ALISON STEELE: SONG OF THE NIGHTBIRD

AlisonSteele

Alison broke important ground for women in radio when she took wing on the airwaves in the 1960s as the first female disc jockey at a major radio station. “I listened to her faithfully,” says author Joan Steinau Lester. “She was absolutely fantastic. At the time, I only knew I liked her and the show. It was only years later that I realized she’d broken ground for women in a male-dominated industry.”

Progressive rock radio was becoming the hottest sound across the nation, and WNEW was one of the top stations in the nation. Alison was well on her way to a very Mary Tyler Moore-type career in TV, starting by leading a morning exercise program and climbing her way up the ladder to “weather girl.” When AM and FM radio stations split apart instead of simulcasting, competitive radio stations were forced to hire another staff to man the FM stations, putting many in a bind for salaries. Alison recalls that the standard rate for AM jocks at the time was $150,000 a year, while the FM scale was a mere $125 a week. Management at WNEW figured they could hire an all-woman FM crew and stay within the standard FM pay scale.

Alison and her companion women disc jockeys, mostly actresses and models, made their debut on July 4, 1966. Alison was nearly the only one with any previous experience in any realm of broadcasting. By September 1967, the all-woman stable of jocks was out of a job for a reason that Alison herself puts most succinctly, “America, New York, was not ready for lady DJs!” Thanks to creativity and experience in the world of entertainment, Alison wasn’t let go—the only woman to have survived. She had been experimenting within her on-air time, trying angles that kept the listeners’ interest high— theater reviews, celebrity interviews, and lots of high energy personality. When management found in a pre- purge survey that 90 percent of listeners knew her name and enjoyed her show, they made the smart decision to keep her on board.

Along with drastic personnel changes, the station management also made a format change to progressive rock. Alison was out of familiar terrain with rock music, as was the remaining all-male staff and the all-male management. When Alison asked for guidance, she was given the precise and, as it turned out, appropriate advice to simply “do her thing.” They gave her the graveyard shift, too—midnight to 6:00 A.M. The ever- intrepid Alison figured her nighttime listeners were a special breed of insomniacs, lonely people, and assorted other nocturnal types. “I felt that night was a very special time.” She knew from personal experience that emotions intensify at night—loneliness, depression, and illness. Alison’s sensitivity to people paid in spades; she reached out and connected to her listeners by creating this special persona, The Nightbird, and the listeners responded overwhelmingly. “I felt that if I could make this bond visible between people who are feeling things at night, then I’d have something going.” She put all of her creativity into her alter ego with high drama, fantasy, and many completely unique elements the likes of which nighttime radio had never heard. Listeners were hooked after her jazzy intro with the sound of softly fluttering wings and the poetic intro Alison had written ending with “as the Nightbird lifts her wings and soars above the earth into another level of comprehension, where we exist only to feel. Come fly with me, Alison Steele, The Nightbird at WNEW-FM until dawn.”

The phones at the station rang off the hook that first night. Station management told her that she had a “little hit” and then her male boss told her he would tell her how to do it. Instead of being congratulated for originality and the instant popularity of her new show, Alison was treated like a loose cannon, and they tried really hard to mold her and her show into something less unique and more like the shows all the other DJs, men at this point, were doing. Alison stuck to her guns and refused to change the Nightbird, only to be buried even further into the night hours, beginning at 2:00 A.M.! Alison’s stories include the station’s refusal to buy a step stool so she could reach the records on the top shelf. The response to the most popular DJ at the station was a threat to hire “a taller person.”

Alison went on to win Billboard’s “FM Personality of the Year” in 1978, the first woman to receive this honor. Although she was enormously popular, she was regarded with resentment by many of her fellow jocks. In fact, the station made very little effort to clue Alison in to just how important she was to the station. WNEW was
the top station in the country in the hot new category of progressive rock. They were also beloved in their own backyard of New York and began doing public appearances, including one at a concert in Madison Square Garden. This was really the eye-opener. Alison loves to tell this story, “I was the last person be introduced. So they were all on stage when they introduced Alison Steele, ‘The Nightbird,’” The six male DJs who had been introduced before her had to stand there and eat crow while the entire crowd stood and cheered and screamed and clapped for their favorite DJ, Alison, The Nightbird.

Sheroes don’t always get to reap the rewards of their actions during their lifetimes. For Alison, this standing ovation from 20,000 fans who adored her courage and creativity was music to her ears. For proof of Alison Steele’s popularity, look no further than the 70’s TV show, “B.J. and the Bear,” which boasted a female trucker character named Angie who worked as a radio DJ at night with the air name of “The Nightingale.”

“It was my moment of glory, I worked hard for it. I took a lot of s*** over it. And I enjoyed every minute of it.”

— Alison Steele

 

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

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Feminist Foremothers

The pioneer crusader for women’s right to vote started life as a precocious child. Raised in the 1820s by a Quaker father who believed in independent thinking and education for women, Susan learned to read and write by the time she was three. Her first career was as a schoolteacher, but she soon found her niche as a political reformer, taking up the cause of temperance, then abolition. In 1869, she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the National Women’s Suffrage Association and put out a pro-feminist paper, The Revolution.

When the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1872 guaranteeing equal rights for African Americans, including the right, as citizens, to vote, Anthony and Cady Stanton kicked into action demanding the right to vote for women as well. Susan and a dozen other suffragists were jailed for trying to vote in the presidential election of that year. Undeterred, they began to work for a separate amendment giving this right to women. However, Congress patently ignored the amendments put before them each year on the vote for women until fifty years later.

Both Stanton and Anthony were real hell-raisers. Stanton, along with Lucretia Mott, organized the first women’s rights convention in 1848 with a platform on women’s rights to property, equal pay for equal work, and the right to vote. Stanton was introduced to Susan B. Anthony three years later. They were a “dream team,” combining Elizabeth’s political theories and her ability to strike people’s emotions, with Susan’s unmatched skill as a logician and organizer par excellence. They founded the first temperance society for women and amazed everybody with their drastic call for drunkenness to be recognized as a legal basis for divorce. Reviled during her lifetime, she learned to live with the taunts and heckles; critics claimed, among other traits, that she had “the proportions of a file and the voice of a hurdy-gurdy.” Nonetheless, the “Napoleon” of the women’s rights movement, as William Henry Channing called her, tirelessly lectured around the country for women’s rights until her dying day in 1906.

Although she didn’t get to realize her dream of voting rights for women, the successors she and Stanton trained did finally win this landmark victory for the women of America. Of the 260 women who attended the foremothers’ historic first women’s rights convention in 1848, only one woman lived long enough to see the passing of the victorious 1920 amendment grating women the right to vote— Charlotte Woodward. She declared at the time, “We little dreamed when we began this context that half a century later we would be compelled to leave the finish of the battle to another generation of women. But our hearts are filled with joy to know that they enter this task equipped with a college education, with business experience, with the freely admitted right to speak in public—all of which were denied to women fifty years ago.”

“Failure is impossible.”

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

Daisy Bates: Fighting the System and Winning!

Daisy_Lee_Gatson_Bates
By Source, Fair use, Public Domain.

The image of an eight-year-old black girl in her perfectly starched blouse and skirt walking through a gauntlet of hatred to go to school was etched in the minds of every American in the sixties. Everyone was touched by the grace and dignity shown by the young girl who was spat at and heckled, as cameras shoved in her face recorded it for all posterity. Activists for integration won a huge victory that day and with an even greater strength and resolve went on to flatten every segregation wall that presented itself.

Daisy Bates was one of the civil rights warriors who were first called into action in the fight for desegregation. Born in 1920, Daisy was adopted into a loving family in Little Rock, Arkansas, and never knew what happened to her birth mother until the taunts of schoolchildren made the eight-year-old question her adoptive mother. On that day, she found out that her mother had been raped and murdered by three white men who then dumped her body in a pond. Her father left town to escape having the crime pinned on him.

When Daisy was twenty-one, she married L.C. Bates, a black man who had been educated as a journalist. Together, they took over a Little Rock newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, and turned it into a platform for “the people,” reporting crimes committed against blacks that the white paper ignored. Daisy worked as a reporter, covering with complete honesty, for example, the cold-blooded murder of a black soldier by military police. The white business community was outraged over the State Press’ coverage: They feared the army would leave their town and withdraw all advertising. However, the Bates’ brave courage in the face of brutality to blacks curtailed these crimes, and Little Rock became a more liberated town despite itself.

Then the movement toward desegregation heated up, with Daisy Bates right in the thick of things. The Supreme Court had declared segregation of schools unconstitutional in May of 1954, giving Southern schools the chance to describe how and when they would make the required changes. The local school board had responded by saying that they would take on the notion of integration “gradually.” Little Rock’s black community was up in arms about the foot dragging and after butting their heads in the many stony-faced meetings, they opted to take matters into their own hands. The state and local NAACP decided that they would try to enroll the students into the segregated schools and build up cases of denied admission in order to create a true challenge to the policy of gradualism. Daisy Bates, as president of the NAACP in Little Rock, worked with the State Press and other papers to publicize this flouting of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Finally, in 1957, they decided to integrate the high school, come hell or high water. The children who would put their bodies on the line would become famous overnight as “Daisy’s children” and suffer personal agony for the cause of racial injustice.

When nine children were selected to attend the “whites only” Central High School, Daisy acted as their escort and protector. Answering a poll screened by school officials, the group of young heroes and sheroes consisted of: Carlotta Walls, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Ernest Green, Terrence Roberts, Gloria Ray, Minnijean Brown, Jefferson Thomas, and Elizabeth Eckford. When Little Rock school superintendent Virgil Blossom decreed that no adults could accompany the black students, Daisy called all of their homes and told them there would be a change of plans.

Elizabeth Eckford’s family had no telephone, so she showed up on opening day—to be faced by an angry white mob who also attacked the reporters and photographers. The mob siege lasted seventeen days until 1,000 paratroopers showed up in response to orders from the White House to carry through the order of legal integration of the school.

However, the students were on their own once inside, prey to taunts, shoving, and threats of violence. Daisy Bates continued to protect and advise the children throughout the ordeal, accompanying them to every meeting with a school official when racial incidents happened. The struggle at Little Rock was only the first in a round of actions that ultimately led to full legal desegregation. Though difficult, the victory was entirely to Daisy and her “children” who showed the nation that you could stand up to hatred and ignorance with honesty and dignity. You can fight a losing battle and win.

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

Gertrude Blom: Bearing Witness

Trudi
By Na Bolom

Born in 1901, pioneer rainforest activist Gertrude Elizabeth Loertsher’s fascination with native peoples began as a child in Switzerland when she read about American Indians and acted out the stories with her friends after school. She didn’t feel the same pull toward academia, however, and pursued horticulture and social work rather than a more traditional educational career. She spent a year in England with a Quaker family whose way of life and pacifist philosophy she found imminently appealing. After a failed marriage to a neighbor’s son back home in Bern, Trudi, as she liked to be called, traveled to Germany in the 1930s, where she was shocked by the rise of fascism. The daughter of a Jewish mother and a Protestant minister father, Trudi’s own sensibility toward peace and justice was poles apart from the Nazi party. Upon Hitler’s election as chancellor in 1933, the Nazis’ power was dominant; any actions or talk against it were treated as treason.

Trudi’s sympathies were entirely anti-Nazi, and she risked her life many times to get information about Nazi horror stories to the newspapers in her native Switzerland, outsmarting the ruling party of martinets and murderers again and again. Times got harder and getting out of Germany became increasingly difficult; Gertrude finally inveigled passage to France, where she worked for the Resistance, traveling to the United States to aid other European refugees. Upon returning to France, she was put in prison after the Nazi takeover.

Ultimately the Swiss government got her out of France, and she made her way to Mexico to rest and get some distance from political strife. She developed a new interest in photography, making women factory workers her subject. Her photographs were compelling, filled with both a beauty and depth in the faces weathered by difficult lives. Mexico itself filled Trudi with awe; it was both a new home and a muse catapulting her toward discovery. She traveled the vast country in search of the meaning she knew lay in the land. Her first sight of the Mexican jungle was an epiphany: “This jungle filled me with a sense of wonder that has never left me,” she noted many years later. The mysterious forest and Lacandon Indians who lived there showed her a way to live in

the world that was vastly different from her Europeanbackground. Trudi learned from these people, studying their traditional ways only to discover their life in the jungle was in jeopardy; Mexican peasants were being relocated to the rainforest state of Chiapas bordering Guatemala and left to scratch a living from the dirt. Trudi’s life was in flux, as well. She met and marriedDanish archeologist, cartographer, and traveler, Franz Blom, who shared Trudi’s fascination with the Mayan culture and Indian peoples. Together, they pursued their love of the rainforest and thirst for knowledge constantly, mapping the land and recording their findings in journals and Trudi’s photography, which they published. The husband and wife team came to a deep understanding of the Lacondan rainforest and its people. They perceived the fragility of this environment and sought to preserve it, founding Na Bolom, a research institution and center for visiting scholars, travelers, and anyone caring to learn about the Mayan civilization and its modern descendants.

Trudi also figured a practical way to undo some of the damage Lacandones had suffered. She invited tree expertsto assist her in establishing a nursery to replant the rainforest, making the trees free to anyone who would plant them. Trudi worked diligently on the lecture circuit to pay for the seedlings, building the annual crop to 30,000 trees a year before her death in 1993 (her ninety- second year). Na Bolom carries on her work educating and reforesting the Mayan rainforest.

“The time has come for us to wake up to what we are doing and take steps to stop this destruction.”

— Gertrude Blom

Rachel Carson : “The Natural World Supports All Life”

Rachel-Carson
By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – This image originates from the National Digital Library of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service

World famous ecologist and science writer Rachel Carson turned nature writing on its head. Before she came along, notes Women Public Speakers in the United States, “the masculine orientation [to the subject] emphasized either the dominant, aggressive encounter of humanity with wild nature or the distancing of nature through scientific observation.” By creating a different, more feminine, relationship to nature, one which saw humans as part of the great web of life, separate only in our ability to destroy it; Rachel Carson not only produced the first widely read books on ecology, but laid the foundation for the entire modern environmental movement.

Rachel inherited her love of nature from her mother, Maria, a naturalist at heart, who took Rachel for long walks in woods and meadows. Born in 1907, Rachel was raised on a farm in Pennsylvania where the evidence of industry was never too far away. By the beginning of the 

twentieth century, Pennsylvania had changed a great deal from the sylvan woodlands named for colonial William Penn. Coal mines and strip mines had devastated some of the finest farmland. Chemical plants, steel mills, and hundreds of factories were belching pure evil into the air. As she grew, Rachel’s love of nature took an unexpected turn toward oceanography, a budding science limited by technological issues for divers. The young girl was utterly fascinated by this particular biological science, and though she majored in English and loved to write, she heard the ocean’s siren song increasingly. While in college at Pennsylvania College for Women in the middle 1920s, she changed her major to biology, despite the overwhelming advice of her teachers and professors to stay the course in English, a much more acceptable major for a young woman. Her advisors were quite correct in their assertions that women were blocked from science; there were very few teaching positions except at the handful of women’s colleges, and even fewer job prospects existed for women.

However, Rachel listened to her heart and graduated with high honors, a fellowship to study at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory for the summer, and a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins in Maryland to study marine zoology. Rachel’s first semester in graduate school coincided with the beginning of The Great Depression. Her family lost the farm; her parents and brother came to live with her in her tiny campus apartment. She helped make ends meet with part-time teaching at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, while continuing her studies. In 1935, Rachel’s father suffered a heart attack and died quite suddenly. Rachel looked desperately for work to support her mother and brother only to hear the same old discouragements—no one would hire her as a full-time university science professor. Brilliant and hardworking, Rachel was encouraged to teach grade school or, better yet, be a housewife because it was “inappropriate” for women to work in science.

Finally, her unstinting efforts to work in her field were ultimately rewarded by a job writing radio scripts for Elmer Higgins at the United States Bureau of Fisheries, a perfect job for her because it combined her strength in writing with her scientific knowledge. Then a position opened up at the Bureau for a junior aquatic biologist. The job was to be awarded to the person with the highest score: Rachel aced the test and got the position. Elmer Higgins saw that her writing was excellent, making science  accessible to the general public. At his direction, she submitted an essay about the ocean to the Atlantic Monthly, which not only published Rachel’s piece, but asked her to freelance for them on a continuing basis, resulting in a book deal from a big New York publishing house.

By now, Rachel was the sole support of her mother, brother, and two nieces. She raised the girls, supported her mother, and worked a demanding full-time job, leaving her research and writing to weekends and late nights. But she prevailed nonetheless. Her first book, Under the Sea Wind, debuted in 1941 to a bemused and war-preoccupied public. It was a completely original book, enacting a narrative of the seacoast with the flora and fauna as characters, the first indication of Rachel’s unique perspective on nature.

Rachel’s second book, The Sea Around Us, was a nonfiction presentation of the relationship of the ocean to earth and its inhabitants. This time, the public was ready, and she received the National Book Award and made the New York Times bestseller list for nearly two years! The Edge of the Sea was also very well received, both critically and publicly. Rachel Carson’s message of respect and kinship with all life combined with a solid foundation of scientific knowledge found a real audience in postwar America. However, shy and solitary Rachel avoided the spotlight by accepting a grant that allowed her to return to her beloved seacoast, where she could be found up to her ankles in mud or sand, researching.

As her popularity rose and her income from book royalties flooded in, Rachel was able to quit her job and build a coastal cottage for herself and her mother. She also returned the grant money, asking it be redistributed to needy scientists. In 1957, a letter from one of Rachel’s readers changed everything for her. The letter came from Olga Owens Huckins, who was reporting the death of birds after airplanes sprayed dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, DDT, a chemical then in heavy use. Rachel Carson was keenly interested in discovering DDT’s effects on the natural habitat. Her findings were shocking: if birds and animals weren’t killed outright by DDT, its effects were even more insidious—thin eggshells that broke before the hatchlings were fully developed. It was also suspected of being carcinogenic to humans.

Rachel vowed to write a book about the devastating impact of DDT upon nature “or there would be no peace for me,” she proclaimed. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with cancer. Despite chemotherapy, surgery, and constant pain, Rachel worked slowly and unstintingly on her new book. In 1962, Silent Spring was published. It was like a cannon shot. Chemical companies fought back, denied, and ran for cover against the public outcry. Vicious charges against Rachel were aimed at what many of the captains of the chemical industry viewed as her Achilles heel—her womanhood. “Not a real scientist,” they claimed. She was also called unstable, foolish, and sentimental for her love of nature. With calm logic and cool reason, Rachel Carson responded in exacting scientific terms, explaining the connections among DDT, the water supply, and the food chain.

Ultimately, President John F. Kennedy assigned his Science Advisory Committee to the task of examining the pesticide, and Rachel Carson was proven to be absolutely correct. She died two years later, and although her reputation continued to be maligned by the chemical industry, her work was the beginning of a revolution in the responsible use of chemicals and serves as a reminder of the reverence for all life.

“Perhaps if Dr. Rachel Carson had been Dr. Richard Carson the controversy would have been minor…The American technocrat could not stand the pain of having his achievements deflated by the pen of this slight woman.”

— Joseph B.C. White, author

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

Witches Hunting

Po-2.jpg
By Douzeff

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

Nazis dubbed them the “Night Witches” (“Nachthexen”) – and they were terrified of these highly skilled Soviet women pilots. This colorful name came about due to the way these fierce female flyers would stop their aircraft engines and silently swoop in before dropping their bombs; the “swooshing” sound as they passed overhead was said to resemble that of a witch’s broomstick.  The Soviet Union was struggling mightily in 1941 to stop the Nazis’ advances. Stalin himself ordered the formation of three all-women air force units. One of the first volunteers was 19-year-old Nadezhda Popova, who would go on to become one of the most celebrated heroes of the Soviet Union; she flew 852 missions against the Germans in wobbly wooden biplanes and was shot down several times. Her unit, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment was equipped with obsolete two-seater Polikarpov PO-2 biplanes made of wood and cloth. As such, they weren’t very fast and were extremely unwieldy and hard to maneuver. These pilots had neither radios, guns, nor even parachutes, and they had to navigate using a stopwatch and a paper map. Too exposed to fly during the day, the Night Witches only flew under the cover of darkness. Their mission was to harass German positions and take out troop encampments, storage depots, and supply lines. They were extremely good at their job and were also noteworthy as the first women in the world to fly as military pilots.

“In winter when you’d look out to see your target better, you got frostbite, our feet froze in our boots, but we carried on flying. You had to focus on the target and think how you could hit it. There was no time to give way to emotions.”

– Nadezhda Popova 

Anne Frank: Behind the Attic Wall

AnneFrank1940_crop
By Unknown photographer; Collectie Anne Frank Stichting Amsterdam

If Anne Frank had lived, what would she think of the fact that her diary of the two years her family spent in hiding from the Nazis would go on to become not only a classic of war literature, but one of the best-read and most loved books of all time? The Diary of Anne Frank is now handed down from one generation to the next, and reading the records of Anne’s emotions has become a rite of passage for the teens of today. It has been translated into more than fifty languages and made into a play and a movie; a new English version, published in 1995, restored one-third more material that was cut out of the original by her father.

Why such popularity? Anne Frank’s diary shows the human face of an inhuman war while it records Anne’s emotional growth with great insight. When she passed through the walls behind the bookcases into the secret rooms of the attic in Amsterdam, she left her real life behind. At thirteen, Anne became a prisoner and fugitive at once. Torn from her friends at the onset of her teens, she poured her heart into the diary she called “Kitty,” her imaginary friend and confessor. It’s an intense experience for the reader who knows what Anne couldn’t know— that she wouldn’t survive. Anne believed she would make it and shared her hopes and wishes for the children she would one day have. But at sixteen, she died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

There is heartbreak also in the realization of what a gift for writing Anne had—it is almost unfathomable that some of the passages were written by an adolescent! Her honesty about her feelings, not all of them noble, is the quality that makes Anne’s diary eternal. Caged in a hidden world, Anne showed us that a life of the mind could be full, no matter what the circumstances. For her courage and optimism, Anne Frank will always be a shero.

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

“The best remedy for those who are afraid,
lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere
where they can be quite alone with the heavens,
nature, and God…I firmly believe that nature
brings solace in all troubles.”
Anne Frank