Perhaps one of the most fabled females of early American (ie United States) history is Betsy Ross. Legend has her designing the American flag, consisting of a ring of stars representing the states as well as thirteen stripes representing the colonies that started the fight. Debate over the actual designer remains, as its largely thought that Ms. Ross did not in fact design that flag. Still, I thought it would be interesting to look into the life of the woman legend has claimed. Continue reading
Happy Independence Day to my readers from the US. Today is a post day, but as its a National Holiday and busy day for many of us celebrating, I decided to do another simple post, this time random facts about July 4th.
To my non-US readers, I swear this whole month won’t be a FREEEDOOOM month. While the theme of the Women of History posts will be American, it will otherwise not be US centric like this. Happy Republic Day to those in the Philippines, and a happy belated Canada Day to those in Canada.
So here we go, some interesting facts about Independance Day
- – July 4th became a federal holiday in 1870, nearly a hundred years after the country was founded. It became a paid federal holiday in 1938.
- The vote on the Declaration of Independence took place on July 2, the publication took place on July 4th (with two signatures including John Hancock’s) and wasn’t completely signed till August of that year. We also wouldn’t have ‘won our independence’ till 1783. John Adams reportedly observed Independence Day on July 2nd and considered the 4th to be wrong.
- Two of the men who worked on the Declaration – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – would become President. They also would die on July 4, 1826, 50 years later, just hours apart. James Monroe, another president, died on July 4, 1831. Calvin Coolidge was born on Independence day in 1872, only a few short years before the centennial celebration.
- The Philippines celebrates July 4th as their Republic Day because they were recognized as an independent Nation and no longer a US territory on July 4, 1946.
- We did not have a written plan for our government till November 1777. It would not be fully ratified until March 1, 1781. The Articles of Confederation would be scrapped in favor of the US Constitution in 1787. So the government we are all familar with didn’t exist for 11 years after the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution was effective just a few months before the US’ 12th birthday in 1789.
- The first time the 50 state flag was displayed was July 4, 1960. Hawaii and Alaska had become states 10 months earlier, but they waited till the 4th to present the new flag. It has been 58 years since there was a change made to the Flag.
- The Freedom of Information Act was signed on July 4, 1966 by President Johnson.
We will start June with a belated Women of Mexican-American History. Alicia Dickerson Montemayor was an American woman from Texas who was a civil rights activist, for both the rights of Latino Americans and women, an educator, and a social worker. Continue reading
This week’s featured Woman of History was a reader suggested choice. Mary Bowser was a civil war spy, missionary and educator. Unfortunately she is also a mystery.
Today’s choice for “Women of History,” is another american woman named Cathay Williams. Ms. Williams was an African-american woman who joined the US Army during the Civil war under the alias of William Cathey. She was the first African-American woman documented to join the military.
Cathay Williams was born in Independence, Missouri in September 1844. Her father was a freed man, but her mother was still a slave, therefore Cathay herself was born into slavery. She worked as a house slave until 1861 when she was 17 years old. However, it was into another form of slavery that she transitioned to. The Union Army, in a time before the emancipation proclamation had decided that slaves that had worked to help the Confederate cause were ‘contraband’, and still considered property. They took the slaves from the plantations and pressed them into service as cooks and other support services. Cathay was added to the 8th Indiana Volunteer Regiment to serve as a cook and seamstress. She would spend the next couple of years traveling the country and seeing various battles across the south.
In 1866, Cathay decided to enter the army full-out, but as a man. At the time women were not allowed to enlist in the military (although some did in the manner that Cathay choose). It wouldn’t be until 1949 that women would officially be allowed to enlist in the US Army. Joining the military as a soldier would allow her to remain independent and earn an income.
She enlisted in the regular Army under the name of William Cathey on November 15, and was assigned to the 38th US Infantry regiment after she passed a medical exam. Sources differ whether this was required a the time or not, but evidently it did not matter. They believed her to be a healthy male. Her only confidants were a cousin and a friend who were in her regiment. The 38th was an all Black unit that had been formed that year and the various units were occasionally known as ‘Buffalo soldiers’.
They were called that because they were often assigned to posts in the Western United States protecting the white settlers from the Native Americans and various criminals taking advantage of them. African-Americans were not allowed to enlist in the regular army until legislation passed in 1866 allowed them. So ‘William Cathey’ was one of the first to formally enlist. The segregation of the military would last until 1948, when Henry S. Truman disbanded the practice and diversified the military.
She managed to continue with the regiment for almost two years without being discovered. She caught smallpox at one point, and the lingering health effects of this illness caused her to be hospitalised several times, all of which were documented in her records. Somehow despite the hospitalizations, she was not discovered till 1868 to be a woman. Once she was discovered, her commanding officer discharged her on October 14, 1868, filing it as a disability discharge. On the discharge papers, Cathay was still referred to as William and the Captain who discharged her claimed that “the origin of his infirmaries is unknown to me.” The Doctor added that her ‘condition dates prior to enlistment.’ They effectively ended her military career without admitting that the Military had managed to not catch on to her biological sex. While her later illness might have been limiting her ability to handle the job, one has to wonder if the discharge ‘condition’ was less being chronically ill and more about being born female.
Despite her discharge, Cathay was not finished with military life. She went to work as a cook once again at Fort Union for a short time. She then moved to Colorado and became a seamstress and might have opened a boarding house (though I found only one source that claimed this). She married, but it ended badly when her husband stole from her and she had him arrested. She continued to struggle with her health through the years.
In 1891, Cathay applied to get a disability pension after being released from the hospital after a year and a half stay.. The application listed her age as 41, which would give her a birth year of 1850, 6 years younger than she claimed to be on her enlistment form. Cathay suffered from diabetes and neuralgia. Due to her diabetes she had suffered amputations and was forced to walk with a cain. She dealt with deafness, which she blamed on contracting smallpox during her time in the military.
In September, a local doctor was sent to examine her by the Pension Bureau. More discrepancies occurred on his form. She was 2 inches shorter (possible due to aging), and 49, which makes her 2 years older than her enlistment birthdate of 1844. It is unclear if the doctor was competent and simply did not examine her fully trying to save time or was incompetent or not current as his report had medical inaccuracies. He looked for signs of Neuralgia in the joints and muscles. Neuralgia is an illness that affects the nervous system and this was known in 1801, long before Cathay claimed to have the problem. It would not have appeared physically in her joints or muscles.
Also despite reporting her amputations (she no longer had toes) he did not think to consider the reasons for the amputations, or that not having them would be a disability. Interestingly, though, the Pension Bureau did not reject the claim because of illegal enlistment (as they could have since women were still not allowed in the military) and instead recognized that Cathay William was William Cathey. They rejected it claiming she was not in fact disabled. This would be the last documented mention of Cathay.
Not much is known about when she died, but it is believed to be shortly after the visit of the military doctor. She was not included in the next census, so her death occurred sometime between 1892 and 1900. It is often listed as 1892 or 1893 as it is assumed that due to her condition and her financial problems due to being ill for so long she most likely died around that time.
She was buried with a wooden tomb marker, which has since deteriorated and has left her final resting spot a mystery in the present day.
Due to varying levels of record keeping, much of Cathay’s life is left to fill in by guessing, using the tidbits that are well documented to help fill out the missing pieces. As time goes by, more research is done in her life and more information is found. She has become the representative of the many women who joined the military and don’t have as documented a service or were found out sooner. It is estimated hundreds of women were in the military disguised as men during the Civil War, as with as the Revolutionary War before that.
She also has the legacy of a woman whose tenacity and determination took her to places that society forbade her due to her gender. She never hid from her past, either.
I have decided to do a special edition of the Women of history today. This week is a big week in US Space exploration history, although a tragic one as well. On January 27, 1967, The Apollo 1 disaster happened. It killed three astronauts after the pure oxygen in the cockpit caught on fire due to an equipment malfunction and the cockpit could not be opened in time. Their names were Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee.
Nearly 20 years later another disaster would happen. On January 28, 1986 The space shuttle Challenger took off and exploded in mid-air killing all on board. It was later determined that a ring sealing the fuel takes had frozen and cracked during the cold night and caused the explosion.
Their names were Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A Resnik, Ronald E McNair, Gregory B Jarvis, and S. Christa McAuliffe.
17 years later, on February 1, 2003, NASA would be touched with tragedy again. During reentry, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated killing all on board and scattering debris across Texas. It was determined that a piece of foam protecting the space shuttle from the heat of reentry had become loose and had fallen off during launch. That exposed the inner ship to high temperatures and eventually destroyed the ship.
Those on board were Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, Laurel B. Clark, and Ilan Ramon.
Since this essay series is about the women of history, I am going to do a brief bio on the women involved in these tragedies. All members of these crews deserve to be remembered for their sacrifice and one day I may write an essay on the events themselves, allowing me to discuss the men involved in more detail. For now, I will focus on the women astronauts.
Out of the 19 people killed in these tragedies only four were women. They all came from different backgrounds, histories and skill sets. They had one thing in common though; a desire to explore and discover.
Judith A. Resnik
Judith Resnik was born on April 5, 1949 in Akron, Ohio, the daughter of two immigrants. She would attend Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania were she would earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. She would later earn her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. During her early career she worked for several companies, including Xerox and the National Institute of Health. She also worked on various projects with NASA before her recruitment.
In 1978, Nichelle Nichols recruited her to NASA. She became one of the first women chosen as an astronaut, along with five others including Sally Ride who would be the first one in space. She was named a member of “Group 8”, a collection of 35 astronauts. They were divided into two groups, pilots and mission specialists. Resnik would be a mission specialist, and would specialize in robotics.
Her first mission would on the maidan Voyage of the Space Shuttle Discovery in August of 1984. The mission team spent a week in space, with the task of deploying 3 satellites, studying crystal growth, and experimenting with an IMAX camera. At the time she was the second woman in space, and also the first American Jewish woman to go into space.
She was assigned to be a mission specialist on Challenger ST-51-L. Due to evidence found in the cockpit, it is quite likely that she was one of the last passengers to be alive after the explosion.
After her death she was honored by her alma maters when both choose to name buildings after her. She also has two awards named after her: The IEEE Judith A. Resnik Award (IEEE) and the Resnik Challenger Award (Society of Women Engineers).
Her brother Charles Resnik and other family members of the Challenger astronauts came together to form the Challenger Center in 1986 to promote Stem education and interest for children.
S. Christa McAuliffe
Christa McAuliffe tends to be the most famous of her crewmates by virtue of her reason for being on the mission. McAuliffe was a New Hampshire school teacher who signed up for a program to put a teacher in space. She was a mission specialist, and was going to run various experiments and promote science education.
McAuliffe was born Sharon Christa Corrigan on September 2, 1948 in Boston Massachusetts. Early on she was known by her middle name, Christa. She crew up with the space program and felt inspired by it. She attended Farmington State College in 1970 (and married her longtime boyfriend Steven McAuliffe), getting a bachelors in education and history. She would later attended Bowie State University in 1978, earning her masters in education supervision and administration. She held several jobs as a social studies teacher, traveling as her husband’s career and their family needed them to. In 1983, she accepted her final position as a high school history teacher. She even designed a history course on “The American Woman.”
In 1985, she was selected from several thousand applicants for NASA’s Teacher in space project. She spent a year in training along with her backup, Barbara Morgan, and was scheduled to go into space on Challenger STS-51-L. During that mission she was to conduct several experiments and hold two short lessons from space.
After her death, she was honored by the naming of the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center (Concord, Massachusetts), The Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center for Education and Teaching excellence (Farmington State UNiversity) and several other schools and education centers. Several teaching scholarships as well have been made in her name.
Barbara Morgan would later fly as the first Teacher in space.
It was announced that the lessons and experiments she planned on teaching will be taught on the space Station by Joe Acaba and Ricky Arnold during their tours of duty on the station. They will be aired on the Challenger Center website in the spring.
Kalpana Chawla was born on March 17, 1962 in Karnal (Haryana), Punjab, India. She attended the Punjab Engineering College and got a bachelors in Aeronautical engineering. After receiving her degree, she migrated to the United States in 1982 to attend The University of Texas where she earned a masters in Aerospace engineering. She married Jean-Pierre Harrison in 1983. She would earn her Ph.D. in Aero-enginering in 1988 from the University of Colorado.
Once she earned her PHD she went to work for NASA to do research on fluid dynamics with landings. She would later work as a Vice President for Overset Methods continuing her research. She earned licenses to fly several different kinds of aircraft and even certified to be a flight instructor.
In 1993, Chawla became a naturalized Citizen of the United States and formerly applied to join the NASA team. She joined in 1995, and assigned her first flight in 1996. During her time as an Astronaut, Chawla would take two missions into space, both on the space shuttle Columbia.
Her first mission was STS-87, in 1997 where she was responsible for deploying a satellite. The deployment malfunctioned due to computer errors and procedures. There was a five month investigation into the incident that discovered the problems and decided it was not Chawla at fault.
During the down time between her missions, Chawla was assigned to work in the Astronaut office on work on the space station. She was focused on robotics, in particular robotic situational awareness
in 2000, plans for the STS-107 mission began to take shape and Chawla was selected for the seven member crew. Like with the CHallenger, there were several delays due to scheduling and technical problems. It was in January 2003 that the mission finally was launched.
Unlike with Challenger, the Launch was completed successfully, as thought at the time. However, the launch had dislodged a piece of foam causing the heat shield to have a critical weakness. However, the mission itself before the reentry went without issue. In total, Chawla logged 30.5 days in space.
Afterwards, Chawla was honored with several honors, both in the United states and her birth country of India. The Indian satellite program was renamed in her honor, and the first satellite was called Kalpana-1. Several awards and scholarships were named in her honor, and she even got immortalized in fiction, as a shuttle was named after her in Peter David’s Star Trek novel Star Trek: The Next Generation: Before Dishonor.
She and the rest of her crew members have had hills on Mars named after them, as well as asteroids. Her birthplace has named a Medical hospital in her honor, and several schools and housing complexes have named dorms and halls after her.
Laurel Blaire Salton was born on March 10, 1961 in Ames, Iowa. She grew up in Racine, Wisconsin however. She would attend college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1983 she graduated with a bachelor of Science in Zoology in 1983, and would later earn her doctorate in Medicine in 1987.
After completing her doctorate, she served in the United States Navy. She trained with the Experimental Diving Unit, at first focusing on pediatrics before starting training in diving related medicine and diving officer training. This heard her the designation of Radiation Health Officer and Undersea Medical Officer. She was assigned to a submarine Squadron located in Scotland.
After a few years of experience, and a promotion to Naval Submarine Medical Officer, she started training as a Naval Flight Surgeon. This training would come in handy in her later career.
She was selected by NASA to join the astronaut program in 1996 and spent two years in training as a mission specialist. Prior to STS-107, she was assigned to the Astronaut Office Habitability branch. Her total time in space was almost 16 days. Her focus during the Columbia mission was on biosciences research including gardening in space.
She was honored with the Clark Auditorium at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda Maryland. It displays various personal items as well as her uniforms and other space-related materials.
Her husband, Dr. Jonathan Clark, was also a flight surgeon and worked on the investigative team following the Columbia disaster afterwards.
George W. Bush awarded both crews posthumously with the Congressional Space Medal. He awarded it to the crew of Columbia on February 3, 2004 and to the crew of The Challenger on July 23, 2004.
For this edition of “Women of History”, I’m going to get out of the Medieval period and journey back into the 19th century. Our topic today is Bessie Coleman, a woman who broke barriers and was a pretty good pilot to boot.
Bessie was born on January 26, 1892, so today just so happens to be the 126th anniversary of her birth. She was born in Atlanta, Texas to George and Susan Coleman but raised in Waxahachie, Texas. When she went to school due to her mixed racial heritage (Native American and African-American) she was forced to go to segregated one room school. She excelled in school, completing all eight years offered at the time. When she wasn’t at school, she helped her mother harvest cotton. Both her parents were farm laborers, but Bessie grew closer to her mother after her father left when she was 12 to find more opportunities in Native American Territory.
When she got older she was awarded a scholarship to the Missionary Baptist Church school. She later enrolled in Langston UNiversity (then known as the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University.) but only was able to complete a single term due to not being able to afford it.
When she turned 23 she and a brother moved to Chicago, and it was there that she found her calling. While she worked as a manicurist she would hear stories about flying from returning pilots from WWI. She decided she wanted to earn her pilot’s license and got a second job to save up for it. She hit a large obstacle when she found out that American flight schools would not accept her (due to her race and gender). However she found support in publisher Robert S. Abbott and Banker Jesse Binga and was able to study abroad. She attended classes to learn french so she could attend aviation school in France.
She arrived in France in 1920 to attend flight school and seven months later on June 15, 1921 she earned her international aviation license. She was the first woman of African-American heritage to earn her license as well as the first Native American. She then went further and took advanced piloting lessons, and made visits around europe to different aircraft designers to better learn her craft.
To earn a living, she became a stunt pilot, going by the stage name of “Queen Bess” and was quite a draw at aviation shows. She saved up and opened her own beauty ship in Orlando, Florida to save up money to fund her new dream of having her own aviation school.
She found herself still facing racial issues. At the height of her fame she was offered a role in a feature film, but the scenes she was asked to film contained racial stereotypes she refused to propagate. Her strong stance at not allowing race determine her future helped inspire future pilots and activists.
Sadly, Bessie never lived to see her aviation school open. She was killed in an aviation accident on April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida. She took to the air with her assistant William D. Wills piloting so she could oversee the field for a show. A wench got stuck in the controls, causing the plane to flip over. Bessie was thrown from the cockpit, and fell to her death. Wills crashed nearby was killed by the impact. Matters were further complicated when a distressed friend of the two accidentally tossed a cigarette where some gasoline had landed and the crash site went up in flames.
Even in death she fought against racial inequality. The Florida Times-Union out of Jacksonville, Florida reported the death of Wills, and had Bessie as an afterthought and put the article on a back page despite the fact the crash happened within its limits. The Chicago Defender had it as front page news and equally honored both pilots while recognizing the racism that defined some views of Bessie and the crash. The Defender, known for its positive reporting of African-Americans was actually banned in some places.
In 1929, Lt. William J. Powell established an aviation school named in Bessie’s honor. The Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles, California would later host the first all-African-american air show in 1931. Powell continued to be a civil rights activist though his life.
Bessie would also be honored by an annual flyover on the anniversary of her death (since 1931), an US Postage stamp in 1995, inductions to the Texas and National (2006) Aviation Hall of Fames, several schools, and was runner-up in the 1998 decision to make a $1 coin (she lost to Sacagawea ). Last year, she was honored by Google with a doodle on their search engine homepage on her 125th birthday
Bessie leaves behind a legacy of can-do behavior and not letting others keep you from getting your dream. She worked hard to accomplish her dreams, and she found a way to get it, despite the very real obstacles that were thrown her way simply because she was biracial and female.