The First Female Nobel Peace Prize Winner

In 1905, Baroness Bertha Sophie Felicita von Suttner became the second female Nobel laureate and the first female Nobel Peace Prize winner. She she wrote and passionately argued for world peace. She is the next subject in this month’s look at women of peace.

Image of Baroness Bertha Sophie Felicita von Suttner, first female Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Background

Born June 9, 1843 in Prague, Austrian Empire, she was the daughter of a count in the Austrian military.  Her mother’s family came from untitled nobility, making Bertha of “mixed” descent according to the standards of high Austrian aristocrats of the day. 

Education

While her family struggled financially, a cousin whose father was a private tutor moved in with her family. He taught Bertha literature and philosophy. Fluent in French, Italian and English, she also became a pianist and singer. She wanted to be an opera singer, but her stage fright prevented her from making opera singing a career.

First Published

Her first published work, the novella Endertraüme im Monde, appeared in Die Deutsche Frau in 1859.

In Love

She found employment as a tutor and companion to the four teenaged daughters of Karl von Suttner in 1873. She fell in love with the girls’ elder brother, Arthur Gundacca who was seven years her junior. Neither of their families approved of their relationship. 

Meeting Nobel

In 1876, Suttner answered an ad for a secretary and housekeeper. She worked for Alfred Nobel in Paris. They became friends and correspondents for the rest of his life. She’s thought to have influenced his decision to establish the Nobel Prize. Some speculate that he wanted her to win the prize.

Marriage

After a few weeks of working for Nobel, Suttner returned to Vienna and married Arthur in secrecy. The couple settled in Kutaisi, Georgia.

She and Arthur became journalists who wrote about the increasing ethnic conflicts in Russia and Central Europe.

Though they were impoverished, she thought they had everything.

First Novel

At age 42, she published her first novel, “Ein Schlechter Mensch“. 

She and her husband reconciled with Arthur’s family and moved to Harmannsdorf Castle in Lower Austria in 1885.

Electrified for Peace

In 1887, she learned about the International Arbitration and Peace Association (IAPA, The International Peace Bureau founded in 1880, one of the world’s oldest international peace federations). In her autobiography, she says the idea that such an organization existed electrified her. 

Her Best-seller

At age 46, in 1889, she writes her best-selling novel, Lay Down Your Arms (Die Waffen Nieder). Tolstoy and others compared it in popularity and influence with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book tackled the effects of war, the growing militarism of Europe, and the problem of extreme nationalism. 

Nobel Peace Prize Winner

After her husband died in 1902 and she moved back to Vienna. She continued to campaign for peace and argued that a right to peace could be–should be–international law.

She became the Honorary Vice President of Permanent International Peace Bureau, Berne, Switzerland. And she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1905. She was the first female Nobel Peace Prize winner, the second female Nobel laureate. (Madame Currie won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903.) 

Her Work Continued

In 1911, she became a member of the advisory council of the Carnegie Peace Foundation.

Although ill and 71 years young, she was organizing the international peace congress scheduled for Vienna in August 1914.  

Baroness Bertha von Suttner, died of cancer on June 21, 1914. On June 28,1914 an assassin killed Franz Ferdinand, triggering World War I. The international peace congress never took place. 

Did you know about the first female Nobel Peace Prize winner? The German edition of her book, Die Waffen nieder!, and the English edition, Lay Down Your Arms, are available on Amazon in ebook and print.

Nonviolent, She Made a Difference

Dorothy Cotton (January 5, 1930–June 10, 2018) was born at the beginning of the depression. No one could have predicted the woman she became. Nonviolent, she made a difference in the U.S. civil rights movement and in the world.

Photo of Dorothy Cotton, nonviolent, she made a difference in the Civil Rights Movement
Thanks to the the Dorothy Cotton Institute for the image.

Early Life

Dorothy Lee Forman knew at an early age that she didn’t belong. She was an alien in time and place, destined to leave her hometown of Goldsboro, North Carolina. She speaks of the fighting and horrible things that happened in her neighborhood. But is unable to articulate exactly why she felt alien. Her mother died when she was three years old. 

Her father did the best he could to raise his three girls, but she remembers him as a harsh disciplinarian. She also remembers a pivotal event in her childhood. She was about ten years old when a white boy rode his bicycle down her unpaved street, kicking up dust and singing (to the tune of Deep in the Heart of Texas) “deep down in the heart of niggertown.” It made her angry, an anger she felt long into adulthood. She says it gave her “a consciousness about the wrongness of the system.”

A Mentor

Her next pivotal encounter was her high school English teacher. Ms Rosa Gray became a surrogate mother whom Dorothy never wanted to disappoint. Ms Gray helped Dorothy get into Shaw University. She also got Dorothy two jobs, one cleaning the teachers’ dormitory. A teacher in the dormitory, Dr. Daniel, became President of Virginia State University. He took Dorothy along as his housekeeper. She continued her schooling at VSU.

While attending VSU, Dorothy met George Cotton. They married after her graduation. 

An Introduction to the Civil Rights Movement

It was while she was in college, Dorothy first attended a local church. Wyatt T. Walker, the regional head for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led that church. Not long after that, Walker asked her to help organize and train children to picket and march for the movement. She says she didn’t really know how to teach it but she knew how to be peaceful.  

Through Walker, she met Martin Luther King Jr. When King asked Walker to move to Atlanta to help form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Walker brought two of his trusted assistants along. One of those was Dorothy.

Her Life’s Work

MLK Jr asked her to help a troubled school, Highlander Folk School. And there she met Septima Clark. Together they created the Citizenship Education Program. That became a large part of her life’s work.

The CEP focused on training disenfranchised people the importance of civic and political participation. They taught and organized methods for voter registration in southern states where requirements purposefully excluded the illiterate and undereducated. They also taught how to take part in nonviolent protest. “This program was one of the most effective but least well-known components of the movement.” 

She continued at the SCLC for three years after Dr. King’s assassination. After that, she became the Southern Regional Director for ACTION, the federal agency for volunteer programs and worked under the Carter administration. She was Vice-President for Field Operations at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Change, then she was Director of Student Activities at Cornell University. and later she founded her own consulting company. She traveled and taught based on her philosophy and practices of “nonviolence, reconciliation and restoration, and grassroots leadership development.” 

Ms Cotton received the National Freedom Award from the Nation Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee in July 2010. 

She wrote a book, If Your Back’s not Bent, published in 2012. 

Ms. Cotton died on June 10, 2018 in Ithaca, NY.

Learn More

 Learn more about Dorothy at the Dorothy Cotton Institute. Her oral history is available online at the Library of Congress.

She Made a Difference

An influential figure in the Civil Rights movement, Ms Dorothy Cotton remains relatively unknown. One of the unsung heroes, a role model, and a leader, she persisted. In her book she quotes the Negro National Anthem, saying she has come “over a way that with blood and with tears has been watered.” She may have walked the bloody road. She may have shed tears. But non-violent, she made a difference.

30 Amazing Women You Never Heard Of

In four short weeks, I can’t begin to honor all the women who should be honored during Women’s History Month. But I’m fascinated to learn about women who’ve dared to be different or make a difference. Here are 30 amazing women you never heard of–at least not in school:


Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị 

1 – 43

Vietnam

Chose 36 women to be generals and successfully drove the Chinese out in 40 A.D. Trắc became queen, abolishing tribute taxes and attempted to revert back to a simpler government.


Hypatia of Alexandria

355 – 415

EGYPT

Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons

An unwed Pagan woman who taught astronomy and mathematics from her home and was a philosopher of the Neoplatonic school.


Fatima Al-Fihri

800 – 880

Kairouan, Abbasid Caliphate (Moracco)

Founded the world’s oldest continually operating, degree-granting university, the University of Al Qarawiyyin.


Tomoe Gozen

1157-1247

Japan

A legendary 12th century samurai warrior noted for being a skilled archer, often referred to as a “warrior worth a thousand.”


Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz 

1651–1695

Mexico

Credited as the first published feminist of the New World.


Sybil Ludington 

1761 – 1839

U.S.A.

Riding twice the distance, perhaps she should have been remembered in poem and song instead of Paul Revere.


Edmonia Lewis 

1844 – 1907

U.S.A.

African-American / Chippewa sculptor, who specialized in portrait busts of abolitionists and patrons.


Ada Lovelace 

1815 – 1852

Great Britain

Daughter of the poet Lord Byron who grew up to be the world’s first computer programmer.


Mary Edwards Walker 

1832 – 1919

U.S.A.

First female physician in the U.S. Army and the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.


Yaa Asantewaa 

1840-1921

Ashanti Empire (now part of Ghana)

Warrior queen who also happened to be a 60 year old grandmother when she began fighting British Colonialism.


Cathay Williams

1844-1868

U.S.A.

Image of Cathay Williams, female buffalo soldier, one of 30 amazing women you never heard of
Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons

First documented African-American woman to enlist and serve in the U.S. Army (disguised as a man).


Kate Sheppard 

1848-1934

New Zealand

A women’s rights activist in New Zealand who eventually led New Zealand to be the first country that gave women the right to vote.


Susanna Salter

1860-1961

U.S.A.

Elected first female U.S. Mayor (Yay, Kansas!)


Edith Cowan

1861-1932

Australia

The first woman elected to an Australian Parliament.


Ida B. Wells 

1862 – 1931 ‌

U.S.A.

The first African-American journalist.


Harriet Chalmers Adams 

1875 – 1937

U.S.A.

An American writer, explorer, and photographer.


Constance Kopp 

1877 – 1931 

U.S.A.

America’s first woman sheriff.


Huda Sha’arawi

1879-1947

Egypt

Founded Egypt’s first female-run philanthropic society, which offered services for impoverished women and children. Her most impactful event was in Cairo when she removed her veil in public.


Eliza Zamfirescu 

1887-1973

Romania

Recognized as the world’s first female engineer.


Bessie Coleman 

1892 – 1926

U.S.A.

The first black woman to earn her pilot’s license,


Katharine Blodgett

1898-1979   

U.S.A.

Invented non-glare glass as the first female engineer at General Electric’s research laboratory.


Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin 

1900 – 1979

U.S.A.

The first astronomer to discover that stars are made primarily of hydrogen and helium.


Virginia Hall 

1906-1982

U.S.A.

Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Called “The Limping Lady” due to her wooden leg she worked behind German lines for more than 30 years and was considered the “most dangerous of all allied spies” by the Germans.


Dorothy Vaughan 

1910 – 2008

U.S.A.

NASA’s first black manager. 


Daisy Bates

1914-1999

U.S.A.

Helped the Little Rock Nine—the nine black students she recruited to enroll at Central High School—enter their new school safely, despite being blocked by the Arkansas National Guard. 


Lyudmila Pavlichenko

1916-1974

Russia

Nicknamed “Lady Death,” she is the most successful female sniper in human history with 309 confirmed kills in WWII. 


Rose Marie McCoy 

1922 – 2015

U.S.A.

Wrote and/or collaborated on more than 850 songs for stars such as Big Maybelle, James Brown, Ruth Brown, Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Mathis, Bette Midler, Elvis Presley, and Ike and Tina Turner.


Alice Coachman

1922-2014

U.S.A.

At the 1948 London Olympics, won the high jump for the United States, becoming the first black woman to win an Olympic Gold medal. 


Stephanie Kwolek 

1923-2014

U.S.A.

Chemist who invented Kevlar, the material used in most bulletproof vests and body armor.


Women have been accomplishing firsts since time began and are often overlooked by history. Fortunately, the internet makes a lot of these women’s history more available to all of us. I hope you enjoyed this list of 30 amazing women you’ve never heard of. Or had you heard of one or two?

Hoofing it for the Love of Books

For $28 a month, these librarians loaded books and magazines into saddlebags or pillowcases. They climbed on a horse or mule and rode through the mountains of eastern Kentucky. This was the Packhorse Library project. They were hoofing it for the love of books, to help their community and combat illiteracy.

Packhorse Librarian on a mule surrounded by school children eager for books. Librarians were hoofing it for the love of books.
Packhorse Librarian, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The History of Horse & Books

May Stafford, a Kentuckian, raised money in 1913 to take books to rural people on horseback. That program lasted one year. Berea College sponsored a horse-drawn book wagon. The book wagon operated in the late teens and early 1920s. After that, the mountain people had no access to libraries and the books provided there.

The Great Depression began in 1929. There was no work. No money. The mountain people of eastern Kentucky suffered. By 1933 the unemployment rate in the Appalachians was 40%.

The New Deal

President Roosevelt’s New Deal created The Works Progress Administration (WPA). Its function was to create jobs for men (usually unskilled). The President’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, knew many women were the heads of households. She encouraged the creation of WPA projects that would benefit women and children. She knew women would respond best to projects that supported their community. Projects like the Packhorse Library.

With no money to feed the body, how could they feed the mind?

Eleanor Roosevelt

The Packhorse Library project began in 1934 in Leslie County Kentucky. They hired local women when they could. The mountain folk they would serve were suspicious of strangers. The WPA paid the librarians’ salaries only. The librarians provided their own horse or mule. Their library of books and magazines consisted of donations. 

A Tough Job

The librarians rode out twice a month. They covered 100-120 miles per week. It wasn’t easy. The areas they served had no paved or gravel roads. Cabins perched on the mountains side had no radio, no television, no newspaper, and no electricity. One librarian’s mule died. She finished eighteen miles of her route on foot. Bad weather and rocky terrain provided unending challenges. But the librarians had grit. They felt driven to provide their mountain people books. Books could give the destitute mountain people hope for the future.

To gain the trust of the people on her route, a librarian would ride in and read Bible passages aloud. This behavior engendered trust among people familiar with the oral tradition. 

The mountain people were hungry for news and learning. They burned costly oil so they could read after dark. The children cried out for books. Not a specific book. Any book. When the people couldn’t read, the librarians often read aloud to them.

Scrapbooks

When books and magazines wore out, the librarians cut the books and magazines up. They pasted articles, and recipes, and quilt patterns into scrapbooks. On their circuit, they’d collect local recipes and quilt patterns and add them to the handmade books. They’d swap scrapbooks with other counties and share the new books with the folks on their routes.

Line of women on horseback in front of a WPA library. They were hoofing it for the love of books as part of the Packhorse Library
Packhorse Librarians, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The Program Grew

The Packhorse Librarians served a 10,000-square-mile part of eastern Kentucky. The program hired nearly 1,000 librarians before it ended. More than 60,000 books circulated to an estimated 50,000 families, and 155 public schools.

Until the Funds Ran Out

Franklin Roosevelt ordered the end of the WPA in 1943. The new war effort was putting people back to work. The Packhorse Library and the librarians faded into history.

Thank you for joining me in celebrating Women’s History Month. Would you like to know more about the Packhorse Library project and the librarians who were hoofing it for the love of books? Check out these resources: the Smithsonian, NPR, Atlas Obscura, and Cleo Lampos’s site. Or read That Book Woman by Heather Henson and Down Cut Shin Creek by Kathi Applet and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer.

Inspiration from War and Resistance

Novelists are often told, “write what you know.” That’s not quite right. They should learn what they don’t know. Then when they write, they write from a place of knowing. I wanted to write about everyday people who decide to fight for their freedom. So I turned to history again. I needed inspiration for my then in-progress novel, My Soul to Keep. I looked for character inspiration from war and resistance. I found a lot more.

Google is my friend. I searched for resistance and freedom fighters. Scanning hundreds of articles about resistance groups or rebels or freedom fighters I looked for firsthand accounts. I read a lot of articles. Articles about the American Revolution, the Syrian Civil War, and the Polish, the Yugoslavian, the Dutch, and the French resistance fighters in WWII.

Syrian Civil War and Reality

There were two resources I returned to over and over again. I found a number of YouTube videos about the Syrian Civil War. These were videos not for the faint of heart. They showed the real brutality of war, the spirit of resistance, and the destruction of homes and lives. It also showed the resilience of the human spirit.

People lived in the ruins of cities under appalling conditions. Food and clothing were scarce. Once thriving shopping districts had been reduced to rubble. Rebels took refuge in tunnels under the cities. In the documentary I watched, there were times the rebels were under such heavy fire they could not leave those tunnels. Still, they found the spirit to sing songs and joke amongst themselves.

Seven years after the beginning of that war, it is ongoing today. I cannot find the video that seared itself into my brain today. But there are many enlightening documentaries still available.

Not for this book

The devastation of that war was not what the first book of My Soul to Keep needed. I filed away my notes and turned to another source.

Agnes Humbert

My next resource was an audiobook. Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France by Agnes Humbert narrated by Joyce Bean. Agnes was an art historian in Paris when Germans occupied the city. She tells of how she oversaw the packing of the art in the museum where she worked. Then there was little more to pack and her boss sent her home.

Inspiration from World War II Resistance. Lynette M Burrows tells of research she did into resistance fighters while writing My Soul to Keep.
Audiobook Résistance by Agnès Humbert available on Amazon.com

Resistance

She went home, packed up, and left the city. But she couldn’t stand the idea of leaving her home to the Germans. She joined a resistance group. A bunch of regular people who couldn’t bear to watch what was happening to their city and nation. As regular folk, they weren’t warriors or strategists or terribly security-minded. They did what they could with what little they had.

They developed a network. Everyday folk milled around at train depots and shops listening to soldiers talking. They questioned people passing through town. Surreptitiously they printed a newsletter they called Resistancee.   They repored what news they had, movement of troops if they could.  They circulated it under the noses of German soldiers.

Betrayal

Eventually, they were betrayed to the Gestapo. Humbert was imprisoned. She faced days of uncertainty and interrogation. Eventually, she was transferred to the first of several labor camps. She relates, in detail, what life in labor camps was like. She talks about how meager food rations and clothing were. The prisoners were forced to work when ill or injured. Punishments for failing to work were severe. Agnes managed to steal and hide scraps of paper. She recorded her activities and thoughts. Had her notes been found she would have been killed. Seven of her friends were executed. She survived.

The audiobook is engrossing and horrifying. Yet, through it all, Humbert had a brave, witty, and compassionate attitude. I highly recommend listening to this one.

What I Learned

My research revealed that everyday people don’t make the best military-minded decisions. But their lack of military know-how is part of what helped them endure. This was my inspiration. From WWII  and the resistance in Syria, I recreated war and resistance in My Soul to Keep. Have you read about real resistance fighters? Which ones? What did you learn from your reading?