Today I thought I’d talk about famous women in the 19th century. Many of the names on the list you’ll know; I hope to add some information you may not know about them, as they are only names of women you (and I) remember from our early education. Some you many not know at all. I’ll start with one woman I never heard of until today, who I found fascinating. If only she were born 10 years earlier, my women’s right’s advocate heroine would have loved her.
Nellie Bly—Born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane in 1864, she was nicknamed Pink because her mother had her christened in a pink gown. Her father died when she was quite young and her mother, following one of the few choices for women of the time period, remarried. The man, apparently, was abusive. It may what have made Nellie so passionate about women’s rights.
At all events, at the age of 18 she read an editorial in the Pittsburg Dispatch that was blatantly sexist (but I imagine pretty “normal” for the time). She wrote a rebuttal piece to the whole concept of the “women’s sphere” which, along with showing up at the newspaper office itself, landed her a job as a journalist. Because at the time journalism was not a proper occupation for a woman, she was given the pen name Nellie Bly. Nellie was not happy just writing “fluff” however, and dug deep into the sociological disparities of the era as an investigative reporter. In 1887 working for the New York World, she had herself committed to an insane asylum for purposes of an expose on that. It was this piece that threw her into the journalistic limelight.
Still, it wasn’t enough for Nellie. When the World considered sending a man around the world in less than 80 days, like the Jules Verne Novel, Nellie volunteered—whatever a man could do, she could do just as well, if not better! They took her on and she made it in 72 days. It gave her fame world wide fame, and spawned a board game, trading cards and even a song.
Florence Nightingale: Born in May 12 1820, in yes, Florence Italy. We know her for her work in the Crimean war, and we all have heard of the Florence Nigthtingale effect. What I didn’t know was that she was born to wealth, was considered attractive and expected to marry well. Instead, as well all know, she developed a keen interest in nursing even though it was not at that time considered an honorable profession for a woman, not that there were many proper professions for a woman of means. Regardless, she eventually under went 3 months of training as a nurse in Germany. Which eventually qualified her for a job as Superindetend of the Establishment at 1 Harley street in London. When the Crimean War broke out in 1854, an acquaintenance of her, knowing her background asked her to oversee the introduction of female nurses at Britains military hospitals where the condtions were considered deplorable. Her actions, specifically in relation to cleanliness, reduced the mortality rates from 40% to 2%!
Like Nelly Bly, however, this was not enough for her. Florence returned home after the war with a purpose. Despite ill health which eventually made her an invalid, she founded the the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses at St. Thomas's Hospital and a year later, another school at Kings College for Midwives. Bascially her efforts raised the level of respectability for nurses, who in her school now studied for a full year. It may not seem like much to the 21st century mind, but consider that women still have very few basic rights at this time.
Florence was also an extensive researcher and stistichian, publishing over 200 books report and pamphlets. Finally we this amazing woman to thank (or curse) for the creation of the Pie Graph. All of which brings us naturally to :
Clara Barton—Famous civil war nurse, this woman’s “work” began when she was in her 40’s. She is totally all right by me! Although considered “shy” she opened her own school in New Jersey after teaching 10 years previously. When (not sure how this happened if it was her won school) the board hired a man to lead it, she moved to Washington D.C. where she worked in a U.S. Patent Office, as a clerk, rare for women in those days. Following these studies, Barton opened a free school in New Jersey. The attendance under her leadership grew to 600 but instead of hiring Barton to head the school, the board hired a man instead. Frustrated, she moved to Washington D.C. and began work as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office; this was the first time a woman had received a substantial clerkship in the federal government.
When the Civil War started, Clara, devoted to the Union cause, decided she wanted to volunteer her help. But women had never been allowed to work in hospitals, camps or battle fields before, and she met resistance. Eventually though, she gained their trust and worked so diligently that she became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” and was promoted to superintendent of Union nurses
In 1869 after the war ended she traveld to Europe and learned about the Red Cross. The more she learned, the more she liked, which at this point was basically a twelve nation treaty. Upon returning to the U.S. she worked to have the US. Join the treaty thus creating the US Red Cross, which she expanded to include assistance and aid in national disasters.
Lucy Stone—Born in Massachusetts 1818, she was “first” in oh so many things. First woman in the state to earn a college degree, a degree that she pretty much saved up for and paid for herself. She earned it in Oberlin college Ohio, the first college to admit both men and women. Dedicated to women’s rights, she was determined never to marry. But eventually she could not resist the courtship of Henry Blackwell, a fellow abolitionist. Still, she refused to forfeit her freedom and so upon marriage she kept her name (which is why she is Lucy Stone and not Blackwell). They married in 1855 and the couple issued a statement, which the reverend not only read, but passed around. You can read it here:
Basically it says that a wife is not the property of her husband, a very radical idea back then.
When Lucy Stone died in 1893, sadly many years before women finally did get the vote, she was the first woman in New England to be cremated.
Lucy Stone’s sister-in-law was also an activist in her way:
Elizabeth Blackwell--born in England in 1821, she was the first US female to graduate from medical school. Her father brought the family to the U.S. in 1832. When years later her father died, leaving the family to fend for themselves, the women opened a school. Here, Elizabeth became a teacher and learned something about medical study. Eventually medicine became not only a calling but receiving and education “assumed the aspect of a great moral struggle,” In 1847 she started searching for a college that would admit her. She was rejected over and over again (writers everywhere can commiserate with her!). At the Geneva Medical school, however, the faculty put it to the students to vote. Believing that it was a joke, they voted to accept her. She graduated in 1849, first in her class. A huge accomplishment, I would expect, because I can’t imagine they made it very easy for her.
In 1868, after studying abroad, she and her sister opened the Women’s Medical College in New York in 1868, a plan worked on with Florence Nightingale, whom she met and became friends with in England. Eventually, though, Elizabeth returned to England where she became a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Children.
Susan B. Anthony—You can’t really talk about Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Blackwell etc, without mentioning this woman. Of course we’ve read tons about her, had a coin minted with her on it, etc. She worked alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton to found the National Woman’s Suffrage Association. I’m not going to write much about her here. If I did then I would be remiss in not mentioning Amelia Bloomer and a whole host of other activist-type women. Let us suffice to say there were lots of women working in this arena during this era, many of whom I’ve already talked about.
Mary Cassat—born May 22 1844. Mostly when I think of impressionists I think of Degas and Monet. But did you know there was this female impressionist too? She was the daughter of a Pittsburgh businessman, she studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In 1874 she went to Europe to continue her studies and settled in Paris. There, at the beginning of the impressionist movement she became close friends with many of those artists including Degas. She participated in the exhibitions of 1879, 1880, 1881 and 1886. She offered financial support and encouragement to her fellow painters, and helped them to establish their work in America as well. Her own paintings were also displayed in her homeland, to much acclaim. Although she did not take up the suffrage movement until much later in life, the fact that she was a female in a typically male profession is pretty remarkable. She never married, but spent many hours studying family life, which is what is reflected in her paintings.
Marie Curie—Born 1867 Poland. You just can’t talk about famous 19th century women without mentioning her. Granted most of her work and acclaim came in the early 20th century, but she did get a Nobel prize for Physics, alongside her husband, in 1903, which was technically still the Victorian Era. The prize was awarded for the study of spontaneous radiation, which honestly I cannot begin to understand. I just think it was so cool at by the end of the era we had come to a point where a woman could not only attend college but get a Nobel prize. She was also the first woman to teach at Sorbonne. She went on to get another Nobel prize after her husband died, making her the only person to ever win Nobel prizes in two different sciences, physics and Chemistry. Of course all of this took place in Europe, not America which is where all my books (currently) take place but still, oh so cool.
Emmeline Pankhurst—Born England 1858. Okay so one more suffragette, but this one on the other side of the pond! She was one of the British suffragettes, founding the Women’s Franchise League. Her father was an active anti-slavery man, her mother a staunch women’s rights advocate, who started taking her daughter to meetings in the 1870’s, Much like Lucy Stone, she married a man as committed to the cause as she was, Richard Pankhurst. He was main person responsible for drafting a women’s property bill that Parliament passed in 1870. She grew up reading abolitionist literature like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which brings me to my final famous woman. . . .
Harriet Beecher Stowe—June 14th 1811. She published her first book at 22 under her sister Catherine’s name. She helped support her family by writing many different kinds of literature, but we know her mostly for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although she didn’t live in the south she apparently lived fairly close to Kentucky and used the knowledge that she gained from that and the underground railroad to write the book, which was originally published in installments. It brought her great fame, as we know. Other than that much of her work was Christian in nature and about family life. Which only made sense as her father was a preacher, her husband a biblical scholar and many of her brothers went on to become preachers also, the most famous one Henry Ward Beecher. Famous (or in this case infamous as he was a well known preacher that became involved in a sex scandal—and you only thought that happened in the modern era, huh?) men however, are for another blog.