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On March 7, 2017, a crowd gathered about the 'Fearless Girl' statue in New York City.
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11 Watershed Moments for Women's Equality

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On March 7, 2017, a crowd gathered about the 'Fearless Girl' statue in New York City.
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From Mary Walker, the first woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, to Katharine Graham, the first woman to run a Fortune 500 company, these pioneering women—and their winning moments—helped set the stage for the generations that followed.

1. THE FIRST WOMEN'S RIGHTS CONVENTION IS HELD IN NEW YORK.

Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B Anthony
Elizabeth Stanton sits as Susan B Anthony stands nearby.
Library of Congress

Informed that they wouldn't be able to vote or speak at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott grew frustrated at their lack of voice in American society. As they stewed in the women’s section, they decided something needed to be done about it. By 1848, Stanton, Mott, and friends had organized a two-day women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The pair, alongside 66 other women and 32 men, crafted the Declaration of Sentiments. Modeled off the Declaration of Independence, the convention wrote out their list of demands, including for women’s right to vote.

Although this pioneering convention was largely mocked by the country, what was accomplished in those two days eventually kicked off Suffrage and the women’s rights movement. Unfortunately, only one of the signers would see one of the convention’s main goals come to fruition when women could finally vote for the first time in 1920.

2. MARIA MITCHELL IS ELECTED TO THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS AND SCIENCES.

On a clear night in October 1847, Maria Mitchell was sitting on the roof of her father’s business and consulting her star charts with a telescope. All of a sudden, she saw a blurry light streak across the sky—a comet. She had discovered what was later nicknamed “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” and the accolades came rolling in. Mitchell was the first female professional astronomer, and in 1848, she became the first woman to receive entry to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Mitchell would remain the only woman in that honored group until 1943.

This accomplishment opened the world up to Mitchell, who believed that women could achieve anything men could, and she traveled to Europe, meeting with famed astronomers along the way. In her later years, she went on to work at Vassar College—becoming the first female astronomy professor. That didn't mean she settled for getting paid less than a man, according to the college. She received equal pay in the 1870s for her work while inspiring young women to reach for the stars.

3. VICTORIA CLAFLIN WOODHULL RUNS FOR PRESIDENT UNDER THE EQUAL RIGHTS PARTY.

Although no woman has been elected to the highest office in the land yet, Victoria Claflin Woodhull was the first to make the attempt. In 1869, with help from Cornelius Vanderbilt, Ohio-born Woodhull and her sister opened the first female-run stock brokerage on Wall Street in New York City, though they were never allowed a place on the floor. This move gave Woodhull the leverage and money she needed to run for president in 1872.

"Notorious Victoria" ran on women’s suffrage, welfare for the poor, 8-hour workdays and regulation of monopolies, among other things. Unfortunately, her radical views on religion and marriage, among other things, made her a tough sell. It didn't help when her unconventional campaign style landed her in trouble with the law. Days before the election, Woodhull was jailed for sending out "obscene" publications that took shots at her opponents. She eventually agreed to a plea deal that involved dropping out of the presidential race.

4. MARY WALKER RECEIVES THE MEDAL OF HONOR.

Dr. Mary Walker
Dr. Mary Walker
Library of Congress

After graduating from Syracuse Medical College, Dr. Walker set her sights on volunteering for the Union. Her parents were abolitionists and she wanted to devote her skills to the North by signing up as a surgeon. Because women were not allowed to do that kind of advanced medical work, she settled for volunteering for the Union Army.

A few years into the war, Walker had worked her way up in the ranks and was sent to Virginia in 1863 as a field surgeon. While aiding a Confederate surgeon on a particularly bloody day of battle in 1864, Walker was captured by the Confederacy. She was held there for four months until she was swapped for another prisoner of war. For her efforts, in 1865, she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson, becoming the first woman to be given the honor. Favoring men’s clothing and her freedom, Walker remained a staunch advocate for the rest of her days. She was even permitted to wear male clothing by an act of Congress. Walker’s medal was taken away from her in 1917 (some argued that she was ineligible because the award was meant only for soldiers), but President Carter restored it to her posthumously in 1977.

5. MARGARET SANGER OPENS THE FIRST BIRTH CONTROL CLINIC IN AMERICA.

Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger in 1925
General Photographic Agency / Stringer / Getty Images

The future activist started as a nurse in 1912 in New York City. After watching women die by the dozens of self-induced abortions, she renounced nursing and decided to find a solution. She founded a magazine called Woman Rebel to start her "birth control" (a phrase that she coined) movement. The issues were promptly banned by the New York Post Office, and the threat of imprisonment caused her to flee the country. “Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty,” Sanger wrote in 1914. When the charges had been dropped, she returned in 1916 to open the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Her organization later became Planned Parenthood and she fought for the rest of her life to provide safe contraception for women.

6. SEPTIMA CLARK FIGHTS FOR THE RIGHT TO TEACH.

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks
Septima Clark (left) sits with Rosa Parks in 1955
Library of Congress

Septima Clark, a Civil Rights activist, put the issue of education at the front of the movement. Due to sacrifices from her parents, a former slave and a laundress, Clark was able to earn two degrees and train to be a teacher. Unfortunately, in Charleston, South Carolina, where she lived, black teachers weren’t allowed to teach in 1918. That didn’t deter Clark. That year, she went door-to-door gathering about 20,000 signatures of fellow African Americans who wanted black teachers in the black schools. The ban was struck down, and Clark spent many of her years teaching elementary school children.

7. EDITH WHARTON WINS A PULITZER FOR THE AGE OF INNOCENCE.

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton
Library of Congress

At age 11, Edith Wharton attempted to write her first novel. Like many of New York City’s elite who were raised in what was considered the Golden Age of New York, she traveled to Europe extensively and got to experience the best of what life had to offer. She would eventually write more than 85 short stories and a dozen novels. But her life experiences would go on to heavily influence one book in particular, The Age of Innocence, which examined and even skewered the New York society. In 1921, toward the end of her life, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but it was contentious. Many members of the board wanted to take her prize back, but she retained it—making her the first woman to win a Pulitzer. She would go on to also be nominated for the Nobel Prize three times.

8. GRACE HOPPER INVENTS A COMPUTER LANGUAGE.

In 1934, Grace Hopper was on a path all of her own. She graduated with a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University. When World War II arrived, she flew from her academic post at Vassar to join the Navy’s war effort in 1943. There, she put her vast intelligence to use by working on the Harvard Mark I computer, which would help an atomic bomb engineer determine that the bomb would implode rather than explode. After the war, she started working on UNIVAC, the latest computer, and argued that a computer language should be written in English. Although her idea was laughed off, Hopper was determined, publishing papers outlining her reasoning. She finally implemented her own English-based coding language, called COBOL, in the Navy and eventually in the wider world. She's also responsible for the term "computer bug." Throughout her life, Hopper would go back into active duty Navy service and served a total of 42 years, earning her the nickname “Amazing Grace.”

9. KATHARINE GRAHAM LEADS A FORTUNE 500 COMPANY.

Katharine Graham
Katharine Graham in 2001
Vince Bucci / Stringer / Getty Images

Journalism was always in the cards for Katharine Graham, who grew up with a father who worked as the publisher of The Washington Post. Graham became interested in media at an early age and after a stint at a few papers, got a job on The Washington Post’s editorial staff. Eventually, she convinced her husband to buy the paper from her father. The couple worked together to create a media empire by acquiring the competition. In her 1997 memoir, she described her relationship with her husband as "that of a chief executive officer Phil and a chief operating officer me."

In 1963, that changed when her husband committed suicide. Unexpectedly, Graham found herself at the helm of a media empire. She raised the Post to the fifth most profitable media company in the country, landing her a spot as the first woman CEO of a company on the Fortune 500 list. Under Graham, the Post published the Pentagon Papers and broke the news of the Watergate scandal. Before her death, Graham received the Freedom Medal and a Pulitzer Prize for her memoir.

10. ARETHA FRANKLIN IS INDUCTED INTO THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME.

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin performing in April 2017.
Noam Galai / Stringer / Getty Images

Considered the “definitive soul singer of the Sixties” by Rolling Stone, Aretha Franklin grew up in Detroit where her father was a pastor and known for his voice. She toured with her gospel group in her teenage years and later transitioned into R&B tunes with the help of several record companies. By 1960, her voice was all over the radio and she was a force, collaborating with the Beatles and receiving awards from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Still, it wasn’t until 1987 that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Franklin as one of the greats—and she became the first woman to join the ranks.

11. KATHRYN BIGELOW WINS AN OSCAR FOR BEST DIRECTOR.

Kathryn Bigelow wins oscar
Kathryn Bigelow accepts her Oscar in 2010.
Kevin Winter / Staff / Getty Images

Before becoming one of the most well-known film directors in Hollywood, Kathryn Bigelow wanted to be a painter. After making her first short film called The Set-Up in 1978, Bigelow decided that her passion lay elsewhere. More than three decades later, in 2010, that passion helped her make history. She took home the Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, a film that examined the work of bomb disposal by teams in Iraq and Afghanistan up-close. Only four other women had been nominated for best director before her victory.

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On March 7, 2017, a crowd gathered about the 'Fearless Girl' statue in New York City.
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Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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On March 7, 2017, a crowd gathered about the 'Fearless Girl' statue in New York City.
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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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