her work with the NACW led to her being appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education from 1895 to 1906. She was the first Black woman in the United States to hold such a position. As NACW president, she spoke and wrote extensively, continuing more than four decades of prolific writing about lynching and what it was like to be a black woman. She even chronicled her life in an autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World (1940).
If that wasn’t enough, Mary was also a charter member of the Colored Women’s League of Washington (1892) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909). She also founded the National Association of Colored Women (1896) and served as its first national president; co-founded the College Alumnae Club (1910), later renamed the National Association of University Women; and was a founding member of the National Association of College Women (1923).
Marcy campaigned vigorously for women’s suffrage, especially Black women. She joined the National Woman’s Party and participated in picketing the White House, demanding that President Wilson give women the right to vote. She said it was important for her to speak up because she was a Black woman, “the only group in this country that has two such huge obstacles to surmount…both sex and race.”
Once women won the right to vote, Mary turned her attention to other civil rights. In 1948, she successfully sued the American Association of University Women (AAUW), becoming their first Black member. In 1950, at age 86, she protested segregation by participating in a sit-in at the John R. Thompson Restaurant in Washington, D.C. and lived to see the end of segregation in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled public school segregation was illegal in Brown vs. Board of Education.
She died only two months later on July 24, 1954, in Highland Beach, Maryland, having seen her two pet causes—racial equality and women’s suffrage—made legal by the U.S. government.
Hi everyone. I know it is has been a while but a lot has been going on behind the scenes that I am hoping I will be able to tell you about soon. Also, I just got back from the Chanticleer Authors Conference and have lots to report on there as well.
But right now I wanted to share an interview that Biographers International, one of the organizations I belong to, did with me recently. It’s in the member-only newsletter but I figured it would be okay to share since it with me, not anyone else. And “new” is a relative term; I’ve been a member for a few years now.
SPOTLIGHT ON NEW MEMBERS
What is your current project and at what stage is it?
My first biography, America’s Forgotten Suffragists: Virginia and Francis Minor, is currently in copy editing and will be published by Globe Pequot/Two Dot Press on March 1, 2023. Virginia was very important in the suffrage movement in St. Louis from the 1860s until her death in the 1890s. Her husband, Francis, was a strong male ally and used his position as a lawyer to help Virginia take the issue of women’s suffrage to the Supreme Court in 1875—the only time that ever happened. Both Minors were close friends with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and gained a fair amount of notoriety in their time, but have since been forgotten. This is the first biography ever written about them.
What person would you most like to write about?
I have several subjects in mind, but one I’m willing to talk about is Marie Rose Ferron, a Catholic mystic and the first stigmatist in the United States. (For non-Catholics, stigmata is when someone mystically receives the wounds of Christ in their body and suffers the crucifixion in union with Jesus.) Supernatural phenomenon like this is very controversial, but I feel like she should be declared a saint. Even if you take the stigmata and visions away, she was a woman of great virtue.
What have been your most satisfying moments as a biographer?
The moment I finally tracked down exactly where in St. Louis the Minors’ estate, Minoria, was located. It no longer exists, but using deeds, surveyor’s reports, and old maps, I was able to find the exact lot number and location and translate that to a modern address. There previously had been speculation about where it was located, but no one else had definitively identified it. While that is a small thing, it was very important in understanding their lives during the time they lived there. Unfortunately, today, that address is in a very bad neighborhood, so it isn’t safe to do more than drive by the empty lot.
What have been your most frustrating moments?
The Minors left precious few personal letters and no journals or other personal writings. We do have some public speeches, but those don’t give the insight that more intimate correspondence would have. It was very frustrating to not have these types of sources when I was trying to reconstruct their personalities and relationships.
If you weren’t a biographer, what dream profession would you be in, and why?
Well, I write historical fiction and history as well, and my day job is in marketing. If I could have another job, it would be as an historian who researches and publishes rather than teaches. But if you want something totally unrelated, I’d love to be a makeup artist. Makeup is a hobby for me (I seriously have more than 40 shades of eyeshadow), and I find it a great creative outlet. I’m not nearly as good as people you see on shows like Glow Up, but it is so much fun to play with.
What genre, besides biography, do you read for pleasure and who are some of your favorite writers?
Historical fiction and fantasy are my two favorites, but I also like gothic [fiction] and a good domestic suspense. Favorite historical fiction writers include Kate Quinn, M. J. Rose, and Susanna Kearsley. Favorite fantasy authors are Kim Harrison, Erin Morgenstern, and Seanan McGuire. Gothic: Ruth Ware, Diane Setterfield, and Carol Goodman. Domestic suspense: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (they are co-authors), Liane Moriarty, and Kerry Lonsdale.
To help celebrate Asian Pacific Islander Month, which was in May, and Pride Month, which is June, this month we’re exploring the life of Margaret Chung. She was not only the first American-Born Chinese female doctor, but also established a program which paved the way for women in the military.
Fun fact: The biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the United States—whom we profiled back in February 2021—The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura, was just named a Pulitzer Prize finalist!
“Women of every nation, every country, should learn medicine, so that they can teach the women of their countries and their races how to care for themselves and their children—how to improve the coming generation.” — Margaret Chung, 1914
The first of 11 children, Margaret Jessie Chung was born on October 2, 1889, in Santa Barbara, California, to parents who had emigrated from China in the 1870s. In 1902, the family moved to Los Angeles. Not long after, her parents became ill, so Margaret spent much of her childhood raising her younger siblings while dreaming of becoming a medical missionary in China or perhaps a newspaper reporter.
Despite these circumstances, she still attended the Seventh Street School and then the preparatory school at the University of Southern California. Young Margaret was known for being an excellent gymnast, speaker and was twice lauded in the Los Angeles Herald, once for a poem she wrote and again as being a promising young student. She won a scholarship to Southern California University and supported herself by working as a waitress, saleswoman and through prize money she won at speech contests.
In 1911, Margaret enrolled in the University of Southern California Medical School and was the only woman and person of color in her class; she was also believed to be the first Chinese woman to enter medical school in the state of California. Legend has it that she purposefully wore men’s clothing and was enrolled under the name “Mike” to hide her true identity. When she graduated in 1919, her true gender and race were revealed, which made it difficult for her to obtain residencies and internships in U.S. hospitals. She was also denied admission as a medical missionary by the Presbyterian missionary board.
Not willing to give up on her dream, Margaret moved to Chicago, where she conducted her internship at the Mary Thompson Women’s and Children’s Hospital and residency at Kankakee State Hospital. She also studied at a private clinic under Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, herself a radical who was willing to train women as surgeons, something most other doctors wouldn’t do. While in Chicago, Margaret served as the resident assistant in psychiatry for the first Juvenile Psychopathic Institute of the State of Illinois at the Cook County Hospital and was later appointed state criminologist for Illinois.
In 1919, Margaret’s father died and she moved back to California to be with her family. She studied plastic surgery at the Santa Fe Railroad Hospital in Los Angeles. There, she treated victims of many horrific industrial accidents. Not long after, she opened her own practice, where she saw many actors, dancers and musicians of Hollywood’s early years, including Mary Pickford, and became known as a “physician to the stars.”
Not interested in catering to celebrities forever, in 1922, Margaret moved to San Francisco’s Chinatown to minister to the Chinese American immigrants, especially women, since she couldn’t serve in China itself. But there was a small problem: most Chinese didn’t trust Western medicine. She was far more successful with white patients, such as Sophie Tucker, Helen Hayes, and Tallulah Bankhead, who came to her seeking “exotic” treatments because she was Asian. In 1925, Margaret helped establish the first Western hospital in Chinatown, leading its OB/GYN and pediatrics unit.
During the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) when Japan invaded China, Margaret organized “rice bowl parties” to fundraise for the war effort in over 700 U.S. cities. Later, she was asked by U.S. Navy reserves ensign Steven G. Bancroft to help him become a member of the Chinese army, which she had no power to do. But she did befriend him and several of his fellow pilots. She treated them as her patients and accompanied them on hunting and camping trips. Soon they were as close as family.
Having been turned down when she asked to become a front-line surgeon in the war, Margaret settled for secretly recruiting pilots who became part of the famous “Flying Tigers” unit that defended China. The more than 1,500 men of the aviation, submarine and other units called her “Mom Chung” because she was so dear to them. Because she wasn’t married (and therefore had no husband for them to call “Dad”) they started calling themselves her “fair-haired bastards.” These men included Hollywood legends such as John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, political and military figures like Fleet Admirals Chester W. Nimitz and William “Bull” Halsey Jr., and even a rare “daughter” named Amelia Earhart.
During WWII Margaret supported the Allies and her “sons” by sending them letters and care packages and introducing them so they could help one another. She also lobbied Congress to allow women to volunteer in the military and helped establish WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services, the women’s branch of the naval reserves during World War II. This helped women later gain admission into the U.S. armed forces.
Despite this success, Margaret was not given credit for this achievement, nor was she allowed to serve in her own group. It is speculated this is because Margaret was a strong ally of the LGBTQIA+ community in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, has several very close relationships with women who were known lesbians, and the FBI investigated her in the 1940s to determine whether or not she was a lesbian, which was a serious accusation at the time. Margaret never confirmed or denied these rumors, and despite being briefly engaged, never married.
After the war, Margaret retired to a house in Marin County that her “adopted sons” bought for her. By this time she was well-known throughout the country and both a comic book series and movie were made about her life. She died on January 5, 1959, at the age of 70, from cancer. Among her pall bearers was Chester W. Nimitz, one of her “fair-haired bastards.”
It is said that Margaret was the inspiration for the character of Dr. Mary Ling portrayed by Anna May Wong in the 1939 film King of Chinatown. At least three Flying Fortresses were named “Mama Chung” in her honor by her “adopted” sons during World War II and a tunnel boring machine for the San Francisco Municipal Railway’s Central Subway was named “Mom Chung” after her in 2013. She was also honored with a plaque in the Legacy Walk in Chicago, which celebrates LGBTQIA+ history and its people.