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.

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 Public Domain

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 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 advisers 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 and made 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, an 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-diphenyltrichloroethane, 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 between 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.

Rocket Woman

Commander_Eileen_Collins_-_GPN-2000-001177
By NASA ROBERT MARKOWITZ – Great Images in NASA Description, Public Domain

Ever since she was a little girl, Eileen Collins wanted to be a pilot. She attended Corning Community College in New York and then completed her B.A. in mathematics and economics at Syracuse University in 1978. After Syracuse, she was chosen along with three other women for Air Force pilot training at Oklahoma’s Vance Air Base; her class was one of the base’s first to include women. After earning her wings in 1979, she stayed on for three years as a T-38 Talon pilot instructor before being transferred to Travis Air Force Base in California for cross-training in the C-141 Starlifter. She earned a master’s degree in operations research at Stanford in 1986, followed by a second master’s in space systems management from Webster University in 1989.

That same year, Collins was accepted at the competitive Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. In 1989, she became only the second woman to graduate as a test pilot. She rose to the rank of Colonel in the Air Force before being being selected by NASA to be an astronaut in 1990. In 1995, Collins became the first female astronaut to pilot a space shuttle mission, serving as second-in-command of the shuttle Discovery. She piloted a second mission on the space shuttle Atlantis in 1997. After having logged over 400 hours in space, she was chosen by NASA to command the space shuttle Columbia on a mission in 1999, and became the first astronaut ever to pilot any of the shuttles through a 360 degree pitch maneuver, as well as the first American woman ever to command a space shuttle. In 2006, Collins retired from NASA to pursue other interests and spend time with her family. Since her retirement, Collins has received numerous awards and honors, including induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and has made appearances as a commentator covering space shuttle flights for CNN.

“My daughter just thinks that all moms fly the Space Shuttle.”

Eileen Collins

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

Witches Hunting

N._Popova
By Unknown – Министерство культуры Российской Федерации, Public Domain

Nazis dubbed them the “Night Witches” (“Nachthexen”), and they were terrified of these highly skilled Soviet women pilots. This colorful name came from 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 didn’t have radios, guns, or 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

Warrior Queens in the British Isles

Aethelburg was an ancient British battle-queen of Ine. According to the writings of Damico, she erected a fortress in Taunton in 722 A.D.

One hundred-fifty years after Aethelburg’s rule, Aethelflaed took up the sword and swore herself to chastity-belted celibacy after her intensely unpleasant experience of childbirth. She and her husband became friends and fellow warriors. When her husband died in 912 A.D., she kept on fighting to defend her father, Alfred the Great, and his kingdom against invading Danes. She had a brilliant tactical mind, uniting the pre-England kingdoms of Wales and Mercia. She died in battle at Tammoth in the borough of Stratfordshire and her one child, daughter Aelfwyn, ascended the throne until her jealous, power-hungry uncle managed a coup.

Æthelflæd_as_depicted_in_the_cartulary_of_Abingdon_Abbey
Æthelflæd as depicted in the cartulary of Abingdon Abbey (British Library Cotton MS Claudius B VI, f.14).

 

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