Celebrating Women’s History month, we’re exploring female writers, authors, poets. We’ll start with one of the earliest known female poet and songwriter. A woman whose work was widely quoted and revered by her male successors. It is said that Plato called Sappho the tenth muse.
We know little about her, but there are many legends and stories that claim to know details. Scholars disagree and sometimes facts put those stories in dispute.
Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos in 620 BCE, to a wealthy, aristocratic family. Since Lesbos’s primary export was wine, it’s likely her family were vintners.
Women in Ancient Greece were bound by the customs and traditions of their city-states. So although some scholars believe she was a woman of leisure, her wealth did not protect her from the expectations of her family and society. We know through her poetry that she learned to play the lyre, and that she composed lyrics for single voices. Surviving fragments of her poetry refer to two brothers. She may have had a third brother.
Some scholars believe she married a wealthy man, Cercylas, a wealthy man from the island of Andros. Her poetry also mentioned a daughter.
She may have run a school for unmarried women. Or she could be confused with another ancient Greek woman who ran such a school.
Several different tyrants ran Athens during Sappho’s lifetime. It is possible she lived in exile in Athens for a time. Exactly why and when is unclear. Speculation is that she may have gotten too political in her writing.
There is a legend that she leaped from the Leucadian rock to certain death in the sea because of her unrequited love of Phaon, a younger man and a sailor. Most critics today believe that story is simply a legend. Scholars believe she died in the year 579 b.c.e.
Her poems depart from the tradition of her time. They do not address the gods. Rather, her verses are personal, spoken from one person to another. They simple, direct, and convey the bittersweet difficulties of love. Read a sample.
Some say that Plato (born in 428 b.c.e.) called her the “Tenth muse,” though other scholars claim it is unlikely it was Plato. We know they admired her for centuries because coins and statutes and busts with her likeness and name survived to this day.
Based on ancient writings, scholars believe someone collected her work into nine volumes in the third century B.C. Scholars discovered her through quotations by other ancient authors. In 1898, scholars unearthed fragments of papyri with her poems on them. Archeologists discovered more scraps of her poetry in Egypt in 1914.
The New Comedy was a style of Greek drama introduced in the middle of the third century BC. Where old comedy parodied public figures and included supernatural or heroic bits, New Comedy were not realistic plays but conveyed “the disillusioned spirit and moral ambiguity of the bourgeois class of this period.” The writers of the New Comedy portrayed Sappho as “overly promiscuous and lesbian.” They convinced Pope Gregory who burned all her works in 1073. (The term “lesbian” is derived from the island of her birth).
We’ve discovered only one intact poem traced to her. The French translation is below.
The Tenth Muse
Not only is Sappho one of the earliest female writers known to us, her life is an example of how we can misjudge the bits and pieces of a life that survives the person.
If the scholars can’t agree, how can we think we got it right?
As my women in history posts often reflect, women’s contributions to history are often ignored or misconstrued. Would they have judged her work differently if she were male? If the New Comedy writers hadn’t satirized her, would we enjoy her lyrics today?
Her writing could reflect who she was or who she knew or what she saw in society. Scholars will jump to conclusions, but we will never know the truth about the tenth muse.
On April 4, 1872, Livonia Coffin and George Whitefield Ware, Worcester, Massachusetts residents, welcomed their second child, daughter Mary Coffin Ware. Although the women’s suffrage movement started in the United States in 1848, women still did not have the right to vote in 1872. And married women could not own their own property, keep their own wages, or sign a contract. These conditions deeply affected Mary’s life. She was convicted because the sex side of life was judged obscene.
In 1882, Mary’s father died of cancer. Her mother moved the family to Boston to be closer to her mother’s relatives. But finding a job to support the family proved impossible. So Mary’s mother chaperoned young ladies traveling to Europe for pay. Unable to take Mary (or her other children) with on those trips, Mary and her siblings stayed with her aunt and went to public school.
Lucia Ames Mead, Mary’s aunt, was active in social reform, women’s voting rights, and advocated for world peace. In time, this influence would reveal itself in Mary’s life.
Mary graduated from her high school, Miss Capen’s School for Girls in Northampton, Massachusetts, and went to the School of Art and Design at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There she studied textile design and won prizes for tapestry and leatherwork projects.
She graduated from art school with honors in 1894 and moved to Philadelphia, where she lead the department of decoration and design at the Drexel Institute of Art for the next three years. After she left the Drexel Institute, she studied antique leatherwork in Spain and Italy. When she returned to the U.S., she settled in Boston where she organized art exhibitions for the Society of Arts and Crafts.
She met William Hartley Dunnett, an architect, in 1894 and married him on January 20, 1900. After they married, she wrote and gave lectures about arts and crafts, became a board member of the Society for Arts and Crafts, and took part in Boston social reform groups
The birth of their first son in December 1900 almost killed Mary. In 1903, Mary’s second pregnancy was also difficult. The child lived for only three weeks.
Their third child was born in 1905. Her labor was so difficult she had to quit her work in order to recover. The doctor advised them Mary should have no more children.
Mary and Hartley were ignorant of birth control. Abstinence was the only method either of them knew.
Mary’s husband, Hartley, began working on a house for a doctor and his wife in 1904. Over time, he developed a very close relationship with the doctor’s wife.
In 1908, Mary took a job as the field secretary of the Massachusetts Suffrage Association in Springfield, Massachusetts. She spoke to individuals and groups about suffrage, organized events, and recruited new members.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association in New York City, New York, elected Dennett as correspondence secretary in 1910. She accepted the position and moved to New York.
Mary grew concerned about the affect Hartley had on their children and filed for divorce in 1912. He sued for custody of the children. It was scandalous and therefore a popular topic in the newspapers.
In 1913, the court granted Mary the custody of her children and finalized her divorce from Hartley. The court required Hartley to pay child support. He claimed he did not make enough money to do so and refused to pay.
A New Life
Also in 1913, Mary accepted an offer to lead the Twilight Sleep Association. Twilight sleep referred to the doctors using anesthesia (scopolamine and morphine) during labor to induce a semi-conscious state in mothers-to-be during deliveries. Twilight sleep reduced the use of forceps, which reduced infant mortality and the risk of injury and infection to both mother and infant. She served as president, then Vice President of the Association.
During this time, she struggled to support her sons and incurred many debts.
When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, Mary volunteered for the Women’s Peace Party in New York that opposed the war.
In 1915, Mary created a pamphlet to answer some of her eldest son’s questions about sex. She titled the work, “The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People.” In the pamphlet, she discussed that the books she’d read were vague and misleading. The vagueness and misinformation resulted from state and federal obscenity laws that limited the amount of detail that could be published about sex education.
She wrote that the sex education books she’d read also portrayed the sex as fearful or shameful act. Her twenty-four-page pamphlet included clear information about sex and realistic descriptions of intercourse. Once friends learned of the pamphlet, they wanted one to help teach their children about sex.
Mary became more involved in the birth control movement. Working with Jessie Ashley and Clara Gruening Stillman, they established the National Birth Control League in 1915 to increase knowledge about and access to birth control.
Mary lobbied New York’s federal congressmen to repeal the Comstock Act. She wanted Congress to remove the words “prevention of contraception” from federal obscenity statutes. Her efforts brought the birth control movement to the attention of the media and birth control activist Margaret Sanger.
Sanger had left the country from 1914 to 1915 to avoid prosecution for writing a radical (and co-called obscene) newspaper called The Woman Rebel.
Mary disapproved of Sanger breaking the law in order to bring attention to it. And Sanger thought Mary’s efforts to get free birth control for everyone was doomed to fail. Sanger believed working through state governments and allowing doctors to prescribe birth control had the best chance for success.
More Publicity Woes
Mary’s name was in the papers again during 1915, thanks to a public invitation from her ex-husband, Hartley, his partner, Margaret Chase, and her husband. They wanted her to join them and form a “quadrangle” of love. Mary feared the negative publicity and notoriety she gained from her ex-husband’s unwanted proposal would adversely affect the organizations she worked with.
For the next two years, Mary shifted her focus to women’s suffrage and the anti-war movement. But as the war dragged on, and President Woodrow Wilson supported the war efforts, resistance to her anti-war campaigns led to her return to birth control activism.
In 1918, Mary became executive secretary for the National Birth Control League in New York City. The following February, the editor of the Medical Review of Reviews agreed to publish her pamphlet, “The Sex Side of Life.” Unable to get support from New York politicians, Mary resigned from the Nation Birth Control League in 1919.
Later that year, Mary founded the Voluntary Parenthood League. The League’s goals were to remove birth control from obscenity laws by lobbying the federal government and to better educate parents about teaching sex education to their children.
Mary campaigned and lobbied federal officials to exempt information about birth control from obscenity laws. She even appealed to the solicitor of the US Postal Services, saying that since they couldn’t open all mail and check it, post offices could not enforce the Comstock Act.
The Post Office Department banned circulation of any mail that contained Mary’s “The Sex Side of Life.”
Mary resigned from the Voluntary Parenthood League in 1925.
After her resignation, Mary continued to receive mail from parents asking about birth control and sex education. The post office thwarted her attempts to send those people her pamphlet, “The Sex Side of Life.” The common method of placing mail in unsealed envelopes allowed the post office to open and confiscate all copies of her pamphlet. So Mary began sending the pamphlet in sealed envelopes.
Mary published Birth Control Laws: Shall We Keep Them, Change Them, or Abolish Them in 1926. The book described the state and federal laws and Mary’s arguments to change the laws.
In 1928, Mary had a court case filed against her. An alleged woman named Mrs. Carl Miles, who said she received Mary’s pamphlet by mail, which violated the federal code preventing mailing of obscene literature. Once again, Mary faced unwanted publicity.
Stories about the fifty-three-year-old grandmother appeared in most newspapers in the country.”
On April 23, 1929, a jury composed entirely of middle-aged family men convicted Mary for sending obscene materials through the mail. She faced up to a five thousand dollar fine or five years in jail or both.
It fined her three hundred dollars.
She refused to pay.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sponsored her, supported her pamphlet, saying it was not obscene but an important educational tool. The court of appeals learned that Mrs. Carl Miles was a fake character created by the post office to trick Mary into mailing a copy of her pamphlet so they could file the case.
On March 3, 1930, the appellate court ruled that because Mary’s intent was educational and not obscene, the pamphlet did not qualify as obscene. Circulation of “The Sex Side of Life” increased after the original ruling was reversed.
Death and Legacy
Mary Coffin Ware Dennett died in Valatie, New York on July 25, 1947. She was 75.
From 1929 to 1930, most of the nation knew about Mary and her trial. They knew she was convicted because “The Sex Side of Life” was judged obscene. They knew about her appeal. What no one knew was that “United States v. Dennettwould ultimately prove to be a landmark censor ship case that paved the way for dramatic changes in the legal definition of obscenity.”
What if Mary Dennett originally had pleaded guilty?
Ruth Margaret Muskrat Bronson, a Cherokee poet, educator and Indian rights activist, is a person who should be in all our history books. Her passion, creativity, and dedication to her people alone earned her a place in history. But her story is a missing from our history books. Muskrat Bronson acted when women were struggling to be seen and to vote. In addition, she was a mixed race Indian with all the racial difficulties that came with that. It’s our national shame we don’t all know her name.
Muskrat was born Sunday, October 3, 1897 in White Water, on the Delaware Nation Reservation in Indian territory (now Oklahoma). Her father, James Ezekial Muskrat, was a Cherokee who’s ancestors had traveled the Trail of Tears in the late 1839s. Ida Lenora (nee Kelly) was her mother, an Irish-English transplant from Missouri whose family had moved to Indian Territory.
Muskrat’s surviving relatives and biographers believe her father’s “Restricted Indian” status and his struggle to become a citizen heavily influenced her world view .
Restricted status meant that while her father held the title to their land, he could not sell or trade the land without the approval of the Secretary of the Interior. (For more information, see the Bureau of Indian Affairs FAQ page. )
As early as 1817, U.S. citizenship had been conferred by special treaty upon specific groups of Indian people. American citizenship was also conveyed by statutes, naturalization proceedings, and by service in the Armed Forces with an honorable discharge in World War I. In 1924, Congress extended American citizenship to all other American Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States.
The Curtis Act, an amendment of the Dawes Act, called for the abolition of tribal governments on March 6, 1907. The act meant to establish individual landholdings in the European-American model for subsistence farming by families. It also provided for the establishment of public schools. But the lands in Indian Territory and the dry climate made the 160-acre allotments too small to permit profitable farming.
Originally her people (one of the Five Civilized Tribes of the Indian Territory) were exempt from the 1887 General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) because of the terms of their treaties. The Curtis Act meant that when she was ten, the tribes lost control of about 90 million acres of their communal lands. They lost more in subsequent years.
Muskrat enrolled in preparatory school at the Oklahoma Institute of Technology at fourteen. After she graduated in 1916, she went to Henry Kendall College in Tulsa, then Northeastern State Teacher’s College.
Financial hardships forced her to quit school and teach for two years. She attended three semesters at the University of Oklahoma in 1919.
During the summer of 1921, she worked for the YWCA. They sent her to the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico. There, her organizing efforts and the subsequent report she wrote about those efforts earned her a scholarship to the University of Kansas. She studied at KU for three more semesters.
She wrote and published poems during her college days.
Read her poem “The Trail of Tears”published by the University of Oklahoma Magazine in 1922. She also wrote “The Hunter’s Wooing” (1921), “Sonnets from the Cherokee” (1922), and “If You Knew” (1923).
Early Political Work
At twenty-five, she was the first Native American to represent her people internationally. As part of a YWCA youth conference delegation, she traveled to Hawaii, Manchuria, Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong. The trip brought her to the attention of the International Press. It also inspired her to become a cultural activist.
The following year, she traveled to many places and worked for racial equality. For her public appearances, she wore a Plains Indians buckskin dress. She chose that dress because that was how most Americans thought all Indians dressed. She wanted them to see her as an Indian.
Her most important appearance was a presentation and speech she made. The “Committee of One Hundred” was a group of Native American leaders intended to advise President Coolidge on American Indian policy.
Mr. President, there have been so many discussions of the so-called Indian Problem. May not we, who are the Indian students of America, who must face the burden of that problem, say to you what it means to us?
She married a Connecticut Yankee, John Bronson, in 1928. They adopted a native Indian girl. She was their only child.
Muskrat Bronson got a job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). She implemented the first national American Indian higher education program through the BIA. Traveling across American Indian country, she increased the number of American Indian students enrolled in higher education by at least 200%.
Awarded the Indian Achievement Medal of the Indian Council of Fire in 1937, Muskrat Bronson was the second woman to have received the award since its inception.
Muskrat Bronson left the BIA in 1943 to raise her daughter. During this period, she wrote and published several books and articles including: Indians are People Too (1944), The Church in Indian Life (1945), and Shall We Repeat Indian History in Alaska (1947).
The National Congress of American Indians
Later, Muskrat Bronson worked at the NCAI. Appointed the executive secretary of the organization, she spent a decade monitoring legislative issues.
She promoted Native American progress at tribal meeting across the country. She advocated for native water rights along the Colorado River, Alaska native rights, and gaining quality medical care for American Indians.
They elected Muskrat Bronson treasurer of the NCAI in 1955. After that, she focused on ways to work directly with local communities.
She moved to Arizona in 1957. There, she worked for Indian Health Service, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. She was a health education specialist at the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation.
Muskrat Bronson also served a philanthropic organization called ARROW. Once again, she managed the education loan and scholarship funds of that organization. And she advised tribes about community development.
In 1962, Muskrat Bronson received the Oveta Culp Hobby Service Award from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for her work to improve the lives of Native Americans. And she retired from government service.
After she moved to Tucson, she became the national chairperson of the Community Development Foundation’s American Indian section under the umbrella of the Save the Children Foundation.
Muskrat Bronson continued to advocate for Native Americans to determine their own development and leadership programs, even after a stroke in 1972.
She was a recipient of the National Indian Child Conference’s merit award in 1978 for her commitment to improving children’s quality of life.
Ruth Muskrat Bronson died in Tucson, Arizona on June 12, 1982.
It’s our national shame we don’t all know her name. Ruth Muskrat Bronson embraced her mixed heritage. She believed Indians could benefit from many things from both cultures. For her entire life, she advocated for American Indians to maintain their culture and be self-determining.
Her story is missing from our history books. Embrace our real history. It is our national shame we aren’t taught about people like Muskrat Bronson. We don’t own how we’ve mistreated others, especially American Indians. What will you do to advocate like Ruth Muskrat Bronson?
Her father was an affluent financier. Her mother came from a family whose wealth came from a tobacco empire. Helen inherited her passion for horses and love of sailing. Her uncle, Pierre Lorillard IV, lived in Newport, Rhode Island and helped make it a yachting center. He was also a Thoroughbred racehorse owner.
On April 25, 1891, Helen married Hermon Alexander, Count von Pourtalès, (1847–1904). He was a captain of the Cuirassiers of the Guard, a heavy cavalry regiment of the Royal Prussian Army. She became known as Hélène de Pourtalès.
Hélène had dual citizenship, Swiss and American. Her husband had dual Swiss-German nationality. They had three daughters.
In 1896 Europe’s most prominent families had personal flotillas. Among them were members of the Swiss Pourtalès family.
But in 1900 they allowed a few female athletes to compete as long as their legs were “aesthetically” covered by long skirts. They only allowed women to participate in five out of nineteen sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrianism and golf. Out of 997 athletes, twenty-two were women.
One hundred-fifty yachts from six countries competed at the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris. Each yacht followed rules from their own area since the International Yacht Racing Union did not yet exist. No rules existed to standardize the boats either. They ordered classes by tonnage.
On May 22, Hélène was a crew member along with her husband’s nephew aboard the Swiss boat, Lérina. Her husband was helmsman. They won gold in the first of the two regattas for the 1-2 ton class boats. In the second race three days later, they won silver.
Hélène was the first Swiss female athlete to go to the Olympics, the first female athlete to compete at the Games, and the first female Olympic Gold Medalist.
NOTE: England’s Charlotte Cooper was the first individual female Olympic champion, as winner of the women’s tennis singles tournament. She also won a gold medal in the mixed doubles.
From First to Current
Hélène de Pourtalès was the first female Olympic Champion to strike gold. But she wasn’t the last. From 1956 to 1964 the Russian gymnast, Larisa Latynina, won fourteen individual medals and four team medals and became the female with the most Olympic medals. This year in Tokyo, almost 49% of the 10,305 Olympic athletes are female. It’s taken 121 years to be close to gender equality in numbers. Someday, hopefully soon, there will be true equality.
She was a wife, mother, patriot, and Revolutionary War spy. The only female in George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring (aka Setauket Spy Ring), Anna Smith Strong, had an ingenious way to send messages under the noses of the British… her laundry.
The British Take New York City
The American Revolutionary War had been raging for six months. In late August 1776 under General William Howe, a force of 30,000 British Regulars, 10 ships of line, 20 frigates, and 170 transports engaged George Washington’s troops at the Battle of Brooklyn.
The British outflanked George Washington’s Continental Army. But General Howe did not storm the redoubts at Brooklyn Heights. That allowed Washington and his troops to retreat to Manhattan by boat.
The Americans suffered 1,000 casualties to the British loss of only 400 men.
On September 15th, the British occupied New York City. This gave the British control of the Hudson River. The river split the rebellious colonies in half geographically.
Shortly after that British authorities caught Nathan Hale. They caught Hale on his way back to his regiment after gathering information behind the British lines. They hanged Hale in New York City, a warning for all spies.
The Continental Army’s Secret Service
In mid-1778, General George Washington appointed twenty-four-year-old Major Benjamin Tallmadge as the head of the Continental Army’s secret service.
Tallmadge, from Setauket on Long Island, was to establish a permanent spy network. The spies would work behind enemy lines. He started with two of his trustworthy childhood friends, the farmer Abraham Woodhull and Caleb Brewster.
Tallmadge established an elaborate system of riders and couriers. They used aliases, a coded dictionary and invisible ink to pass on messages. All but one member of the Spy Ring was born and raised in Setauket.
Using the code name, Samuel Culper Sr., Woodhull ran the day-to-day operations on Long Island. He evaluated reports and determined and created dispatches to be taken to Washington. Sometimes he traveled back and forth to New York. There, he would observe British maneuvers and collect information.
Brewster would boat from Connecticut across the Devil’s Belt (Long Island Sound). His job was to retrieve the Spy Ring’s messages for Tallmadge. Brewster hid in one of six coves along the shore of Long Island to avoid detection by the British frigates that patrolled the Sound.
Wife, Mother, Patriot, and Revolutionary War Spy
Born on April 14, 1740, to a family of Tories (British supporters) Anna Smith Strong married Judge Selah Strong III. Anna and her husband were Patriots. They had nine children.
Strong’s Neck, their manor home in Setauket, and her husband’s political position made them a target of the British. Woodhull was their neighbor.
The British arrested her husband for corresponding with the enemy. They held him on the British prison ship Jersey in New York harbor. Conditions on the ship nearly killed him. Anna’s Tory relatives bribed the British to parole him. He and their children went to Connecticut and stayed there for the rest of the war.
Anna stayed alone on Strong’s Neck to prevent looting and damage to their home. And because Woodhull needed her.
In plain sight of British soldiers, she hung her laundry out to dry. She hung up a black petticoat and up to six white handkerchiefs. The petticoat signaled Woodhull that Brewster had arrived. The number of handkerchiefs identified in which cove Brewster hid.
In 1939, they found a trunk of old letters in Robert Townsend’s family home. Historian Morton Pennypacker noticed Townsend’s handwriting match handwriting in some letters to George Washington. Eventually Pennypacker learned about the Culper Spy Ring and identified Anna, among others.
Many women were Revolutionary War Heroes. The British underestimated Anna Smith Strong, wife, mother, patriot, and Revolutionary War spy. By doing her laundry in plain sight, Anna and the Culper Spy Ring helped win the war against the British. The British never broke her code or any of the Ring’s codes. And they never caught even one member of the Culper Spy Ring.