On May 1, 1950, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry was awarded to Gwendolyn Brooks for her work, Annie Allen, published the preceding year. Brooks was the first African-American to receive the Pulitzer Prize. She never pursued a four-year college degree, instead of attending a junior college and supported herself by working as a typist in Chicago. She published her first poetry in American Childhood Magazine at the age of 13. Her poems reflected the rhythms and characters of the city, and drew the attention of critics and fellow poets including Langston Hughes and Robert Frost. She taught American literature at the University of Chicago, and eventually taught at Chicago State University, City College of New York, and Columbia University, among other schools.
In 1953 she published her only narrative work, a novella which followed the life and experiences of an urban black woman. Titled Maud Martha, the book described the racism within the American black community, in which lighter skin toned black Americans looked down upon the darker-toned, often with even more bitterness than that from white Americans. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Brooks received accolades including the Robert Frost Medal (1989); the National Medal of Arts (1995); and the Poet Laureate of Illinois (1968), a title she retained until her death in 2000, among many others. Brooks was controversial throughout her life, leading her to once comment, “Truth tellers are not always palatable”.
Throughout her life, Maria Montessori encountered barriers based on gender and tore them down. A physician by training, she pioneered working with children who in a later day were identified as juvenile delinquents. Montessori developed training and teaching techniques for children challenged with disabilities that were later adapted for all. She focused on creating a classroom environment designed for children, rather than forcing them to enter a room designed to accommodate adults. Desks, chairs, tables, and study materials became child-sized, for their convenience and comfort, rather than making children adapt at an early age to an adult world. Meals and other activities were similarly tailored to the age of the participants, rather than the opposite.
By 1910, Montessori’s methods, which were introduced in Italy, drew attention of educators across the world. McLure’s Magazine, a popular periodical in the United States, made her views known nationally in America, and the first Montessori school opened in America in Tarrytown, New York, in 1911. Alexander Graham Bell became a proponent of her methods. The Montessori method became a basis of child education in the United States, stressing the use of creative and practical play as the basis for the development of initiative and innate abilities. Exploration, repetition, and communication served to educate as much as lecture and rote memorization. The Montessori method is pursued in thousands of classrooms and schools across the globe, in which children learn by experience and teaching themselves, guided rather than instructed.
The iconic image of Rosie the Riveter didn’t represent a single woman. She represented all American women on the home front during the Second World War. During World War II American industry needed workers at all levels, performing tasks which had for all preceding history been the purview of men. Men were in short supply with so many in uniform. American women rose to the challenge, creating the so-called arsenal of democracy which supplied American, as well as British, Canadian, Russian, Australian, French, Polish, and other Allied forces with the means of making war. It was an effort which still does not receive the level of acknowledgment it deserves. At no other time in American history did manufacturing production exceed the levels accomplished largely by American women during World War II.
Make no mistake, men were on the assembly lines alongside them, as well as in the shipyards, working the rails, running the oil rigs, and cutting the timber. Rosie the Riveter inspired women – and men – to do their part, helping to equip the soldiers, sailors, and airmen, with what they needed, as well as encouraging the home front to endure the privations of rationing. Rosie included the women in the factories, the housewives tending Victory Gardens, the shoppers carefully watching their ration cards, the secretaries and typists keeping the bureaucracies and businesses running smoothly throughout the war. Nearly eight decades after she first appeared, Rosie the Riveter continues to inspire men and women to do all they can to get the job done.
Shirley Temple achieved the status of America’s darling at the age of five when she appeared in Bright Eyes, a film written to showcase her talents. Between the ages of 3 and 10, she appeared in 29 films, her image marketed in dolls, clothes, posters, children’s literature, and cartoons. By early adolescence, her box office draw faded. In 1950, at the age of 22, she retired from motion pictures. Later in the decade, she returned to the public eye via the medium of television, though plans for her own sitcom never came to fruition. She did star in an hour-long anthology series in the late 1950s, but the show suffered from poor ratings throughout its run and ended in 1960.
She had a successful business career, sitting on several corporate boards, and her influence led her into a diplomatic career in the 1960s. President Nixon appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations (after she was recommended by Henry Kissinger), and she later served as Ambassador to Ghana and still later Czechoslovakia. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, then a subject considered taboo in public discussion, she underwent a radical mastectomy. Following the surgery she became one of the first people to openly discuss breast cancer awareness in the United States, publicly disclosing her treatment and encouraging women to examine themselves. She continued to speak about breast cancer for the rest of her life, reducing the stigma long associated with the disease, saving women’s lives. A lifelong smoker, she died of COPD in 2014 at the age of 85.
Contrary to popular belief, Helen Keller was not born deaf and blind. A childhood illness of unknown origin took her sight and hearing at the age of 19 months. As a child, she learned to communicate with her immediate household using signs and distinguished when someone entered a room from the vibration of their footsteps. Through the intercession of Alexander Graham Bell, Keller met Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired, who taught Helen of the existence and meaning of words. Keller attended the Perkins Institute for the Blind beginning in 1888, schools in New York for the blind and deaf, and eventually entered Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
She graduated in 1904, at the age of 24, the first deaf and blind person in the United States to obtain a bachelors degree. Helen became a world-famous lecturer, author, and advocate for the disabled. She took controversial political positions, supporting women’s suffrage, pacifist movements before and during both World Wars, socialism in the United States, and birth control. She was also an active supporter of the study and practice of eugenics. Most of her political views were excised in biographies and articles about her published after she died, concentrating instead on her courage in overcoming her disabilities. Unable to see or hear, she published 12 books in her lifetime, and her life continues to inspire people to overcome physical and mental disabilities in the 21st century.
Bessie Coleman was born to a family of Texas sharecroppers in 1892. Working in the cotton fields and attending segregated schools marked her childhood. She was of mixed race, her father descended from a family of Cherokee, her mother African-American. Her father abandoned the family while she was in her early teens. At 24, she moved to Chicago, having completed one semester of college in Langston, Oklahoma. While working as a manicurist she heard stories of flying from pilots bragging of their exploits during World War I. Bitten by the flying bug, she decided to take lessons and become a pilot, but no school in the United States would admit blacks at the time, let alone women.
She worked two jobs in Chicago, saved as much money as she could, learned to speak French in night school, and in 1920 moved to France. There she took flying lessons and in 1921 became the first African-American as well as the first person of Native American descent to be awarded a pilot’s license. Returning to America, she found her ethnicity barred her from employment as a pilot carrying the United States Mail, and she undertook a career as a stunt flyer, barnstorming air shows across the country. She became nationally known for her daring aerial exhibitions, and for her refusal to participate in air shows which barred black Americans from attending. She was killed in an aviation accident in 1926. More than 10,000 attended her funeral in Chicago.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s influence on the United States didn’t end with the death of her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In fact, had it not been for Eleanor, FDR likely would not have been President; it was she who persuaded him to resume his political career after polio stripped him of the use of his legs and confined him to a wheelchair in 1921. She actively campaigned for her husband, delivering speeches in his stead, and representing him at public and party events. During his terms in the White House, she was an outspoken advocate for improved civil rights for black Americans, argued against segregation in the military and the American south, and used her weekly newspaper column to air her views, frequently to the chagrin of the President and his administration.
After FDR’s death, Eleanor remained active in political life, arguing for the United State to join the United Nations against conservative resistance, and becoming the nation’s first delegate to the General Assembly. She chaired the UN’s first Commission on Human Rights. She held positions under the Truman and Kennedy administrations, both focused on human rights and women’s rights. Often accused of holding antisemitic views, she was a vocal supporter of the state of Israel, and argued for its recognition by the United States. When she died in November, 1962, the New York Times noted in its obituary she was, “the object of almost universal respect”. In 1999 a Gallup poll of the most admired people of the 20th century listed her ninth overall, three ranks below her husband.
When Linda Eastman married Paul McCartney in Marylebone in 1969, she claimed the last unmarried Beatle. Their marriage lasted until her death in 1998. Highly criticized for her lack of discernible musical ability during her performances with Wings, she persevered and remained with her husband’s performing bands until 1993. An accomplished photographer, she took pictures of most of the major performers of the late 1960s and through the 1970s, as well as actors and other celebrities. She adopted vegetarianism in 1971, taking her husband with her, and produced several vegetarian cookbooks as well her own line of frozen vegetarian meals. It made her wealthy outside of her husband’s fortune.
From vegetarianism came an interest in animal rights, and Linda became a strong supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), as well as a television spokesperson. Her support of animal rights extended to preventing cruel treatment or injury during the filming, and she argued against sports that caused harm, including fishing. Following her untimely death from breast cancer at the age of 56, PETA established the Linda McCartney Memorial Award in her name. Paul presented the first such award to Pamela Anderson, herself an advocate against the wearing of fur, in 1999. Linda’s family remained involved in all of her projects and organizations, including her line of vegetarian foods, after her death in 1998.
Though some denigrate her for being born with a silver spoon, as the saying goes, Princess Diana inspired many during her short life, and admiration for her continued well after her untimely death. Diana used her celebrity to advocate for animal rights and raised public awareness of the dangers posed by landmines. As a patroness of the British Red Cross Diana made weekly visits to Royal Brompton Hospital, comforting the terminally ill. She helped found a charity for children who lost their parents, Children Bereavement UK, and served as its Royal Patron. Her son Prince William assumed the role following the death of his mother.
Following her divorce from the Prince of Wales, Diana resigned her patronages of over 100 charities, an indication of the depth of her involvement in charitable work during her marriage. In June, 1997, Diana donated a large portion of her wardrobe for sale through auctions at Christie’s in London and New York. The proceeds from the sale went to the Center for Disability and the Arts in Leicester, a charity founded by Diana and her friend, actor and filmmaker Richard Attenborough. Diana was heavily involved in charities and foundations battling the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the 1990s, working to educate the public and reduce the social stigma associated with the disease. She visited leprosy hospitals, worked to educate the public about breast cancer, and earned the respect and admiration of medical professionals and politicians around the world, as well as the love of the common people.
Mary Pickford, born Gladys Marie Smith in 1892, rose from filming nickelodeon shorts for $10 per day to becoming a founder of United Artists, along the way, becoming “America’s Sweetheart“, as she was known and promoted. During the Roaring Twenties, she was one of the most highly paid actors in film, and her fame was worldwide. When she cut her famous long curls into a bobbed hairdo for a film role, the act was reported on the front page of the New York Times to a stunned and generally disapproving public. Pickford retired from acting in 1933, but remained a powerful film executive and producer in Hollywood, and influential during times of great changes for American women.
During the First World War, Pickford used her celebrity to launch drives to sell Liberty Bonds, addressing large audiences in personal appearances. Following the war, she created the Motion Picture Relief Fund (MPRF), to address the financial needs of struggling and retired actors. In 1932 she created a payroll deduction program, in which studio personnel donated one-half of one percent to support the MPRF. The fund led to the creation of the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital. Among the famous actors who spent their last days of retirement, there were Bud Abbott, Larry Fine, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jay Silverheels, and Johnny Weissmuller. Pickford’s legacy of giving continues today.
The famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart vanished while attempting to fly around the world in 1937. The mysterious disappearance ensured her lasting fame. During her lifetime she was much more than a trailblazing female pilot. Earhart rivaled the emerging celebrities from Hollywood as an endorser of products, creating her own lines of clothing and accessories marketed through Macy’s. She lectured and appeared on radio broadcasts, promoting aviation and women’s roles in it and in society. Her celebrity and achievements in aviation made her an inspiration to a generation of girls and young women, who emulated her appearance, her ambition, and her feminist views.
Earhart’s promotion of aviation led to feminine roles in aviation which otherwise would not have been widely available. Her acceptance by political leaders and figures on both sides of the Atlantic, all of them anxious to exploit her fame, gave a boost to supporters of greater freedom of opportunity for women. Since her death, entire industries sprang into existence focused on solving the mystery of her disappearance. Just a few short years after her disappearance, thousands of women trained as pilots and served during World War II, ferrying aircraft, serving as transport pilots, and performing other roles which freed male pilots for duty in the theaters of war.
An American marine biologist and conservationist turned author, Rachel Carson advanced the environmental movement around the world, beginning with the publication of her work, Silent Spring in 1962. The title referred to the silencing of birds due to their being killed by widespread spraying of toxic chemicals. Her book was roundly condemned by commercial farming interests and manufacturers of chemical pesticides and herbicides. Carson’s work pointed out the dangers to the environment and the human race from chemical contamination of waterways and food, led to the banning of the pesticide DDT, and drove a grassroots movement to improve the environment.
“If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth,” wrote a representative of the chemical industry, Robert White-Stevens. Others were equally condemning of her work. She was accused of being a member of the “cult of the balance of nature” and a communist by defenders of the chemical industry. She prevailed, her work largely validated by the scientific and academic communities. Carson died in 1964, from complications from breast cancer. Six years later President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in response to the public demand raised in large part by her lifetime of dedication to removing toxic chemicals from America’s land, waterways, and air.
Journalist and inventor Elizabeth Cochran Seaman used Nellie Bly as a pseudonym for her reporting work. At a time when most women working in journalism were reduced to writing about domestic life, such as housework, gardening, and child-raising, Bly became a hard-hitting investigative reporter, exposing corruption in the Mexican government of Porfirio Diaz. Threatened with arrest and imprisonment by the Mexican government she fled the country. When she learned of terrible conditions found in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum at Blackwell Island (Roosevelt Island, New York) she admitted herself, undercover, to learn the truth.
Her report of the conditions she discovered, published in the New York World and later in book form, led to public outrage, state-mandated reforms, and Bly’s immediate fame. She parlayed the fame into a journey around the world, emulating the fictional journey of Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days. She completed the journey in just a few hours over 72 days, a record for circumnavigation in 1888. During her lifetime Bly was a journalist, industrialist, adventurer, and philanthropist, inspiring women to enter each of those fields. She was the first internationally recognized female investigative reporter, a field in which women around the world continue to follow in her footsteps.
Known to the world as Coco Chanel, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel freed women from the corsets and formal appearance which preceded her designs. Chanel changed women’s clothing fashions, jewelry design, accessories, and her signature product, perfume. Her business expanded in post-World War I Europe, and her influence on women in the upper strata of society brought her into contact with leading politicians and influencers of public opinion throughout Europe and the United Kingdom. Among them were Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales. Samuel Goldwyn hired her to design costumes for Hollywood films, and several leading stars of film hired her privately to design their clothes, including Greta Garbo.
She became controversial during and after World War II, allegedly collaborating with the German occupiers of France. She closed her shops and businesses during the war, residing in Paris at the Hotel Ritz. Following the liberation of Paris, she was investigated by French intelligence and only the personal intervention of Churchill prevented her arrest. Her collaboration led to legal disputes over her ownership of Chanel perfume. An agreement gave her 2% of ownership for the remainder of her life, giving her $25 million per year, as well as an agreement for the French government to pay all of her expenses. She remains a cultural icon in France, and Chanel No. 5 remains one of the world’s most popular fragrances among women.
Marie Van Brittan Brown lived in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York in 1966. Her neighborhood suffered from a high rate of crime, and she noted the relatively slow response time to calls for police assistance. Brown worked as a nurse, her husband as an electrician, and their work schedules seldom coincided with each other. Both were concerned about their safety, especially at night. They worked together to create a home security system, which employed a camera which displayed images of someone outside their front door on a television set in their home. The camera could be maneuvered from inside the door, and was supplemented by peepholes.
They patented their system in 1966. It was the first closed-circuit television (CCTV) system, and variations of the design became ubiquitous around the world. Security cameras which record images came into existence in businesses, homes, and public areas around the world. As of 2016, according to a report by New Scientist Magazine, over 100 million CCTV systems operated around the world, helping prevent crime. They also became invaluable in helping investigators solve all forms of crime, identifying miscreants through the support of the public.
Sarah Breedlove was born in Louisiana in 1867, to a family so poor that she was forced to work as a domestic servant as a child, following the death of both her parents. She married twice, her first husband died, her second was abusive and she abandoned him. In 1906 she met and married Charles Joseph Walker, a salesman. She began calling herself Madam C. J. Walker. Though they divorced in 1912 she continued to use the name. In the early twentieth century, she developed hair care products for her personal use, as well as for friends and family, using expertise provided by her brothers who worked as barbers in St. Louis.
In 1910, while still married, she started the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, creating hair products and other toiletries for African-Americans. By 1919 she employed several thousand black women to market her products across the United States, especially in the south. They marketed her products door-to-door and in beauty parlors and barber shops. As her famed and influence grew, Sarah became active in philanthropy, civil rights, and women’s rights. Before she died in 1919 Sarah went from a dirt-poor orphan to America’s first self-made female millionaire. Her company continued to operate until 1981.
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