Clara Schumann – First Woman Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuosa at the Austrian Court (1838)

In honor of the bicentennial of the birth of Clara Schumann, Byron Schenkman & Friends performed a special concert to honor her last weekend. It was a delight to hear some of her rarely-performed music, especially in such an exquisite performance. The musicians played like a single multi-faced instrument, weaving in and out of one another with energy, compassion and grace.

Clara Schumann was the First Woman Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuosa at the Austrian Court. She was one of those rare women who had a monetarily-successful career with her own compositions and performances. In fact, she was successful enough to support herself and her struggling husband, Robert Schumann. After Robert died, Clara was the one who kept his music alive for posterity, facilitating his preservation in the classical canon. She, on the other hand, is largely ignored.

With the permission of Byron Schenkman & Friends, I am sharing the program notes from that concert (lightly edited). References to particular pieces of music were included in the performance.

Clara Schumann Bicentennial Celebration by Byron Schenkman & Friends

Clara Schumann, née Wieck, was one of the most influential European musicians of the 19thcentury. She began her career as a child prodigy whose performances dazzled international audiences and who published ten volumes of music while still in her teens. At 18, she was named “Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuosa” at the Austrian court, a first for anyone so young, let alone foreign, Protestant, and female. For most of the century she was at the center of a circle of German musicians dedicated to preserving and continuing the legacy of what would come to be known as Western classical music.

Following her triumph in Vienna, Clara composed a piece she calledSouvenir de Vienne,which included variations on a theme by Joseph Haydn. Early in their marriage she and Robert Schumann jointly studied scores of chamber music by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Clara’s only piano trio was composed in 1846 and published in the following year. Clara indicated in a letter that she had dedicated her trio to the pianist and composer Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn); however, that dedication never appeared in print. Johannes Brahms performed the work in 1854 in Hamburg, and the violinist Joseph Joachim reported that it was a great favorite at the Hannover court where he was employed.

In 1835 Felix Mendelssohn conducted the premiere of sixteen year old Clara’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 7, with her as soloist. The middle movement, a romance in the surprising key of A-flat major, is a luscious song without words for piano solo.

Robert and Clara Schumann were lifelong companions, lovers, and close colleagues who studied music together and often critiqued each other’s work. Clara outlived Robert by four decades. After his tragic early death she worked tirelessly to edit, arrange, and oversee the publication of his complete works while also supporting their large family.

During one of their few happy years together, Robert wrote a series of exquisite chamber works including his only quartet for piano and strings. Clara premiered this work at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on a program which also included Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor and Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata.


Clara Shortridge Foltz – First Woman Deputy District Attorney

Even though she was born in the middle of the nineteenth century, Clara Shortridge Foltz’s life may not have been dissimilar from some women today. She was a mother and career woman; she ignored barriers; and she had the courage to achieve in areas where there were no models for her to follow.

Born in Indiana, she moved with her family to Iowa during the Civil War. When she was fifteen, she eloped with a man who had difficulty supporting his family. He took her to Portland, then to San Jose. She kept body, soul, and family together by writing letters to The New Northwest and articles for the San Jose Mercury. Her husband finally deserted her and she became the single mother of five children.

In order to support her family, she gave public lectures about women’s suffrage, one of the few avenues for women to earn an income in that time and place. She also “studied” law in the office of a local judge, but when she went to take the bar exam she discovered that the California constitution specified one qualification for admission to the bar that she could not meet. She was not a “white male.” Not one to be deterred, she promptly used her legal training and drafted an amendment to change that language to “person.” She persuaded the legislature to pass the amendment, and became the First Woman admitted to the bar in all of the Western United States.

Wishing to perfect her skill, she applied to Hastings College of the Law, along with her friend Laura de Force Gordon, but they were denied admission. Although they did not have law degrees, they had studied enough law to bring a legal case against the school. They wrote the brief and argued the case all the way to the California Supreme Court. And they won.

In 1893 Foltz spoke to the Board of Lady Managers at the Chicago World’s Fair and proposed a new position for the legal system, that of public defender. This novel idea of providing legal assistance to the indigent is now practiced throughout the country. She also advocated for the separation of juvenile offenders from adults. That same year she organized the Portia Law Club with other women lawyers in San Francisco. Seven years later, in Los Angeles, she became the First Woman deputy district attorney.

In addition to being the First Woman admitted to the bar, and the First Woman deputy district attorney, she also held the following firsts in California:

–the First Woman clerk for the State Assembly’s Judiciary Committee,

–the First Woman appointed to the State Board of Charities and Corrections,

–the First Woman licensed Notary Public,

–the First Woman appointed as director of a major bank, the United Bank and Trust Company of San Francisco, and

–the First Woman to run for Governor of California. (She was 81 years old at the time.)

While not busy racking up firsts, she also founded and published the San Diego Daily Bee, and the New American Woman Magazine. She wrote a monthly column for the magazine until her death at the age of 85.

The women of Hastings College of the Law organized in 1991, and compelled the college to honor Foltz with a Doctor of Laws degree, fifty-seven years after her death. In 2002, the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building was renamed the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, a visible tribute to a legal dynamo.

“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.

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.


Queen Lili’uokalani – First Woman Queen of Hawai’i

THE QUEEENOn a recent visit to ‘Iolani Palace in Oahu, I paced off the room where our government had imprisoned Queen Lili’uokalani for almost a year. I tried to imagine how this well-educated, world-traveled woman maintained her spirits, sitting in that dark-paneled space, her only pastimes composing music and making a quilt of Hawaiian history with her female companion.

Queen Lili’uokalani was a descendant of King Kamehameha, who united the Hawaiian Islands in 1795. The king’s instinct had been to control interactions with foreigners, but his desires eroded with subsequent rulers, ultimately leading to the kingdom’s demise. By the mid-1800’s Hawai’i had a House of Representatives and had developed the concept of private ownership of land while foreigners planted sugar cane and developed trade relationships. By the late-1800’s Hawai’i was westernized, with electricity and royals who traveled the world.

Queens were often active advisers to their husbands, but it was not until 1891 that Queen Lili’uokalani became the First Woman Queen of Hawai’i to rule the “kingdom.” She had served as regent when King Kalakaua made a world tour in 1881. Proficient in English, she was greeted warmly by both President Grover Cleveland of the United States and Queen Victoria of England on her own world tour.

Queen Lili’uokalani disagreed with Hawaiian rulers who had relinquished some control of the islands to the United States by ceding the port of Pearl Harbor and giving the country favored trade status. When she became queen she attempted to reassert control through a constitutional revision. It only took American businessmen two years into her reign to demand her abdication and, supported by U.S. Marines, proclaim a Republic in Hawaii and set up a provisional government

Wishing to minimize blood shedding by her people, Lili’uokalani agreed to step down, without abdicating; she appealed to President Cleveland who was sympathetic to her cause. His representative found the overthrow to be illegal and ordered the reinstatement of the queen. However, no American troops were ever sent to enforce this decree.


“Aloha Oe” was written by the Queen during her house arrest.

A group loyal to the monarchy staged an insurrection and the newly established republic charged the queen with treason. She denied any complicity but surrendered to house arrest. Within a year she arranged to obtain pardons for her supporters by formally abdicating. Even though she attended the inauguration of President William McKinley, he was not sympathetic to her cause and annexed Hawaii in 1898.

I wonder if things might have been different had a king been in charge when the first coup attempt occurred. Would a king have gone to war? If so, Hawai’i would probably have lost both many lives and their cause, justifying the Queen’s reluctance to shed blood. On the more positive side, would a king have been confined to the palace after being accused of treason or simply shot by firing squad? Had the ruler been a king, would the coup have occurred in the first place? Was the uppity spirit of Queen Lili’kuolani part of what caused American businessmen to chafe under her rule?