Fearless Females in History: Ester Eggersten Peterson

“We have a tremendous responsibility to future generations to leave an accurate record of our history, one which lays bare not only the facts, but the process of change.” – Ester Eggersten Peterson

While you may not know Ester’s name, you’ve got a lot to thank her for, from consumer protections we now take for granted and the Equal Pay Act, which attempted to level the financial playing field between men and women in the workplace. The National Women’s Hall of Fame has called her “one of the nation’s most effective and beloved catalysts for change.”

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Ester Eggersten was born on December 9, 1906, in Provo, Utah. Her parents were immigrants from Denmark who were not well off. Her father was the local superintendent of schools and her mother kept boarders at her house to supplement his meager income. Esther earned her bachelor’s in physical education from Brigham Young University in 1927 and a master’s from Columbia University Teachers College in New York City in 1930.

She chose to stay in New York and in 1932, Ester married Oliver Peterson, with whom she eventually had four children. Esther became a teacher at The Windsor school and volunteered at the YWCA, where she witnessed racial discrimination and organized her first strike. Some of her students had jobs sewing aprons and when they were forced to change the design of the pockets from squares to hearts—hearts were much more difficult to sew and therefore slowed them down—their wages were docked. Esther intervened and the women won their strike.

Around the same time, she became assistant director of education at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers in Industry. During the summers from 1932-1939, she helped teach women who also worked as milliners, telephone operators and garment workers.

In 1938, Ester became a paid organizer for the American Federation of Teachers. For the next six years, she traveled around New England advocating for teachers’ rights. From 1939-1944 and again from 1945-1948, she served as a lobbyist for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.

In 1944, she became the first lobbyist for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. The AFL-CIO recounts that “at her first union lobbyists’ meeting, all the men stood up when she walked in. Peterson didn’t want to be treated differently and announced, ‘Please don’t stand up for me. I don’t intend to stand up for you.’ Because she was new, they assigned her to a new representative from Boston, John F. Kennedy, who—everyone thought at the time—‘won’t amount to much’ anyway.”

When her husband was offered a diplomatic position in Sweden in 1948, their family relocated there and they lived abroad until 1957. Back in Washington D.C., Esther joined the Industrial Union Department of the AFL–CIO, as its first female lobbyist.

In 1961 when President Kennedy took office, he appointed his former colleague Esther as Director of the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor and later as the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Labor Standards, roles she held from 1961-1969. These roles made her the highest ranking woman in the Kennedy administration.

At Esther’s urging, President Kennedy created the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, whose first leader was Eleanor Roosevelt. Esther served as Executive Vice Chair. One of the outcomes of this group was the Equal Pay Act, passed on June 10, 1963. According to the AFL-CIO, “the commission also laid the groundwork for the National Women’s Committee on Civil Rights to ensure African American women, in particular, were heard in the struggle for civil rights.”

While those things received more media attention, also in 1963, the Commission issued a groundbreaking report called American Women, which included topics such as job discrimination and daycare. In 1968, Ester succeeded in establishing a day care at the Labor Department, the first on-site day care center at a federal government agency; today it is named after her.

Ester also served on presidential commissions on consumer interests and fought for truth in advertising, uniform packaging, “sell buy” dates, unit pricing and nutritional labeling. After President Kennedy was assassinated, Ester went on to serve under Presidents Johnson and Carter as Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs.

After leaving government work in 1971, Ester was 65 and could have easily retired, but she continued her fight for consumer protection as vice president and consumer adviser to the Giant Food Corporation, president of the National Consumers League and chairman of the Consumer Affairs Council. At the age of 75, she was hired by the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents as a consumer adviser, particularly focusing on the problems faced by seniors. She also served on the board of the United Seniors Health Cooperative.

In 1981, Estelle received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a civilian in the United States. The following year, she was elected to the Common Cause National Governing Board.

In 1990, the American Council on Consumer Interests created the Esther Peterson Consumer Policy Forum lectureship, which is presented each year at their annual conference. In 1993, Ester was named a delegate of the United Nations as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) representative and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Working nearly until the end, Esther died on December 20, 1997, in Washington D.C., at the age of 91.

Fearless Females in History: The Night of Terror

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.

Fearless Females: Anna Marie Doyle

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.

Fearless Females: Mary Church Terrell

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.

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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.

 

Fearless Females: Margaret Chung

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 2021The 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.

Fearless Females: Estelle Massey Osborne

In honor of Nurses Week (May 6-12), this month we’ll learn the amazing story of Estelle Massey Osborne, who fought against racial discrimination in nursing. The Rory Meyers College of Nursing at NYU says of her: “Few Americans helped to change the face of nursing in the 20th-century more than Estelle Massey Osborne.”

Estelle Massey was born on May 3, 1901, to Hall and Bettye Estelle Massey in Palestine, Texas. Her parents were uneducated and worked menial jobs, but they wanted a better life for their children so they saved up and managed to send all 11 of them to college.

Estelle received her teaching certification from Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University). She taught for a while, but after being badly injured in a violent incident at a school where she was teaching, she decided to become a nurse. Estelle joined the first nursing class of St. Louis City Hospital #2 (later Homer G. Phillips Hospital), where she developed a passion for obstetrics. She graduated in 1923 and worked there as head nurse for three years.

In 1926 or 1927 she moved to New York City to teach at the Lincoln School of Nursing and the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, where she was the first Black instructor. She attended summer sessions at Teachers College of Columbia University. Then, in 1928, she received a scholarship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund—the first Black nurse ever awarded one—which enabled her to study full time. She received a bachelor’s degree in 1930, and a master’s in nursing education in 1931, the first Black nurse to do so.

The following year, she married Dr. Bedford N. Riddle, but they later divorced. In 1934 she worked as a researcher for the Rosenwald Fund, studying rural life in the deep South and trying to determine how to better enable people there to access health care services. Later the same year, Estelle became president of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses where she created strong relationships with the American Nurses Association (ANA), National League for Nursing, and National Organization for Public Health Nursing. With the bonds she formed, Estelle successfully lobbied to get these organizations to allow Black nurses and worked to improve post-graduation opportunities for Black nurses. By the time she left five years later, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses’ membership had increased five-fold to nearly 950 nurses.

In 1940, Estelle returned to St. Louis and the Homer G. Phillips Hospital to become its first Black female director of nursing. When the U.S. entered WWII, she took up the cause, even though the Army and Navy both banned Black nurses. In 1943 she was appointed as a consultant to the National Nursing Council for War Service, where she acted as a liaison to nursing schools by recruiting desperately-needed student and graduate nurses. She also used this position to change discriminatory policies at nursing schools and in the military. Within two years, thanks to Estelle’s efforts, 20 more nursing schools admitted Black students, the Cadet Nurse Corps had inducted 2,000 Black members, and the Army and Navy both welcomed Black nurses.

In 1945, Estelle became the first Black instructor at New York University’s Department of Nursing Education. The following year, she received the Mary Mahoney Award from the ANA for her efforts to help Black nurses become integrated within the broader nursing community. In 1947, she married again, this time to Herman Osborne.

In addition to teaching nursing as the first Black faculty member at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, she led many nursing associations, trying to increase Black membership and bridge the divide between white and Black associations. In 1948, she became the first Black member of the ANA board, where she served as a delegate to the International Council of Nurses. Estelle was also a member of the National Urban League, first vice-president of the National Council of Negro Women, and an honorary member of Chi Eta Phi Sorority and the American Academy of Nursing.

In 1954 she became Associate Professor of Nursing Education at the University of Maryland and five years later, the NYU Department of Nursing named Estelle “Nurse of the Year.” In 1966, she left her executive role at the National League for Nursing to retire.

Estelle died on December 12, 1981, at the age of 80. In 1984, the ANA inducted her into their Hall of Fame. Two scholarships bearing her name are given out annually by NYU Meyers and the Nurses Educational Fund.

Fearless Females: Susan Elizabeth Tracy and Eleanor Clark

Eleanor Clark Slagle

Well, I totally forgot to post this in April. At least I’m only two days late…

April is National Occupational Therapy Month.

There is an old saying that goes something like, “if you want something done right, ask a woman.” That is exactly how occupational therapy (OT) got its start. In the early 1900s, two women, nurse Susan Elizabeth Tracy and social worker Eleanor Clark Slagle changed how OT would be viewed forever.

OT has its roots in treating mental illness in the 18th and 19th centuries. It became a new field of study under Dr. Benjamin Rush of Baltimore around the turn of the 20th century, as he explored how doing occupational activities might help patients heal by keeping them busy. In 1917 he co-founded the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy and authored one of the first textbooks on the subject Occupational Therapy: A Manual for Nurses in 1918. Because of this, he is often called “the father of occupational therapy.”

However, two women actually beat him to the punch.

Susan E. Tracy
Susan E. Tracy actually wrote the first American book on OT, Studies in Invalid Occupations, in 1910, eight years before Dr. Rush, and is credited with performing the “first systemic studies on occupational therapy.”

Little is known about her life and no photos of her exist. She was born in 1864 or 1878 to a family of teachers. She studied nursing in Massachusetts and after graduation in 1898, she went to work as a nurse at Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago, where she established an OT department and began teaching OT to nurses. In 1906, she gave a series of lectures at the Adams-Nervine Asylum in Boston. Sometime before 1912, she became an administrator at a nursing school. In 1912, she opened an OT practice, where she also taught nurses and focused on using OT to help disabled soldiers wounded in WWI. Elizabeth is recognized as one of the founders of The American Occupational Therapy Association. She died in 1928 in Massachusetts.

Eleanor Clark Slagle
Eleanor May Clark was born on October 13, 1870, to William John and Emeline Clark in Hobart, New York. Little is known of her childhood other than she went by the name Ella May Clark. She married Robert E. Slagle in Chicago, but the two later divorced.

Her education is also fuzzy. Eleanor attended Claverack College in Columbia City, New York, but it is unclear if she graduated or left school to get married. By her late 30s, she worked with the mentally ill at Hull House in Chicago. In 1911, she attended a course at the UC Chicago School for Civics and Philanthropy that “taught occupations and amusements to staff working at state institutions.” From 1912-1914, she was director of the department of occupational therapy at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1914, Eleanor resigned and returned to Chicago, where she gave lectures at the Chicago School for Civics and Philanthropy and taught OT at Hull House. In 1915, she created the first organized OT training program at the Henry B. Favill School of Occupations in Chicago which helped the emerging field become recognized as legitimate by the medical profession.

In 1917, Eleanor became general superintendent of occupational therapy for all of the Illinois state hospitals and was a founding member of the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy. She was part of this organization until 1937, serving as secretary-treasurer, vice president and president (1919-1920) and founding its headquarters in New York City in 1922.

Eleanor spent the next 20 years promoting OT as director at the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene. Encyclopedia Britannica credits her with “demonstrat[ing] the first large-scale occupational therapy program for a state hospital system and also found[ing] an annual training institute for state therapists that became a model for similar programs throughout the United States.” During her career, she trained over 4,000 nurses in OT.

Eleanor died of heart issues on September 18, 1942, in New York and is rightfully called “the mother of occupational therapy,” standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr. Benjamin Rush.

Fearless Females: Dr. Gladys West

Next time you fire up Google Maps or ask your GPS how to get somewhere, say a word of thanks to Dr. Gladys West. Without her, we’d all still be using paper maps to find our way around.

Gladys Brown was born in Sutherland, Virginia, in 1930 to Nolan and Macy Brown, field and tobacco factory workers in a rural town populated mostly by sharecroppers. From an early age she understood that if she wanted to do more than work the land for the rest of her life, she’d have to study hard in school. She attended a small red, one-room school house where seven years of Black students were all taught together. She quickly showed unusual aptitude and her parents, wanting a better life for her, began saving money to send her to college.

But as happens to so many people, unexpected bills kept depleting their savings and Gladys quickly realized she would have to pay her own way. Like her parents, she tried to save, but it was slow going. Luckily, the state of Virginia announced plans to give college scholarships to the two top students from her year. Gladys buckled down and she succeeded in becoming Valedictorian of her high school class and earning one of the two full scholarships.

She chose to attend Virginia State College (now University), a historically Black university and majored in math because it was a respectable subject. To pay for room and board (which the scholarship didn’t cover), she took a part time job babysitting for one of her math teachers. In 1952, she graduated with her bachelor’s in mathematics and began teaching. A few years later, Gladys attended Virginia State, where she earned a master’s in mathematics in 1955.

After graduation, she was offered a job as a computer programmer and coder at Naval Proving Ground (now Naval Surface Warfare Center) in Dahlgren, Virginia, in 1956. According to The Guardian, “this made her only the second Black woman to be hired to work as a programmer at the base. And she was one of only four Black employees.” This was during the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, and while she and her soon-to-be husband Ira West (they married in 1957) kept an eye on the goings on, they were barred from participating due to their government work.

So, just like in school, Gladys decided to form her own kind of rebellion by being the best worker she could and showing what Black people are capable of. One of her first major projects was the Naval Ordinance Research Calculator, an award-winning program using hundreds of hours of computer calculations, which often had to be double-checked for errors by hand, to calculate the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. Gladys quickly rose through the ranks, receiving commendations for her hard work and becoming project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could monitor the oceans. At the same time, she took night classes and earned her master’s in public administration from the University of Oklahoma in 1973.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, from this “work on Seasat came GEOSAT, a satellite programmed to create computer models of Earth’s surface. By teaching a computer to account for gravity, tides, and other forces that act on Earth’s surface, West and her team created a program that could precisely calculate the orbits of satellites.” This laid the groundwork for the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS). Because of her skill in calculating complex mathematical equations, she also worked on other measurements that contributed to the accuracy of GPS.

In 1998 at age 68, Gladys was contemplating retirement when a sudden stroke forced her to stop working. However, she didn’t let that get in the way of her studies for her PhD in public administration and policy affairs, which she was awarded by Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2000 at the age of 70. Dr. West, now 91, is still alive today and participates in activities at the Dahlgren Protestant Chapel, with Gideons International and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and along with her husband, regularly mentors young people. In 2020, Dr. West released her memoir, “It Began with A Dream.”

Her story may have gone unknown if it wasn’t for a short biography she sent to her former sorority and a 2018 Associated Press profile, which kicked off interview requests from around the world. That same year, Gladys was inducted into the U.S. Air Force Hall of Fame, the only Black woman to be so honored. She has also been inducted into the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame, named one of the top 100 Women by the British Broadcasting Corporation, was a Dominion Energy Strong Men & Women recipient and has had a Senate Resolution honoring her accomplishments.

Fearless Females: Mary Katherine Goddard

Did you know that a woman signed the Declaration of Independence? Yes, you read that right. Mary Katherine Goddard’s name appears beneath those of our Founding Fathers.


Mary Katherine was born in New London, Connecticut, on June 16, 1738, to Dr. Giles Goddard, a physician and postmaster, and Sarah Updike Goddard. Mary Katherine was one of only two of their four children to live to adulthood. (No photos of her remain, but there is one that is often wrongly identified as her.)

Her mother tutored her in reading and math and then she attended New London’s public school, which taught girls for one hour a day when the boys’ lessons were over. There she learned Latin, French and science.

In 1755, Giles Goddard fell ill and was too sick to work, so her brother, William (then 15), went to New Haven to serve as a printer’s apprentice. Seven years later, Giles died and Mary Kathrine and her mother joined William in New Haven, where he owned a printing shop. Not long after, they founded Rhode Island’s first newspaper, the Providence Gazette.

William, always seeking a new adventure, moved from Providence to Philadelphia to Baltimore—starting newspapers in each city and leaving his mother and sister in charge each time he moved on. In 1768, Mary Katherine moved to Philadelphia with her mother. Two years later, Sarah died and William, who was in a fight with his financial partners, gave the Pennsylvania Chronicle to her. It was one of the largest printing shops in the colonies.

From 1771 – 1775, while William languished in debtor’s prison, Mary Katherine kept his businesses afloat. As he had done so many times before, in February 1774, William gave Mary Katherine control of the Maryland Journal, Baltimore’s first newspaper. William then concentrated his efforts on building a private postal service (one untouched by British rule that later became the U.S. Postal Service) and the masthead of the Maryland Journal was quietly changed to read “Published by M. K. Goddard.”

This was on the eve of the Revolution. By June 1774, most of the news on her front page was of Britain’s blockade of Boston Harbor. From then on, Mary Katherine’s paper became a tool of the Revolution, publishing Thomas Payne’s Common Sense in two parts, reporting on the first battles of the war and encouraging women to boycott British goods by growing their own flax and wool for clothing.

In July 1775, the Continental Congress approved William Goddard’s postal system and three months later named Mary Katherine Baltimore’s postmaster. This made her, in the words of the National Parks Service, “the first postmaster of Baltimore, the first female postmaster in the colonies, and eventually the first female postmaster in the United States.” According to the Smithsonian, it also “likely made her the United States’ only female employee when the nation was born in July 1776.”

Already familiar with her work and convened only blocks from her shop, Congress asked Mary Katherine to print the second version of the United States Declaration of Independence on Jan. 18, 1777, the first to bear the names of the signatories. At the bottom, it reads: “Baltimore, in Maryland; Printed by Mary Katherine Goddard.” According to the National Park Service, by using her full name instead of M.K. Goddard as she had on her newspapers, she “risked her life and her livelihood” in the event that the British government decided to charge her with treason.

Mary Katherine so excelled in her work that by 1779, the Maryland Journal had “as extensive a circulation as any newspaper in the United States.” Nonetheless, in 1784, William fired Mary Katherine from the Maryland Journal and took over as publisher. The reason is unknown, but it could have something to do with an incident years before when she refused to give up the name of a source for a controversial newspaper story and told the inquirers to talk to her brother, who was nearly banished from the United States because of it. Whatever the cause, the siblings never spoke again.

Mary Katherine remained Baltimore’s postmaster until October 1789 when newly appointed postmaster general Samuel Osgood replaced her with John White of Annapolis. The move was likely done for political reasons, as White was friends with Osgood, but most people took it as a sign of sexism. The official story was that because “supervision of nearby post offices was being added to the job description, more travelling might be necessary than a woman could undertake.”

The residents of Baltimore were outraged, with more than 200 demanding her reinstatement. Mary Katherine even wrote to George Washington and the Senate to try to get her job back. Washington refused to do anything and the Senate never responded, so Mary Katherine spent the rest of her life running a dry goods store and a bookstore.

When she died at the age of 78 in 1816, she freed her slave, Belinda Starling, “to recompense the faithful performance of duties to me,” and never having married or had children, left all of her worldly goods to her former slave.