Though Clara Schumann was born in 1819, her biography reads more like a modern-day drama. Raised by a divorced father (the infamously temperamental piano teacher Frederick Wieck), Schumann quickly developed virtuoso skills on the piano and became a child star, touring Europe before the age of 18. While her touring paid the bills (much more than her husband Robert Schumann's job composing), Schumann's piano playing transformed into a love and knack for composition that earned her the adoration of Chopin, Brahms, and Mendelssohn. Yet the environment for women composers in the 1800s was toxic—so much so that it inspired Schumann to lament at the age of 20 that, "A woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?"
I like to yank hermits into the spotlight. I'm a sucker for women whose work is sometimes considered "secondary," who kept a low profile and got a lot done. Their lives are usually stranger and their work is often quite unique. So today I'd like us all to focus our attention for a moment on someone who made odd and wonderful fiction, who was constantly seeking out freedom, and who was, to her great dismay, isolated for a large chunk of her short life.
Katherine Mansfield was spirited and strong-willed; diagnosed with tuberculosis at 29, she died five years later after running up a flight of stairs to prove how well she was. She was one of the best writers of the 20th century, though she never wrote a novel, preferring to write in what she called "glimpses." Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal that Mansfield was the only writer she'd ever been jealous of.
Many feminists have praised praised Georgia O'Keeffe for her use of "female iconography" in her art (a.k.a. her vagtastic flower paintings). But O'Keeffe always denied this association as a conscious choice and instead claimed her art revealed the sensuality of nature... which to me sounds like pretty much the same thing. At any rate, O'Keeffe has been celebrated as one of the most influential American modernist artists and definitely deserves a place in Feministory, regardless of her feelings about her flowers' anatomical lookalikes.
Excuse me while I gather my bearings. Where do I even begin? Who is more badass than Audre Lorde? No, really. This is a question I want you to answer. Can't think of anyone? Good. Did you think of someone? Don't tell me yet. You'll ruin this moment. Born in New York City on February 18th, 1934, Lorde began reading and writing by age 4, wrote her first poem in the eighth grade, and was quickly growing into the wonderful poet, writer, theorist, and activist so prominent in fields of contemporary feminist, queer, and race theory she would become.
In honor of the French Open this week, it felt appropriate to highlight the achievements of the female singles winner from 56 years ago: Althea Gibson. Long before Venus and Serena started making waves in the tennis world, Gibson was not only the very first African American tennis player to win ANY of the major Grand Slam tennis tournaments independent of each other, she won three of the four (the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open) during her amazing tennis career.
In 1974, upon discovering that many homeless women in Boston were dressing up as men to get into homeless shelters, Kip Tiernan founded Rosie's Place, one of the very first shelters for women in the United States.
Recently, some friends and I saw the film Art & Copy, a documentary about the creative minds that make up the best of the advertising business. Now, there is a lot to be said about the problems inherent in advertising, but even the most skeptical viewer in our group (me), had to admit that she was impressed by the poise, tenacity, and apparent coolness of some of the film's subjects, especially Mary Wells.
Anne Sexton was born in Newton, Masachusetts in 1928. Sexton was the youngest of three daughters and quickly earned the title of the wild child. At seventeen, her parents sent her to Rogers Hall Boarding School in Lowell, Massachusetts to try and cure the rebellious side in her. After graduating from school, Sexton attended what she would later call a "finishing school" before she met and eloped with Alfred Sexton II in 1948. For a short time after their marriage, she modeled for a small agency. But after her husband was sent to Korea for a time, Sexton gave up modeling to be like a typical '50s housewife—but she was anything but.
After what Rousso describes as a childhood full of ups and downs and other children asking why she was "crippled," Rousso grew up to pursue higher education despite what some saw as barriers—her disability and her gender. She earned a degree from Brandeis University in economics in 1968, which landed her a job in Washington D.C. in the Office of Economic Opportunity and also exposed her to the women's rights movement. It was while living in D.C. that Rousso became involved in feminist activism. Rousso said in an interview that when she started working in feminist issues, she realized that "this self-loathing about my body and about my womanhood is not just a disability issue, it is a women's issue." Her first taste of activism fueled her to go on to get two masters degrees, one in education from Boston University and the second in social work from New York University. She had hoped to study psychotherapy but was rejected from a program because of her disability. Instead of being discouraged, this action further inspired her life work at the intersection of disability and women's rights.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew, a former slave and a wealthy white woman in Richmond, Virginia, might seem unlikely members of a successful espionage ring. Thanks to Hollywood, the typical images surrounding spies include scantily clad women, technological gadgets, and Pierce Brosnan—but this equation would hardly have gone unnoticed during the Civil War. Bowser and Van Lew used society's assumptions about them to their advantage, passing key information along to the Union Army and contributing to the demise of the Confederate States.