In Praise of Scrappy Women

One of my favorite movies is Julia, the 1977 Jane Fonda-Vanessa Redgrave vehicle based on Lillian Hellman’s book Pentimento. In the movie, while Hellman (played by Fonda) is struggling with her writing career in the 1930s, Julia has moved to Europe to fight the growing power of the Nazis.

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One of my favorite parts of the movie involves a conversation between Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett (played by Jason Robards), the famous mystery writer who was her partner for decades.

Julia Photos (1/8)

The exchange centers on Hellman’s frustrations about her writing and goes something like this:

Hammett: Go to Spain. There may be a civil war in Spain. You’d help somebody win it. You’re scrappy.

Hellman: I’m not scrappy. Don’t call me scrappy. You make me sound like a neighborhood bulldog.

Hammett: You are the neighborhood bulldog, Lilly, except you’ve got some cockeyed dream about being a cocker spaniel.

Since I’ve been writing books about women in American history, I think a lot about scrappy women. Scrappy is the most perfect word to describe the kinds of women I’m interested in writing about. Scrappy women are dogged and determined. Backed into a corner, they might be dangerous, but the fights they get involved in aren’t physical.

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Women like Ethel Thomas Herold, Margaret Utinsky, Mary Edwards Walker, and Dale Evans were all stubborn–persistent–and worked hard to get what they wanted from life and to make the world a better place (according to their own visions) while they were at it. They are fascinating women to research and write about. They are the kind of women I prefer to read about.

So I’m wrapping up this year’s Women’s History Month by praising scrappy women and honoring their contributions. I’m looking forward to writing (and reading) more about them.

 

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Edmonia Highgate: Teacher, Orator, Freedom Worker

Edmonia Goodelle Highgate, born in upstate New York in 1844, grew up in a community of free blacks committed to ending slavery and pursuing equality. Her hard-working parents made sure all seven of their children attended high school. In 1861, the year the Civil War started, Edmonia was one of the few African Americans to graduate from Syracuse High School. Though the Syracuse Board of Education issued her a teaching certificate, she could not get a job in the city because of her race.

She found a teaching position in Montrose, Pennsylvania, where she also volunteered with the Pennsylvania Freedmen’s Relief Association, which worked with newly-freed African Americans. She moved back to New York after finding a teaching job in Binghampton. In 1864, the American Missionary Association hired her to teach in Norfolk, Virginia.

The conditions Edmonia Highgate faced there prompted a breakdown, and she returned home for about a year to recover. Once she did, she set off again, this time to Darlington, Maryland to establish a school in 1865 before moving to New Orleans in 1866, where she and her sister taught school and founded the Louisiana Educational Relief Association. That summer, Edmonia witnessed a riot launched by ex-Confederates determined to regain control of the state. They killed over 200 African Americans.

New York Public Library

Edmonia Highgate wrote about this and her other experiences for the Christian Recorder. She remained in Louisiana until 1868, despite acts of violence aimed at her. The next year she gave up teaching for work as a paid lecturer, traveling through the north speaking on “Five Years Among Southern Loyalists.”

In 1870, before Edmonia Highgate moved to Mississippi to take a teaching position at Tougaloo College, she had an abortion. On October 16, she was found dead in Syracuse. She was 26 years old.

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For more on Edmonia Highgate, take a look at the work of literary scholar Eric Gardner.

 

 

Edmonia Lewis: Spinster and Sculptor

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In 1867, two years after the end of the American Civil War, Edmonia Lewis completed “Forever Free,” designed to commemorate the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery. Today, the sculpture can be viewed at The Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Lewis, who described herself as a “Spinster and Sculptor” in her will, led a remarkable life. She was born in upstate New York in the mid-1840s. Her father was a free African American and her mother was from the Ojibwe tribe. Both of Lewis’s parents died when she was young so she was raised by her mother’s people, who called her Wildfire.

She enrolled in Oberlin College in 1859, now using the name Mary Edmonia Lewis. Her time there was difficult. After being accused of poisoning two students and stealing art supplies, Lewis failed to graduate.

In 1863, Edmonia Lewis moved to Boston where she met William Lloyd Garrison. The noted abolitionist was so impressed with her artistic ambitions that he found a sculptor willing to mentor her. A bust she sculpted of Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry, sold well enough for her to travel to Rome where she flourished within its artistic community.

Scholar Marilyn Richardson has pointed out that Edmonia Lewis skillfully ” emphasized her blackness or her Native American origins. She was very savvy about how to keep her identity in play.” Until the end of the 19th century, Lewis’s neoclassical sculptures were very popular. Then they weren’t. Edmonia Lewis died in obscurity in London in 1907. Most of her sculptures have not survived. Lewis’s own story was almost lost to history.

Motto edmonia lewis original.jpgNational Portrait Gallery

 

Women’s History Month New Book Recommendations

For those of you interested in women’s history in book form, I have four recommendations of new releases, two nonfiction and two novels.

First, the nonfiction.

I’ve been talking about this book for a while now, so it’s probably no surprise that I’m leading with Pamela Toler’s Women Warriors: An Unexpected History. It’s smart and funny and very much worth your time.

The other, released today, is She the People by Jen Deaderick. It’s an illustrated history of the women’s rights movement, and it, too, is very smart.

Now the novels.

Also released today is Greer Macallister’s Woman 99, described as a historical thriller, about a woman determined to rescue her sister from an asylum.

Finally, for anyone interested in women’s rights history, there’s Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts. The story focuses on Maud Gage Baum, who married the man who would write The Wizard of Oz, and whose mother was the famous women’s rights activist Matilda Gage.

Next up, the life of an African American artist.

 

Looking Backward by Laura E. Foster

Laura Foster Looking Backward 1912(Library of Congress)

In 1912, Life magazine published this anti-suffrage illustration by Laura E. Foster. A well-known artist and illustrator, Foster was born in 1871 in San Francisco, where she first began doing newspaper drawings. After the 1906 earthquake, she moved to New York City, where her career continued to grow and thrive, and where she married Donald Monroe, a stockbroker about eleven years her senior.

This drawing is a stark reminder that the suffrage movement was not a straightforward march toward progress. It had begun in the late 1840s, and in 1912, when Life published Foster’s illustration, it was on the cusp of an infusion of radicalism by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. This drawing attempted to convince women that love and marriage were incompatible with a career and “professional triumph.” The higher a woman climbed toward fame, the more riddled she would become with loneliness and anxiety. And suffrage was right near the top, contributing to those negative attributes.

Women’s suffrage was written into the Constitution with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the same year Laura Foster died. Nearly one hundred years later, many women will still find the message of her illustration familiar.