The Soviets needed someone who could handle themselves jumping from 20k ft, the mandatory ejection altitude from the reentry of a rocket capsule. One of the many facets of the space race the Soviets wanted to win was having the first woman in space. In February 1962, she and four other women, three parachutists and a pilot, began the intensive training to become cosmonauts. My name’s…
At the time of this recording, it’s been fourteen month since the 2016 election in which the electoral college chose not to elect the first female US president. Most people know that Hillary Clinton wasn’t the first woman to run for the high office. What most people don’t know is that the first female candidate for president ran before women were allowed to vote.
Victoria Claflin, later Victoria Woodhull, was one of ten children born to an illiterate mother and a petty criminal father. Woodhull attended school sporadically for a few years. At age 15, when she married a doctor who soon revealed himself as an alcoholic philanderer. To make matters even more difficult, Woodhull gave birth to a mentally handicapped son in 1854 at age 16.
Three of Woodhull’s siblings had died as children and she left she had clairvoyant powers to communicate with them. Always looking for a new scam to run, her father put her and her sister Tennessee on the road with a faith-healing and fortune-telling business, selling elixirs that promised to cure everything from asthma to cancer. They didn’t. In fact, Tennessee was indicted for manslaughter after one of her “patients” died.
By some good fortune, the sisters found themselves with a wealthy patron in the form of railroad magnet Cornelius Vanderbilt. He and Tennessee were rumored to be lovers. Stock tips that she gleaned from the relationship proved handy during an 1869 gold panic, during which the sisters claimed to have netted around $700,000. With Vanderbilt’s bank-rolling, Victoria and Tennessee then opened their own highly publicized firm named Woodhull, Claflin & Co., becoming the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street. However, they were never granted a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. It would take another near-century before Muriel Siebert did in 1967.
In the same year that she became a stock-broker, Woodhull attended her first suffragette rally and immediately became passionate about the cause. She befriended (or beguiled) a congressman to get her an invitation to testify before the House Judiciary Committee. She argued that woman did already have the right to vote under the 14th and 15th amendments, those granted persons born or naturalized in the United States citizenship and prohibited voter discrimination, but they declined to enact any legislation on the matter. Even still, the appearance made her a celebrity among suffragettes.
In April 1870, just two months after opening her brokerage firm, Woodhull announced her candidacy for president of the United States on a platform of women’s suffrage, regulation of monopolies, nationalization of railroads, an eight-hour workday, direct taxation, abolition of the death penalty and welfare for the poor. Woodhull helped organize the Equal Rights Party, which nominated her at its May 1872 convention. Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass was selected as her running mate. However, he never acknowledged it, and in fact campaigned for incumbent Republican Ulysses S. Grant. Woodhull’s name only appeared on ballots in some states. No one knows how many votes she received because they apparently weren’t counted.
All this was essentially moot, considering Woodhull did not reach the Constitutionally-required age of 35 until six months after the inauguration.
It would be 1964 before a woman was actively considered for the nomination of a major party, when Margaret Chase Smith qualified for the ballot of six state primaries, even coming in second in Illinois. The only female candidate other than Clinton was Faith Spotted Eagle, a Native American activist who received a vote from Robert Satiacum Jr., who is referred to as a ‘faithless elector’ for not voting as pledged. Satiacum also voted for Winona LaDuke for vice president. LaDuke is executive director of Honor the Earth, a Native environmental advocacy organization that plays an active role in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
Victoria Woodhull’s time in the stock game wasn’t the first time a woman made her mark with math and figures. Ada Lovelace
The late 20’s and early 30’s was a good time to be a Yankees fan, with instantly recognizable names like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at the height of their careers. Yet both were struck-out by a player whose name you probably haven’t heard, Jackie Mitchell, before she was even old enough to vote.
Trained by neighbor and professional pitcher, “Dazzy” Vance, and booked by showman promoter Joe Engel to the AA team The Lookouts, Jackie drew attention with her sinking curveball, back then called a “drop.” She received a fair amount of press coverage before the game against the Yankees, and it was as snarky and condescending as one would expect. Nevertheless, on that day in 1931, the two members of Murderers Row fell to her arm, with six strikes and one ball in the seven pitches.
It is widely believed that her contract was voided by commissioner Kenesaw Landis because females were considered too delicate to play ball everyday. What the evidence supports is that her inclusion was viewed as a promotional stunt, like hot dog eating contests and greased pig chases. There may be some truth to this, since she would later tour the country playing with gimmick-based teams, something like a cross between P.T. Barnum and the Harlem Globetrotters. Further, claims would be made later that the match-up was fixed, with the Sultan of Swat and the Iron Horse playing along to make Jackie look better than she was. The counter-argument to that being, if you were Babe Ruth, would you admit to being struck out by a high school girl?
If you’re a fan of Futurama like this reporter and that name has been nagging familiarly at you, Jackie Anderson was a one-off character in the episode “A Leela of Her Own,” where she became the first non-gimmick professional blernsball player. Give the factual references the writers are known for including, it’s hard not to think there’s a connection there.
The first American woman to win gold in the Olympics passed away fifty-five years after competing without ever knowing that. At the 1900 Paris games, Margaret Ives Abbott, born in 1878, won the women’s nine-hole golf tournament on May 22, narrowing beating out England’s Charlotte Cooper, who won the tennis singles event on July 11, to claim “firsties”. She was awarded a porcelain bowl rather than a medal, something not done before or since in the summer games. 1900 was the first year in which women were allowed to compete, seeing eleven female contenders in the “ladylike” sports of golf, tennis and yachting.
The Olympics were held as part of the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, but due to poor organization, many competitors, including Abbott, did not realize that the events they participated in were actually part of the Olympics and not part of the wider World’s Fair. Other events held at the fair but not approved by the International Olympic Committee included kite flying, motorcycle racing, and fire fighting.
The official competitions included, cricket, croquet, a variant of handball called Basque pelota, tug-of-war, and swimming, for which one winner was awarded a 50 pound bronze horse statue. This was also the only Olympic Games in history to use live animals, specifically pigeons, as targets during the shooting event.
Some ten million people were glued to their television sets on Saturday nights in 1993 to follow the trials and tribulations of pioneer and pioneering female physician, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Little did fans know, the first female doctor in America had received her license a scant two decades before the show takes place. Elizabeth Blackwell was born into a then-prosperous British family, the third of nine children, in 1821. Blackwell loved scholarship and helped support her family by teaching, alongside her mother and two sisters, after the death of her father.
The inspiration to study medicine came from a friend who was dying of cancer and complained of the difficulty in being examined by a male doctor. Blackwell’s pursuit would be no mean feat, as women were considered not only intellectually but morally unfit to practice medicine. Not to mention little higher education was available to women and medical school was expensive. Blackwell read medical textbooks in her landlord, Dr. Rev. John Dickson’s, library while continuing to teach and save money for tuition. After being rejected by all twenty-nine medical schools in Philadelphia and New York, Blackwell began applying to lesser-known schools, eventually being accepted at Geneva Medical College in western New York State. The administration had actually let the students decide whether or not to admit a woman; the boys had thought it was a big joke and voted yes. A woman studying medicine was such an aberration at that time, people would stop and stare at her on the street. Blackwell stayed focused and devoted herself utterly. Even though she started mid-term, she became the head of her class, and there she stayed until she graduated in 1849 at age 28.
A medical degree was no blank check, however. When Blackwell went to Europe to broaden her studies, no hospital would accept her, except for one in Paris, and only then on the condition that she be a student midwife, not a physician. Her dreams of being a surgeon would be taken from her, along with an eye, by purulent ophthalmia, a conjunctivitis, often arising from gonorrhea, which she contracted from a patient. Germ theory and widespread hand-washing for doctors were still a decade away.
Moving back to New York, Blackwell determined to open her own practice, but no landlord in the city would rent space to her. Eventually she hung her shingle in Jersey City, where business was initially slow. To get her name out, Blackwell began giving lectures on women’s health and wrote articles on the importance of good hygiene, exercise, and physical education for girls in school. Her sister Emily would receive her degree in 1853 and the two opened a womens & children’s clinic in the slums of New York along with German midwife-turned-doctor, Marie Zakrzewska. After the first clinic closed, they opened The New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which still exists as the Beekman Downtown Hospital. It not only served the poor but provided a training facility and positions for female medical and nursing students.
Blackwell would return to England to lecture and become the first woman to have her name entered on the Medical Register of the United Kingdom. A constant advocate for sanitary condition, Blackwell helped to establish the US Sanitary Commission in 1861, a private relief agency created by federal legislation on June 18, 1861, to support sick and wounded soldiers during the American Civil War. She also contributed by organizing a unit of female field doctors and nurses.
In 1868, she founded the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary. One of the school’s students was Sophia Jex-Blake, who would later open a medical school for women in London. Among the Infirmary’s first residents was Dr. Rebecca Cole, only the second African-American woman to become a doctor. Cole received her degree in 1867, two years after the end of the Civil war and three years after Rebecca Lee Crumpler.
Elizabeth Blackwell overcome many hurdles society had positioned between her desire to be a doctor and actually obtaining a degree. For Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the journey would be even more difficult.
Born in 1831 in Delaware, Crumpler was raised by an aunt in Pennsylvania who spent much of her time caring for sick neighbors and the invalid. At age 21, she moved to Boston, where she would work as a nurse for eight years. Crumpler would train on the job, as the first formal school of nursing wouldn’t open until 1873. She was admitted to New England Female Medical College in 1860, on a scholarship from the Wade Scholarship Fund, which was established by the Ohio abolitionist, Benjamin Wade. At that time, of the 54,000 physicians in the United States, 300 were women, none of whom were African-American women. As late as 1920, there were only 65 African-American women doctors in the United States. On March 1, 1864, the board of trustees named her a Doctor of Medicine, making her the first African-American woman in the United States to earn the degree, and the only African-American woman to graduate from New England Female Medical College until it closed nine years later.
After the American Civil War ended in 1865, she moved to Richmond, Virginia, believing it to be “a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.” She also provided medical care to freed slaves under The U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, an unpopular agency which existed for seven years, though it was only intended to last for one year after the end of the war. It will come as no surprise that Crumpler was subjected to intense racism and sexism. According to one source, “men doctors snubbed her, druggist balked at filling her prescriptions, and some people wisecracked that the M.D. behind her name stood for nothing more than ‘Mule Driver'”
In 1883, she published A Book of Medical Discourses from the notes she kept over the course of her career, one of the first books by an African-American about medicine. It was dedicated “to mothers, nurses, and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race” and focused on the medical care of women and children. Crumpler describes the progression of experiences that led her to study and practice medicine, “It may be well to state here that, having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania, whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others.” Her book also contains much of what we know about Crumpler in its introduction. Few records and only one possible photograph of her have survived.
Three years before the death of Rebecca Crumpler in 1895, Bessie Coleman, the first female African-American pilot, was born in the tenth of thirteen children in rural Texas. Her father was a tenant farmer who, along with her older brothers, abandoned the family, leaving Coleman to care for her younger sisters as her mother struggled to provide for them. Through this, Coleman managed to get to the one-room school four miles away, or borrow books from a traveling library wagon when she couldn’t. Coleman was able to pay her way through one semester at Langston University in Oklahoma by working as a laundress, but the cost of continuing forced her to drop out.
Coleman moved to Chicago, where two of her brothers lived. Both had served in World War I and told stories the French women who could be pilots. Seeing no reason she could not be a pilot as well, Coleman sought out every flight school she could find. Every one turned her down, whether it was for being a woman, African-American, or both. Undeterred, Coleman figured that if women in France were allowed to fly, then that was where she should go. So, Coleman found herself the only female and person of color at the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France, where she completed the ten month course in only seven months. On June 15, 1921, Bessie took the test for her pilot’s license and passed. She received her license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Now that she had the pilot’s license, she had to find a way to earn a living with it. In the early days of aviation, the only way to earn money was to give rides or entertain people with aerobatic flying, prompting Coleman to return to Europe for six months of advanced aviation training. Debuting in the US in September 1922, the diminutive Coleman wore a military-looking uniform to help her look more official and important as she boarded her plane. The crowd was amazed as she performed figure eights, loop-the-loops, barrel rolls, and other barnstorming stunts. She became “Queen Bess, Daredevil Aviatrix.”
The legend of “Queen Bess” spread and Coleman began to draw huge crowds of black and white audiences wherever she went. When Coleman returned to her home state of Texas to perform in 1925, she refused to perform at venues with segregated gates. Even with her great success, a career in performance aviation was expensive, with plane repairs, doctor bills from a bad crash, and even the purchase of a new airplane. In addition to this, it was Coleman’s dream to open a school of aviation for African-American students. Saving for that school was difficult, so Coleman began supplementing her income with lectures, parachute jumping, and wing walking.
On April 30, 1926, while preparing for an airshow in Jacksonville, Florida, Coleman went with her mechanic at the controls to scout locations for parachute jumps the following day. Observers reported that the plane went into a dive, then flipped. Coleman was thrown from the plane, dying instantly. The plane crashed to the ground, killing the mechanic. It was later determined that a loose wrench had become jammed into the controls.
Some 10,000 people attended Coleman’s funeral in Chicago. Three years later, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club was established. The school Coleman dreamed of trained many outstanding African American pilots, including Willa Brown and the Tuskegee Airmen. For years afterwards, the Challenger Pilots’ Association of Chicago and later the Tuskegee Airman did a flyover of Lincoln Cemetery on Coleman’s birthday to honor her.
While barnstorming was the thing to see in the roaring 20’s, if you asked a member of Generation X or older to name a famous stunt-performing, they would likely say, Evil Kenevil, the motorcycle-jumping holder of Guinness’s world record for most broken bones in a lifetime at 433. But when it comes to originality, Kenevil pales in comparison to Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel in October ,1901. This was a dangerous and exciting feat of derring-do pulled off by a very proper, and arguably boring, person.
Widowed by the civil war, Taylor was having trouble making ends meet on her school teacher salary. From her home in Michigan, she read about the Pan-American Exposition, a World’s Fair being held in Buffalo, New York, which would later be remembered primarily as the scene of President McKinley’s assassination by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. Taylor was struck with an idea for what was essentially an absolutely bonkers retirement plan. With hundreds of thousands of people in the area for the Expo, Taylor set her sights on fortune and fame. With the sometimes-reluctant help of two assistants, Taylor made a pickle barrel, five feet tall by three feet in diameter, and outfitted it with cushions, including a lucky heart-shaped satin pillow, and a leather harness to hold her in place, as well as lead weights at the bottom to keep it upright. She tested the barrel with a cat, who thankfully survived. If you look online, you can see a photo of Taylor posing with the barrel and a surprisingly calm-looking cat.
The plunge was set for October 24, her 63rd birthday, though she claimed to be 43. Even with everything in place, the stunt almost didn’t happen. The crew of the boat tasked with towing the barrel to the middle of the fast-flowing Niagara River were reluctant to help with what seemed likely to be a polite older woman’s suicide. Finally, at 4 PM, Taylor was sealed into the barrel, towed to the appointed spot and cut loose. The rapids knocked the barrel around violently for nearly twenty minutes before it plunged over Horseshoe falls. Taylor emerged from the barrel badly shaken with a small laceration to her scalp, but otherwise unharmed.
Fame came immediately, and left almost as quickly. Photo-ops and speaking engagements were set up for the woman dubbed “Queen of the Mist,” but Taylor reported lackedly any kind of charisma as a speaker. Audiences found her somnambulant. The public quickly lost interest and moved on. Making it even more difficult to pull in the crowds, Taylor’s manager Frank Russel absconded with the famous barrel, the key visual of her presentations. He also took much of her earnings and and Taylor spent most of her savings hiring private investigators to find him.
Though Taylor would die penniless in a nursing home at age 82, the name Queen of Mist lives on in the form of a tart barrel-aged beer from Martin House Brewery in Texas as well as an off-Broadway musical that premiered in 2011. Taylor was even the subject of an episode of the Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple. She is buried in what is called the “Stunters Section” of the Oakwood Cemetery in Niagara Falls, New York.
The first man to survive going over the falls was Bobby Leach, who used a custom-made metal barrel that looked rather like a submarine and in which he fractured both kneecaps and his jaw. Leach was able to parlay his accomplishment into a lucrative career, until he died from injuries sustained from slipping on an orange peel.
Taylor nearly didn’t have the title of first person to survive a barrel-borne trip over the falls. A month earlier, in September 1901, an attempt was made by one Maude Willard. Disaster struck when her barrel became caught in a whirlpool for several hours. When the barrel was finally pulled from the river, Willard was found dead of suspected suffocation. She had taken her pet fox terrier with her and the dog, having better survival instincts than its owner, had lodged its nose in the barrel’s only air hole.
While braving the falls in a barrel may seem like a quaint, old-timey activity, like barn dances chasing a metal hoop with a stick, as recently as 1995 a man named Robert Overacker went over Horseshoe falls on a jet-ski.
In case this story has planted the germ of a dangerous idea in the listener’s mind, please be aware that of the fifteen people who went over the falls for reasons other than suicide, five have died. Also, going over the falls, with or without a vessel, is illegal on both the New York and Ontario sides. Despite inspiring more than a century worth of copy-cats, Taylor herself was not an advocate of anyone else surmounting the falls. “If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat,” she was quoted as saying. “I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces, than make another trip over the fall.”
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. It should go without saying that this is far from being a comprehensive list of female firsts. We have barely begun to scratch the surface of the lives of woman who broke with tradition and eschewed gender stereotypes, women who paved the way for the relative freedom we experience ever today. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.