Found 14 Resources containing: maid of cotton
When she was a little girl, Norma Miller would perch on the fire escape of her tenement building in Harlem, watching dancers spin through the Savoy Ballroom across the street. By the age of 15, she was dancing the Lindy Hop for audiences around the globe, fueling the craze for its frenetic footwork. Miller died this week at the age of 99, according to Harrison Smith of the Washington Post; to the end, she was known as the “Queen of Swing.”
Miller was born in Manhattan in 1919, to parents who had immigrated from Barbados. Her father served in the Army and died of pneumonia before she was born, and her mother worked as a maid. Miller and her sister liked to practice the moves they observed among patrons of the Savoy, a sprawling, integrated dance hall where the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie performed for crowds of swing dancers. At the time, Miller was too young to enter the ballroom, but the dance that would become her signature was flourishing there. The Lindy Hop, named after the aviator Charles Lindbergh, “married swing music’s traditional eight count with the fast-paced, free-form movements of African-American dances at the time,” Renata Sago explains for the New York Times.
On Easter Sunday in 1932, 12-year-old Miller was dancing on the sidewalk when she was spotted by famed Lindy Hopper “Twistmouth George” Ganaway, who brought her into the Savoy to dance with him. “I don’t know if I ever hit the floor,” Miller remembered in the 2006 documentary Queen of Swing. “He just flew me all around.”
Miller subsequently began entering and winning dance contests, which opened up new horizons for her. “Black girls didn’t have many outlets,” Miller told Renata Sago in a 2015 interview with WGCU. “You had laundry. You had hairdresser. Or teacher. Now, I didn’t qualify for none of those. I could dance, I could just do it naturally and so my mother pushed me at every contest.”
In 1934, Miller became the youngest member of an elite dance troupe Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, founded by Herbert “Whitey” White. She worked with the legendary choreographer Frankie Manning, who had a defining influence on the development of the Lindy Hop, and began touring across the United States, Europe and South America. Along with her fellow Lindy Hoppers, Miller appeared in the 1937 Marx Brothers’ comedy A Day at the Races, which earned an Academy Award nomination for choreography for its Lindy Hop sequence. She also danced in the 1941 madcap comedy Hellzapoppin’, in which Miller, who played a cook, can be seen spinning, leaping, twirling and flipping with her partner Billy Ricker.
The advent of World War II signaled an end to the Lindy Hop’s heyday, as trends in music and dance began to change. After Miller’s partner was drafted to the military, she left the Lindy Hoppers and the troupe disbanded soon after. In the years following the war, Miller founded her own troupe—the Norma Miller Dancers—which toured the United States and Australia, and subsequently accompanied Count Basie on a national tour. In 1957, she joined the Cotton Club Revue, which featured the jazz entertainer Cab Calloway and a 48-member, all-black cast. The group performed regularly in Las Vegas and Miami Beach, though they were not always welcomed due to their skin color.
“The day of our big dress rehearsal, there were headlines in the Miami Sun telling [nightclub owner] Murray Weinger that they didn’t want his colored show on the beach,” Miller recalled in her 1996 memoir, Swingin’ at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer, co-written with Evette Jensen.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Miller pivoted to comedy, performing alongside Redd Foxx. When interest in the Lindy Hop began to resurge in the 1980s, Miller began dancing for audiences once again. Near the end of her life, at age 98, Miller traveled to the seaside village of Herräng in Sweden to oversee Lindy Hop enthusiasts at a dance camp there. She was reportedly bemused at how far the dance’s popularity had traveled. “I said: ‘You’ve got to be kidding talking about some goddamned Lindy Hop in Sweden,” Miller told Sago of the Times.
Miller had planned to celebrate her 100th birthday this December at the camp. Miller’s long-standing love of dance appeared to be matched only by her sunny outlook. “Life,” she said in 2015, “is comedy to me.”
Most runaway slaves fled to freedom in the dead of night, often pursued by barking bloodhounds. A few fugitives, such as Henry “Box” Brown who mailed himself north in a wooden crate, devised clever ruses or stowed away on ships and wagons. One of the most ingenious escapes was that of a married couple from Georgia, Ellen and William Craft, who traveled in first-class trains, dined with a steamboat captain and stayed in the best hotels during their escape to Philadelphia and freedom in 1848. Ellen, a quadroon with very fair skin, disguised herself as a young white cotton planter traveling with his slave (William). It was William who came up with the scheme to hide in plain sight, but ultimately it was Ellen who convincingly masked her race, her gender and her social status during their four-day trip. Despite the luxury accommodations, the journey was fraught with narrow escapes and heart-in-the-mouth moments that could have led to their discovery and capture. Courage, quick thinking, luck and “our Heavenly Father,” sustained them, the Crafts said in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, the book they wrote in 1860 chronicling the escape.
Ellen and William lived in Macon, Georgia, and were owned by different masters. Put up for auction at age 16 to help settle his master’s debts, William had become the property of a local bank cashier. A skilled cabinetmaker, William, continued to work at the shop where he had apprenticed, and his new owner collected most of his wages. Minutes before being sold, William had witnessed the sale of his frightened, tearful 14-year-old sister. His parents and brother had met the same fate and were scattered throughout the South.
As a child, Ellen, the offspring of her first master and one of his biracial slaves, had frequently been mistaken for a member of his white family. Much annoyed by the situation, the plantation mistress sent 11-year-old Ellen to Macon to her daughter as a wedding present in 1837, where she served as a ladies maid. Ellen and William married, but having experienced such brutal family separations despaired over having children, fearing they would be torn away from them. “The mere thought,” William later wrote of his wife’s distress, “filled her soul with horror.”
Pondering various escape plans, William, knowing that slaveholders could take their slaves to any state, slave or free, hit upon the idea of fair-complexioned Ellen passing herself off as his master—a wealthy young white man because it was not customary for women to travel with male servants. Initially Ellen panicked at the idea but was gradually won over. Because they were “favourite slaves,” the couple had little trouble obtaining passes from their masters for a few days leave at Christmastime, giving them some days to be missing without raising the alarm. Additionally, as a carpenter, William probably would have kept some of his earnings – or perhaps did odd jobs for others – and was allowed to keep some of the money.
Before setting out on December 21, 1848, William cut Ellen’s hair to neck length. She improved on the deception by putting her right arm in a sling, which would prevent hotel clerks and others from expecting “him” to sign a registry or other papers. Georgia law prohibited teaching slaves to read or write, so neither Ellen nor William could do either. Refining the invalid disguise, Ellen asked William to wrap bandages around much of her face, hiding her smooth skin and giving her a reason to limit conversation with strangers. She wore a pair of men’s trousers that she herself had sewed. She then donned a pair of green spectacles and a top hat. They knelt and prayed and took “a desperate leap for liberty.”
At the Macon train station, Ellen purchased tickets to Savannah, 200 miles away. As William took a place in the “negro car,” he spotted the owner of the cabinetmaking shop on the platform. After questioning the ticket seller, the man began peering through the windows of the cars. William turned his face from the window and shrank in his seat, expecting the worst. The man searched the car Ellen was in but never gave the bandaged invalid a second glance. Just as he approached William’s car, the bell clanged and the train lurched off.
Image by The Granger Collection, New York. William Craft was a skilled cabinetmaker and worked at a shop in Georgia where he had apprenticed. His owner collected most of his wages. (original image)
Image by The Granger Collection, New York. Ellen Craft was the offspring of her first master and one of his biracial slaves. She was frequently mistaken for a member of her master's white family. (original image)
Ellen, who had been staring out the window, then turned away and discovered that her seat mate was a dear friend of her master, a recent dinner guest who had known Ellen for years. Her first thought was that he had been sent to retrieve her, but the wave of fear soon passed when he greeted her with “It is a very fine morning, sir.”
To avoid talking to him, Ellen feigned deafness for the next several hours.
In Savannah, the fugitives boarded a steamer for Charleston, South Carolina. Over breakfast the next morning, the friendly captain marveled at the young master’s “very attentive boy” and warned him to beware “cut-throat abolitionists” in the North who would encourage William to run away. A slave trader on board offered to buy William and take him to the Deep South, and a military officer scolded the invalid for saying “thank you” to his slave. In an overnight stay at the best hotel in Charleston, the solicitous staff treated the ailing traveler with upmost care, giving him a fine room and a good table in the dining room.
Trying to buy steamer tickets from South Carolina to Philadelphia, Ellen and William hit a snag when the ticket seller objected to signing the names of the young gentleman and his slave even after seeing the injured arm. In an effort to prevent white abolitionists from taking slaves out of the South, slaveholders had to prove that the slaves traveling with them were indeed their property. Sometimes travelers were detained for days trying to prove ownership. As the surly ticket seller reiterated his refusal to sign by jamming his hands in his pockets, providence prevailed: The genial captain happened by, vouched for the planter and his slave and signed their names.
Baltimore, the last major stop before Pennsylvania, a free state, had a particularly vigilant border patrol. Ellen and William were again detained, asked to leave the train and report to the authorities for verification of ownership. “We shan’t let you go,” an officer said with finality. “We felt as though we had come into deep waters and were about being overwhelmed,” William recounted in the book, and returned “to the dark and horrible pit of misery.” Ellen and William silently prayed as the officer stood his ground. Suddenly the jangling of the departure bell shattered the quiet. The officer, clearly agitated, scratched his head. Surveying the sick traveler’s bandages, he said to a clerk, “he is not well, it is a pity to stop him.” Tell the conductor to “let this gentleman and slave pass.”
The Crafts arrived in Philadelphia the next morning—Christmas Day. As they left the station, Ellen burst into tears, crying out, “Thank God, William, we’re safe!”
The comfortable coaches and cabins notwithstanding, it had been an emotionally harrowing journey, especially for Ellen as she kept up the multilayered deception. From making excuses for not partaking of brandy and cigars with the other gentleman to worrying that slavers had kidnapped William, her nerves were frayed to the point of exhaustion. At a Virginia railway station, a woman had even mistaken William for her runaway slave and demanded that he come with her. As predicted, abolitionists approached William. One advised him to “leave that cripple and have your liberty,” and a free black man on the train to Philadelphia urged him to take refuge in a boarding house run by abolitionists. Through it all Ellen and William maintained their roles, never revealing anything of themselves to the strangers except a loyal slave and kind master.
Upon their arrival in Philadelphia, Ellen and William were quickly given assistance and lodging by the underground abolitionist network. They received a reading lesson their very first day in the city. Three weeks later, they moved to Boston where William resumed work as a cabinetmaker and Ellen became a seamstress. After two years, in 1850, slave hunters arrived in Boston intent on returning them to Georgia. The Crafts fled again, this time to England, where they eventually had five children. After 20 years they returned to the States and in the 1870s established a school in Georgia for newly freed blacks.
At the start of 1844, James Buchanan’s presidential aspirations were about to enter a world of trouble. A recent spat in the Washington Daily Globe had stirred his political rivals into full froth—Aaron Venable Brown of Tennessee was especially enraged. In a “confidential” letter to future first lady Sarah Polk, Brown savaged Buchanan and “his better half,” writing: “Mr. Buchanan looks gloomy & dissatisfied & so did his better half until a little private flattery & a certain newspaper puff which you doubtless noticed, excited hopes that by getting a divorce she might set up again in the world to some tolerable advantage.”
The problem, of course, is that James Buchanan, our nation’s only bachelor president, had no woman to call his “better half.” But, as Brown’s letter implies, there was a man who fit the bill.
Google James Buchanan and you inevitably discover the assertion that American history has declared him to be the first gay president. It doesn’t take much longer to discover that the popular understanding of James Buchanan as our nation’s first gay president derives from his relationship with one man in particular: William Rufus DeVane King of Alabama. The premise raises many questions: What was the real nature of their relationship? Was each man “gay,” or something else? And why do Americans seem fixated on making Buchanan our first gay president?
My new book, Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King, aims to answer these questions and set the record straight, so to speak, about the pair. My research led me to archives in 21 states, the District of Columbia, and even the British Library in London. My findings suggest that theirs was an intimate male friendship of the kind common in 19th-century America. A generation of scholarship has uncovered numerous such intimate and mostly platonic friendships among men (though some of these friendships certainly included an erotic element as well). In the years before the Civil War, friendships among politicians provided an especially important way to bridge the chasm between the North and the South. Simply put, friendships provided the political glue that bound together a nation on the precipice of secession.
This understanding of male friendship pays close attention to the historical context of the time, an exercise that requires one to read the sources judiciously. In the rush to make new meaning of the past, I have come to understand why today it has become de rigeur to consider Buchanan our first gay president. Simply put, the characterization underscores a powerful force at work in historical scholarship: the search for a usable queer past.
The year was 1834, and Buchanan and King were serving in the United States Senate. They came from different parts of the country: Buchanan was a lifelong Pennsylvanian, and King was a North Carolina transplant who helped found the city of Selma, Alabama. They came by their politics differently. Buchanan started out as a pro-bank, pro-tariff, and anti-war Federalist, and held onto these views well after the party had run its course. King was a Jeffersonian Democrat, or Democratic-Republican, who held a lifelong disdain for the national bank, was opposed to tariffs, and supported the War of 1812. By the 1830s, both men had been pulled into the political orbit of Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party.
They soon shared similar views on slavery, the most divisive issue of the day. Although he came from the North, Buchanan saw that the viability of the Democratic Party depended on the continuance of the South’s slave-driven economy. From King, he learned the political value of allowing the “peculiar institution” to grow unchecked. Both men equally detested abolitionists. Critics labeled Buchanan a “doughface” (a northern man with southern principles), but he pressed onward, quietly building support across the country in the hopes of one day rising to the presidency. By the time of his election to that office in 1856, Buchanan was a staunch conservative, committed to what he saw as upholding the Constitution and unwilling to quash southern secession during the winter of 1860 to 1861. He had become the consummate northern doughface.
King, for his part, was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1810. He believed in states’ rights, greater access to public lands, and making a profit planting cotton. His commitment to the racial hierarchy of the slaveholding South was whole cloth. At the same time, King supported the continuation of the Union and resisted talk of secession by radical Southerners, marking him as a political moderate in the Deep South. For his lifelong loyalty to the party and to balance the ticket, he was selected as the vice-presidential running mate under Franklin Pierce in 1852.
Buchanan and King shared one other essential quality in addition to their political identification. Both were bachelors, having never married. Born on the Pennsylvania frontier, Buchanan attended Dickinson College and studied law in the bustling city of Lancaster. His practice prospered nicely. In 1819, when he was considered to be the city’s most eligible bachelor, Buchanan became engaged to Ann Coleman, the 23-year-old daughter of a wealthy iron magnate. But when the strain of work caused Buchanan to neglect his betrothed, Coleman broke off the engagement, and she died shortly thereafter of what her physician described as “hysterical convulsions.” Rumors that she had committed suicide, all the same, have persisted. For Buchanan’s part, he later claimed that he entered politics as “a distraction from my great grief.”
The love life of William Rufus DeVane King, or “Colonel King” as he was often addressed, is a different story. Unlike Buchanan, King was never known to pursue a woman seriously. But—critically—he could also tell a story of a love lost. In 1817, while serving as secretary to the American mission to Russia, he supposedly fell in love with Princess Charlotte of Prussia, who was just then to marry Czar Nicholas Alexander, heir to the Russian imperial throne. As the King family tradition has it, he passionately kissed the hand of the czarina, a risky move that could have landed him in serious jeopardy. The contretemps proved fleeting, as a kind note the next day revealed that all was forgiven. Still, he spent the remainder of his days bemoaning a “wayward heart” that could not love again.
Each of these two middle-aged bachelor Democrats, Buchanan and King, had what the other lacked. King exuded social polish and congeniality. He was noted for being “brave and chivalrous” by contemporaries. His mannerisms could at times be bizarre, and some thought him effeminate. Buchanan, by contrast, was liked by almost everyone. He was witty and enjoyed tippling, especially glasses of fine Madeira, with fellow congressmen. Whereas King could be reserved, Buchanan was boisterous and outgoing. Together, they made for something of an odd couple out and about the capital.
While in Washington, they lived together in a communal boardinghouse, or mess. To start, their boardinghouse included other congressmen, most of whom were also unmarried, yielding a friendly moniker for their home: the “Bachelor’s Mess.” Over time, as other members of the group lost their seats in Congress, the mess dwindled in size from four to three to just two—Buchanan and King. Washington society began to take notice, too. “Mr. Buchanan and his Wife,” one tongue wagged. They were each called “Aunt Nancy” or “Aunt Fancy.” Years later, Julia Gardiner Tyler, the much younger wife of President John Tyler, remembered them as “the Siamese twins,” after the famous conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker.
Certainly, they cherished their friendship with one another, as did members of their immediate families. At Wheatland, Buchanan’s country estate near Lancaster, he hung portraits of both William Rufus King and King’s niece Catherine Margaret Ellis. After Buchanan’s death in 1868, his niece, Harriet Lane Johnston, who played the part of first lady in Buchanan’s White House, corresponded with Ellis about retrieving their uncles’ correspondence from Alabama.
More than 60 personal letters still survive, including several that contain expressions of the most intimate kind. Unfortunately, we can read only one side of the correspondence (letters from King to Buchanan). One popular misconception holds about that their nieces destroyed their uncles’ letters by pre-arrangement, but the real reasons for the mismatch stem from multiple factors: for one, the King family plantation was raided during the Battle of Selma in 1865, and for another, flooding of the Selma River likely destroyed portions of King’s papers prior to their deposit at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Finally, King dutifully followed Buchanan’s instructions and destroyed numerous letters marked “private” or “confidential.” The end result is that relatively few letters of any kind survive in the various papers of William Rufus King, and even fewer have ever been prepared for publication.
By contrast, Buchanan kept nearly every letter which he ever received, carefully docketing the date of his response on the backside of his correspondence. After his death, Johnston took charge of her uncle’s papers and supported the publication of a two-volume set in the 1880s and another, more extensive 12-volume edition in the early 1900s. Such private efforts were vital to securing the historical legacy of U.S. presidents in the era before they received official library designation from the National Archives.
Still, almost nothing written by Buchanan about King remains available to historians. An important exception is a singular letter from Buchanan written to Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt, wife of former congressman John J. Roosevelt of New York City. Weeks earlier, King had left Washington for New York, staying with the Roosevelts, to prepare for a trip overseas. In the letter, Buchanan writes of his desire to be with the Roosevelts and with King:
I envy Colonel King the pleasure of meeting you & would give any thing in reason to be of the party for a single week. I am now “solitary & alone,” having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well & not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.
Along with other select lines of their correspondence, historians and biographers have interpreted this passage to imply a sexual relationship between them. The earliest biographers of James Buchanan, writing in the staid Victorian era, said very little about his sexuality. Later Buchanan biographers from the 1920s to the 1960s, following the contemporary gossip in private letters, noted that the pair were referred to as “the Siamese twins.”
But by then, an understanding of homosexuality as a sexual identity and orientation had begun to take hold among the general public. In the 1980s, historians rediscovered the Buchanan-King relationship and, for the first time, explicitly argued that it may have contained a sexual element. The media soon caught wind of the idea that we may have had a “gay president.” In the November 1987 issue of Penthouse Magazine, New York gossip columnist Sharon Churcher noted the finding in an article headlined “Our First Gay President, Out of the Closet, Finally.” The famous author—and Lancaster native—John Updike pushed back somewhat in his novel Memories of the Ford Administration (1992). Updike creatively imagined the boardinghouse life of Buchanan and King, but he admitted to finding few “traces of homosexual passion.” Updike’s conclusion has not stopped a veritable torrent of historical speculation in the years since.
This leaves us today with the popular conception of James Buchanan as our first gay president. On the one hand, it’s not so bad a thing. Centuries of repression of homosexuality in the United States has erased countless number of Americans from the story of LGBT history. The dearth of clearly identifiable LGBT political leaders from the past, moreover, has yielded a necessary rethinking of the historical record and has inspired historians to ask important, searing questions. In the process, past political leaders who for one reason or another don’t fit into a normative pattern of heterosexual marriage have become, almost reflexively, queer. More than anything else, this impulse explains why Americans have transformed James Buchanan into our first gay president.
Certainly, the quest for a usable queer past has yielded much good. Yet the specifics of this case actually obscure a more interesting, and perhaps more significant, historical truth: an intimate male friendship between bachelor Democrats shaped the course of the party, and by extension, the nation. Worse still, moving Buchanan and King from friends to lovers blocks the way for a person today to assume the proper mantle of becoming our first gay president. Until that inevitable day comes to pass, these two bachelors from the antebellum past may be the next closest thing.
The verses read:
How blest the maid whose circleing (sic) years improve
Her God the object of her warmest love
Whose tender years successive as they glide
The book the needle and the pen divide
Who sees her parents hearts exult with joy
And the fond tear stand sparkling in her eye
Jesus permit thy gracious name to stand
As the efforts of an youthful hand
And while her finger on the canvas move
Engage her tender thoughts to seek thy love
With thy dear children let her have a heart
And write thy name thyself upon her heart
There are several Jacob Saylors (Saylers) in Ohio that appear on the 1850 and 1860 Federal Census. None of these Jacobs is recorded as being a weaver, which is very common, especially in the availability of affordable land in the Midwest. Weaving would have only be a portion of the family income. More research is needed to determine exactly which Jacob Saylor is the correct one. Clarita Anderson reports that he was active in Stark, Knox, and Pickaway counties. John Heisey used a history of Pickaway County to conclude that Saylor moved to Ohio from Somerset County, Pennsylvania during the War of 1812. So far, no definite match has been found. More research is needed to determine which Jacob Saylor wove this coverlet.
This iron is identical to the "Laundry Maid" gas iron marketed by Sears, Roebuck & Co. and manufactured by National Stamping & Electric Works, Chicago, IL; marked examples have a manufacturer and model tag affixed to the base of the handle. Shipping carton made by Brunt & Company of Chicago, IL; exact dates in operation not known, but appears to have been founded in the early to mid 1930s.
From 1917 to 1919, the Woman's Land Army of America brought more than 20,000 city and town women to rural America to take over farm work after men were called to war.
Most of these women had never before worked on a farm, but they were soon plowing fields, driving tractors, planting and harvesting. The Land Army's "farmerettes" were paid wages equal to male farm laborers and were protected by an eight-hour workday. For many, the farmerettes were shocking at first--wearing pants!--but farmers began to rely upon the women workers.
Inspired by the women of Great Britain, organized as the Land Lassies, the Woman’s Land Army of America was established by a consortium of women’s organizations--including gardening clubs, suffrage societies, women’s colleges, civic groups, and the YWCA.
The WLA provided a fascinating example of women mobilizing themselves and challenged conventional thinking about gender roles.
Like Rosie the Riveter a generation later, the Land Army farmerette became a wartime icon.
The following excerpt from Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army in the Great War chronicles the farmerettes of the California division of the Woman’s Land Army.
A brass band welcomed the first unit of the California Woman’s Land Army when it arrived in the town of Elsinore on the first of May, 1918. The whole community turned out to greet the fifteen women dressed in their stiff new uniforms. The Chamber of Commerce officials gave speeches of welcome, the Farm Bureau president thanked the “farmerettes” for coming, and the mayor gave them the keys to the city.
The Land Army recruits drove the fifty miles from the WLA headquarters offices in downtown Los Angeles to Elsinore in style: the mayor had dispatched a truck to chauffeur them. At the welcoming ceremonies, Mayor Burnham apologized for the lack of an official municipal key ring, and offered instead a rake, hoe, and shovel to the farmerettes, “emblematic of their toil for patriotic defense.” The grateful citizens of Elsinore gave the farmerettes three loud cheers.
While California fruit growers held lucrative contracts with the U.S. military to supply troops with dried and canned fruit, the extreme wartime farm labor shortage enabled the California Woman’s Land Army to demand extraordinary employment terms: a guaranteed contract, equal pay to what local male farm laborers could command, an eight hour day, and overtime pay. The employers also agreed to worker protections--comfortable living quarters, designated rest periods, lifting limits, and workers’ compensation insurance—considered radical for the time.
The Los Angeles Times trumpeted the arrival of the “Great Land Army” in Elsinore as an “Epochal Experiment” and proclaimed the farmerettes were “To Turn New Earth in History of the American Woman.” Photographs of the farmerettes’ first day at work, handling horse-drawn cultivators and gangplows, or at the wheel of giant tractors, were spread across the pages of the state’s newspapers. Asked if the strenuous labor might prove too hard, and some of the farmerettes might give up after a short stint, the recruits denied that was even possible. “Would we quit?” one farmerette told a reporter, “No, soldiers don’t.”
Idella Purnell didn’t lie about her age in order join the Northern California division of the WLA, which opened its San Francisco headquarters just a week later. She didn’t need to. The daughter of American parents, Idella was raised in Mexico but came north in preparation for entering university at Berkeley that fall. As a patriotic gesture, she wanted to serve in the Land Army in the summer months, but she was only seventeen years old, a year shy of the official entrance age. She passed her physical at headquarters, “and as I am ‘husky’ they decided to let my youth go unnoticed and simply make me 18!” Purnell confided, after the fact. The San Francisco recruiting officers were willing the bend the rules as they faced the prospect of trying to fill their large quotas; requests for more farmerettes were pouring in daily.
“This is the recruiting slogan of the Women’s Land Army of America,” reported one San Francisco area newspaper: “Joan of Arc Left the Soil to Save France. We’re Going Back to the Soil to Save America.”
An “advanced guard” of women, mostly Berkeley students, was sent to the University of California’s agricultural farm at Davis for training and soon proved themselves “extremely efficient and as capable as men workers.” Another unit was based in the dormitories of Stanford and worked the crops of the Santa Clara Valley in WLA uniform.
Sacramento set up a district WLA office, and more than 175 women enlisted for service in the first month. “Up in Sacramento they are nearly as proud of the WLA as of the new aviation field,” reported the San Francisco Examiner. “In both cases justification lies in actual achievement…the WLA shows that the women and girls are serious…and mean to do their bits.”
In mid- June on the eve of their deployment, twenty-four fresh recruits gathered in the San Francisco WLA headquarters, located in the Underwood Building on Market Street. They were the first group assigned to the brand new farmerette camp at Vacaville, and they were summoned together for a pre-departure pep talk.
The Vacaville Camp was constructed and furnished by a consortium of local fruit growers, who paid for it out of their own pockets. They built the camp on high ground near the Vacaville train station, with a six-foot high pine stockade surrounding it for privacy. Inside the stockade were canvas sleeping tents with wood floors, a screened kitchen and dining room, showers, and a dressing room, as well as a hospital tent. The camp cost about $4,500 to build and the growers agreed to share the investment: only those who contributed towards the camp were to enjoy the assistance of the farmerettes.
These farmerettes now assembled in the San Francisco WLA office, listening as their supervisor, Alice Graydon Phillips, explained what their life and work would be like in the Vacaville Camp. She warned them that the summer heat would be brutal, and that picking fruit atop ladders would make their backs, arms, and fingers sore.
Image by Library of Congress. The California Woman's Land Army were able to demand extraordinary employment terms due to the extreme wartime farm labor shortage. (original image)
Image by Corbis. Farmerettes of the Woman's Land Army of America took over farm work when the men were called to wartime service in WWI. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institute. A poster for the Woman's Land Army of America asking women to enlist. (original image)
She read them the Woman’s Land Army pledge and then asked aloud if they willingly would arise to the sound of a bugle at 5:30 in the morning? “Yes!” they shouted. Would they consent to the WLA military-style structure? “Yes,” they agreed in unison. Would they agree to muster for inspection, line up for exercise drills, take kitchen police duty, and eat the rations they were served without complaint? “Yes!” Would they submit to strict rules of discipline—including the provision that five offenses for lateness constitutes one breach of discipline and an honorable discharge? Here the “Yes” chorus was punctuated by some sighs, but they assented..
They signed the pledge forms. They elected two “majors” from their ranks to lead them—one, a girl who had four brothers fighting at the front; the other, an older woman from Santa Barbara with girl-club experience. Led by a college girl from Berkeley, they all joined in a rousing cheer:
Don’t be a slacker
Be a picker or a packer
WLA, Rah, rah, rah!
They took the early train to Vacaville, just beyond Napa, a journey of about sixty miles. “It was hot in the orchard at Napa,” Idella Purnell recalled.
The sun rose higher and higher, and the long ladders grew heavier and heavier. Perspiration started on our foreheads and beaded our lips. The golden peaches were so high—so hard to reach! The peach fuzz and dust on our throats and arms began to irritate the skin, but we did not dare scratch—we knew that would only aggravate the trouble. One who has never had “peach fuzz rash” cannot appreciate the misery of those toiling, dusty, hot-faced girls.
Purnell, who would make her career as a writer and editor of an influential poetry journal, was getting a crash course in the less romantic aspects of farmerette life. As word of their good work spread, more northern and southern California farmers asked for WLA units to be based near their orchards and ranches. The newspapers charted the farmerettes’ summons into the golden groves with headlines like: “Hundreds Go Into Fields at Once” and “Women to Till Thousands of Southern California’s Acres.” Sunset magazine carried an editorial in its July issue titled “The Woman’s Land Army is Winning” illustrated by a photo of farmerettes in uniform posing with hoes slung over their shoulders like guns.
The Los Angeles Times sent one of its star reporters, Alma Whitaker, to spend a day working with a Land Army unit, and she came away rather dazzled. Describing one farmerette as “tall and husky and wields a spade like a young Amazon her sword” and another as possessing “a pair of shoulders and muscular arms like a bantam lightweight” Whitaker was taken with the farmerettes’ serious attitude:
“This woman’s land army, composed of able-bodied young women, selected just as the men are selected by the army, for their physical capacity, their good characters, their general deportment, and trained and disciplined even rather more strictly than the men... are acquitting themselves with amazing efficiency.”
Whitaker took note of the Land Army uniform, which became a hot topic of conversation in that summer: “The official uniform has called forth criticism,” she reported. “Farm laborers don’t wear uniforms. But those uniforms are proven to be an essential and desirable asset, for not only are they intensely practical, but they have exactly the same effect on girls as they do on the men—one lives up to a uniform.”
As in the military, the Land Army uniform also served as a great social equalizer and provided a powerful sense of social cohesion. “The cotton uniform,” wrote one California farmerette, “soon muddy and fruit stained, in which some girls looked picturesque, but no one overwhelmingly beautiful, leveled all distinction except those of personality, manners and speech.”
As the season progressed, Idella Purnell was promoted to the captaincy of her own squad of Land Army workers. But amid the grape vines of Lodi, captain Purnell encountered what every American feared in this time of war: the snake in the garden, the saboteur. At first Purnell assumed the woman was simply that lesser form of wartime menace, the slacker, not willing to do her share, but Purnell’s suspicions hardened when her lazy farmerette resorted to shoddy picking: “She took to sabotage,” Purnell explained. “Green grapes, rotten grapes—anything and everything went into her boxes, tossed there by a hand careless of the precious bloom—and they all were only half full.
Purnell tried to handle the situation herself:
I remonstrated—mildly at first. I showed her again…At noon I made a special talk to the girls for her benefit, in which I pointed out that we were soldiers just as much as the ones ‘over there,’ that we too had a chance to make good—or to be classified as slackers and cowards. I made it clear that a slacker was a person who tried to palm off poor boxes of grapes for good ones. One bad bunch ruins a whole box, and that is the same as helping shoot cannonballs at our boys.
But the slacker farmerette did not improve: “In fact, she seemed to take a malicious delight in doing her worst, and trying to get away with it,” said Purnell. “I argued, pleaded, threatened and scolded by turns. Commanding did no good. “That night I made a report to the camp supervisor, and learned that mine was not the first complaint against her. Mine was the last straw, and she was dishonorably discharged.”
A saboteur farmerette in the ranks was exceedingly rare; more often the Land Army worker was hailed as the “Patriot Farmerette.” And in that role, she deserved a “pin-up” above her cot, a photo of a handsome movie star to inspire her, just like her brother in the army or navy had his starlets, teased L A Times reporter Alma Whitaker, who archly exhorted the local movie industry’s matinee idols to do their bit by becoming “godfathers” to farmerettes and other women war workers:
Now, while our masculine regiments are well supplied with fair godmothers, not a single godfather has arisen for the benefit of the land army girls or the war efficiency motor maids or the Red Cross chapter girls… It isn’t fair. What are the stylish picture heroes thinking about? Why isn’t Charlie Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks offering themselves in this guise? Is masculinity trying to assert, in this day and age, that women’s patriotism is not as important and self-sacrificing as men’s patriotism? Pshaw!
Think of the land army girls, exuding honest sweat on California farms, day in and day out, in uniforms quite as becoming as any at Camp Kearny…all without a godfather.
It would be such a nice compliment if, say, Charlie Chaplin should adopt the first unit of the woman’s land army and go down to see them decked in a land army uniform, just as Mary Pickford wore khaki when she went to San Diego.
There are no known photos of Charlie Chaplin donning a Land Army uniform, but the farmerette was truly a star in California in the summer of 1918.
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 ColemanBessie Coleman in 1923 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
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 LeeFrances Glessner Lee, at work on one of the Nutshells in the early 1940s (Courtesy of Glessner House Museum)
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 GentileschiArtemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandra, 1615-17 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
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 SalavarrietaPolicarpa Salavarrieta (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
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 CixiKatharine 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 ClaflinVictoria Claflin Woodhull (left) and Tennessee Claflin (right) (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
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. NationCarrie 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 BentleyGladys Bentley’s powerful voice, fiery energy on the piano and bold lyrics made her a star of New York City nightclubs. (NMAAHC)
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 MankillerWilma 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.”