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!

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.

Martha Rountree, First Woman Moderator of “Meet the Press”

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 4.59.05 PMChuck Todd is currently moderator of “Meet the Press” on NBC, a one-on-one interview show sometimes followed by a roundtable. Todd follows many notable news correspondents: Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, Chris Wallace, Garrick Utley, Tim Russert, Tom Brokaw, David Gregory, and Martha Rountree. Wait, Martha Rountree? There has been a woman moderator?

In fact, Martha Rountree was the first moderator of “Meet the Press” in 1947. It was the first show where interviews were not rehearsed. She filled the position for six years. Not only was Rountree the moderator she was also “a” or “the” creator—depending on which source you check. Supposedly, Rountree and Lawrence E. Spivak introduced the show on radio in 1945 then on television two years later. Some say Spivak came to the party later and, although he was co-producer and business partner, Rountree generated the concept on her own.

The first guest was James Farley, Postmaster General and campaign manager for Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his first two terms. Every President since John F. Kennedy has been interviewed on the show, although not always during his presidency. The first woman guest was Elizabeth Bentley, an American who spied for the Soviet Union then defected and provided information on Soviet spies to the U.S. Government. Even then a woman had a better chance of getting noticed if she was notorious.

Since history is written by the male survivors, we may never know the truth about whether Martha Rountree developed the show, but she was the first moderater, even though she was a woman and it was 1947. She set the tone for the program and its future. It is the longest-running program in television history.

Frances Perkins – First Woman in the U.S. President’s Cabinet

 

FRANCES PERKINS PHOTORecently the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts (NILA) asked me to serve as their interim CEO. They offer an MFA in writing and I already respected their program as I have studied with one of NILA’s graduates and another is in my writing group. I went in ready to help a struggling organization, but discovered that the organization could not be saved. My job now is to close down a sterling program and assure that the students and faculty receive the best possible solutions under difficult circumstances.

The job is consuming, but has come with a plethora of unexpected little blessings. I often find myself on the verge of tears of gratitude. Of course, there are also struggles and the hardest one for me has been the absorption of my writing time into other endeavors. Even if I have time I am far too exhausted to write coherently, so today I am borrowing the words of another.

I just discovered a column from April 11, 2015 that appeared in The New York Times. The author is David Brooks, one of the best thinkers around, in my opinion—even if he’s not of the liberal persuasion. The article is “The Moral Bucket List” and I recommend the entire text. In it he mentions a First Woman, so I am including that portion of his column here:

“Frances Perkins was a young woman who was an activist for progressive causes at the start of the 20th century. She was polite and a bit genteel. But one day she stumbled across the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, and watched dozens of garment workers hurl themselves to their deaths rather than be burned alive. That experience shamed her moral sense and purified her ambition. It was her call within a call.

After that, she turned herself into an instrument for the cause of workers’ rights. She was willing to work with anybody, compromise with anybody, push through hesitation. She even changed her appearance so she could become a more effective instrument for the movement. She became the first woman in a United States cabinet, under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and emerged as one of the great civic figures of the 20th century.”

Appropriately, she was appointed U.S. Secretary of Labor and served from 1933-1945 (the full length of Roosevelt’s terms as President). Shortly after she finished her term, she wrote The Roosevelt I Knew, from her perspective as both a friend and fellow politician.