Fearless Females: Sarah Hackett Stevenson

September is the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Women in Medicine Month, which celebrates the accomplishments of, and showcases advocacy for, female physicians, while also highlighting health issues impacting female patients.

Did you know that the AMA, which was founded in 1874, didn’t have its first female president until 1998? It didn’t even have any female leaders until 1969, when Louise C. Gloeckner became vice president. That’s nearly 100 years after today’s subject, Sarah Hackett Stevenson, became the first woman to join the AMA.

Early Life
Sarah was born in the small town of Buffalo Grove, (now Polo), in northwestern Illinois, which her father helped found. As a young woman, she attended Mount Carroll Seminary and State Normal College, in Bloomington, Illinois, and graduated with honors as a teacher. After several years of teaching and serving as a principal in public schools in Bloomington, Mount Morris and Sterling, Illinois, she moved to Chicago to study anatomy and physiology at Woman’s Hospital Medical College as one of its earliest students.

During her course of study, Sarah spent a year in England at South Kensington Science School in London learning from famed biologists Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. After returning to America, she graduated from the medical college with the highest honors in 1874, becoming one of Illinois’ first female physicians. She went back to Europe to continue her studies under Huxley and Darwin at hospitals in London and Dublin. During this time, she was appointed by Illinois Governor John Beveridg as a delegate to the International Sanitary Conference in Vienna, which was the fourth of 14 conferences organized to standardize international quarantine regulations against the spread of cholera, plague and yellow fever.

Medical Career
Back once again in the United States, Sarah began her medical career as physiology chair at the Woman’s Hospital Medical College in Chicago, a role she held for five years. In 1875 she was elected as a member of the Illinois State Medical Society and appointed head of the Illinois State Medical Society’s committee on progress in physiology. The following year, she was named an alternate delegate to the AMA convention in Philadelphia, becoming a full delegate and the organization’s first female member when the original male delegate was unable to attend. She appears to have met with surprisingly little resistance and even boldly listed her full name on the official delegate roster instead of using first and middle initials like many of her male colleagues.

She served as a delegate again three more times and in 1878, was chair of an AMA special committee for advancing physical sciences. In 1879, she presented a paper on the sympathetic nervous system. Sarah was also the first woman appointed on the State Board of Health and the first woman to be on staff at the Cook County Hospital. She wrote several books, including the well-known The Physiology of Woman.

Sometime in 1880, Sarah resigned from her position at Woman’s Medical College because she believed that men and women should be taught together, rather than segregated by gender. She wrote, “I hope that men and women will be educated in one institution–educated as physicians without any regard to the sex question at all. It seems to me, if we be physicians, that the first necessity is equality of opportunity, and that is all the woman physician asks.”

Advocacy for Women
Sarah was also actively involved in the temperance movement, serving as the first superintendent of the Department of Hygiene of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) from 1881-1882. In 1886, the Chicago WCTU organized the National Temperance Hospital (later renamed the Frances Willard Hospital) with the express purpose of providing care without using medicines containing alcohol, and Sarah served as staff president.

Sarah was also a passionate advocate for women’s rights. Her writings on the plight of women in late 19th century Chicago are available online. But she didn’t only write about injustice; she acted to end it. In 1880 she co-founded the Illinois Training School for Nurses, along with Lucy Flower. In 1893, Sarah proposed to the Chicago Woman’s Club to create a safe home for women and children who did not have money but needed shelter. Her proposal was accepted and funded by donations as the Woman’s Model Lodging House. Those who could pay were charged 15 cents/night, but women who could not worked instead. She also spoke in support of admission of a black member to the Chicago Woman’s Club, of which she was president.

Sarah retired in 1903 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage that left her paralyzed and bedridden. She died in 1909 at the age of 68.

Fearless Females: Sally Ride

With the release of Consequences and the Historical Novel Society Conference, June almost got away from me without our monthly column on women in history. But luckily I was working on next month’s and realized it.

This month we’re looking at a woman whom I remember from my childhood. (Can you believe 35 years ago is the definition of historical in the publishing industry? I feel so old!) 

Did you know that the United States Mint is honoring 20 women on U.S. quarters over the next few years? One of the first two is Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, who earned this designation on June 18, 1983, (the other is poet Mya Angelou).

Sally Kristen Ride was born May 26, 1951, in Los Angeles. As a young woman, she was interested in science, but put that on the back-burner to focus on her tennis career. Despite being a nationally-ranked player, Sally eventually returned to science, studying physics and English at Stanford, where she earned her bachelors in 1973, masters in 1975 and her doctorate in 1978. She specialized in astrophysics and free electron lasers.

After she graduated, Sally was one of only 35 people (and six women) selected out of 8,000 applications to participate in NASA Astronaut Group 8, the first NASA selection in more than a decade. It was the first group to include women and people of color.

She trained for a year and then became a ground-based capsule communicator (CapCom) for NASA’s second and third space shuttle flights and helped develop the Space Shuttle’s “Canadarm” robot arm.

On June 18, 1983, at 32, she became the youngest woman ever in space and only the third ever (behind USSR cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982). She is also the first known LGBTQIA+ astronaut. Before her first flight, the media expressed reservations about women in space, asking her questions about her emotional capability to withstand the journey and if she worried about how space would affect her ability to have children. Sally ignored them all and said she didn’t think of herself as a female astronaut, but simply as an astronaut.

On her first flight, Sally’s job was to work the robotic arm that helped place satellites in space for Canada and Indonesia. This was the first successful deployment and retrieval in space. On her second space flight in October 1984, she used the shuttle’s robotic arm to remove ice from the shuttle’s exterior and to readjust a radar antenna. Sally was assigned to a third shuttle mission, but her crew’s training was cut short by the Challenger disaster in January 1986.

Sally left NASA in 1987. She worked for two years at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, then at the University of California, San Diego, researching nonlinear optics and Thomson scattering.

During this time, she started looking for ways to help women and girls who wanted to study science and mathematics. She came up with the idea for NASA’s EarthKAM project, which lets middle school students take pictures of Earth using a camera on the International Space Station. Students then study the pictures. She also wrote or co-wrote seven books on space for children to encourage them to study science.

Sally served on the committees that investigated the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters, the only person to participate in both. Sally provided key information about how O-rings get stiff at low temperatures, which led to them being identified as the cause of the Challenger explosion.

In 2003, Sally was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Sally died on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61 after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. She was honored with many awards after her death, including being featured on a U.S. postage stamp.

Fearless Females: American Women’s Firsts in Politics

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.

Fearless Females: A Column About American Women’s Contributions to History

I know it’s been a few months since I’ve blogged. Just been busy writing (the biography of Virginia and Francis Minor is done and is on submission with publishers!) and working.

Speaking of work, we have a group that is specifically for women leaders and is all about promoting women’s accomplishments and helping one another and the community. I’m not a member because you have to have a certain level title and I’m not that high up. Anyway, they found out about my interest and research into women’s history and asked me to write a monthly column for their newsletter, along with compiling a list of “This Day in History” anniversaries of major U.S. female accomplishments. So I thought I would share that information here as well.

I’m going to share them as I finish them. This one is technically Dec. 2020.

The Making of a Movement: Wyoming Women Get the Vote

Wyoming Women Voting. Source: WikiMedia Commons

December is a month full of not only holidays but also important anniversaries in women’s history. Household names such as Rosa Parks, Carol Moseley Braun and Jane Addams made history this month. We’ll talk about them in the future, but since this year marked the centennial of women winning the right to vote in the U.S., I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the history-changing event that started the 51-year battle for women of all states to be able to legally vote. No, not the Seneca Falls Convention—though that is widely considered the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement. I’m talking about Wyoming becoming the first territory to grant women the right to vote on Dec. 10, 1869.

Wyoming wasn’t even a state yet when it took the bold step of enfranchising women. While this may sound like a noble move to us in hindsight, it was far from it at the time. The area had fallen on hard times, with the workers who had braved the wild to build the railroad and pan for gold just a few years earlier having moved on to more lucrative areas. Lawmakers were desperate to bring their territory some good publicity so that more people would move to the area, especially women. There were six adult men in the Territory for every adult woman, and there were very few children—a population makeup that could not sustain itself for long.

The Democrats figured that if they gave women the right to vote, the women would thank them by voting for them, rather than the Republicans who opposed women’s suffrage. In addition, the attorney general had recently ruled that no one in the territory could be denied the vote on the basis of race, so former slaves and Chinese men were now allowed to vote; the men of the territory reasoned that women may as well be included, too.

The bill to give women over the age of 21 the right to vote in all elections held in Wyoming territory was introduced by legislator William H. Bright, a saloon keeper with no formal education, in 1869, possibly at the urging of his wife, Julia. Tradition says the bill was heavily debated, but no record of the proceedings exist. The bill passed 6-2 in the upper house and 7-4 in the lower house. Much to the Democrat’s surprise, Republican Governor John Campbell signed it into law on Dec. 10, 1869.* Women voted for the first time in September 1870.**

The 1871 legislature tried to repeal the law but failed. In 1890, when Wyoming became a state, it also became the first state to allow women to vote.

*Legend has it that Democrats wanted to use the bill to embarrass the Republican governor, whom they expected to veto the bill. Suffrage leader Esther Morris later told The Woman’s Journal on March 9, 1872, that the passage of the law “was the result of a bitter feud between the existing political parties, and it was done in a moment of spite – not out of any regard for the movement.” Interestingly, Wyoming was the first, and possibly the only, state to enfranchise women without the influence of suffragists.

** This was not the first time women legally voted in the United States. Women had the right to vote in New Jersey from 1776-1807, when the state government wrote female voting out of the state constitution. It would be another one hundred and thirteen years before women in New Jersey would vote again. On February 9, 1920, New Jersey became the 29th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.

Important Dates in U.S. Women’s History – December

Dec. 1, 1955: Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala, helping to launch the civil rights movement.

Dec. 9, 1999 – Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) became the first Black woman and the first woman of color to be elected to the U.S. Senate. She had also been the first Black woman to win a major party Senate nomination.

Dec. 10, 1869 – Wyoming becomes the first territory to grant women the right to vote. In 1890, when Wyoming became a state, they also became the first state to allow women to vote.

Dec. 10, 1870 – Ellen Swallow Richards becomes the first woman admitted to MIT (which made her the first accepted to any school of science or technology), and the first American woman to earn a degree in Chemistry.

December 10, 1931 – Jane Addams became the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a social worker and activist.

Dec. 13, 1923 – The Equal Rights Amendment, written by suffragist Alice Paul, is first introduced into Congress. It has still not passed into law.

Dec. 15, 1985 – Wilma Mankiller became the first woman to serve as chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Dec. 16, 1891 – City Health Dept. Inspector Marie Owens is appointed to the Chicago Police Department as a police officer assigned to the Detective Bureau, becoming the nation’s first female law enforcement officer.