Lives of Passionate Dedication

When First Women leave us, it is worthwhile to pause and learn what their lives taught us. Louise Slaughter served in Congress until the end of her life; Jeannette Woldseth fought to save lives as she was losing her own. Both show how a passion for others can fill a life.

Louise Slaughter (1929-2018)

Louise Slaughter was a U.S. Representative from New York, the First Woman to chair the House Rules Committee. When she died in March of this year, she was the oldest member of Congress and the last member of Congress who had been born in the 1920s.

While living in the Kentucky coal mining region, her sister died of pneumonia, firing an interest in health issues for Slaughter. At the University of Kentucky she earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and a master’s in public health.

It is no surprise that she was responsible for securing funding for the first time for breast cancer research at the National Institutes of Health (an earmark of $500 million) and worked for other health issues. She co-authored, along with Senator Joe Biden, the Violence Against Women Act. She later worked with Senator Christopher Dodd to establish a Woman’s Progress Commemorative Commission to monitor historic sites dedicated to women.

Jeannette Woldseth (1953-2018)

Jeannette Woldseth was the First Woman full-time paid firefighter in the state of Washington. She was 23 in 1977 when she joined the Bellevue Fire Department, after serving as a volunteer firefighter there. Her father had also been a volunteer firefighter and her grandfather had driven horse-drawn wagons to fires in Seattle during his career as a firefighter, so her choice was clearly in her blood.

She progressed to captain and was known for her precision and focus. When she first got breast cancer, she had a double mastectomy. When it recurred and had metastasized, she began fundraising money for other cancer victims, knowing the funds would not benefit her. Even as she was dying she focused on saving the lives of others.

Anna Mae Hays – First Woman U.S. General

General Anna Mae Hays died on January 7, 2018

When Anna Mae Hays was born, it would be another six months before a woman’s right to vote was enshrined in the Constitution. Her lifespan, over the next 98 years, is a parable of the roads women traveled during the century following the Nineteenth Amendment.

Hays was an accomplished musician who wanted to study at Juilliard, but her family could not afford this extravagance, so she pursued one of the few professions open to women at the time: nursing. When the United States joined World War II, she enlisted as a nurse, one of the few ways a woman could serve as a military officer. Her term of office, as of other women, was for the duration of the war plus six months.

During two and one-half of those years she served in Ledo, Assam, Indian. In that time her hospital, situated at the beginning of the Burma Road, treated more than 49,000 patients. She was promoted to First Lieutenant and remained on active duty after the war, once again an opportunity possible only because she was a nurse.

At Fort Dix, New Jersey, she was an operating room supervisor and later head nurse of several wards. Her days were usually twelve hours long, six days a week. She was surprised one day when she was summoned to the office and promoted to captain.

Hoping that she could finally further her education, she planned to attend Columbia University. The Korean War, however, killed that notion, when she was assigned to serve overseas. She participated in the landing at Inchon and worked in a field hospital where they served 25,000 patients in only ten months. As the Chinese and North Koreans began overrunning the area, a rapid evacuation occurred. “I can remember traveling south from Inchon to Taegu by train in the middle of the night,” she said later, “not knowing when a railroad trestle over which we traveled would be blown up.”

After several other assignments, one of which was caring for President Eisenhower during a stay at Walter Reed Hospital, she finally had the opportunity to earn her bachelor’s degree at Columbia University Teachers College. She was 38, like many women of non-traditional age who earned degrees during the twentieth century. She would later earn a master’s degree.

Hays married, but her husband died after six years. He was gone by the time, as a full Colonel and head of the Army Nurse Corps, she went to Vietnam to assess the need for nurses in the Southeast Asian conflict.

Hays was promoted to Brigadier General in 1970, the First Woman in any branch of the service to reach this rank. General William Westmoreland, former commander in Vietnam, was present when she received her star. Later Westmoreland’s wife said to Hays, “I wish you would get married again. . .I want some man to learn what it’s like to be married to a general.”

Like many women leaders during her lifetime, Hays worked long hours and was diligent in supporting women. She advocated to get them promoted, to place them in prominent places, to strengthen their qualifications, to allow them to remain on duty while they were pregnant and had children, and to assure their spouses received the same benefits as those of men.

Both the advances and disappointments of women’s journey are present in the history of Anna Mae Hay’s life. Today we can celebrate that there are 69 general officers in the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force, but we must also recognize the work yet to be accomplished. Women comprise only 10% of the total number of general officers.

“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.

Women in a Local Election

The State of Washington held a primary election a week ago and, although the results are not finalized, there are some things we do know about an unusual race in Seattle. Although we live across the lake from Seattle and cannot vote in Seattle, we follow their news and are encouraged by this past election. It is a harbinger of changing times, an optimistic demonstration of the power of women.

The Seattle election was a bit of a mishmash as the current mayor announced he would not run for re-election very late in the race. As a result, there were 21 entries in the race, including another former mayor. Six were women and four of those women were the top four vote-getters. The woman in the lead, Jenny Durkan, won over 30% of the vote, in spite of the large field, and the top four women combined received 73% of the vote.

Since the top two in the primary go forward for the general election, we know that the next mayor of Seattle will be a woman. She will not be the First Woman mayor of Seattle, however. The last, and first, was in 1926, almost a century ago.

The best word to describe Bertha Landes, the First Woman mayor of a major city in the United States, is “colorful.” Seattle still had the feel of a frontier town when Bertha Landes’ impressive success in hosting a conference for Washington manufacturers led to praise from the president of the Chamber of Commerce and appointment by the mayor to a commission to study unemployment. The only woman on the commission, she received enough notice to win election to the City Council. During two of her four years, she was Council President. When Seattle’s mayor traveled to the Democratic National Convention, Landes became acting mayor. She immediately fired the police chief for corruption in his department, insubordination to her, and failure to enforce prohibition. Notified by telegram, the elected mayor returned early and reinstated the police chief.

Encouraged by those in the community who wanted to clean up the town, Landes was persuaded to run for Mayor of Seattle. She promised “municipal housekeeping,” her term for cleaning up city government, and she beat the incumbent. During her term, she worked to eliminate bootlegging and widespread corruption in the city. She ran a scandal-free administration, appointed professionals to head city departments, and made appointments based on merit. She improved public transportation, parks, and traffic safety. She converted the street railway system to a profitable enterprise and straightened out the finances of the city.

When she ran for re-election, a dark horse candidate beat her, largely by campaigning that a frontier town needed male leadership. Seattle is no longer a frontier town but one of the fastest-growing and technologically-sophisticated cities in the country. The two leading candidates for mayor this year are an attorney and an urban planner, both with a better sense of what is possible and reasonable than Mayor Landes. Hopefully though, Landes’ ability to accomplish her agenda will inspire the winner to push through the complications of democratic governance in Seattle and, with visionary leadership, accomplish great things. Bertha Landes will be a good model.

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!