Dec

10

When she was nine years old, Hetty Bower (September 28, 1905–November 12, 2013) saw the wounded veterans returning from the battlefields of WWI and became an unflinching opponent of war. She spent the century that followed fighting for social justice as one of Britain’s most unrelenting political activists. Among her last words when she died at the age of 108 was the song she sang with her daughters during those final days, and the refrain to her entire life: “Ban the bomb, for ever more.”

Bower, born Esther Rimel, joined the very first women’s union, the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries, in her early twenties. Though she was highly politically engaged her whole life, running a hostel for Czech refugees during WWII, becoming a founding member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958, and marching in every demonstration against the war in Iraq, Bower didn’t begin her public-speaking career until she was 102, when she addressed the crowds at London’s Hiroshima Day Commemoration with her articulate and purposeful message of peace.

After WWII, Bower spent her days working at a London high school, where she championed music education — she had developed a special love of music during WWI, when her family found comfort in playing piano and singing to override the noise of bomb raids. Her dying words — a lyric line that bespeaks her two great passions, music and peace — ring with the undying hope of one day drowning out the sound of war in the world.

Nov

25

During the Civil War, women weren’t allowed to vote or have bank accounts, were still subject to Victorian ideals of homemaking and motherhood as the sole purpose of female existence, and had little personal or political agency. And yet hundreds of them served in the war undocumented, dressed as men. Singular among them was the surgeon, feminist, and abolitionist Mary Edwards Walker (November 26, 1832 – February 21, 1919), who is to this day the only woman awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest accolade of the American military, and one of only eight civilians to have ever received it.

Walker, who first became interested in medicine through her father’s collection of anatomical books, paid her way through medical college by teaching at the local elementary school and received her medical doctor degree as the only woman in her class. Shortly before she turned twenty-four, she married her college classmate Albert Miller while wearing pants and a man’s coat. The two opened a medical practice together, but general distrust in female physicians’ competence caused the practice to peter out. When the marriage failed due to Miller’s infidelity four years later, Walker opened a practice on her own and it thrived, both as a business and as a social statement. One of her newspaper ads read:

Those … who prefer the skill of a female physician … have now an excellent opportunity to make their choice.

When the Civil War began, Walker volunteered as a civilian in the Union Army, but was only allowed to practice as a nurse despite her training — the American army had no female surgeons. A suffragette and actively invested in women’s rights, she eventually made her way to working as an unpaid field surgeon on the front lines and even applied to the Secret Service in 1862, offering to spy on the enemy. She was rejected. A year later, however, she was appointed as “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” in the Army of the Cumberland and thus became the first-ever female surgeon employed by the American military.

In the spring of 1864, she was captured by the Confederate army and spent four months as a prisoner of war in Virginia, until she was released in a prisoner exchange.

Once the war ended, Walker became a writer, lecturer, and vocal proponent of women’s rights and dress reform. At a time when women wore dresses, Walker walked in pants and proudly declared:

I wear this style of dress from the highest, the purest, and the noblest principle!

In 1865, Walker was recommended for the Medal of Honor by two army generals and President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present her the medal, citing her “valuable service to the government,” her devotion “with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health,” and her having endured “hardships as a prisoner of war.”

In 1917, however — two years before her death — a review board checked the eligibility of medal recipients and revoked 911 of those awarded, including Walker’s, on the ground that she wasn’t actually a member of the military. Walker, eighty-five at the time, refused to give her medal back. While the army never asked the unfortunate 911 non-honorees — who included Buffalo Bill — to actually return their medals, their names were erased from the Army Medal of Honor Roll.

Six decades later, and fifty-eight years after Walker’s death, president Jimmy Carter reinstated her medal, citing her “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.” In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service commemorated with a stamp — but depicted her in a lavish dress, with curls, even though she took great pride in wearing only men’s clothes and rejecting the era’s dress norms for women. Whether the error is an example of institutional laziness, historical ignorance, or a posthumous form of oppression remains a matter of interpretation.

Mar

18

"There’s something, which impels us to show our inner-souls. The more courageous we are, the more we succeed in explaining what we know," Marguerite Ann Johnson, better-known as Maya Angelou (born April 4, 1928), asserted in her eloquent meditation on why we write. But more than a mere literary device, this ethos of lyrical bravery permeates every aspect of the beloved author’s spirit, from her stirring autobiographies to her resolute civil rights activism to her valorous poetry. Though her most memorable work is autobiographical in nature, it emanates an expansive celebration of the tender resilience of the human spirit, reverberating at the intersection of the deeply personal and the universally resonant.

Far from a beeline to literary success, the trajectory of Angelou’s life treks the uneven topography of fortune and misfortune, steered by that same daring spirit of unflinching conviction. Born into a tumultuous working-class family and abandoned by her father at the age of three, Angelou was sent to live with her grandmother, an unusually prosperous store owner amidst the otherwise impecunious environment of the Great Depression. Angelou was eventually reunited with her mother, Vivian, in what turned out to be a heartbreaking trade-off — at the age of 8, Angelou was raped by Vivian’s boyfriend. Though terrified, she confessed to her brother, who then alerted the rest of the family. The attacker was convicted but jailed for only a day. Mere days after his release, he was murdered — by Angelou’s uncles, according to most speculations.

With the tragic magical thinking that leads abused children to take the weight of the world on their shoulders, young Maya came to believe that her words had killed her abuser and that her voice had the power to destroy. She became mute for nearly five years — an extreme manifestation of the soul-wrenching see-saw of silence and sanity that rocks many victims of sexual abuse — and it was in this verbal interlude that Angelou developed her love of literature, her keen capacity for observation, and her remarkable memory for fact and detail.

Less than a month after her high school graduation, at the age of 17, Angelou gave birth to her son, Clyde. Over the following decade, she spiraled into poverty and cycled through various relationships, cities, and occupations — from a pimp to a prostitute to a line cook — in struggling to survive as a single mother. While performing modern dance with her husband, the Greek electrician and aspiring musician Enistasious (Tosh) Angelos — an interracial marriage in an era that deemed the union radical and worthy of condemnation — she adopted “Maya Angelou” as her professional name upon her managers’ insistence.

Shortly thereafter, Angelou was drawn to the antiapartheid movement in South Africa and became a champion of civil rights, befriending both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose subsequent assassinations only three years apart left Angelou devastated but even more committed to the cause. King’s loss in 1968 threw Angelou into a particularly deep depression. In an effort to cheer her up, her friend James Baldwin took her to a dinner party at legendary cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s home. Taken with the story of Angelou’s childhood, Feiffer’s wife, Judy, urged iconic Random House editor and family friend Robert Loomis to convince Angelou to write a book. In 1969, despite having almost no writing experience, she penned her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which catapulted her into the strata of international literary celebrity.

Over the half-century that followed, Angelou earned her reputation as one of modern history’s most acclaimed and disciplined authors with five more autobiographies, five books of essays, and a number of poetry anthologies, in addition to collaborating on various theater, television, and film projects. The recipient of numerous awards and nearly three dozen honorary doctoral degrees, she is only the second poet in history, after Robert Frost’s famous performance, to recite at a presidential inauguration.

Feb

18

In 1957, as her 15th college reunion was approaching, writer Betty Friedan (February 4, 1921 — February 4, 2006) set out to survey university graduates about their education, life after college, and their present life-satisfaction. In a series of articles, Friedan noted a recurring pattern — the quiet, recondite, yet intense unhappiness of women in the golden age of the housewife. Termed “the problem that has no name,” it spurred an outpour of passionate responses from women for whom it resonated deeply. Friedan wrote:

The shores are strewn with the casualties of the feminine mystique. They did give up their own education to put their husbands through college, and then, maybe against their own wishes, ten or fifteen years later, they were left in the lurch by divorce. The strongest were able to cope more or less well, but it wasn’t that easy for a woman of forty-five or fifty to move ahead in a profession and make a new life for herself and her children or herself alone.

In 1963, after witnessing the profound cultural resonance of the topic, Friedan reworked the articles into The Feminine Mystique, which went on to ignite the second wave of modern feminism and to become the most influential book on gender politics in contemporary history. It championed women’s reproductive rights, called for better education, criticized workplace laws and cultural attitudes towards childcare responsibilities and, above all, advocated for women’s right to freely explore the fundamental question of what it means to live a full life.

She wrote:

Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’

In 1970, on the 50th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote, Friedan organized the nation-wide Women’s Strike for Equality. It culminated with a New York City march led by Friedan herself, which drew 50,000 women and men and became one of the largest marches in history. The following year, she and other front-line feminists founded the National Women’s Political Caucus and continued to work tirelessly for the full inclusion of women in mainstream society.

Friedan passed away on her 85th birthday, bequeathing a powerful legacy that shaped the feminist movement not merely as relentless advocacy for women’s equality but as enduring protection and celebration of the human spirit.