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11 Forgotten but Important Moments in Women's History

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

From Sojourner Truth speaking about equality to Elizabeth Cady Stanton writing the Declaration of Sentiments, women have fought for respect and equal rights throughout history. Most textbooks cover pivotal moments in women’s history, such as Marie Curie being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and Susan B. Anthony working to get women the vote. But there are a wealth of lesser-known yet incredibly important moments in women’s history that you might not know about.

1. ADA LOVELACE RECOGNIZES THE POWER OF THE COMPUTER.

Soon after Ada Lovelace was born, her mother and her father—the poet Lord Byron—separated. Determined that their daughter would not grow up to be like Byron, Ada's mother made sure she spent her time studying math, logic, and science. As a teenager, she met Charles Babbage, a mathematician who conceptualized the first automatic calculator, which he called a Difference Engine. In the early 1840s, Lovelace helped him translate (from French to English) an article about another idea of his, a digital computer that he dubbed an Analytical Engine. But Lovelace did more than translate. She also added her own extensive notes and wrote an algorithm for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. While historians still hotly debate how much of this was her work versus Babbage's, it's agreed that she was the one who recognized that what they were working on could be more than a calculator and is credited with the movement from calculation to computation.

2. SEPTIMA CLARK PETITIONS ON BEHALF OF BLACK EDUCATORS.

We’re all familiar with Rosa Parks’s status as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement. But historians consider Septima Clark, an educator who helped pave the way for Parks and other Civil Rights activists, to be the movement’s grandmother. Born in Charleston, South Carolina to a former slave and a laundress, Clark earned her teaching credentials. But as an African American, she was not allowed to teach in Charleston’s schools. In 1919, she successfully petitioned to allow black teachers and principals to work in the city's black schools, collecting enough door-to-door signatures from black parents that the ban was overturned the following year. Clark later worked with the NAACP to secure equal pay for black teachers and teach literacy workshops to African Americans, all while battling racism, getting fired, and being arrested on false charges.

3. FIRST LADY EDITH WILSON TAKES CHARGE OF PRESIDENTIAL DUTIES.

Although the U.S. has yet to have a female president, First Lady Edith Wilson essentially ran the country for 17 months after her husband, President Woodrow Wilson, suffered a severe stroke in 1919. Because Wilson's Vice President didn’t take charge (the 25th Amendment wasn’t passed until the 1960s), FLOTUS stepped up. With her husband partially paralyzed and bedridden (but still lucid), she served as the gatekeeper for all incoming communications and gave orders on his behalf relating to important matters such as the Treaty of Versailles. Although some contemporary critics disparaged Edith, calling her role in the White House a "petticoat government," others praised her solid work for the Executive Branch.

4. SUSANNA SALTER IS ELECTED THE FIRST FEMALE U.S. MAYOR.

By Unknown photographer (Kansas Historical Society), via Wikimedia Commons

In 1887, Susanna "Dora" Salter was a 27-year-old wife and mother living in Argonia, Kansas. To share her belief that alcohol has deleterious effects, she became a prominent member of Argonia’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Before Argonia’s April 1887 city election, a group of men who opposed the movement decided to play a nasty joke on the WCTU. They secretly nominated Salter for mayor, thinking that the notion of a female mayor was so preposterous that it would make a mockery of the WCTU and its message. On Election Day, Salter was shocked to see her name on the ballot, but a group of supporters decided to make the most of the stunt by actually voting for Salter, thereby turning the tables on the men who nominated her. Salter won the election, banned hard cider, and served her one-year term as Argonia’s mayor.

5. FATIMA AL-FIHRI FOUNDS THE WORLD'S OLDEST UNIVERSITY.

Fatima al-Fihri lived with her wealthy family in Fez, Morocco during the 9th century. After her father, brothers, and husband died, she decided to use her inheritance to make a positive impact on her community. In 859 CE, al-Fihri funded the construction of the Al Qarawiyyin mosque and an adjoining madrasa, which became a locus of scholarly and religious activity. Besides personally overseeing the extensive building project, she attended and graduated from the university, which would have Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish students. Today, the University of Al Qarawiyyin is the world's oldest continually operating, degree-granting university, and visitors can see al-Fihri's wooden diploma in the school's library, which was renovated in 2016.

6. WYOMING PASSES THE FIRST WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE LAW IN 1869.

Ratified in 1920, the 19th Amendment gave all female U.S. citizens the right to vote (in theory, if not in practice). But women in the territory of Wyoming had been voting since 1870, when approximately 1000 women there voted in their first election. In 1869, Wyoming’s legislature passed laws giving women the right to vote, sit on juries, and own property, as well as equalizing male and female teachers' pay. The reasons that Wyoming’s legislature, led by William Bright, gave women these rights half a century before the 19th Amendment are complex. Perhaps the territory’s lawmakers wanted to attract more women settlers (men greatly outnumbered women and children) or they were responding to the almost-ratified 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. Some historians think Democrats passed the law as a partisan prank, hoping to humiliate the Republican governor. Still others argue that Bright, influenced by his wife Julia, genuinely believed that women were just as capable as men. Regardless of the reasons that the law was passed, Wyoming (which became a state in 1890) is fittingly nicknamed The Equality State.

7. DAISY BATES PROTECTS THE LITTLE ROCK NINE.

With her husband, Lucius, writer Daisy Bates founded The Arkansas State Press in 1941. The weekly newspaper focused on African-American civil rights issues, and the couple published editorials supporting immediate desegregation of Arkansas schools. As a president of the Arkansas NAACP and vocal opponent of segregation, Bates faced threats and abuse from the community, but she didn’t let that stop her. In 1957, after the courts ordered the Little Rock School District to integrate its schools, Bates helped the Little Rock Nine—the nine black students she recruited to enroll at Central High School—enter their new school safely, despite being blocked by the Arkansas National Guard. She arranged for ministers to escort and protect the children, helped parents enroll their children in the school, and provided her home as a safe place where parents could bring their children before and meet them after school. After the Little Rock Integration Crisis, Bates moved to Washington, D.C. to fight poverty in President Johnson’s administration, and today Arkansas has a state holiday dedicated to her memory.

8. KATHARINE BLODGETT INVENTS "INVISIBLE" GLASS.

Whenever you look through non-glare glass, you can thank Katharine Blodgett. As the first female engineer at General Electric's Research Laboratory, Blodgett pioneered ways to transfer monomolecular coatings onto glass in the 1930s. Her technique for creating "invisible" glass involved applying a coating that canceled out reflections coming off the glass. Her glass coating was used to improve cameras, cinematography lenses, eyeglasses, and military periscopes. Besides working with glass, Blodgett also made breakthroughs in smoke screen technology and meteorology.

9. EDITH COWAN IS FIRST WOMAN ELECTED TO AN AUSTRALIAN PARLIAMENT.

Born in 1861, Edith Cowan experienced tragedy as a teenager when her father was executed for murdering his second wife. Transforming this experience into good, Cowan devoted her life to fighting for women’s and children’s rights. She helped to found the Karrakatta Club, an Australian women’s group, and she founded the Children’s Protection Society, a group that helped create juvenile courts, so children wouldn’t be treated as legal adults. In 1921, Cowan became the first woman in an Australian Parliament when she won a West Perth Legislative Assembly seat in the Western Australian Parliament. In her elected role, she built on her previous work by supporting legislation that benefited women and children.

10. CATHAY WILLIAMS ENLISTS IN THE U.S. ARMY.

Born to a free father and an enslaved mother, a young Cathay Williams worked on a plantation in Missouri and in a support capacity for the Union Army. In 1866, Williams enlisted in the 38th U.S. Infantry, becoming the first documented African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Army. Because of the military’s requirement that all enlistees be male, Williams posed as a man named William Cathay. Although it’s unclear how she passed the army doctor’s examination, she served for almost two years alongside her male cousin and friend, who kept her gender a secret. Williams, who enlisted to earn income and be independent, was discharged after a doctor treating her discovered she was female. In 1876, she told her story to a journalist, who publicized her account in a Missouri newspaper. Around 1890, shortly before her death, Williams applied for a military disability pension, but her application was denied, despite her nearly two years of service.

11. MARGARET HAMILTON WRITES CODE THAT ALLOWS HUMANS TO LAND ON THE MOON.

Born in Indiana in 1936, Margaret Hamilton studied mathematics and became a programmer, writing software for military and weather-related projects at MIT. But it was her work as the lead software engineer for NASA’s Apollo program that cemented her legacy. She and her team wrote the code and algorithms for the spacecraft’s in-flight software, which included instructions for everything from how to run it to how to detect and troubleshoot problems. Hamilton’s work contributed to Apollo 11's safe moon landing, and she also coined the term software engineering before the field was a respected, discrete discipline. After her work for NASA, Hamilton founded her own tech companies and, in 2016, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
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Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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Did Queen Victoria Really Save Prince Albert From Drowning in an Icy Lake?
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many British queens have also served as daring emergency rescuers. But when the moment arose, Queen Victoria was ready to save the day. In 1841, she saved her husband, Prince Albert, from an icy lake he had fallen into while skating.

The incident didn't need much dramatization when it was included in an episode of the PBS drama Victoria. It really was a life-or-death situation, and 21-year-old Victoria was the hero.

On a cold February day in 1841, Victoria and Albert, who had married almost exactly a year earlier, went for a walk around the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Albert, an avid sportsman who loved to skate and play hockey, strapped on his ice skates and headed out onto the lake. In a diary entry, Victoria wrote that the ice was smooth and hard that day—mostly. As he skated toward her, she noticed that the ice around a bridge looked a little thin.

"I, standing alone on the bank," she wrote in her journal that evening, "said, ‘it is unsafe here,' and no sooner had I said this, than the ice cracked, and Albert was in the water up to his head, even for a moment below." By her own telling, Victoria screamed and reached out her arm to him, holding onto her lady-in-waiting, the only attendant present.

Albert grabbed Victoria's arm and she was able to pull him to safety. He had cut his chin and was dripping wet, but returned home, took a hot bath and a nap, and was up a few hours later to socialize when their uncle Leopold (Victoria and Albert were first cousins) came to visit.

"Her Majesty manifested the greatest courage upon the occasion, and acted with the most intrepid coolness," an account of the event that appeared in The Times a few days later proclaimed. "As soon as the Prince was safe on dry land, the queen gave way to the natural emotions of joy and thankfulness at his providential escape."

Albert recounted his side of the experience in a letter to his step-grandmother, Duchess Caroline of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. "I was making my way to Victoria, who was standing on the bank with one of her ladies," he described, when "I fell plump into the water, and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out. Victoria was the only person with the presence of mind to lend me assistance, her lady being more occupied in screaming for help." (Both the queen's diary entry and the newspaper account give the lady-in-waiting a little more credit, suggesting that she at least served as an anchor for the queen as she reached out to the prince.)

According to The Times, the problem was bird-related. That morning, the groundskeepers in charge of the various waterfowl that called the lake home had broken the ice around the edges of the water so that the birds could drink. By the time the queen and the prince arrived, those spots had frozen over with a deceptively thin layer of ice.

Thanks to Victoria, though, Albert emerged from the incident with little more than a bad cold and went on to live for another 20 years.

Had Albert died that day on the ice, it could have completely changed European history. Victoria and Albert had already had a daughter, and the future King Edward VII was conceived around this time. If Albert had died, seven of Victoria’s children wouldn’t have been born—children who were married to nobles and rulers across Europe (during World War I, seven of their direct descendants were on thrones as king or queen). And if the future Edward VII hadn’t been conceived, Albert died, and everything else remained the same, it’s possible Kaiser Wilhelm II may have become the ruler of both Germany and the United Kingdom.

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