Saturday, July 30, 2011

115: The Self-Empowered Woman: Esmeralda Santiago

Dear Followers,

If you haven't already heard about the book "Conquistadora," you soon will. Critics have hailed it as the Puerto Rican "Gone With the Wind." And while the novel is full of twists and turns, the author's life story is truly the stuff of which Self-Empowered Women are made.

Esmeralda Santiago was born the oldest of eleven children in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When she was born, her mother was only 16, her father was 28, and already had a child with another woman. When she was thirteen years old, she, her six siblings, and her mother moved to New York in part to find a better life, and in part because - in her words - "Papi had chosen to send us away rather than marry her" (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Her mother was ultimately married and divorced three times.

Santiago entered school unable to understand, speak or write English. But with the help of library alphabet books, her language skills - in one year - improved to the point where her reading was at tenth grade level by the time she enrolled in the ninth grade. The fact that pronunciation was so difficult for her is what led her to writing. When others would laugh at her inability to make the "th" sound or to use the correct vowel form, she "hunched over notebooks, writing out my frustration, shame and rage. I lived in those pages, in English and Spanish, where the written word said what I couldn't utter." What a vindication that she would go on to write award-winning novels, memoirs, anthologies and screen plays (8: Turning No Into Yes).

The move to the U.S. was difficult for the young teenager who struggled to find a balance between the two cultures. When, after seven years, she returned to Puerto Rico for a visit, she was told that she was "no longer Puerto Rican because my Spanish was rusty, my gaze too direct, my personality too assertive..." (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest).

Two years after arriving in New York, Santiago was accepted into the prestigious Performing Arts High School. After graduation she worked full time and spent eight years studying part time at community colleges until she was accepted as a transfer student - and given a full scholarship - at Harvard. She ultimately graduated Magna Cum Laude. (10: The Critic Within). Then, she earned her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

In addition to her literary output, Ms.Santiago is an active volunteer for the following causes, which for obvious personal reasons, are close to her heart: public libraries, community-based programs for adolescents, shelters for battered women and their children, arts programs for young people, and organizations that support literature and the arts (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Her 2004 memoir "The Turkish Lover" covers the years from 1969 (when she was 21) until 1976 (when she graduated from Harvard). Much of the book focuses on her relationship with Ulvi Dogan, a Turkish filmmaker (15: Forget About Prince Charming). Since that time, she has married Frank Cantor, and they have created Cantomedia, a media and film production company.

As if her life doesn't seem amazing enough, two weeks before she was due to take her manuscript of Conquistadora to her publisher, Santiago suffered a severe stroke. The result was that she had to spend 18 months relearning how to read and write English; it took even longer to regain Spanish, which had been her first language (12: Hard Times).

I was humbled and deeply impressed by what this remarkable woman has achieved, and I hope you feel the same way.

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

114: The Self-Empowered Woman: Elizabeth Catlett

Dear Followers,

As most of you already know, The Self-Empowered Woman blog strives to be a virtual salon, where we have an on-going opportunity to meet a wide variety of accomplished, interesting women. I think today's blog will both inspire and amaze you.

Elizabeth Catlett is a 96 year old artist/sculptor whose works are currently on view in the Bronx Museum of Art. She has spent a lifetime - both as an artist and educator - using her talent to focus on issues of gender, race, and deprivation. Born in Washington, D.C. in 1915, both her parents (who were teachers in the D.C. school system) were the children of slaves. Catlett was raised by her mother and grandmother because her father died before she was born (1: No Paternal Safety Net).

The recipient of a full scholarship to Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Catlett was turned away - in 1932 - when she arrived at the school and the faculty realized that she was "colored." Seventy-six years later, the same school (now named Carnegie Mellon University) awarded her an honorary doctorate for her lifetime's work as both a sculptor and printmaker (8: Turning No Into Yes).

After being rejected in Pittsburgh, Catlett returned home and attended Howard University where she graduated cum laude in 1935. For the next two years she worked as a high school teacher in North Carolina, but resigned because of the low salaries black teachers received.

She then entered the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History, where she studied sculpture for the first time. American landscape painter Grant Wood encouraged her (and his other students) to work with subjects that they knew best. For her, this meant Black people, especially Black women. Catlett has said that Wood was always "so kind," and always called her "Miss Catlett" (4: Supportive Someone). In 1940, she became the school's first student to receive an MFA in Sculpture.

She also studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago, and lithography at the Art Students League in New York. Catlett then became a university teacher in New Orleans, and she also taught in Harlem. During this time, she was briefly married to Charles White (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

In 1945, while working on a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship Grant, Catlett was told that the grant would be renewed inf she left New York. Her goal was to complete a project about Black women , so in 1946 she moved to Mexico City where her social life included Diego Rivera, Francisco Zuniga and Frida Kahlo. During this time, she joined the Graphic Arts Workshop, and in 1948, she married the printmaker/painter Francisco Mora, with whom she had three sons (all of whom are involved in the arts). The political climate - in the post-McCarthy years - was hostile to Catlett's race, class and gender concerns, and in 1958, even the Mexican officials arrested Catlett and told her she was "unwelcome" in their country. That's when she decided to become a Mexican citizen. When the U.S. Government labeled her "an undesirable foreigner" and refused to let her into the country (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest) to be with her sick mother, she and her husband brought her mother to Mexico to live with them.

Catlett always refused to accept restriction and discrimination. When she taught at Dillard University in New Orleans (1940 - 1942), African Americans were not allowed to enter City Park, where Delgado Museum was housed. A Picasso retrospective was being shown, and Catlett wanted her Art History students to see it even though they were not allowed on the grounds. A teacher at Sophie Newcomb College helped her to get the students into the museum on a Monday, when it was closed to the general public. Many of Catlett's students had never been in an art museum before, but she was willing to break all the rules on their behalf (11: Risk Addition).

Catlett has outlived both of her husbands and most of her colleagues, but continues - in her 90s to make "technically savvy and stunning" art (7: Magnificent Obsession). How amazing that this talented artist, the granddaughter of slaves, is today the grandmother of Naima Mora, who was the Cycle4 winner of America's Next Top Model.

Looking forward to your comments...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

113: The Self-Empowered Woman: Emma E Edmonds

Dear Followers,

It's common knowledge that The Self-Empowered Woman blog tries to introduce readers to a wide variety of female achievers. And so far we've highlighted women from scores of countries, backgrounds and eras. But today's subject, Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonds Seelye (aka Private Frank Thompson), is one of the most amazing women I've had the privilege to research. Over 400 women served in the Civil War as soldiers, but the story I'm about to share is by far the most amazing.

Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonds was born in New Brunswick, Canada in December 1841. Her hot-tempered, abusive father resented the fact that she had not been a son, and treated her badly (1: No Paternal Safety Net). He wanted her to enter an arranged marriage with a man she didn't like, so she ran away from home at age 15 (14: Selective Disassociation).

For two years she lived on her own as a single woman, but decided that life would be easier if she disguised herself as a man, so she cut her hair, bought a man's suit, and took the name Franklin (Frank) Thompson. In her new identity, she sold Bibles in both Canada and (eventually) in Michigan.

Even though she was not an American, she was deeply affected by the growing tensions between the North and the South. While she was living in Flint, Michigan the first call for Union enlistment went out, and she tried to enlist. It took her four tries, but she finally got sworn in as a member of the Union Army (back then there was no medical examination, only questions). So on April 25, 1861, "Frank Thompson" became a male nurse in Company F, the Flint Union Greys of the Second Michigan Infantry Volunteers (8: Turning No into Yes).

Edmonds later wrote about her war-time experiences in the memoir (pictured above) "Nurse and Spy in the Union Army." As a soldier, her duties ranged from being a male nurse, burying the dead, regimental Postmaster, mail carrier and spy. Perhaps her most daring adventures centered when she was sent South to serve as a spy with General McClellan's campaign in Virginia. She was so determined to be accepted that she carefully studied every available piece of information on weapons, tactics, local geography and military personalities (10: The Critic Within).

In order to create a persona that would fool the Confederates, she decided to disguise herself as a black man, and used silver nitrate to darken her skin, as well as a minstrel wig to change her hair. She gave herself the name "Cuff," and worked in the kitchen where she learned valuable information about the morale of the troops, the size of the army, and the weapons that were available. She learned that the Confederate Army was using "Quaker Guns," which were merely logs that had been painted black to look like cannons from a distance. She escaped and returned to the Union Troops where she was able to give all this information to General McClellan in person (11: Risk Addition).

Two months later, when she was again ordered to infiltrate the Confederate Army she decided to be a fat, Irish peddler woman named Bridget O'Shea. This time she returned to the Union camp on a beautiful Confederate horse, but because she had been wounded in the arm she barely escaped the Rebel Troops that were chasing her.

In August, 1862, Emma returned to the South as a black mammy, with darkened skin and a bandanna to cover her hair. She worked as a laundress in the camp, and while cleaning an officer's coat important, official papers fell out of a pocket. Emma grabbed them, and took them back to General Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley.

All in all, Emma had eleven successful spy missions while serving in the Union Army. When she was transferred to serve with General Grant (before the battle of Vicksburg), her long hours in the military hospital took a toll and she became ill with Malaria. Rather than blow her cover as "Frank Thompson," she returned to female attire and entered a private hospital in Cairo, Illinois. After recovering, she traveled to Washington and worked as a female nurse until the end of the war because "Private Frank Thompson" had been listed as a deserter.

After the war, her memoirs became very popular, and she donated all of the profits to the U.S. Relief Fund. On July 5, 1884, a special Act of Congress her an Honorable Discharge from the Army, plus a bonus and a veterans pension of $12 a month. Helping the war effort truly was Edmonds' passion, and she wrote "I am naturally fond of adventure, a little ambitious, and a good deal romantic - but patriotism was the true secret of my success." (8: Magnificent Obsession).

Emma Edmonds died on September 5, 1898 at age 57, and is the only female member of the organization formed after the Civil War by Union Veterans - The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). She was buried in Houston, Texas, with a limestone marker that says "Emma E. Seelye, Army Nurse."

Looking forward to your comments...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

112: The Self-Empowered Woman: Senator Kristen Gillibrand

Dear Followers,

The two women pictured above represent a great political story for our time. The woman on the left is Kirsten E. Gillibrand, who was appointed to fill Hillary Clinton's New York Senate by then-governor David A. Paterson. And thanks to her deep-seated belief that more women need to participate in government (7: Magnificent Obsession), the woman on the right (Terri Sewell) ran for a House seat in Alabama, won the election, and became the first black woman ever elected to Congress from that state.

Gillibrand learned about politics from her grandmother, Polly Noonan, who was a high-level worker for the Albany Democratic Women's Club. Ms. Gillibrand (who was known as Tina Rutnik in her youth), would stuff envelopes, answer phones, hand out bumper stickers and fliers, and knock on voters' doors (2: An Early Sense of Direction). In her words, "What I admired so much about [my grandmother] was her passion. I thought 'Someday I may serve, someday I may be a part of this.'"

Many seasoned political pros were surprised that Gillibrand was re-elected to her Senate seat because conventional wisdom has always held that "women candidates - aside from the already famous - have trouble raising money" (13: More Than Meets the Eye). But Gillibrand, particularly with the help of EMILY's List, has easily raised millions for her campaigns.

Gillibrand's background is impressive. She attended the Emma Willard School as well as Dartmouth College, where she majored in Asian studies (she was a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma Sorority). During her college summers she worked as an intern for former Senator Alfonse D'Amato, and she later interned at the United Nations Crime Prevention Branch in Vienna. Gillibrand spent a semester in China in 1986 (first in Beijing, and then in Taichung, Taiwan, and learned to read and write Chinese (she memorized over 2,000 characters) before she left for her semester abroad (10: The Critic Within). That unique language skill has proved popular with many of New York's Asian voters.

Gillibrand graduated from UCLA Law School in 1991, and during the Clinton Administration she served as special council to former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Andrew Cuomo.

She is married to Jonathan Gillibrand, a British national who works in finance. They have two young sons, Theodore and Henry, and Senator Gillibrand received a standing ovation on the floor of the House when - just as she had done for her first pregnancy - she worked until the day before she gave birth.

Gillibrand has begun a campaign called Off the Sidelines ( in an effort to get more women into politics. After the 2010 elections the number of women in Congress declined for the first time in 30 years, and she feels that more women in Congress would help make the government much more productive. "When women's voices are heard, the outcomes are better. That's what my Grandmother taught me."

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, July 3, 2011

111: The Self-Empowered Woman: Jill Scott

Dear Followers,

Many of us first fell in love with Jill Scott when we watched her performance as Precious Ramotswe in Anthony Minghella's HBO adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith's "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency." The seven-part series, set in Botswana, was co-funded by the BBC and HBO. Scott played a wise, gentle (and very effective) detective,

Scott was raised by her mother and grandmother in North Philadelphia (1: No Paternal Safety Net), and has told interviewers that she had a happy childhood and was "very much a loved child." She was raised as a Jehovah's Witness (3: Belief in the Unbelievable).

Essence magazine referred to Scott as a true Renaissance Woman, and there's much more to Ms. Scott than just her TV and movie roles - you've probably seen her in "Law & Order: SVU," UPN's "Girlfriends," and movies including Showtime's "Cave Dwellers," and Tyler Perry's "Why Did I Get Married?"

Scott began her career as a "spoken word artist" before she broke in to the music industry. At a live poetry reading, Amir Thompson of The Roots invited her to join the band in the studio, and the result was co-writing credit for "You Got Me," when earned Scott her first Grammy Award. She also joined the touring company (along with Eric Benet and Will Smith) for the Broadway play"Rent." And in 2005, she won her second Grammy for "Crossed My Mind." The same year, St. Martin's Press published a volume of her poetry titled "The Moments, The Minutes, The Hours."

In 2001, Scott married her longtime boyfriend, Lyzel Williams, but the couple divorced after six years of marriage. And she had a son with her drummer, Lil' John Roberts, but they broke up when the baby was only three months old (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

Scott underwent a long legal battle with her first label after she signed a distribution deal with Warner Brothers Records (14: Selective Disassociation). Her voice has often been compared to Minnie Riperton's because she is comfortable in the sixth octave - on the song "Gimme" she hits a D6 with full vibrato, and on "Spring Summer Feeling" she hits a C7 in the background.

With $100,000 of her own money, Scott established the "Blues Babe Foundation," which helps young minority students pay for university expenses (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

In 2006, at the Essence Music Festival, Scott criticized the way black women were portrayed in rap music, and in April's edition of Essence magazine she wrote a controversial article about black men who marry Caucasian women (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest). With her fourth studio album, "The Light of the Sun" Scott hit number one on the Billboard Album Chart for the first time. Jett, Scott's two year old son, is what she calls "my best gift...we're both super in love right now, just nuts about each other...he's pretty incredible" (16: Intensive Motherhood).

Looking forward to your comments...