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?

Emma Edwards Green – Flag Designer

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Emma Edwards Green was the first woman to design a state flag. She was, in fact, the only woman to design a state flag. Emma visited friends in Boise Idaho in 1890 and decided to stay. She taught art classes and was later invited to submit a design for the state flag of Idaho. Her design was selected and she received $100 prize money. The natural resources of Idaho are displayed in her design, including a miner and a woman. Her original art rests in the Idaho Historical Society.

Katharine Drexel, Saint

katherine drexelA descendant of the founders of Drexel University in Philadelphia, Katharine Drexel was born into a philanthropic family. At a private audience with Pope Leo XIII, Katharine asked the Pope to send missionaries to the Native Americans whose plight had come to her attention during travels to the Western United States. The Pope’s answer was to suggest that Katharine become a missionary herself. She followed that call and used her own fortune to establish 50 missions for Native Americans in 16 states.

Katharine Drexel then turned her attention to blacks living under Jim Crow laws. In spite of threats from the Klan and other segregationists, she founded a secondary school for blacks, the first institution of its kind in the United States. Eventually she established schools for blacks in 13 states and her first secondary became Xavier University.

Today a prep school in New Orleans bears her name. I took this photo of the Katharine Drexel Preparatory School marching band during Mardi Gras last year.


First Women in the CIVIL WAR

Continuing in the celebration of National Women’s History Month, here is a trio of women’s firsts from the Civil War era.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 10.36.30 AMAmong the First Women To. . .in the Civil War are a combatant, a doctor, and an orator. All three defied the gender designations of their time and one exceeded expectations for her race we well.

The orator was Ana Elizabeth Dickinson. Renowned for her abolitionist speeches, she was the first woman to speak before Congress. Her activism began at age thirteen when she wrote an essay for The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper in Boston. Because the Quakers did not dissuade women from speaking in public, she used their platform for her speeches. In 1861, eight hundred Philadelphians paid to hear her speak on the topic of “The Rights and Wrongs of Women.” By the time she spoke in New York, five thousand attended her speech.

She could “hold her audience spellbound for as much as two hours.” Eventually she averaged a speech every other day and earned $20,000 annually, a magnificent sum in that day. When the Republic leadership in Congress invited her to speak in 1864, the president joined military and civilian leaders in the congressional gallery to hear her speak.

The most famous of this trio is Harriet Tubman, the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War. Born into slavery, Harriet Tubman, originally Araminta Harriet Ross, escaped into Pennsylvania. “When I found I had crossed that line,” she said, “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”

The experience was so transforming that she resolved to free other slaves and led hundreds north as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War. During the war she served as a cook and nurse, then as a scout and spy for the Union Army. The Combahee River Raid, which she led, liberated more than 700 slaves. When she died she was buried with military honors.

Because of her service in the Civil War, Mary Walker was the first woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. As a doctor, she served on the battlefield in tent hospitals and was appointed assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland. When she crossed enemy lines to treat soldiers on the other side, the South arrested her as a spy and made her a prisoner of war. Released after nine months, she returned to the battlefield and served in the Ohio 52nd Infantry, where she provided care for women prisoners.

In 1917 Congress changed the rules for awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor and rescinded Mary Walkers’ medal. She continued to wear it for the remaining two years of her life and President Jimmy Carter restored the award posthumously in 1977. She is still the only woman to have received this award.