The Grimke Sisters in “The Invention of Wings”

One of the many beauties of Sue Monk Kidd’s fiction is her expression of the hearts of women, through their own words. This is accomplished with language that paints pictures in the reader’s mind and both tickles and challenges the reader’s soul. So, it was with delight that I read The Invention of Wings a second time, when my book group selected this historical novel.

The book is based on the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, both First Women. It is told through the eyes of the older sister Sarah and Handful (Hetty), the slave given to her on her eleventh birthday. It is a dramatic indictment of slavery, the cause for which Sarah and Angelina fought, told in a way that sends chills down one’s arms and roils one’s stomach.

Sarah and Angelina both witnessed slavery first hand in their home in Charleston, South Carolina and spread their message in the North. Because they spoke out fearlessly about the evils of slavery, they were invited to attend the American Anti-Slavery Society’s two-week training for anti-slavery agents. They were the first and only women in the group. They were castigated widely as they had the audacity to speak to “promiscuous audiences,” that is, mixed audiences of women and men.

In addition to speaking, they wrote in fierce prose, even daring to address unreceptive audiences. In 1836 Sarah, the more religious of the two, wrote and published Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States and in the same year Angelina wrote and published An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South.

Sarah chafed at the restrictions put upon her in her Quaker meeting and became more of a feminist than an abolitionist. It is believed she wrote the first treatise on feminism. It is known that the leaders of the suffrage movement leaned on her work.

Angelina was the First Woman to speak before a legislative body in this country when she spoke before a legislative committee in Massachusetts in 1838. She spoke against slavery and the need for abolition of the inhuman and immoral practice of slavery. For good measure, she threw in a few words on women’s rights.

The two women were lifelong companions, champions whose names do not often appear in history books. It is through art that they have been revived. Sue Monk Kidd has fictionalized their daring, but they were also commemorated in an art installation in 1979 by Judy Chicago called The Dinner Party. Chicago created a triangular table with 39 distinct settings celebrating 39 women from throughout the course of history. On the floor below were the names 999 other women of note. Both Sarah Grimke and Angelina Grimke’s names appear on what is aptly named the Heritage Floor, the basis for the rights we have won and still must fight to protect.

Lt. General Michelle Johnson, Revisited

Four years ago, I wrote about Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson when she became the First Woman Superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy, making her the First Woman to lead any U.S. Service Academy. She had several other firsts: the First Woman cadet wing commander (the most senior ranking cadet) at the Air Force Academy, First Woman from the Academy to be inducted into the Academic All-American Hall of Fame, and the First Woman Rhodes Scholar from the Academy.

When she enrolled in the Academy, she was in the second coed class, and women comprised only 12% of the class. She says she was treated as if she didn’t belong but, now that almost one-third of the cadets are female, she says that doesn’t occur today.

Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education contained an interview with her, after four years as Superintendent—the length of one academic course of study. The interviewer focused on the challenge I mentioned in the earlier article, the need to address sexual assault at the Academy.

General Johnson confronted the issue head on. In her first address to the cadets she said, “a person of character [and Air Force officers are expected to be persons of character] doesn’t harm someone else, doesn’t violate their personal boundaries, doesn’t discriminate against somebody else.”

Johnson believes focusing on the characters of leaders she can affect change in this institution that has not only an honor code, but a commitment to producing leaders of character who treat others with respect. She believes this is possible in the Air Force because, “[In the military] If you can do the work, fly the plane—planes don’t really care what you look like or where you came from—your earn the respect of your colleagues.”

Academy graduates in all branches of service are more likely to achieve the highest ranks in the military, so we should see more women at the top in the future. Fingers crossed!

First Women in the Senate

When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try.

[Margaret Chase Smith]

The First Woman who served in the Senate was Rebecca Latimer Felton in 1922. The governor of the state of Georgia had not supported the Nineteenth Amendment acknowledging the right of women to vote, and the new women voters were not happy. When a Senate seat became open, the governor hatched a plan. He appointed an 88-year old woman, a prominent suffragist, to fill a one-day term. No other woman from the state of Georgia has served in the Senate since.

Today, in 1917, there are 100 Senators in the U.S. Congress. Only 21 of them are women. More than half the population is represented by 21% of the Senate. On the surface of things, that would seem to mean that 42% of the states are represented by women but, in fact, California, California, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Washington each have two women senators. The result is that only one third of the states have a woman senator. A total of 21 states have never elected a woman to the Senate.

Eleven of the women in the Senate are in their first terms. In an organization that relies heavily on seniority for influence, women are at a distinct disadvantage. The women with the most seniority are Dianne Feinstein of California and Patty Murray of California, both elected in 1992. Only four years behind is Susan Collins of Maine. The remaining eighteen women senators were elected in this century, four of them freshmen senators this year.

Of the 46 women who have served in the Senate, in the 97 years since women earned the right to vote, only 33 were elected by their constituents. The rest were appointed to fill open seats.

Hattie Ophelia Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas was the First Woman elected to the U.S. Senate. Following precedent, the governor of the state had appointed her to the Senate when her husband died in 1931. Not following precedent, she decided to run for election. And she won, surprising everyone, including the governor.

The First Woman to serve in the Senate without succeeding her husband was Margaret Chase Smith. She had succeeded her husband into the House of Representatives but won the Senate on her own. She was an independent woman, chastising Senator McCarthy’s witch hunt for Communists when her colleagues, for the most part, remained silent. She was the only woman serving in the Senate at that time.

Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas was the First Woman to serve in the Senate without succeeding her husband in any branch of the Congress. This did not happen until 1978, more than 200 years after the country was founded. She was also the First Woman to chair a Senate committee. It was not until 1992 that the First African-American Woman, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, was elected to the Senate.

In 2000 two women, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Maria Cantwell of Washington made history by defeating incumbent elected male senators. In 2008, Kay Hagan was the First Woman to unseat another woman incumbent, Elizabeth Dole, the First Woman elected from North Carolina. And in 2013 Tammy Baldwin, the First Woman to represent Wisconsin in the Senate, was also the first openly gay U.S. Senator in history.

California was the first state to send two women to the Senate at the same time. The state of Washington was the first state to have two women senators and a woman governor at the same time.

Gwen Ifill – A First Woman in Television News

Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, co-anchors of PBS News Hour

A special woman died in November of last year and her life is a model for all women. Gwen Ifill, co-anchor of New Hour on PBS, separated her professional life from her personal life, not even informing others of her illness as she was dying. It is unfortunate that often we do not get to know special people until they are gone. We know only the public persona, which in Ifill’s case was impressive enough, but we know little of their private selves.

A “preacher’s kid,” Gwen Ifill grew up in a family that watched news and news-related shows on television. Ifill saw there (in her own words), “No women. No people of color.” This did not defer her progress.

Ifill attended Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, a college founded for women, that still has a women-centered focus today. She graduated with a degree in communications and went to work for the Boston Herald American. She later worked for the Evening Star in Baltimore, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

Tim Russert of NBC persuaded her to make the shift to television and in 1999 she became moderator of “Washington Week” (called “Washington Week in Review at that time). She was the First Black Woman to host a political affairs talk show. She was also managing editor of the program. In 2013 she and Judy Woodruff became the First Women co-anchors of “NewsHour” on PBS. They were also co-managing editors.

Ifill was the only first woman or black to moderate a vice-presidential debate, both in 2004 and 2008. She later moderated a primary debate between Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary Hillary Clinton, with her co-host Judy Woodruff.

There were several words that recurred in describing her and they provide inspiration for women who still strive to become First Women.

She had “courage.” She strode forward where no one had trod before. “I’m very keen about the fact,” she said, “that a little girl now, watching the news, when they see me and Judy sitting side by side, it will occur to them that that’s perfectly normal—that it won’t seem like any breakthrough at all.”

She embodied “fairness.” She pushed her interviewees hard, but always treated them respectfully, a model for those journalists that now think attacks are interviews.

And she represented “class.” She maintained her demeanor and professionalism.

These (and many more) were the ideals she conveyed to those around her. Having made her way up the ladder, she supported other women. The most touching tribute came from Ruth Marcus, a columnist at the Washington Post, who revealed that it was Gwen Ifill who recommended her for a commentator position at PBS.

Perhaps the greatest tribute came from someone who was not a work-a-day colleague. Scott Pelley, anchor of CBS News (for which she never worked) said she was “among the best we’ve ever had.” Another First Woman of stature and grave.

Irony in First Women’s Lives

The first six chapters of my book on First Women are drafted and my research keeps revealing ironies that intrigue me. I thought I’d share four ironies I uncovered in three of my First Women stories.

Irony One: Nellie Tayloe Ross was the First Woman governor in the United States. She was elected in the state of Wyoming, the first state to grant women the right to vote. Before she ran for office, her husband had been governor of Wyoming. When he died Tayloe Ross was left in dire straits, due to her husband’s poor money management. She possessed no other skills, so she solved her financial problems by running for his office. Later in Tayloe Ross’ life, this woman who got into politics because of her pecuniary circumstances, was appointed by President Roosevelt as the First Woman Director of the U.S. Mint.

Irony Two: Rebecca Felton was the First Woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. She was appointed by the governor of the state of Georgia, the first state to reject and fail to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the right to vote. This ironic twist, in fact, led to her appointment. After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the women of the state were irate with the governor and he thought he would appease them by appointing a woman to an open seat in the Senate.

Irony Three: The state of Georgia gave us the First Woman Senator in 1922. In the 98 years since Georgia has never had another woman senator.

Irony Four: Margaret Chase Smith of Maine was the First Woman Senator who did not assume her husband’s seat; she won it in her own right. She was serving on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy as the witch hunt for communists began. A woman of principle, she wrote and delivered a “Declaration of Conscience” from the Senate floor. The declaration proclaimed that every American had a “the right of independent thought.” She signed the document along with six of her male colleagues. (She was the only woman in the Senate at that time.)

McCarthy was so enraged he removed from the committee. In 1997, Senator Susan Collins became the First Woman to chair the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Like Chase Smith, she is from Maine.

Future Ironies? As I continue my research and writing, I will be on the lookout for more ironies. Stay tuned.