The Maid Who Fought Back

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. 

Image states Hettie Canty, The Maid Who Fought Back with an illustration of her strike sign: No contract, no peace

Early Life

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.

Las Vegas

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.

The Union

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.

Union President 

They elected Canty union president in 1990. Canty helped dissolve racial animosities in the ethnically diverse union and convinced members that solidarity in the labor organization could bring about tangible gains. She headed the union when 550 culinary workers walked off the job at the staunchly anti-union Frontier casino in 1991. The protest against unfair labor practices by the casino’s owners became the longest labor strike in American history. It ended six and a half years later when the Frontier’s new owners settled with the union.

Re-Elected

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.”

Hattie Canty

In 1983, she established the Culinary Training Academy in 1993. It continues to teach the skills needed to work in the hospitality industry.

Legacy

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? 

She Refused to be Silenced

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.

By August Braunach or Brauneck, New York – from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division, Public Domain,

Early Life

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.

By 1873, Democrats regained control of Waco. Albert’s work of diligently registering Black voters got him “shot in the leg and threatened with lynching.” His and Lucia’s interracial marriage also put them in grave danger. They fled north.

Chicago

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. 

Strike

Public Domain

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).

She wrote her most famous paper around 1884 in which she urged the homeless to blow up the mansions of the rich, declaring: “Learn the use of explosives!”

Haymarket Square

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.

Lucy’s Campaign

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.

The Execution

Lucy’s efforts couldn’t sway the courts and the Governor of Illinois. They would execute the four men, including Albert.

She brought her two children to see their father one last time. They arrested her and her two children. She was strip searched and left naked in a cell with her children.

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.

More Changes

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.

Lucy’s Work

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.

Lucy’s Death

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.

The Legacy of Lucy Parsons

Much of what we know today would have been a mish-mash of lies and mythology if not for the biography Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical written by University of Texas historian, Jacqueline Jones.

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. 

The First Asian-American Woman in the Navy

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.

Portrait of The first Asian-American Woman in the Navy, Lt. Susan Ahn Cuddy Courtesy of the Navy

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.

Early Life

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

Image of Susan, the first Asian-American woman in the Navy, and her two brothers in their service uniforms.
The Ahn Siblings
By U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph Public Domain

Qualified to go to officers’ school, they wouldn’t accept her because she was Asian. She didn’t care. She enlisted again.

They accepted her into the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) program.

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.

Marriage

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.

Civilian Life

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!

The First to Discover the Sex Chromosomes

When women rarely went to high school, Nettie Maria Stevens (1861-1912) wanted to be a research scientist. We don’t know a lot about her personal life, but she became a biologist. And though she received little credit for it during her lifetime, she was the first to discover the sex chromosomes.

Photograph of Nettie Stevens the first to discover the sex chromosomes

The Incubator (courtesy of Carnegie Institution of Washington) / Public domain

Before the 1900s, the link between Mendel’s genetic rules and gender were unclear. Scientists didn’t know what factors determined the sex of an offspring. Some believed external factors such as temperature and nutrition influenced gender. Very few thought chromosomal factors were responsible for the gender of offspring.

Early Life

Born on July 7th, 1861 in Cavendish, Vermont to Julia and Ephraim Stevens. Records of her early life are sketchy. We know her mother died relatively early in Stevens’s life but don’t know what caused her death. 

Her father, a carpenter, remarried and the family moved to Westford, Massachusetts. He earned enough to send both of his daughters to high school, though it was uncommon to educate women. Stevens graduated from Westford Academy in 1880. She and her sister, Emma, were two of three women to graduate from her high school.

Teacher, Librarian, and Student

Stevens wanted to become a scientist but needed to earn money for her higher education. She became a teacher and a librarian.

She taught courses in physiology and zoology, mathematics, Latin, and English.

After teaching for three terms, she continued her education at Westfield Normal School (now Westfield State University) completing the four-year course in only two years and being graduated with the highest scores in her class.

She enrolled in the one-year-old Stanford University in 1896. By 1899 she’d earned her B.A. and graduated with an M.A. in biology in 1900.

For a year, she did graduate work under Oliver Peebles Jenkins and his former student and assistant professor, Frank Mace MacFarland. During this time, her work in physiology focused more and more on histology.

She earned her PhD from Bryn Mawr College in 1903.

And in 1904 she received a fellowship from the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Discovering the Sex Chromosomes

She wrote and published a research paper in 1905. “Studies in Spermatogenesis with Especial Reference to the ‘Accessory Chromosome’” was one of the 20th century’s major scientific breakthroughs. 

Stevens studied insects and discovered the sperm cells would differ by one chromosome. Some sperm cells carried a large chromosome while others carried a smaller one. She noticed that unfertilized eggs did not have this difference and concluded that the smaller chromosome was responsible for sex determination.

Today we know these two chromosomes as X and Y.

Uncredited

Most scientists of the time did not embrace Stevens’s findings.

Edmund Wilson, another researcher, independently made a similar discovery. Because of his higher reputation (and in my opinion, his gender), he received credit for her discovery when his own discoveries and papers were not as strong or as accurate.

She remained uncredited for her discovery until scientific research and society grew to acknowledge and search for accomplishments by women.

Death

At 50 years old, Stevens had published more than 38 papers in cytology and experimental physiology. Finally, she was offered her dream job, a research professor at Bryn Mawr College, but was too ill to accept the position. 

She died of breast cancer on May 4, 1912. They buried Stevens in the Westford, Massachusetts cemetery beside her father and her sister.

They buried Stevens in the Westford, Massachusetts cemetery beside her father and her sister.

Legacy

The National Women’s Hall of Fame inducted Stevens into the Hall in 1994.

Google displayed a doodle showing Stevens peering through a microscope at XY chromosomes on July 7, 2016, her 155th birthday.

Westfield State University opened the Dr. Nettie Maria Stevens Science and Innovation Center on May 5, 2017.

The state-of-the-art building houses the university’s “STEM-related degree programs.” (Nursing and Allied Health, Chemical and Physical Sciences, Biology, Environmental Science and the master’s degree program in Physician Assistant Studies.)

It takes a special kind of strength to lead a life outside of society’s norms. This post is part of an ongoing series that celebrates women who are role models, leaders, and strong women.

Nettie Stevens was the first to discover the sex chromosomes and realize that one of them determined gender. Her discovery opened the doors of science and led to things like the identification of hereditary diseases, understanding human and animal development, and even the onset of forensic science. Tip of the hat to Dr. Nettie Stevens.

Revolutionary War Hero Margaret Corbin

It’s July and fitting that this month’s history posts be about Margaret Cochran Corbin, born November 12, 1751 in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. A U.S. Revolutionary War Hero Margaret Corbin was the first woman paid a soldier’s pension by the Continental Congress.

Public Domain image of engraving of Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth, a revolutionary war hero margaret corbin

Early Life

Born to Robert Cochran, an Irish immigrant, and his wife Sarah, Margaret was orphaned at the age of five. While she and her brother were away from home, Native Americans raided her home. Her father died, and they kidnapped her mother. Her mother’s brother adopted her and her brother.

Married

Twenty-one-year-old Margaret married John Corbin from Virginia in 1772. Presumably they moved to Pennsylvania.

The Revolutionary War

Her husband joined the Pennsylvania Artillery in 1775 or 1776.  A matross, an artilleryman, John served on a cannon crew.

Margaret, like many other wives at the time, became a camp follower. Camp followers cooked, cleaned and repaired clothes for the soldiers to earn money. They also cared for the sick and wounded. And camp followers brought the soldiers water to drink and to cool the cannons. The soldiers called these women, Molly Pitcher.

John manned one of two cannons at Fort Washington on November 16, 1776, when George Washington retreated with the Continental Army to White Plains, New York. John and about 600 other soldiers remained to defend the fort against the Hessians (German soldiers hired by the British to help the war effort). During the battle, John was killed.

Margaret Turns Soldier

After the enemy killed her husband, Margaret took over his role at the cannon. If she had not, the cannon crew could not have continued to fight.

Other soldiers commented on “Captain Molly’s” steady aim and sure-shot.

During the battle, Margaret took enemy fire. It severely injured her left jaw and breast and nearly severed her left arm at her shoulder.

The commander of Fort Washington surrendered to the British. Margaret and the surviving soldiers became prisoners of war. Because of her injuries, they released her on parole a few days later.

After the Battle of Fort Washington

After her parole, Margaret went to the Corps of Invalids at West Point, NY. She never fully recovered from her injuries. Her left arm remained useless for the rest of her life. 

On June 29, 1779, the State of Pennsylvania granted her $30 to help her and passed her case on to the Continental Congress’s Board of War.

The Board of War approved a continuing allowance for her. It equaled half the amount her male counterparts received. They also gave her clothing to replace the ones damaged when she’d been injured.

The Board’s decision made her the first woman to receive a pension from the United States. It also put her on military rolls until the end of the war.

She joined the Invalid Regiment at West Point in 1777. She helped care for the wounded.

In 1782, Corbin married a wounded soldier, but he died a year later.

She was formally discharged from service in 1783. The story of the rest of her life is unknown.

Death

She died in Highland Falls, New York, on January 16, 1800, at 48.

Honoring Margaret Corbin

Memorial erected by DAR honoring US Revolutionary War Hero Margaret Corbin

In 1925 the New York State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and other local historians, began extensive research to locate and identify Margaret Corbin’s burial site.

A year later, they found her burial site. On March 16, 1926, they exhumed Margaret Corbin’s body. They re-interred her body at West Point Cemetery with full military honors. DAR donated a monument to honor her.

Every May since 1926, DAR honors Margaret Corbin with Margaret Corbin Day, which includes ceremonial wreath-laying at her Monument at West Point Cemetery.

A Surprising Discovery

In October 2016, West Point Cemetery extension project Included placement of a retaining wall near Margaret’s grave. The digging disturbed Margaret’s grave. They recovered Margaret’s body to determine if the digging had damaged it.

Forensic analysis of the body determined it belonged to a male, not Margaret.

Legacy of a Revolutionary War Hero

Though little more has been found out about Margaret Corbin’s life and death and her grave remains undiscovered, the DAR and the Army continue to honor Margaret’s sacrifice.

In 1976, women joined the Corps of Cadets, establishing the first class of women at the United States Military Academy in West Point. That same year,  the Margaret Corbin Forum was created. The Forum’s purpose is to educate the Corps on women’s roles in the military and to resolve issues integrating women into the Academy.

Each year since, the DAR presents the Margaret Cochran Corbin Award to a distinguished woman in military service.

In May 2018, DAR held a rededication ceremony honoring Margaret Corbin for her service and legacy. The DAR continues to search for her grave and documentation of the life of our Revolutionary War Hero, Margaret Corbin.