April is both National Poetry Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I didn’t realize the two coincided until today. Violence against women ALWAYS bothers me, but the recent spate of occurrences plus the Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that if a woman has been drinking, a man sexually assaulting her isn’t rape have really gotten under my skin.
It has also brought up some things from my past that I have been trying to work through with poetry. I realize that my experiences have all been “near-misses” so they aren’t as bad as so many women have gone through, but they still caused me trauma. These three poems are all very personal, but I want to share them in an effort to heal.
This first one is about our rape culture in general:
A gavel bangs
A man goes free
To ruin his potential is an impossibility.
Lord, she was asking for it!
Didn’t you see her drinking?
And that skirt—
If she didn’t want it
She wouldn’t have worn it.
Brock Turner, Francios Momolu Khalil,
R. Kelly—hell, we have you on tape.
But in Minnesota, if she’s been drinking
It’s not rape.
Blame the victim for the crime
It’s a tale as old as time.
Even Adam blamed Eve.
Slap his hand—“boys will be boys” after all.
But she’s the one who has to live with what he’s done.
Nightmares, flashbacks—that’s her justice paid.
But he’s America’s beloved son
So let him serve no time.
God forbid he faces his crime.
She’ll remember for years to come
Her time of pain is never done.
And they wonder why we need an ERA.
This one is about how the world is so messed up that women have be grateful when men don’t rape/abuse/kill them.
How fucked up is it
That I’m thankful
My boyfriend didn’t rape me
In the back seat of a car when I was 19?
That he understood “no?”
Even if he pressured me to go farther than I wanted?
Instead of asking for consent
He forced things to a point
Where I felt like I had to go with what he wanted.
Yet I’m grateful he showed me
A modicum of respect by
Not forcing himself on me.
He pressured me
Yet I feel the shame. He made me feel I had no choice
Yet I still carry the guilt. He violated me in body and spirit
(there are more ways to violate than with a penis)
Yet I am grateful it wasn’t worse.
What fucked up world do we live in
That I still carry the scars from that night
—23 years ago—
And he probably doesn’t even remember my name?
Another case of boy goes free
While girl takes the blame.
This poem is the true story of the worst night I have ever experienced. I know so many women have experienced so much worse, but this night still haunts me.
Thinks she’s hot
Knows what to do.
Meets a man
He knows the band
Their “manager,” you see.
He’s a real somebody.
She knows the band
But not this guy.
Where’s he been?
Is this a lie?
She loves this song.
She thinks she danced,
But can’t recall.
Set is over.
Time to go.
The “manager” appears.
“Want to say goodbye to the band?
They’re backstage. Take my hand.”
She walks in first
He’s blocking the door
And she is doomed.
This is bad.
How many drinks you had?
Shit, shit, shit—sober up!
You can see what’s coming in your head.
You have to get out
If you don’t, you know how this turns out.
Use a trick.
Get to the door.
Or he will pin you to the floor.
Ancient instinct whispers.
It’s worth a shot.
Maybe you’ll make it
If you show him what you’ve got.
Lift your shirt
Expose your breasts
Make him think you want him.
Fumbling with his zipper
He moves away
Lunge for the door.
Pray your fingers
Can work the lock.
The knob turns.
Out you run,
Past your friends.
If you can get outside
It will all be alright.
There they are
Out in front
The four band members
Loading up a van.
They never were
Inside, you see.
That was just a fantasy.
A trick to get you alone,
Make you vulnerable.
After all, you were drunk,
Who would blame him for a fuck?
You would have kicked and screamed,
Lost your virginity.
But now at least
You are safe.
God was watching.
You got lucky.
You are scarred but not broken.
Assault is never a victimless crime.
It leaves its marks.
They don’t fade with time.
Twenty yeas later his name is gone,
But I can still see his face.
How many other girls?
How many other nights?
Young and dumb,
But not as blessed.
I will never know
What it was that made me
Flash my breasts
–the old “if I show you mine”—
But it was just enough
to buy some time
and prevent a rape.
Lesson learned: Never walk into a room before a man.
My friend and fellow historical fiction author, Stephanie Dray, has a new book out today! She calls The Women of Chateau Lafayette a seven-year labor of love. I know all about books that take years to come to fruition so I can’t wait to read this one. I’ve read her previous books, America’s First Daughter and My Dear Hamilton and loved them, so I’m sure this one will be excellent as well.
Oh and it was picked as one of OprahMag’s most anticipated historical fiction novels, so….Be sure to check it out!
✭✭✭ ABOUT THE BOOK ✭✭✭
An epic saga from New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Dray based on the true story of an extraordinary castle in the heart of France and the remarkable women bound by its legacy.
Most castles are protected by men. This one by women.
A founding mother…
Gently-bred noblewoman Adrienne Lafayette becomes her husband, the Marquis de Lafayette’s political partner in the fight for American independence. But when their idealism sparks revolution in France and the guillotine threatens everything she holds dear, Adrienne must renounce the complicated man she loves, or risk her life for a legacy that will inspire generations to come.
A daring visionary…
Glittering New York socialite Beatrice Chanler is a force of nature, daunted by nothing—not her humble beginnings, her crumbling marriage, or the outbreak of war. But after witnessing the devastation in France firsthand, Beatrice takes on the challenge of a lifetime: convincing America to fight for what’s right.
A reluctant resistor…
French school-teacher and aspiring artist Marthe Simone has an orphan’s self-reliance and wants nothing to do with war. But as the realities of Nazi occupation transform her life in the isolated castle where she came of age, she makes a discovery that calls into question who she is, and more importantly, who she is willing to become.
Intricately woven and powerfully told, The Women of Chateau Lafayette is a sweeping novel about duty and hope, love and courage, and the strength we take from those who came before us.
STEPHANIE DRAY is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal & USA Today bestselling author of historical women’s fiction. Her award-winning work has been translated into eight languages and tops lists for the most anticipated reads of the year. Now she lives in Maryland with her husband, cats, and history books. For more, see: StephanieDray.com
As part of Women’s History Month, I was asked to give a speech last week on the importance of women’s history, why I write it and how we can all participate in women’s history. I’ve cut out the part at the beginning where I introduced myself and my books to the audience to get to the good part. Hope you enjoy.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve had a natural aversion to the idea that anyone’s life can be forgotten. And when I started studying women’s history as part of my research, I realized that has happened to hundreds of generations of women. I have nothing against men, but the reality is, history as we know it was written by white, rich men. That means that people of color, women and other minorities were left out because they weren’t considered important.
That that has to change. How are we as women going to know the breadth of our history and our capacity for strength if we don’t have role models to look back and admire and pattern our lives upon? As women, for a long time all we had in Western history were Cleopatra, Queen Boudicca of the Celts, Elenore of Aquitaine, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, and Susan B. Anthony. And that is slim pickings, especially if you are anything other than white, European or American, and rich.
It is my personal mission to rescue forgotten women, to tell their stories and elevate women’s place in general in history. We need a variety of stories from all time periods. We need to see a large swath of life experiences, of different types of strength. A lot of times when we hear the words “strong woman” or “strong female character” our minds automatically jump to a kick-ass superhero type of woman. But as we all know, that is not the only kind of strength nor is it even the most common. What about the mental, emotional and spiritual strength of women who have overcome rape, abuse, loss of children, war, and every type of calamity to live on? If you have ever visited an old graveyard and seen how young so many women died and paused over the number of tiny graves around them—their children who died in infancy or before—you have witnessed true strength. Of those who survived, some went on to do great things, while others lived quiet lives, but they all mattered. And we need to know their stories so that we feel seen. That is what gives us the courage to make history of our own.
Thankfully, I’m not alone. There are many other authors who write about little-known women. Marie Benedict is one of my favorites. She has written about Albert Einstein’s wife, Hedy Lamarr and Clementine Churchill. There is also Melanie Benjamin, who told the story of Charles Lindberg’s wife; Paula McLain, who wrote about Hemmingway’s wives and Beryl Markham, a famous aviatrix; the duo of Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, who have written about Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Patsy, and Eliza Hamilton; C.W. Gortner, who has told the stories of Coco Chanel, Sarah Bernhardt and Marlene Dietrich; and Mary Sharrat who has written about St. Hildegard of Bigen, mystic Margery Kempe, composer Alma Mahler, and Aemilia Bassano Lanier, who may have been Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, just to name a few.
Your Role in Women’s History But you don’t have to be a writer to have a role in women’s history. That just happens to be where my talent lies and how I best express myself. Yours could be something totally different: music, dance, sculpting, painting, photography—anything. As long as you keep a record. It is those records that will secure your place in history. Keep a journal, a family cookbook, save newspaper clippings or love letters. You don’t ever have to share them with anyone if you don’t want to.
I am of the firm belief that everyone has something to offer the world, something that when looked back upon by future generations, will set them apart from everyone else. You don’t have to be a Ruth Bader Ginsburg or a Kamala Harris to make history. You make history just by being you.
There are so many wonderful “lost” stories that live in our memories or our family traditions that would benefit others if we just told them. Whether they are wisdom that can be gained from the old ways of doing things like family medicinal recipes passed through generations or life lessons that came from surviving hard times, we all have something to share.
That’s why it is important to tell your story. If you want you can write a memoire for yourself, your family or to be published. You can start a blog or keep a journal. Just document your life.
For researchers, journals are one of the best ways to truly understand what living in another time was like. I was lucky enough to find the journal of Elizabeth Merriweather when I was researching the biography I just completed. She was a cousin by marriage of my subjects, Virginia and Francis Minor. While the Minors themselves did not leave any personal papers behind, reading Elizabeth’s diary gave me an up close and personal look at life during the Civil War in the south. But more importantly, it helped me to understand why Elizabeth held the controversial views she did. In another example, the stories of hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who were killed in the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII were saved because a group of 60 of their peers thought to have them keep diaries, take pictures and donate pieces of wartime life like ration books and identification papers. Without those, we would have no idea who those anonymous victims were.
Write down your family stories. We all have that one off-the-wall family member or notorious family story that everyone knows. Why not commit it to paper for future generations, along with everything else you can think of about your family? At some point in our lives, most people yearn to know more about where and who they came from. Recording your family history, not just your genealogical chart, but the stories (whether verified or family legend) that go with it, will be so valuable for future generations, especially in cases were members of the family are estranged or die before others get the chance to ask them the burning questions.
Family stories are more than fact; they are the traditions and lore that are associated with a bloodline. For example, the paternal side of my family has a story about how one member married a Native American woman of the Blackfoot tribe and another about how someone went west with Brigham Young, neither of which I’ve ever tried to verify, but they are part of our lore. On the other hand, we know for a fact that my great-great grandfather helped establish and build Our Lady of the Holy Cross church in Baden, Missouri. On my mom’s side, my grandmother lived through Nazi-occupied Austria during WWII. All of these things provide fodder for telling stories that, while not my own, shape who I am as a person.
You don’t have to be famous in order to set up an archive that will be available to researchers after your death. Most historical societies and some universities will help you with this for a reasonable fee. I know for certain that the State Historical Society of Missouri offers this service. You may not think that your family records, letters, email/social media or other ephemera could ever possibly be of use to anyone. But remember this: When I was researching the family of Virginia and Francis Minor—and trying to reconstruct them from practically nothings—one of the most valuable resources I came across was their family Bible that dated from the early 1800s. I can guarantee you they weren’t thinking “gosh, someday a researcher from St. Louis is going to hold this in her hands and be in awe of the history contained herein” as they were filling in births, deaths and names of slaves in their household. But that is exactly what happened. And letters from Warner Washington Minor to his boss were crucial to me being able to reconstruct his job at the University of Virginia. If these things were important to me as a stranger, imagine how much more a family member would cherish them.
We are all important parts of history, whether we think so or not. Big or small our lives have meaning and impact. Whether or not you consider yourself a good writer, recording your story or those of your family is very important. It is the literary equivalent of carving “I was here” into the universe. You may be fortunate enough to make your mark on history in other ways, but only you know your true story. Tell it or others will tell it for you. You deserve for the world to know who you really are.
If you don’t know where to start, begin by following your dreams and passions. Ben Franklin is quoted as saying, “Write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” Writing about what you love will make it enjoyable and give you a way to focus.
I recently had the chance to read an advance copy of a book written by a friend of mine. I want to leave you with a quote from his book: “Work on what you love. A lot of people are artists in their heads. They have a great idea of what they could create…But the ones who succeed are the ones who are willing to work and thrive on that work. It’s not always fun, but it is wonderful, because the work of an artist is to create something beautiful and offer it on a platter to the world. What greater calling could there be?”
March is National Women’s History Month and March 8 is International Women’s Equality Day. Despite representing 50.8% of people in the United States and coming a long way since our nation’s founding, women are still considered a minority group. That is because, like people of color of both sexes, they have fewer rights compared to white men. In fact, 85% of the constitutions in the world now contain wording that protects the equal rights of women. However, despite being one of the oldest in the world, the U.S. Constitution does not. The U.S. is one of only 28 U.N. member nations that doesn’t guarantee equal rights between men and women in its laws. Overall, we are 53rd out of 153 countries that the World Economic Forum studies regarding gender equality.
This is one of many reasons why we celebrate women’s history in March. I decided to write about how women’s power evolved in the United States for this blog. There was so much fascinating information that it turned into a three-part series.
Part 1 will focus on how women gained power within marriage.
Part 2 will cover women in the workplace.
Part 3 will show how women went from not even being considered citizens to holding the second highest office in the land.
Women Under Coverture
No discussion of women’s rights* in the United States can begin without an explanation of coverture. In 1769, the American colonies formally accepted the English system of law called coverture, which had prior to that time been in place informally but not committed to paper. Under this system, women were “covered” under the law by a man from their first moment of existence. At birth, a woman’s rights were subsumed by her father. Upon marriage, they passed into her husband’s hands, so that during her entire life—unless she became a widow—she had essentially the same rights as a child, a slave, or a person declared mentally unfit.
The actual language of the law stated, “by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.” Therefore, women did not legally exist. This made women highly dependent on the men in their lives for everything, especially as it related to money and the law. They couldn’t vote, enter into contracts, or be sued. As historian Catherine Allgor explains, “They could not own or work in business. Married women could not own land or any other property, not even the clothes on their backs, and upon the death of her husband, a woman’s legal agency would transfer to her nearest male relative…. [A husband] owned her labor and could even lease her to work for someone else, taking her wages. He had absolute ownership of his wife’s children. If he chose, he could take custody of children after a divorce and could refuse to allow his former wife to ever see them again; and he could seize her property from other heirs upon her death… And of course, a husband could legally beat his wife, or ask that she be remanded to prison or an asylum…When it came to their rights as specifically women and wives, legally the only difference between a slave and a married woman was that a husband could not sell his wife…and even these distinctions were sometimes shaky.”
In the American colonies, ending a marriage was even more difficult than being in one. While some marriages were “dissolved,” divorce as it is defined today was rare until the late 19th century. For women in the southern colonies, divorce was not an option because they followed English law. However, women in the northern colonies had it little better; they could only divorce their husbands if they could prove adultery, desertion or bigamy.
These restrictions eased somewhat after the Revolutionary War, partly because people began to think that if colonies could leave their king, why couldn’t a husband leave his wife? However, proof of cause still had to be provided, i.e. that one spouse had committed the crimes listed above, or were physically cruel, had threatened their life, did not provide economically or refused their marital duty in the bedroom.
Laws Begin to Change
The first American law that permitted a woman any control over her own property was passed in Connecticut in 1808. It allowed a woman to leave a will and have her bequests honored. But that was power only after death. Similarly, widows had the right of “dower,” which is the right to property they brought into the marriage, as well as to one-third of their husbands’ estate. But again, this power only came after his death.
From 1821-1931, a series of marriage reform laws began to chip away at the stranglehold coverture had over women’s lives. For most of the 19th century, states passed a series of marriage reform laws aimed at granting women greater property rights, but they varied widely by state. The first state to act, in 1839, was Mississippi, which granted women the right to hold property in their own names with the caveat that they had to have permission from their husbands.
In 1849, New York issued one of the most sweeping changes to marriage law under the Married Women’s Property Act, which granted a married woman separate control over any rent or profit earned from property she held at the time of her marriage and protected it from her husband’s creditors. In addition, if a married woman was given property during her marriage through a grant or bequest, such as inheriting from her father, it was under her control, not that of her current or future husband. New York expanded women’s rights in 1860 with a reform statute stating “the earnings of any married woman, from her trade, business, labor or services, shall be her sole and separate property.” For the first time, women had full control over the money they earned.
During this period, divorce became increasingly common, though adultery or cruelty still were really the only grounds. This was due in part, at least to the increasing economic independence changes in marriage law gave to women. Divorce was expensive, so previously only the higher classes could afford to bring suit, which many did not out of fear for their reputation and social standing. But now some women’s rights advocates—including Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States in 1872—began to advance the belief that the law and religion should have nothing to do with marriage or divorce. Woodhull famously proclaimed that she believed a marriage occurred when two people fell in love and dissolved when they were no longer in love.
In 1871, cruelty, one of the most common reasons for divorce, became illegal for the very first time when Alabama became the first state to outlaw the beating of one’s wife. Previously, according to lore, a husband was only allowed to whip his wife with a switch no bigger than his thumb (which is where we get the phrase “rule of thumb”). Other states attempted to follow, with mixed results. Maryland made wife-beating illegal in 1882, but it wasn’t until 1920 that it was formally illegal in all states, and not until 1970 that domestic violence was treated as a serious crime under the judicial system.
20th Century Progress
By the year 1900, every state had passed legislation granting married women the right to keep their own wages and to own property in their own name. The fight for the next three decades (1907-1931) was to allow women to marry foreign men (especially Asian men) without losing their own citizenship, which began with the Expatriation Act (also known as the Married Women’s Citizenship Act) of 1907. The Cable Act of 1922 (also called the Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act), partially reversed this ruling, stating “the right of any woman to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of her sex or because she is a married woman;” however, a wife’s nationality was still dependent upon her husband’s status. This law was amended four times and repealed before the Nationality Act of 1940 allowed women to marry men of any nationality without loss of citizenship and restored the status of all affected by previous laws.
In 1967, interracial marriage (meaning Black and White) was legalized in the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia, but is still not accepted in some places today. Two years later, California adopted the nation’s first “no fault” divorce law, allowing divorce by mutual consent. By 1975, no-fault divorce was common in all states.
But the ability to own property, keep one’s wages and marry and divorce at will is just the beginning of how modern women gained the rights we have today. In the next edition, we’ll look at women in the workplace and how we went from being regarded as the “angel of the house” in Victorian times to working women, wives and mothers today.
Please keep in mind that women’s history is very complex, so these articles can only scratch the surface. In addition, these articles are written in general terms. In reality, women of the upper classes experienced the world very differently from those of the lower and each race of women has their own history and their own struggles that continue to this day.
Allgor. Catherine. “Remember…I’m Your Man”: Masculinity, Marriage, and Gender in Hamilton.” Historians on Hamilton. Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter, eds. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rugters University Press, 2018, 104-106.
Just as man can’t live by bread alone, nor can an author live by writing books alone.
Last summer I started a new lifestyle website/blog called Everyday Luxury that I’d like to introduce you today. I was hoping to have every category seeded with a few blog posts before launching it, but my time as been limited and if I don’t share it with the world now, I fear I never will!
What is Everyday Luxury? Everyday Luxury a blog where I share tips on living and elegant life on a budget. Posts live right now:
I define the concept of Everyday Luxury as elegance that is lived in. You can make your home or your life into a museum or a magazine spread, but how realistic is that? I’m all about authenticity. If you have children or pets, your house is not going to be photo-ready most of the time; if you have a busy schedule you’re style is not going to be on point all of the time. And if you’re on a budget, you’re not going to be able to have all the luxury items in Vouge or Travel and Leisure. And that is totally okay. You can still live a luxurious life.
This site is for real people with real budgets. I am not a model or an influencer, nor do I care to be. I’m not rich, nor am I pretending to be. I’m middle class, but I’ve always had dreams of grandeur. Instead of waiting for the dreamed of day that I am rich, I decided to incorporate luxury into my life to the extent of my ability. It takes some hard work (sometimes literally when you are DIY), creative thinking, and positive visualization, but it can be done.
Why am I doing this? Everyday Luxury came about as part of my quest to manifest the life I truly wanted rather than settle for what I felt I could have. The lessons learned came quickly, so I thought, “Why not share them with others?”
When I turned 40 (I’m 41 now), I felt myself changing again. (We all live multiple lifetimes in one. In my life I’ve been a wanna-be nun, a groupie, a theatre geek, totally lost, a career communicator and a bestselling author.) The change really had nothing to do with the number, but more with where I am in life, mentally and in my career. COVID-19 and a sudden long-term work from home situation galvanized me to improve my home since I was there all the time. When I was thinking about the style I was going for, the phrase “everyday luxury” came to me. That bled over into the rest of my life because I suddenly realized who I really was and I wanted everything to reflect that.
I was frustrated because I could find a lot of sites for men on how to live a “gentlemanly” life, (My favorite is Gentleman’s Gazette. It has aspects women can enjoy as well.) but i couldn’t find many for women that weren’t flaunting wealth (or at least perceived wealth) or people trying to become lifestyle influencers. So I decided to start my own.
What to expect This site is like an exotic cocktail: part DIY lessons, part bargain hunter’s paradise, part advice column and a dash of self-help thrown in for good measure. I’ll post whenever I can and hopefully over time, will develop a treasure trove of posts and videos to help others elevate their lifestyle without emptying their bank account.
This is my monthly column for the Women in Leadership Newsletter for my day job.
Did you know that Feb. 3 is National Women Physicians Day? That’s because it is also the birthday (1821) of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school and become a doctor in the United States.
Elizabeth was born in Bristol, England, into a Quaker family known for being reformers. Her parents were anti-slavery activists, her sister Antoinette would become the first ordained female Protestant minister, and her brother Henry would go on to marry American suffragist Lucy Stone, founder of the American Woman’s Suffrage Association.
For financial reasons and because her father wanted to help abolish slavery in the United States, the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1832 when Elizabeth was only 11. Six years later, her father died, leaving the family destitute during a national financial crisis. To make ends meet, her mother, two older sisters and Elizabeth worked as teachers at The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies, a school they founded.
One day, as one of Elizabeth’s female friends lay dying, the woman said she believed her suffering would have been less if she had had a female physician. At that moment, Elizabeth knew that was what she was meant to do, despite having a natural aversion to “everything connected with the body…the very thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments filled me with disgust.” But there was one big problem: none of the medical schools in the U.S. would admit women. Her only option was to find a physician who would allow her to apprentice under him for informal training. She found not one, but two doctors in Philadelphia who were willing to help her. Elizabeth worked as a teacher while living with the physicians’ families.
While she was training, Elizabeth applied to all the major medical schools and was universally rejected; even when she applied to the small schools, she only received one acceptance letter, from Geneva Medical College in New York. What she didn’t know was that the faculty had opposed her admission but since she was qualified in all ways but gender, they felt they couldn’t reject her outright. So, they referred the decision to the students, who thought the whole thing was a practical joke, and voted unanimously
to admit her.
Elizabeth arrived in Geneva on Nov. 6, 1847, well after the beginning of the term. Not only did she have to catch up on her classwork, but she faced very strong discrimination. Her professors forced her to sit separately from the male students during lectures and often excluded her from labs, fearing that her delicate female sensibilities couldn’t handle subject matter like the male reproductive system. At the same time, the citizens of Geneva shunned her as an improper woman for defying her God-given roles of wife and mother. She wrote of this time:
“I had not the slightest idea of the commotion created by my appearance as a medical student in the little town. Very slowly I perceived that a doctor’s wife at the table avoided any communication with me, and that as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent.”
After graduating on Jan. 23, 1849, with the highest grades in her class, Elizabeth—now Dr. Blackwell—continued her training in London and Paris, though the doctors in those hospitals only allowed her to work in midwifery and nursing. During that time, she realized that doctors often caused epidemics by failing to wash their hands between patients, so she emphasized preventive care and personal hygiene in her departments.
In 1851, Dr. Blackwell returned to New York City, where she encountered even more discrimination against female physicians, who were thought to all be abortionists, though that procedure was illegal and most female physicians did not practice it. This attitude meant she had few patients and was not welcomed at many hospitals and clinics. Like so many women before her, she took matters into her own hands and opened her own small clinic to treat poor women. She is quoted as saying, “If society will not admit of a woman’s free development, then society must be remodeled.”
By 1857, her sister, Emily, had followed in her footsteps to become a doctor, earning her medical degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Together, they opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, along with colleague Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. This medical establishment welcomed aspiring female physicians and nurses and gave them what men sought to deny them: training in practical medical skills.
During the Civil War, the Blackwell sisters trained nurses for Union hospitals and Elizabeth founded the Woman’s Central Relief Association because the male physicians in the United States Sanitary Commission refused to help her.
After the war, in 1867 or 1868 (sources conflict on the date), Dr. Blackwell opened a medical college for women in New York City. A year later, she placed Emily in charge and moved permanently to London, where one of her first acts was to found the National Health Society.
Despite failing health, Dr. Blackwell established the London School of Medicine for Women with Sophia Jex-Blake, one of her students in New York, in 1874. The following year, Dr. Blackwell became a professor of gynecology at the school, a position she held for three years before retiring from medicine.
Dr. Blackwell never married, choosing instead to spend her retirement time advocating for social and moral reform. She also published more than 15 books, including Medicine as a Profession For Women in 1860, Address on the Medical Education of Women in 1864 and an 1895 autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women. She died in 1910 at the age of 89.
Today, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell is recognized for her influence on the medical profession in the United States and the United Kingdom. Biographer Janice Nimura has just released a new book on Elizabeth and her sister Emily titled The Doctors Blackwell. Check it out or read this interview with the author on NPR to learn more about these pioneering women in medicine.
Fun fact: The first female physician in western history that we know of is Metrodora, a Greek doctor who lived sometime between 200-400 AD/CE. She wrote the oldest known medical book by a woman, On the Diseases and Cures of Women.
For those who are not aware, my day job is in health care. This is an article I was asked to write by our Women in Leadership program.
February is Black History Month, so it is only appropriate that we reflect upon the tremendous—and often overlooked—contributions of Black women and men in health care, both within our company and in the United States in general. While doing so, we must also acknowledge and ask forgiveness for the inexcusable discrimination and injustice perpetrated upon our Black brothers and sisters, a pain that continues to this day. As we reflect, let us pray for understanding, unity and love, that our country may become a haven of tolerance for all and celebrate both our differences and our similarities as children of God, equally worthy of respect and dignity.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (First Black Female Doctor in the U.S.)
Rebecca was born in Delaware in 1831 and was raised by her aunt, who frequently cared for sick neighbors. This experience is what influenced her to become a healer herself. At the time there was no formal schooling for nurses, so Rebecca’s training was all on the job. She worked as a nurse in Charlestown, Massachusetts, from 1852-1860, when she was admitted to the New England Female Medical College in Boston. In 1864, she became the first Black American female to earn a medical degree.
(You may see references to a woman named Rebecca Cole holding this distinction, one for which she was given credit for many years. Because she received her degree in 1867, she is now considered the second Black American woman to hold a medical degree.)
Dr. Crumpler practiced medicine in Boston until the Civil War ended and she moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she cared for “a population of over 30,000 colored” in her own estimation. Despite experiencing terrible racism, she worked with other black physicians and the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide food, housing, medical care, education and legal assistance to former slaves.
Sometime later she moved back to Boston. In 1883, she published Book of Medical Discourses, one of the earliest medical publications by a Black American.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (First Black Nurse Licensed in the U.S.)
Mary was born in 1845 in Boston to freed slaves who had moved there from North Carolina. She received a superb education at Phillips School in Boston, which later became one of the first integrated schools in the country. By the time she was a teenager, she felt a calling to become a nurse. She found employment at New England Hospital for Women and Children, which was run completely by women and provided care only to women and children. She worked there for the next 15 years in roles as varied as janitor, cook, washer woman and nurse’s aide.
In 1878, Mary was accepted into a 16-month nursing training program at the hospital. During this program she worked 16-hour shifts attending lectures and lessons led by doctors in the hospital. She was also taught bedside procedures by experienced nurses. The students earned a weekly wage ranging from $1-$4. The course work was so rigorous that out of a class of 42 students, only four graduated, including Mary, in 1879.
After receiving her diploma, Mary found that Black public nurses faced harsh discrimination, and so went into private care nursing in the homes of rich White families on the East coast. She was often treated like a servant instead of a professional and thus worked to distance herself from the household staff. She became renowned for her professionalism, efficiency, patience and bedside manner, a reputation that spread across the United States.
Mary wanted more than anything to improve the reputation of Black nurses across the country. In 1896, she joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, which later became known as the American Nurses Association (ANA). This group was overwhelmingly White and not very friendly toward Black nurses, so Mary cofounded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908.
After her death in 1926, Mary was recognized with numerous honors. In 1936, the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses founded the Mary Mahoney Award, which is still given today to nurses who promote integration in nursing. Mary was inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame in 1976. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1993.
Opaline Wadkins (Nurse and Integration Pioneer)
Opaline Wadkins’ career began in 1938 when she was hired by the Texas Department of Public Health to recruit Black nurses. Two years later she moved to Oklahoma City where she lobbied for the rights of Black patients. It took five years, but in 1945 Opaline finally convinced the city to found its first hospital to treat Black patients, University Hospital South Ward, and establish a school to train Black nurses. Between 1949 and 1953 she trained over 200 Black LPNs.
In 1954, Opaline became the first Black nursing supervisor at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City. While working for there, she was also studying for her master’s degree in public health. She was especially concerned about the lack of access young Black people had to information about their health. When she graduated, Opaline became the first Black person to earn a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Oklahoma.
With her passion for public health, she started new initiatives to provide care to minorities living in Oklahoma. One of her most successful programs was a health and well-baby care initiative for Native Americans which effectively decreased infant mortality by 50%. She also worked with local churches to provide health and diabetic clinics to Black patients living in Oklahoma City and was instrumental in desegregating the University of Oklahoma College of Nursing.
Opaline retired in 1976. The governor of Oklahoma declared Nov. 14 as Opaline Wadkins Day. She was later honored by the VA Hospital Nursing Service and the Oklahoma Public Health Association. In 1993, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame. She died in 2000 at her home in Oklahoma City.
Other Notable Black People in Medical History:
In 1721, a slaved named Onesimus described the African method of inoculation against smallpox to Cotton Mather. The technique was used to protect soldiers during the Revolutionary War and was perfected in the 1790s by British doctor Edward Jenner. (To learn more about this, check out The Speckled Monster by Jennifer Lee Carrell.)
Born into slavery, Dr. James Durham bought his freedom in 1762. He then started his own medical practice in New Orleans, becoming the first Black doctor in the United States.
In 1837, James McCune Smith became the first Black American to receive a medical degree (from the Glasgow Medical School in Scotland) and opened the first pharmacy in the US owned and operated by a person of color.
In 1847, David Jones Peck became the first Black person to graduate from a medical school in the United States, Rush Medical College, in Chicago, Illinois.
In 1862, former slave Susie Baker (later known as Susie King Taylor) became the first Black U.S. Army nurse during the Civil War.
In 1891, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams founded the first black-owned hospital in America, Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses. Two years later he performed the first successful open-heart surgery. In 1897 he founded the National Medical Association because Black people were denied membership in the American Medical Association. He was also a charter member of the
American College of Surgeons in 1913 and was the first and only Black member for many years.
In 1912, Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as the country’s first Black psychiatrist, published the first comprehensive clinical review of all Alzheimer’s cases reported to date. He was also the first to translate into English much of Alois Alzheimer’s work on the disease that bears his name.
In 1921 – Dr. Meta L. Christy became the world’s first Black osteopathic physician after graduating from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
In 1936, Dr. William Augustus Hinton was the first Black American physician to publish a textbook, Syphilis and Its Treatment.
In 1950, Dr. Helen O. Dickens became the first Black woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons.
In 1978, Dr. LaSalle D. Leffall was elected the first Black president of the American Cancer Society.
In 1981, Alexa Canady became the first Black female neurosurgeon in the U.S.
and Dr. Mae C. Jemison became the first Black female astronaut in NASA history. In 1992 she became the first Black woman in space, where she researched various vaccines and conducted experiments onboard the shuttle Endeavour.
In 1991, Dr. Vivian Pinn became the first woman and the first Black person to hold the title of Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health, National Institutes of Health.
In 1993, Dr. Edward S. Cooper became the first Black person elected as National President of the American Heart Association and Dr. Joycelyn Elders became the first Black person to be appointed as U.S. Surgeon General.
In 1995, Dr. Lonnie Bristow became the first Black President of the American Medical Association (AMA) in its 148-year history.
In 2002, Dr. Roselyn Payne Epps became the first Black woman to serve as President of the American Medical Women’s Association.
In 2018, Dr. Patrice Harris became the first Black woman President-Elect of the country’s largest physician organization, the AMA.
I just realized I never posted my January Fearless Females column on women in U.S. History. (If you missed the first one, check it out here.) Perfect timing, though, since today is inauguration day.
The first month of each year is chock full of important dates in women’s history because so many lawmakers take office when the new term of the government begins in January. From our first Lantina elected to the U.S. Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) on Jan. 2, 2017, to Dr. Condoleezza Rice (R) becoming the first Black woman appointed Secretary of State on Jan. 26, 2005, we could extoll a different woman almost every day of the month. If you’re curious as to why the dates are scattered throughout the month, check out this site. It explains when legislators assume responsibility, which varies from state to state.
And this year, we have an extra special first, with Kamala Harris (D-CA) becoming the first female vice president in the history of the U.S. on Jan. 20. She is also the first South Asian and first Black woman elected to that seat. She previously made history on Jan 3, 2017, as the first South Asian and second Black woman elected to the US Senate. In 2016 she became the first woman of color to be selected as the running mate on a major-party ticket, as well as the first multiracial woman, the first South Asian woman, and the first Black woman.
Did you know that the presidential inauguration wasn’t always held in January? The 20th Amendment moved it from March 4 (which had been the designated date since 1789, even though travel delays meant George Washington didn’t actually take office until April 9) to Jan. 20. The four-month gap created by the March date was important historically because it took a lot of time to count and report votes when they had to be gathered from across the nation by hand, on horseback and later by a much slower mail system than we have now. Plus, it gave the incoming president time to choose his cabinet and set up the rest of his administration. However, it also meant that the sitting president, if he wasn’t reelected, often left things to his successor, who had no power to act, a condition often referred to as a “lame duck” presidency. As technology sped up the vote counting process, this period became increasingly problematic, so Congress passed the 20th Amendment, which was ratified on Jan. 23, 1933, and moved Inauguration Day to Jan. 20 and the first meeting of the new Congress to Jan. 3.
Here’s a list of other political female “firsts” in January:
Jan. 2, 2017 – Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) became the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate.
Jan. 3, 2013 – Mazie Hirono (D-HI) became the first Asian-Pacific Islander woman — and only the second woman of color — elected to the U.S. Senate.
Jan. 3, 2019 – Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) became the first Muslim women sworn into Congress.
Jan. 4, 2007: U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA.) becomes the first female speaker of the House. In 2019, she reclaims the title, becoming the first lawmaker to hold the office two times in more than 50 years.
Jan. 4, 2007 – Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) became the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress.
Jan. 12, 1932 – Hattie Wyatt Caraway (D-AR) becomes the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
Jan. 15, 1981 – Jeane Kirkpatrick (D) becomes the first female U.N. Ambassador
Jan. 23, 1977 – Patricia Roberts Harris (D) was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. She was the first Black woman to serve in a presidential cabinet and the first woman to hold two different cabinet positions (the second was Secretary of Health and Human Services).
Jan. 23, 1997: Madeleine Albright (D) is sworn in as the nation’s first female secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.
Jan. 26, 2005 – Dr. Condoleezza Rice (R) becomes the first Black woman appointed Secretary of State.
We thank all of these trailblazing women who were ahead of their time and dared to do what others deemed “impossible.” Because of them, there is only one glass ceiling left in the United States government—one that someone will someday break, proving to women across the nation that there is nothing they can’t do.