Caroline Ferriday: Humanitarian by Linda Harris Sittig

There were over 40,000 Nazi concentration camps and incarceration sites during the Holocaust, but only one main camp after 1939 was designated solely for female prisoners. That camp was Ravensbrȕck.

Built in 1938, near the village of Ravensbrȕck, Germany, approximately 50 miles north of Berlin, the camp swelled to 10,000 women in 1942, and by 1945 the figure was 50,000.

Although the women came from many countries, the majority hailed from Poland. They represented a variety of religions, but all were deemed as threats to the Third Reich.

There are no official records on how many women died in Ravensbrȕck, but the estimate is over 10,000. However, this camp was also the site of heinous medical experiments performed by Nazi doctors on otherwise, young healthy women.

Eighty Polish prisoners from Ravensbrȕck, all of them high school age Catholics, were chosen for experiments in which doctors would cut open their leg and then inject bacteria into the wound and wait to see if an infection occurred. Then the wound was injected with sulfa drugs to determine if the sulfa could conquer the infection.

In other experiments, healthy bones from the leg were removed to see if bone grafting elsewhere could take place. In the worst cases, amputations were carried out. Each girl had six different operations performed on her, all without painkillers. Many of the girls died as a result of the experiments, and those who survived were crippled for life. They were easy to identify in the camp because they hopped on crude crutches as a means of mobility. As such, their fellow prisoners gave them the tender nickname of The Rabbits.

When WWII ended, and the Russians liberated Ravensbrȕck in April 1945, Poland became a communist country, and the surviving crippled women returned home with their debilitating medical problems. Living in a communist country, however, did not entitle them to any post-war medical compensations.

One would think that there would have been a world outcry to help these Polish patriots. But Ravensbrȕck was one of the last camps freed and liberated by the Russians, not Americans. Combine that with the horror of the massive Jewish annihilation that had occurred, and the plight of the surviving 64 Polish-Catholic women did not make any headlines.

Enter now, Caroline Ferriday.

Caroline Ferriday was a former actress and New York socialite who had been sympathetic to all things French, including the French Resistance in WWII. It was through stories of the French Resistance that Caroline first heard the story of the Ravensbrȕck Rabbits.

In 1958, 13 years after the end of World War II, Ferriday decided she had to make the American public aware of their story. She first contacted war crimes prosecutor, Benjamin Ferentz. Next, she enlisted the help of Norman Cousins, the publisher of the Saturday Review who ran stories in his paper about the plight of the surviving Polish women.

Finally, Caroline was able to travel to Poland with an American doctor who examined each of the women and determined that 35 of them were healthy enough to travel to America and be re-operated on to correct the devastation of the Ravensbrȕck experiments.

Back in America, Caroline became a one-woman whirlwind to obtain the necessary funds for the women to travel and their expenses. She raised the equivalent in today’s financial market of $43,000. Many doctors volunteered to conduct the surgeries without payment.

In December 1958, the 35 Ravensbrȕck Rabbits arrived in New York City, passing the Statue of Liberty, and went to different hospitals in different states. They welcomed their ensuing surgeries; for many, it was the first time since Ravensbrȕck that their legs were not in constant throbbing pain.

Months later, before the women returned home to Poland, Caroline Ferriday hosted a farewell party for them at her home in Connecticut.

Whoever said that just one person can’t make a difference, never heard of Caroline Ferriday.

Caroline died in 1990 at the age of 87.

While I love writing about strong women, this particular blog was difficult because of the horrific details I encountered in the research. Anytime I am confronted with stories such as this one; I am stunned by the level of cruelty in humanity. But, I am also heartened by how one person truly can change the world.

Thank you to Teresa McCarty for pointing me in the direction of this story and to Martha Hall Kelly who wrote the novel, Lilac Girls, bringing depth to the story of the Ravensbrȕck Rabbits.

By most estimates, approximately 6 million Jews, and 5 million non-Jews were killed by the Nazi Regime during the Holocaust, 1933 – 1945. It is estimated that tens of thousands of people participated in the war crimes.

Thank you for supporting Strong Women in History. Please feel free to leave a comment and if you are not yet a follower, join up on the right side of the blog. The blog has readers from over 64 countries!

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Dorothy Harrison Eustis: Giving the Gift of Sight by Linda Harris Sittig

It took the generosity of one woman and the loyalty of one breed of dog to change life for thousands of visually impaired people.

Born into a wealthy Philadelphia family in 1886, Dorothy Harrison learned the importance of philanthropy from her parents. At twenty Dorothy married Walter Abbott Wood, Jr. and moved with him to Hoosick Falls, New York. There, they set up an experimental cattle farm. On a later trip to Europe, Dorothy discovered a German Shepherd who exhibited tremendous intelligence. She named the dog Hans and brought him back to New York. While Dorothy helped her husband on the cattle farm, Hans never left her side. She thought about the possibility of breeding other dogs like Hans, combining canine intelligence with loyalty.

Walter died in 1915 from complications of typhoid fever. Dorothy was twenty-nine and the mother of two young children, so she moved back to Philadelphia. She remained a widow for eight years and then married George Eustis, a professional polo player, who shared her love for dogs.

The couple decided to train dogs in earnest. They acquired a home in Switzerland belonging to a family member. The move gave them easy access to travel to Germany and observe a unique school which trained dogs to accompany German war veterans blinded by mustard gas.

Captivated by what she witnessed at the training school, Dorothy convinced George to help her set up a dog breeding operation in Switzerland, and she named it Fortunate Fields Kennel.

She became passionate about training her dogs to accompany visually impaired owners. In 1927 she wrote an article entitled “The Seeing Eye” about her kennel and sent it to the Saturday Evening Post in America.

Her mailbox soon become flooded with requests from all across America. One letter stood out. It was from Morris Frank, a young blind man from Nashville, Tennessee. He asked to be brought to Switzerland and go through the training with one of the dogs. He promised that he would bring the dog back to America and use his resources to set up a similar program in the U.S.

At Fortunate Fields, Dorothy paired Morris with a female German Shepherd named Kiss. Morris promptly renamed the dog, Buddy, and they soon became inseparable. Morris trained with Buddy for four months, under the supervision of a specialized animal trainer and Dorothy.

Morris returned to the states and began to seek out other blind individuals who could benefit from a guide dog. But Americans were skeptical. Morris contacted a few journalists and took Buddy to New York City. In full view of the newspapermen, Morris tried to cross busy Broadway. Buddy stopped him until the traffic noise had subsided, indicating that it was safe to venture into the street.

With that one act, Buddy made history, and Morris Frank began soliciting candidates for a guide dog. Two years later Dorothy moved back to the U.S., and she and Morris set up The Seeing Eye Foundation. Dorothy remained its president until 1940, generously supporting it financially and leaving a monetary legacy for its future.

The cost to obtain a guide dog and go through the three weeks of training in New Jersey has remained the same since the 1930s. The $150.00 fee also includes the equipment and airfare from anywhere in the U.S. or Canada. Military veterans pay $1.00. The Seeing Eye Foundation absorbs the remainder of the costs. No qualified person has ever been turned away because of a lack of funds.

Dorothy Harrison Eustis died in 1946 at the age of sixty, and Morris Frank died in 1980 at the age of seventy-two. He continued to use guide dogs his entire adult life, and named each one, Buddy, in honor of the first dog who brought him unprecedented freedom.

To date, 16,000 guide dogs have been matched with grateful owners.

Strong women often collaborate with strong men, and sometimes, strong dogs.

If you feel so inclined to make a donation to The Seeing Eye Foundation, check their website: www.seeingeye.org.

I hope you enjoyed reading about another Strong Woman. This month, the blog begins its seventh year with followers in over 65 countries!  Happy Birthday, Strong Women!

Please sign up on the right sidebar to become a follower and join the journey of discovering strong women who deserved to have their story told.

Linda ~

Cut From Strong Cloth, the novel about Ellen Canavan who tries to break the glass ceiling of the Philadelphia textile empire in 1861: www.amzn.com/1940553024.

Last Curtain Call, the novel about Annie Canavan who fights the ruthless coal company preying on the most vulnerable women of her village: www.amzn.com/1940553067.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rosie the Riveter and the Working Women of World War II by Linda Harris Sittig

 

Her lips are red, her hair tucked up in a red and white polka-dot bandana, and she clenches her fist in power.

Who was the real Rosie the Riveter of poster fame? Through the years there have been several women who believed they were the inspiration for the icon. One woman, Naomi Parker Fraley, photographed in 1942 working in a U.S. Naval machine shop, seems to have been the most likely candidate.

However, the important question is not who, but why the poster image has endured.

To answer that, we need to go back in history.

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Katherine Coleman Johnson: NASA Mathematician

I first wrote about Katherine Johnson in June 2015. Since then a movie, Hidden Figures, has debuted, telling the story of her work behind the scenes as an African-American female mathematician for NASA.

After viewing the film, I felt compelled to repost my June 2015 blog story.

The next time you look up at the night sky, smitten by the pale opalescence of the moon, I don’t want you to think of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, or Michael Collins, the astronauts of the historic Apollo 11 space flight that landed mankind on the moon. I want you to think of Katherine Coleman Johnson, the woman who calculated the trajectories necessary for the success of that historic flight.

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Margaret Getchell: First American Retail Executive by Linda Harris Sittig

Most of us have visited a department store, at least once. You may be the type of shopper who darts from one section to the next, hopping on the up/down escalator or squeezing into a crowded elevator in pursuit of the perfect purchase.

But, have you ever thought of the family behind a mega store? How did they build their business? Who worked behind the scenes to turn shoppers into loyal customers?

Margaret Getchell was not a likely candidate to become a driving force in the retail industry, let alone become the north star to a future world-class department store.

Born in 1843 on the remote island of Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts, Margaret forged her destiny by leaving home at the age of eighteen to accept a teaching position in Richmond, Virginia. When the Civil War broke out, her school closed. Soon after, she suffered an accident which left her permanently blind in her right eye.

Not knowing how she might support herself, Margaret decided to head back north. She arrived in New York City on a blustery day in 1862 and walked into a little-known dry goods store on 6th Avenue at 14th Street. When the owner appeared, she told him she was seeking employment and shared the story of her background. Then they talked about their common Yankee heritage.

The owner decided to take a chance. Since his store was cash and carry, the accuracy of money handling was paramount. He emphasized the importance of his employees being honest and trustworthy.

Margaret could have simply accepted the job offer. Instead, she told him how the accident had left her permanently blind in one eye and a glass-eye replica now replaced the disfigured one. Then she assured him her handicap would not affect her job performance. He offered her a cashier’s position.

Within a short period of time, it became apparent that Margaret had a natural flair for both numbers and discerning which stock brought in more customers. Sales soon doubled. When the Civil War ended, Margaret convinced the owner to upgrade his inventory from trimmings and lace, to include military-inspired fashions. They became instant sellers. Under her suggestions, the store also began to offer hat merchandise, apparel, and toiletry items. She became promoted, as the first female store superintendent.

One of Margaret’s most valuable assets was her keen understanding of how to both attract and keep customers. She convinced the owner to install a soda fountain to allow customers to quench their thirst, and then continue with their shopping. During the winter holiday season, she set up doll houses in the store’s front windows. Each doll house was lavishly decorated and people stopped outside to look at the display. Soon, crowds of window-shoppers found themselves entering the store to buy.

In March of 1866 Margaret met Abiel La Forge, a good-looking Civil War veteran and ambitious employee of a competing firm. When Abiel switched his employment to the store where Margaret worked, he also proposed marriage. Within a few years Abiel became a junior partner. Together, they made a successful retail team, although Margaret had to forfeit her salary, since she was now the wife of a junior partner.

Hmm. That tidbit makes absolutely no sense, but back in the day, this custom prevailed.

In 1878 Abiel suffered a series of fatal hemorrhaging attacks and Margaret found herself a widow at the age of 35.  She continued to work at the store, supervising all departments and providing marketing advice.

Two short years later she died of a pre-existing heart condition.

Today though, that fabulous store lives on. She did not live to see the move from 14th Street to 34th at Herald Square, or the magical Thanksgiving Day Parade.

However, she died with the knowledge that she had repaid the owner’s original kindness by helping his small dry goods enterprise transform into a world-class department store.

The owner who became her life-long friend was R.H. Macy.

Through the years other owners continued to enlarge Macy’s and enhance its merchandising aura. But, one strong woman, Margaret Getchell, helped to launch its initial success.

Happy New Year to this new blog site! If you notice a drop in the number of blog followers on the new sidebar, it is because WordPress does not include the additional 485 blog followers I have from Facebook and Twitter.

Please feel free to leave a suggestion for other strong women I could research. For 2017, become a regular follower by signing up on the right side-bar, and then pass the blog onto friends who also believe in the stories of strong women.

~ Linda ~

My “Threads of Courage” series: Cut From Strong Cloth and Last Curtain Call are available in print and Kindle, on Amazon.

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Annie Charbonneau by Linda Harris Sittig

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If you knew that a vigilante group would be convening on your small village tomorrow morning with the intent to wreak unspeakable violence against the men of your neighborhood, what would you do?

Would you warn your own family, but stay indoors? Or would you galvanize the neighboring women to form a resistance group that would allow your men to get to their jobs before the mob struck?

During the Western Maryland Coal Strike of 1894, approximately twenty women from the town of Eckhart Mines did indeed form a group and face a vigilante mob coming after the non-striking miners. Journalists from the Baltimore Sun wrote about the strike and the women, but their identities were never named in print.

In the five years of writing this blog, I have come to vicariously know many strong females. Because the story of the Eckhart women touched me personally, I  chose to profile their story through a fictional character I named Annie Charbonneau, basing her on one of the residents of the village. As I researched the historical background to the Western Maryland coal strikes, the novel of Last Curtain Call was born.

Coal was once king in America. There are two basic types: anthracite and bituminous. Anthracite coal is shiny black, hard, and relatively clean burning. It is only found in six counties in eastern Pennsylvania. Bituminous coal is found throughout Appalachia and areas west of the Allegheny Mountains. It is a softer dull color and more prone to soot, but makes for excellent fuel. Bituminous coal powered the Titanic.

In 1894 many coal companies throughout America lowered miners’ pay from fifty cents a ton dug, to forty cents. You might not think a dime is a big difference, but in 1894 when a strong miner could dig four tons a day, by hand, a reduction of ten cents a ton equaled a loss of $8.00 a month. Stiff, when you consider that his company-owned house cost him $4.00 a month to rent, and he had to pay $1.00 a month to the coal company doctor, and an additional daily fee to have his tools sharpened. Yes, a deficit of $8.00 was significant.

The United Mine Workers was a fledgling union in 1894 and decided to go for a nation-wide strike. In the Georges Creek area of Western Maryland, approximately twenty mines agreed to go on strike and three mining villages voted against the strike. As the strike progressed, the violence against the non-striking miners escalated. When news of a vigilante horde forming reached Eckhart Mines, twenty women banded together to face the mob.

My character, Annie Charbonneau, wanted to stop working in her father’s bakery, graduate from high school, and then go on to college. But she found herself thrust instead into a personal battle against the ruthless coal company, and their practice of preying on the most vulnerable women of her village. Unaware that her actions would bring the evil to her own front door, Annie became caught in a web where a vengeance-seeking enemy wanted to silence her.

Readers who followed the Canavan family from Book 1, Cut From Strong Cloth, in the “Threads of Courage” series, will be pleased to learn that Magdalena Canavan’s children, Jonathan and Josie, continue the story. They find themselves in Western Maryland on the cusp of the big strike and soon become entwined in Annie Charbonneau’s life.

Last Curtain Call is based upon both the historical details of the time and the actual families who lived through the strike, although I changed the name of the village to Porters Glen. I can only hope that the real Annie Charbonneau, whoever she might have been, is smiling at her late, but, well-deserved recognition.

Last Curtain Call can now be ordered from Amazon, just in time for Christmas delivery. Highlight and Click here: www.amzn.com/1940553067.

Please share Annie’s story with a friend, because all women deserve to have their story told. Happy holidays!

~Linda~

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Forthcoming ~

Please stay tuned… another strong woman will be debuting in mid-December!

 

 

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Mary Edwards Walker:One of a Kind

top-hat-1767535__180Which prestigious award has been issued to 3,514 men, but only 1 woman?

That would be the Medal of Honor, bestowed upon service personnel for gallantry in action during wartime.

Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, the medal was intended to honor sailors and soldiers who had gone beyond the call of duty, distinguishing themselves with heroic actions during combat.

Thirty-two years before, Mary Edwards Walker was born in 1832 in Oswego, New York, to ‘free thinking’ abolitionist parents who encouraged her from an early age to pursue a higher education. After graduating from the Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York, Mary began to teach, but only as a means of earning money so she could enroll in medical school. By 1855, at the age of 23, Mary graduated from the Syracuse Medical College as one of the few women physicians in America. She had been the only female in her class.

Mary established herself in private practice, and married another doctor, Albert Miller. However, the marriage did not last and since Mary had insisted upon retaining her maiden name, she was still known simply as Mary Walker.

The Civil War broke out in 1861 and Mary traveled to Washington D.C. with the intention of joining the U.S. Army as a doctor. She was rejected on the basis of her sex. Undaunted, she volunteered to serve as a surgeon. Rejected again, she offered to act as a nurse, and was sent to the field hospitals for several battles in Virginia.

In 1863 she traveled to Tennessee, coinciding with the death of the one and only surgeon of the Army of the Cumberland. By default, Mary was appointed the rank of assistant surgeon, which officially made her the first female physician of the Civil War and the U.S. Army.

As the war dragged on, Mary appeared near the Union front lines at battlefield after battlefield and began to draw attention to herself. After the infamous Battle of Chickamauga in northwest Georgia, the Union casualties streamed into Chattanooga, Tennessee only to find that the ‘doctor’ who would be treating them was in fact a woman. Mary made herself easy to find in the makeshift hospitals by often wearing a straw hat with a tall ostrich feather sticking out of it.

Obviously, not a shrinking violet.

Captured by the Confederates in 1864, Mary was sent to Castle Thunder Prison near Richmond, Virginia, where disease was rampant and food continuously spoiled. After four months of incarceration, she was released in a prisoner exchange for a Confederate officer; but her health had been adversely affected during her captivity. Still, she went right back to the battlegrounds, tending the sick and dying.

In 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded Mary the Medal of Honor “due to her devotion of patriotic zeal to tend sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and for having endured hardships as a prisoner of war.”

After the war was over, Mary continued to practice medicine, wrote two books, and went on the lecture circuit advocating for dress reform and equal rights for women. To make her point, she often wore a man’s black top hat as her signature expression for the need of equality.

In an effort to make the Medal of Honor more prestigious, the Medal of Honor Board rewrote the criteria in 1917 so that only military personnel who had actually engaged in combat would be eligible. Mary received a letter explaining that she had to return her medal.

She refused.

Until her death two years later at the age of 86, Mary wore her Medal of Honor every day. Had she lived but one year more, she would have witnessed the ratification of 19th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, awarding American women the right to vote.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter restored Mary Walker’s name to the list of recipients of the Medal of Honor.

To this day, in spite of the fact there are 2 million American female veterans, Mary Walker is still the only woman to have been given the Medal of Honor.

Thank you to Joan Whitener for telling me about this strong woman. If you have a woman you would like me to research, someone from the past who lived her life with conviction and passion, please respond in the comments box at the end of this page. I am always delighted to find more stories about little known women who helped make this world a better place.

Please make sure you vote on November 8th, and in the meantime, you can catch me on Twitter @lhsittig, my website at www.lindasittig.com, or on Amazon where my debut novel, Cut From Strong Cloth is still receiving 5 star reviews! That link is www.amzn.com/1940553024.

If you are not a regular follower of this blog, please sign up on the right-hand sidebar. If you are a regular follower, pass this blog onto a friend who also believes in strong women.

~ Linda ~

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Mildred Jeter:Marriage Advocate by Linda Harris Sittig

 

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One evening in 1950, seventeen-year-old Richard Loving decided to walk several miles through the isolated back country of Caroline County, Virginia. His destination was a well-known farmhouse where the Jeter Brothers would be playing bluegrass.

When he arrived, he found the place packed with other music lovers; but, his eyes locked in on one particular girl. Asking around, he found out she was the Jeters’ younger sister. Tall, willowy, and seemingly shy, Mildred Jeter made an indelible impression on him.

The months went by and Richard continued to visit the farmhouse, to listen to the music and to get to know the younger sister.

Mildred Jeter was only eleven, six years younger than Richard. This, however did not stop him from beginning a courtship that lasted for the next eight years.

Two months shy of her nineteenth birthday, Mildred became pregnant. Without any hesitation, Richard asked her to marry him.

The story could have just ended there with the couple living happily ever after.

But, Mildred Jeter was black and Richard Loving was white. In 1958, it was illegal within the state of Virginia for people classified as white to marry anyone classified as colored.

Richard and Mildred drove instead to Washington D.C., where they wed. They carried their coveted marriage license back to Caroline County and settled into their new role as husband and wife.

Five weeks into their marriage they were awakened in the middle of the night by the county sheriff and two deputies who broke into their home, burst into their bedroom, and shined flashlights in their faces. “What are you doing with this women?” the sheriff supposedly barked.

“I’m his wife,” Mildred calmly replied. Richard pointed to the marriage certificate hanging on the wall. “That’s no good here,” was the sheriff’s terse reply.

The couple was hauled off to jail and arrested. Richard was released the next morning, but Mildred stayed behind bars for several additional days. Eventually, the couple pleaded guilty to having broken the Virginia anti-miscegenation law. In court, the judge sentenced them each to a full year in prison, then suspended the sentence if they agreed to leave Virginia, and not return for 25 years.

Richard and Mildred packed their belongings and moved out of state.

The Loving’s settled into a blue-collar life in Washington D.C. and started to raise their children there. However, Mildred missed her family and the peacefulness of a rural lifestyle. When their young son was hit by a car in 1963, Mildred decided it was time for them to go home.

Knowing they would be arrested as soon as they stepped foot back in Caroline County, Mildred wrote to Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, stating their cause and asking for help. Bobby Kennedy promptly referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union, who took up the case.

Their case dragged on for years. First, their lawyers attempted to have the original judge set aside his previous verdict. He refused. The next step was to take the case to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals; that court upheld the lower court. With nothing to lose, Mildred and Richard’s lawyers proceeded to file an appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court was made up of six white male judges, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously decided in favor of Loving v. Virginia, declaring that all anti-miscegenation laws across the country violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It was a landmark legal decision. For Richard and Mildred, it meant they could finally live together in peace, and they returned to Caroline County. Unfortunately, Richard was killed by a drunk driver in 1975. Mildred continued to live in Virginia, a quiet, unassuming life.

What makes this story even more interesting is that Mildred Jeter was multi-racial. Her ancestry included Caucasian, Native American, and African heritage. But in the 1950s, any Negro ancestry meant that your ethnicity was considered to be black, and the Virginia law specifically forbid persons of ‘color’ to marry a white person. Persons of color, however, only referred to Negros. The Virginia anti-miscegenation statute had been on the books since 1662, but, did not include Native Americans. This was due to Virginia being settled by one John Rolfe, who in addition to introducing tobacco into the Jamestown settlement (making the community financially stable), also married an Indian princess, Pocahontas. Being descended from that illustrious union was considered prestigious and therefore the anti-miscegenation law did not apply to whites marrying Native Americans.

Mildred Jeter Loving stood up for her belief that marriage was a God given right, for everyone. When asked about how it felt to be a Civil Rights Activist, she replied, “I didn’t set out to be an activist, I only wanted to come home and be a married woman.”

If you enjoyed this month’s blog and would like to read more fascinating stories about strong women, just sign up on the right side-bar to become a follower. StrongWomenInHistory has followers in over 64 countries. If you have a strong woman to nominate, someone who lived her life to make this a better world, and deserves recognition, please send me her name in the comments section. I will research her.

Until next month’s post, you can catch me on Twitter: @lhsittig, my web page: www.lindasittig.com, or take a look at my strong woman novel on Amazon: www.amzn.com/1940553024.

~ Linda ~

 

 

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Helen, Elvira, Marie, Filleaul, Charlotte, Margaret, and Alice: Gold Medal Winners by Linda Harris Sittig

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A young woman enters the pool arena, takes off her towel, and shakes her hands in an effort to calm her nerves.

When the announcer calls, she mounts the diving board and serenely walks to the front edge. One deep breath and then she catapults herself into space, tucking her body into not just one, but three forward somersaults before straightening out and diving into the blue waters of the pool—her body making a perfect entrance with no hint of a splash.

This girl is a modern Olympian, participating in a competition that dates back to 776 B.C. when the first Olympic Game was held in Olympia, Greece, to honor Zeus, the father of all Greek gods and goddesses.

The rules were different in the ancient Olympics. All the participating athletes had to be Greek citizens and could hail from every corner of the Greek empire, stretching from Iberia (modern day Spain) to the Black Sea (modern day Turkey). Athletes had to appear one month in advance of the games, in order to train, and attest that they had been practicing for the previous 10 months.

The games were always held at the first full moon after the summer solstice (approximately middle of July) and during the games a sacred truce was declared. No individual Greek city-state could start a war and no arms could be carried in the vicinity of Olympia.

And of course, the competition was open only to men.

In the beginning, the Olympiad lasted for one day and contained only one event—the stadion foot race of 600 feet. As the years progressed, the games added more events and stretched over a three-day, then five-day period. The agenda eventually grew to 18 events.

All contestants competed in the nude, perhaps to prevent clothing from slowing them down.

The ancient games included running, long jump, shot put, javelin, boxing, pankration (similar to martial arts), and equestrian events. For 12 centuries athletes walked through a special portal to enter the stadium for the main events, and the hippodrome for the equestrian races.

Events were not timed. You simply won if you beat out all the other competitors. Winners stood before a cheering crowd, estimated to be as many as 45,000 spectators sitting on the embankments around the stadium. The illustrious olive wreath was bestowed as a symbol of excellence. If an athlete broke a rule during the competition, he was then excluded from all future Olympiads.

And so the Olympics progressed for over a thousand years until in 393 C.E. when Emperor Theodosius decreed that all cult practices, including the Olympiads, be abolished.

Fast forward to 1894, Baron Pierre de Coubertin concocted the idea of re-inventing the Olympic Games. His intention was to have the modern games hosted in Paris, and he founded the International Olympic Committee. The countries that were invited, however, all voted to have the new games debut in Athens, Greece.

In 1896, after a hiatus of 1,179 years, the Olympics returned.

Women were still not allowed to participate on the grounds that they would overdevelop their muscles and prove to be uninteresting.

Ahem.

Four years later when the next round of Olympiads was scheduled to occur in Paris, France, at the 1900 World’s Fair, women athletes had won the privilege of competing.

The gold medals for women in the 1900 games went to the following:

Helen de Pourtales, Switzerland, part of the sailing team. She was 32 years old.

Elvira Geurra, Italy, competed in the equestrian events. She was 45.

Marie Ohner and Filleaul Brohy, France, competed together in croquet.

Charlotte Cooper, Great Britain, was the first woman to win in an individual event; tennis. She was 35.

Margaret Abbott, United States, won as part of the golf team. She was 23.

It would take another thirty-six years before African-American female athletes were allowed to represent the United States during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.Then, in 1948, Alice Marie Coachman, at the age of 25, became the first African-American female athlete to be awarded a gold medal during the Olympics. She won in London for the high jump.

These women made Olympic history, not just by participating and/or  winning gold medals, but by being role models for all future female athletes.

Today, every participating country sends women athletes to the Olympics and more than 40 percent of all contestants are female.

Allyson Hopkins, thank you for asking how women became involved in the Olympics.

Thank you, readers, for supporting Strong Women in History. Please pass my blog onto friends and encourage them to become followers.

Catch me on Twitter @LHSittig or my website LINDASITTIG.COM. Want to learn about my favorite strong woman? Go to www.amzn.com/1940553024 for my novel, Cut From Strong Cloth.

Do you have a woman to nominate for Strong Women in History? Please leave me your information in the comments section of this blog.

~ Linda ~

 

 

 

 

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