First Women at the Movies, May, 2017

          Patty Jenkins is the First Woman to direct a superhero movie for a major studio. In May, 2017 her film Wonder Woman opened to the biggest weekend box office for a woman director in the history of cinema.

Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s civilian identity, had a long road from Themyscira, where she is princess, to the big screen. First the film had difficulty finding a studio. Then the movie was predicted that it would fail. Because Catwoman and Elektra had flopped, studio executive assumed the same would be true of Wonder Woman. Did studio executives not consider quality when making decisions. Just look at the rankings for the movies: Rotten Tomatoes gave Catwoman only 9% and Elektra 10%, whereas Wonder Woman received a 95% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes.

Forgive my snide aside here, but both Catwoman and Elektra were directed by men. Perhaps it takes a woman to appreciate the complexity of a woman superhero and produce a quality film about her. That, of course, is not be fair. Male directors succeeded with both Rogue One and The Hunger Games, successful films about strong warrior women. Perhaps the studio executives didn’t watch those films when they decided Wonder Woman could not succeed.

The large box office numbers are great, but the best part of the Wonder Woman is the reaction of young girls around the country. They are captivated by this character and emulating her costume as well as her strength and high morals.

Awards at Festival de Cannes

          In May, 2017, Sofia Coppola also won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. Her movie The Beguiled, based on a book by Thomas Cullinan, is the story of an injured Union soldier who is cared for in a boarding house of Confederate women during the Civil War. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning star along with Colin Farrell.

Coppola is actually the second woman to win the award but it has been a half century since the First Woman won Best Director recognition. In 1961 Soviet director Yuliya Solntseva won the Best Director prize for her film about World War II, The Story of the Flaming Years.

The most prestigious award at the Cannes Festival is the Palme d’Or. In the seventy-year history of the Festival, the Palme d’Or has been presented under various names, but only once has it been awarded to a woman. In 1993 Jane Campion received the prize for her film The Piano, but she shared it with Chinese film director Chen Kaige and his film Farewell my Concubine.

Closing Credits

The most promising thing about these achievements by Coppola and Jenkins might be the fact that the characters they portrayed were created by men. Women’s stories written by men and interpreted by women. It seems to be a winning combination, a true reflection of the meaning of feminism.

Sylvia Trent-Adams – First Nurse Surgeon General

        Sylvia Trent-Adams is a nurse, and the first non-physician to serve as Surgeon General of the United States (assuming the one veterinarian who held the position is counted as a physician). The position of Surgeon General was created in 1871 under President Grant’s administration, and the first five physicians to serve as Surgeons General were or had been soldiers. All Surgeons General hold the rank of Vice Admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (one of the seven U.S. uniformed services). Since the creation of the post, thirty-one people have served as Surgeons General, but twelve of them filled the position only as Acting Surgeons General. Four with the “Acting” title served 18 months or longer.

Five women have served at Surgeon General. Antonia Novello, a Hispanic, was the First Woman Surgeon General, appointed by George H.W. Bush in 1990. In 1993 Bill Clinton appointed Jocelyn Elders, who focused on AIDS. She was fired by the President after sixteen months and replaced by another woman, Audrey F. Manley, who was never given the full title even though she served for 3½ years. Manley had been the First African-American Woman appointed as chief resident at Cook County Children’s Hospital and the First African-American Woman to reach the rank of Assistant Surgeon General. Barack Obama appointed Regina Benjamin to the post in 2009, and she was confirmed.

Donald Trump has now appointed Sylvia Trent-Adams, although only in an Acting position as of now. Trent-Adams is not the only nurse to serve. In fairness, Richard Carmona, Surgeon General from 2002-2006, was a nurse, but also a physician (and had been a police officer and public health administrator as well). Trent-Adams does hold the distinction of being the first and only Surgeon General who spent her entire career in nursing. She had previously been a nurse officer in the U.S. Army and then served in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Bringing not only the perspective of a woman, but the added insights from nursing to the position, might shift its focus to children and family. One can hope!

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.