Portrayals of Heroines in History

The Jowonio meeting room was arrayed in elegance for high tea, with white tablecloths and beautiful tea cups, pretty plates, and delicious delicacies for all to taste. Best of all, we had some very interesting, special guests in attendance.

Our first guest was Jeannette Rankin (portrayed by Liz Spence). Jeannette told us that she was born in Montana in 1880. She attended the University of Montana, of which her father had been one of the founders. After college she traveled to Boston to visit her brother, who was attending Harvard, and while there she noticed slums on the outskirts of the city. Inspired to help poor women and children, she went to Seattle to volunteer. She soon realized, however, that she was able to be of only marginal help to individuals, and that by doing what she was doing, she was not making a lasting difference on a larger scale. So she decided to go back to college to study law, with the goal of helping women obtain more legal rights. After law school, she returned to Montana and ran for Congress. In 1916 Jeannette became the first woman ever to serve in the US Congress—and this was two years before the women were given the right to vote! A strong voice for peace, she voted against going to war in 1917; and because of this, she subsequently lost her bid for reelection. Years later, in 1940, she was elected to Congress for a second time, and again she was the one lone voice voting against entering World War II. In 1968, at the age of 88, she led “Rankin’s Peace Parade,” the first march on Washington to protest the Vietnam War. Jeannette Rankin was a true champion of women, children, and peace.

Next, in walked Eleanor Roosevelt (portrayed by Terra Harmatuk). Eleanor was definitely not “just” a First Lady! Born in 1884, Eleanor was sent, as a teenager, to a boarding school in London, where she was influenced by the headmistress who happened to be a feminist. Upon returning to the US, Eleanor became active in the Junior League and in the National Consumers League, where she worked on the White Ribbon Campaign to encourage factories to improve the treatment of their women and children employees. Somewhat reluctant to move into the White House when her husband, Franklin, was elected president, she became very active during World War II, working with the Red Cross, the Navy League, the International Congress of Working Women and the League of Women Voters. After Franklin’s death, Eleanor remained a powerful figure in national politics and served as US representative to the United Nations. While at the UN, she worked 18 to 20 hours a day, drawing on her political skills to win passage, in December 1948, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Margaret Mead (portrayed by Sue Savion) then joined us and began describing her fascinating life as a world-renown anthropologist, author of many books, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Born in Pennsylvania in 1901, she attended Barnard College and then Columbia University, earning an MBA and a PhD. She was quite a controversial figure, putting forth many new ideas and discoveries and being unafraid to write about the sexual and cultural mores of many different societies and the importance of understanding other cultures. Some of her book titles give an idea of her outlook: Coming of Age in Samoa; Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies; And Keep Your Powder Dry—An Anthropologist Looks at America;and Growing Up in New Guinea. A few of her famous quotes made us chuckle: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique, just like everyone else,” and “I learned the value of hard work—by working hard!” After listening to Margaret, I was itching to go to the library to do some reading.

Matilda Joslyn Gage (portrayed by Renee-Noelle Felice) was our “local” honored guest, having been born, in 1826, in nearby Cicero and later living in neighboring Fayetteville. Raised in an abolitionist family, her home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Matilda was the daughter of a doctor who believed that all children—girls as well as boys—should be treated as equals, nurtured, taught, respected, and encouraged to ask questions and give opinions. She was her father’s assistant and was expected to go on to medical school, but as the first woman to apply to Geneva Medical College, she was refused entry. Three years later, Elizabeth Blackwell applied to the same school; the Board of Trustees put her application up for a vote by the all-male student body, who, thinking this was a fraternity joke, voted her in. Elizabeth went on to graduate at the top of her class. Matilda put her own energy into working toward abolishing slavery and gaining voting rights for women. She worked with, and did a lot of speech writing for, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and she attended the third annual Women’s Rights Convention in Syracuse. Matilda also spoke to us about some of her contemporaries: Lucretia Mott, Abbey Kelly Foster, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Alice Paul.

Several other women who were in attendance then shared some personal stories of their own, describing women in their lives who had had a profound effect on them.

What a wonderful, inspiring way to spend a few hours on a Sunday afternoon!