We simultaneously know everything about Emily Dickinson, and nothing about Emily Dickinson.
We know that she withdrew completely from the world …except, you know, when she wrote hundreds of letters, and when she sent boxes of her homemade chocolate caramels to friends, family, and neighbors, and when she lowered baskets full of cookies and gingerbread for the neighborhood children out of the window in her second floor bedroom, where she spent most of her time in seclusion.
We know that her heart was broken. By a man. Or a series of men.
Unless, of course, she was gay.
Or unless she preferred being alone, and never had a romantic relationship.
The fact that you can sing nearly all of her poems to the tune of the Gilligan’s Islandtheme song. Or the “Yellow Rose of Texas.” Your choice, really.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for anything, however unlikely, that brings Emily Dickinson to a wider audience. (I’m looking forward to the day when there’s an Emily Dickinson action figure, and I’ll be the first one in line to buy it.)
It’s just that, in the end, what we truly know of Emily Dickinson is … her poetry.
Isn’t that all we need?
The Heart is the Capital of the Mind —
The Mind is a single State —
The Heart and the Mind together make
A single Continent —
One — is the Population —
Numerous enough —
This ecstatic Nation
Seek — it is Yourself.
At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America, in the early 1800s, some Boston businessmen envisioned building a planned industrial community dedicated to textile manufacturing. The area around Pawtucket Falls, about 25 miles northwest of Boston, proved ideal — the falls could provide hydropower to run the mill machinery — and Lowell, Massachusetts, was incorporated in 1826.
The mill owners recruited girls and women from nearby farms to work in the mills; there were few other opportunities for women to earn wages in that time and place. Moreover, the mill owners designed Lowell as the first “company town” — the mill girls lived in boardinghouses owned by the mills, and the companies sponsored libraries, concerts, music lessons, part-time schooling, lectures by authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe and other activities for their workers.
Even though the hours were long–at one mill, 4:50AM – 7PM with short breaks for meals, six days a week — the wages were good, even after the women paid for their room and board. And despite the mill’s overwhelming presence in their everyday lives, for most of the women, this was the first opportunity they’d ever had for some semblance of independence–and, mostly away from men.
However, in 1834, faced with increased competition and economic instability on a national level, the mills tried to reduce costs via a 15% pay cut. New management at the mills created more stringent rules, inside and outside of work: “Drinking, swearing, and staying out after 10 p.m. were all firing offenses. So were failure to attend church or simply being ‘a devil in petticoats’ (the official grounds for the 1830 dismissal of one Elizabeth Wilson). Sleeping two to a bed in a boardinghouse relieved little stress.”
The mill girls had had enough; they walked off the job — in what we now call a strike, then termed a ‘turn-out.’ (One mill owner referred to their action as “Amazonian.”) But the women were not well-organized, and went back to work within a week.
Two years later, faced with more economic instability, the mills tried to lower wages and make the women pay their own rent at the company-owned boardinghouses. (Some sources suggest the mills also raised the rent at the same time.) The Lowell Mill Girls walked off the job again.
As a child, Harriet Hanson Robinson worked at a mill as a”bobbin doffer” –she replaced full bobbins of spun thread with empty ones — and years later, in her memoir Loom and Spindle, she recalled the 1836 mill strike:
One of the first strikes of cotton-factory operatives that ever took place in this country was that in Lowell, in October, 1836. When it was announced that the wages were to be cut down, great indignation was felt, and it was decided to strike, en masse. This was done. The mills were shut down, and the girls went in procession from their several corporations to the ‘grove’ on Chapel Hill, and listened to ‘incendiary’ speeches from early labor reformers.
One of the girls stood on a pump, and gave vent to the feelings of her companions in a neat speech, declaring that it was their duty to resist all attempts at cutting down the wages. This was the first time a woman had spoken in public in Lowell, and the event caused surprise and consternation among her audience.
Cutting down the wages was not their only grievance, nor the only cause of this strike. Hitherto the corporations had paid twenty-five cents a week towards the board of each operative, and now it was their purpose to have the girls pay the sum; and this, in addition to the cut in the wages, would make a difference of at least one dollar a week. It was estimated that as many as twelve or fifteen hundred girls turned out, and walked in procession through the streets. They had neither flags nor music, but sang songs, a favorite (but rather inappropriate) one being a parody on ‘I won’t be a nun.’
Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I-
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh ! I cannot be a slave,
I will not be a slave,
For I’m so fond of liberty
That I cannot be a slave.
My own recollection of this first strike (or ‘turn out’ as it was called) is very vivid. I worked in a lower room, where I had heard the proposed strike fully, if not vehemently, discussed; I had been an ardent listener to what was said against this attempt at ‘oppression’ on the part of the corporation, and naturally I took sides with the strikers. When the day came on which the girls were to turn out, those in the upper rooms started first, and so many of them left that our mill was at once shut down. Then, when the girls in my room stood irresolute, uncertain what to do, asking each other, ‘Would you? ‘ or ‘Shall we turn out?’ and not one of them having the courage to lead off, I, who began to think they would not go out, after all their talk, became impatient, and started on ahead, saying, with childish bravado, ‘I don’t care what you do, I am going to turn out, whether any one else does or not;’ and I marched out, and was followed by the others.
As I looked back at the long line that followed me, I was more proud than I have ever been since at any success I may have achieved, and more proud than I shall ever be again until my own beloved State gives to its women citizens the right of suffrage.
The agent of the corporation where I then worked took some small revenges on the supposed ringleaders; on the principle of sending the weaker to the wall, my mother was turned away from her boarding-house, that functionary saying,’Mrs. Hanson, you could not prevent the older girls from turning out, but your daughter is a child, and her you could control.’
It is hardly necessary to say that so far as results were concerned this strike did no good. The dissatisfaction of the operatives subsided, or burned itself out, and though the authorities did not accede to their demands, the majority returned to their work, and the corporation went on cutting down the wages.
And after a time, as the wages became more and more reduced, the best portion of the girls left and went to their homes, or to the other employments that were fast opening to women, until there were very few of the old guard left; and thus the status of the factory population of New England gradually became what we know it to be to-day.
Although Harriet Hanson Robinson gives a factually accurate account of events, the outcome of the 1836 Lowell mill strike was not quite as bleak as she describes. For one thing, the mill owners did back down from raising rents at the boardinghouses.
Also, the mill girls were much more organized for their second strike; the number of participants doubled– to 1,500–as compared to the 1834 strike, and the sympathies of the citizens of Lowell were much more with the striking workers.
Perhaps most importantly, although the immediate goals of the Lowell mill strikes were not entirely achieved, the women who participated in them were inspired to find additional means to effect change. They published newspapers featuring writing by women, to counteract the falsely positive narratives put out by the textile companies. In 1845, they formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, a political organization designed to lobby elected representatives. Harriet Hanson Robinson and her daughter founded the National Woman Suffrage Association of Massachusetts, part of an effort nationwide to promote giving women the right to vote; Harriet Hanson Robinson was the first woman to testify to the Congressional Select Committee on Woman Suffrage.
So, if in the short term, the Lowell mill girls failed, their efforts sowed the seeds for future social change.
An 1845 letter by Ellen Munroe appearing in The Voice of Industry — a newspaper for workers then published by the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association — serves as a tribute to the Lowell mill girls, and could very well serve today as a salute to those trying to change the way things are:
Bad as is the condition of so many women, it would be much worse if they had nothing but [men’s] boasted protection to rely upon; but they have at last learnt the lesson, which a bitter experience teaches, that not to those who style themselves their ‘natural protectors,’ are they to look for the needful help, but to the strong and resolute of their own sex. May all good fortune attend those resolute ones, and the noble cause in which they are engaged. ‘She devils’ as some of them have been elegantly termed by certain persons, calling themselves men; let them not fear such epithets, nor shrink from the path they have chosen. It is, indeed, a theory one, but they are breaking the way; they shall make it smoother for those who come after them, and generations yet unborn shall live to bless them for their courage and perseverance.
Robinson, Harriet Hanson. “The Lowell Mill Girls Go on Strike, 1836,” Loom and Spindle or Life Among the Early Mill Girls (New York, T. Y. Crowell, 1898), pp. 83–86, via History Matters (a project of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning of the City University of New York and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University).
You may not know Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper by name, but the technology you’re (likely) using to read this might not exist without her.
Hopper was a mathematician by training, earning a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University. She taught math at Vassar College — where she’d received her bachelor’s degree — for ten years. During World War 2, she took a leave of absence to join the United States Navy Reserve and worked with early computer systems at Harvard.
After the war, she began to work for the corporation developing the UNIVAC I, the first commercial computer in America. As part of Hopper’s work, she pioneered the development of the “compiler” — a program which translates one computer language into another, thus making a programmer’s job easier. (One writer dryly notes “she did this, she said, because she was lazy, and hoped that the ‘programmer may return to being a mathematician.'”)
Hopper was also instrumental in creating the computer languages COBOL and FORTRAN. She even helped popularize the computer term “debugging” –meaning to fix a computer glitch — after an actual moth found in a Navy computer.
But Grace Murray Hopper was also funny, and capable of instantly quotable observations like “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall which runs counter-clockwise.”
She really did have that clock in her office, and a skull-and-crossbones flag as well.
Hopper was a memorable (and popular) teacher and lecturer:
In her speeches Admiral Hopper often used analogies and examples that have become legendary. Once she presented a piece of wire about a foot long, and explained that it represented a nanosecond, since it was the maximum distance electricity could travel in wire in one-billionth of a second. She often contrasted this nanosecond with a microsecond – a coil of wire nearly a thousand feet long – as she encouraged programmers not to waste even a microsecond.
Colorful details like that meant that after her (involuntary) retirement from the Navy at the age of 80, she became a star of popular media–interviewed on 60 Minutes, and even making an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.
After she described her work on early computers, Dave asked her, “How did you know so much about computers then?”
“I didn’t, it was the first one,” she told him.
Grace Murray Hopper learned by doing, and was the antidote to “We’ve always done it this way” thinking.
We’re all in her debt.
Portions of this “Nevertheless, She Persisted” entry are based on my 2012 blog post “Amazing Grace.”
Geez, the things my Girl Scout handbooks never mentioned.
I knew, of course, that in 1912, Juliette Gordon Low had founded the Girl Scouts of the United States of America, inspired and encouraged by her friend Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had established the Boy Scouts, and the “Girl Guides” program in England.
I knew that she’d been born to a wealthy family in Savannah, Georgia just before the Civil War, and had a life of privilege. I vaguely recalled that she’d been nicknamed “Daisy,” and I had a memory, based on a half-remembered painting, that she was beautiful.
But there was plenty I didn’t know, things (understandably) glossed over in the bio we learned in Girl Scout meetings.
The “Daisy” nickname? Her family called her “Crazy Daisy,” due to her ebullience, optimism, and predilection for joking and silliness.
But the nickname also came to reflect other troubles Daisy was having; a series of ear infections she suffered throughout her youth affected her hearing. When she went to a doctor for relief, he inadvertently ruptured her eardrum.
Then, on her wedding day, a piece of rice thrown after the ceremony by a well-wisher somehow became lodged in her ear; the damage was so great that she lost her hearing in that ear. Eventually, she lost most of the hearing in her “good” ear as well.
As her biographer Stacy Cordery noted to the Christian Science Monitor, Juliette Gordon Low’s hearing loss reinforced the “Crazy Daisy” nickname: “…she’s making mistakes through no fault of her own. She can’t hear. So part of [not] hearing [well] is that someone says ‘XYZ’ and you respond ‘ABC.’ It makes you respond in a way that other people around you interpret as a little bit odd.”
And maybe Juliette Gordon Low should have considered that errant grain of rice a warning: she moved to England with her husband, wealthy cotton merchant William Mackay Low. Soon, William Low started palling around with playboy Prince Edward VII and his party posse, all prone to prodigious feats of concupiscence, alcohol consumption, gambling, and general excess.
Not unexpectedly, William Low soon had a mistress, and began spending more and more time away from his wife. When Juliette Gordon Low, not to mention the public at large, became aware of the situation, William Low asked her for a divorce. Divorce in the early 20th century was a more arduous –and humiliating — process than it is now, and so Juliette Low suggested that she and her husband separate instead, so that they had time to work out details of a divorce.
But before divorce proceedings began, William Low died as the result of a stroke. And to Juliette’s horror, his will left his entire estate and fortune to his mistress.
Even William Low’s sisters were appalled, and assisted Juliette’s attempts to challenge the will. She didn’t win her case outright — but she did get some of the money to which she was entitled, and her husband’s home in Savannah, Georgia.
After her husband’s death — and more importantly, after meeting Sir Robert Baden-Powell — she returned to Savannah. Her career options were limited, as they were for most American women at the time, but she was on fire with an idea. She called a distant cousin and said, “I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all of America, and all the world, and we’re going to start it tonight!”
That “something” was the Girl Scouts, of course, which Juliette imagined as an organization for girls from all cultures, economic classes, ethnicities, and degrees of physical abilities. Through the organization she founded, she made her own experiences from a privileged childhood — athletic activities, exposure to the arts, adventures in nature — available to girls of all backgrounds.
And as for the obstacles and difficulties she went through — well, Juliette Gordon Low turned them into assets. Shannon Henry Kleiber notes in the Washington Post, “Later in life, Daisy would use her deafness to her advantage, often pretending to not understand people when they said they couldn’t volunteer or donate to her beloved Girl Scouts.”
She even turned the shattering experience of her marriage as an inspiration. As her biographer Stacy Cordery told public broadcasting’s Diane Rehm, “…the lesson that Daisy learned from this, to answer the question about how did she come to want to be involved in an organization to help young women, is Daisy Low learned that life was not predictable. And even though you’ve done everything right, you’d grown up in good circumstances, you’d married the man you loved, you’d been faithful and loyal, sometimes you wound up cuckolded and then widowed.”
Therefore, ingenuity and self-reliance are good attributes to have — and to teach to others. And providing bigger and bigger challenges to test the people you teach? That’s good, too.
You know what? The Girl Scouts should stamp Juliette Low’s profile on their Trefoil cookies. More people should know more about her.
The website of Stacy Cordery, author of Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, was an invaluable resource and so I’m mentioning it first and most prominently; just for one example, it includes a image of Juliette Gordon Low’s doctor’s sketch of the inside of her ear (JGL’s, not Stacy Cordery’s), which I found morbidly fascinating, if not ultimately useful for this profile.
When she was five years old, Wally Funk donned her Superman cape and jumped off the roof of her family’s barn, in what she calls her “my first try at flying, just pure flying.”
Well, she didn’t so much fly as fall into a fortunately placed haystack. But she kept trying.
She built model airplanes from kits her father would bring home from the small general store he owned. She asked her mother to drive her to a small local airport so she could study the planes there. (Her mother, who also loved flying but had been forbidden from flight lessons by her parents, happily complied.)
Wally Funk got her private pilot’s license while attending a two-year college, then studied aviation at Oklahoma State University. She wanted to become a commercial pilot, but two major airline companies rejected her application… because there were no women’s bathrooms at their schools for pilots.
Funk was conducting flight training for U.S. Army personnel at Fort Sill, Oklahoma when she heard that a private concern, with the support of NASA, was conducting tests for women astronauts, as a kind of complement to the male astronaut training program already underway.
She signed right up — after obtaining a special dispensation; at age 21, she was technically too young to apply — and with twenty-four other women, went through a battery of tests designed to replicate experience in space and zero gravity.
As part of the testing, Funk drank a pint of radioactive water.
She swallowed a three-foot length of rubber hose.
She spent ten and a half hours in an isolation tank. (A record.)
She scored higher on her tests than John Glenn, who eventually became the first American to orbit the earth.
Wally Funk and twelve other women passed the rigorous tests–they later became known as “The Mercury 13”– but before they could continue training, the order came down: all astronauts had to have experience as an Air Force pilot.
Since women were not permitted to be Air Force pilots at the time, this de facto meant no woman could qualify to be an astronaut.
Funk was disappointed, but she continued working as a flight instructor, and eventually became the first woman inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration as well as the first woman to serve as an Aircraft Accident Investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.
And she has booked and paid for a ticket on Virgin Galactic’s first tourist flight into space, whenever that may happen.
Sarah Breedlove was born to freed slaves on a Louisiana plantation two years after the end of the Civil War. She was orphaned at age 7, married at age 14, and widowed at age 16, with a young daughter to look after.
And then, in her twenties, a dermatological condition made her hair fall out.
And so she set about inventing her own cure. She’d say say later that the idea for the ingredients came to her in a dream: “…a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. I made up my mind I would begin to sell it.”
Her third husband, Charles J. Walker– a journalist who had experience in advertising — suggested she take the nom d’entreprise “Madam C.J. Walker.”
The success of her first product–“Wonderful Hair Grower” — led to the development of other products and implements, which Madam Walker and her husband would demonstrate at meetings held in various cities across the southern United States.
Eventually, Madam Walker opened her own factory to mass produce the products comprising “the Walker Method.” Saying, “I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavor to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race,” she opened schools to train “Walker Agents” — African-American saleswomen who demonstrated and sold the products door-to-door. (Madam Walker also sponsored additional self-empowerment classes, such as money management, for the Walker Agents.)
Rapidly, Madam Walker was one of the first women in America to become a self-made millionaire. And she donated her wealth and time to African-American communities and causes across the United States, including the then-nascent NAACP, as well as the National Conference on Lynching.
Her belief in supporting causes larger than herself could well serve as an inspiration for the challenges we face today: “This is the greatest country under the sun. But we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice.”
You know the highlights of the story, thanks to history textbooks, a Broadway musical, the movie version of the Broadway musical, the PBS mini-series, the revival of the Broadway musical (starring Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation), the HBO mini-series, New York Times bestselling books, and maybe even from the supernatural-thriller TV series Sleepy Hollow (though, in that last example, strict adherence to historical facts is not guaranteed).
Heck, even an early issue of Wonder Woman, published in 1942, included a mini-biography of Abigail Adams.
But let’s review:
–even though girls of the Colonial Era weren’t widely given access to formal education, Abigail Adams became one of the most brilliant women of her era — or any era — thanks to home schooling by her mother, and by availing herself of her father and grandfather’s large home libraries
–she gave birth to six children in twelve years (five survived); her son John Quincy Adams later became President of the United States
–she ran the household and the family farm while her husband John was away at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia
–she missed her husband’s Inauguration because she was tending to her dying mother-in-law
–when her brother, her brother-in-law, and her son Charles all became incapacitated by alcoholism, she brought all their children to Washington, DC to live in the White House
–she kept up on current events and political developments; her husband respected her knowledge, and often asked for her advice, to the point that naysayers called her “Mrs. President”
–and through it all, she wrote hundreds of letters, many of them witty, all of them wise and full of sage advice, all of them providing a window into the mind of a wholly remarkable person.
Comic Vine, an online comics database, duly gives Abigail Adams a character bio based on her short feature in Wonder Woman #14 (“Wonder Woman in Shamrock Land”).
Seemingly without irony, Comic Vine lists Abigail Adams’s “super[hero] name” as … “Abigail Adams.”