Harriet Tubman: Harriet the Spy (Not Kidding)

by H Seymour Squyer
By Photographer: Horatio Seymour Squyer, 1848 – 18 Dec 1905 – National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain.

In her day, Harriet was lovingly referred to as Moses, for leading her people home to freedom. An escaped slave herself, she pulled off feat after amazing feat and gave freedom to many who would otherwise have never known it. Harriet Tubman was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, perhaps the best that ever was. She is best known for this activity, but she was also a feminist, a nurse, and, for a time, a spy. Her keenest interest was social reform, both for her gender and her people.

Born around 1821 on a plantation in Maryland, Harriet struggled with grand mal seizures after a blow to the head as a child, but the damage from a severely fractured skull didn’t stop her from the most dangerous work she could have possibly undertaken: taking groups of slaves to freedom in the north. During her slow recovery from being hit in the head with a two-pound weight by an overseer, she began praying and contemplating the enslavement of blacks, resolving to do what she could, with faith in a higher power. She married John Tubman, a free man, in 1844, and lived in fear that she would be sold into the Deep South. When she heard rumors that she was about to be sold, she plotted her escape, begging John to come with her. He not only refused, but threatened to turn her in.

Harriet escaped to freedom by herself, but immediately plotted to return for her family members, using the Underground Railroad. She ultimately rescued all her family members except John; he had taken a new wife and remained behind. She led more than two hundred slaves to safety and freedom, encouraging her “passengers” with gospel songs sung in a deep, strong voice. She also developed a code to signal danger using biblical quotations and certain songs. Harriet Tubman always outfoxed the whites who questioned her about the groups of blacks traveling with her. She lived in constant threat of hanging, with a $40,000 price on her head, and many close calls. One of the most dramatic incidents shows Harriet’s resourcefulness and resolve when she bought tickets heading south to evade whites demanding to know what a group of blacks were doing traveling together. She always carried a gun to dissuade any frightened fugitives from turning tail. “You’ll be free or die,” she told them— and she never lost a passenger.

Harriet also started connecting with abolitionists in the North, developing a strong admiration for John Brown (she conspired with him in his raid at Harper’s Ferry) and Susan B. Anthony. During the Civil War, she nursed black soldiers, worked as a spy for the Union, and even led a raid that freed 750 slaves. After the war, she lived in Auburn, New York, in a house that had been a way station for the Underground Railroad, teaching blacks how to cope with newfound freedom; gathering food, clothing, and money for poor blacks; and founding a home for elderly and indigent blacks. Harriet’s last years were spent in abject poverty despite all she had given to others, but she died at the age of ninety-three having accomplished the task she set herself as a girl. She was the great emancipator, offering her people hope, freedom, and new beginnings. Reformer and writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson named her “the greatest heroine of the age.”

“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked to my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything.”

— Harriet Tubman
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Margaret Mead: Coming of Age in America

By Smithsonian Institution from United States – Margaret Mead (1901-1978)Uploaded by Fæ, No restrictions, Public Domain.

Margaret Mead still stirs controversy in some circles for her pioneering work in social anthropology. Like Rachel Carson, she wrote a scientific study that crossed over into the general population and became a bestseller. For this, she received derision from the academic community. But that didn’t bother the free spirit, who was one of the first women to earn a PhD in anthropology. Margaret was fortunate to be born in 1901 into a family of academics who disregarded convention and put learning and involvement in the world ahead of society’s rules. The firstborn of five children, Margaret’s parents were Edward Mead, a professor at Wharton School who taught finance and economics, and Emily Fogg Mead, a teacher, sociologist, and ardent feminist and suffragist. Margaret was homeschooled by her very able grandmother, a former teacher and school principal.

Margaret didn’t fall too far from the tree when she started The Minority, an antifraternity at DePauw University, where she was attending. Bored, she transferred to Barnard College where the academic standards were more in accordance with her needs. Originally an English major, Margaret attended a class in her senior year given by anthropologist Franz Boas, a virulent opponent of the school of racial determinism. She also met Ruth Benedict, then Boas’ assistant, who encouraged Margaret to join Columbia under Boas’ instruction. Margaret agreed and went on to graduate school after marriage to a seminary student, Luther Cressman. Soon after, true to her heritage as a free-thinking Mead, Margaret went against her mentor Boas’ urgings to do field work with America’s Native peoples, a pet project of his; instead she followed the beat of her own different and, as it turns out, tribal drums, setting off for Polynesia to explore the island culture. She reasoned that they were better subjects because they had been less exposed and, therefore less assimilated than Native Americans. She was absolutely right, writing up her field studies after living with and working alongside the Samoans for three years. The date was 1926. Divorcing Luther, she married Reo Fortune, and a mere three years later, published Coming of Age in Samoa, a ground-breaking work that shocked some circles for its frank and completely objective report of, among other things, sexual rituals and practices among the Samoans. Nearly overnight, Margaret was a superstar, fairly rare for anthropologists and even rarer for twenty-six-year-old female anthropologists!

After a stint in the American Museum of Natural History, Margaret got the jones for another field study, so she and Reo headed to New Guinea. Her resulting book, Growing Up in New Guinea, was another huge hit in both academic and popular circles. While in New Guinea, Margaret met and fell in love with fellow anthropologist Gregory Bateson; after her second divorce, she and Gregory married and she gave birth to her daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson. They worked together in New Guinea, but ultimately Gregory claimed that she was stifling his creativity and they divorced in 1943.

Margaret Mead spent the rest of her life working full-tilt in the field of anthropology, publishing forty-four books and over one thousand articles and monographs, and working as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History between trips to the field. She also sought to support and finance the work of young anthropologists. At the core of all her work was an analysis of childhood development (she was the first anthropologist ever to study childrearing practices) and gender roles, overturning many time-worn assumptions about personality and place in society for both sexes. Over and over, her studies demonstrated that there is nothing natural or universal about particular “masculine” or “feminine” roles; rather they are culturally determined. Detractors damn her fieldwork as being “impressionistic,”but Margaret Mead’s success in a male-dominated scientific field was a wonderful contradiction to the typical role for an American woman of her day and age. With forty-four books, she became a household name, made anthropology available for the masses, and blazed a trail for shero scholars of future generations.

“I have spent most of my life studying the lives of other peoples, faraway peoples, so that Americans might better understand themselves.”

— Margaret Mead

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Sofya Kovalevsky: It Pays to be Calculating

By Unknown – http://www.goettinger-tageblatt.de/newsroom/wissen/dezentral/wissenlokal/art4263,603649, Public Domain.

Russian child prodigy Sofya Kovalevsky wasn’t allowed to study her favorite subject, mathematics, because of her gender. Her parents even threatened not to allow her to be educated at all if she was caught studying math. Wily and willful, Sofya found a way: working out equations on the back of old wallpaper in an unused room in her house, thus keeping her passion for numbers safely secret. She faced similar barricades when she was older and was denied admission to a university. Around 1870, Sofya married to get away from her stifling mother and an equally repressive Mother Russia and escaped to Germany, where she attended the University at Heidelberg. Soon she was calculating rings around other students and acquired a reputation as a top-notch mathematician in the elite realm of partial differential equations. By thirty-three, she received a professorial post at Stockholm’s select university and was awarded the Prix Bordin from the French Academy of Sciences. A true Renaissance woman, Sofya also wrote a few novels and plays before her creativity was halted by an early death at a mere forty-one.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Myriam Bedard: Canadian Bi-Athlete


Well on her way to a successful career as a figure skater, Myriam Bedard hung up her figure skates as a young teenager to become a pioneer in one of the Olympic’s newest sanctioned sports competitions for women: the much less glamorous and far more rigorous biathlon. It has an interesting history: for ancient Scandinavians, skiing and stalking prey were necessary for survival in their wintry climes. Infantry soldiers in World War II came to the same conclusion for completely different reasons, leading to the formation of military ski patrols in Norway, Finland, Sweden, and other parts of Scandinavia. The biathlon is a refinement of these origins but wasn’t reorganized as an Olympic sport for men until 1960. Women biathletes had to wait thirty-two more years to compete on the Olympic games. The young Myriam was ready.

She had been training for several years in a suburb outside Quebec City and quickly discovered the prohibition on firearms in Canada’s public bus system. Resourcefully, she figured out how to tear her gun down so it could be transported in an innocent-looking violin case. Highly driven, Myriam started winning races at fifteen, even though the only ski boots she had were so big she had to stuff paper in the toes. Nevertheless, at the Lillehammer Olympics, she won the bronze medal for the 15-kilometer race.

Myriam’s career has been cloaked in both mystery and controversy. Upon winning her Olympic prize, she stirred debate with her absolute refusal to sign Biathlon Canada’s contractual agreement to cycle a portion of other earnings back to the organization, accompanied by a “gag order” to prevent media appearances by national biathletes. Her stubbornness, or independence, depending on the point of view, concluded in her suspension from Canada’s team. A truce was won in time for her to rejoin the team and lead them to an exciting win in the 1993 world championships in Bulgaria. Bedard did Canada proud in Bulgaria, shooting past the Russian skier who had bested her in ’92.

Her critics love to harp on her solitary ways and her secrecy with her private coach, whose name she refuses to reveal. When she performed with less than stellar speed at the 1993 winter trials, the naysayers came out in droves to predict gloom, doom, and disaster for Canada. Resolute in her own judgment and that of her “mystery coach,” Myriam had simply decided to reserve her strength for the 1994 Olympic games in Lillehammer. Although her starting position for the 15-kilometer race was third from last, with the fierce concentration that has become her trademark, Bedard swept to the front and took the gold, following that victory with a second win on the 7.5-kilometer race. A fascinating footnote to the Lillehammer triumphs is that she realized after her second race that she had on mismatched skis! The reticent Myriam Bedard has become a much sought- after speaker in Canada and a national hero to Canada’s youth, who cherish that she is one of the nation’s all-time greatest Olympic champions. Bedard tries to balance all this with motherhood (she married a fellow biathlete in 1994) and her love of a quiet life. She walked her own path every step of the way and carved out a destiny in what is arguably the toughest of all Olympic sports.

“I like it when I strike sparks in people…after all, that’s why I’m here!”
— Myriam Bedard

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Arlene Blum: “A Woman’s Place Is On Top”

By Cullen328 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Public Domain.

Arlene Blum has made a success by doing what she’s not “supposed” to do. Born in Chicago in 1945 and raised by her mother’s parents, Arlene overcame “arithmaphobia” to go to the top of her class in mathematics and science, where she developed a taste for competing academically with boys. She decided to study chemistry at Portland’s Reed College, ultimately earning a doctorate in chemistry from U.C. Berkeley. In an interview with Ms. in 1987, she indicated that this spirit of competition still propelled her, “I know that…girls weren’t supposed to be chemists. And it’s always sort of nice to do things you’re not supposed to do.” Reed’s location near Oregon’s mountain peaks was auspicious for the young scientist. She fell in love with mountain climbing and even worked it into her academic regimen by analyzing volcanic gas from the top of Mount Hood.

More exotic ranges beckoned, and Arlene soon trekked to Mexican and Andean peaks. An eye-opening event happened when she submitted an application to be a part of a team destined for Afghanistan and was turned down for being a woman. After a second ejection for an Alaskan expedition, Arlene Blum took the “bull by the horns” and put together her own all-woman team of six climbers, all of whom made the peak of Alaska’s Mount Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley) in 1970. This was just the beginning for the barrier-breaking shero, who in 1978 took another all-woman team to Annapurna, one of the highest mountains in the world. At the time, only four teams had ever made it to the top of Annapurna, a treacherous mountain known for fierce storms and dangerous avalanches. In addition to the danger, such treks are always extremely expensive. Ever plucky, Blum and her team of Sherpas and sheroes paid their way to the top of Annapurna, the world’s tenth highest peak, by selling t-shirts and gaining corporate sponsorship. The t-shirts became real conversation starters with the winning slogan, “a Woman’s Place is on top…Annapurna!”

Amazing Arlene has gone on to walk the entire Great Himalayan mountain range, crest Everest, and organize many expeditions and explorations. She has also excelled at her other profession, chemistry, and helped identify a carcinogenic flame-retardant in children’s clothing. Arlene’s daughter Annlise joins her mother on climbs now, part of the generation of women for whom Arlene cleared the path. Arlene Blum showed the world that, when it comes to excluding women from sports, there “ain’t no mountain high enough” to keep a good woman down!

“People say I’ve organized all-women’s expeditions to show what we can do; but it wasn’t like that. It was more a rebellion against being told I couldn’t do something, or…that women couldn’t do something.”
— Arlene Blum
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Florence Griffith-Joyner: Going With the Flo Jo

By All the photographs are in the public domain and may be credited “Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library. – croped from File:Florence Griffith Joyner.jpg, Public Domain.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s brother, Al Joyner, was an Olympic athlete too. When he met the flamboyant Florence Griffith in 1984, the runner who made her mark on the track world as much for her long fingernails and colorful attire as for being “the world’s fastest woman,” she was working days as a customer service rep for a bank and moonlighting as a beautician at night. The former world-class runner had lost the gold to Valerie Brisco in 1980 and had given up. At Al’s urging, she began training again. They also started dating seriously and got married soon after. This time, Florence had the will to win and stormed the 1988 Seoul Olympics to take home three gold medals. Off the track, “Flo Jo,” as the press dubbed her, has devoted herself to working with children, hoping to educate the youth of America to “reach beyond their dreams,” eat right, play sports, and stay away from drugs. After her record-setting gold medal races in Seoul, Ms. enthused, “Florence Griffith-Joyner has joined the immortals, rising to their status on the force of her amazing athletic achievement, aided by the singular nature of her personality and approach.”

“Looking good is almost as important as running well. It’s part of feeling good about myself.”

— Florence Griffith-Joyner

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Isadora Duncan: Dancing For Her Life

By Dover Street Studios. Distributed in the U.S. by Charles L. Ritzmann: Gobonobo – This file was derived from: Isadora Duncan portrait.jpg, Public Domain.

Isadora nee Angela Duncan was born in San Francisco on a summer’s day in 1877. Brought up in the manner of fallen aristocracy by her poor mother, a music teacher, young Angela studied classical ballet, but soon discarded the rules in favor of her own freer, interpretive dance.

Her public debut of this new style of dance was a total flop in New York City and Chicago, so she scraped together some savings and headed for Europe on board a cattle boat.

In London, she studied the sculptures of pagan Greece and integrated the sense of movement from these classical remnants into her dance practice. A grande dame of the British stage, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, became the young American’s patron and set up private dance salons for Isadora at the homes of the most cultured creme de la creme. Soon, snooty Brits couldn’t get enough of the barefoot and beautiful young nymph, dancing her heart out in a dryad costume that left very little guesswork as to Duncan’s anatomy. Soon she was packing theaters and concert halls all over the continent. In 1905, she toured Russia as well.

Isadora Duncan was not only the dance diva of her day, but a woman who dared to flout social convention, bearing children out of wedlock (wedlock was a notion utterly repugnant to Duncan and her pack) to stage designer Gordon Craig and Paris Singer, of the sewing machine dynasty. But her life was not all roses—Duncan lost her two babies and their nurse when their car rolled into the Seine and all three drowned. Duncan tried to sublimate her grief with work, opening dance schools around Europe and touring South America, Germany, and France.

In 1920, she received an invitation to establish a school in the Soviet Union, where she fell in undying love with Sergey Aleksandrovish Yesenin, a respected poet half
her age. The two married, despite Duncan’s abhorrence of the institution, and were taken for Bolshevik spies as they traveled the globe. Upon being heckled mercilessly at a performance in Boston’s Symphony Hall, Isadora Duncan bid her homeland adieu forever: “Goodbye America, I shall never see you again!” She was as good as her word; the honeymooners scuttled back to Europe, where their relationship crashed against the rocks of Yesenin’s insanity. He committed suicide in 1925 and Duncan lived the remainder of her life on the French Riviera, where another auto accident ended her life. One of her dramatic Greek inspired scarves got tangled in the wheel of her car and she was strangled.

Though her life was sad and messy, Isadora Duncan’s real triumph was her art. She changed the dance world forever, freeing the form from Victorian constriction to allow more natural movement. Duncan believed in celebrating the sculptural beauty of the female body and that dance, at its zenith, was “divine expression.” Duncan is regarded by many to have been the chief pioneer of modern dance. She was a free spirit for whom “to dance is to live.”

“If my art is symbolic of any one thing, it is symbolic of the freedom of woman and her emancipation.”
— Isadora Duncan
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.