Cecilia Fire Thunder

Cecilia Fire Thunder

This month I’d like to honor Cecilia Fire Thunder, who has dedicated her life to her community and to advocating for women’s health and freedom from violence. Born at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1946, she stayed close to her Lakota roots in spite of a school system that tried to suppress her culture and her family’s move away from their home. Fire Thunder grew up to become a woman of great strength and character, and has been a nurse, community leader and fierce advocate for the rights of women.

Fire Thunder was elected the first woman president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in 2004. In 2006 she made news as she promised to open a women’s reproductive health clinic on tribal land if the threatened abortion ban in South Dakota was passed. The ban was passed and subsequently overturned, but her bold and courageous action caused Fire Thunder to be impeached and removed from office. However, she did not lose the courage of her convictions and continues to work on behalf of the Lakota community and women’s rights.

Sources/Additional Reading:

Sam Hurst, 12-18: Cecilia Fire Thunder a ‘person of character’

Giago: Oglala Sioux president on state abortion law

The Power of Thunder

Cecelia Fire Thunder Impeached

Cecelia Fire Thunder


Blanche_Stuart_ScottBlanche Stuart Scott (1885 – 1970) was a pioneering US aviatrix and motorist of the early twentieth century.

In 1910, Scott became only the second woman to drive an automobile the width of the United States, from New York to San Francisco. Later that year she learned to fly, becoming, according to some sources, the very first female aviator. Dubbed the “Tomboy of the Air,” she toured the nation as a daredevil flyer and was professionally employed as a test pilot for the Glenn L. Martin Company which later became Lockheed Martin.

Blanche Scott retired from active flying in 1916 and later helped to establish the US Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

In those early years of aviation, when flying machines were the pinnacle of technology, it’s difficult to imagine the impact that pioneers like Ms. Scott had on the young girls who would go on to shape the new century.

The best place to learn more about Blanche Stuart Scott is in Eileen F. LeBow’s book “Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation”

The only book that is completely dedicated to Ms. Scott is the juvenile biography “Tomboy of the Air: Daredevil Pilot Blanche Stuart Scott” by Julie Cummins. This title is recommended despite its orientation toward children.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979) made one of the world’s great scientific discoveries – what the universe is made of (more specifically, its chemical composition). But you will not find this fact in school textbooks, and when she made her discovery in 1925 the noted astronomers of the time dismissed it. Struggling against the obstacle of sexism and languishing in low status, low salaried positions, Payne-Gaposchkin remained dedicated to her pursuit of the science she loved and in time attained the position of full professor and chair of the Astronomy department at Harvard.

Payne-Gaposchkin was a brilliant astronomer and a trailblazer for women in science and academia. On this day, the 109th anniversary of her birth, I’m honored to pay this small tribute to her and hope that with each mention her name and achievements will become better known, and in our present day when women are still seriously underrepresented in the sciences, may inspire girls and young women who also love science to pursue their interests.

Sources/Additional Reading
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: An Autobiography and Other Recollections


Lois Weber (1881-1939) was a pioneering early U.S. film director, writer, producer and actress, who helped to establish the new medium as a forum for social commentary and as an art form worthy of attention and respect. She also founded her own company, Lois Weber Productions, and was the first woman member of the Motion Picture Director’s Association, forerunner of the Directors Guild of America.

Fortunately, a number of Lois Weber’s films are available today for viewing on DVD:

Suspense (1913), (included in the collections “Saved From the Flames” and “Unseen Cinema”) is an innovative short film in which a mother and child are trapped in their home by a would-be thief.

How Men Propose (1913) (included in the collection “The Origins of Film”) tells the story of a female researcher who studies, appropriately enough, “how men propose”, much to the consternation of her several suitors.

Hypocrites (1915) is a fairly heavy-handed film dealing with political and religious corruption.

Where Are My Children? (1916) (included in the collection “Treasures III”) is a remarkable film dealing with abortion and birth control (in 1913!). Many viewers will be surprised at the generally patriarchal tone given that this film was written and directed by a woman; nevertheless, “Where Are My Children” is well worth seeing.

The Blot (1921) tells the story of two families: one a native-born family, living in relative poverty, led by an academic clergyman; the other an immigrant clan led by a wealthy tradesman. The issues of class pride and jealousy are particularly resonant in this film.

Too Wise Wives (1921) (included in the collection “The Origins of Film”) tells contrasting stories of two couples while illustrating some common attitudes about women in the early 1920s.

While no full biography of Lois Weber is currently in print, we recommend seeking out Anthony Slide’s “Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost Her Way In History”, published by Greenwood Press in 1996.

Maggie L. Walker of Richmond, Virginia in 1913

Maggie Lena Walker (1867-1934) spent her life dedicated to improving the status of African-Americans and women, particularly through economic empowerment. She was the first woman in America to found and serve as president of a bank. She was a leader in her community, a great orator, a successful business woman and a philanthropist. This is a just a brief summation of Walker’s accomplishments – how she became all of these things, considering where she started in life, is a testament to her drive and determination and an accomplishment in itself.

Walker knew the struggles of black women first hand. Before she was born, her mother had been a slave and kitchen worker, then worked as a laundress when Walker was a child. It was an occupation that payed barely enough to live on, but in late 19th century Virginia, was one of the few options available for black women with families to care for.

Walker also experienced institutional discrimination at a young age when her high school graduation was to be segregated into separate ceremonies for white and black students. Walker organized a student strike in protest, and as a result the African-American students were allowed to have commencement at the school instead of a nearby church.

After graduating, Walker worked as a teacher while also working part time as an insurance agent, studying accounting at night, and continuing her volunteer activities with the Independent Order of St. Luke, an African-American fraternal organization that provided health care and burial services, which Walker had joined at age 14.

After her marriage in 1886, Walker quit working as was customary for women at the time. She then devoted her energies to her work with St. Luke, creating a juvenile branch of the Order and rising to its highest rank when elected Right Worthy Grand Secretary in 1899. By this time, the Order was in debt and in danger of failing. Walker went on a lecturing tour around the country to increase membership. A charismatic and passionate speaker, she moved audiences and raised membership and funds. Always looking for the next step needed to advance the Order and always with the interests of her community at heart, under Walker’s direction, the Order grew and prospered, adding insurance, printing and college loans to its services.

In 1902 Walker founded the Order’s newspaper, the St. Luke Herald to promote improved communication and awareness of the organization. In 1903 she chartered and became president of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. It was her firm belief that the money and talents of the African-American and women’s communities should be put to use for their own benefit.

“If our women want to avoid the traps and snares of life, they must band themselves together, organize, acknowledge leadership,… and work and business for themselves.”
-Maggie Lena Walker

Now a wealthy and successful woman, Walker gave her support to African-American and women’s organizations, including the International Council of Women of the Darker Races, the National Association of Wage Earners, National Urban League and the Virginia Interracial Committee. She also helped found the Richmond Council of Colored Women and the Richmond branch of the NAACP.

When her resignation was called for by members of St. Luke after a family tragedy in 1915 caused negative publicity, Walker defended herself and her position with a speech so passionate she received a standing ovation and kept her position with the Order. Walker remained as Grand Secretary until her death.

By the late 1920’s Walker’s health began to fail. Then, in the wake of the stock market collapse of October 1929, Walker’s Bank was merged with other black-owned banks in Richmond to become the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company in 1930. Despite her ill health, Walker served as chairman of the board. The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company is still in business and carries Walker’s legacy as the oldest continuously operating minority-owned bank in the United States.

Maggie Lena Walker passed away in 1934 from complications of diabetes. It is difficult to do justice to such a great woman in this short essay. To learn more about her remarkable life, please see the additional reading below.

Sources/Additional Reading:

Wikipedia – Maggie L. Walker
Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site
Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site
A Right Worthy Grand Mission: Maggie Lena Walker and the Quest for Black Economic Empowerment

As a child growing up in western Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, Stephanie Kwolek designed clothing for her dolls, stealing time on her mother’s sewing machine to create outfits that her parents couldn’t afford to buy during such hard times. “Both my parents were creative people. As a child, I thought that I might be a fashion designer. I spent an awful lot of time drawing various types of clothes and sewing,” she remembers.

While a career as a fashion designer was not in the cards, Kwolek learned to apply her creative impulse to more scientific pursuits. Majoring in chemistry with the ultimate goal of a medical degree, she took a research position with the DuPont Company an almost exclusively male dominated field in 1946. “The first year, the work was so interesting and it was so challenging,” she said in 2005. “I loved to solve problems, and it was a constant learning process. Each day there was something new, a new challenge, and I loved that. The problem was that I was so interested in chemistry and research that I totally forgot about medicine.”

In 1964, she was assigned to work toward developing a new generation of high-performance fibers. After much thought, experimentation, creative problem solving and simple hard work, Kwolek produced a lightweight fiber of incredible strength and durability, “five times stronger than steel on an equal weight basis” announced DuPont, which named the new material Kevlar.

In the years since, Kevlar has become a ubiquitous part of our lives in everything from sporting goods and bridge cables to aircraft and, most famously, helmets and bullet-proof armor.

Reflecting upon her achievement, Stephanie Kwolek says, “It makes me feel very good, because not many people have the opportunity to invent something, or to work on something, that has such significance, and particularly that is of benefit to mankind. I consider myself to be a very lucky person.” In 1994, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, only the fourth woman to be so honored.

Stephanie Kwolek on the web:

Wikipedia: Kevlar

Wikipedia: Stephanie Kwolek

American Heritage of Invention and Technology: “I was able to be Creative and work as hard as I wanted.”

Lemelson Center INNOVATIVElives: Stephanie Kwolek and Kevlar, the Wonder Fiber

There is a small exhibit about Stephanie Kwolek and Kevlar at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

In the Western canon, what has been traditionally defined as art has excluded centuries of traditional women’s arts, such as weaving, quilting, embroidery and appliqué.

It is astonishing to me that, even when women did not have access to art education or patronage and had the responsibility of managing their households and raising their children, there were those who took the time to create complex patterns to weave into cloth and made natural dyes from roots, nuts and flowers to color them. I can only imagine that the desire to use skill and knowledge and create beauty was their motivation.

Inspired by the second wave feminist movement of the 70’s, Miriam Schapiro, a professional artist since 1955, worked to bring recognition to these women artisans. In 1972 Schapiro, then a teacher at the California Institute of the Arts, along with artist Judy Chicago and 21 of their students created an exhibition called Womanhouse to show the history of women’s work and art and how it related to women’s common experience. This was considered controversial by the art establishment but it was a watershed event for Schapiro, bringing her not only new direction and inspiration for her art but insight into herself and a sense of fellowship with all women.

“I felt that by making a large canvas magnificent in color, design, and proportion, filling it with fabrics and quilt blocks, I could raise a housewife’s lowered consciousness.”
Miriam Schapiro

Schapiro created an original genre she called “femage” — collages of fabric scraps, buttons and other trimmings — and helped give rise to the Pattern and Decoration movement. She continued in both her art and consciousness-raising, gaining recognition and awards along the way. Her art career has lasted over 40 years and her pioneering vision both blazed a trail and left a legacy for the artists to follow her.

Additional reading:

Miriam Schapiro : shaping the fragments of art and life
Gouma-Peterson, Thalia


Wikipedia – Miriam Schapiro
Clara: Database of Women Artists
Mariam Shapiro: Works on Paper, A Thirty Year Retrospective

1989 interview with Schapiro
Oral history interview with Miriam Schapiro

Images of some of Schapiro’s works
Catalog of links keyed to Whitney Chadwick’s Women, Art, and Society
Miriam Schapiro: A Retrospective

Info about video of WOMANHOUSE
Women Make Movies

In 1887, Millie Williams, under the care of a poorly trained physician, nearly died in childbirth. Her baby, also a victim of the doctor’s unpracticed technique, did not survive. Millie’s sister, Anna, vowed that she would learn the art of medicine and master the art which her sister’s caregiver fatally lacked.

In a time when female physicians were few, Anna Wessels Williams (1863-1954) became one of the world’s top bacteriologists. With her professional partner, Dr. William H. Park, Dr. Williams isolated the diphtheria bacillus, enabling the development of an antitoxin. Diphtheria, debilitating and often fatal, once struck over 100,000 Americans per year in the 1920s. In the two decades between 1980 and 2000, only 52 cases were recorded, a virtual eradication that is the direct descendent of Dr. Williams’ work.

Anna Wessels Williams also made important contributions to the study of typhoid, influenza and scarlet fever, work that has improved the health of hundreds of millions of people over the span of nearly a century.

Author John M. Barry described Dr. Williams as “…wild, risk taking, intensely curious, a woman who took new inventions apart to see how they worked.” She loved to fly with stunt pilots and was an avid motorist at the dawn of the automobile age, when there were few women drivers. She said of herself, “From my earliest memories, I was one of those who wanted to go places. When I couldn’t go, I would have my dreams about going. And, such dreams were seldom conceived by any other child.” Yet despite her talent and vigor, she was a lonely and friendless person. In the early 20th century, when nearly no women were counted among the world’s top scientists, Dr. Williams had few peers or social opportunities. She wondered “if it would be worthwhile to make friends and if so how I should go about it,” but concluded that she would rather suffer loneliness than achieve “happiness through lack of knowledge.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

While there are no thoroughgoing biographies of Dr. Anne Wessels Williams, accounts of her life and work may be found in John M. Barry’s excellent “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Greatest Plague In History” (Viking/Penguin, 2004).

Dr. Williams’ papers are archived at the Harvard University Library where they are available to researchers.

Born in Georgia in 1955, Cynthia McKinney’s early years were informed and inspired by the American Civil Rights movement. Her father took her to demonstrations and later, jump started her entry into politics by submitting her name as a Congressional candidate while she was living overseas. It’s impossible to talk about McKinney without talking about politics – it is through her political career that she has done most of her activism and been so well known for being outspoken and causing controversy.

Cynthia McKinney was elected to Congress in 1992 as a Democrat and became the first African-American women to represent Georgia in the House. She is best known for her challenges to George Bush and his administration regarding the 9/11 attack on the U.S., the Iraq war, and the response to hurricane Katrina.

From the article, Cynthia Ann McKinney Biography – Brought New Face to Washington, Learned from Her Father, Awakened to Racism, Became State Legislator:

Asked about the role black female legislators hope to play in Congress, McKinney declared in the Washington Post : “We’re shaking up the place. If one of the godfathers says you can’t do this, my next question is: ‘Why not? And, who are you to say we can’t?'”

McKinney ran for President of the U.S. in 2008 on the Green Party ticket along with running mate Rosa Clemente. Despite being the only all women of color ticket, they were given virtually no mainstream media coverage even though they were on the ballot in enough states to mathematically be able to win.

Whatever your politics, McKinney is to be admired for her strength, courage and determination in the face of obstacles, particularly the racism she encountered as a black, female member of Congress.

Most inspiring to me is that even after crushing defeats, such as losing her seat in Congress, she came back fighting. She regained her seat, lost it again and most recently got just .1% of the vote in the U.S. Presidential election. I don’t know where Cynthia’s going next or what she’s planning but I know she won’t forget the causes she champions and she will never give up the fight.

For more information about McKinney, I highly recommend the article mentioned above, as well as the documentary film, “American Blackout”, which not only covers McKinney’s Congressional career but delves into the voter disenfranchisement controversies of the U.S. Presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. The film is currently available in its entirety on Google Video.
American Blackout (2006)

-written by Independent group member Morgoth Melnik

To call Dr Elsie Inglis an ‘independent woman’, seems like an understatement, given that she was able to carve her own path and make a positive impact in a Victorian era so thoroughly male dominated that women were seldom educated beyond a basic level, were barred from most universities, had no reproductive freedom, could not vote, were not politically represented, and had limited rights over the fate of their children and their property.

Born in 1864, she was one of Scotland’s earliest prominent female doctors and was fiercely dedicated all throughout her life to providing better health services for all women, and to improving opportunities for other women to become qualified in the medical profession. She was also instrumental in campaiging for women’s rights in Scotland, helping to found the Scottish Women’s Suffrage Foundation. She lived just long enough to see women over 30 gain the vote, although unfortunately not long enough to exercise her own voting rights.

Elsie Inglis spent her early years in British-controlled India before arriving for further education in Edinburgh. She had been fortunate enough to have parents who took a positive attitude towards the education of their daughters, and supported her in her decision to work in the health profession. However, at the time, women were not allowed to enroll in Scotland’s mainstream medical colleges, so in order to become qualified as a Doctor, Elsie had to follow in the footsteps of another pioneer for women in medicine, Dr Sophia Jex Blake, who had just set up the first Women’s school for medicine in Edinburgh. Elsie attended Dr Jex Blake’s medical school for a few years, but left the college to train at a new school in Glasgow after Dr Jex Blake ejected some students for what Elsie saw as a trivial offence. Elsie Inglis later set up her own Medical School for Women, which eventually became Edinburgh’s only college for women doctors.

After gaining her medical qualifications and entering medical practice in London at the ‘New Hospital for women’ in London, she was horrified by the poor state of medical care offered to women. She returned to Edinburgh and garnered support for the establishment of a medical hospice and midwifery centre for women. This was to be staffed entirely by women doctors and nurses, giving women doctors valuable experience and training, and providing women with the medical services they badly needed. She aimed to provide healthcare ‘where it was most needed’ and not on the basis of the patients’ ability to pay, and gave free treatment to many of the city’s desperately poor women. In an era where birth control was practically non-existent and infant and maternal mortality rates high, and there were scarce opportunities for women for financial independence, the provision of good care during pregnancy and childbirth was of vital importance to most women’s lives.

It’s telling but not suprising that, whilst Dr Elsie Inglis dedicated much of her life to helping women, it is for her later establishment of women’s medical units at the front in the First World War, that she is most renowned. Although Elsie Inglis and many of her staff were doctors, comparisons to Florence Nightingale abound in contemporary descriptions of her, although the British government was not at the time very enthusiastic in its support of women’s units and she gained greater support from the French government. She worked in Serbia and her unit was taken as prisoners of war for five months. After release she continued to help tend to the wounded and stop the spread of disease amongst soldiers and civillians in Russia, before her death in 1917 of cancer.

I’ve always been aware of Dr Elsie Inglis’ legacy- my first memory is of my brother’s birth in ‘the Elsie Inglis’ – a maternity hospital set up in her memory in my hometown of Edinburgh . But for a shortage of beds, I would have been born in the ‘Elsie Inglis’ as well. Although the hospital closed a few years later in 1988, the hospital maintained a women-centric ethos towards the end and had a reputation as a comfortable, democratic and friendly place to give birth in a more alternative, less medicalised setting.

For more information on Dr Elsie Inglis :

Wikipedia – Elsie Inglis

Who’s Who: Elsie Inglis

Famous Scots
– Elsie Inglis (1864-1917)

Dr Elsie Inglis and The Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Biography written soon after her death :
The Project Gutenberg EBook of Elsie Inglis, by Eva Shaw McLaren