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.

Oct

28

Few artists have captivated audiences with equal enchantment in coffeehouses and at Carnegie Hall, have sung for prisoners and for presidents, have come to be known by first name only and to speak for millions at the same time, becoming the voice of a movement that shaped the course of history. But singer, songwriter, and activist Odetta Holmes (December 31, 1930—December 2, 2008), better-known simply as Odetta and widely celebrated as the “voice of the civil rights movement,” did just that.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. revered her as the “queen of American folk music.” The New York Times anointed her a “mother goddess” of folk and blues. The Washington Post called her a “matriarch for a generation of folk singers.” Reconstructionist Maya Angelou proclaimed that “if only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and a soul like Odetta’s would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time.”

Odetta’s influenced fueled a remarkable creative lineage that stretches across Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Tracy Chapman, Nick Cave, Jewel, and Nellie McKay. In Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, Dylan cites her 1956 album Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues — the same record that inspired young Janis Joplin to become a singer — as a key turning point in his musical career:

The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta… . I heard a record of hers in a record store… . Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar.

So monumental was Odetta’s cultural impact that her life was even adapted in a children’s book.

Above all, however, Odetta considered herself a “musical historian” who brought back to life — to new, more dimensional life, thanks to her remarkable vocal range of soprano-to-baritone — the forgotten songs of chain gangs, cowboys, and the working poor, which she herself excavated from the archives of the Library of Congress. She saw in that music a way to deconstruct the conceits of culture, something she articulated beautifully in a 1965 New York Times interview:

In folk music, complex emotions are spoken about with such simplicity that it’s the highest form of art to me. You can unclutter things.

Sep

30

The longest-serving American First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt (October 11, 1884—November 7, 1962) endures as one of the most remarkable luminaries in modern history — a relentless champion of human rights, an advocate for working women, and a tireless supporter of underprivileged youth.

At the age of seventy-six, Roosevelt collected her life’s wisdom in You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life — an elegant and timeless manual of personal exploration emanating universal insight, which went on to inspire generations and influence entire genres, from political memoirs to spiritual life-guides. Above all, however, the book was and remains a testament to Roosevelt’s extraordinary generosity of spirit, her clarity of purpose, and her unflinching integrity. She writes:

Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.

While a beloved and celebrated public figure, however, Roosevelt was also undeniably controversial, both politically and personally. She was unafraid to publicly disagree with some of her husband’s politics, pushing for improving women’s rights in the workplace and civil rights for African American and Asian American families. In 1928, she met journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok, with whom the first lady embarked on a thirty-year relationship peppered with some extraordinarily intimate letters. In one, Roosevelt writes:

Hick, darling
Ah, how good it was to hear your voice. It was so inadequate to try and tell you what it meant. Funny was that I couldn’t say je t’aime and je t’adore as I longed to do, but always remember that I am saying it, that I go to sleep thinking of you.

And in another:

I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms.

That Roosevelt chose to life as she did — a life of enormous public good and service to others, and yet one undeterred by other people’s standards — is the ultimate embodiment of one of her most poignant points in You Learn by Living:

The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.

And what a monumental human being Roosevelt was.