“Outlander” and a First Woman

The writers of Outlander know the power of First Women. In the second episode this season Claire is examining her lot in life. She has tried to fulfill her housewifely duties (with the notable exception of the bedroom). She keeps house, raises her child, entertains guests, and attends faculty parties, but she laments to herself that she does not feel “whole.”

While cleaning the breakfast dishes off the table, she reads the banner headline on the morning newspaper, “Truman Appoints First Woman Treasurer.” Just below is the name of Georgia Neese Clark.

One of the beauties of historical fiction is that real characters can appear in the narrative and Clark is very real. An economics major, she first tried her hand at acting. Later she worked at her father’s bank and, when he died, took over not only the bank, but a whole host of other business enterprises controlled by her father.

In her spare time, she was an active Democrat and supporter of Harry Truman. Men who support presidents often find themselves in the President’s administration, but from the beginning of the republic until Clark’s appointment in 1949 she was only the second woman to be rewarded. (The first was Frances Perkins, the First Woman cabinet member, appointed by FDR in 1933.)

For some reason, every Treasurer of the United States since Georgia Neese Clark has been a woman. The current Treasurer is Jovita Carranza.

The headline about Clark strikes Claire forcefully. She enrolls in medical school, where the white male students refuse to sit beside her. But she persists, graduates, and becomes a surgeon.

Outlander is one of my favorite sins. I crave it and indulge myself in its episodes. I appreciate that the series is adapted from a novel—and that the woman author is making big bucks from her work. It is historical fiction, combining fictional and real characters, my favorite genre developed in my favorite way. But, I also appreciate the artistry of the series: the lighting, the set design and decorations, the acting, the cinematography, the directing. And the writers, first of all Diana Gabaldon, author of the book, and the many artists who create the scripts.

Taking a whole episode to show a wedding night and maintaining tension throughout is a masterful creation. And now they have dipped their toes into my favorite topic. What could be better?

Claire is thrown into action by the example of a First Woman. The achievement of being first is laudable, but the greatest benefit is in the inspiration provided to other women. First Women are guiding lights. We cannot be what we cannot see.

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“Time” and First Women

After four years of writing about First Women on this blog, I am delighted to see Time magazine jump on the bandwagon for First Women. They have put together a wonderful multi-media project with profiles about First Women and I recommend you check it out.

The September 18 issue of Time has amazing photographs of 46 living women who are First Women. (Fourteen of them have been profiled previously in these posts.) The issue of the magazine is exciting for me because of the topic but, I have to admit, I was most blown away by the photographs. They were taken with an iPhone yet capture each woman’s essence and are photographic artistry at its best.

As part of the release Time has built a captivating web page at http://time.com/collection/firsts/ with short videos of each of the women. There are also three topic-focused videos about fighting sexism and double standards, finding inspiration to go first, and balancing family and work. I recommend viewing them all, although watching the same commercials at the beginning of each video does get tiresome. My favorite is the video on Family as I believe the obstacles to achieving a balance with work may be the most significant issue women face today.

All of this is a promotion for the book Firsts: Women Who Are Changing the World, by the editors of Time and Nancy Gibbs, the First Woman editor of the magazine. It will be released this week. My local independent bookstore should have a copy for me any day now and I’m looking forward to reviewing it on this blog. I believe that telling stories of First Women provides a springboard for conversations about how far women have come, but also a clarion call to women to work to preserve their rights for the future.

First Women at the Movies

          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!

Olympic Women with Multiple Firsts

For every sport and every event in the Olympics, there is a First Woman who won a medal in a sport when women were permitted to compete. Their names would fill a ledger book. The women featured here hold more than one first (although not all in the Olympics):

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 5.00.37 PM–Aileen Riggin swam in the 1920 and 1924 Olympic games. She won a gold medal at the 1920 Antwerp games, the youngest American to win Olympic gold. She was the first woman to medal in both swimming and diving. She was still swimming at 85 when she competed in the world masters championships—and broke six world records in her age group.

–Martha Norelius was the First Woman to win successive Olympic gold medals, in 1924 and 1928. She beat out Gertrude Ederle, the First Woman to swim the English Channel.

–Connie Carpenter-Phinney was the First Woman to compete in the winter and summer Olympics. She competed in speed skating in 1972 and still holds the record as the youngest competitor in the Winter Olympics. She won a gold medal in the cycling road race in 1984.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 5.06.19 PM–Deborah “Debbie” Meyer was the First Woman to win three individual Olympic gold medals—in the 200-, 400, and 800- meter freestyle swimming races.

–Bonnie Blair was an Olympic speed skater. She won a gold medal in 1988 and two golds in 1992, the First Woman to medal in two consecutive Winter Olympic games.

–Joan Benoit was the First Woman to win a marathon at the Olympics. This did not happen until 1984 because women were not allowed to run a marathon until then. She had previously won the Boston Marathon and set a record that held for 11 years.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 5.03.20 PM–Maria Gorohkovskaya of the Soviet Union was the First Woman to win a gold medal in women’s gymnastics when the sport was added to the Olympics in 1952. It was not until 1984 that an American woman won the gold. Mary Lou Retton went on to have her face featured on a Wheaties box. Wheaties had been putting athletes on its cereal boxes since 1934, but Mary Lou Retton was the First Woman.