“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.


The Grimke Sisters in “The Invention of Wings”

One of the many beauties of Sue Monk Kidd’s fiction is her expression of the hearts of women, through their own words. This is accomplished with language that paints pictures in the reader’s mind and both tickles and challenges the reader’s soul. So, it was with delight that I read The Invention of Wings a second time, when my book group selected this historical novel.

The book is based on the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, both First Women. It is told through the eyes of the older sister Sarah and Handful (Hetty), the slave given to her on her eleventh birthday. It is a dramatic indictment of slavery, the cause for which Sarah and Angelina fought, told in a way that sends chills down one’s arms and roils one’s stomach.

Sarah and Angelina both witnessed slavery first hand in their home in Charleston, South Carolina and spread their message in the North. Because they spoke out fearlessly about the evils of slavery, they were invited to attend the American Anti-Slavery Society’s two-week training for anti-slavery agents. They were the first and only women in the group. They were castigated widely as they had the audacity to speak to “promiscuous audiences,” that is, mixed audiences of women and men.

In addition to speaking, they wrote in fierce prose, even daring to address unreceptive audiences. In 1836 Sarah, the more religious of the two, wrote and published Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States and in the same year Angelina wrote and published An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South.

Sarah chafed at the restrictions put upon her in her Quaker meeting and became more of a feminist than an abolitionist. It is believed she wrote the first treatise on feminism. It is known that the leaders of the suffrage movement leaned on her work.

Angelina was the First Woman to speak before a legislative body in this country when she spoke before a legislative committee in Massachusetts in 1838. She spoke against slavery and the need for abolition of the inhuman and immoral practice of slavery. For good measure, she threw in a few words on women’s rights.

The two women were lifelong companions, champions whose names do not often appear in history books. It is through art that they have been revived. Sue Monk Kidd has fictionalized their daring, but they were also commemorated in an art installation in 1979 by Judy Chicago called The Dinner Party. Chicago created a triangular table with 39 distinct settings celebrating 39 women from throughout the course of history. On the floor below were the names 999 other women of note. Both Sarah Grimke and Angelina Grimke’s names appear on what is aptly named the Heritage Floor, the basis for the rights we have won and still must fight to protect.

Sutematsu Yamakawa Oyama – First Japanese Woman to Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-1-19-01-pm        Sutematsu Yamakawa Oyama was the first Japanese woman to earn a bachelor’s degree. Her remarkable feat occurred in the late 1800’s at Vassar College. Sutematsu was part of a Japanese experiment that is engagingly recounted in Daughters of the Samurai by Janice P. Nimura.

After Admiral Perry’s show of force in Japan’s Edo Bay, as the era of the samurai is ending, five young girls are selected to come to the United States. Their mission is to learn American culture and return to Japan to help the isolated Japanese kingdom progress to a culture that will have credibility in the “civilized” world.

Three of the girls, Sutematsu among them, remain in the United States for ten years. What they learn is to be curious, well-bred, and independent. What Japan wants is women who can teach other Japanese women to be “cultured,” but only as intelligent partners for their husbands and role models for their children. Japanese men do not see women as independent of the family. All three of the girls struggle with the conflict between their acculturation into American ideas and the reality of Japanese culture.

In Japan the three take different paths. One, Ume Tsuda, remains unmarried, an unusual situation in Japanese culture and eventually establishes a school where English is taught as she wishes, rather than as the Japanese culture had dictated. Another, Shige Nagai Uriu, teaches the music she learned in America, marrying and struggling to balance her work life with her career.

Sutematsu marries well, to a man who becomes general of the Imperial Japanese Army. At first it appears that, in spite of the fact that she does not read or write Japanese well, she has succumbed to Japanese culture and is filling her designated role in Japanese society. However, Sutematsu quietly goes about acculturating Japanese women to Western ways, teaching them about philanthropy and public service. She also raises funds for her friend’s English school and assures that the Empress knows of their success.

Daughters of the Samurai is beautifully written. The author pulls you into the scenes with her meticulous descriptions. She uses letters written by the girls and their correspondents, but never makes the reader feel as if she is merely quoting; the quotations flow naturally from her storytelling. I highly recommend this book.

Griest and Haver, First Women to Complete Ranger School

NEW RANGERSLast week Captain Kristen Griest, an Apache helicopter pilot, and First Lieutenant Shaye Haver, a military police officer, both completed the Army’s Ranger School, and they made the national news. Their feat pitted them against the best of the men in the military and they showed they were equal.

Revolutionary War – Women have been involved in war since this country began, as spies, as nurses, as cooks, and as water bearers. Even in the Revolutionary War women fought alongside men, although Deborah Sampson was disguised as a man and, when discovered, simply took another name and re-enlisted. Margaret Corbin received a pension for her service crewing a cannon at Fort Washington. Lucy Brewer claimed she served on the USS Constitution for three years, but she was a writer, so her words are automatically suspect.

Civil War – During the Civil War Sally Tompkins, a nurse running a hospital in Richmond, Virginia, was the first (and only?) woman commissioned as an officer in the Confederate Army. Sarah Emma Edmonds, a Union spy, was the first and only woman officially inducted into the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Civil War veterans.

World War IIDuring the Second World War, women served their country, filling the expected roles of nurses and secretaries, but also those of strategic planners and airplane pilots. Their service was so notable that in 1948 Congress enacted a law making women a permanent part of the U.S. military services and Vietta M. Bates, in 1949, was the first enlisted woman sworn into the U.S. Army.

Post World War II – In 1972 two women, Anna May Hayes and Elizabeth P. Hoisington reached the rank of brigadier General. In 1976 the military academies, under presidential order, admitted women but it was not until 1996 that the prestigious Citadel admitted women. In 1983, when the United States invaded Grenada, 200 Army and Air Force women were among the forces deployed, as military police and transportation specialists. The armed forces began admitting women to more and more positions previously reserved to men and in 1985 Lt. Kendra Williams, USN, flew a combat mission during Operation Desert Fox in Iraq.

Post 9/11 Wars – Although many positions were still restricted to men, women were accepted in more positions and around 40,000 were deployed during the Gulf and Iraqi wars. In 2005, outside of Baghdad, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester came under attack and killed several insurgents, saving members of her convoy. She was the first woman to receive a Silver Star for valor in close quarters combat. By 2012 the military opened jobs in small units closer to the front lines to women.

In 2013 Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, signed an order stating that women must have the same opportunities in combat jobs. Now Griest and Haver may wear a special Ranger badge on their uniforms, an honor as prized as an Olympic gold medal. What they do not have yet is the right to be a member of a Ranger unit. The military is now evaluating which units can continue to exclude women.

It is hard to understand how modern people, with their intelligence and resources, still wage war. But, it is also difficult to understand why women should be excluded from participation in the endeavors of their countries, should they so choose. The Ranger website says, “Upon completion of this course, Rangers have the essential skills, training, and confidence to be members of the 75th Ranger Regiment.” Griest and Haver have proven they are worthy of membership.

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.