“Stagecoach Mary” Fields – First African-American Woman to Deliver U.S. Mail

One of my favorite Northwest First Women is Stagecoach Mary, the First African-American Woman mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. Mary was a slave born in Hickam County, Tennessee, where she lived for the first thirty years of her life. Her birth is not recorded, but she was probably born about 1832. When her mother pondered what to name her, she looked around the plantation and decided on Mary Fields.

It was not unusual in those times for a slave child to become friendly with a white plantation child and for those two to later grow apart. This path was a little different for Mary. She was friends with the plantation owner’s daughter, Dolly Dunn. They were separated when Dolly went off to boarding school and then Dolly joined a convent. During the Civil War Mary was left behind on the plantation where she had to learn survival skills. She learned to plant her own food, to raise poultry and, most important, to use plants for medicine. Then Mary and Dolly’s paths, atypically, reunited.

Dolly, who was now Sister Amadeus, invited Mary to come to Ohio to work in the convent. Both were about 30 years old at the time. When Sister Amadeus went to the missions of Montana, Mary remained behind. Then Sister Amadeus became ill and Mary went to Cascade, Montana, where the nuns had opened a school for Native American girls. Mary was already around 53 years old. She treated Sister Amadeus, who recovered. The nuns then paid Mary by engaging her to manage their gardens and chickens. She did manual labor, repaired buildings, did laundry, hauled freight. Eventually she became the forewoman at the convent.

Mary, however, was definitely not religious. She liked to drink and smoke in the bars with the rowdies in town. She was 6’2” and could deck a man with one blow. When the men at the convent realized that Mary was making more money than they were, they began to bad-mouth her, probably just relating actual events. The nuns had either not known of her outside activities, or had turned a blind eye, but the bishop did not. Mary was fired.

She then ran a restaurant, but she had this propensity to give away food to whoever couldn’t pay. The restaurant, not surprisingly, was a failure. She was already about 60 when she heard Wells Fargo was looking for someone to deliver the mail. Each applicant had to hitch horses to a wagon and she did so in record time, beating the other contenders. Thus, she became the First African-American to deliver the mail and only the second woman.

Mary had a reputation for always being on time with the mail. If her wagon and mule were caught in a snowdrift, she went forward on snowshoes. She was known for her dedication and it was during this time that she gained the sobriquet “Stagecoach Mary.” This is probably a reflection of her reliability, but some say she actually drove a stagecoach.

She was also known for her kindness to others, but Mary Fields still liked to drink and smoke. When the city of Cascade barred women from the saloons (other than prostitutes, of course), the mayor made a special exception for Mary—for the balance of her life.

Advertisements

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.

 

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.