Ella Higginson, First Poet Laureate of Washington State

In 1931 the state of Washington named Ella Rhoads Higginson as its first poet laureate. Not its First Woman poet laureate, its first poet laureate, period. Higginson was known throughout the United States for her depictions, both in prose and poetry, of the Pacific Northwest. And yet she received only a minimal obituary in the local paper when she died, and her name was lost to history. This changed in 2014, the day that Professor Laura Laffrado discovered Higginson’s archives in a Western Washington University library.

Ella Rhoads was born in Kansas, raised in Oregon, and settled with her husband, Russell Higginson, in Bellingham, Washington. She first published a poem when she was 14. Her early poems were published anonymously, as was the case for many women. After she married, she began to write under her own name (actually her husband’s name). She wrote more than 300 poems, published short stories, a novel, a travel book, and a newspaper column. Her novel, Mariella; of Out-West, was compared to Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, and Émile Zola. Her travel book, written over four summers spent in Alaska, poetically describes this unknown land, with words like “the mists, light as thistledown and delicately tinted as wild-rose petals.” The rest of the country felt invited to this distant land that was almost foreign to them.

Higginson was also an editor, having learned typesetting and editorial writing at the age of 15, while still living in Oregon. She was an editor for the Portland, OregonWest Shoreliterary magazine and an associate editor of the Pacificmagazine in Seattle.

Higginson, like many First Women, helped other women to succeed. In 1912 she was campaign manager for fellow Bellingham resident Frances C. Axtell when she ran for the Washington State House of Representatives, even though no women had served in the legislature since the state’s founding in 1889. Axtell was elected as was Nena J. Croake from Tacoma, the First two Women to serve in the Washington State Legislature.

Professor Laffredo, the hero who rescued Ella Rhoads Higginson from the dustbins of history, has given her a new life. Not only is her work being studied by Laffredo’s students, her archives are being used as a means to teach a new generation how to do research. One can only hope that this education will lead to the discovery of more women who have been erased from history.

 

P.S. Thank you to The Seattle Times for writing a superb article about Higginson and Laffrado in their Pacific NW magazine, and for re-writing her obituary to recognize her significance.

 

Advertisements

LaToya Cantrell, First Woman Mayor of New Orleans

New Orleans, one of my two favorite cities in the United States, is celebrating its 300th birthday. Three hundred years of vibrant history, but also three hundred years without a woman mayor—until last month.

LaToya Cantrell became the first female mayor of New Orleans when she was sworn in on May 7. There was no question that the next mayor would be a woman, as her opponent in the final election was also a woman. She beat Desiree Charbonnet with 60% of the vote.

One drawback for Cantrell was the fact that she was not born in the city of New Orleans, as was every mayor for almost all of the last six decades. She did move there when she was eighteen, to attend Xavier University of Louisiana. After earning a BA in sociology, she studied executive management training at the Kennedy School of Government.

Her skills came to the fore after Hurricane Katrina when the Broadmoor district of New Orleans was flooded by the levee break. The city decided that the Broadmoor section of the city, and a number of others would be turned into green spaces. As president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, Cantrell and her compatriots mobilized as they revitalized the area for business and housing. Later Cantrell was elected to the city council, which was the springboard for her election as mayor.

Her inauguration was typical New Orleans. It began, teetering on that thin line between Church and State, with a Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. It ended with the mayor and her daughter exiting with umbrellas lined with feathers and huge white plumes, a typical New Orleans “second line.”

The inauguration itself was rich with women. The emcee for the day was Donna Brazile, former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman, and New Orleans native. Music was provided by New Orlean’s only female brass band, The Original Pinettes, and Irma Thomas, known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.”

Mayor Cantrell proclaimed “Almost 300 years, my friends—and New Orleans, we’re still making history.” In this year when so many women are running for office, let’s hope she is on the front end of a long curve upwards.

Forward Momentum in the Senate

There were two major developments for First Woman in the U.S. Senate this year. One received extensive press coverage; the other did not.

Tammy Duckworth

Tammy Duckworth, Senator from Illinois, holds many firsts:

–First Woman double amputee of the Iraq War

–First disabled Woman elected to Congress

–First Asian-American Woman to represent Illinois.

–And now, the First Woman in the U.S. Senate to give birth while in office.

Considering how many women give birth, and that this country was founded 242 years ago, this seems almost inconceivable, but Senator Duckworth was the first. While she was pregnant the Senator raised the issue of family leave with the Senate. She advocated for benefits for families with young children or other family needs. She also helped overturn the prohibition of children on the Senate floor. After her baby was born, she brought her infant with her to the Senate floor, and made the news. A woman, with a baby, in public, doing her job.

Cindy Hyde-Smith

While Tammy Duckworth has received significant press, Cindy Hyde-Smith has not. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi retired in April, for health reasons. At that time the Republican Governor of Mississippi, Dewey Phillip Bryan, appointed Cindy Hyde-Smith to fill Cochran’s term. She has indicated that she will run for the seat this November, hoping to utilize her background in agriculture and commerce to win support.

Cindy Hyde-Smith is not only the First Woman Senator from the State of Mississippi, she is, in fact, the First Woman to represent Mississippi in Congress. Perhaps, the long dry spell is not surprising, given that Mississippi did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the right to vote until 1984. But in Mississippi’s defense, there are still 20 states that have never sent a woman to the Senate. Do the math: 20 out of 50 states (or 40%) have never elected a woman Senator.

»

Only 52 women have served in the Senate in the span of U.S. history; and only 23 are serving at this time. Once again, do the math: 23 women out of 100 (or 23%) represent more than 50% of the population. They have said that, given past progress, it will take another 100 years for women to achieve parity in Congress. Perhaps Senators Duckworth and Hyde-Smith are barrier-breakers who can speed up the trajectory for women’s success.

 

 

Lives of Passionate Dedication

When First Women leave us, it is worthwhile to pause and learn what their lives taught us. Louise Slaughter served in Congress until the end of her life; Jeannette Woldseth fought to save lives as she was losing her own. Both show how a passion for others can fill a life.

Louise Slaughter (1929-2018)

Louise Slaughter was a U.S. Representative from New York, the First Woman to chair the House Rules Committee. When she died in March of this year, she was the oldest member of Congress and the last member of Congress who had been born in the 1920s.

While living in the Kentucky coal mining region, her sister died of pneumonia, firing an interest in health issues for Slaughter. At the University of Kentucky she earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and a master’s in public health.

It is no surprise that she was responsible for securing funding for the first time for breast cancer research at the National Institutes of Health (an earmark of $500 million) and worked for other health issues. She co-authored, along with Senator Joe Biden, the Violence Against Women Act. She later worked with Senator Christopher Dodd to establish a Woman’s Progress Commemorative Commission to monitor historic sites dedicated to women.

Jeannette Woldseth (1953-2018)

Jeannette Woldseth was the First Woman full-time paid firefighter in the state of Washington. She was 23 in 1977 when she joined the Bellevue Fire Department, after serving as a volunteer firefighter there. Her father had also been a volunteer firefighter and her grandfather had driven horse-drawn wagons to fires in Seattle during his career as a firefighter, so her choice was clearly in her blood.

She progressed to captain and was known for her precision and focus. When she first got breast cancer, she had a double mastectomy. When it recurred and had metastasized, she began fundraising money for other cancer victims, knowing the funds would not benefit her. Even as she was dying she focused on saving the lives of others.

Reflections on International Women’s Day

It has been 99 years since the first Women’s Day was observed in February, 1909. In 1975 the United Nations proclaimed March 8 as Women’s Day. Today women in Spain are on strike, banging pots and telling men to fix their own dinners. Women in the Ukraine are holding signs that say, “We are Wonder Women.” In France the daily newspaper Libération is charging women the usual 2 euros, but men must pay 2.5 euros to highlight the disparity between men’s and women’s pay.

In 1909, about 15,000 women marched in New York for the right to vote, for better pay and for a shorter workday. Women earned the right to vote the next year, and their pay and workdays have improved since that time. However, women, who are about half the workforce and earn more college and graduate degrees than men, still only earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. For women of color, the situation is even worse. If the amount paid to women improves at its current rate, white women will reach parity with men by 2059. Black women would have to wait until 2124 and Hispanic women until 2233.

That is the discouraging news, but there is encouraging news as well. I only have to look at the amazing women in my own family to know that we are making progress.

This is my sister Stephanie, who served as a nurse in Vietnam, and then ran her own business.

 

 

This is my niece Sharmel, who endeavored to provide food to developing countries, and now works in the State Department.

 

 

 

These are my granddaughters, ice skating when they were 19 and 20 years old. Almost a decade later, Joanna (on the left) is completing her Ph.D. and is a fantastic mother. Elizabeth (in the center) just opened her own restaurant in Los Angeles, and Phoebe (on the right) works in publishing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. All are accomplished women.

As I sit here in my purple shirt, one of the suffragists’ colors, I do seethe a bit at how much progress we still need to make, but I bask in the knowledge that so many women today have come so far.