Do you celebrate International Women’s Day? This year March 8th is the day. A day to remind us that gender has been used to justify abuse for centuries. It is sad we must have such a day across the world and in the United States. It takes hard work to forge a gender equal world. To remind us all that an inclusive world is a world of respect and kindness and diversity.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is Choose to Challenge. It asks that we all be alert to and challenge gender bias.
We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.
Anisa Nandaula’s spoken poem about the theme is short and powerful. Take a listen.
We who are privileged to live in a society with freedom of speech can choose to speak up or remain quiet. Speaking out isn’t comfortable. But we need to remember that our current freedoms came because someone challenged the status quo—challenge common beliefs. Because someone stood up and said no, that’s not the way it has to be.
What Does a Gender Equal World Look Like?
Did you know that there are languages that are gender neutral? They have pronouns that refer to a specific gender such as him and her, but their words have no gender assigned to them. English is a gender neutral language. Most nouns, adjectives, and pronouns are not gender specific. Other languages have as many as three genders and a few have twenty. And why not? Our world is wonderfully diverse. From daisies to Venus flytraps and giraffes to flamingos, diversity makes our world beautiful.
In the gender equal world I envision, we would deny no one basic human rights based on gender. No one would be abused due to gender. The world would embrace all genders and be gender neutral. Not the connotation of neutral that means none, but the kind of neutral that doesn’t rank or mistreat or reward a person based on their gender. One that doesn’t assign anyone a gender but allows us to express our gender openly and without prejudice. A gender equality where every person has the right to choose their own destiny regardless of gender. An equality that celebrates our diversity. The kind in which no sex trafficking, or child brides, or domestic abuse exist. The kind where posts like mine about strong women aren’t necessary because we live in a gender equal world.
Help Forge a Gender Equal World
Women have had decades of challenging the beliefs that hold them back. And there is a long way to go to be equal. We have a choice. Be silent or challenge. Challenge notions that the female gender means weak or less than.
We celebrate International Women’s Day because the spotlight needs to shine on abuses women endure. Does that mean we only challenge injustices for women? No. To forge a gender equal world, we cannot deny or question another’s rights based on gender. To forge a gender equal world we must #choosetochallenge all gender bias and abuse. And someday in a gender equal world, our diversity will be our astonishing beauty and our greatest strength.
The daughter of Margaret Pierson and Joseph Slocum, Olivia grew up in Syracuse, New York. Her wealthy and devoutly religious family were members of the First Presbyterian Church. They opposed reform movements like those involving women’s rights and abolition of slavery.
After the Panic of 1837, her father’s businesses and warehouses failed. He lost his fortune before she reached her teenage years. Sponsored by a wealthy uncle, she attended the prestigious Troy Female Seminary (now Emma Willard School). An academically rigorous school, it quietly advocated for women’s financial independence through education. This influenced Olivia greatly. She considered its headmistress her mentor. She graduated in 1847.
Olivia became a teacher (one of the few acceptable female professions at the time). She experienced firsthand the limited opportunities, underpaid, and overworked difficulties common for the 19th century woman.
At the age of 41, she married Russell Sage. Sage was a widower, financier, and railroad baron. He was 12 years older than she. One of the richest men in America, he was also a miser. They had no children.
Through gifts, she made a difference. She volunteered tirelessly even while a single working woman and always gave a portion of her small teacher’s salary to charity.
She volunteered at a military hospital during the Civil War.
During her marriage to Slocum, she supported a variety of causes from social work to the human treatment of animals. She tried to get her husband to donate to her charities. Only rarely did she get more than token donation from him.
She conducted serious investigations of potential beneficiaries. And she only gave to those who to helped themselves.
Olivia supported education. She gave many gifts to universities and colleges, founded a women’s college, and supported the women’s suffrage movement. And she donated Constitution Island to the federal government as an addition to West Point.
She became a patron of E. Lilian Todd, the first woman in the world to design airplanes.
A woman of her time, some of Olivia’s gifts revealed a morally elite attitude. Gifts for women’s education required that women abstain from dancing, drinking, smoking, and boys. She was a benefactor of the Carlisle School. It was a school determined to make Native Americans acceptable to mainstream white American Christians.
By the time she died, Olivia gave away over $45,000,000.
Olivia died November 4, 1918, at the age of 90. Her estate was worth close to $50,000,000. Almost all of it went to charities. Among her gifts, two showed she had changed. She bequeathed generous donations to the African American institutions—Tuskegee and Hampton Institutes.
She chose to be buried in Syracuse, next to her parents.
Olivia Sage was a born philanthropist and gave on a grand scale. She was a mix of conservative and female discontent, and she was a strong woman. She didn’t live long enough to see women vote. And many believe her donations did little because she gifted so many organizations and institutions. Did she cause a major change? Not on a national scale. But through gifts she made a difference.
Hattie Canty rose from an Alabama girl to a maid to an African-American labor activist. She was the maid who fought back, the maid who eventually ensured that Las Vegas workers in the hospitality business made a living wage.
Hattie Canty was born in 1934 in St. Stephens, Alabama. She graduated high school and married. They divorced. A single mother with two children, she moved to San Diego and took a job as a cook, then as a private maid.
She remarried in 1961, moved to Las Vegas, and had eight more children. Her husband worked for Silver State Disposal. She stayed home to care for her ten children. By 1972 she returned to work, this time at the Thunderbird Hotel.
Her husband died of lung cancer in 1975. And then she was a single mother again, this time with eight children still at home. She worked as a janitor, a maid, and then in 1979 got a job as a maid at Maxim Casino. In 1987, she earned a promotion to the better paying job of a uniformed attendant.
She joined the Culinary Workers Union 226, an affiliate of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. The union helped her get health benefits and a pension. And she learned to fight for her rights. After she discovered that six hotels didn’t have union representation she became more active. She walked picket lines on her days off. And she refused to take a scab to work, even if he was her son’s friend.
In 1984 they elected her to the executive board. That year, Local 226 staged a 75 day walkout on Las Vegas Casinos. They wanted better insurance for culinary workers… and they got it. Union organizers and members noticed Canty’s dedication and leadership skills.
She was re-elected president of the union in 1993 and 1996 by landslides. Canty sought living wages for employees so they could support themselves and their families. She worked to integrate the union and get minorities into higher level jobs. And she went to jail at least six times while striking.
“…coming from Alabama, this seemed like the civil rights struggle… the labor movement and the civil rights movement, you cannot separate the two of them.”
In 1983, she established the Culinary Training Academy in 1993. It continues to teach the skills needed to work in the hospitality industry.
Hattie Canty died in Las Vegas in 2012. Her legacy includes thousands of people of color who can make a living wage and send their children to college. She was proudest of the Culinary Training Academy, which still trains workers today.
She Fought Back
Hattie Canty was the maid who fought back against unfair labor practices. She fought for her rights, for minority rights, for hospitality workers’ rights. Despite her lack of education, despite racial prejudices, despite hardships—she made a difference. She was a strong woman. Had you heard of Hattie Canty before?
Lucy Parsons (1853-1942) is a woman of history in my ongoing examination of “Strong Women.” Parsons, the “Queen of Anarchy,” was a woman of contradictions. The Chicago police department considered her “more dangerous than 1000 rioters.” surveilled her, arrested her, and fined her over and over. Yet, she refused to be silenced.
Lucy Parsons, nee Lucia Carter, was born a slave in Virginia around 1853. Lucia had “fairer” skin and was “comely.” Most likely she was the daughter of her master.
As the Civil War came to a close, she, her mother, and younger brother were among the slaves Dr. Taliaferro brought with him when he moved. The trip to rural McLennan county Texas was long and probably traumatic to Lucy as a twelve-year-old slave girl.
In 1866, Taliaferro moved to Tennessee to marry. Freed people in the Texas countryside suffered “a general reign of terror.” Lucia’s mother moved her family to Waco. The small town was safer for freed people.
By 1870, Lucia, a seamstress, lived with a freedman named Oliver Benton, formerly known as Oliver Gathings. Biographers presume he was the father of her stillborn child.
In the early 1870s, she met Albert Richard Parsons (1845-1887) a white man, a Republican Party operative and journalist, and a former Confederate calvary man. They married soon after.
Albert and Lucia
Miscegenation laws (laws forbidding marriage or cohabitation between white people and members of other races) of the time meant their marriage probably wasn’t legal. But Waco had a brief period of Republican rule that made Albert and Lucia believe they could live safely together there.
During the trip north, Lucia changed her name to Lucy. They arrived in Chicago where Albert found a job as a printer at the Chicago Times.
The time was ripe for political upheaval. Millions of people were unemployed in the depression following the war. Labor laws of 1864 allowed American businesses to contract immigrant workers. Businesses expected employees to work long hours for substandard wages. But the introduction of socialist and anarchist ideology in the US radicalized the labor force.
One of the greatest mass strikes in US history took place during the summer of 1877. In July, Chicago’s rail workers battled with police. Albert spoke to crowds of up to twenty-five thousand people to promote peaceful ways of negotiating. This brought him to the front of the anarchist movement in Chicago.
The Chicago Times fired and blacklisted Albert from the printing trade in Chicago. Lucy supported the family as a seamstress, and, later, selling chickens she raised and sold coffee and tea.
She and her friend, Lizzie Swank, hosted meetings for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Lucy wrote for many radical publications.
In 1883, she and Albert helped found the International Working People’s Association (IWPA).
Lucy was under constant surveillance. Police arrested her under the slightest suspicions that she knew where her husband was. Because she was a woman, authorities never charged her. They doubted she’d be convicted and feared her presence would soften the court toward the men.
The day the trial began, Albert walked into court and turned himself in.
It was a lengthy trial. October 1887, they sentenced the men to death by hanging. One man committed suicide while in prison. On appeals, two received life sentences, and one got fifteen years imprisonment.
Lucy toured the country to save the men’s lives. She raised funds and shared information about the unjust trial. Armed police barred her entrance to meeting halls wherever she went.
The leadership of the labor movement, Terence Powderly, took a firm stance against the Haymarket activists. He opposed strikes and radicalism and believed the government should make an example of the men. Despite his opposition, Lucy continued to speak about the injustice, getting more and more people interested in the Haymarket incident, and making a name for herself.
It was during this time that she created a false biography for herself. She claimed to be of mixed blood (Spanish or Mexican and Native American) and that her parents died when she was three and shipped to an uncle in Texas. She ignored the facts of her slavery. It’s said she often got confused herself about her false story, adding to the misinformation.
Lucy’s efforts couldn’t sway the courts and the Governor of Illinois. They would execute the four men, including Albert.
They executed Albert and the three other men on November 11, 1887. Lucy and her children were released from jail shortly after the execution. She vowed that even though she feared she’d be executed too, she would continue the fight.
She Refused to be Silenced
Different factions in the labor movement responded to the upcoming 1890s elections. Many opted to reorganize. They wanted more reformative measures and to urge party members to support the Democratic Party.
Fierce in her belief that class hierarchy was the problem, she rejected the idea that reform measures where the rich continued to lord over the working class would provide relief. She refused to be silenced.
In October 1888, Lucy went to London. There she found a level of freedom that did not exist in the United States. From then on, she fought for the freedom of speech.
Returning home in Chicago, the city met her attempts with force and arrests. They fined her for selling copies of her pamphlet Anarchism on the street.
In the 1890s, the movement continued to change and Lucy opposed their take on free love. She criticized the movement’s attacks on marriage and family. Her speeches and attacks on this alienated her from the leaders of the anarchist movement.
Before Chicago would hold its planned Continental Congress of labor in June 1905, another convention was held. It drew together anarchists, syndicalists, and trade unionists. It was the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The class conscious perspective of the IWW mirrored Lucy’s political beliefs. The only woman to speak, she spoke passionately at the convention. She believed the IWW’s militant strikes and direct action ideology was the only way for the working class to change the class structure. She was the second woman to join this new organization.
In 1905 she took over as editor of the IWW’s paper, The Liberator. She wrote about famous women, the history of the working class, and about a woman’s right to divorce, remarry, and have access to birth control.
From 1907 to 1908, there were huge economic crashes, Lucy organized against hunger and unemployment. Working with the IWW her efforts and demonstrations pressured the state government to work on a decentralization of hunger and unemployment policy.
Over time Lucy became disillusioned with the IWW as they moved away from the idea of revolution.
In 1925, Lucy discovered the newly formed Communist Party shared her belief in revolution from a perspective of class consciousness. She began working with them and joined the party in 1939.
Working with the coalition for International Labor Defense, she joined in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys and Angelo Herndon. Shereturned to the south and worked on the Tom Mooney case and on other issues involving race.
Lucy continued to fight oppression for her entire life. She inspired crowds at the International Harvester in 1941, her last major appearance.
An accidental fire killed Lucy Parsons on March 7, 1942. She was 89. Her lover, George Markstall, died the next day from wounds he suffered trying to save her.
The FBI confiscated Lucy’s library of 1,500 books on sex, socialism, and anarchy along with all her personal papers. This is part of the reason so few know about her today.
A Chicago anti-fascist group called Black Rose uses a drawing of Parsons as its symbol. In Boston, there’s the Lucy Parsons Center, a radical bookstore and meeting place. A Chicago-based group called Lucy Parsons Labs is campaigning for digital rights and is harnessing data to examine issues such as police conduct. Finally, the city named a Chicago park after Parsons in 2004.
Authorities of her time tried to silence Lucy Parsons. She was a bundle of contradictions and could be brutal to people she identified as being against her. She ignored her family of birth, devoted herself to the cause her husband died for, and fought her entire life for freedom of speech and workers’ rights. A strong woman, she refused to be silenced.
December 7, 1941, the day they bombed Pearl Harbor, is a date many of you learned in school. You’ve also heard of the anti-Asian sentiment of the time and the horrible Japanese internment camps. But have you heard of the first Asian-American Woman in the Navy? Meet Lieutenant Susan Ahn Cuddy.
Lieutenant Ahn Cuddy joined the Navy in 1942, shortly after the bombing. She wanted to help free Korea from the harsh Japanese colonial era rule. It was a time when many people didn’t believe women belonged in the service. Ahn Cuddy said that just made women try harder.
In 1902, her parents immigrated to the United States, the first Korean married couple to do so. They didn’t forget their home country. Under an unequal treaty before they left, and occupied and declared a Japanese protectorate in 1905, then officially annexed in 1910.
Susan, their third child and eldest daughter, was born in 1915. While growing up, her home was a haven for Korean immigrants, including Soh Jaipil, the first Korean American citizen. Her father told his children: “Do your best to be good American citizens but never forget your Korean heritage.”
Throughout her childhood, her family didn’t just speak out against Japan’s repression of Korea but actively worked to free Korea both in the States and abroad. In 1937, Japanese police captured, tortured, and killed Cuddy’s father in Seoul. Her father’s death inspired her and her siblings to continue working to free Korea.
She graduated from San Diego State University in 1940 and joined the Navy in 1942.
Years of Service
Qualified to go to officers’ school, they wouldn’t accept her because she was Asian. She didn’t care. She enlisted again.
Ahn Cuddy worked her way up to become a Link Trainer in 1943. As a Link Trainer, she taught aviators how to maneuver in a simulator cockpit
She became the first woman Gunnery Officer in the Navy and taught fighter pilots when and how to shoot the enemy. One pilot objected, saying that he’d shoot when he saw the whites of the enemies’ eyes. She told him she didn’t care what he did up there, but down here, he’d shoot when she told him to shoot.
Eventually, Ahn Cuddy became a Lieutenant. After she left the service in 1947, she worked for US Naval Intelligence and the Library of Congress. She moved on to work for the National Security Agency (NSA) where she was in charge of a think tank of over 300 agents that worked the Russia section.
Ahn Cuddy also worked with the Department of Defense and other agencies on top secret projects.
She retired from service in 1959.
Ahn Cuddy wasn’t just the first Asian-American woman in the Navy. Her love life was also an adventure in trailblazing.
She defied Virginia’s racial segregation laws and married an Irish-American in April 1947. The only place that would marry them was a Navy chapel in Washington, DC.
Her husband, Chief Petty Officer Francis “Frank” Xavier Cuddy (1917-1998) was a code breaker for Navy Intelligence and also worked for the NSA. Fluent in Japanese, he helped the United States free Korea. He worked in film processing sales after the Navy. He helped finance the Ahn family′s Moongate restaurant business.
They had two children, Philip “Flip” and Christine
In 1959, they moved back to Los Angeles. Ahn Cuddy wanted to focus on raising their children and hoped to win her mother’s acceptance of her mixed-race marriage.
Ahn Cuddy helped her eldest brother Philip Ahn (the pioneering Asian American actor) and sister Soorah run their popular Chinese restaurant, Moongate, in Panorama City. After her brother died in 1978, she managed the restaurant and worked to document the family’s accomplishments.
She retired from the restaurant business in 1990 but stayed active.
She spoke at Navy functions, and Korean American community events, and even campaigned for presidential candidate Barack Obama. A breast cancer survivor, she raised money for the cause.
Legacy and Death
She received honors and many accolades by county and state government bodies and nonprofits. On October 5th, 2006, she received the American Courage Award from the Asian American Justice Center in Washington D.C.
She died at home at the age of 100 on June 24, 2015.
Willow Tree Shade by John Cha is the story of her life. Her daughter read the book after Ahn Cuddy died and said, “What an incredible life…”
A brief interview with her children appears on StoryCorps. They spoke about their mother in loving and respectful terms and recalled that her most heavy duty criticism was to call someone “limited.” And they both agreed how lucky they were to have a mom like that.
An Incredible Life
The First Asian-American Woman in the Navy, the first woman Gunnery Officer in the Navy, and an intelligence officer, Lieutenant Susan Ahn Cuddy was an amazing woman. If you enjoy reading about strong women, check out Would You Have Been First. If you like your fiction heroes to be strong women, read My Soul to Keep. Whatever you read next—Happy reading!