Ginger Rogers taught me to celebrate fun

Ginger Rogers embodied Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 assertion that “girls just wanna have fun.” Ginger Rogers made fun look graceful, elegant and kinda sexy as early as 1925. Ginger Rogers celebrated fun and took it to a level of virtuous generosity. She said, “The most important thing in anyone’s life is to be giving something. The quality I can give is fun, joy and happiness. This is my gift.”

Ginger Rogers was born Virginia Katherine McMath on July 16,1911 in Independence, Missouri. She quickly became Ginger because her young cousin Helen could not pronounce Virginia. Virginia became Badinda, which became Ginga, which became Ginger.

Ms. Rogers was not only a stunning Hollywood actress and dancer. She delighted in the outdoors and sports, and excelled at tennis, sharpshooting and fishing. In her teen years, teaching was her first ambition. But while she was waiting for her mother in the wings of the Majestic Theatre, she began to sing and dance along with the performers on stage. The theater bug bit, and she was smitten. In 1925, when she was 14 years old, she won a Charleston dance contest. That launched her vaudeville career, which launched her Broadway career, which led to a contract with Paramount Pictures, which introduced her to RKO Pictures and Fred Astaire.

In the 1930s, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire made 9 films with RKO, introducing elegant dance routines that revolutionized the genre. I know you have heard it, and probably said it yourself, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels.” (But did you know that quote comes from a 1982 Frank and Ernest comic strip by Bob Thaves?) Ginger Rogers was not only a peerless dancer, she was also strikingly beautiful, and she seamlessly wove her skills as a dramatic actress and comedian into her dancing. John Mueller summed up Rogers’s abilities: “Rogers was outstanding among Astaire’s partners, not because she was superior to others as a dancer, but, because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop when dancing began … the reason so many women have fantasized about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable.”

Remember, she began her career in the 1930s and 40s. The studios paid Ginger Rogers substantially less than Fred Astaire. The studios paid her less than many of the male actors despite her more central role in the films. She did not take this easily, and fought persistently and intelligently for her contract and salary rights and for better films and scripts. After winning an Academy Award for Best Actress and an Oscar, she eventually became one of the biggest box-office draws and highest paid actresses of the1940s. She returned to Broadway in 1965, directed an off-Broadway production in 1985 and continued to act, making television appearances until 1987 and wrote an autobiography Ginger: My Story, which was published in 1991.

Throughout her life, she remained on good terms with Fred Astaire; she presented him with a special Academy Award in 1950, and they were co-presenters of individual Academy Awards in 1967, during which they elicited a standing ovation when they came on stage in an impromptu dance. She was also lifelong friends with actresses Lucille Ball and Bette Davis.

In 1992, the Kennedy Center honored Ginger Rogers.

Rogers has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6772 Hollywood Boulevard.

Ginger Rogers made her last public appearance on March 18, 1995, when she received the Women’s International Center (WIC) Living Legacy Award.

She died at her Rancho Mirage home on April 25, 1995, from natural causes. She was 83 years old. She was cremated and her ashes interred in Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California.

Ginger Rogers said, “The world needs strong women. There are a lot of strong women you do not see who are guiding, helping, mothering strong men. They want to remain unseen. It’s kind of nice to be able to play a strong woman who is seen.”

Let’s all dedicate ourselves to becoming strong women who see each other, and who have fun along the way.

Frances Power Cobbe Woman of Substance

My novel, Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt, is littered with mentions of strong women who shaped history in large and small ways, ways that for the most part have been erased or ignored. So, in this blog I have taken to celebrating those women and their contributions to our world.

Today I am celebrating Frances Power Cobbe.

In my novel, Frances Power Cobbe appears as the ancestor of Dr. Cobbe, professor of women’s studies at Barnard College. At the end of the first class of Women in History, Dr. Cobbe says to her students that becoming aware of issues is the first step, and she hopes they will each take up a cause as part of their life’s work. She quotes one of her relatives in Ireland, Frances Power Cobbe who liked to say, “Every woman who has any margin of time or money to spare should adopt a public interest, a philanthropic undertaking or a social reform, and give to that cause whatever time and work she may be able to afford.”

Later in the semester, Joan (the point of view character in the novel), has a meeting with President Barrows, which reduces Joan to tear. Dr. Cobbe found her crying on the steps of Millbank Hall, and becomes her guardian dragon. But Joan is ambivalent about that. She put her trust in another faculty member, only to have that trust trampled. But Joan is desperate, and decides she is going to have to take a risk and trust Dr. Cobbe, because she doesn’t know what else to do. When Joan gets to her office, she figures out why Dr. Cobbe smells so funny.

Dr. Cobbe is a cat lady. She only has two cats now. She used to have five. She brings both of her cats to the office with her. Her office is littered with cat toys. She noticed me staring, laughed and said, “I come by it honestly. I was named for my late cousin, Frances Power Cobbe, a suffragette and anti-vivisectionist back home in Ireland.” She said an anti-vivisectionist supports science and research, but not in ways that harm animals. Dr. Cobbe brings her cats with her on her long teaching days. That’s nice, but the kitty litter box needs changing.

So, who is this Frances Power Cobbe, ancestor of my fictional Professor Cobbe?

Frances Power Cobbe was born in Dublin on 4th December 1822. Cobbe was educated at home, except for two years at a school in Brighton. According to her biographer, Barbara Caine: “Cobbe regarded her schooling as an interruption to her education and a complete waste of time. The noise, frivolity, pointless routine, and complete lack of intellectual stimulation contrasted strongly with her pleasurable life at home, spent in close contact with her accomplished and beloved mother.”

In the early 1860s, Frances moved to London where she earned her living by writing for newspapers and journals. In 1861, her articles about women’s rights brought her into contact with leading feminists such as Barbara Bodichon and Lydia Becker. She also became friendly with John Stuart Mill, who encouraged her in her writing. Cobbe also became a member of the Married Women’s Property Committee. 1867 she joined the London Society for Women’s Suffrage.

Cobbe was also involved in the campaign against vivisection. In 1870 she advocated strengthening the law on experiments on animals, and over the next few years became one of the leaders of the British anti-vivisection movement. It has been argued that there may have “been an identification on her part between man’s brutality to animals and his brutality to women.”

Women in Philosophy tells us that Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904) was an Anglo-Irish reformer who wrote about moral theory and moral epistemology, religion, evolution, duties to animals, feminism, welfare, mind and body, unconscious thought and aesthetics. In 1897 the American suffragist Frances Willard said of Cobbe that ‘distinguished critical authorities have assigned her the rank of greatest among living English women’. Cobbe’s biographer Ellen Mitchell agrees: ‘By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, she was the most important British woman writer of intellectual prose’. Cobbe’s ideas were widely discussed–by Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick amongst others. Yet after her death Cobbe fell rapidly out of view, as has so often been the case for philosophical women.

Ella Josephine Baker, Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, Behind-the-Scenes Force of Nature

I read an article about Ella Josephine Baker that described her as the mother of the modern civil rights movement. That description got me thinking about what it means to mother something. Mothers give birth; they provide care, affection and kindness; they protect and nurture; they teach and encourage strength and resilience; they launch into the world. Even Ms. Baker’s nickname, “Fundi” is an acknowledgement of her proclivity to mothering. Fundi is a Swahili word that means g a person who teaches a craft to the next generation.

But who was this woman and how did she mother the civil rights movement?

Ella Josephine Baker was born on December 13, 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. Her grandmother helped to lay the foundation for whom Ms. Baker was to become, teaching her values and a way of being in the world that prioritized social justice. Ella’s grandmother, Josephine Elizabeth “Bet” Ross, was born an enslaved person. She endured being beaten and whipped rather than marry an enslaved man chosen by her owner. Ella learned the importance of knowing who you are and standing up for your beliefs and your values as a human being, even in the face of tremendous cost.

Ms. Baker graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina with valedictorian honors. She then went on to work for the Worker’s Education Project of the Works Progress Administration, established under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, teaching courses in consumer education, labor history, and African history. She immersed herself in the cultural and political milieu of Harlem in the1930s, protesting Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia and supporting the campaign to free the Scottsboro defendants in Alabama. She also founded the Negro History Club at the Harlem Library.

In 1938, Ms. Baker began her long association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She believed in egalitarian ideals and pushed the NAACP to decentralize its leadership structure and to aid its membership in more activist campaigns at the local level. Ms. Baker believed that the strength of an organization grew from the bottom up. Ms. Baker despised elitism. She believed that the bedrock of any social change organization is not its leaders ‘eloquence or credentials, but the commitment and hard work of the rank-and-file membership and their willingness and ability to engage in discussion, debate, and decision-making. She especially stressed the importance of young people and women in the organization.

In January 1957, Ms. Baker went to Atlanta to attend a conference aimed at developing a new regional organization to build on the success of the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama. After a second conference in February, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed.

In 1960, following a gathering of sit-in leaders to assess their struggles, and explore the possibilities for future actions, Ms. Baker returned to Shaw University to help found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC. Ms. Baker nurtured the awareness, growth and insight of individual SNCC members even as together they fostered the development of SNCC as an organization, building on Mahatma Gandhi’s practices of nonviolent direct action. In 1961, SNCC partnered with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to organize in the Freedom Rides. Ms. Baker, and many of her colleagues, believed that voting was one key to freedom. She believed that if we do not exercise our collective voice, we are unable to influence the policies and laws that impact our lives. To be counted, we must be heard.

In 1964, SNCC helped create Freedom Summer, to focus national attention on Mississippi’s racism and to register black voters. With Ms. Baker’s guidance and encouragement, SNCC became one of the foremost advocates for human rights in the country.

When interviewed and questioned about her life, she was adamant about keeping her private life private. And, many women in the Civil Rights Movement followed her example, adopting a practice of covering their private lives that allowed them to function more freely as individuals in the movement. She believed that it was better for her to not be seen on television or in news stories. The kind of role that she tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which she hoped organization might come. Her belief was that strong people don’t need strong leaders.

Ms. Baker continued to be a respected and influential leader in the fight for human and civil rights until her death on her 83rd birthday, December 13, 1986.

In 1988, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock recorded Ella’s Song

Ella’s Song Lyrics

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons

That which touches me most
Is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

To me young people come first
They have the courage where we fail
And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm

Not needing to clutch for power
Not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny

Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives

I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At times I can be quite difficult, I’ll bow to no man’s word

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Composed by Bernice Johnson Reagon, copyright: Songtalk Publishing Co.

And, in 2009, Ms. Baker was honored on a U.S. postage stamp.

Ella Josephine Baker is mentioned on page 60 of my novel, Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt. Which of course is available on Amazon

I’d love to hear from you.

What are your thoughts about Ella Josephine Baker? About mothering? About social justice?

Who are some of the women who inspire you? Why? How have they changed your thoughts, values or way of being in the world?

Why I want Emma Goldman to teach me to dance.

Emma Goldman championed women’s equality, free love, workers’ rights, free universal education regardless of race or gender, and anarchism. Yes, Emma Goldman was an anarchist, and in today’s political climate, anarchy has come to be associated with violence and chaos. And, yes, violence—principled violence was part of Emma Goldman’s arsenal of revolutionary actions. But, it was not her first or second choice. She believed in education and political action rather than violence. Emma Goldman was a woman of principles. For her, anarchy was a vehicle to liberty, harmony and social justice. It was her pathway to overcome inequality, repression and exploitation. Goldman defined anarchism as “the philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary.” believed free people would naturally form the most productive and just systems, entering into organizations strictly on their own accord. Goldman wrote “Anarchists do not only not oppose, but believe in organization as the result of a natural blending of common interests, brought about through voluntary adhesion, as the only possible basis of social life.”

One of the more iconic stories about Emma Goldman involves a party where she was dancing her heart out, enjoying herself, when a man chastised her, saying, “No agitator should dance, certainly not with such reckless abandon. Such undignified frivolity damages the dignity of our cause.” His impertinence infuriated Emma. She said, “Any cause that stands for beautiful ideals, for anarchism, for freedom from convention will not demand the denial of life and joy.. If I can’t dance, I won’t be part of your revolution.” That quote has always delighted me. In my heart, I picture Emma Goldman as a bright-eyed, enthusiastic young woman that she was when she came to the United States. And I choose to believe that she remained that woman in her heart. But have a look at this timeline of events in her life that I discovered in the Jewish Women’s Archive. Emma Goldman was a feisty, fearless fighter. She did not always win. But she was principled, and she kept up the fight, with principles and integrity, no matter the cost.

Under surveillance for much of her adult career, Goldman was arrested so often that she began to carry a book wherever she went, for fear of sitting in jail with nothing to read. According to her autobiography, when she asked once why she had been arrested, the police officer replied simply, “Because you’re Emma Goldman. Anarchists have no rights in this community, see?”


Combined timeline and rap sheet, compiled by the Jewish Women’s Archive and the Emma Goldman Papers Project

1869, June 27 Emma Goldman was born in Kovno, Lithuania, to Taube (Bienowitch) and Abraham Goldman.

1885: She immigrated to the United States with sister Helena. They settled in Rochester, New York.

1887: The execution of four anarchists unjustly convicted of bombing a labor rally in 1886 sparks Goldman’s political awakening

1889: Emma moved to New York City’s Lower East Side, where she met many prominent anarchists, including Alexander Berkman and Johann Most; the next year, she delivered the first of countless public lectures.

1893: August 30: Cause of Arrest: Incitement to Riot. With the nation in a deep economic depression, Emma Goldman is arrested and charged with inciting a riot during a New York City speech to unemployed workers on August 21. Goldman is tried, found guilty, and sentenced to one year in the Blackwell’s Island penitentiary — on the island today known as Roosevelt Island, in New York’s East River.

1895: Emma trained as a nurse in Vienna.

1897: September 7: Cause of Arrest: Open-Air Speaking. Goldman is arrested in Providence, Rhode Island, when she attempts to speak in public, after the mayor has warned her not to deliver any more open-air speeches. After keeping Goldman in jail overnight, the Providence authorities order her to leave town or face a three-month prison term.

1901: September 10: Cause of Arrest: Inciting the Assassination of President McKinley. Goldman is arrested in Chicago under suspicion of having something to do with President William McKinley’s assassination in Buffalo, New York, four days earlier. She had met assassin Leon Czolgosz at one of her lectures. The Chicago police interrogate Goldman and her bail is set at $20,000 (over $400,000 in today’s dollars). She will be released two weeks later, and the case will be dropped for lack of evidence.

1903: January 27: Cause of Arrest: Being a Suspicious Person. The year after New York passes an anti-anarchism law, Goldman and Max Baginski are arrested in New York City for being “suspicious persons.” They are questioned and released.

1903: Emma becomes involved in the Free Speech League in New York City in response to the passage of anti-anarchist laws.

1906: Emma founds Mother Earth magazine; later publishes numerous articles and lectures, including Anarchism and Other Essays (1910) and The Social Significance of the Modern Drama (1914).

1906: October 30: Cause of Arrest: Incendiary Articles and Incitement to Riot. Along with nine other people, Emma Goldman is arrested in New York City for articles published in her Mother Earth magazine, and for inciting to riot. She pays the $1,000 bail for her release and pleads not guilty to charges of criminal anarchy. On January 9, 1907, a grand jury dismisses the case.

1907: January 6: Cause of Arrest: Public Expression of “Incendiary Sentiments”. New York City’s Anarchist Police Squad arrests Goldman during a public lecture on “False and True Conceptions of Anarchism.” The case will later be dismissed.

1908: December 13: Cause of Arrest: Attempting to Speak. Seattle authorities arrest Goldman after someone breaks in to a locked lecture hall to allow the room to be used for a meeting with Goldman. The police release her on the condition that she leave town.

1908: December 14: Cause of Arrest: Planning to Speak. With her reputation preceding her, Goldman is arrested in Bellingham, Washington, before she can deliver a planned lecture. The next day, authorities send her away on a Canada-bound train.

1909: January 14: Cause of Arrest: Conspiracy Against the Government. After two weeks of uneventful Goldman lectures in California, San Francisco police arrest Goldman with Ben Reitman and charge them with conspiring against the government. Supporters who protest the arrest are disbanded by police the next day, but Goldman remains locked up until January 18. On the 28th, authorities drop the charges against her.

1910: early April: Cause of Arrest: Speaking. In the midst of a large, successful national lecture tour, Goldman and Reitman arrested by police in Cheyenne, Wyoming during an open-air meeting.

19193: May 20: Cause of Arrest: Arrival in San Diego. A year after being attacked by vigilantes when they arrived at the San Diego train station during a battle over free speech there, Goldman and Reitman return to the city — only to be arrested as soon as they arrive. Police send them on the afternoon train to Los Angeles.

1915: August 6: Cause of Arrest: Distributing Birth Control Information. In Portland, Oregon on her annual lecture tour, Goldman is arrested with Ben Reitman for distributing information on birth control in defiance of the Comstock “Chastity” Laws. A friend posts the $500 bail; the next day, Goldman and Reitman pay a $100 fine and resume lectures in that city.

1916: February 11: Cause of Arrest: Lecturing on Birth Control. Goldman is arrested in New York City for delivering a January lecture on birth control. She is tried in April; after being convicted, she opts to spend fifteen days in the Queens County Penitentiary instead of paying a $100 fine.

1916: October 20: Cause of Arrest: Distributing Birth Control Information. Emma Goldman goes to court in New York City to testify on behalf of a fellow birth-control advocate, and is arrested herself. She is released on a $500 bond and will be acquitted of the charge on January 8, 1917.

1917: Co-founds No-Conscription League.

1917: June 15: Cause of Arrest: Conspiracy to Violate the Draft Act. The U.S. entered World War I in April 1917; since then, Goldman has been lecturing against military conscription and the war. The same day that President Woodrow Wilson signs the Espionage Act, which in part prohibits interfering with the draft, federal agents arrest Goldman and Alexander Berkman in New York City. They are later indicted for conspiring to violate the Draft Act. Goldman pleads not guilty and is freed on $25,000 bail; rumors spread that her bail has been paid by the German enemy. In early July, she and Berkman are both found guilty and sentenced to serve two years in jail and pay a $10,000 fine. Goldman is incarcerated in a federal penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri. When her case is appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Goldman is returned to New York City and again released on bail. After losing her appeal in January 1918, Goldman is returned to Missouri to serve her two-year sentence.

1919: September 12: Cause of Arrest: Questionable Immigration Status. Federal officials review Goldman’s immigration status and decide she can be deported legally. They serve Goldman with a warrant for her arrest and deportation while she is serving the final few weeks of her prison sentence in Missouri. After a bond of $15,000 is posted, Goldman returns to New York to organize her appeal. In October, Goldman claims U.S. citizenship from her brief marriage to Jacob A. Kersner in 1887. But Labor Department officials order Goldman’s deportation in late November, and in early December she and Berkman are held at Ellis Island in New York harbor, and on the 21st of that month they board a Russia-bound ship.

1919: Deported to Soviet Russia with 248 other alien radicals.

1928: After intermittent visits across Europe and Canada, settles in Saint-Tropez, France.

1931: Publishes autobiography, Living My Life.

1932: Lectures on the imminent dangers of fascism and the rise of Nazism, first in England and later in the United States and Canada.

1934: After many efforts, secures visa and returns to the United States for a 90-day lecture tour.

1936—1938: Works with the anarchist trade union (CNT-FAI) to fight fascism and build new society during the Spanish Civil War.

1940: February, Goldman suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak. She died on May 14, 1940, at age 70, in Toronto, Canada. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service allowed her body to be re-admitted to the United States, where she was buried in Chicago near the Haymarket anarchists who had so inspired her. Thousands of mourners flocked to see her casket, and tributes poured in from every corner of the world.

Oh, Emma. We miss you. We need someone to teach us how to dance again.

Reflections on Emily Green Balch

[Today I thought I would share an excerpt from my novel, “Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt” with you. To be clear, the letter is fictional, but the information within it about Emily Green Balch is historically accurate.]

As I was walking home, I thought about women I have known who have worked for peace, and my dear friend Emily Greene Balch came to my mind. In 1946, only a year after Franklin died, Emily was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. How I wish that Franklin had been in office to acknowledge Emily’s work. But Truman would have none of it. He regarded anyone involved with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom as too radical to cast their shadow across the doors of the White House.

Our dear Emily had more than her share of professional struggles. In 1919 she was on leave from Wellesley College and put in to extend her leave to continue her work with the International Congress of Women.  The Board of Trustees at Wellesley choose to terminate her contract instead. Eva, Emily was a popular professor and one of the more productive scholars on the faculty. But, I suspect she was a bit too outspoken an advocate of peace for those men. I suspect they were looking for an excuse to be rid of her.

Emily was disconsolate—for a moment. But then she marched herself to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, much as I did with the American Association for the United Nations. WILPF elected her their secretary and treasurer, and she continued her work for peace with vigor, even though her health was declining.

Eva, as I remembered Emily, I wanted to reread her Nobel Prize Lecture, Toward Human Unity or Beyond Nationalism, which she delivered on April 7, 1948. Here are some of my favorite passages from that lecture.

She considered the unifying and divisive trends that she has observed in our world:

Not only democracy and the cult of humaneness mark our age, but also greed, violence, the self-adulation of national and racial groups, the fanaticism of political cults like fascism or Nazism, the glorification of might and power for their own sake, the blind reliance on violence as that before which all idealism is but a dissolving mist. All these things we know only too well.

She went on to discuss the peace movement in its individual and political efforts, its work to educate and to build institutions and to affect governmental action on concrete issues. I found great solace and direction in her concluding comments:

We are not asked to subscribe to any utopia or to believe in a perfect world just around the corner. We are asked to be patient with necessarily slow and groping advance on the road forward, and to be ready for each step ahead as it becomes practicable. We are asked to equip ourselves with courage, hope, readiness for hard work, and to cherish large and generous ideals.

I will enter this new chapter in my life with courage and hope, ready for hard work, open to joy where it may shine, cherishing the ideals of service and human rights based on respect for human dignity. . . .

With love, your affectionate friend,


Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt is available from Amazon

With thanks to Esther Lape

Esther Everett Lape was born on October 8, 1881 in Wilmington, Delaware and died on May 17 1981 in her home on East 57th Street in Manhattan. She lived a rich and full life, creating organizations that challenged and changed the world for the better and forming friendships with other women who also challenged and changed the world. Her circle of friends included her life partner Elizabeth Fisher Read, her lifelong friend Eleanor Roosevelt and other lesbian couples who were leaders in the Women’s Suffrage Movement such as Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, Molly Dewson and Polly Porter, Grace Hutchins and Anna Rochester.

Esther Lape was a professor of English at Arizona State College, Barnard College, Columbia University and Swarthmore College, who wrote prodigiously, and was the author of many articles on women’s rights and the problems faced by immigrants in the United States.

Her writing attracted the attention of Edward Bok, the former editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal. After World War I, Mr. Bok appointed Miss Lape to head a committee to judge entries in a contest for a ”practical plan to achieve and preserve the peace of the world.” An award of $50,000 was offered for the best plan along with another $50,000 if the plan was accepted by the United States Senate. The committee recommended the award go to a proposal for United States participation in the Permanent Court of International Justice, known as the World Court. 

Mr. Bok incorporated the American Foundation in 1924 to promote the effort. Although the United States Senate never ratified United States participation in the Court, by the time it was dissolved in 1945, the Court had 59 member states.

Esther Lape became the founding director of Bok’s American Foundation for Studies in Government. As part of her work with the Foundation, she published, ”American Medicine – Expert Testimony Out of Court,” a survey of the opinions of doctors, documented the inadequacy of medical care and suggested that improvements in the nation’s medical schools. The publication led to a series of White House meetings and President Franklin Roosevelt’s statement about the rights of every citizen to adequate medical care. She served as director of the American Foundation until she retired in 1955.

In addition to her work for Women’s Suffrage and world peace, Esther Lape knew the value of beauty. She owned a beautiful 147-acre country estate, Salt Meadow, in Westbrook, Connecticut. The estate was a haven for Esther, Elizabeth Reid and Eleanor Roosevelt, a place where they could find solace and sustenance in the midst of the demands of their professional lives. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote many of her My Day newspaper columns there during her frequent visits. In 1972, Lape donated the estate to the Government to be maintained as a wildlife refuge. The Government has seen fit to rename the estate the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, erasing recognition of Esther Lape’s generosity and ‘Salt Meadow’ her chosen name for the lands. 

I’m tempted to write such has been the lot of women while sadly shaking my head. But I will not. Women work hard, accomplish much, and then are turned into nameless pillars of salt. But no more. It is time to recognize the work of our foremothers. It is time to remember and celebrate their names. Let us wake up each morning and fall asleep each night chanting the litany of names of those who have gone before us. We will stand tall and claim who we are and what we have done, even as we say thank you to the likes of Esther Lape and all of her sisters.

Contextualizing Elizabeth Fisher Read

During leap years, women rise up and claim our power in ways we typically cannot get away with. For example, there is an Irish tradition by which women may propose to men on Leap Day, 29 February, based on a legend of Saint Bridget and Saint Patrick. 1872 was a leap year, and it was an especially auspicious year for women.

Born on January 20, Julia Morgan became an American architect and engineer, who designed over 700 buildings in California during a long and prolific career. She is best known for her work on Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. Morgan was the first woman to be admitted to the architecture program at l’École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the first woman architect licensed in California. She designed many edifices for institutions serving women and girls, including several YWCAs and buildings for Mills College.

On February 4, a great solar flare, and associated geomagnetic storm, made the northern lights visible as far south as Cuba. (OK, this is not obviously auspicious for women, but I personally am enamored with the Northern Lights, and kind of wish I could have seen the display.)

Born on May 10, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to be nominated for President of the United States, although she was a year too young to qualify and did not appear on the ballot.

Born on October 27, Emily Post was an American author, novelist, and socialite, who became enduringly famous for writing about etiquette.

On November 5, in defiance of the law, American suffragist Susan B. Anthony voted for the first time. On November 18 she was served an arrest warrant, and in the subsequent trial she was fined $100, which she never paid.

Within the context of those births and events, Elizabeth Fisher Read was born on September 8, 1872, in New Brighton, Pennsylvania. She was a woman of her time and a woman ahead of her times, graduating first from Smith College and then from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In the early 1910s she was active in the women’s suffrage movement, fighting ardently for women’s right to vote. In the 1920s she was a classic example of the 1920s “New Woman”—independent, financially self-supporting, politically active, and socially emancipated.

Read worked as a lawyer for all of her adult life. She was director of research for the American Foundation, a private organization dealing with national and international public affairs issues. She was also a scholar, the author of International Law and International Relations 1926; and the translator of a book on the World Court.

But she was not only a woman who worked. Elizabeth Fisher Read lived with Esther Lape, an educator and publicist, in Greenwich Village, and together they worked for a variety of social and political causes, including the New York state branch of the League of Women Voters. In 1920, Read and Lape were editing the group’s weekly legislative review, City, State and Nation. And it was through that work that Read and Lape first met Eleanor Roosevelt as Roosevelt was working as the director of the league’s national legislation committee. Impressed with one another’s skills, abilities and brains, the three women quickly cemented what became both a political partnership and a warm friendship. Both Read and Lape were Eleanor Roosevelt’s earliest female political and feminist mentors. Among their professional projects was a multiyear effort to encourage American participation in the World Court, an organization created as part of the League of Nations.

In their Greenwich Village home, Read and Lape created an atmosphere that reminded Eleanor Roosevelt of her schooldays with her teacher, Marie Souvestre, and the three women spent many hours there reading poetry and discussing political issues. As first lady, Roosevelt rented a floor in Read and Lape’s building, which she used to escape the pressures of her public position. The three women also spent time at Salt Meadow, the Connecticut country house Read and Lape owned. Read became Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal attorney and financial advisor. Roosevelt regularly consulted both Read and Lape on political issues, from recognition of the Soviet Union to the 1935 Social Security Act.

On December 13, 1943, Read died at the Greenwich Village apartment. 1872 was a very good year for women. 1943, not so much.

If you enjoyed reading about Elizabeth Fisher Read, you might just want to take a look at my novel, Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt, where she words and wisdom along with the words and wisdom of 90 other women are woven throughout the story.

If you enjoy learning about women’s words, wisdom & works, you might enjoy my bimonthly, odd months newsletter, Behold the Women. You can subscribe here.

What were some of your reactions to reading about Elizabeth Fisher Read? What other women did her life call to your mind?

Elinor Morgenthau, who are you?

In Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt I write about a table game called, “who are you?” In the novel, I attribute it to the Roosevelt family as a way they came to know guests at the family dinner table. In truth, it is an ice breaker I would sometimes use when I course I was teaching had a relatively small enrollment. In class, each student would write an answer to the question, “who are you?” I asked the question 10 times, and students responded each time with a different answer. Then we would go around the class and record the responses on the board to get a bird’s-eye view of how we all thought of ourselves. That led to some very interesting discussions. In the (fictional) Roosevelt version of the game, one person volunteered to start, and then each person around the table would query that person, “who are you?” eliciting thoughtfulness and depth in the answers. The game continued rotating the person of focus until everyone responded to the question.

Today I thought I would play a version of that game with Elinor Morgenthau. And so I ask, Elinor

Morgenthau, who are you?

  1. Daughter of Lisette Lehman and Morris Fatman.
  2. Sister of Margaret Fatman.
  3. Wife of Henry Morgenthau.
  4. Mother of Henry III, Robert and Joan.
  5. An athlete who enjoyed tennis and horseback riding.
  6. Alumna of Vassar College.
  7. Teacher of theater at the Henry Street Settlement.
  8. Speaker for the New York State Democratic Committee Women’s Division.
  9. Dear friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and her assistant in the Office of Civilian Defense.
  10. Significant supporter of the War Refugee Board.

Elinor Morgenthau was all of that and more. She was a woman of her time and she was ahead of her times. In 1916, she proposed to her husband in Central Park, New York City. She was a delightful conversationalist, an astute political observer and analyst who supported and advanced her husband’s career and saw to it his appointment as Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury.

Elinor Morgenthau died of a stroke on September 21, 1949. She was only 57 years old. Eleanor Roosevelt paid tribute to her friend in her September 23, 1949 My Day Column:

For nearly four and a half years, Mrs. Henry Morgenthau, Jr. had been ill at times. She suffered a great deal, but she was a gallant soul.

Elinor Morgenthau loved life and took a deep interest in what was happening in the world as a whole, as well as in what was happening in her own world of family and friends and personal affections. . .

There are not so many good people in the world that we can see their passing without grief for ourselves and regret that their share of humanity’s burdens will now have to be borne by others.

Elinor Morgenthau was many things to many people. She was deeply loved. She was deeply missed in her time. And yet, today her many contributions to our world receive little recognition or appreciation.  Her life, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s thoughts about her life, have me thinking about all the people who have died of COVID in the past years. In the United States, 1.03 million people have died of COVID. In the world writ large, over 6.4 million have died of COVID. For each of those unnecessarily lost lives, we could ask, “Who are you?” We could think about who they loved and how they lived. We should remember, “There are not so many good people in the world that we can see their passing without grief for ourselves and regret that their share of humanity’s burdens will now have to be borne by others.”

Thank You, Alice Hamilton

Get the lead out! An innocent enough mandate when it is simply a call to get moving faster. But in Flint, Michigan, Washington, DC, Newark & Trenton, NJ, Chicago, IL, Baltimore, MD, Philadelphia & Pittsburg, PA, Milwaukee, WI, Boston, MA—get the lead out is a lifesaving remediation that is moving all too slowly to get the lead out, out of their pipes and water systems. Lead poisoning causes learning difficulties, irritability, fatigue, belly pain, constipations, loss of appetite, weight loss, vomiting, hearing loss, premature birth, miscarriage and developmental delays. All of this in the past 20 years. But lead poisoning is not a new issue. The dangers of lead poisoning were clearly and cogently documented in the early 1900s by Doctor Alice Hamilton.

Today I would like to give thanks to Doctor Hamilton for her pioneering, ground breaking and lifesaving work. Let me introduce you to a bit of her life and some of her accomplishments.

Alice Hamilton was born on February 27, 1869 in New York City. She grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She studied medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, taught medicine at the Woman’s Medical School of Northwestern University and Harvard Medical School. She lived at Jane Addams Hull House for over 35 years. And she died at 101 on September 22, 1970 in Hadlyme, CT.

Oh, but what she did with those 101 years! While she was at Hull House, she treated the local immigrants for diseases that were the consequence of their working conditions. In her autobiography, ‘Exploring the Dangerous Trades’, she said that life in a settlement teaches you that education and culture have little to do with real wisdom, the wisdom that comes from life experience. She personally thrived in the environment of Hull House, observing that “it satisfied every longing, for companionship, for the excitement of new experiences, for constant intellectual stimulation and for the sense of being caught up in a big movement which enlisted my enthusiastic loyalty. At Hull House, Alice Hamilton’s medical knowledge, linked with Jane Addams’ passion for social reform, and the lives for the working-class people, ignited her compassion and indignation. Alice Hamilton brought her education and cultural background to bear on the life experiences she gained at Hull House, and she changed our understanding of health and working conditions to enhance human dignity and public health.

In 1910, the governor of Illinois invited Dr. Hamilton to conduct a study of the extent of industrial sickness in the state. She became managing director of the survey of lead and enamelware industries, rubber production, painting trades and the explosive and munitions industries, with the study of the lead industries as her particular focus. Charles Neill, Commissioner of Labor in the U.S. Department of Commerce, later asked her to conduct a similar survey of all the United States. By the time Alice Hamilton was in her early 40s, she was the leading authority on lead poisoning and one of a very small group of experts in occupational diseases.

Alice Hamilton fully embraced her focus on industrial toxicology, which she described as “scientific in part, but human and practical in great measure.” In each of her investigations, she employed ‘shoe-leather’ epidemiology: careful and extensive analysis of hospital records to document the connection between specific illnesses and occupations, the thorough investigation of factories to learn which industrial processes used or produced dangerous chemicals. But she was not content to document the extent of lead poisoning. She personally tried to persuade factory owners and managers to remedy the dangerous conditions by instituting dust and fume prevention techniques; or by having workers wear protective clothing to be removed and washed at the end of each shift.

Alice Hamilton was a woman of her time and she was ahead of her time. Many of us owe our health and the good health of our relatives to her research and interventions. Thank You, Doctor Alice Hamilton.

{Alice Hamilton is one of nearly 90 women mentioned in my novel: Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt. You can find her there on page 92. Happy Reading!}