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Why Women's History Month Is Important

By Kate Kelly, America Comes Alive

Just as Women’s History Month winds down, I find I’m often asked: “Why do we need a month devoted to women’s history?”  The answer is, for two very important reasons:  
For two very important reasons:  

  1. March provides an opportunity to correct the records of the past.  History books still provide more about white men and their contributions to the country, and yet there have always been hard-working women who have fought for a better tomorrow.  This month offers us an opportunity to acknowledge women’s numerous contributions.
     
  2. Women’s History Month allows us to re-visit the American story in a much more interesting way.  While textbooks need to cover a wide swath of history and include dates and wars and treaties, women’s history month has no such requirement.  America Comes Alive has found that short profiles of women from various fields and various eras provide a fascinating peek into our past---we get to know an individual woman and what she cared about but we also begin to understand what was happening in our country during the years in which she lived.  

Below you will read about three of these remarkable women: Virginia Hall, a spy during World War II; Althea Gibson, an amazing athlete who broke the color barriers in tennis in the early 1950s, and Lydia Pinkham, a woman who created a medicine to help women, and in the process drew attention to the fact that women’s health issues during the mid-to-late 19th century were almost totally ignored.  

Virginia HallVirginia Hall (1906-1982), World War II Spy for the Allies

Virginia Hall was born in 1906 in Baltimore, Maryland to a well-to-do family. She attended Radcliffe and Barnard Colleges, completing part of her education in Europe. She was fluent in French and German and found jobs at several American embassies, and she became intent on getting a job with the U.S. State Department so she could continue her career in foreign service.

While working at the American embassy in Turkey, she was invited to go along with friends on a hunting expedition. Her gun discharged unexpectedly, and the bullet went through Hall’s left foot. By the time her friends got her to a hospital, her leg below the knee had to be amputated in order to save her life.

Hall did not want this accident to slow her down, so she returned to the U.S. and had a wooden leg created and then set about practicing so that she could do almost everything she had done before. She walked with a limp and could not run as quickly as before but otherwise, she was extremely competent and could do well on her own. She returned to Europe but knew she had to shift her plans…the State Department would not hire someone with a false limb.

At the time of her return, Germany had invaded Poland so Hall went to Paris and enlisted in the French Army as an ambulance driver. As she saw what the Nazis were doing to the Jewish people in Poland, she became convinced that she had to go where she could help. Hall joined the British Resistance, an organization known as the SOE (Special Operations Executive).

Within a few weeks of joining the SOE, she went undercover as a journalist, basing herself in a southern section of France that was occupied by the Nazis. She helped put in place safe drop zones for bringing in new agents, supplies, money, and weapons and proved to be exceedingly good at the work.

By this time, the Germans were aware that a woman they referred to as La Dame Qui Boite, the Limping Lady, was one of the key organizers of the area, and they issued orders to find and capture her.

The SOE ordered the resistance organizers to clear out of Lyon when they learned the Gestapo was moving into southern France. Hall left with the group by train but the escape was dangerous and part of the it involved a 30-mile trek which had to be done on foot. The guide who had agreed to take the resistance fighters had not been pleased when one was a woman, so Hall certainly could not mention her disability, nor could she complain during the arduous trip.

The group made it back to London, and the SOE began training all of their operatives as radio (wireless) operators, knowing that as the war continued, communication was going to be key.

Hall shifted her work to an American espionage organization, the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS). (The OSS also included another famous member, Julia Child, profiled in last year’s women’s history series.) This took her back to France for more undercover work. This time she was disguised as a heavy older farm woman. She was to live with a farmer’s family and tend to the cows. The heavy clothing she wore coupled with her masquerading as being elderly gave better cover to her awkward gait.

In this role, she often took the farmer’s milk and chees to market where the Germans never suspected she could understand their political discussions that she overheard in the marketplace. As soon as she got back to the farm, she pulled out her radio and would wire in any information she obtained.

After the war, President Truman wanted to make public the award she was to be given, but Hall refused. She wanted to remain in her line of work so she did not want her identity revealed. Instead, in a private ceremony at the OSS office on September 27, 1945, Virginia Hall was given the Distinguished Service Cross award, making her the only American woman and the first civilian to be awarded this honor during World War II.

After the war, the OSS disbanded but its operations were folded into a new agency, the Central Intelligence Agency. Hall worked at the CIA offices until mandatory retirement at age 60. She died at the age of 82.

Althea GibsonAlthea Gibson (1927-2003), “Unlikely Champion” of Tennis

  • First player to break color barrier in tennis.
     
  • Won 56 tennis tournaments, including five Grand Slam singles titles
     
  • First African-American Wimbledon champion and first African-American to enter and win the championship at Forest Hills.

Althea Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina in 1927 but she grew up in Harlem where her family moved when she was very young.  She was an unlikely tennis champ not only because of her color but because her background can only be described as rough-and-tumble.  

New York Times reporter Robert McG. Thomas Jr. wrote in 2003 that Gibson was “a rough-hewn product of the New York slums, a street-brawling chronic truant and eighth-grade dropout who haunted pool halls and bowling lanes and made the back alleys her home.”

She was also a natural athlete and was successful at whatever she played.  Her first sport was paddle tennis; she played in public recreation programs and won a championship at age 12.  Musician Buddy Walker noticed her skills, and thought she might do well in tennis. He brought her to the Harlem River Tennis Courts, where she learned the game and began to excel.

By 1942 Gibson had won the girls' singles event at the American Tennis Association's New York State Tournament. (The ATA was an all-black organization, providing tournament opportunities not otherwise available to African-American tennis players.) In 1944 and 1945 she again won ATA tournaments.

Gibson’s strong serve, fast pace and dominant court presence caught the attention of two African-American doctors who were intent on breaking the color barrier in tennis: Hubert Eaton of  North Carolina and Robert W. Johnson of  Virginia. The men wanted Gibson to finish high school and also settle in to a regular practice routine.  They arranged for her to live with Eaton’s family where she attended the local high school and took tennis lessons. During the summer Johnson toured with her while she played tournaments.  (Johnson also sponsored Arthur Ashe a good number of years later.)  

Gibson continued winning in the ATA (1947-56) but other tennis tournaments remained closed to her until 1950. In that year white tennis player Alice Marble wrote an article in American Lawn Tennis magazine, noting that this excellent player was not able to participate in the better-known championships, for no reason other than bigotry:  “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.”

The U.S. Lawn Association relented, and Gibson was allowed to play.  She was an inconsistent player in these years, so while she played some stand-out matches, championships still eluded her.  Then in 1956 she won her first championship in France and in 1957 she won the U.S. Nationals.  That year the Associated Press voted her Female Athlete of the Year, the first African-American woman to receive that honor.  

In the late 1950s, Gibson won eleven major titles including three straight doubles at the French Open in 1956, 1957 and 1958. She was winner of the French Open in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958 and the U.S. Open in both those years as well.   
She later wrote in her book of the Wimbledon: "Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, N.C."

As with Jackie Robinson in baseball, Gibson won tournaments but in many cities, she was denied hotel rooms.  One restaurant refused to book a luncheon in her honor.
In 1958 she retired from amateur tennis.  In that day there was no prize money (other than an expense allowance) no endorsement deals, and  no professional tour for women.  Gibson was limited to play in a series of exhibition tours. In 1971 she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.  

In 1963, Gibson switched her concentration to golf. That year, she became the first African-American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association, where she remained a member for fifteen years. Though she had a strong swing, she was old for picking up a new sport, and her best tournament finish was second place.

In 1975, Althea Gibson was named the New Jersey Commissioner of Athletics. She held this position for ten years and also served on both the State's Athletics Control Board and the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness.

In 1992 Gibson suffered severe health issues and faced financial problems trying to pay for her medical care.  Her former doubles partner, Angela Buxton, wrote a letter that appeared in a tennis magazine asking for help for her friend. There was an outpouring of support, and Gibson received more than $1 million in donations from around the world.
Althea Gibson died in 2003 at the age of 76.  

In 1998 a foundation was created in her honor, and it still exists today to raise money to help identify and support gifted golf or tennis players who live in urban environments.

Lydia Estes PinkhamLydia Estes Pinkham (1819-1883)

  • Formulated an herbal supplement to help women with menstrual cramps
  • Offered help and advice to women re: health issues during an era when male doctors did not take women’s health issues seriously
  • First woman to become a household name through advertising

Lydia Estes Pinkham was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, the tenth of twelve children. The family was Quaker. They were ardent anti-slavery proponents and anti-segregationists; their home was a frequent meeting spot for those who were active in the abolition movement.

Her father started out as a shoemaker but did well in real estate so Lydia was able to attend the Lynn Academy, and she taught school before her marriage to Isaac Pinkham, a shoe manufacturer. They married in 1843.

Because there were so few medicines in that day, women commonly mixed up concoctions that they learned about from friends and neighbors, and Lydia Pinkham did so as well. By 1865 she was making a supplement that became known throughout the town for helping to ease “female complaints.” Her Vegetable Compound contained “unicorn root, life root, black cohash, pleurisy root, and fenu-greek seed" in a mixture that was 19-20 percent alcohol. This level of alcohol was stronger than beer or wine, but if taken as prescribed it would not have caused drunkenness. (Lydia was active in the temperance movement so she would not have intentionally created something that may have been occasionally mis-used.)

In that era, women would have been very uncomfortable describing “female complaints” to a male doctor. In addition, doctors often believed that relief from menstrual problems necessitated surgical intervention. Because the importance of sanitary conditions for surgery was unknown at that time, surgery was a high risk solution.
Women found the concoction helpful, and Pinkham was happy to provide it at no charge to friends and neighbors who approached her.

In 1873 the country’s economy took a sudden downturn, and many business owners were ruined, including Isaac Pinkham. He was arrested for indebtedness and while he seems to have stayed out of jail, the experience was enough to make it difficult for him to function as he was no longer able to help the family.

When women from Salem, Massachusetts arrived in Lynn to obtain Lydia’s Compound, her son Daniel suggested that the family should go into business. Lydia turned the cellar into a factory, her daughter and one son held jobs to bring in money to invest in the herbs and bottles for dispensing the compound, and the other two sons started making sales calls—one in Boston and the other in New York—in order to sell Mrs. Pinkhaam’s Vegetable Compound.

The first year did not go well, and the family was very discouraged. Daniel decided that they needed to make a last-ditch effort by placing an ad, though the advertisement would take all the money had. They also decided that their mother had to be front-and-center with the product. Lydia had her photograph taken, and it was used in the advertising and on all the product labels.

The gamble paid off and business picked up. As sales increased, Pinkham started hearing from customers with their health questions. Physicians of the day did not know much about women’s “issues” and women were discouraged from asking such questions, so Pinkham opened up communication that had not been there before. Pinkham believed in a good diet, moderate exercise, and the wearing of loose clothing (that was probably a bigger issue that modern women might guess), so Pinkham's replies to her customers were generally sound and helpful. Eventually many of the subjects were published by the company as Pinkham's Pamphlets.

Soon the business was grossing about $300,000 per year.
Several years later, the family encountered tragedy. Two of the sons died of tuberculosis, and Lydia had a stroke a year later, dying in 1883. This was only eight years after first selling her "vegetable compound."

The remaining family members kept the business going, and Mrs. Pinkham's Herbal Product is still sold as an herbal supplement. The product was somewhat reformulated after the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration in 1927.

Lydia Pinkham changed the lives of thousands of American women by drawing attention to serious female medical issues that were being neglected by mainstream medicine.

About The Author: 

Throughout the year, Kate Kelly offers remarkable, little-known stories of America and its citizens at www.AmericaComesAlive.com.  Be sure to check out the site for more of her profiles of extraordinary women, or , to receive additional newsletters, write her at kate@americacomesalive.com.

 

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