Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Deborah Sampson - Revolutionary Soldier

Today in America there is still a debate on whether or not women should be allowed to fight on the front lines. Well, it's a little too late for that. Deborah Sampson enlisted and fought during the Revolutionary War, and on top of that she was wounded twice.

Sampson was born in 1760, and by the time she was 10 years old she had become an indentured servant to a family with 10 sons. Very strong, she was a master at plowing fields, spreading fertilizer, milking cows, and stacking hay. She took on a somewhat androgynous role in the household, doing both mens' and womens' chores including carpentry, spinning, sewing and weaving.

When she was 18, she was freed from her indentured servant position and looking for an adventure, decided she wanted to fight in the Revolutionary War. However, she was not allowed due to her gender. In order to pursue her goal, she took a radical step, she disguised herself as a man. Her first attempt, was less than successful because as she signed her name to enlist, those around her realized a woman's handwriting when they saw it. Her second time enlisting, she signed the name Robert Shurtliff and was chosen for the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment.
During her time in the army, Deborah saw several bits of action and was involved in front line fighting. On July 3, 1782, she was hit by two musket balls in the thigh and a bullet grazed her forehead giving her a nasty gash. She begged her comrades to leave her on the field, but they would not and rode six miles to the hospital. After having her head wound treated she fled the hospital fearing that by treating the thigh wound, doctors would discover her secret, and instead removed the balls herself with a pen knife and sewing needle.
Although her leg never fully healed, she was promoted in 1783 and spent time serving General John Patterson. That summer she came down with a terrible fever, and was treated by a doctor named Barnabas Binnney. Removing her clothing was a necessity and he found out her secret. However, he kept it and had Deborah moved to his own home where his wife and daughters helped tend to her.
When Deborah recovered, Dr. Binney asked her to carry a letter to George Washington and she knew, as the phrase goes, that the "jig was up". General Washington never spoke one word to her and she received a honorable discharge from the service, a note with some words of advice, and a sum of money to bear expenses at home.
After several attempts to receive a pension from the United States government, she was finally granted one in 1816 which granted her $76.80 a year. She died in 1827 at the age of 66 years old.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Phillis Wheatley - Woman of Letters

Phillis Wheatley accomplished what many women in her day could not; she published a book of her own poems. This is a remarkable feat on its own, but consider this, she was a slave from Gambia.

Wheatley was one of 7 or 8 children sold to John & Susannah Wheatley in Boston, MA. Phillis got her name from the slave ship that carried her to America, The Phillis. It was highly unusual for slaves to even know how to read or write, let alone accomplish writing poetry and verse. Her gift for poetry was encouraged by her owners, and their daughter Mary. At the age of 12, her first poem On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin, was published.

She was fond of writing poetry in the elegiac style. Many historians believe that her roots in the tradition of oration within her African tribe made her preferential to this style. Over time, Phillis popularity grew both in the colonies and in England. Her popularity was her ticket to freedom and she was released from the bonds of slavery in 1773. She felt slavery to be the issue which separated whites from true greatness: whites can not "hope to find/Deivine acceptance with th' Almighty mind" when "they disgrace/And hold in bondage Afric's blameless race."

Today Phillis Wheatley is remembered for the following feats;

- First African American to publish a book
- An accomplished African American woman of letters
- First African American woman to earn a living from her writing
- First woman writer encouraged and financed by a group of women (Mrs. Wheatley, Mary Wheatly, and Selina Hastings.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Lucy Burns - Suffragette

A lot of peoples' minds, when they think of womens' suffrage, tend to go straight to the big names: Susan B. Anthony , Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul. While there is nothing wrong with that (they were all extraordinary women who contributed so much to the cause), I think we forget about other women involved in the fight for equality.

Lucy Burns is one of those women. She fought side by side with Alice Paul in the National Women's Party. When the NWP began their silent protests outside of the White House, she was there. When those protesters were arrested for "obstructing traffic", she was one of them. When Alice Paul conducted hunger strikes in the Occoquan Workhouse, she participated. In fact, she was jailed 7 times in the workhouse, more than any other suffragette, including Paul. A historian even recounted during the force feedings that it took "five people to hold her down, and when she refused to open her mouth, they shoved the feeding tube up her nostril."

After women gained the right to vote, Burns retired from public life, caring for her youngest sister's child (her sister died in childbirth). Burns herself passed away in 1966, after dedicated her remaining life to the Roman Catholic faith and her niece.

Boudica - Badass Warrior Queen

Boudica was the queen of the Iceni tribe in Roman controlled Britain. Her husband had been king of the tribe, and had made allegiances to the Roman government. When he died, he left his kingdom split between the Romans and his daughters.

The Romans did not recognize women as heirs and called in their debts in addition treating the family of the fallen king like slaves. When Boudica filed a complaint against the treatment of her people she was publicly beaten and her daughters raped.

Just as the oft repeated saying notes, "Hell hath no fury like a woman's scorn." Boudica gathered together with neighboring tribes and sacked Camulodunum (Colchester), routed a Roman legion sent to defend it, and burned a temple being built in the honor of former Emperor Claudius. She and her army then went on to sack Londinium (London), Verulanium (St. Alban's), and prepared for a final showdown with Suetonius, the current governor of East Anglia.

Although in the final battle Suetonius was heavily outnumbered by Boudica and her forces, he defeated her in the Battle of Wattling Street. Boudica refused to be captured and died on the field defending the Iceni peoples' autonomy.

Roman historian Cassius Dio had this to say;

"...a terrible disaster occurred in Britain. Two cities were sacked, eighty thousand of the Romans and of their allies perished, and the island was lost to Rome. Moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame....But the person who was chiefly instrumental in rousing the natives and persuading them to fight the Romans, the person who was thought worthy to be their leader and who directed the conduct of the entire war, was Buduica, a Briton woman of the royal family and possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women....In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire."

Monday, September 29, 2008

Lavinia Fontana

My first introduction to Lavinia Fontana was at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I was there with my mother and a friend of hers who worked there, and we saw stood in front of a painting by her. Portrait of a Noblewoman (pictured above) is one of two paintings NMWA has that represent Fontana's obvious talent.
Fontana grew up in an acknowledged artistic hotbed, Bologna, and was the daughter of Propsero Fontana, an established artist. Prospero noted her artistic abilities and became her teacher, so that she could carry on the family business. Fontana excelled in all areas, and became famous in Bologna for painting members of aristocratic households, large scale religious fresco's, and even a nude or two.
When she was 25, she married and went on to have 11 children. However, this is not where the story ends. Her husband, Paolo Zappi, allowed her to continue her professional career and was one of the first stay-at-home dads, supporting the household and acting as her assistant in the studio. By 1603, word of her talent had spread to Rome and she was invited to become a court painter to Pope Paul V. By the end of her life, Fontana had received numerous awards and honors. She is credited by modern historians as the first known woman to make a true career for herself as an artist.

A Beginning to the Blog

So, for a long time now, I have wanted to start a group, or a non-profit or something, anything that will connect young women with countless role models from the past. You know, the ones that don't show up in the history books because well let's face it, their contributions were often times limited expressly due to their gender.

I am a feminist, although I shy away from saying so because there is such a negative connotation to that word in our society. Let me clear a few things up; I believe that feminism is an egalitarian venture. I do not think women are better than men, that they deserve more liberties, or greater standing in society. I have a wonderful fiance who looks to me as his equal. Although our abilities and strengths differ, we are able to look at one another as peers and find joy in the fact that with our powers and prowess combined we could, in fact, rule the world. Okay, maybe not, but the point is we respect one another as capable people.

Some may say that because this blog focuses on womens' roles throughout history, it is in direct conflict with the concept of egalitarianism I spoke of in the last paragraph. I disagree on the sole fact that I am merely playing catch-up with hundreds of history books through which women have been all but erased. I will however, make a promise to include men who supported and held up the women in these posts.