Kickass Women

History is filled with women doing all kinds of kickass stuff.

Smart Girls

Watch these girls... they're going places!


Need a dose of inspiration? Here you go.

SRPS Entertainment

Some of my entertainment recommendations with awesome female characters and stars.

She's Crafty!

Some of the awesome items made by kickass women!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Betty Before X

Betty Before X
by Ilyasah Shabazz, with‎ Renée Watson

I was so intrigued by what I'd heard about this book that I was the first person to get on the pre-release waitlist for it from my library. I don't know as much about the life and work of Betty Shabazz as I'd like, but recently I saw Betty & Coretta, the Lifetime dramatization of the friendship between two extraordinary women, Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dr. Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X, in the years after both are widowed by their husbands' assassinations.

In that film, I learned about Betty Shabazz's remarkable life after Malcolm X, where she returned to college and earned her master's in Health Administration and doctorate in Education before taking a position at Medgar Evers College alongside other remarkable black women, teaching young, working class black women. True to her beliefs, she wanted to make sure she had the maximum impact on the lives of black women.

You know I enjoy learning about and celebrating the amazing work being done by women throughout history and around the world. But I'm also infinitely curious about the forces in their lives that led them to that work. So when I saw that her daughter Ilyasah Shabazz had written a book about her life as a girl growing up in Detroit in the 1940s, I knew I needed to read it.

Betty Before X (library) tells the story of young Betty Dean Sanders in the years between her birth in 1934 and the age of 14. It follows her as she moves from living in a loving home in Pinehurst, Georgia, with her Aunt Fannie Mae, to trying to find a place for herself in Detroit with her abusive mother and her new step-father and her step-brothers and half-sisters, to finally being taken in by Lorenzo and Helen Malloy, members of her family's church. All the while, she is a keen observer of the injustices she witnesses, big and small.

One of her first memories is of discovering a lynched couple while returning home from the store with her Aunt Fannie Mae. The description of how young Betty (four or five at the time) was shocked by her Aunt's fear and later comforted by her responses to her questions about it sets the tone for the entire book.

In Detroit, while dealing with the verbal and emotional (and sometimes physical) abuse from her mother, Betty is also dealing with her growing awareness of the discrimination and oppression around her. We see how her future beliefs are shaped by these crises as well as the response from the adults in her life. Mrs. Malloy, the woman who eventually takes her in, was a founding member of the Housewives League of Detroit, a group of Black women who organized efforts to boycott stores that refused to hire black employees, and support black-owned businesses. This early introduction to civil rights work has a profound effect on Betty, and we can clearly see how important a role it was in her adult life.

Betty Before X earns the Self-Rescuing Princess Society seal of approval for its honest look at the life of a young African American girl growing up during the racially strained years of the 1930s and 40s, and how the civil rights leader she became later in life was forged by her experiences. It doesn't pull any punches. Broken into short chapters, each encompassing a particular event or learning experience from Betty's life, it is an excellent choice for middle grade readers. Taken from family memories, Ilyasah Shabazz, with help from Renée Watson (who wrote another SRPS favorite, Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills) gives us a gift as she tells the story of her mother's early life. Betty lived through troubling times, and Ilyasah Shabazz deftly interprets her experiences for the kids of today in language they can relate to while remaining true to the hardship of her story.

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Kickstart This: The Hidden Halls of Hazakor

An image featuring a dark skinned woman with a sword in the center (human fighter), with a blue-haired olive skinned woman in armor carrying a shield to her left (dwarf cleric), a light skinned woman wearing a head scarf and carrying a torch to her right (elf wizard) and another light skinned woman suspended from the ceiling with fabric (halfling thief).
Things are definitely changing the tabletop RPG world, and it's very exciting! Recently, a lot of my gamer friends have sent me a link for The Hidden Halls of Hazakor with excited comments about the kickass female characters on the cover. On the cover, y'all. And lots of text-based squeeing.

Obviously I dropped everything to check it out, and I have to say I'm super intrigued. And I'm not a tabletop RPGer. At least, not yet. If anything would turn me into one, it would be the idea of rolling through a dungeon with these gals! Just look at them -- confident, strong, fierce!

I chatted with author Scott Fitzgerald Gray and illustrator Jackie Musto about this amazing project and the importance of representation and accessibility in gaming, for folks from all backgrounds and all ages.

SRPS: First of all, can you tell us a little about yourself? What's your background? What inspires you?

SFG: I'm an extremely middle-aged Canadian geek who's lucky enough to make a living through writing, editing, and tabletop RPG design. The latter part of my job has involved a lot of work for Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast over the last fourteen years. I fell in love with fantasy and speculative fiction at an early age, then discovered roleplaying games in high school. Over the long, complicated process that got me into writing and storytelling as first a screenwriter, then a novelist, RPGs (and D&D in particular) were an essential anchor for my creativity and an amazing source of inspiration. I still draw a lot of inspiration from my own gaming, and from being part of the community built around the shared storytelling that's at the heart of what RPGs do.

SRPS: What is The Hidden Halls of Hazakor?

SFG: This book is an adventure for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons that I've wanted to publish for a while now. It started out as a piece I wrote for the RPG club I ran at my daughters' middle school some years ago, as a kind of "learn by doing" adventure for young Dungeon Masters. Though I wasn't as young as a lot of first-time D&D players when I first picked up the game, I still remember the process of sitting down in the DM’s chair for the first time and how daunting it was for me. The adventure kind of grew out of my own memory of the things I wish I'd known when I ran my first dungeon crawls, combined with some first-hand observation of the things that the young players I was working with found the most challenging to deal with.

SRPS: What inspired you to create an RPG book?

SFG: I've written and edited a lot of D&D adventures over the years, and have published some of my own. But this one always had its own odd place off to the side of other things I've worked on. The kids who ran and played the original version of the adventure really enjoyed it, and I've thought more than once about putting it out just as a free text-only book (which it was in its original RPG-club form). But at the same time, I understood that a full version with awesome artwork would potentially be an even better tool for young, first-time Dungeon Masters, so it always stayed a kind of back-burner project. Then a few years ago, I discovered Jackie's steampunk webcomic Lady Skylark and really fell in love with her art. When I first talked to her about the possibility of working on the adventure, her enthusiasm was the metaphorical kick in the ass I needed to finally figure out how I wanted to do it.

Four female characters, human fighter, elf wizard, dwarf cleric and halfling thief.

SRPS: I see a lot of people raving about the artwork (myself included!), and especially the fact that it shows amazing, powerful female characters of different ethnicities. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

JM: It is really important to me that we represent the world around us and all the different types of people in it. I can remember growing up and finding it difficult to see representations of women in the industries that I liked that weren't just the same stereotype over and over — so I hope I can help a kid or teen see something of themselves in this genre and think they belong there. Lucky for me, Scott and I see eye-to-eye on this — in fact when he sent me the pitch he made that point super clear and I remember shouting "Yes! I have to do this project!" For me, this project marries all the things I love to draw — cool fantasy settings, rad ladies doing stunts — and it being for a roleplaying game just brings it all home. Roleplaying was my introduction to art as a career as well as a creative force. When I got started it was with an awesome group of folks who encouraged me to play whatever type of character I wanted to, and we crafted these amazing worlds together. It all gelled into a career path when I would draw their characters -- and I guess I've never stopped! My hope is that young folks can look at this game and imagine their characters and be inspired to create themselves.

SFG: The issue of inclusivity in gaming (including tabletop RPGs) has been getting a lot of attention over the last few years — which is to say, it's finally been getting the attention it's long deserved. I'm just about the whitest guy you're ever going to meet, but I've still always been conscious of — and frustrated over — how limiting the traditional Eurocentric/pseudomedieval approach to fantasy has been and continues to be. Fantasy in general and RPGs in particular are built on the foundation of imagination, and it should take very little of that to imagine a fantasy RPG world that reflects the broadest possible range of people who might want to spend time there.

A large green ogre surrounded by the fighter and cleric
SRPS: Who is your target audience? It's a starter RPG, so does that mean it introduces basic RPG concepts and helps with setting up a new group from scratch?

SFG: The book is just an adventure, so although it provides a lot of advice and tips on how to be a good Dungeon Master and handle some of the situations that can arise at the gaming table, players and would-be DMs need to have the D&D rulebooks as a starting point. Those books definitely address the concepts of what it means to play an RPG and how things work around the game table, and they remain an essential resource even for experienced players. But for me, there can never be enough good starter adventures to go with those books — and the idea of a starter adventure written not just for beginning Dungeon Masters but for young Dungeon Masters has always been something I've wanted to play around with.

SRPS: What about experienced RPGers? Is The Hidden Halls of Hazakor going to be too simplistic for them?

SFG: In terms of the writing style, experienced players will undoubtedly find the adventure giving them tips and advice that they already know. But the adventure itself should appeal to players of any age. There are lots of straightforward encounters, as is true of any adventure for 1st-level characters. But there are also plenty of devious surprises, and a number of sections where more experienced DMs will be able to go nuts with the environment and the intelligent monstrous NPCs to put their own stamp on things. Ultimately, a published adventure is always meant to be reworked and changed up by an experienced DM as they make it part of their own campaign. And The Hidden Halls of Hazakor has just as much raw material for that as any adventure.

SRPS: What else can tabletop gamers expect from The Hidden Halls of Hazakor?

SFG: The adventure holds a fair bit of humor, which I've always found is a good way to keep the interest of younger players (both working with middle-school-age kids in the RPG club, and introducing my own daughters to D&D when they were young). Jackie's amazing art is going to be taking a big role in bringing some of that humor to life. The writing is also intentionally straightforward and explanatory, with the intent of being something that a young, first-time DM can easily process. But aside from that, the adventure is just a straight-up, old-fashioned dungeon crawl, very much in the vein of some of the classic D&D starter adventures. Though its presentation is straightforward, the adventure isn't dumbed down in any way, and I hope it's ultimately something that gamers of all ages can have fun with.

SRPS: It all sounds super fun. Where else can folks find both of you online?

JM: My comics are Kay and P, and The Adventures of Lady Skylark, and I'm on TwitterInstagram, and Tumblr.

SFG: I can be found online at my website InsaneAngel, on Facebook, and Twitter.

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You may also be interested in:

Gamer Girl - Damsel
OK, so Damsel's got a kickass female protagonist fighting vampire hordes with awesome weapons and saving the world from evil? Yes, please! I managed to strike up a conversation with Megan Summers, the producer of Damsel. She shared with me a bit about herself as a female game developer and her work.
Read this: Damsel to the Rescue
It's got a smart, witty and brave damsel who would rather be tending her garden and perfecting her plant magic than off rescuing some silly prince. Yes, you read that correctly. Our heroine Terrilyn lives in a somewhat gender-flipped magical world where girls are expected to learn how to fight in order to rescue whatever prince has gotten himself kidnapped by some scheming Dark Lord.
Read This: Young Guinevere
Young Guinevere earned the Self-Rescuing Princess Society seal of approval for telling the story of this confident and courageous girl whose story is too often left out of the Camelot tales, or who is only remembered for her later story of betrayal and loss. Here we see her as a fresh-faced, daring young woman who knows her own capabilities and is willing to risk her own life to save others.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Mary Leakey - ground-breaking paleoathropologist

"Basically, I have been compelled by curiosity." Mary Leakey
Mary Leakey (February 6, 1913 – December 9, 1996) was a prominent paleoanthropologist, whose discoveries of important skulls and other fossils, including stone tools and even footprints, of ancient human predecessors and other primates, brought international attention to the scientific search for humanity's origins.

Her interest in ancient peoples was first sparked on a family vacation to France in 1925. French archaeologist Elie Peyrony was excavating a cave there, and 12-year-old Mary was invited visit the site. She was allowed to take home some artifacts that had been discovered there -- scrapers, blades, and points -- and she used them to create her first system of classification.
"For me it was the sheer instinctive joy of collecting, or indeed one could say treasure hunting: it seemed that this whole area abounded in objects of beauty and great intrinsic interest that could be taken from the ground."
Her father took her to visit other caves, where they could view some of the prehistoric cave paintings, further inspiring her curiosity in ancient peoples and their artwork. Tragically, her father died while she was still quite young, but she found other mentors who encouraged her to learn more about anthropology and archeology.

Her interests in art and archeology continued to grow, but her predisposition to learning on her own -- even when it meant blowing up a school science lab, twice, -- as well as her general disinterest in studying for exams meant her school performance precluded attending college in the traditional manner. Instead, she attended lectures in archeology, prehistory and geology as a non-student, and even worked at the London Museum, where she was invited to participate in summer excavations throughout Europe.

Louis Leakey who hired her to illustrate his book Adam's Ancestors, and the two hit it off both professionally and romantically. They traveled the world working on research projects as long as their donated funds would allow. Eventually, they attracted the attention of the National Geographic Society, who gave them enough money to focus their attention on research full time.

Louis and Mary published most of their findings as a team, although professionally he received credit for many of her contributions. After his death in 1972, Mary continued to work solo, earning a reputation as a preeminent paleoanthropologist in her own stead.

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Monday, February 5, 2018

Michelle Simmons - 2018 Australian of the Year

"I found that the more difficult the challenges I took on, the more rewarding it was and I thought 'wow this is a phenomenal world to be in.'" Michelle Simmons, 2018 Australian of the Year
Last month physicist Michelle Simmons was named the 2018 Australian of the Year for her ground-breaking work in Quantum mechanics -- a booming field for scientific research in Australia at the moment. Determined to specialize in atomic electronics and quantum computing -- basically, using the properties of atoms to create extremely small devices that can crunch enormous amounts of data much faster than traditional computers -- she moved from her home in Britain to Australia in 1999.

"It made me think 'wow he didn't really expect me to be able to do this' and that really got me thinking 'there must be other things that people don't expect of me, let me find out what they are.'"
She got her start in math and science as a young girl. A unexpected win over her father at a game of chess, sparked an interest in determining other areas where she might be able to surprise those who may underestimate her. That desire to push the boundaries of her own knowledge drove her to seek out other challenges, eventually leading her the cutting edge of science -- quantum physics.

In the two decades since she arrived in Australia as a brash young post-doc -- so sure of her future success, she only purchased a one-way ticket -- she has pushed the research on quantum computing forward by leaps and bounds. In addition to her teaching and research duties as Scientia Professor of Quantum Physics at the University of New South Wales, she has been named Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Fellow and ARC Federation Fellow twice, and was a founding member and Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computer Technology. And she is the editor-in-chief of npj Quantum Information -- a scientific journal focused on the field of quantum information science.
"The best part about my work is the amazing variety and the constant challenge. There is always more to learn and I constantly look forwards to those moments when I have a little extra time to read and think."
Her research group was the first to develop a working single-atom transistor as well as the thinnest wires made from silicon.

The Australian of the Year award is one given each year to an Australian citizen who has been deemed to be a national role model across a wide variety of industries. Michelle Simmons is the 13th woman to earn the title of Australian of the Year.

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Monday, January 29, 2018

Sarah Loguen Fraser - trailblazing doctor

"My home and family have been a beacon to light the way for the poor, oppressed, and hunted of my race. The time has passed for the need of shelter, but God knows, we need to build strong and healthy bodies. To have those of my race come to me for aid—and for me to be able to give it—will be all the Heaven I want."

Sarah Loguen Fraser (January 29, 1850 – April 9, 1933) was the first woman to earn a medical degree from Syracuse University, in 1876, and the fourth African American woman to become a licensed physician in the United States. When she moved to the Dominican Republic with her husband, a pharmacist, she was that country's first female doctor.

As the story goes, her decision to pursue a career in medicine began on a fateful day in 1872 when she witnessed a terrible accident, and her inability to help. She'd been waiting for a train when she heard a scream. A cart loaded with goods had rolled over the leg of a small boy, pinning him underneath. She ran to his side, calling out for a doctor, but one never arrived.

She was in shock, and as she boarded her train she was mumbling about becoming a doctor herself. As it turns out, when she was finally able to notice the world around her again, she saw in the seat across from hers her own family's doctor. He agreed to mentor her, and the very next year she enrolled in Syracuse University's medical program -- one of four women in a class of 17, and the only African American.

When compared to the lives of the average woman of the era, and especially the average African American woman, Sarah Loguen determination to become a doctor would be exceptional. But considering her remarkable background, it may have been a natural, if still somewhat difficult and ambitious, course of action.

Her father, Jermain Wesley Loguen, had been born into slavery on a plantation in Tennessee, the son of a female slave -- who herself had been born free and kidnapped and sold into slavery as a child -- and the white master. At the age of 21, he rode his master's mare off the plantation and followed the Underground Railroad to freedom. After studying at the Oneida Institute, he eventually settled in Syracuse, New York, where he became a preacher and teacher in the flourishing black community there. He married the daughter of abolitionists, and together they raised a family and worked to address the needs of their community. One of the most important services they offered was to turn their home into a stop along the Underground Railroad, taking in over 1500 escaped slaves. The Loguen family was good friends with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, among others prominent abolitionists. Her father was so well-known and well-respected with in the abolitionist movement for his work helping escaped slaves, he was referred to as the "King of the Underground Railroad."

So it shouldn't be much of a surprise to learn that their children, who grew up in a home that often harbored fugitive slaves, and with a father who was himself a former slave who often met with other escaped slaves now serving as leaders in the anti-slavery movement, went on to do great things to improve the lives of African Americans. For Sarah, medicine may have simply been an extension of the times she worked alongside her mother and local Native American women as they tended to the injuries and illnesses of those they harbored.

Perhaps this kind of greatness was to be expected from Sarah and her siblings. When she graduated in 1876, she was the first African American woman to earn a medical degree from Syracuse, and only the fourth to become a doctor in the entire country. In fact, until this point, all other women doctors had graduated from women's only institutions. Sarah was the first to attend a co-ed program. She interned at the Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where she studied pediatrics, and later at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston -- two of the leading teaching hospitals for women in medicine during this era.

Once she was ready to hang out her own shingle, she moved to Washington, DC, to care for the growing African American community there. Although technically she didn't actually hang her own shingle -- Frederick Douglass did the honors. It was through the Douglass family that she was introduced to the man who would eventually become her husband, Dr. Charles Fraser, a chemist who ran a pharmacy in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. When she moved there, she became the country's first female doctor, where she offered free treatment to poor women and children, earning the nickname "Miss Doc."

When she returned to the United States after her husband's death in 1894, she was shocked to find that things had changed so dramatically after the end of Reconstruction. Laws and policies put into place during Reconstruction had opened doors for African Americans, creating opportunities in society and politics. Its abrupt end meant a return to discrimination and segregation. Sarah, unable to open a private practice, and no longer able to enroll her daughter Gregoria in the school of her choice, decided to move to Paris for a few years. When Gregoria was old enough to attend college, the two moved back to Syracuse, where Gregoria enrolled in Syracuse University, and Sarah practiced pediatric medicine and trained midwives out of her home.

She continued to practice medicine throughout the rest of her life, although with more and more obstacles placed in front of her as time went on. Regardless, she continued to use her skills to serve women and children in the African American community.

For more reading:

Upstate Medical University in Syracuse's brochure: "Dr. Sarah Loguen's Dominican Republic"

Journal of the National Medical Association biography, published in 2000: "Sarah Loguen Fraser, MD (1850 to 1933): the fourth African-American woman physician"

Hobart and William Smith Colleges student project from 2012: "Celebrating the Life of Sarah Loguen Fraser"

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Friday, January 26, 2018

Policarpa Salavarrieta - revolutionary heroine

Policarpa Salavarrieta (c. January 26, 1795 – November 14, 1817) was a spy for the anti-Spanish revolutionary movement in the early 1800s. Working as a seamstress in the homes of Loyalists, she was able to gather information for the insurgency. After evidence of her espionage was discovered on captured rebels she was executed for treason. Each year Colombia celebrates November 14  as the "Day of the Colombian Woman" in honor of this "heroína de la Independencia."

In 1817, the royalist elite in Nueva Granada (now Colombia) were desperately trying to hold on to their power and deploying troops to quash the insurgencies popping up around the country. Of course, they did this while holding tightly to their colonial lifestyle, with all the trappings of wealth -- beautiful homes, good food, and fine clothing. To maintain this level of decadence required staff. And, in the end, it would be the staff who would be their undoing.

An unassuming seamstress could easily overhear important discussions, watch the coming and going of visitors, and sneak undetected about the house in order to steal maps and other important documents, all under the guise of mending the family's clothing and linens. And that's exactly what Policarpa Salavarrieta did.

Her true name is unknown, but by the time she was spying for the revolution she went by Policarpa, or "La Pola," to hide her identity from the Spanish forces. As a child La Pola had been trained as a seamstress, and she used that to gain access to the homes of important members of the Spanish elite.

While the housewives who hired her may have thought of her as quiet and compliant, she was anything but. Like other household spies throughout history, she maintained a facade of discretion, when in reality she was making lists of names of major royalists, and documenting their plans. After work, she would deliver these lists to leaders in the rebellion.

When she wasn't mending laundry and spying on her employers, she was actively working for the revolution by passing messages between rebel groups, helping them buy weapons, and recruiting more support for their cause, often encouraging soldiers in the Royal Army to desert their posts and join the revolution.

La Pola knew the risks of what she was doing. Her devotion to the resistance was stronger than her fear of death. When her name was discovered on documents taken from captured rebels, she was charged with treason, and sentenced to stand before a firing squad. Even as she was being led to her execution, she refused to be silent, yelling her hatred for royalist rule and calling for the crowd of onlookers to avenge her.

In the end, the rebellion succeeded and Spanish rule ended. And Policarpa, a fighter who captured the heart of the people, became a celebrated heroine of the independence of Colombia. News of her death spread across the country, inspiring more to join the revolution. In 1967, the Congress of Colombia designated November 14, the date of her execution, as the Day of the Colombian Woman in honor of her bravery in the fight for independence.

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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Florence Mills - Queen of Happiness

Often referred to as the "Queen of Happiness," Florence Mills (January 25, 1896 – November 1, 1927) was an African-American singer, dancer, and comedian of the Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance, who captivated the world with her talent, beauty and dedication to racial equality.

Born into a tragically poor family in Washington, DC, her talent for singing and dancing quickly won her recognition and offered her family an opportunity to escape grinding poverty. She started appearing in amateur hour events at the age of three, and by the time she was seven she'd grown accustomed to appearing before wealthy crowds as party entertainment, and had even traveled with a road show production with several other prominent black performers. By this point, she was a integral source of income for her family, so when she was offered the chance to travel as part of a traveling white vaudeville show, she took it, even though it meant she was expected to perform degrading racist stereotypical "shucking and jiving."

Florence Mills in Dover Street to Dixie
This entry into vaudeville enabled her to bring more of the family into show business. The Mills Sisters -- Florence, Maude and Olivia -- traveled the East Coast playing to black audiences. The pay wasn't great, and traveling as an African American was perpetually degrading as hotels and restaurants wouldn't serve African Americans, and they were often required to ride second class on trains between cities.

So when she found an opportunity to perform in a cabaret in the South Side of Chicago, she took it. The timing was perfect, as the African American community in Chicago was booming with recent arrivals from the South. It was a precursor to the coming Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Jazz was heard everywhere, and many jazz clubs were attracting both black and white patrons.

Florence's big break came a few years later, in 1921, when she was hired as the lead in the off-Broadway production of Shuffle Along, and instantaneous hit that Langston Hughes claimed kicked off the Harlem Renaissance. The show brought her national attention, and she was on her way. She performed in various prestigious Broadway cabarets and traveled to England to perform for welcoming audiences there.

But things at home weren't nearly as welcoming. When she was asked to join the Greenwich Village Follies -- the first time a black woman was offered a part in a major white production -- the all white cast threatened to walk out. Regardless, Florence continued performing and winning over audiences. She was even offered a contract to join the Ziegfeld Follies, but she turned it down, saying she didn't want to be the only black performer. Instead, she dreamed of creating an all black review of her own.

Johnny Hudgins, Florence Mills Rehearsing on Pavillon Theatre Roof, 1926

Johnny Hudgins, Florence Mills Rehearsing on Pavillon Theatre Roof, 1926

She continued to perform in wildly successful black musical productions, including From Dixie to Broadway, as well as headlining at prestigious Broadway venues. Finally, in 1926, her dream come true when Blackbirds opened at the Alhambra Theatre in Harlem. After a successful run in Harlem and Paris, Blackbirds opened in London where it lasted for 276 performances before taking off to tour the British provinces. It is said Florences Mills was as beloved in London as Josephine Baker was in Paris. It's even been suggested that while she was there she had an affair with the young and handsome Prince George.

Tragically, all this touring and performing took its toll on her health. She tried to rest, but her drive to show the world the talents of black performers kept pushing her to do more. Finally, in 1927, just a year after her London success, she left Blackbirds and sailed home to New York to get medical help. Sadly, because her mother was ill when she arrived, she put off her own treatment a little longer. In late October, when she finally entered the hospital she learned her condition was too far gone. Knowing she was going to die she still used her voice to cheer those around her, often singing to keep the nurses from crying. Her goal in life had always been to bring joy to those around her. True to form, her final words were "I don't want anyone to cry when I die. I just want to make people happy, always."

She saw herself as a spokesperson for the African American community. She used her fame to try to improve relations between whites and blacks both in the the US and abroad. She refused to degrade herself for the amusement of white audiences, and instead won them over with her incredible talent. Her signature song "I'm a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird" was more than simply a sentimental song of a woman looking for love. It was also about the African American community's struggle for equality -- something Florence Mills spent her short, but incredibly vibrant, life working toward.

For more reading:

Notable Black American Women, "Florence Mills" by Richard Newman

Author Bill Egan has written extensively about the Jazz Era and in particular about Florence Mills

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You may also be interested in:

Harlem's Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills
Harlem's Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills earns the Self-Rescuing Princess Society seal of approval for telling the story of a brave woman who was determined to improve the lives of others. Her courage and certainty that she was on the right side of the issue is an inspiration to us all. It touches on issues around racism and shows how Florence fought against them at every turn in a way that even younger children can understand.
Josephine Baker - World War II Spy
Josephine Baker was so much more than simply a dancer. Later in her life she would become a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement, refusing to perform in front of segregated audiences in the US, and writing articles about discrimination. But before this period of public acts of resistance, though, she had an even more exciting but covert period -- she was a spy.
Happy birthday, Augusta Savage
While she was at Cooper Union, she applied for a program to study sculpture abroad in France, but was denied solely because of her race. Instead of taking it lightly, she raised a fuss, wrote letters to the media, bringing attention to the racists practices of the program. The program still refused to accept her, but her life was changed, and she became quite active in the civil rights fight.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Oveta Culp Hobby - military trailblazer

During World War II, like the other branches of the military, the US Army started a program to recruit women into non-combat positions to free up more (white) men for the front lines. Houston newspaper editor and philanthropist Oveta Culp Hobby (January 19, 1905 – August 16, 1995) was tapped to be the first director of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women's Army Corps, or WACs), a position she used to promote the right of all women to serve their country during its time of need.

Prior to the war, she'd studied law, served as a clerk for the Texas Legislature's judiciary committee, and helped plan the 1928 Democratic National Convention in Houston. She eventually married the former governor of Texas and owner of the Houston Post-Dispatch, where she took a position on the editorial board and used her position to make changes in how the newspaper covered stories important to women and minorities. She also wrote a couple of books about her time working in state government, and was quite active in state and federal activities.

In 1941, while she was visiting Washington, D.C., she was asked to head a section on women's activities for the army. While the US had not officially entered the war yet, the army was actively drafting men into its ranks, and many women were also eager to find a way to serve. She studied the women's branches of the French and British armies and used their successes and failures as a guide for creating something similar for the US Army.

The women who served in the WAC were the first women other than nurses to wear U.S. Army uniforms and, thanks to her tireless work to integrate them within the military, they were the first women to receive military benefits through the GI Bill. She used her extensive knowledge of publicity and organization to promote and protect the importance of the women serving to the overall military goals.

Unlike the WAVES (the Navy's women's branch), the WAAC/WAC was integrated from the outset, although only at 10% representation of African American women (supposedly to match the level of representation in the overall population). Not only did Oveta Culp Hobby insist that black women be included in the corps, but she worked to make sure they were also invited to be part of the first class of officers.

She served as director for the duration of the war, ultimately achieving the rank of colonel, and was the first woman in the Army awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for efforts.

After the war, she returned to Houston and to her work with the newspaper and her philanthropic and political pursuits, continuing her support of civil rights issues as well as improving the lives of women across Texas.

You can listen to an interview with her from January 16, 1944 (starts at 10:00). It's interesting to note how important it is for her to address the fitness, the safety, and the domesticity of the WACs. Clearly she knew these were concerns many Americans had when thinking about women serving in the military, and they generally echo the same types of issues brought up in other areas such as women work in shipyards and munitions plants, and how women were treated during and after the war.

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