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Mary H. Buehr teaching art class

Archives of American Art
1 photographic print : b&w ; 20 x 24 cm. Identification on verso (handwritten): Return to L.S. Silke; 460 S. State St; Mrs. Buehr; class from; 9510/34-33; Mary H. Buehr
Identification on verso (typed): Study in the Galleries of the Art Institute; Classes visit the Institute by appointment and receive instruction concerning the exhibits by a teacher provided by the Board of Education.
Identification on verso (stamped): Frederick G. Bemm; Photographer; Art Institute - Chicago
Date taken from years Frederick Bemm was active at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Oral history interview with Elma Lewis, 1997 July 25 and Sept. 19, 1997

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 34 p. An interview of Elma Lewis conducted 1997 July 25 and Sept. 19, by Robert Brown, for the Archives of American Art, in Lewis' home, Roxbury, Mass.
Lewis discusses her parents, immigrants from Barbados; her father being very politicized, quickly disillusioned regarding economic opportunity and racism; meeting Marcus Garvey and becoming a member of United Negro Improvement Association; her parents giving her a very strong cultural sense of her race and culture steeped in Christian doctrine; family thought in pan-African terms; attending integrated schools; World War II as a watershed for the black community; her brother graduating from Harvard medical school after their mother demanded he be admitted, though still he had difficulty being accepted in medical community; another brother who became a concert pianist; her study of dance (ballet) for many years.
Father's encouragment to attend Emerson College in Boston (1939-1943); preparation for a career in music and the performing arts; teachers' training at Boston University (1943-1944); teaching at the school of dance and performing arts run by Doris Jones; Lewis founding her own school, the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in the largely black Roxbury section of Boston in 1950; incorporating the visual arts; teaching by Alvin Ailey, Talley Beatty, Duke Ellington; problems posed by patronizing white liberal community; development of cooperative program with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; hiring the artist John Wilson and art historian Edmund Barry Gaither to further develop visual arts programs; and the primacy of culture and spirituality.

Oral history interview with Mary Frank, 2010 Jan. 10- Feb. 3

Archives of American Art
Sound recording: 8 memory cards (6 hr., 43 min.) secure digital; 1.25 in. Transcript 135 p. An interview interview with Mary Frank conducted 2010 Jan. 10, 11, and Feb. 3, by Judith Olch Richards, for the Archives of American Art, at Frank's home and studio, in New York, N.Y.
Ms. Frank speaks of her childhood in England and her evacuation to Brooklyn during WWII; her initial intention of becoming a professional dancer and studying with the Martha Graham Dance Company; her marriage and travels with photographer Robert Frank; the difficulties of women teaching art; teaching methods; her time at The New School and Queens College; western and non-Western influences; mushroom hunting; solar cookers; her works in clay, sculpture, painting, drawing, monoprint, and triptych installations; her relationships with the galleries Zabriskie, Midtown Payton and DC Moore; Frank also recalls Willem de Kooning, Ruben Nakian, Allan Kaprow, Marjorie Ponce Israel, Joe Chaikin, Paul Cadmus, Henrietta Mantooth Bagley, Joan Snyder, Elanor Munro, Jean-Louise Bourgeois, and others.

Womens' Art Class at the Chase School of Art

Archives of American Art
1 photographic print : b&w ; 13 x 23 cm. Photo shows a group of women with blank canvases on easels, circled around the instructor, William Merritt Chase.
Taken by the studio of Joseph Byron.
Published in: Archives of American Art Journal 1973, v. 13, no. 3, p. 12

Photograph of Frances Albrier with Congolese teachers

National Museum of African American History and Culture
A black-and-white photograph of Frances Albrier with nine male and nine female Congolese teachers at a luncheon hosted by the National Council of Negro Women.

Photograph of ten Congolese teachers at NCNW luncheon

National Museum of African American History and Culture
A black-and-white photograph of ten male Congolese teachers at a luncheon hosted by the National Council of Negro Women.

Photograph of Frances Albrier and ten Congolese teachers

National Museum of African American History and Culture
A black-and-white photograph of Frances Albrier and ten male Congolese teachers at a luncheon hosted by the National Council of Negro Women.

Art Students League women's life class [photograph] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Copy negative by Peter A. Juley & Son of a photograph by an unidentified photographer.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

copy 1 negative: Safety, BW.

Art Students League women's life class [photograph] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Copy negative by Peter A. Juley & Son of a photograph by an unidentified photographer.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 5x7, Safety, BW.

copy 1 negative: Safety, BW.

Women of Our Time

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Interactive gallery displaying photographs of some of twentieth-century America's most famous and influential women. Includes audio commentary by the exhibit's curator and documentary video about the evolution of photographic portraiture.

Rest Hour (Columbia Teacher's College)

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Mr. Herrick Teaching Wood Engraved in the Women's Art School, Cooper Union

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Horizontal rectangle. Sketch showing the instructor standing over his pupils who are seated near a window. Inscribed (in ink) along the side: "Emily Dyer / Mary McCready / Mrs/ Hatch teacher at the desk / One of the Founders of Y.W.C.A. / Ada C. Thompson / J. C. Hagen's niece / Mr. Herrick teaching engraving on wood." Verso: "Property of Friends - Illustration for History of School of Design for book from Alice Donlevy."

Flower to Teacher

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Women's Roles in Post World War II

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Teacher-created lesson in which students follow the design process as they imagine a more equitable labor market in the years following the war.

Women Who Shape History: Education Resources

Smithsonian Magazine

These resources, compiled by the education teams across the Smithsonian Institution, feature lessons, activities, exhibitions, videos and tools that can be used to teach students about women's history in America.

Use this Learning Lab collection as a response to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.'s social media campaign asking, "Can you name five women artists (#5WomenArtists)?" The artists featured are Yayoi Kusama, Frida Kahlo, Barbara Kruger, Alma Thomas and Elaine de Kooning with short biographical notes, selected works and learning resources.
Provider: Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access
Grade(s): K-12

Women have been and continue to be an important part of the aerospace industry. In this episode of STEM in 30, students will explore the women who are helping pave the way to Mars.
Provider: National Air and Space Museum
Grade(s): K-12

This collection teaches students about the changing role of women during World War II: their role in the workplace, increasing presence in the military, and participation in voluntary organizations that supported the war. Students should think about how these activities reinforced traditional notions of gender divisions while they also allowed women to experience new activities.
Provider: Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access
Grade(s): 3-8

The National Portrait Gallery’s recently unveiled the portrait of Former First Lady Michelle Obama. In this video, students will learn more about the artist, Amy Sherald.
Provider: National Portrait Gallery
Grade(s): K-12

Students will identify famous women, categorize them into groups and conduct research to learn more about them. They will use what they learned to create a classroom museum focused on women's history.
Provider: Smithsonian TweenTribune.com
Grade(s): 3-10

Students will identify all of the statues of women in a selected area, plot the statues' locations on a map and explain why the statues exist. Then they will select another historical woman with a connection to that place, decide where a statue honoring her should be erected and create a sketch of a statue honoring her achievements.
Provider: Smithsonian TweenTribune.com
Grade(s): 3-10

Students will create presentations and encourage classmates to compare the candidate's qualifications to the list of leadership traits and characteristics the class has identified. After all candidates have been introduced, poll the class to see which of leaders they would most like to have in charge. Challenge students to explain why this candidate rose above the others.
Provider: Smithsonian TweenTribune.com
Grade(s): 3-10

Students will brainstorm ideas for a student-led organization that is all-inclusive. They will iron out the details for how it will work and design a logo and other items that reflect their "brand." Then they will create a brochure that will entice fellow students to join their group.
Provider: Smithsonian TweenTribune.com
Grade(s): 3-10

Students will select a field of engineering and conduct research to learn more about it. They will write a summary telling what surprised them the most. Then they will create a brochure to teach others about their chosen field of engineering.
Provider: Smithsonian TweenTribune.com
Grade(s): 3-10

Students will write a comic strip or graphic novel about a historical topic that features someone whose contributions have been forgotten over time. Their plots will incorporate related objects found at Smithsonian museums.
Provider: Smithsonian TweenTribune.com
Grade(s): 3-10

In this activity, children will take a close look at a photograph of Martha Graham, then collaborate with a partner or family member to create their own dance photographs.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): 2-4

Julia Morgan Built a Castle is a book about one of America's first women architects, who designed almost 800 buildings during her career. Students will explore the story by reading together. Then they will complete activities to learn more about architecture and how buildings are designed.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): K-4

Genealogy is the study of family ancestries and histories, and a great way to learn women's history. In this activity, students will learn about the methods and tools needed to conduct a genealogical interview.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): K-4

This OurStory module, entitled Great Women of Our Pasts, includes links to hands-on activities and a list of recommended readings related to the topic of women's history.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): K-4

This teacher's resource challenges students to think about the Lincoln-Keckley as an object that has multiple symbolic meanings.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): 9-12

During this activity, students will actively read Mama Went to Jail for the Vote, using the suggested reading strategies. They will build reading skills, develop vocabulary, and learn about the women’s suff­rage movement and the importance of voting.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): K-4

Students will recognize a female role model in their lives by creating a special symbolic pin.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): 1-4

Students will learn about women’s struggles in the United States to obtain the right to vote. They will learn more about the 1920 suffrage movement and how women finally achieved victory with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): K-4

This activity challenges students to think about the 1898 Standard Voting Machine and the democratization of the voting process in the United States.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): 9-12

In this online exhibition, students will learn about Gear and Lever voting, meant to ensure the confidentiality and efficiency of the election process.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): 9-12

Students will learn about Louisa Susannah Wells, a female colonist who was loyal to King George III, who was banished from America and returned to England after the War of Independence. They will take what they learn and answer questions objectively without judging her decisions.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): 6-12

Students will gain an understanding of the role women played in the Civil War. They will appreciate the ways in which museums use objects to study how people in the past did their jobs.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): 3-6

Kick-off a research project on gender roles on the World War II home front with two brief video clips and selection of primary sources.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): 6-12

Maria Isabel Solis Thomas moved across the country to work in a shipyard on the World War II home front. Listen to her story, and then study the supporting primary sources to answer the discussion questions.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): 6-12

Students will analyze images and objects relating to Celia Cruz and create an exhibition using personal objects.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): K-4

Students will learn more about First Lady Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Baines Johnson and her work to protect the environment and bring beauty to every community.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): K-4

Students will examine examples of persuasive writing from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, then compose persuasive statements about an environmental cause.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): 4-6

Students will learn about Rachel Carson and how her book Silent Spring changed the way people thought about their relationship to nature.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): K-4

Quilts do more than just keep us warm; they preserve history by telling us stories about the people who made them. In this hands-on activity, students will learn about women's history by studying quilts.
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): K-4

Smithsonian women scientists are an adventurous group: from hunting meteorites in Antarctica, exploring the farthest reaches of the Universe from remote mountain tops, to measuring mercury levels from the depths of the ocean to the canopy of the rain forest. Learn more about a few of these amazing women.
Provider: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Grade(s): K-12

For Women’s History Month, Smithsonian Folkways offers free audio tracks and videos featuring women around the world who “break musical barriers.” Lesson plans and student activities are included.
Provider: Smithsonian Folkways
Grade(s): K-12

This website explores the historical accomplishments of women inventors and includes a video, activities, and a teacher resource guide about eight female inventors. 
Provider: Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
Grade(s): K-12

This website features women's contributions to flight, their stories, and claims to fame throughout history. This guide leads to all the women that have artifacts or photographs in the National Air and Space Museum.
Provider: National Air and Space Museum
Grade(s): K-12

This virtual tour introduces four exceptional American women who succeeded in business in the twentieth century. The website features biographical information, timelines, games, and historical background for each of the women. 
Provider: National Museum of American History
Grade(s): K-12

The Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture prepared this annotated bibliography on African American Women Artists. 
Provider: The Anacostia Community Museum
Grade(s): K-12

A list of recommended readings about Native American women prepared by the National Museum of the American Indian Resource Center.
Provider: National Museum of the American Indian
Grade(s): K-12

The Anacostia Museum's Office of Education offers a reading list for children about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. 
Provider: The Anacostia Community Museum
Grade(s): K-12

Photograph of Principal H. H. Falkener and four Percy Street School teachers

National Museum of African American History and Culture
A black and white photograph of Principal Henry Hall Falkener and four teachers on the steps of the Percy Street School. Falkener is pictured on the left side of the photograph. He has a mustache and is wearing a middle toned three-piece suit tie and a white collared shirt. In the right of the photograph are four women, with bobbed and short air, wearing light colored, wearing drop-waist dresses. The woman on the far right of the photograph is wearing glasses. A stamp in black ink on the back, right side identifies the photographer. A number has been handwritten on the back in pencil.

Art Students League article, featuring Agnes Hart

Archives of American Art
1 pamphlet ; 23 x 17 cm. Leaf of Art Students League publication including a photograph of Agnes Hart with students.
Leaf is torn from an unidentified publication.

Alumni, Art Student's League

National Portrait Gallery

Oral history interview with Edna Andrade, 1987 April 1-29

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 114 pages An interview of Edna Andrade conducted 1987 April 1-29, by Patricia Likos, for the Archives of American Art.
Andrade speaks of her upbringing in Virginia, her education at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the 1930s under Daniel Garber, Henry McCarter, and George Harding; visiting the Barnes Foundation; her travels in Europe and Egypt and living and working as a teacher and a graphic designer in New Orleans, Washington, and Philadelphia. She discusses the influence of the Bauhaus and Paul Klee on her work and teaching, her marriage to C. Preston Andrade, working in the training and education division of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, the shift in her work from realism to abstraction, her associations with the Easthampton Gallery in New York and the Marian Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, and changes in the Philadelphia art scene. She recalls Violet Oakley.

Woman's shirt

National Museum of the American Indian

Nine Women Whose Remarkable Lives Deserve the Biopic Treatment

Smithsonian Magazine

This year’s roster of Academy Award nominees is much like those of previous decades: predominantly male and white. Of the 20 men and women nominated for acting awards, only one—Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo—is a person of color. And despite strong offerings from the likes of Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang and Lorene Scafaria, the list of Best Director contenders is all-male for the second year in a row.

The movies set to be honored at this weekend’s ceremony fare no better in the diversity department. 1917, widely predicted to win Best Picture, has just one female character. Anna Paquin says a single line in the more than three-and-a-half hour The Irishman, while Margot Robbie, who plays actress Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, is seen more often than heard. Because these and similarly biographical films take place in the past, which is assumed to be “overwhelmingly white and male” in and of itself, points out Aisha Harris for the New York Times, filmmakers have a ready excuse for centering their narratives on white men.

Hollywood creatives certainly have the artistic license to continue elevating stories dominated by white men, but as Harris writes, “[L]et’s not pretend that this isn’t also a choice—a choice dictated not by the past, but by an erroneous (and perhaps unconscious) belief that white men have done the most and lived the most interesting lives of us all.”

Though the movie industry is making some progress in rejecting this perception—biopics of such prominent women as Sally Ride, Rosa Parks and Aretha Franklin are currently in the works—gaps in the cinematic record remain. Harriet, for instance, is the very first biopic centered on the Underground Railroad conductor. Civil rights leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, and American flag creator Betsy Ross are among the famous women who are long overdue for either their very first biopics or new takes on decades-old productions.

To perhaps inspire Hollywood, Smithsonian magazine has curated a list of nine women—one for each of this year’s Best Picture nominees—who you may not have heard of but whose fascinating lives warrant the biopic treatment. All of these individuals, drawn from an array of countries and backgrounds, are now deceased.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman in 1923 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: The daring aeronautics of The Right Stuff with the inspiring story beats of 42

The Backstory: Eleven years before Amelia Earhart piloted her first transatlantic flight, Bessie Coleman earned her international pilot’s license, becoming both the first African American and Native American woman to do so. “Queen Bess,” as the aviatrix became known, had saved up money to leave her sharecropper mother and some of her 12 siblings in Texas and join her brothers in Chicago. Her brother John, a WWI veteran, talked about the women overseas who piloted aircraft, and Bessie grew determined to take to the skies too. She swapped her job as a manicurist for a higher-wage gig as a restaurant manager and secured the financial backing of the Chicago Defender’s millionaire owner Robert Abbott, among others. Since stateside flight instructors refused to tutor a black woman, Coleman studied French and then sailed across the Atlantic to an esteemed flight school in northern France.

By 1921, Bessie was a licensed pilot. After a second round of training in Europe, as Doris L. Roch relates in Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, she took to the skies as a “barnstorming” pilot, who’d perform flashy and dangerous figure eights, walk on wings, and parachute down from the plane. She made a foray into showbiz, too, signing a contract to star in a feature film, but then left the project when she learned her character would arrive in New York City wearing tattered clothing. “No Uncle Tom stuff for me!,” Coleman told Billboard. Her commitment to the black community was apparent in other areas of her professional life too: Coleman refused to fly for segregated crowds, had ambitions to start an African American aviation school and once, when the Chicago Herald offered to interview her if she’d pass as white, brought her darker-skinned mother and niece with her to the newspaper’s offices, flat-out refusing to whitewash herself.

Stunt flying only 20 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight was a risky endeavor, and after surviving a California crash that took two years to recover from, Coleman died at the age of 34 in another crash. The plane flipped mid-air. Coleman hadn’t been wearing a seat belt—she was too short to peer out at the land below otherwise—so she fell out of the plane and plummeted 500 feet down. According to a New York Times obituary written just this past December (as part of a series that pays due respect to notable figures whose deaths were unreported at the time), 10,000 people attended the memorial services for the barrier-breaking pilot.

Frances Glessner Lee

Frances Glessner Lee, at work on one of the Nutshells in the early 1940s (Courtesy of Glessner House Museum)

The Pitch: Wes Anderson brings a Hereditary-inspired dollhouse aesthetic to a “Sherlock”-style whodunnit

The Backstory: The field of forensic science owes much to Frances Glessner Lee, a 20th-century American heiress who used her vast fortune—and crafting skills—to train a generation of criminal investigators. Introduced to forensics by her brother’s friend, a future medical examiner and pathologist named George Burgess Magrath, during the 1930s, Lee spent much of the following decade creating dollhouse-sized crime scenes she dubbed the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”

Numbering 20 in all, the dioramas draw on true-life crime files to present intricate domestic interiors populated by battered, bloodied figures and decomposing bodies. Each Nutshell—the roster runs the gamut from a farmer found hanging in his barn to a charred skeleton lying in a burned bed and a high school student murdered on her way home from the store—includes clues pointing to the case’s solution, but as Lee warned the students tasked with studying her macabre scenes, red herrings abound.

A magazine cover featuring Glessner Lee (Courtesy of Glessner House Museum)

The Nutshells’ goal, according to Lee, was to teach detectives-in-training the skills needed to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”

Speaking with Smithsonian magazine in 2017, Nora Atkinson, curator of the “Murder Is Her Hobby” exhibition then at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, said the Nutshells’ subversive qualities reflect Lee’s unhappiness with domestic life. Married at age 19, she was unable to pursue her passion for forensic investigation until later in life, when she divorced her husband and inherited her family's fortune.

“When you look at these pieces, almost all of them take place in the home,” explained Atkinson. “There's no safety in the home that you expect there to be. It's really reflective of the unease she had with the domestic role that she was given.”

Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandra, 1615-17 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: Frida meets “The Borgias,” but Baroque, biblical, and—unlike Agnès Merlet’s 1997 French-German-Italian film Artemisia—not a complete reworking of the historical record

The Backstory: For centuries, European artists looked to the biblical story of Judith killing the Assyrian general Holofernes as an example of serene courage in the face of tyranny. But when 17th-century artist Artemisia Gentileschi put paint to canvas, what emerged was a scene art critic Jonathan Jones describes as "revenge in oil." Painted in the aftermath of a seven-month rape trial, the violent work casts Gentileschi as Judith and her rapist as Holofernes. Here, on the confines of the canvas, she emerges victorious, enjoying the vindication she never received in real life.

Born in Rome in 1593, Gentileschi received artistic training from her father, a successful Tuscan painter named Orazio. She worked in the tenebrism style pioneered by Caravaggio, completing commissions for nobles and producing large-scale history scenes at a time when most female artists were consigned to still lifes and portraiture. She became the first female artist admitted to Florence’s Accademia del Disegno and the toast of cultural hubs from Venice to Naples and London. Her religious scenes centered on powerful women; she casted herself in the roles of such figures as Saint Catherine of Alexandra and Judith, and didn’t shy away from the gorier aspects of history. But before finding success across Europe, Gentileschi endured a traumatic experience that would reverberate throughout the rest of her career.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1612 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1612, Orazio accused his daughter’s art teacher, Agostino Tassi, of sexually assaulting her. (At the time, women were barred from pressing rape charges themselves, so Orazio acted on Gentileschi’s behalf, detailing the decline in “bartering value” inflicted by her loss of virginity.) During the months that followed, Gentileschi retraced Tassi’s actions in excruciating detail, even undergoing torture in hopes of proving her claim. Subjected to “moderate use of the sibille,” a torture device consisting of metal rings tightened around the fingers by strings, she declared, “It’s true, it’s true, it’s true.”

Despite being found guilty, Tassi—who evaded similar physical torment during the trial—was never actually punished.

Though Gentileschi’s reputation faded in the centuries following her death, she has since enjoyed a resurgence of critical acclaim—a trend evidenced by the London National Gallery’s upcoming “Artemisia” exhibition, which will feature the museum’s $4.7 million 2018 acquisition, her 1615-17 Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandra.

Policarpa Salavarrieta

Policarpa Salavarrieta (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: The thrilling espionage-driven suspense of “The Lives of Others” meets the lush landscapes and revolutionary biography of “The Motorcycle Diaries

The Backstory: La Pola, as Policarpa (or Apolonia—her given name is disputed) Salavarrieta is affectionately known in Colombia, is a famous enough revolutionary within the country that her face graces the 10,000 peso bill. She’s also been the subject of an eponymous telenovela. The fifth of nine children, Salavarrieta was orphaned by smallpox at age 6 and grew up in the colony of New Granada (largely modern-day Colombia and Panama), which, by the time she reached her 20s, was rife with tension between the pro-Spanish-rule royalists and the independence-seeking patriots. La Pola became involved with the patriot movement starting in her hometown of Guadas, where she worked as a maid, and only escalated her anti-royalist activities once she moved to present-day Bogotá.

In the capital city, La Pola used her skills as a seamstress to ingratiate herself into wealthy households, learning about the movement of enemy troops. Along with other patriot women, many of whom came from aristocratic backgrounds, La Pola made uniforms, secured weapons, sussed out which impressed soldiers in the royalist forces could be persuaded to desert and join the patriot troops—she even, according to BBC Mundo, distilled illicit aguardiente (liquor) to bankroll the revolutionary efforts.

Soon enough, royalist forces arrested her. As historians James and Linda Henderson relate, La Pola’s lover, Alejo Sabaraín, and others were caught making their way to the plains to join the rebels, with signed evidence of La Pola’s counterintelligence efforts on them. She and eight other patriots, including Sabaraín, were sentenced to death by firing squad in November of 1817. To the end, La Pola remained unrepentant and sharp-tongued; she’s said to have argued with the priests sent to administer her last rites and cursed out the soldiers and government at her own execution so vehemently she competed with the noise of the drums and refused to comply with the executor's demands. “Although I am a woman and young, I have more than enough courage to suffer this death and a thousand more!” shouted La Pola, only in her early 20s, to the assembled onlookers.

Empress Dowager Cixi

Katharine Carl's 1904 painting of Empress Dowager Cixi, as seen at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Lumrs via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Pitch: The political machinations of “Game of Thrones” meet the opulent costuming of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette

The Backstory: China’s last empress, recently spotlighted in the exhibition “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, had an unusual rise to power. At 16 years old, she was selected in a nationwide search for consorts for the Xianfeng emperor. After initially coming to the Forbidden City as a concubine, she gave birth to the emperor’s only heir.

In 1861, when her son was five and Cixi herself was only 25, the Xianfeng emperor died, and the low-ranking consort became Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, or Cixi. A cadre of ministers was initially supposed to help direct her son's rule, but Cixi and a former senior consort of Xianfeng’s ultimately shared power as regents. After her son died in 1875, the dowager empress consolidated power by breaking with succession tradition to adopt her three-year-old nephew, who was also too young to rule. All told, Cixi was China’s de facto leader for nearly half a century, ruling Qing China and holding imperial audiences from behind a screen in accordance with gender norms.

Was she a good leader? Historians have debated that point, as sensationalized Western accounts and modern Chinese schooling both maligned the “Dragon Lady,” who was said to have “the soul of a tiger in the body of a woman.” Theories have swirled that Cixi may have had a hand in the death (officially by suicide) of her son’s pregnant consort, or the arsenic poisoning of her nephew. In a recent biography, writer Jung Chang argues that Cixi helped China modernize, but it’s also true that she had a taste for opera and palatial extravagance and backed the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion, a string of attacks on missionaries and diplomats that resulted in thousands of Chinese deaths and a humiliating foreign occupation of Beijing. One thing’s certain: The complicated legacy and the palace intrigue of this contemporary of Queen Victoria would make for an engrossing biopic.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin

Victoria Claflin Woodhull (left) and Tennessee Claflin (right) (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: The infectious sisterhood of Thelma & Louise combined with the biting political satire of Election

The Backstory: Despite sharing a name with Britain’s then-monarch, Victoria Claflin Woodhull was far from a shining beacon of Victorian propriety. She was so controversial, in fact, that political cartoonist Thomas Nash dubbed her “Mrs. Satan,” while Susan B. Anthony described her as “lewd and indecent.”

During the 1870s, Woodhull and her younger sister, Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, scandalized Gilded Age America with their outspoken embrace of free love, otherworldly spirituality and women’s rights. After starting a stock brokerage firm backed by Claflin’s rumored lover, railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, the sisters earned enough money to launch a newspaper—and a presidential campaign centered on Woodhull, who became the first woman to run for the nation’s highest office.

An 1872 political cartoon by Thomas Nast satirized Woodhull as "Mrs. Satan." (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When election day arrived in April 1872, Woodhull was unable to vote for herself, in part because many American women were still decades away from enfranchisement, but mainly because she and Claflin were being held in jail on charges of obscenity and libel. The pair had published a newspaper detailing the sordid stories of a New York orgy and, more controversially, an affair had by preacher, abolitionist and free love critic Henry Ward Beecher, whose reputation was irreparably damaged by the adultery trial that followed. (Beecher’s sister, Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, responded to the incident by labeling Woodhull a “vile jailbird” and “impudent witch.”)

In August 1877, the sisters left their home country for London. There, Claflin married a member of the English peerage and became Lady Cook, Viscountess of Montserrat. Woodhull, meanwhile, married a wealthy banker, became an automobile enthusiast, ran yet another newspaper, founded an agricultural school, volunteered with the Red Cross during World War I and worked to preserve the English home of George Washington’s ancestors. Claflin and Woodhull died in 1923 and 1927, respectively.

Carrie A. Nation

Carrie Nation in 1910 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pitch: A Paul Thomas Anderson-directed psycho-drama looking at how Nation’s religious zeal and personal hardship brought her to the brink of saloon-smashing. There Will Be Blood, but for booze instead of oil

The Backstory: It’s morning, and a nearly six-foot-tall, 53-year-old woman wearing spectacles and all black enters a Kansas saloon. Wielding a hatchet or newspaper-wrapped bricks, she lays waste to the place, shattering mirrors and bottles everywhere. Meet notorious Temperance crusader Carrie A. Nation, described as “another cyclone out in Kansas” and a “bulldog of Jesus.”

Nation’s anti-alcohol fervor stemmed, in part, from personal experience. Her first husband, a doctor, had died of an alcohol use disorder, and Nation attributed their daughter Charlien’s chronic mental and physical health issues to her father’s drinking and “the curse of rum.” She remarried an older lawyer, David Nation, but it was a loveless marriage. Carrie was deeply religious, although she was kicked out of her Kansas church due to her “strenuous personality,” and spent time as a jail evangelist, an experience that cemented her belief that booze was to blame for many societal problems. In 1899, after “a great anxiety at one time that threatened to take away my reason,” as she wrote in her autobiography, she received guidance from God: Go to nearby Kiowa and wreak havoc on its bars. In her first outing, she damaged three saloons, taking Kansas law (which had technically forbade such businesses starting in 1881) into her own hands and daring people to arrest her.

Though the state Women’s Christian Temperance Union did not endorse her vigilante-justice approach, Nation continued assailing drinking establishments, sometimes accompanied by fellow “Home Defenders,” as she called her followers, and making speeches. She was arrested dozens of times for her “hatchetations,” got into a full-blown fight with a saloon owner’s wife who attacked her with a horse whip, and became a turn-of-the-century celebrity: She once paid the fine for disturbing the Senate peace by selling hatchet souvenirs.

Nation died in 1911, eight years before nationwide Prohibition was enacted, after collapsing during a speech in Arkansas. The New York Times reported that she’d entered a sanitarium for “nervous disorders” (Nation’s mother and daughter both died in mental institutions) after the mid-speech collapse, but her doctor said she’d suffered heart failure. Her last public statement? “I have done what I could.”

Gladys Bentley

Gladys Bentley’s powerful voice, fiery energy on the piano and bold lyrics made her a star of New York City nightclubs. (NMAAHC)

The Pitch: Lady Sings the Blues meets Cabaret and Victor/Victoria

The Backstory: Even in an era defined by boundary pushing, Blues singer Gladys Bentley stood out. A regular at Harlem’s Clam House speakeasy, she won acclaim for performing raunchy reimaginings of Prohibition-era hits while decked out in a signature tuxedo and top hat. With her deep, throaty voice and unabashed display of sexuality, Bentley quickly became one of the Harlem Renaissance’s biggest stars; at the height of her fame, she headlined gigs at the Cotton Club and the Apollo, hosted her own weekly radio show, led a musical revue backed by a chorus of male dancers dressed in drag, and rented a Park Avenue apartment for the then-exorbitant sum of $300 a month (more than $5,000 today).

She was, in the words of contemporary Langston Hughes, “an amazing exhibition of musical energy … animated by her own rhythm.”

Gladys Bentley: America's Greatest Sepia Player—The Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs by an unidentified photographer, 1946-1949 (NMAAHC)

As American society grew more conservative with the repeal of Prohibition and dawning of the Great Depression, the openly lesbian Bentley found herself struggling to maintain a career on her own terms. During the late 1930s, she was forced to perform in skirts while living in the Bay Area, and in 1952, with the Red Scare in full swing, she penned an Ebony magazine essay claiming she’d undergone hormone treatments aimed at helping her identify as heterosexual. Eight years later, the 52-year-old Bentley died of complications from the flu while studying to become an ordained minister.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has several Bentley-related artifacts in its collections. A black-and-white photographic postcard of her is on view in the museum’s “Musical Crossroads” exhibition.

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected chief of the Cherokee Nation, poses in front of the tribal emblem at the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma on July 19, 1985. (Associated Press)

The Pitch: Milk meets the aspirations of community activism in HBO's “Show Me a Hero”

The Backstory: “Most feminists would love to have a name like Mankiller,” Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected principal chief of a major Native American tribe, told the New York Times in 1987. “It fits my work real well, and I've broken new ground for women.” But the path that took Mankiller—her last name stems from a Cherokee title for a soldier or watchman—to the helm of the second-largest Native nation wasn’t straightforward. Mankiller was born in 1945 in rural Oklahoma to a full-Cherokee father and white mother, and at age 11, left her family’s land due to a government program that promised jobs in metropolitan areas. “My own little Trail of Tears,” as she’d refer to the move, took her to San Francisco.

It was the Bay Area in the ’60s, and particularly the one-and-a-half-year indigenous activist occupation of Alcatraz as a symbol of “our last lands,” that incited Mankiller to be a leader. “The occupation of Alcatraz excited me like nothing ever had before,” she wrote in her autobiography of the protest, in which four of her siblings participated. Her increased involvement with the local Native community and newfound independence brought her into conflict with her first husband, Ecuadorian-American businessman Hugo Olaya. “I could no longer remain content as a housewife,” Mankiller, who would go on to host famous feminist Gloria Steinem’s wedding, wrote.

In 1977, after divorcing Oyala, she and her two daughters returned full-time to her 160-acre property, Mankiller Flats, in Oklahoma. As Eve McSweeney reports in a Vogue writeup of the 2017 documentary that chronicles Mankiller’s life story, she became a community organizer who fought for improved medical facilities. (She herself faced a slew of medical setbacks throughout her life, including multiple bouts of cancer, life-threatening kidney failure and a head-on car crash.) In 1983, she partnered up with Cherokee Nation chief Ross Swimmer—the political opposite of Mankiller, who considered herself a liberal Democrat—and the bipartisan ticket, with Mankiller as deputy chief, won, despite resistance to a woman filling the tribal leadership position. When Swimmer took a federal government position in 1985, Mankiller succeeded him as chief, winning two subsequent elections in her own right before stepping down in 1995 due to health problems.

Remembering Mankiller after her death from pancreatic cancer in 2010, then-Principal Chief Chad Smith told the Washington Post, “She went to the mat many times, making it clear that the Cherokee Nation will not surrender one more acre as long as we live. Her marching orders were to rebuild the nation.”

Agnes Hart assisting students at the Art Students League

Archives of American Art
1 photographic print : b&w ; 13 x 9 cm. Painter and instructor Agnes Hart assisting students in a studio of the Art Students League, New York, N.Y.
Identification on verso (handwritten): Art Students League 1965-66

In Our Own Voice: Songs of American Indian Women

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Webpage traces the history of music performed by American Indian women. Selections represent traditional music and music resulting from contemporary and Christian influences. Includes film clips of live performances.
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