I love to write about fictional characters whose story challenges them to figure out what they are and who they can be. They can be heroes or villains. But I find inspiration for fictional characters from real-life heroes. On this blog I feature brief histories of women whose accomplishments history ignored for many years. Women who were heroes, big (nationwide or worldwide) or small (in their own community). Today, we’re revisiting a few of those histories and celebrating women of history.
Agnes was an art historian in Paris during WWII. The book about Agnes tells about her life in the days before the Germans occupied her city through her decision to resist, to being betrayed and arrested, and details her life in a concentration camp.
Dorothy (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.
One of the most influential American women writers from the 1820s through the 1860s, she was a prolific author, a literary pioneer, and a tireless crusader and champion for America’s excluded groups. With words, she made a difference.
Brant (1736-1796) was an influential Mohawk woman in the American Revolution. A Loyalist, a spy, diplomat, and a clan matron, Brant straddled two worlds. But she kept her native heritage in her speech and dress throughout her entire life.
She threw off her veil and changed the world. Huda Shaarawi (pronunciation) grew up in a harem and became Egypt’s leading women’s rights activist. Also, a philanthropist and founder of the first Egyptian feminist organization, Huda’s defiance still influences the world today.
Women hold up half the sky, yet women across the world still get little recognition for their accomplishments. Most especially those whose accomplishments are small. The housewife, the mother, the office cleaner all deserve recognition for their role in making this world a better place.
I hope you’ve enjoyed and found inspiration in this glimpse of the strong women featured on this blog. Let’s celebrate women of history and women of today all year.
Fifty years before women could vote, a woman ran for the top office in the land. The law didn’t allow her to vote, but there was no law against her running for President of the United States of America. An activist for women’s rights, Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838-1927) the first female Presidential candidate spent election day in jail.
Born on September 23, 1838 in Homer, Ohio, Victoria was the seventh of ten children. Her mother, Madame Roxanna “Roxy” Hummel Claflin, was a follower of the spiritualist movement. From early childhood, Victoria believed spirts guided and protected her. Her work as a spiritual clairvoyant and fortune-teller provided income for her impoverished family.
Reuben Buckman Claflin, her father and a con man, burned the family’s rotting gristmill and tried to collect on his insurance. ehistory.osu.edu/biographies/victoria-woodhull When the town recognized his arson and fraud, the family left town. Victoria completed only three years of school.
The Claflin family medicine show traveled the country, telling fortunes and selling patent medicines.
Biographers disagree on Victoria’s early history. One claims her father abused her physically (whippings). Another claims she was a victim of sexual abused by her father.
When she was fourteen, Victoria’s family took her to a self-proclaimed physician, Canning (or Channing) Woodhull outside Rochester, New York. One biographer stated she later eloped with 28-year-old Woodhull to escape her father’s brutality. Another claimed Woodhull kidnapped her. They married on November 20, 1853.
Woodhull was an alcoholic and hung around brothels. So Victoria worked outside the home to support the family. She and Woodhull had two children: Byron was disabled and Zulu (or Zula) Maude nearly bled to death when her father botched her delivery.
The Woodhulls moved to New York City in 1860, near the Claflin family. Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, worked as mediums. The Woodhulls and Tennie (Tennessee) moved to Cincinnati, then Chicago, in search of new clients and to stay ahead of legal complaints.
In the 19th century, women had few options to escape an abusive marriage. Society often ostracized divorced women. Victoria divorced Canning in 1864.
About 1866, she met Colonel James Harvey Blood, formerly with the Union Army in Missouri. He was reportedly a courteous and educated man who believed in the doctrine of free love. They presented themselves as married, though no record of that marriage exists today.
Two years later, she and Blood moved back to New York City to live with Tennie and other Claflin family members. Victoria opened a salon. She sparred intellectually with bright and articulate radicals that visited the salon daily. About this time, she also became interested in women’s rights and women’s suffrage.
I come before you to declare that my sex are entitled to the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Victoria Claflin Woodhull
First Woman Owned Brokerage Firm
Shortly after Cornelius Vanderbilt, the wealthy railroad magnate’s wife died in 1868, he reached out to two spiritualists. Victoria and her sister helped him contact his dead wife and gave him financial insights from the spirit world. https://ehistory.osu.edu/biographies/victoria-woodhull In return he helped them set up a brokerage firm, Woodhull, Claflin & Company in 1870.
People like Susan B. Anthony supported them as the first women on Wall Street, but men’s journals at the time sexualized the images of the pair running their firm.
Victoria made a fortune off the New York Stock Exchange.
First Female-Owned Weekly Newspaper
Victoria and her sister used money they made on the stock market and started a weekly paper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, on May 14, 1870. The sixteen page paper published brazen opinions on women’s issues. Issues like women’s suffrage, sex education, short skirts, free love, spiritualism, vegetarianism, and licensed prostitution. It sharpened Victoria’s political beliefs.
First Woman to Address A Congressional Committee
Victoria had been communicating with Massachusetts congressional representative Benjamin Butler about women’s votes and the recent defeat of the Sixteenth Amendment. https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-first-woman-to-run-for-president-victoria-woodhull.htm Butler was one of the amendment’s few supporters and offered Woodhull the chance to address the House Judiciary Committee. https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-first-woman-to-run-for-president-victoria-woodhull.htm She argued that the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments already gave women the vote, but that they needed a sixteenth amendment to guarantee women’s voting rights. Congress didn’t agree. But she impressed Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Why is a woman to be treated differently? Woman suffrage will succeed, despite this miserable guerilla opposition.
Victoria Claflin Woodhull
First Woman Candidate for President Spent Election Day in Jail
The newly formed Equal Rights Party nominated Victoria for President of the United States on May 10, 1872. They ratified her nomination at the convention on June 6, 1872. Fifty years before women got the vote, the law did not prevent women from running for president.
Victoria’s paper announced her candidacy.
The press vilified Victoria for her support of free love. On November 2, 1872, she published an entire edition of her paper detailing the adultery between Elizabeth Tilton, a parishioner, and Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent Protestant minister in Brooklyn.https://ehistory.osu.edu/biographies/victoria-woodhull
Outrage erupted. US Marshalls arrested Victoria, her husband and her sister. Charged with publishing an obscene newspaper, they spent the next month in Ludlow Street Jail. The first female presidential candidate spent election day in jail.
Defeated by Vote and History
Some historians argue that Victoria never qualified as a candidate. On election day, she was a few months younger than the constitutionally mandated age of 35.
Being a woman and unable to vote meant some contempoaries believed she wasn’t a full citizen. The constitution requires the President be a citizen. Therefore, she was not qualified to hold the office.
Victoria did not receive any electoral or popular votes. Official election returns show about 2,000 “scattering votes” without defining what the phrase meant. Her supporters believed officials didn’t count her popular votes due to gender discrimination.
Incumbent Ulysses S. Grant served another term as President.
They dropped the charges against Victoria and her family on a technicality. But divorce and a legal battle left her bankrupt once again. In 1877, she and her sister moved to England. Eventually she married a wealthy banker, John Biddulph Martin. https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-first-woman-to-run-for-president-victoria-woodhull.htm As Victoria Woodhull Martin, she published a magazine, continued to support women’s suffrage and attempted to distance herself from free love.
Her husband died in 1901 and Victoria retired to Bredon’s Norton, Worcestershire, England. She died on June 9, 1927.
The First, Not the Last
Victoria spent most of her life railing against the inequities women faced. It’s likely she knew she’d never win the Presidency, but she ran. And even after she ran, she fought for women’s right to vote in the United States and England.
Yes, the first female Presidential candidate spent election day in jail. Victoria had many radical ideas and beliefs and lived a colorful life. She changed her position on many things but never stopped arguing for women’s right to vote. And she lived to see women get the right to vote in both the United States and England.
Victoria Woodhull Martin was the first female Presidential candidate, but not the last.
Women of History are strong women who have marched before us. Patsy Takemoto Mink is one such woman. A political pioneer, Mink was the first woman of color elected to Congress. She was an ardent advocate for marginalized groups. She fought for equity, education, environmental causes, and social justice.
Patsy Takemoto was born on Dec. 6, 1927, in Paia, Hawaii. As a young girl, she first noticed the inequality between people who owned Maui’s plantations and the workers. the haole or white people owned the plantations. The workers were Filipino and Japanese. Inequality and injustice came up close and personal after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her father was detained questioned simply because of his Japanese heritage. She’s been quoted as saying the experience made her realize “that one could not take citizenship and the promise of the U.S. Constitution for granted.”
Education and her First First
A junior at Maui High School, Mink became the first female class president. She graduated Valedictorian of the class of 1944.
She started pre-med at the University of Hawaii. When WWII ended and travel bans to the U.S. Mainland were lifted, she transferred to Wilson College in Pennsylvania. But Wilson didn’t have all the courses she needed. So she transferred to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. And there she, a woman of color, faced discrimination first hand.
Then Mink developed a thyroid condition that required surgery. She went back to Hawaii.
In 1948 she graduated from the University of Hawaii with a bachelor’s degree in zoology and chemistry. And every medical school she applied to rejected her.
Still wanting to find a place of service to people, she was admitted to the University of Chicago Law School in 1948.
She met John Mink, a geology student at Chicago U, playing the card game bridge at the International House. They married on January 27, 1951, in the campus chapel. She graduated from law school that year but continued to work in the law library at the university.
Their daughter Gwendolyn Rachel Matsu Mink, was born on March 6, 1952. The family moved to Honolulu six months later.
A New Direction
While in Hawaii, Mink passed the bar exam. She was the first female Japanese-American to pass the bar, but no one would hire her. One source says it was because she was in a biracial marriage.
So Mink became a private-practice attorney. She was the first woman of Japanese ancestry to practice law in Hawaii. She worked in private practice from 1953 to 1964. Then one day, a friend invited her to a meeting about reforming Hawaii’s Democratic Party. That meeting changed her life.
She organized the Oahu Young Democrats in 1954. She served as the national vice-president for the organization. And then on November 7, 1956, she won a seat to the House of Representatives for the Territory of Hawaii. She became the first woman of color elected to Congress,
Then, in 1959, she was elected to the territorial Senate. March 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state and she no longer had a job.
In 1962, Mink was elected to the Hawaii state Senate. She held that seat until 1964. She was elected to the newly-formed second seat to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1964. She held that seat until 1977.
She ran as an anti-Viet Nam war presidential candidate in the Oregon primary in 1972. But she lost to Sen. George McGovern.
She co-authored a bill in 1972. Title IX mandated equal funding for women’s academic and athletic programs in institutions receiving federal money.
In 1973 Mink asked Congress to begin the impeachment process of President Nixon. She wanted the American public to finally know the truth.
She ran for the U.S. Senate in 1976. Defeated by war hero, Masayuki “Spark” Matsunaga, she packed up her D.C. Office in January 1977. President Carter asked her to be the Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Environmental Affairs. And she quit after less than a year when she discovered she had very little decision-making power.
Back to Law
Mink resumed her law practice and teaching position at the University of Hawaii. Then in 1983 she won a seat on the Honolulu City Council. She served two terms. She ran unsuccessful campaigns to be Governor of Hawaii in 1986 and Mayor of Honolulu in 1988.
In 1990, Matsunaga died in office. That prompted a special election. Mink won the seat in the House of Representatives in 1991.
In 1995 she helped found the Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus. Health, immigration, affirmative action, and English only legislation were among the agenda items she supported as chairperson of the caucus.
Patsy Mink persisted. She was a political pioneer, a woman of firsts. And she continually worked to better the lives of marginalized people.
After her death, Congress recognized Mink for her efforts. They renamed Title IX the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.
Strong women blaze trails for those who follow. Patsy Takemoto Mink was certainly a persistent trailblazer. She was a political pioneer and a woman of firsts. As the first woman of color in Congress, she paved the way for other women. Thank you, Patsy Mink, for your tenacity, your integrity, and your persistence.
From last week’s strong Mohawk woman of the revolutionary war era we’re coming forward hundreds of years. This week’s Women’s History Month spotlight is on an inspiring woman in space and on the ground, Ellen Ochoa. Ms. Ochoa, a Hispanic-American Woman, made history in our lifetime. Engineer, inventor, astronaut, and administrator, she is a champion of and for women.
“We do a disservice to society as a whole, if we are not providing the same kinds of encouragement to women to contribute as we do to men.”
– Ellen Ochoa
Ochoa’s paternal grandparents immigrated from Sonora, Mexico to Arizona. They later moved to California where Ochoa’s father, Joseph, was born. Ellen Ochoa was born May 10, 1958 in Los Angeles, California, U.S. Her parents were Joseph and Rosanne (née Deardorf) Ochoa.
She loved math and science in school, even if other kids looked down on her for that. She played the flute and wanted to be a musician.
Like many of us, she watched the moon landing. She was eleven. It never occurred to her to want to be an astronaut. There were no female astronauts then.
Ochoa’s parents divorced while she attended Grossmont High School in El Cajon. She graduated from San Diego State University, Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor of science degree in physics in 1980. She earned a master’s degree in science in 1981 at Stanford Department of Electrical Engineering. And in 1985, she achieved her doctorate at Stanford.
“I know myself how important it is to see somebody else doing that someone that maybe you have something in common with or can relate to in some way.”
Ochoa was 25 when she saw NASA’s first female astronaut in space, Sally Ride. Ms. Ride was an engineer. And she’d studied at Stanford. Ochoa decided she wanted to be an astronaut, too. They rejected her first application. So she got another job and kept working toward her goal.
Inherently, women and men are of equal worth, have equal amounts to contribute and we absolutely need to make sure that we are getting those contributions from women.
Ochoa joined NASA in 1988 as a research engineer at Ames Research Center At Ames, she led a research group. They worked on optical systems for automated space exploration. She patented an optical system to detect defects in a repeating pattern. And she is a co-inventor on three additional patents.
First Hispanic Woman In Space
Selected by NASA in January 1991, Ochoa became an astronaut in July of that year. She served on a nine-day mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1993 and became the first Hispanic woman in space.
A mission specialist on STS-56 (1993), she was also a payload commander on STS-66. Then she was a mission specialist and flight engineer on STS-96 and STS-110 in 2002.
A member of the Presidential Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History, Ochoa carried a special item on STS-96. Above, mission specialists (l.-r.) Ellen Ochoa, Julie Payette and Tamara Jernigan float together in the International Space Station with the gold, white and purple suffrage banner from the National Woman’s Party. This actual banner was used early in the century (around 1916-1920) as women fought for the right to vote.
Ochoa logged more than 950 hours in space. And if that’s not an inspiring woman…
I hope you enjoyed this brief look at an inspiring woman in space and on the ground, Dr. Ellen Ochoa. You might want to read about 30 other inspiring women or a spy who may not have been one. Or sign up for my newsletter for information on my next novel featuring strong women characters.
Next on our list of extraordinary women of history is Molly Brant. Brant was an influential Mohawk woman in the American Revolution. Spy, loyalist, and diplomat, and a clan matron, Brant straddled two worlds. But she kept her native heritage in her speech and dress throughout her entire life.
Brant’s native name was Konwatsi’tsiaienni(also spelled Gonwatsijayenni) which means “someone lends her a flower.“ The daughter of a sachem (chief), she was probably born in Canajoharie, a barricaded long house village on the south bank of the Mohawk river, in about 1736. Her mother was Margaret Sahetagearat Onagsakearat. The man assumed to be her father was Peter Tehonwaghkwangeraghkwa. Both of them were Mohawks of the Wolf clan.
The Mohawks were members of the Iroquois Confederacy (native name: Haudenosaunee Confederacy), a political union of six different Indian nations in the northeast. The Iroquois were a matrilineal society. They passed property and responsibility from mother to daughter. Iroquois women controlled land and wealth and had influence over policy issues. Learn more about the Mohawks.
Peter died in the 1740s, leaving Margaret destitute. She had a brief second marriage to a War Chief who was killed in a raid. She married for the third time in September 1753. Most sources say she married Brant Kanagaradunka, a wealthy Mohawk sachem from the Turtle Clan. Molly’ and her brother used their stepfather’s name as their surname.
We know little about Molly’s childhood through her teens. Brought up as an Anglican, she was likely educated in an English mission school. She spoke and wrote English well.
Love and Politics
As a teenager in 1754, Molly accompanied a delegation of Mohawk elders to Philadelphia. This was probably part of her training to become a clan matron. The elders discussed fraudulent land transactions.
About this time, Molly met Sir William Johnson, hero of Crown Point in the French and Indian War and superintendent of Indian affairs for the northern colonies. Mohawks respected Johnson for his honest dealing with them and his mastery of their language. Johnson was a successful colonial trader and one of the richest men in the colonies.
Molly became Johnson’s common-law wife. Some records claim there is no record of a marriage. Others claim they were married in a traditional Mohawk ceremony. Molly was about 23 years old. Johnson was 44. Each of them gained something through their marriage. Molly’s prestige among both settlers and her own people grew. Soon she was a clan mother, responsible for the welfare of her clan. Eventually she became the leader of the group of clan mothers.
Despite being a clan matron, spy, Loyalist, and diplomat and the wife of a prestigous war hero, there are no known photographs of Molly at any age. This may a reflection of the societal attitudes of that period. They saw her, a Native American, as inferior.
The couple had at least nine children. Eight of their children, two sons and six daughters, survived. Molly managed his household, which included a cook, a gardener, a secretary, and several slaves. She and Sir William entertained constantly. They entertained many distinguished Native American, colonial guests, political, military, and businessmen.
Sir William died at the outbreak of hostilities in July 1774. Molly relinquished control of Johnson’s estate to his eldest son and heir from his previous marriage. She, her children, and four slaves moved back to Canajoharie and her own people.
She lived near her mother and her brother Joseph and ran a store that sold supplies to the villagers. And she became a vital political link between the British and Iroquois Confederacy. Molly provided food and ammunition to the Loyalists and hid them in her house.
The Mohawks sided with King George III. Molly spied on rebel activities from her home in Canahoharie. In October 1777 she warned the British of the approach of an American force. The Patriots discovered she’d sent the Loyalists information about their troop movements. Twice they came in the night to search her home.
She and her children fled to Onondaga, the Iroquois capital. Her people had lost warriors and possessions. Many doubted the wisdom of fighting. Molly reminded them that the King deserved their loyalty because he had tried to protect their land.
In late 1777, Colonel Butler of Fort Niagara needed Molly’s help. Thousands of homeless Iroquois had been arriving at the fort. Molly and her children moved to Niagara where she lobbied for their welfare and encouraged the Iroquois continue to support the King.
In 1778, the British built a house for her on Carleton Island. After that, they expected her to use her influence over the Mohawk warriors. She used the colonial administration to increase her own political power and to promote the interests of her people, and they used her as an instrument of political control. Throughout the war, she steadied the warriors, boost their morale, and strengthen their loyalty to the King.
The winter of 1779-1780 was one of the most severe on record. But the war raged on. Native, loyalists, and patriot settlements were attacked and burned.
Thousands more starving and ill Iroquois fled to Fort Niagara.
After the war, the British reneged on their promise to address native grievances in the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The British still saw Molly as an indispensable native leader. The Iroquois, who had lost their ancestral homeland, received Canadian land grants and financial compensation. But to her people, Molly was a pariah.
Carleton Island, Molly’s home, was now located on the American side of the new border.
A New Town
In 1783, Molly decided that the site of the old French fort at Cataraqui, near Kingston, Ontario, would be a good place for herself and the other Loyalists to settle.
The government built a large house for her. She also received 100 pounds per year and a supplement of twelve hundred pounds for her property losses in the war. She’d lost more than property in the war. Her eldest child, Peter, died in the fighting.
She and the other loyalists refugees founded the town of Kingston. Spy, Loyalist, and diplomat Molly lived there for the rest of her life. Five of Molly’s daughters married Canadians. Her surviving son, George, worked for the Indian department. She died in 1796 at the age of 60. They buried her in the burial ground of St. George’s Church. A plaque in her memory stands nearby; another is on an interior wall of St. George’s Cathedral.
Molly Brant was an extraordinary woman—a Mohawk clan matron, spy, Loyalist, and diplomat. She persuaded most of the Iroquois nations to fight for the King. Poised, persuasive, she was a strong woman. As an American, I had never heard of Molly Brant before. Had you? If you like stories of strong women, you’ll want to read my past posts commemorating women of history, another spy, and an extraordinary doctor who helped the blind see. And read about strong fictional women in my novel, My Soul to Keep.