“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.

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.

 

First Women from a British Fashion Magazine

Searching the airport magazine rack, on my way to Dallas, I spied a magazine with an intriguing promo on the first page. “Incredible Women” it shouted in letters only slightly smaller than the name of the magazine, Porter. I didn’t know the magazine (turns out it’s like Vogue and other high-end fashion magazines only it’s British and you can shop right off of its pages). One issue was $10, so I hesitated, but the subtitle, “The voices inspiring change in 2017” drew me in. I plopped down my money, certain the magazine would yield some First Women in its pages.

And it did—24 pages, with “50 global heroines in science, entertainment, business and beyond, who have spoken out and empowered us over the last 12 months.” The magazine was not current, it turned out, published early in 2017. This was before “Me, too” so the names might be different now, but the list did yield some interesting First Women:

Sarahal Suhaimi (photographed with hijab) – the First Women CEO of a Saudi investment bank, also the First Woman to head Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange.

Maria Balshaw – First Women to head the Tate Museum in England

Cressida Dick – First Woman head of the Metropolitan Police in London

Danny Cotton – First Women commissioner of the London Fire Brigade

Misty Copeland  also made the list, the First African-American Woman principal at the American Ballet Theater.

There were three First Women who surprised me:

Nita Ambani – First Woman member of the International Olympic Committee (Women have competed since 1900. What took so long?)

Barbara Jatta – First Woman to head the Vatican Library (Let’s hear it for Pope Francis!)

Jamie Kern Lima – First Woman CEO of L’Oreal (Really? This company was founded in 1909 in Paris to sell women’s cosmetics. Only now a woman is in charge?)

In general, a disproportionate number of women in fashion and related industries were in the list. Upon reflection, I wondered whether women might make faster progress in chipping away at glass ceilings if the women in industries that are generally considered “Women’s Work” spoke out more and pushed for change. Given the recent “Me, too” movement, perhaps they have.

The piece also pointed out the number of women who are still recognized as “The First Woman To. . .” In lists of men that appear in magazines, the words ‘the first man to. . .” rarely makes the page. Except for Neil Armstrong or some athletic records, the word “first” rarely appears for our masculine counterparts. I long for the day when women routinely participate in so many arenas that the word “first” does not have to be used to define a woman who succeeds.

 

 

Betsy Duke – Chair of Wells Fargo Bank

As a struggling actress in a dinner theatre, Betsy Duke needed a second job. She got a part-time waitressing job but the dry cleaner where she applied didn’t hire her, so she settled for a part-time job as a teller at a local bank. And the rest of her life began. She became so enamored with banking that she supplemented her bachelor’s degree in drama with an MBA at Old Dominion University and kept moving up the ladder.

I believe the work women learn in their homes makes them good candidates for management positions. They learn to multi-task to the max and are able to handle the complexity and pressure of managing others. Likewise, they learn to clean up messes and Betsy Duke has helped clean up plenty of them.

When Betsy Duke’s business partner died suddenly, she took over management of the Bank of Tidewater. It was 1991 and almost a third of the savings and loans in the United States failed. Duke acquired failing branches and grew her bank’s position.

In 2008 Duke joined the Federal Reserve board. She warned that lenders didn’t have enough capital on hand, but Lehmann Brothers fell before adequate action had been taken. She was left to assist the Federal Reserve in righting the financial ship.

Now she has taken the helm of Wells Fargo Bank, the world’s second-largest bank in market capitalization and the third-largest in assets in the U.S. The problem is that Wells Fargo was caught in a public scandal several years ago, opening accounts for “customers” who had not requested them–another mess Duke must attempt to clean up.

Being a woman at the top is never a cakewalk but Duke has additional burdens. First of all, she does not automatically have the support of some other powerful women. Both Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Representative Maxine Waters of California have criticized the choice of Duke to run Wells Fargo. They argue that Duke had been on the Board of Wells Fargo and that leadership should have come from outside the institution.

Since Duke was only on the board a short time, and came on the board after the scandal, this argument does seem to be a bit overblown. If the past is an example, Duke will not let this criticism deter her. She will do the job she was hired to do and she will do another job as well.

Duke has not always embraced an obligation to be a role model for other women. When she became president of the American Bankers Association in 2004, the First Woman heading the organization in its then 129-year history, she downplayed her gender. She did not want others to think being a woman had any part in her obtaining the position. Now she regrets that choice and is committed to seeing herself as an example for other women. “It’s really important,” she says, “to embrace being a role model of high-visibility positions for women.”

Women in Business: Good News and Bad

Within the last week, the Seattle Times included two articles about First Women in business. They highlight for me the importance of celebrating women’s achievements while placing their accomplishments in perspective.

Laurie Stewart was the First Woman to lead a local financial institution here in the Seattle area. She is currently President of Sound Financial Bancorp, and has been for 28 years. She was actually the second choice of the bank’s board, but the man who was first choice turned down the offer.

Stewart believes moving up the ladder should be a “simple progression,” with women rising naturally to the upper levels. But it is not. “It’s still a tough, tough glass ceiling,” she said.

Irene Rosenfeld is another First Woman who garnered attention in the newspaper last week. She is CEO of Mondelez International, a multinational company with an annual revenue of around $30 billion. With sites in 165 countries, Rosenfeld is responsible for 107,000 employees.

Mondelez’ products include chocolate, biscuits, gum, confections, and powdered beverages. Although the company name is not a household word, many of its products are. Some of the most popular are: Oreo, Chips Ahoy!, Triscuit, Toblerone, Sour Patch Kids, Cadbury, Chiclets, Halls, and Tang. I wonder if Rosenfeld gives out free samples.

So, I celebrate these women, and other CEOs, but am sobered by the realization that only 6% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies last year were women. There are probably many reasons. One is the lack of diversity on public company boards. Of the people who hire CEOs, only one in five is a woman. Also, women tend to be hired in human resources and marketing in public companies and most CEOs often have financial and operating officer positions.

There is still much work to be accomplished in the business arena, but there has been progress. In 1995, just 22 years ago, there was not a single female CEO among the Fortune 500 companies. Unfortunately, progress for women in business still moves at a sluggish pace.