Saturday, November 19, 2011

127: The Self-Empowered Woman: Annie Edson Taylor

Dear Followers,

Today's post is about an amazing woman who was born in 1838, and 63 years later became the first person to survive a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Annie Edson Taylor was born in Auburn, New York and her father (who left behind enough money to support his widow and eight children) died when she was twelve years old (1: No Paternal Safety Net). As a teenager, she attended a four year course in order to become a school teacher, and graduated with honors (10: The Critic Within). During her training, when she was 17 years old, she met David Taylor, who became her husband. They had a baby boy, but he died within days of being born. When Annie was only 25 years old, she became a widow when her husband was killed in the Civil War (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

For a number of years she changed jobs and locales frequently. In addition to working as a music teacher (9: Music), she also worked as a dance instructor. During her 30s and 40s she lived in both Bay City and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, San Antonio, Texas, and even Mexico City (14: Selective Disassociation), but eventually returned to New York.

In a bad financial state, she decided to try to be the first person to ever successfully ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel (11: Risk Addiction). She had the barrel custom made out of Oak and Iron, weighted with a 200-pound anvil, and padded with a mattress and a leather harness. It was four and a half feet high and three feet in diameter. She and her barrel were taken by rowboat to Grass Island, where she crawled inside with her "lucky" heart-shaped pillow (3: Belief in the Unbelievable). At 4:05 a.m. on the morning of her 63rd birthday, the barrel was set adrift, and passed over Horse Shoe Fall.

By 4:40 a.m. the barrel was captured, and much to every one's surprise "Mrs. Taylor was alive and conscious" (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

A portion of the barrel had to be sawed off for her to emerge, but she walked along the shore to a boat that took her to Maid of the Mist Dock where she was taken by carriage into the City of Niagara Falls. Three doctors examined her and found a three-inch cut behind her right ear to be her only injury.

Annie earned money speaking about her experience, but she never became financially stable. What little money she did earn from her lectures was (along with the barrel) stolen by her manager. She used her savings to pay for detectives to track him down; he and the barrel were eventually discovered in Chicago.

Annie's last years were spent posing for photographs with tourists at her Niagara Falls Souvenir stand. She died destitute (12: Hard Times) in Lockport, New York at the Lockport Home and Infirmary. Currently, a play about her (called "Queen of the Mist") is being staged at the Gym at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, NYC.

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

126: The Self-Empowered Woman: Dao Ngoc Phung

Dear Followers, First of all, a great big THANK YOU to everyone who helped me celebrate my birthday. Lucky, lucky me to have so many kind, thoughtful and (amazingly) generous friends. Each of you made getting older more fun than I could ever have imagined!

Today I'd like to introduce you to an amazing 14 year old Vietnamese girl named Dao Ngoc Phung, pictured above with her younger brother and sister. My hero, Nicholas Kristof, wrote about her in his New York Times column as a way of illustrating the difference between the Vietnamese culture and ours. I won't be highlighting The Self-Empowered Woman traits that this young girl has, but I'll bet that you'll be impressed by the time you've finished reading this blog.

Phung is only 4'11" tall and weighs 97 pounds. Her passion is school, and in order to continue her education and meet her family obligations, she sets her alarm clock (six days a week) for 3 a.m. On Sundays, she sleeps until 5 a.m. Last year, her mother died of cancer and the family was left with $1,500 worth of debts. That's why her father has had to take jobs in the cities even though the family lives in a remote area of the Mekong Delta. So from Monday through Friday, Phung - who is in the ninth grade - lives like a single mother.

Each morning she wakes her siblings (Tien, who is nine and Huong, who is twelve), prepares breakfast, and they bicycle to school. For her it's a 90 minute ride each way, but she makes sure to arrive 20 minutes early so she won't be late for her classes. After school all three kids go fishing for their dinner, and then there is homework or chores. Everyday Phung helps her brother and sister with their homework first, and then she does her own. She rarely gets to bed before 11 p.m., and wakes up four hours later.

Phung wants to attend college and become an accountant, and while she is too poor right now for that to seem feasible, her astonishing work ethic just might make it possible. She recently asked her father to pay for extra tutoring, but he cannot afford the annual $40 fee.

Kristof feels that the 2,500 year old legacy of Confucius (which includes respect for teachers, scholarship, and the belief that "education can change destinies") works in her favor. In that part of the world, education is generally a top priority.

Phung's father never misses a parent-teacher conference even though he has to take off work to attend. He told Kristof "If I don't work, I lose a little bit of money. But if my kids miss out on school, they lose their life hopes. I want to know how they're doing in school. I tell my children that we don't own land that I can leave them when they grow up. So the only thing I can give them is an education."

If you would like to help this remarkable girl, a fund has been established in her name by an aid group called Room to Read.

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, November 6, 2011

125: The Self-Empowered Woman: Dorothy Rodham

Dear Followers:

Many of you might think that this blog would focus on Hillary Clinton, who is wearing gray in the above photo, because she was First Lady for eight years, a former US Senator, Presidential candidate, and our current Secretary of State. But, instead, I'd like to pay tribute to her mother, Dorothy Emma Howell Rodham, who died on November 1st at the age of 92.

Dorothy Rodham had a childhood that has been described as "Dickensian." She was born in Chicago in 1919 and her sister, Isabelle, was born in 1924: Dorothy's father (Edwin Howell) was a fireman and her mother (Della) was a neglectful parent. The couple had an unhappy, often violent marriage, and in 1927 Dorothy's father filed for divorce. Della did not show up in court, but her sister (Frances Czeslawski) appeared and testified against her. Edwin was granted custody of his daughters, but was either unwilling or unable to care for them.

When Dorothy was only eight years old, she was put in charge of her three-year old sister for their four-day train trip (on their own) from Chicago to Alhambra, California (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Unfortunately, her paternal grandparents were ill-prepared to take care of two young girls. Her grandmother (whom she remembered as a strict woman who wore black dresses, punished the girls severely for small mistakes, and wouldn't let them have visitors or attend parties) was once so angry at Dorothy for going trick-or-treating on Halloween that she ordered the girl to stay in her room for one full year - except for attending school. Fortunately, when the grandmother's sister learned about the punishment, Dorothy's "restriction" was lifted after four months.

At age 14, Dorothy moved out of her grandparents' home (14: Selective Disassociation) and accepted a job as a housekeeper, cook and nanny for a family that gave her room, board, and $3.00 a week. They encouraged the young teenager to read and go to school, so Dorothy enrolled at Alhambra High School where she joined both the Spanish and the Scholarship clubs.

In High School her speech and drama teacher (Miss Drake) and her English teacher (Miss Zellhoefer) let Dorothy know that they really believed in her. She paid tribute to them both in a book marking the school's centennial in 1998 (4: Supportive Someone). But after graduating in 1937, she made the brave decision to return to Chicago - where she hoped to enroll at Northwestern University - because her mother had told her that her new stepfather would help her pay for college (11: Risk Addiction).

Unfortunately, Della only wanted her daughter to be nearby in order to work as her housekeeper, so Dorothy found work as a secretary at a textile company and in 1942 married a travelling salesman named Hugh Ellsworth Rodham.

They moved to the suburbs and had three children (Hillary, Hugh and Tony), and even though Dorothy never had a career of her own she encouraged her daughter (as well as both her boys) to get a good education and engage in meaningful work. In spite of a miserable childhood, she managed to make the most of life as a mid-century American housewife. Hillary once paid this tribute to Dorothy: "I'm still amazed at how my mother emerged from her lonely early life as such an affectionate and levelheaded woman" (8: Turning No into Yes).

After her death, President Obama said "Ms. Rodham was a remarkable person. Anybody who knows her history knows what a strong, determined and gifted person she was. For her to have been able to live the life that she did, and to see her daughter succeed at the pinnacle of public service in this country [was] I'm sure, deeply satisfying to her."

Looking forward to your comments...