Dorothy Height: Carrying on the Dream by Linda Harris Sittig

If you look at the 1963 press photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., you might notice a woman standing off to his left. She is one of the few women on the platform with him. Her name is Dorothy Height.

Known for being an activist and educator, Dorothy Height dedicated her life to campaigning for racial and gender equality for all women, and African-American women in particular. Dorothy became a legend in her own time.

Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1912, Dorothy’s parents moved when she was five years old to a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This event enabled Dorothy to attend racially integrated schools. Gifted with a talent for oratory, she become socially and politically active by her high school years. With encouragement from her parents and teachers, she entered numerous oratorical competitions. In her senior year, she won an Elks sponsored oratory on the national level.

With this national recognition, came a $1,000 stipend to attend Barnard College in New York. However, before Dorothy arrived for admission, the college informed her that they had already filled their yearly quota for a few black students. Undeterred, she applied instead to New York University in Manhattan and earned an undergraduate degree in education, combined with a Master’s Degree in Psychology in 1932.

After college, she became a caseworker for the New York Department of Welfare, where she saw first-hand the struggles of women trying to gain support for their families. During her time with the Welfare Department, she met Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder, and president of the National Council of Negro Women. Bethune became her mentor, and the two women remained friends for over eighteen years until Bethune’s death.

Following her work with the Welfare Department, Dorothy joined the staff of the YWCA in Harlem, New York. There, she worked tirelessly to integrate YWCA facilities.

I am embarrassed to admit that I never even knew the Y was segregated.

In 1946 when she was the National Interracial Education Secretary for the National YWCA, the organization finally did integrate all its facilities.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Dorothy never wavered in her quest for social justice and worked with every major civil rights leader of the period, even though the press largely ignored her.  In 1955 she became the fourth president of the National Council of Negro Women and held that position for forty years. In 1965, Dorothy became the first director of the YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice, a position she held until her retirement from the organization in 1977.

And, back in 1963, she helped to organize the March on Washington, which is why she was present on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, facing a crowd of 250,000 people, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dorothy Height was a remarkable woman in that she never gave up her dream of helping other women. She shared her goals with American Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson, and she discussed her views with other action-oriented women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan.

Dorothy Height died at the age of 90 in Washington D.C., after having been bestowed with multiple honors, including prestigious awards from Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

A recipient of both the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Dorothy was hailed by President Barack Obama as the ‘godmother of the Civil Rights Movement.’ Today there is a U.S. Postal Stamp issued in her honor.

Look at the stamp, and you will see compassion etched on her face and evidence of her love of hats.

Dorothy Height, a strong woman worthy of remembrance. Thank you to Jackson Blumenthal who asked me if I knew about Dorothy Height. That question led to this month’s blog.


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Ruth Pfau: Humanitarian by Linda Harris Sittig

My first introduction to leprosy was from the movie, The Hawaiians, based on Michener’s epic novel. In particular, I remember when the Chinese character, Mun Ki, was sent for lifelong exile to the leper colony on Molokai; and his wife valiantly went along to take care of him.

I watched in horror as the scenes on Molokai unfolded to show a hellish life for the lepers who lived as outcasts, more of an animal existence than human, completely isolated from the rest of the world.

Leprosy, medically known as Hansen’s disease, dates back to biblical times with the first recorded account appearing on Egyptian papyrus in 1550 B.C.

Although today we know that a bacterial infection causes the disease, for most of recorded history, contracting leprosy equated to punishment for sins. Lepers were the virtual outcasts in all societies.

It is easy to understand the fear felt by non-lepers when the sick patient eventually became covered with lesions all over the body, failing eyesight, disfigurement to the face, hands, and feet. The first instinct was to segregate these victims so the disease would not spread.

In 1873, Dr. Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen of Norway identified the germ that causes the infection. It would take another one hundred years before the creation of successful drugs brought healing from the disease. Before that, all lepers were shunned, regardless of age, and left to fend on their own.

Many people are familiar with the priest Father Damien, who went to live on the leper colony in Hawaii and minister to the poor souls. He devoted his life to helping the victims of leprosy deal with their disease and brought not only spiritual comfort but advocated for their physical needs as well.

But few people are familiar with Dr. Ruth Pfau.

Ruth was born in 1929 in Leipzig, Germany. In her teens, her family home was destroyed by bombers from WWII, and after the war ended Leipzig fell to Soviet occupation. Her family escaped from East Germany to West Germany, and by 1950 Ruth decided to study medicine at the University of Mainz.

While at the university she felt called by God to become a Catholic. She converted to Catholicism in 1953 and four years later joined the order of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary. In 1960 the Order sent her to India, but a problem with her visa derailed her in Karachi, Pakistan. Waiting for the visa problem to be resolved, she decided to visit a leprosy colony and see if she could be of any assistance.

That visit became the turning point in her life.

Rats and other rodents overran the so-called hospital strewn with garbage and human waste. As a young boy crawled on his hands and knees through the filth to speak to her, Ruth was appalled that humans would be forced to live in these conditions.

She decided then and there that God had brought her to Pakistan to help the lepers.

For the next several years, and for the rest of her life, Ruth worked tirelessly to change the horrid facility into a center of healing. She went out into the Pakistani neighborhoods and rescued children whose leprosy had forced them to live in caves or cattle-pens.

Writing home to advance her pleas for needed medical supplies, Ruth obtained money from various German donors. She used the finances to attract other doctors who would help her and procure the drugs needed to help the lepers of Pakistan.

Ruth never retired. In 2017, she died at age 88, due to a respiratory ailment. Her state funeral was attended by both Muslims and Christians.

Today, in the country of Pakistan, leprosy is officially in submission. I can only surmise that Ruth Pfau is smiling.

If you enjoyed this month’s story of a strong woman, subscribe to the blog by signing up on the right sidebar. You will be joining followers from over 64 countries. My goal for 2018 is 1,000 followers! Please also feel free to forward the blog to a friend. You can catch me on Twitter @LHSittig or my webpage For my novels on strong women, go to Amazon: Cut From Strong Cloth and Last Curtain Call. I am currently at work researching my third novel, taking place in New York City in 1918 amid the Garment Industry scandals.

Wishing you all the best in 2018!





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Laura Stockton Starcher and the Ladies of Umatilla by Linda Harris Sittig

It was a calm morning for Election Day, December 5, 1916, in the small Oregon town of Umatilla, population 198. Nestled on the southern bank of the Columbia River, Umatilla was a place where everyone knew everyone else. No one expected a huge voter turnout that day since the same men had held the same town office positions for several years. Voting was not an imperative priority.

The polls opened at 8:00 am, and throughout the morning men sauntered in to vote. No one had even bothered to order any ballots because you simply wrote the name of the person you were voting for on a slip of paper and dropped it in the poll box.

Although the state of Oregon had given women the right to vote four years earlier, no women showed up at the polls during the morning. There were presumably at home, cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry.

But then, around 2:00 pm or so, the women did come to the polls, a large group of women and they wrote in who they wanted to see in office. Unbeknownst to the men of the town, the women planned to write themselves into office.

Laura Stockton Starcher, who headed this effort, voted for herself to become Mayor of Umatilla. All the other women voted for her, too. Then the group proceeded to cast votes for Gladys Spinning, Anna Means, Florence Brownell, and Stella Paulu to take positions on the town council and Lola Merrick to become the town treasurer and Bertha Cherry the recorder.

No one was more surprised at the outcome than the current Mayor – Mr. E. E. Starcher, Laura Starcher’s husband. All seven women garnered enough votes to be formally elected to office, and only two men retained their seats on the council.

The mayor demanded a recount, but the results were still the same: the women had received the majority of the votes.

At first, the election made humorous news throughout the nation, being referred to by journalists as the “Petticoat Government.” The women were now officially elected council members, but the press resorted to naming them in print by their married initials. The new mayor, Laura Starcher, was listed as Mrs. E.E. Starcher. Nonetheless, the women soon proved that they were completely serious about their newly elected positions and took on town-wide projects previously neglected.

Within a month, the Petticoat Government paid the outstanding balance of the town’s electric bill and installed 16 new street lights. Within four years, the town saw many improvements. Updated water and electrical services, street and sidewalk repairs, new railroad crossing signs, the beginning of a town library and monthly garbage collection, were just a few of the initiatives. The council also inaugurated an additional position—that of a city health inspector, which was of utmost importance during the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918.

Laura Jane Stockton Starcher had moved to Umatilla in 1912. She was dainty in stature but robust in character. Few of her neighbors would have predicted how Laura would change the town.

First at weekly card parties, just talking about the possibility of women running for town council seats, to a full-fledged plan on how to write in the votes, Laura proved that women’s ideas should not be taken as frivolous.

Four years later, in the 1920 town election, the town council reverted to all men. But the ladies of Umatilla had proven a point—women could govern just as well as men, sometimes even better.

Thank you to Allyson Hopkins and Dee Taplin who both wrote to me suggesting I look into Laura Stockton Starcher as a candidate for a strong woman.

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Happy Holidays to all!



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Moina Belle Michael: Champion of Veterans: by Linda Harris Sittig

If you’ve ever worn a red paper poppy in support of Memorial Day or Veterans Day, you can thank Moina Belle Michael. Her tireless efforts of bringing recognition to the plight of disabled veterans is symbolized with the poppy.

Born on a farm near Good Hope, Georgia, on August 15, 1869, Moina was raised by religious parents who valued education. She attended boarding school, and then just months shy of her sixteenth birthday, returned home to take the position of the local community teacher.

When the farm could no longer bring in a profit, she moved the family into town and paid for their rental housing with her teacher’s pay. She remained an educator for the next fifty years, teaching from elementary age all the way to college, and always on Georgia soil.

During the summer of 1914, Moina joined a tour group visiting Europe. While the group was in Germany, that country declared war against Russia. The Americans found themselves as stranded tourists swept up a difficult situation. They finally landed in Rome, Italy, seeking safe passage back to the United States.

Once home on American soil, Moina continued her teaching at the Normal School in Athens, Georgia. (Normal School was the title for schools of higher education training students to become teachers).

But then on April 6, 1917, America entered the Great War, sending thousands of young soldiers to fight in Europe. Moina decided to help the war effort and enlist, but she was rejected due to her age – forty-seven. Instead, she volunteered for the YMCA War Workers and reported to the training headquarters in New York City.

While in New York, she read an issue of the Ladies Home Journal reprinting a poem entitled “In Flanders Field” by a Canadian doctor, John McCrae. He had penned the following excerpted lines after losing his best friend on a battle field in Flanders, Belgium. Dr. McCrae had stood on the grounds where his comrades had fallen and saw that the fields were blooming with vibrant red poppies.

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders Fields.”

Moina was so touched by the poem that she desired to create a national symbol of remembrance for the fallen soldiers.

She decided to wear a red poppy.

Quite soon her co-workers asked if they too could wear a poppy, and thus began Moina’s new life work. Hunting through the shops of New York City, she found a merchant who would sell her all his paper poppies.

When the Great War ended on November 11, 1918, the day was declared as Remembrance Day or Veterans Day in honor of all the men and women who had lost their lives fighting for freedom.

Simply wearing the poppies was not enough. Moina decided she could best help the veterans who returned home, injured for life, by having them mass produce red paper poppies and sell the flowers for Remembrance Day and Memorial Day. All proceeds would go back to the veterans for costs of their rehabilitation.

Her idea of red poppies for remembrance quickly spread to Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand.

When she died at age 75, in 1944, over $200 million dollars had been raised for the care and rehabilitation of disabled veterans.

Approximately one million soldiers were wounded, missing, or killed in the Great War, also known as World War I, but their legacy lives on through the efforts of one strong woman – Moina Belle Michael. Today, the wearing of a red poppy on Veterans Day or Memorial Day is used in recognition of all the service people killed in a war.

If you wish to wear a crepe-paper poppy this Veterans Day, contact your local American Legion post, and make a donation. The ladies of the American Legion Auxiliary sell the poppies. Then give a nod to Moina Belle Michael.

I hope you enjoyed this month’s story of a not-so-famous strong woman. If you are not yet a follower, please do so on the right side bar. You can catch more stories of strong women in my two novels, Cut From Strong Cloth, and Last Curtain Call, both available on Amazon.


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Mary Louisa Black: Chronicler of Pioneer Movement by Linda Harris Sittig

As a youngster, I was fascinated by the stories I read of the Oregon Trail. Now, I know those stories were only made possible by the efforts of women like Mary Louisa Black.

Mary Louisa kept a meticulous journal of her trek west, at times following the Oregon Trail. In 1865, she left Missouri with her husband and three children and eventually travelled through what today would be Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.

Her diary, and the diaries of other frontier women, give future generations the ability to read first-hand accounts of brave pioneers who walked away from their eastern homes, knowing they would never see their birth families again.

What led people west?

In the 1840s gold was discovered in California. Also starting in the 1840s, various religious groups, like the Mormons, sought land where they could live in peace. In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. This gave any adult 160 acres to claim and farm west of the Missouri River, if they successfully worked the land for five years.

By the turn of the twentieth century, 400,000 American pioneers would make their way west.

The cost of a wagon, supplies, animals, and provisions for a family of four would be $1200. That is the equivalent of $39,000 today. People sold off their possessions to gain the money needed for the trip.

And the trip was not easy. The mortality rate was one in four. Although sickness, Indian attacks, and accidents contributed to the death rate, cholera was the main killer. We think of cholera as occurring in dense populations, but it spreads through contaminated water. There is little documentation of the wagon trains boiling the river water they drank freely along the trail. However, many journals attest to widespread diarrhea. Considering the vast numbers of stock animals that defecated and urinated in the rivers, it seems plausible the water was highly toxic.

Like the wagon train shepherding Mary Louisa and her family, there were approximately 100 wagons in each train that left from Independence, Missouri. The departure date was April 15th, to guarantee passage over the western mountains prior to October 1st, when blizzards could become a deadly consequence.

The pioneers were told to expect the journey of 2,000 miles to take five and a half months –  all of it on foot.

But wait, if they had wagons, why would anyone walk 2,000 miles? The wagons were small Studebaker wagons, not the large freight-only Conestoga’s popularized by Hollywood. The four-wheel wagons, or two-wheel hand carts, were crammed with everything the family owned, and without springs, the wagon bed lay directly over the axles. This meant that riding in the wagon was a noisy, bumpy, jostling ride. Walking was easier.

So, they walked the entire journey; men, women, children, the elderly, and the stock animals. On a good day on the prairie, the trains could average 20 miles, going 2 miles an hour. Yep, that’s a 10-hour day. At night, the travelers slept out under the stars, weather permitting, or bundled under their wagon for cover.

Here are some of the more telling details from Mary Louisa’s diary.

By early June the wagon train reached Colorado under brilliant blue skies, but where they find the remains of a settlement sacked by Indians. By late June the train encountered other Indians and traded with them. Grass on the prairie was waist high and the stock became well fed.

However, as they camp alongside the rivers and drink the water, almost everyone in the train comes down with forceful diarrhea. The remedy is to take laudanum (opium).

In July, the mosquitoes swarms in Wyoming are so thick that the pioneers continuously swat the insects away from the horses, mile after mile, after mile. Wagons break down, some stock animals drown while crossing the Laramie River and two women give birth. None of the newborns survive.

By August the diarrhea is so pervasive that the women need to sew new clothes for everyone. As wagons climb up into the mountains, the grass becomes scarce and the pioneers resort to feeding the livestock the grain reserved for emergency food.

In Idaho, the river water is green in color. They drink it anyway. Everyone gets sick, again. Arriving at a settlement, Mary Louisa trades her feathered mattress for a sack of flour. Food supplies are diminishing. She is thankful for the fish they catch in the Snake River.

By late August the heat in Idaho is heavy, dust infiltrates everything, and Mary Louisa now has a decayed tooth that needs to be pulled. Fortunately, there is a doctor on their wagon train. By early September they are eating the oats intended for the stock animals.

On September 29th they arrive at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. They have walked 2,000 miles in five and a half months, buried loved ones, suffered hunger and disease, and have traded precious possessions for food. But they have survived.

Mary Louisa Black is thirty years old. She puts her journal in her trunk, presumably to share with her children when they are older.

Hats off to strong women like Mary Louise who walked with their families, side by side, on the trails west and chronicled such an important part of American history.

Little did I know at age nine, I would one day walk a very small portion of the Oregon Trail and stand on the same soil that Mary Louise Black trod one hundred fifty-two years before me.

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Grace Fryer: Workers’ Advocate by Linda Harris Sittig


I sat in the dentist chair while the technician placed a heavy leaden blanket from my chin to my waist. Then, she walked into another room, and the X-ray machine took pictures of my teeth.

Grace Fryer never had that luxury.

At eighteen, Grace took a job at the United States Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey. America had just entered WWI (1917), and Grace wanted to help her family financially since her two military brothers were going overseas.

There were other factories near her home, but the USRC paid three times the going wage. And, Grace was the perfect candidate – she was young and had small hands.

The USRC made watches with the new element of radium to illuminate the dial faces. Discovered less than twenty years before by Marie Curie, the exact danger of radium was not completely understood.

Grace worked side by side with other girls. They obediently followed the painting technique. First, they moistened the tip of the paint bristles in their mouth. Then, they dipped the brush into the glowing green paint. Finally, they hunched over their workspaces and carefully painted the dials.

They repeated this procedure of lip, dip, and paint, over and over. By day’s end, they each painted 250 dials. In the process, they swallowed a bit of the radium paint each time they placed the paintbrush in their mouth.

At first, the girls were excited because, in addition to the high pay, their teeth took on a glow that gave them a dazzling smile. None of them realized they were slowly succumbing to radiation poisoning – all for $3.75 in daily wages.

Questions were initially raised by the girls, as to the safety of the procedure. The managers assured them that it was not dangerous and they shouldn’t worry.

However, the male chemists in the factory all wore masks and lead aprons and handled the radium with tongs.


Four years later, one of Grace’s friends, Molly Maggia became so sick she had to quit her job at USRC. At first, it seemed she needed only to have a tooth pulled. But soon after, an agonizing ulcer appeared on her gums, seeping blood and pus.

Next, Molly’s limbs began to ache so severely she was unable to walk. Baffled, the local doctor had never seen anything like it. Within months, Molly lost all her teeth, and the ulcers had spread to her lower jaw and roof of her mouth. Eventually, her lower jaw was removed.

Grace must have watched in horror as her friend deteriorated. Molly died several months later when the infection spread to her throat and ate its way through her jugular vein. She was twenty-four years old.

After Molly’s death, other factory girls developed the strange infection; including Grace Fryer.

Residents questioned about the number of female workers falling sick. For two years the USRC denied any connection between the girls’ deaths and the workplace.

As deaths increased, an independent firm was hired to investigate. When the horrifying results were made clear, the USRC refused to accept the findings and had the report hushed. After two more years, doctors were consulted. The announcement came that the workers had ingested radium which had honeycombed itself throughout their bones.

Grace had her spine collapse; another girl had her jaw eaten away. Several girls had spontaneous fractures of their legs.

Once the doctors pinpointed the radium as the poisoning agent, then they had to acknowledge to the girls that nothing could be done to save them. One by one, the girls died horrible deaths.

Grace, however, survived, and she began a campaign to have the USRC acknowledge that the girls were due medical compensation. Discovering that there were other radium factories in the U.S., Grace decided that she, and the other surviving girls at USRC, needed to bring awareness about their radium poisoning to the American public.

In New Jersey, however, there was a statute of limitations. Victims of occupational poisoning only had two years to bring a law suit. Unfortunately, the radium poisoning was not evident until five years after being ingested, so the USRC skated clear of all accusations.

Grace, determined, fought on. With the help of her father, she found a lawyer. Although the girls eventually settled out of court, they made America aware of the travesty.

As newspaper headlines raged across America about radium poisoning, factory girls at other radium firms realized the danger of their jobs and began to seek legal counsel. The radium firms denied any culpability, even when their female dial painters showed acute signs of radium poisoning. The firms insisted the girls were dying of syphilis since this announcement would smear their reputations and hopefully dissuade other workers from filing any suits.

By 1928, radium girls from three prominent factories in Orange, NJ, Ottawa, IL, and Waterbury, CT were suing the radium firms. Many of these girls had huge cancerous bone tumors that had grown all over their bodies and were too ill to testify in court. However, in each lawsuit, the judges found the companies culpable.

Thanks to Grace Fryer and her fellow Radium Girls, the right of individual workers to sue their employers for labor abuse was established. Today, we have OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration to ensure the protection of labor rights.

Grace died five years after the lawsuits. She was only 34 years old. The cause was complications from radium poisoning. If we exhumed her skeleton today, the bones would still have radium embedded in them, because radium has a half-life of 1,600 years.

Thanks to Kate Moore, whose new book, Radium Girls, debuted on Amazon this spring.

Catch me on Twitter @lhsittig, my website, and Amazon for my two novels, Cut From Strong Cloth and Last Curtain Call.


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Laurel Hart Burch: Consummate Artist by Linda Harris Sittig

Life handed Laurel Hart a debilitating disease at birth, and she fought back by making jewelry. Not just any jewelry, but artwork so distinctive that it is still to this day instantly recognizable by the vibrancy of the colors, the whimsy of the designs, and the message of harmony that it evokes.

Born in 1945 with osteopetrosis, otherwise known as brittle bone disease, Laurel spent her early years shunned from normal childhood activities because her bones easily broke just from being bumped.

She grew up in the San Fernando Valley of California. Her parents divorced early, leaving Laurel’s mother to provide for her young children alone. She supported her two daughters on a seamstress’s salary, augmented by designing ensembles for the singer Peggy Lee.

By fourteen Laurel was a rebellious young teen who left home with a paper bag stuffed with clothes and headed for the mecca of the streets of San Francisco. Determined not to let her disease rob her of life, Laurel took on odd jobs like babysitting and cooking for families.

She married Robert Burch, a jazz musician, at nineteen. When the marriage fell apart a few years later, leaving her with her own two young children to support, Laurel began designing jewelry and selling it on the street to supplement her welfare checks.

At first, she made jewelry in her kitchen from any metal scrap that others had discarded. Using the back of an old cast iron frying pan and a hammer, she banged the metal into unusual shapes and added old coins, beads, and/or bits of bone to create necklaces, pendants, and earrings.

She was her own best advertisement, as she donned her jewelry prior to walking through the streets. It wasn’t long before people stopped her and asked where they could buy that jewelry. Little by little she developed a passionate following of steady customers.

Her artwork reflected the hippie ethic of peace. Quirky cats and dogs smiled together in iridescent colors while exotic flowers and trees filled the background. The message of harmony was woven through each canvas she painted.

By the mid 1960s, Laurel’s distinctive jewelry was no longer hawked only in flea markets and the streets of San Francisco, she now sold pieces to local stores. When those pieces quickly sold, Laurel designed more.

In the late ‘60s, a local businessman took samples of her work to China, and Laurel began to receive international recognition and commissions. Despite her bone condition, Laurel traveled to China in the early ‘70s and discovered cloisonné, a form of enameled artwork. She returned to the states and sketched designs for cloisonné earrings, which eventually became her most recognized art form. She was the first Western woman ever invited to China as an artist and a business person.

In 1979, she formed her own company, Laurel Birch Inc. and continued the flow of her art onto paper, porcelain and fabrics. As she entered this new business phase, she produced coffee mugs, tote bags, t-shirts, teapots and other household items emblazoned with her signature bold colors. The idea for each product still stemmed from one of her original paintings.

Never having the opportunity to attend art school, Laurel was a self-taught artist, and a dedicated one. Through the years her bones became more brittle. She would often be rushed to the hospital with a broken arm and during recuperation, continue creating artwork from her hospital bed, even though her arm was in a cast. She even taught herself how to paint left handed after multiple breaks to her right arm.

As the years progressed, Laurel became confined to a wheelchair, but she refused to stop creating art, even when the simple act of yawning broke her jawbone.

She always wore her own art, each an explosion of color conveying hope, life, and a sense of whimsy with dangling earrings of mythical cats, elongated necklaces of wood and beads, and flowing silk garments of riotous colors that complemented her art.

In September, 2007, Laurel died at the age of sixty-two from complications of her brittle bone disease.

But her art lives on. If you find vibrant feathered birds, fantastical felines, and luminescent wild horses cavorting against a canvas, coffee mug, teapot, tote bag, or earring, recognize that they are the spirit of one talented, strong woman; her testimony that we should all strive to live life to the fullest.

Thank you to Ronna Sittig and Brenda Tanner for gifting me two treasured Laurel Burch items, back in the day.

If you enjoyed reading this month’s post, please sign up on the right sidebar to become a follower of the blog. Remember to forward the blog to friends who also believe that strong women’s stories need to be told.

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~ linda ~

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Amelia Bloomer and Nellie Bly: Early Female Journalists by Linda Harris Sittig


Read this! No This! That’s Fake News! This is real news!  Hashtag, tweet, retweet, post on social media!  I suspect that both Amelia Bloomer and Nellie Bly are shaking their heads in the journalism-afterlife of how modern news is disseminated.

Amelia came first. Born as Amelia Jenks in 1818 in Homer, New York, Amelia did not set out to become a journalist. That very idea would have been laughed at in the early 1800s. Men wrote the news, men edited the news, men sold the news.

Amelia tried both teaching and being a governess before she met her future husband, Dexter Bloomer. After the wedding when the couple settled down in Seneca Falls, New York, her husband recognized that his young bride had a flair for writing. He encouraged her to write a few pieces for his New York newspaper, the Seneca Falls County Courier.

In 1848 Amelia attended the Seneca Falls Convention, which was the first women’s rights convention to be held in the United States. Convinced that women needed their own newspaper, where the news was not controlled by men, she began editing The Lily, the first American newspaper targeting a female audience. Published bi-weekly, the paper ran for four years starting first as a temperance journal, but quickly progressing to include a broad mix of articles.

The newspaper encountered financial difficulties and in 1850 Amelia took over the full demands of editing and publishing The Lily, and its financial debts, too.

Recipes were included on a sporadic basis, as well as articles on practical fashion. In 1851 activist Elizabeth Smith adopted a new ensemble which included long loose trousers worn under a short dress. The outfit was immediately worn by famous actress Fanny Kimble, then suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Amelia Bloomer. This was at a time in history when fashionable women were still expected to have an hourglass figure, accomplished by wearing incredibly restrictive corset. Think Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with The Wind. When the New York Tribune ran articles describing the new fashion that Amelia Bloomer was advocating as a freedom of reform for women, the newspaper referred to the garb as Bloomer Costumes. The name Bloomer stuck, even though Amelia eventually gave up wearing the ensemble.

What she did not give up was her passion for The Lily. She was the first American woman to own, operate, and edit a news service for women. At its height, The Lily had a circulation of over 4,000 readers.

Nellie Bly is the pen name of Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, born thirty years after Amelia.

At the age of 16, Elizabeth read a repulsive article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch entitled “What Girls Are Good For”. She dashed off an outraged rebuttal to the editor and signed it with a pseudonym. The editor, George Madden, was impressed with both the writing skills and the courage it took to write back. He advertised, asking the author to identify herself, and when she did, Madden promptly hired her. It was the start of Elizabeth’s journalism career and a pivotal point in her life when the editor asked her to write under the pen name of Nellie Bly.

In the beginning, Madden asked her to cover topics of women’s interest; food, fashions, taking care of the sick, etc. Nellie eventually asked to write about the controversial topics of the day like the treatment of the poor. Madden declined, so Nellie quit the paper and traveled in Mexico for two years, writing about the indigenous poor.

At age twenty-three she returned stateside and made her debut into investigative journalism when she posed as an insane person, and spent time in the infamous Blackwell Island Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Then she wrote an article on the atrocities she had witnessed. Joseph Pulitzer published her article in his newspaper, The New York World. The year was 1887.

Nellie continued her journalism career until her marriage, and later returned to it after she became a widow. In subsequent years she covered the Women’s Suffragette March of 1913 and the war events of WWI. She chose to write about issues that directly impacted women. Always on the lookout for topics that highlighted social injustice, especially those faced by women, Nellie Bly used her journalism career to bring about a public awareness of inequalities and injustices in American society.

Bravo to these two strong women who recognized early on, the power of the pen, and the responsibility of accurate reporting.

Thanks to Alma Brunner for suggesting this month’s blog.

Please forward the blog to a friend who might enjoy stories of strong women. Remember to sign up as a follower on the right hand side, if you have not already done so.

Catch me on Twitter: @LHSittig or my web page: or on Amazon with my two novels of historical fiction, highlighting strong female protagonists.

~ Linda ~

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Gladys Vandenberg: the Final Salute by Linda Harris Sittig

In 1948 Gladys Vandenberg was walking down a quiet lane in Arlington Cemetery with her husband, Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg, at her side. During their walk, they chanced upon a funeral and saw to their dismay that the only mourners attending the ceremony were a chaplain and a small honor guard.

Gladys must have experienced a tug on her heart-strings because she commented to her husband that no Airman should ever be buried without someone there to honor his memory. In that moment of empathy, an idea was born. Gladys decided to enlist a few of her friends, and together they formed a small volunteer group whose goal was to have one member present at any Air Force funeral in Arlington.

As the number of Air Force funerals grew, Gladys reached out to the Air Force Officers’ Wives Club and petitioned for additional volunteers. Several more women joined the effort. The group now called themselves the Arlington Ladies and for the next several decades they were the only military-related  group of women who made sure no Air Force Serviceman was ever buried alone.

In 1972, The U.S. Army inaugurated their Army Arlington Ladies group, followed by the Navy Arlington Ladies in 1985. In 2006, the U.S. Coast Guard formed their Arlington Ladies. Although the U.S. Marines does not have an Arlington Ladies group, a representative from the Marines always attends a Marine funeral at Arlington.

Military funerals can be very precise and formal, with the clip-clop of six horses pulling a funeral caisson with its flag-draped casket to the grave site. It is here that the Arlington Ladies add a touch of humanity and humility as the mournful notes of Taps drift across the sacred burial grounds.

The Ladies still stand today, proudly in the rain or snow, or humid heat of a Washington summer. They are there to honor the deceased. Regardless, if the serviceman’s family is in attendance, or if he or she is being buried alone, an Arlington Lady stands her vigil at the grave site.

Known for its more famous graves, President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and the tomb of the unknown soldier, Arlington is the final resting place for 400,000 souls. An average of 28 funeral services occurs each weekday.

My father was a WWII veteran who survived D-Day, June 6, 1944. Three years ago, on the 70th anniversary of that momentous battle, I had the opportunity to visit Normandy, France and walk the beaches of D-Day. I knew I was treading on hallowed ground and I saluted up into the sky to acknowledge where my father had been one of the first U.S. Airmen to drop bombs over Utah Beach, early on the morning of June 6th.

Later, I journeyed to the Normandy American Cemetery. Each visitor was given a rose to place upon a grave. I fanned out through the grounds, reading gravestone after gravestone and noting the young ages of the men who had died. I came to one stone that read, “This soldier is known only to God.” I placed my rose on his tombstone and whispered, “You are not forgotten.”

I made that gesture for one serviceman, but thanks to Gladys Vandenberg, thousands of servicemen and servicewomen have an Arlington Lady at their funeral to let them know they are not forgotten.

I salute you, Gladys Vandenberg, for your caring heart and unselfish actions to ensure the military deceased at Arlington are not left alone during the final salute.


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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.

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