Sunday, July 29, 2012

159: The Self-Empowered Woman: Alice Coachman

Dear Followers,

Now that we've all enjoyed the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics, I thought it would be a good time to introduce you to the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal. She was also the only female American athlete to win gold at the 1948 Games; her sport was the high jump.

Alice Coachman was born in Albany, Georgia, on November 9, 1923. She and her nine siblings grew up at a time when public training facilities were segregated, which meant she had to exercise barefoot on dirt roads and playgrounds. Because of racial discrimination the only way she could practice the high jump was to use rope, rags and sticks in the fields near her home (12: Hard Times). Even as a little girl, she loved to run and jump (2: An Early Sense of Direction).

Coachman's parents were uncomfortable with the idea of their daughter being an athlete, but she was determined (17: Dreaming Your Own Dream). Fortunately, her fifth-grade teacher at Monroe St. Elementary School (Cora Bailey) encouraged her dream, as did her aunt, Carrie Spry (4: Supportive Someone).

By the time she arrived at Madison High School, the boys' track coach, Harry Lash, noticed her talent. In 1939, when she was 16, she received a scholarship to Alabama's Tuskegee Institute. Before classes even began, she competed in the Amateur Athlete Union (AAU) national track and field competition and--while running barefoot--broke both the high school and collegiate high jump records (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

In 1936, Jesse Owens became the first Black man to compete in the modern Olympics, but no females had followed his example because the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled due to World War II. During this time, Coachman won championships in five different events at the AAU nationals, and was the only African-American to be named to five All-American teams (11: Risk Addiction).

When she competed in the 1948 London Olympics, she crushed all the competition and her record would not be broken until two Olympiads later. She received her gold medal from King George, father of the current Queen Elizabeth (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Coachman was the first African-American female athlete to receive endorsement deals, and after her retirement she created the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to a) support young athletes and b) provide help for Olympic veterans (7: Magnificent Obsession).

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, she was named as one of the 100 greatest-ever Olympic athletes. Now 88 years old, Coachman lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Looking forward to your comments...

Thursday, July 26, 2012

158. The Self-Empowered Woman: Monica Mason

Dear Followers,

Everyone who knows me clearly understands how deeply I love ballet. When I lived in London, I considered it a dream come true to interview Natalia Makarova and Margot Fonteyn. No wonder my (battered) toe shoes are still hanging in my bathroom!

Today I'd like to pay tribute to a remarkable woman who just retired as the artistic director of Britain's Royal Ballet--after being with the company for 54 years. Dame Monica Margaret Mason was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1941, and attended her first ballet class at the age of four. Dance was always a constant in her life, from watching her parent do ballroom dancing together to squeezing her own dance classes in between swimming and tennis lessons. But by the time she was twelve, Mason knew that she wanted to make ballet her career (2: An Early Sense of Direction). 

Her idyllic South African childhood ended, however, when her father died suddenly, and she moved to London with her mother and sister at age fourteen (1: No Paternal Safety Net). The next year, after her second attempt, she was accepted to The Royal Ballet School. Then, at only 16 (in her words "I was a baby really, but it was the most unbelievable opportunity"), she was invited to join the company (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

The famous choreographer Kenneth MacMillan gave Mason her first big break by choosing her as the lead dancer for his version of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Under his guidance, she made principal dancer only seven years later, in 1968. Years later, when he heard that Mason might leave the company, he offered her a job as his assistant (4: Supportive Someone).

During her career, Dame Margot did not fit in (physically) with that era's "fragile" ballerina. She was bigger, stronger, considered to look "a little bit like the young Joan Crawford," and was even told by the legendary Fredrick Ashton that she might get more leading roles if she'd get a nose job (6: Life Is Not A Beauty Contest).

During her tenure as the principal dancer, she broke her foot--an injury that kept her off stage for nine months. This experience inspired her to look at the world of dance from a more health-oriented perspective. When she was performing there was no physiotherapy department or psychologist affiliated with the company. But for the past 25 years, Mason has worked tirelessly to protect the dancers' physical as well as mental well being (8: Magnificent Obsession).

Mason has earned a reputation for dogged perfectionism, whether it involves choosing staff, emphasising dancers' health or maintaining the company's high standards. In her own life, she stopped dancing en pointe when she was only 39 because she discovered that she could no longer execute the (truly challenging) 32 required fouettes of Swan Lake (10: The Critic Within).

During her tenure as artistic director Dame Monica has been criticized for not using more British principal dancers (only three of the 18 are from the UK). But she believes that talent is more important than nationality (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).

In addition to dealing with critics, Mason has become comfortable taking chances. She commissioned works by "risky" choreographers, but succeeded in energizing the company, and taking the artistic level up a notch (11: Risk Addiction).

At the same time that Mason stopped dancing en pointe, her marriage was falling apart (15: Forget About Prince Charming). But her talent has been recognized not only by the dance world at large, but by the Crown as well. In 2002 she received the OBE, and in 2008 she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Although she is now in her 70's, music continues to be an essential part of her life. She recently told an interviewer that when she hears music from a role she once performed, her response is visceral. "If the music comes on the radio when I'm at home I still get up and sort of do it [dance] in the kitchen (9: Music).

Dame Monica's first order of business after her retirement is to sign up for computer lessons. In her words, "I don't even know how to turn a computer on. I've always had someone else to do my emails for me."

Looking forward to your comments...

Sunday, July 22, 2012

157: The Self-Empowered Woman: Ada Kepley

Dear Followers,


These days, law schools are crowded with female students, but in the years after the Civil War, the legal profession was one of the many fields that happened to be gender specific. Today's blog is about Ada Harriet Miser Kepley (2/11/1848-6/13/1925), who was the first American woman to graduate from law school.
Ada grew up in Sommerset, Ohio until her family moved to St. Louis, Missouri when she was thirteen years old. She completed two years of high school there, but when she was 18 the family moved to Effingham, Illinois where her parents ran a hotel and her mother had a bookstore/library.

Her mother was active in the Methodist Church, and their home hosted
quarterly church meetings and pioneer Methodist preachers. The church, however, expelled Ada's father because he was late for Sunday services; the family then changed to Swedenborgianism. And a number of relatives were "psychists" and spiritualists (3: Belief In the Unbelievable).

When she was 20 years old, Ada married Henry B. Kepley, who had a law practice in Effingham and trained his wife to be his legal assistant. With his encouragement and assistance (4: Supportive Someone), she decided to start a legal career of her own. Even though they had to be 200 miles from each other, she moved to Chicago and began attending the Union College of Law from 1869-1870.  Exactly 100 years before I graduated from UCLA, she earned her bachelor of law degree (from what is now known as Northwestern) and became the first woman in the U.S. to do so (13:More Than Meets The Eye).

After graduation, Ada and her classmates went to the Cook County State's Attorney's Office to apply for their licenses to practice law, but she was told that Illinois did not allow women to enter the "learned professions". With her husband's help, she drafted a bill that would forbid sex discrimination in the legal and other professions. It became law in 1872 (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Ada did not reapply for her license until 1881, but she switched her focus from law to three controversial reform issues: women's suffrage, equal rights and temperance. Her temperance work led her to hold office at the local, county, state and national levels of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). From 1883 until 1885 she wrote and published works in favor of temperance, with the result that she became a lightening rod for the movement. An angry saloon keeper beat her over the head, and in 1897 an intruder into her home beat her with a rubber tube. The son of a liquor dealer tried to shoot her, but wounded her dog, and when she and three other women tore down a poster of a half-nude woman, she was arrested and fined $20 (5: Life is Not A Popularity Contest).

Kepley left the Prohibition Party when the women's suffrage (7: Magnificent Obsession) plank was removed, and explained: "I work as hard as a man, I earn money like a man, I bear the burdens of Community like a man. I am robbed as a woman! I have no voice in anything or in saying how my money which I have earned, shall be spent. The men of Illinois and the United States run their hands into my pockets, take out my hard earned money, and say impertinently, 'What are you going to do about it, you can't help yourself.'"

In 1906, Kepler's husband died so she sold their home and moved to a farm. when it failed financially, she tried (unsuccessfully) to earn a living through writing (particularly poems and songs). She was too proud to accept charity from friends, so her last years were spent in poverty and she was regarded (in Effingham) as an eccentric (12: Hard Times).    

Kepley, who in addition to her law degree also earned a Ph.D., worked hard to ensure that future generations--think Sandra Day O'Connor and the other women on the Supreme Court--would have an opportunity to use their talent and intellect.

Looking forward to your comments...

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

156: The Self-Empowered Woman: Buranobskiye Babushki

Dear Followers,

It's pretty common knowledge that I really love stories about women who set a goal for themselves and then reach it. Today's blog is about an ethno-pop singing group composed of a group of older women who have been dubbed "elderly grannies" by the media. The women perform in embroidered pinafores that have been handed down from generations of earlier Udmurt women, and some of their head scarves are over 300 years old. Known as the Buranobskiye Babushki, they're from a small village in Russia that lies halfway between the Volga and the Urals, and recently they came in second place at the 2012 International Eurovision Song Contest.

While most of their songs are performed in the Udmurt language, they've also performed cover versions of popular English-language hits like "Let It Be," "Hotel California," "We Are The Champions," "Yesterday" and "I Am Beautiful." Perhaps their most popular song (at least according to YouTube) is "Part for Everybody."

Two years ago, the women began singing with the hopes of rebuilding the Trinity Church in their small town. The church had three altars (one devoted to the Trinity, the other to Archangel Michael, and the third to the Prophet Elijah). It had been built in 1865, but was closed by Communist Party commissars in 1937 and destroyed by oil-drilling crews twelve years later.

Their village (which is 820 miles east of Moscow) has a population of only 568, and in the past the "Grannies" have coped with war, famine, Stalin's Communism and endured winter temperature that can get below -35 degrees Celsius (which means -31 degrees Fahrenheit). To observers, it almost seems as if little has changed since Tsarist times.

Only in the last few years has the village acquired indoor plumbing and television. And thanks to the singing group's popularity, the women have raised closed to $250,000, which has allowed excavation work and scaffolding to begin where the future church will stand.

The women pictured above are 54, 63, 72, 73 and 76 years old, and village life for them usually consists of tending to their chickens, goats, vegetable gardens and gathering honey and mushrooms from the nearby forest. Now, thanks to their Eurovision popularity, one member even owns a washing machine. Great grandmother Galina Koneva, however, who is 73, still lives in a home with a 19th century log-burning stove.

The women don't earn money directly from Eurovision, but they do get money from singing at concerts, but schools from miles around have sent classes on field trips to visit their quaint homes. According to Alevtina Begisheva, 60, "I had a vision that something would change in our village. But I never imagined that we would return our church this way." To watch the Grannies in action, follow this link:"

Looking forward to your comments...

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

155: The Self-Empowered Woman: Emma Willard

Dear Followers,

Most American women owe a huge debt to Emma Hart Willard (2/23/1787--4/15/1870), because she was one of the first women's rights activists and education pioneer for women. The photo above is of the Troy Female Seminary, which she founded to help both boarding and day students receive a quality education. Opened in September, 1881, it was the first center for higher education for women--and offered classes in philosophy, geography, history and science. Her school predated Mount Holyoke by 16 years, and the public high schools of Boston and New York City by five years. Willard always believed that nothing was more important for a woman than to be well educated; the right to vote meant much less to her than the right to study.

I became interested in Willard while reading David McCullough's new book The Greater Journey, which introduces us to accomplished Americans who visited Paris between the years 1830 and 1900. She was one of only a handful of American women to cross the Atlantic (at a time when travel on a sailing ship was no easy feat), to discover Europe for herself. She planned to use her experiences in Paris as away to broaden the horizons of her students back home, and her descriptions of the journey and the (incomparable) destination gave me new-found respect for this adventurous educator. 

Willard (born Emma Hart) was the 16th of 17 children. her father was a farmer and--unusual for the time--encouraged her to read and think for herself. He recognized her natural curiosity and talent for learning, and even though most girls back then received only a basic education (because they were destined to become housewives) he foresaw a different future for Emma (4: Supportive Someone). At the age of 15, she was enrolled at a local academy in Berlin, New York and quickly excelled; two years later she had been promoted to be a teacher, and by 1806 she was in charge of the school (2: An Early Sense of Direction).

For the next several years, she taught in Westfield, Massachusetts, and from 1807 to 1809 she was the principle of the Middlebury Female Seminary in Vermont. While there, she met and married Dr. John Willard who was 28 years her senior, and brought four children with him from his previous marriages. But unimpressed by the curriculum available at these schools, in 1814 she opened a boarding school for women in her own home.   Inspired by what her nephew (John Willard) was learning at Middlebury College, she decided to expose her students to subjects like mathematics and philosophy, rather than just domestically-oriented skills. This experiment proved that women could teach and girls could learn the classical and scientific subjects that were assumed to be suitable only for male students (11: Risk Addiction).

Soon afterwards, she began to fight for the first women's school for higher education in America.   Willard presented her ideas in a pamphlet that she gave to the New York Legislature in 1819. She proposed that a women's seminary should be publicly funded, just as men's schools were at that time. But the legislators believed that women's education was contrary to God's will, and they didn't even respond to her proposal. Just the year before, Thomas Jefferson had written a letter saying that women should not read too many novels or too much poetry. Willard, on the other hand, wrote that "the taste of men, whatever it might happen to be, has been made into a standard for the formation of female character...we too are primary existences...not the satellites of men" (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).

Fortunately, Governor DeWitt Clinton suggested that she open a school in Waterford, New York. But when she didn't receive the necessary financial support, she moved her school to Troy in 1821, and it became the first school in The United States to offer higher education to women. Within ten years the enrollment was over 300 students (8: Turning No Into Yes). 

In 1825, when she was 38 years old, her husband died, and in 1838 she married Dr. Christopher Yates, and moved to Boston with him (she left her son and daughter-in-law in charge of the Troy Female Seminary). The marriage was an unhappy one, and they separated after only nine months; their divorce was final in 1843 (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

Even though she retired as head of her school in 1838, her passions for education continued for the rest of her life (7: Magnificent Obsession). She wrote numerous books, travelled widely, and in 1854 she was the U.S. representative at London's World Education Convention.  In 1905, Willard was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx, New York.

Looking forward to your comments...

Saturday, July 7, 2012

154: The Self-Empowered Woman Mildred Dresselhaus

Dear Followers,

Can you imagine--at the age of 81--happily going to work each and every day, and loving what you do? Meet Mildred Spiewak Dresselhaus, who was born in Brooklyn on November 11th, 1930 and is an Institute Professor and Professor of Physics and Electrical Engineering (Emeritus) at MIT. She has taught there ever since she became a visiting professor of Electrical Engineering in 1967, and she has been a tenured faculty member since 1968.

Her parents were immigrants from Poland, and her father always had a hard time finding work (1: No Parental Safety Net). During her childhood, the family often had only meager amounts of food, she had no toys, and owned only one set of clothes, which her mother would wash each night (12: Hard Times).

Because she grew up in a tough neighborhood, she learned to protect herself against bullies when her family moved to the Bronx and she had to travel on the elevated train and the subway (as a six year old) to a school in Greenwich Village. In her words, "The scariest part was coming home and getting off the train in the Bronx, when I had to walk through that dangerous neighborhood. But I survived."

Dresselhaus' older brother was a musical prodigy, and at the age of six she also received a music scholarship. Today, she still plays violin and viola in chamber groups (9: Music).

After attending Hunter High School, Dresselhaus then enrolled at Hunter College where she thought she would become an elementary school teacher because "At that time there were only three kinds of jobs commonly open to women: teaching, nursing and secretarial work." At Hunter she took a class in elementary nuclear physics and her teacher was Rosalyn Yalow, who would later become a Nobel laureate. The class was small, and Yalow told her that she should focus on science. "After that, she was always in my life, writing letters of recommendation for me, keeping up with my progress." Like Dresselhaus, Yalow also came from a disadvantaged background and urged her student to press ahead despite detractors, taught her to recognize opportunity, work hard, and then followed her career with both "advice and love."

Then, when Dresselhaus enrolled in the University of Chicago for her graduate work, she studied with Enrico Fermi, who also had few students and took a great personal interest in each of them. Because they lived near each other, student and professor began walking together early each morning, "He had such a sharp mind. I learned how to think about physics from him." (4: Supportive Someone).

Known to her friends as Millie, Dresselhaus particularly enjoys interacting and working with her students at MIT. "I like to be challenged. I welcome the hard question and having to come up with a good explanation on the spot. That's an experience I really enjoy." (10: The Critic Within).

Dresselhaus became a Fulbright Fellow in 1951, earned a masters in physics from Radcliffe College in 1953, and a Doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago in 1958. As a married mother of four children, she was often harassed when working at the male-dominated Lincoln Lab if she arrived late or left early because of child-related issues (16: Intensive Motherhood). Most of her female colleagues left MIT, but she persevered and became one of the few female professors at MIT when the student body was only 2% female. (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).

As a pioneering woman in science, Dresselhaus has received dozens of prestigious awards. These include 19 honorary doctorate degrees, the 1990 National Medal of Science, and she was one of five women (in 2007) to receive L'Oreal-UNESCO's Women in Science Award (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

Looking forward to your comments...