Saturday, April 30, 2016

Meg Crane, Inventor

Meg Crane, 1965
Meg Crane invented the first pregnancy test that women could administer themselves. She faced obstacles from companies and health organizations that didn't think women could handle the task, and never collected any money.

"A woman should have the right to be the first to know if she was pregnant, and not have to wait weeks for an answer." ~ Meg Crane

Meg Crane was freelance designer living in New York when she was hired by Organon Pharmaceuticals to work on a new cosmetics line. When she was in the lab, she noticed lines of test tubes suspended over a mirrored surface. She asked what they were.

These were pregnancy tests, she was told, sold by Organon to doctors so they could administer them to women. Looking at the devices, Meg was struck by their simplicity - a sample of the patient's urine was added to a test tube containing a chemical solution, was suspended over a small mirror.

If the addition of the sample resulted in a small red ring forming at the bottom of the test tube (as reflected in the mirror), then the urine sample contained hormones associated with pregnancy. If no ring formed and the solution was cloudy, then the hormones that indicate pregnancy were not present.

As she looked at the tests, Meg had one thought in mind: "A woman should be able to do that herself."

Meg's motivation was not political, it was simply based on logic. She also understood that at that time, if a woman wanted to know if she was pregnant she had to visit a doctor, leave a sample of urine, then wait as the sample was sent off to a lab like Organon's, sometimes waiting weeks to hear the answer. When the results finally came, this highly personal information would most likely be communicated by a male figure of authority that she has little relationship with.

Pregnancy was on a lot of American women's minds at that time. It was the 1960s, and the era of the sexual revolution. The pill had become available early in the decade, but if you were a single woman it could be very hard to get a doctor to prescribe it - doctors weren't simply handing them out. It was also prior to Roe v. Wade, which gave women the right to an abortion, so pregnant women at that time had even fewer options.

Meg understood all these things, and that a woman's concerns, fears, hopes, or doubts regarding pregnancy were highly variable and personal. Viewing the test itself, she could not help but see it as an opportunity to help women maintain their privacy as they rightfully sought to learn if they were pregnant.

The prototype

Back home in New York, Meg experimented with different containers and mirror devices. She knew the device didn't have to be complex, but was having trouble coming up with the right design. One day her attention was caught by a small plastic box on her desk that she used to hold paperclips. "It was perfect," Meg would describe later. "It was the exact size to hold the components needed for the test."

For the mirror at the base, Meg cut a piece of Mylar to fit at an angle. Then she created a shelf with holes in it, to suspend the dropper and the test tube. She added a cap that could be used to collect urine.

She approached Organon with her prototype, but they rejected it - as they were in the business of selling the existing tests and lab services to doctors and made about half of their profits that way, they thought it made no sense. No, they told Meg, they can't do it - not only did they fear loosing their business, but they worried no doctors would want to be associated with them.

Still, the invention was something Meg felt had to happen. She kept bringing it up to executives, and when the Organon Vice President made a trip to AZKO, Organon's parent company in the Netherlands, the concept came up.

AZKO was much more liberal than the executives in the US, and they granted a small budget so the team could start developing marketing ideas and consumer testing.
On the left: Meg's home pregnancy test prototype from 1968.
On the right: the first Predictor consumer product from 1971,
made by Chefaro labs in Canada. Sold at auction by Bonhams, 2015.
Even with permission and money to do research, not everyone at Organon was on board with the idea. They feared the repercussions of the commercial labs and wondered if their other products would be threatened. Others objected on moral grounds, linking pregnancy to abortion and stating that women had not right to do the testing themselves, and it would bring the wrath of church hierarchies upon them.

The most common objections had to do with the capabilities of women, however. What if a woman administered the test herself, found out she was pregnant, then killed herself?

This was a very real concern expressed by companies and medical organizations around the world, including Great Britain, who had just made this type of testing available. In 1969 the British Medical Association warned, "Women who apply for pregnancy tests to perform themselves instead of going to doctors may be risking their lives, as women who are not happy with a positive result may do something drastic."

So, the biggest issue was the doctors and others in the late 1960s thought that women could not handle learning they they were pregnant, without having a doctor present to counsel her. Meg knew this made no sense - "Just as a woman, I thought, why couldn't you know this yourself?"

The company pushed forward with developing the design. Meg was not invited to join the meeting of product managers and executives where different designs would be presented, but she went anyway.

More delicate flowers

In the boardroom, the various designs from product managers were laid out on a table. Some had purple diamonds on them, some had flowers, one even had a tassel on top. Meg's design was not very elegant but she put it at the end of the table next to the others, and stepped back.

They were soon joined by Ira Sturtevant, a representative from one of the advertising agencies. Ira reviewed all the designs, stopping at Meg's. "This is what we are using now, aren't we?" he asked.

Ira was interested in Meg's design for its simplicity, but others in the room dismissed it, saying no, that's just something Meg developed for talking purposes - and besides, it would be too expensive to produce in large quantities.

Meg didn't give up on her idea. She took a few days off work and looked in the Yellow Pages for  plastics companies in New York, then began visiting them. She wanted to know who would be able to make her box at a lower cost. After many visits where "everyone gave me someone else to see," she met with a company that said they would be able to produce Meg's box for less.

Meg presented her redesigned prototype to Organon, and it was 30% less than what some of the other product designs would cost. They chose Meg's design.

Besides finding success professionally, the meeting in the board room would also lead to success for Meg personally, as she would go on to date and then marry Ira Sturtevant, the man from the advertising agency who had been sent in to review the designs.

Product Launch

Organon launched the product in Canada under the name Predictor in 1971, but there was still resistance to it in the US. "It's immoral," Meg was told over and over by the executives at Organon, "What if a Senator's daughter takes the test, then jumps off a bridge. We would lose all our business!"

Organon's parent company believed in the concept, however, and these opinions could not hold back progress forever. In 1977 the product became available in the US, and over the next few years, it very quickly became a successful product worldwide. By 1987, the leading brand EPT had sold over 10 million devices.


For her part, Meg never received any financial compensation for her idea and design. When the company decided to patent the idea in 1969 to prepare for the upcoming product launch, Meg could not afford to pay the fees for the application so she signed her rights over to Organon, and they patented it for her.

Meg had never been interested in money, but she tells those who seek advice from her today to be sure to get a lawyer, if you are ever in a situation with a company where they have lawyers present, and you do not: "Just walk away," she says. "Don't sign anything, just leave and get your own lawyer."

Looking back on her actions, she admits "I was very naive, extremely. I just wanted this product to exist."

Meg kept the prototype for 40 years until June 2015, when, perhaps having some idea of what it represented, she put it up for auction in New York. The prototype was purchased for nearly $12,000 by a curator for the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, DC. The prototype now sits in a humidity-controlled space next to other prestigious medical artifacts in the museum's History of Medicine and Science Collection.

Meg founded the Ponzi & Weill Inc. advertising and design company in 1968 with her late husband, Ira, and has enjoyed a lifelong career as a graphic designer and illustrator. Ira passed away after 42 years of marriage.

To this day Meg is an example of what a woman can do. Not only did she identify an opportunity for women to start controlling a process they could readily handle themselves, but she fought for their right to do so.

  • Lot 37: Crane, Margaret, Inventor - The First Home Pregnancy Test, Bonhams,, 2016. 
  • Interview with Meg Crane, Rejected Princesses Blog,, 2016.
  • From Frogs to Wands of Destiny: The Invention of the Home Pregnancy Test, Mother Podcast, PRX, November 22nd, 2015.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Fannie Lou Hamer, Civil Rights Activist

Fannie Lou at the Democratic National Convention,
Atlantic City, August 1964.
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress
Fannie Lou Hamer was a voting rights activist and vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Her testimony about being beaten while in the custody of police captured the attention of the nation. 

"Nobody's free until everybody's free."~ Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Townsend was born on October 6th, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She was the youngest of 20 children born to Jim and Ella Townsend. The whole family worked as sharecroppers, and Fannie Lou began working at the age of six in the fields. There was not much money, clothing, or food to go around, and she often went hungry.

Fannie attended school until the age of 12, then dropped out to work in the fields full time. From 1944 to 1962 she worked for a farm owner named W. D. Marlow. When Marlow found out Fannie could read and write, he made her the time and record keeper of the plantation, in addition to cleaning and cooking for the household.

In 1945, Fannie Lou married Perry "Pap" Hamer, a tractor farmer on the Marlow farm. She described him as "a man of few words" and "steady as a rock." The couple could not conceive children, and when Fannie Lou went to the hospital to be examined and find out why, she was told she had a tumor that needed to be removed.

"Mississippi Appendectomy"

During the 1950s some southern states practiced involuntary sterilization as a way of controlling the population. Not surprisingly, the focus of these sterilizations (often performed without consent) was predominantly black women.

[As a side note, this practice continued through the 1970s and 80s, as described in Dorothy Roberts' book Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty:

"During the 1970s sterilization became the most rapidly growing form of birth control in the United States, rising from 200,000 cases in 1970 to over 700,000 in 1980. It was a common belief among Blacks in the South that Black women were routinely sterilized without their informed consent and for no valid medical reason. Teaching hospitals performed unnecessary hysterectomies on poor Black women as practice for their medical residents.

"This sort of abuse was so widespread in the South that these operations came to be known as 'Mississippi appendectomies.'"]

Fannie Lou was only told later that during the operation to remove the tumor, she was also given a hysterectomy. She was outraged. Determined to have children, Fannie Lou and Pap Hamer would adopt four children from poor families: two boys and two girls.

Activist for Civil Rights

Fannie Lou joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) after walking past a sign one night, posted outside a building. The sign was advertising a mass meeting to learn about voting. At the time, Fannie Lou didn't know what a mass meeting was - "I just went inside, to see what it was all about."

Inside, she learned from members of the SNCC that black people had the right to vote - this was the first time Fannie Lou had heard this news. She decided on the spot that she would register to vote.

Fannie Lou began working on the voter registration committee, helping potential black voters learn to read and write so they could pass the test. Together with a group of 17 other SNCC members Fannie Lou travelled to Indiana to try to resister to vote, but the registrar only let two of them take the test, Fannie Lou and one of the men. Neither of them passed.

When Fannie Lou returned that night to the plantation where she lived and worked, she was met by her husband cautiously, and he warned her that her employer was looking for her. Marlow had heard of Fannie Lou attempting to register to vote and was angry about it, saying that Mississippi "wasn't ready for that yet."

He told Fannie Lou to withdraw her registration, or leave - then said she might have to leave anyway.

In a testimony later before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention, Fannie Lou would describe what happened next. She told Marlow, "I didn't try to register for you. I tried to register for myself."

After that, "I had to leave that same night," she would later state.

Turning to activism

After being kicked off the plantation Fannie Lou took her family to stay with friends, but her location was discovered by the KKK and they were shot at in their friends' home. Fannie Lou began pursing activism full time.

In her home, 1964
She believed passionately that the key to improving the economic and political position of the black community was in gaining the power to vote. Fannie Lou took the voter registration test twice more before she passed, having told the registrar she would be back every month to take the test until that happened.

When it became clear that the federal government would not be offering assistance to black people who were being turned away from registration offices for bogus or illegal reasons, Fannie Lou co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1963. The party registered 60,000 new black voters across the state.

Returning home from a training convention on day in June 1963, the bus Fannie Lou was on stopped in  Winona, Mississippi. Fannie Lou stayed on the bus while a few SNCC members she was traveling with disembarked, to either use the restroom or stop by the restaurant.

When the SNCC members returned to the bus, they told Fannie Lou they had been ordered out of the restaurant by the local police. As the SNCC members gathered on the bus, they were approached by the police, who screamed at them and ordered them off the bus.

The group was arrested and taken to the jail, where Fannie Lou was badly beaten. As she sat in her cell prior, she could hear the voices and screams of another women cry out for God to have mercy on them. That woman was beaten for a very long time.

After than, three white police officers brought two of the black male prisoners into Fannie Lou's cell and ordered the men to beat her. They beat her until they were exhausted and she was screaming. She nearly died from her injuries that night.

The group would not be treated for their wounds or released from jail for three days.

Upon their release, they learned of the death of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evars on the front steps of his house in Mississippi the previous day - this news shocked the group due to their close bond with Evars, and his critical role in getting the first black student accepted to the University of Mississippi.

After recovering from her injuries so she could once again travel, Fannie Lou toured the country telling her story of how she was beaten by the police. In this manner, she raised more money than any other member of the SNCC.
Fannie Lou protesting for the right to vote, 1964.
Running for seats

With the backing of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), Hamer ran for Congress in 1964, challenging veteran Congressman Jaime Whitten who had been elected to office twelve times previously.

In an interview with The Nation, Fannie Lou said, "I'm showing the people that a Negro can run for office." Reporter Jerry DeMuth would later write the following of Fannie Lou in The Nation:

"Her deep, powerful voice shakes the air as she sits on the porch or inside, talking to friends, relatives and neighbors who drop by on the one day each week when she is not campaigning. Whatever she is talking about soon becomes an impassioned plea for a change in the system that exploits the Delta Negroes. 'All my life I've been sick and tired,' she shakes her head. 'Now I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.'"

Fannie Lou would not be elected, but her candidacy was an important step in bringing attention to the SNCC and setting the stage for the Democratic Convention later in the year.

As the MFDP prepared for the Democratic Convention where they planned to challenge the seating of the all-white delegates of Mississippi, Fannie Lou was a driving force not only in raising money, but in convincing other party members that there was value in an integrated movement. While some members of the party had trouble trusting outsiders, such as the white people from the north, Fannie Lou encouraged them to drop their objections. "If we are trying to break down the barrier of segregation, we can't segregate ourselves," she would tell them.

When it came time for the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, MFDP members sent an integrated team of 64 black and 4 white delegates, to try to convince the Credentials Committee to seat them as official delegates.

Wrath of a President

President Lyndon Johnson needed the support of the Southern Democratics to win his bid for re-election, so he intended to block the MFDP members from gaining any seats. Fannie Lou was one of the members who testified before the committee to explain what they deserved delegate seating.

Appearing on August 22nd, 1964, Fannie Lou and told her story of being beaten in a police station for trying to register herself and others to vote.

She ended with the following: "All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?"

Alarmed by the provocative and compelling nature of her speech, President Lyndon Johnson tried to preempt it with an impromptu press conference, but all the television networks carried her testimony that night, broadcasting it to an even bigger audience. For many white people, it was the first time they had heard in graphic detail the experience of being black in America.

Slow Change

Under pressure from President Johnson, the Democratic Credentials Committee dropped their support of the MFDP. As a gesture, they offered two seats to the party, but made it clear that neither seat could go to Hamer - "The President has said that he will not let that illiterate woman speak on the floor of the Democratic Convention."

The MFDP rejected the offer, Hamer's voice among them, proclaiming "We didn't come all this way for no two seats."

Back in Mississippi in the years following the convention, Fannie Lou continued to tour the country to raise money for the MFDP and help black people sign up to vote, even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Other work she did for the community included establishing Head-Start programs for low income children of all races, and helping arrange legal support for trials involving school desegregation.

She became less active in later years as her health deteriorated, the result of a lifetime in poverty, her 1963 beating, and a diagnosis of cancer in 1976. Fannie Lou died in 1977 from complications associated with heart disease and cancer.

Her funeral was attended by hundreds of friends and leaders from the community, who spoke in celebration of her life and everything she had given to her passion: her drive for voting and civil rights.


"You don't run away from problems - you just face them."

  • Fannie Lou Hamer, staff,, 2009.
  • Fannie Lou Hamer: Woman of Courage. Moreland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University Library System, Howard University Website. 2016.
  • Day 17: Mississippi appendectomies and reproductive justice, Sara Kugler, MSNBC, April 2nd, 2014.
  • Fannie Lou Hamer Biography, Editors, A & E Television Networks, 2016.
  • Say it Plain - America RadioWorks, Fannie Lou Hamer. American Public Media, 2016. 
  • Biography: Fannie Lou Hamer. Freedom Summer, WGBH American Experience,, 2016. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Leymah Gbowee, Liberian Peace Activist

Photographed by Mambu Bayoh
Leymah Gbowee is a Liberian peace activist, social worker, and women's rights advocate who began a movement in Liberia to end that nation's civil war.

"It is about an army of women in white standing up when no one else would – unafraid because the worst things imaginable had already happened to us. It is about how we found the moral clarity, persistence, and bravery to raise our voices against war and restore sanity to our land." ~ Leymah Gbowee

Leymah Gbowee was born on February 1st 1972 in Monrovia, Liberia, and was seventeen when the Liberian civil war started.

The war turned her, in her own words, "from a child to an adult in a matter of hours." She witnessed the terrors of civil war; women getting raped, children starving, and becoming soldiers. Entire villages were decimated, villagers lost their limbs

As the war raged on, Leymah became a single mother and had her first four children by the age of 24. By that time she was working as a research assistant, and eventually a social worker. After each of her children were born she would go straight back to work. She described herself as being "dirt poor, living with my parents," but she still showed compassion any way she could, buying second-hand clothes for abandoned children she met in different villages where she worked; children than had no clothes or toys.

At some point during the civil war, Leymah realized that if anything was to be done to restore peace to the country, it was up to the women. In every village she visited, Leymah met intelligent, strong women who were tired of watching their children be raped and murdered - surely if all these women could be brought together, they could enact change - this became Leymah's hope and dream.

Leymah recognized that the biggest divider of women in the community was not physical space or walls, but their beliefs and religion. There were 16 ethnic groups and 2 main religious groups - Christian and Muslim - and as in the rest of the world, there were undertones of conflict tied to religion running through society, which did nothing for community stability when it came to other issues.

Leymah knew the community would have to be united if they were to have a chance to build peace. She was a Christian, so she started by meeting with women of the Christian religion.

The women began by meeting in groups and talking about their religion and the ways women had played a part in their history. "A lot of the times, people use religion as a means of disempowering women," noted Leymah. "But if you go into the Qur’anic text and even in the Bible, you’ll find there were some great women. So we use the examples of those very great women to talk about how they helped to change their time."

Once they had re-conceptualized the role of women in the community using religious history as examples, Leymah's message of women as powerful drivers of change resonated more, and the women were more willing to meet and demonstrate together in a non-violent way.

After gaining the support of the Christian women, Leymah enlisted a Muslim friend to help her build a Muslim coalition along the same lines as the Christian group, and she founded an unprecedented coalition called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace.

With Leymah as the spokesperson, the women began a weeks-long campaign for peace that grew to include thousands of participants.

The women knew that their plea for peace had to be non-violent, for over 14 years of civil war, the only different tactics that had been tried was that different groups of fighters were sent in - so much so that by the end, over 12 different groups had fought in the war against the government. The tactic of more guns or different armies had not been working, so the women knew they must try a non-violent tact.

In addition to this, the women were inspired by the civil war movement of the United States, and the actions of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King. Though the civil rights movement in the U.S. had been the work of many, those were the names that Leymah knew, and their stories of protest in the face of what seemed insurmountable odds encouraged her.

The women of Liberia protested by doing sit-ins, what Leymah referred to as an "invasion of places" where women would not usually be found. The women invited the President of Liberia, President Charles Taylor, to meet with them many times, but he would never answer.

One one occasion the group sent six invitations through six different contact points to ensure that one was received (and to decreased the likelihood that the President would claim he never received it), but while the invitations were delivered, he did not answer, as he did not know how to respond.

But the women continued protesting, staging sit-ins in local marketplaces, disrupting events but always in a non-violent capacity as they demanded that the President meet with them. When this did not get the response they wanted, the women tried a different tact: having grown frustrated with their husbands over what they saw as a complete unwillingness to say anything about Liberia's civil war, the women decided to go on strike and stop having sex.

"We were constantly trying to imagine strategies that would be effective. The men in our society were really not taking a stance... We decided to do a sex strike to kind of propel these silent men into action," said Leymah.

It was an unconventional tactic, but one the women were willing to try to get a response from their otherwise silent husbands. In addition to getting the attention of their husbands, it was also the media's attention the women wanted - as before all this happened, they were barely getting any coverage from local media at all.

The sex strike was very effective in that capacity, as Leymah describes: "People wanted to know who were these women to even dare their husbands or the men, who are supposed to be in power, to say they won’t give sex because of the war. The international media wanted to know: How can you refuse sex, when rape is the order of the day in your culture, in your society?

"So, all of these lingering questions made it a very good strategy for talking about, because every time we went to do press and they wanted to know about this sex strike, we had to go about every other reason why we were doing it before this, so it became a very good media strategy for the work that we were doing at the time."

Marching to the President

After putting them off on many occasions, President Taylor finally told the women "You can come and see me."

So they marched to the palace which was guarded by many men with guns, and all the while Leymah wondered if it was a test, to see if the women would have enough courage to go forward. But 2,000 women turned up to march to the President, all wearing their white tee-shirts to show they were united.

The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace march to the President
The women marched towards the palace, a sea of white tee-shirts. But when they got there, says Leymah:

"All of a sudden, we get a call from in his office that he’s not feeling well and that he will see only 10 of us. And I was really furious. I said, 'No, if he can’t come to see all of us, we will leave.' And his guards were like, 'Who is this woman, who is just really too militant for her own good?'"

Eventually President Taylor came out and met with the women, and listened to their demands: that a  cease-fire be called immediately, and that he attend the peace talks with the region's other leaders, the warlords, so they could build a plan for peace going forward.

President Taylor agreed to this, so the women returned from the palace and began establishing talks with the war lords, making preparations so the peace talks that were supposed to occur in some weeks time would actually happen.

Peace Talks

The formal peace talks were in Accra, Ghana. To ensure the peace talks went through without a hitch, the women of Liberia marched to the meeting rooms in Ghana, and when the process began to stall, the women locked arms and barricaded the doors to the meeting halls, telling the men they would not be allowed to leave to get food or water until they came to an agreement.

When security forces on the grounds attempted to arrest Leymah, she threatened to disrobe, an act that according to local tradition would have brought terrible misfortune on the men. The tactic worked and was effective in preventing the soldiers from arresting Leymah.

In Accra, protesting for peace. They would not retreat.
Photo by Pewee Flomoku
The women had made their position clear: peace was what they wanted, and within two weeks the men had come to an agreement.

President Taylor resigned from the Presidency and went into exile; he would later be tried in court for crime against his people and sentenced to fifty years in jail. He remains there still.

The Future of Liberia

For Leymah, the end of civil war in Liberia was a triumph, but it was really just the beginning. Everywhere she looked in Liberia there were smart, sharp women, and women and girls in need - and they were one and the same. She began turning her attention to other crises in the community, such as rape, prostitution, and teenage pregnancy.

With other members of the community, Leymah started creating spaces and groups where it was safe for girls to meet and talk with other women and get the resources they need. In 2006, she co-founded the Women Peace and Security Network Africa in Accra and served as the Executive Director for six years. The group is a women-focused, women-led organization dedicated to promoting the participation and leadership of women in peace and security governance around the continent.

Leymah speaking to a group of women in Congo, 2010. Photo by Alissa Everet.
Leymah is the recipient of many awards for her activism and vision. These include the 2009 Gruber Prize for Women's Rights, the 2009 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, the 2010 John Jay Medal for Justice. 

Her highest honor came in 2011 however, when she was co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with two other female activists, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman.

Speaking with the New York Times after receiving this honor, Leymah said "This whole process of three women receiving the Nobel Peace Prize is really overwhelming. It’s finally a recognition that we can’t ignore the other half of the world’s population. We cannot ignore their unique skills.”

Leymah has written a memoir describing her life in war-torn Liberia called "Mighty Be Our Powers," and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast website. You can see a collection of her articles here. She continues to organize and speak out for the young girls of Africa to this day.


"Don't wait for a Gandhi, don't wait for a King, don't wait for a Mandela. You are your own Mandela, you are your own Gandhi, you are your own King."

"When women gather, great things will happen."

"I always tell people, anger is like liquid. It's fluid, it's like water. You put it in a container and it takes the shape of that container. So many people you see in prison, unleashing war on their people, they are angry, and they take their anger and put it into a violent container."

"The one thing I have never been afraid of is standing before important people and speaking my mind. I represent women who may never have the opportunity to go to the UN or meet with a president. I'm never afraid to speak truth to power."

"It's insulting when outsiders come in and tell a traumatized people what it will take for them to heal... People who have lived through a terrible conflict may be hungry and desperate, but they are not stupid. They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked. That includes women. Most especially women."

"Sometimes, people call my way of speaking ranting. Why are you always ranting and screaming, they ask. But here’s the thing…the reason why I rant is because I am a voice for many women that cannot speak out to heads of state, UN officials, and those that influence systems of oppression. And so I rant. And I will not stop ranting until my mission of equality of all girls is achieved."

"We must continue to unite in sisterhood to turn our tears into triumph. There is no time to rest until our world achieves wholeness and balance, where all men and women are considered equal and free."

  • 5 of my Favorite Women Human Rights Activists for International Women's Day, Jaime, Autostraddle, 8 2012
  • Leymah Ghowee - Mighty Be Our Powers, Lehmay Gbowee, Beast Books. 2016.
  • Nobel Peace Prize Awarded to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman, Alan Cowell, New York Times, October 7, 2011
  • A Crazy Dream, Bob Herbert, The New York Times, January 31st, 2009.
  • How a Sex Strike  Propelled Men to Refuse War, April 27th, 2015.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Maria Bochkareva, Military Leader

Maria Bochkareva was a Russian soldier who overcame poverty and abuse to fight alongside male soldiers in WWI. She formed and led the Women's Battalion of Death, an all-female battalion. 

"Men and women citizens! Our mother is perishing. Our mother is Russia. I want to help save her. I want women whose hearts are crystal, whose souls are pure, whose impulses are lofty. With such women setting an example of self-sacrifice, you men will realize your duty in this grave hour!"
~ Maria Bochkareva

Maria Bochkareva was born in July 1889 in Novgorod Oblast; the third daughter of a peasant family living in poverty. Maria's father was an alcoholic former soldier who beat her. The family's extreme poverty forced them to move to the town of Tomsk, in the Siberian wastelands, and because school was not an option, Maria began working in a grocery store at the age of eight.

After a particularly bad beating from her father, Maria left home at the age of 15 and began working as a laborer. A year later she met Anavasi Botchkareva, a wandering laborer like herself. They were married but when her husband also began abusing her, Maria ran away.

Maria's efforts to get away from the abusive men in her life took her deeper into Siberia. She worked a series of odd jobs, demonstrating the kind of self-reliance you might expect from a young women who had left home and travelled hundreds of miles alone over a frozen wasteland. She worked as a maid, laundress, construction worker. For an asphalt contractor Maria once rose to the position of assistant foreman, where she supervised a team of 25 workers.

At the age of 21 Maria married again, this time to a political refugee named Yakov Buk. According to Maria's autobiography (Yashka: My Life as a Peasant, Exile, and Soldier), the marriage began well but grew worse when Buk was persecuted for aiding a felon; at this point he grew more sullen, began drinking, and subsequently began beating Maria in what had become an all too familiar pattern.

Maria left her second husband after he tried to hang her, believing she had been unfaithful. She returned to Tomsk to live with her mother and younger sister.

At this point Maria got caught up in a kind of "war fever" that was sweeping Europe as millions sought to enlist. While not brought up to be particularly patriotic, she felt something inside telling her, "go to war to help save thy country." Her decision was to enlist, and "go to war and fight to death, or, if God preserved me, 'til the coming of peace."

In the Army

Maria enlisted in the 25th reserve battalion in Tomsk. While Russia is lauded by some historians for having more gender equity than other nations at that time due to its communism (and it did), gender discrimination did still exist.

When Maria showed up to enlist she was initially turned away for her gender, and even after the Tsar granted her permission, she was the target of some harassment - she later wrote that "the news of a woman recruit had preceded me at the barracks and my arrival there precipitated a riot of fun. The men assumed that I was a loose-moraled woman who had made her way into the ranks for the sake of carrying on her illicit trade."

At night in the barracks, Maria had to fight to keep her fellow soldiers away from her. From her autobiography:

"As soon as I made an effort to shut my eyes I would discover the arm of my neighbour on the left around my neck, and would restore it to its owner with a crash. Watchful of his movements I offered an opportunity for my neighbor on the right to get too near me, and I would savagely kick him in the side. All night long my nerves were taut and my fists busy."

As in the barracks, in field training Maria let her actions speak for her, and she soon won the confidence and respect of the men she trained with. The men began calling her by a nickname, Yashka, which was a female version of her most recent husband's name, Yakov Buk.

In April 1915 Yashka experienced combat for the first time when she was sent out to the front lines. The battalion's attack was ill-fated, with many men killed or hurt. Yashka herself performed well, and dragged over 50 fallen men to safety before she was wounded in the leg.

After two months of recovery in Kiev, Yashka again joined the men in the field. She was wounded again but fought with such valor that her commander recommended her for the Cross of St. George, one of imperial Russia's greatest honors. This honor was downgraded to a "medal of the second degree" due to Yashka's gender, however.

For her demonstrations of courage and leadership in battle, Yashka was promoted to corporal. She spent many months further in the trenches and muddy fields and was injured twice more, once in the lower spine. By December of 1916 she had recovered however, and she returned to the front, where she was greeted warmly by her comrades and promoted to the rank of senior non-commissioned officer.

In 1917, after several years of war that saw food become scare and soldiers weary, Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, having proven that he was ineffective as a leader. Yashka believed that following this abdication, the Russian army would be able to rise up and drive out the German soldiers, but this was not the case.

Instead, the army was stunted by the introduction of "rule by committee," whereby every order handed to Army officers in each unit had to be approved by a committee the unit elected. This had the effect of reducing both the moral and activity of the units to the point that Yashka decided to visit the country's leaders in Petrograd to see what she could do to help.

The Women's Battalion

In Petrograd Yashka met with the new leaders of Russia including Aleksei Brusilov, the Army’s commander in chief, and Minister of War Aleksandr Kerenskii. She asked to form an all female battalion, and though she admits she "did not expect to be taken seriously," it was approved.

In June of 1917, Yashka appeared on the steps of St. Isaac's Cathedral in Petrograd to call for recruits.

"Come with us in the name of your fallen heroes," she cried. "Come with us to dry the tears and heal the wounds of Russia. Protect her with yours lives. We women are turning into tigresses to protect our children from a shameful yoke - to protect the freedom of our country."

New recruits to the Women's Battalion in Petrograd, 1917
Within a few days, Yashka had nearly 2,000 recruits for the Women's Battalion of Death (a dramatic phrase, the term "of Death" was commonly added to the title of any battalion whose soldiers had sworn to give their lives).

She secured a training area and instructors, then had the troops marched to a barber so their hair could be shorn in regulation manner. The training lasted four weeks, and was the same regime followed by male battalions.

Members of the Women's Battalion, freshly shorn
Yashka was a strict disciplinarian and made no secret of the fact that the women were there to work hard, and any romantic notions the women had of joining the army for adventure were quickly trampled. Soldiers were dismissed for slight infractions such as excessive giggling and "other frivolities." Yashka was far more harsh with one unfortunate woman who was caught in a compromising position with a male soldier; Yashka promptly stabbed the woman with her bayonet.

Not that the women in Yahska's Battalion were going to take all her abuse lying down. By the laws of Russia's new government, Yashka's unit was to be ruled by a committee the unit themselves elected, and 1,500 of the women demanded it. Yashka was against such committees, however, having seen how much they slowed any actual forward progress, and when the women demanded a committee, she dismissed them.

What Yashka was left with was a group of about 250-300 women, hastily trained and outfitted, then ordered to the front lines. They departed on June 24th, joining Russia's 10th Army.

The Battalion in War

The women of the battalion followed their leader and orders in battle, with many going "over the top" and into the most desperate of the fighting ground, though like the male soldiers, there were always a few who hung back in the trenches.

The American journalist Bessie Beatty visited the Eastern Front and reported what she saw there. "Women can fight," she wrote. "Women have the courage, the endurance and even the strength for fighting. The Russians have demonstrated that and, if necessary, all the other women in the world can demonstrate it."

The women took over a section of the trenches that had been abandoned by the men, and ultimately performed admirably in combat. They took more than 2000 prisoners and captured three lines of trenches.

By late fall however the Russian Army as a whole had collapsed, and Bolshevik forces rose up to take the Winter Palace back from the government that had been in charge for the interim.

The Women's Battalion stayed loyal to their government to the very end. Some of the female soldiers fought at the Winter Palace, defending the ground from Bolshevik fighters, while others stayed on the front lines.

The women's loyalty sparked resentment and some of those on the front lines were attacked by male soldiers, and lynched. Yashak secured civilian clothes for the remaining women in her battalion and sent them home.

On 21st November, 1917, the Bolshevik Military Revolutionary Committee officially dissolved the Women's Battalion.

After the Revolution

Following the revolution, Yahska was no longer considered a hero of Russia and was hunted down by the Bolsheviks and interrogated by both Lenin and Trotsky personally. She was released after it was decided that she posed no political threat to the new state.

Yashka returned to her home in Tomsk for a short while, but the conditions there were so bad that she left for the United States, arriving there on May 1st, 1918.

In the U.S. Yashka finally had some of the shrapnel from the war removed from her spine, and she met with political leaders including President Woodrow Wilson, with whom she discussed the Bolshevik government and their shared belief that it should be overthrown. From the United States, Yahska travelled to London to meet with King George V and members of the British government.

In England, Yashka secured the funds to travel back home, and in April 1919 she moved back to Tomsk. Further attempts to form another Women's Battalion were unfruitful, and later that year she was captured by Bolshevik troops.

Yashka was sent to Krasnoiarsk for interrogation, and on May 16th, 1920, she was executed by a firing squad.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Clara Barton, Nurse and Founder of the American Red Cross

Clara in 1865, 44 years old.
Clara Barton dedicated her life to helping others. She established New Jersey's first public school for children, provided aid to Civil War soldiers in the battlefield, and founded the American Red Cross. 

"This conflict is one thing I've been waiting for. I'm well and strong and young - young enough to go to the front. If I can't be a soldier, I'll help soldiers." ~ Clara Barton

Clara Barton was born on December 25th, 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts. Her father was Captain Stephen Barton, and her mother was Sarah (Stone) Barton.

Having fought in the Indian war, Clara's father captivated her with his war stories, so much that she would later describe her draw towards the Civil War soldiers with these words: "What could I do but go with them, or work for them and my country? The patriot blood of my father was warm in my veins."

Clara had four brothers and sisters, all at least 10 years older. With her brothers and cousins she learned how to ride horses and she spent much of her time outside, preferring that to indoor activities considered more suitable for young women of that day.

In historical accounts of Clara's life, her intense shyness during childhood is always noted. In some cases it is described as "affecting her health," at times making her "so overwrought she could not even eat." What is not often mentioned is that Clara had a lisp, and that may have increased her shyness. Clara did write later in life that she remembered "nothing but fear" abut her childhood.

The age gap between Clara and her four older siblings made Clara feel as though she had six parents rather than two, but they did all work together to try help Clara overcome her timid nature. The family decided she should go to boarding school, something Clara welcomed as a new adventure, but once there, she was too shy to talk to the other girls. When one girl played a joke on her by pretending Clara had taken her bracelet, then asking to have it back, Clara fainted. She returned home shortly after.

Clara was close to her brother David; he was the one that had taught her to ride horseback, and to swing from the rafters in the barn. When he fell from a horse and was injured when Clara was 11, Clara  took on the task of caring for him, even working with the leeches that the doctor prescribed in a common practice of the day, that of using leeches to drain "bad blood" from the body.

Clara surprised her family in her lack of fear when caring for David, and discovered something new in herself. After David was well, she went back to school, and had a wonderful time. She also gained a new reputation: that of being the "little nurse" as she cared for injured animals and tended to her cousins   during a diphtheria epidemic.

A Compassionate Educator

When she was seventeen years old, Clara began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, having been advised by a phrenologist (someone who studies the shape of people's heads and advises them what they are suited for) that she should be a teacher.

She had a class of forty children and taught in North Oxford, Massachusetts, starting in May of 1838. Though corporal punishment was a common practice at the time, Clara refused to discipline the children physically. Clara was successful as a teacher, and six years later, she opened her own school.

In 1850, Clara enrolled in the Clinton Liberal Institute to further her own studies. She took science, French, German, and history. The year following, she began teaching again in a school where her salary was paid by the parents of the students, until noticing one day when walking to school that there were other children outside, hanging around on street corners. These were children whose parents could not afford an education.

Not one to turn away when she saw others in need, Clara told the town that she would provide schooling to these children, if a building could be provided. On the first day of this new free school, six children attended. On the second day, there were twenty - and one year later, the school had several hundred students. It was New Jersey's first free public school.

Pleased with this success, when the community built a new school in Bordentown, Clara expected to run it - but the job was given to a man, at twice the salary Clara had been paid.

Sick with disappointment and feeling discouraged, Clara resigned from teaching and moved to Washington D.C. She became a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office, where she was the first female clerk. She enjoyed the work but felt she could offer something more to society, though she didn't yet know what that was.

Civil War

America's Civil War began in April 1860, and Clara wanted a chance to help. She asked the War Department for support to go to the battlefield and provide medicine and food, but they had never sent an unmarried woman to the battlefield before, and they denied her request.

Clara helped in any way she could. When a riot in Baltimore left civilians and soldiers wounded, she went to the makeshift hospital that had been set up for soldiers in Washington D.C. and collected food, clothes, medicine, and other supplies for the troops. Beyond this, Clara wrote to friends in Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, urging them to help, and soon she had developed a volunteer supply network that would last for the entire war.

At the patent office, Clara offered to do the work of two clerks while being paid the salary of one, so that two male clerks might be released to fight the war. The Patent Office refused, and Clara resigned, certain she could better direct her efforts elsewhere.

Clara tended to the soldiers returning home from battle, including some soldiers she knew personally. By 1862 she was going down to the docks to meet soldiers being transported from the field, tending to them and helping bring them to the hospitals. The wounds she saw and the evidence of their neglect led her to campaign for access to the field hospitals, which were at that time restricted to men only, by both military and societal rules.

Clara finally received permission on August 3rd, 1962 to transport supplies to the battlefields. She was on hand in Virginia and Maryland following the Union's greatest battles, ready to tend to the wounded. She drew criticism for tending to the Northern and Southern soldiers alike, but she would only reply, "I am a United States soldier." Clara did not discriminate when giving her aid to any person - if they were wounded and needed her help, she would provide all that she could give.

As she travelled through the battlefields, Clara helped establish soup kitchens and field hospitals to tend to the wounded, and when the physicians were too busy to keep records of the name of the men who died, Clara wrote their names in her diary, with a note about where they were buried.

Clara was labeled by some as a troublemaker for her frequent criticism of the Army - namely, that it lacked adequate supplies and food for its men. Despite this, she was called by the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to help in the Sanitary Commission in the battlefield. She was put in charge of nursing and feeding the patients, and came to be known as the "Angle of the Battlefield."

While witnessing death all around her, Clara narrowly escaped it herself several times - in one instance, a bullet passed through her sleeve and into the man that she was tending, killing him. Clara would always continue as is nothing had happened, perhaps pausing for a moment in her mind only to consider the person who had just passed.

Helping the Missing

Clara found another job for herself during wartime, that of locating missing prisoners of war. the families of many soldiers had taken to writing to Clara, asking her for news about their loved ones, and she felt that he could not refuse. She asked President Abraham Lincoln for permission to help find missing prisoners of war.

He agreed, and Clara established Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army, to help reunite  soldiers with the units or family they had become separated from during the war. Using her own funds and the help of volunteers, Clara set up a network including newspapers and organizations that would publish the names of missing men, once an inquiry regarding their whereabouts was received.

After the war, the search for soldiers led to the quest to identify their graves. Secretary Stanton again turned to Clara for help, this time in placing markers and identifying the dead.

By the time her work for the Civil War effort was over, Clara had answered 63,000 letters from families, identified 22,000 missing men, and laid markers at the graves of 12,500 fallen soldiers.

Founding the Red Cross

After the war, Clara went on a tour of Europe to rest and recover, but soon found herself caught up again in assisting the war effort, this time in France. She had observed the Red Cross workers in Switzerland and were curious about their organization. She wanted to join, and after France declared was or Prussia and its enemies in 1870, she did exactly that.

With the Red Cross in France, Clara taught refugees to sew, helped them sell the garments they made, and collected money that could be used for their relief. Witnessing the success of such an organization, Clara wondered about introducing it to the United States, and was determined to try.

In May 1877 when she was 56 years old, Clara wrote to Louis Appia, head of the Red Cross in Geneva, asking for permission to establish a Red Cross branch in the United States. He agreed to its formation, and on May 21st, 1877 the American Red Cross was formed. Clara was elected its president several weeks later.

Founding the organization was one thing, but raising funds was another, and Clara quickly found that people needed convincing when it came to giving to such an organization when the country was not at war. Clara toured the country, explaining that the purpose of the Red Cross was not only to help those internationally who were at war, but to help in times of national crisis, like a natural disaster or epidemic, but this was hard for her audiences to grasp.

What brought it home to the American public were the forest fires of Michigan in September 1881. It was the first opportunity for the Red Cross to demonstrate what they could do, and they rushed to provide aid to those devastated by fires across the state. Clara's work with the organization would continue for each national crisis or natural disaster, and she was still traveling at the age of 76 in 1898 with nurses to Cuba, to provide aid to those wounded in the Spanish-American war.

Clara in 1903
Clara would resign her position at the American Red Cross in May of 1904, when she was 82 years old. By that time she had faced criticism over her record keeping and lack of paperwork, but despite the difficulties that marred the end of her service, she is credited with being the first to bring such an organization to the United States, based on the successful model she served with in Switzerland.

In 1905 she established the National First Aid Association of America, which emphasized basic first aid instruction and emergency preparedness, and served as honorary president for five years.

After a very full life of service and dedication to helping others, Clara died on April 12th, 1921. She was 91 years old.


"I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past."

"I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them."

"I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man's work for less than a man's pay."

"The surest test of discipline is its absence."

From a letter sent by Clara to her cousin, 1862:

An interesting insight into Clara's experience at that time.
Head Quarters 2nd Div.
9th Army Corps-Army of the Potomac
Camp near Falmouth, Va.
December 12th, 1862 - 2 o'clock A.M.
My dear Cousin Vira:
Five minutes time with you; and God only knows what those five minutes might be worth to the many-doomed thousands sleeping around me.
It is the night before a battle. The enemy, Fredericksburg, and its mighty entrenchments lie before us, the river between - at tomorrow's dawn our troops will assay to cross, and the guns of the enemy will sweep those frail bridges at every breath.
The moon is shining through the soft haze with a brightness almost prophetic. For the last half hour I have stood alone in the awful stillness of its glimmering light gazing upon the strange sad scene around me striving to say, "Thy will Oh God be done."

The camp fires blaze with unwanted brightness, the sentry's tread is still but quick - the acres of little shelter tents are dark and still as death, no wonder for us as I gazed sorrowfully upon them. I thought I could almost hear the slow flap of the grim messenger's wings, as one by one he sought and selected his victims for the morning. Sleep weary one, sleep and rest for tomorrow toil. Oh! Sleep and visit in dreams once more the loved ones nestling at home. They may yet live to dream of you, cold lifeless and bloody, but this dream soldier is thy last, paint it brightly, dream it well.
Oh northern mothers wives and sisters, all unconscious of the hour, would to Heaven that I could bear for you the concentrated woe which is so soon to follow, would that Christ would teach my soul a prayer that would plead to the Father for grace sufficient for you, God pity and strengthen you every one.
Mine are not the only waking hours, the light yet burns brightly in our kind hearted General's tent where he pens what may be a last farewell to his wife and children and thinks sadly of his fated men.
Already the roll of the moving artillery is sounded in my ears. The battle draws near and I must catch one hour's sleep for tomorrow's labor.

Good night near cousin and Heaven grant you strength for your more peaceful and less terrible, but not less weary days than mine.
Yours in love,

Monday, April 25, 2016

Hedy Lamarr, Acress and Inventor

Hedy Kiesler, before she became Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr was an actress known for her beauty, but she was also an inventor. Her frequency-hopping technology was used by the U.S. government and later modified for many wireless communication devices we have today.

"Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid." ~ Hedy Lamarr

Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler was born in Vienna, Austria on November 9th, 1914 to a wealthy Jewish family. As a child she was fascinated with science but was also drawn to acting, and she left school to devote herself to a career on the stage and screen.

Her first film project was a German film called Geld Auf Der Strasewhen she was 17. With this appearance she caught the attention of Czechoslovakian and German producers, but itExtase in 1932 that would get her noticed by Hollywood.

Hedy wanted a contract, however, and when she heard that Louis Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Studios was scouting for actors, she went to see him in London.

According to Lamar's biographer, Pulizer-Prize winning author Richard Rhodes: "He wasn't willing to offer her a very good deal, so she said no and walked out, having great confidence in herself."

When she found out Mayer would be returning to the United States shortly, she bought a ticket for the same boat.

"Once she was aboard, she found a way to make him long for her — after all, she was an actress," said Rhodes. "And before the ship landed in New York, she had a much, much better contract — the equivalent of about $3,000 a week for seven years. Within a year, with the appearance of her in the film Algiers opposite Charles Boyer, she was a superstar."

In Algiers, 1938. Hedy's beauty was once described by fellow actress
Lana Turner at as "enough to make strong men faint."
It would be tempting to look at Hedy's face and assume she had gotten it easy, but this wasn't true. The years preceding her entry to stardom were marked with drama and strife, mostly at the hands of the man who was her first husband.

Fritz and the Third Reich

Hedy's film Extase in 1932 was notorious for its sensual scenes, in which Hedy appears nude. Her husband at the time, Friedrich "Fritz" Mandl, objected to the distribution of the film, on the basis that it was an "exploitation of the expression on Hedy's face."

Fritz was an arms manufacturer and the third richest man in Austria, and they married when Hedy was nineteen. In her autobiography Ecstasy and Me, Hedy described him as being extemelly controlling, and preventing the growth of her acting career. She felt imprisoned in the castle-like home they kept and his family estate, where Fritz routinely hosted parties with guests that included Hitler and Mussolini.

As fascism rose to power in Europe, Frizt became increasingly involved in deals with the German Third Reich. The dealings required long, extensive conferences that he would force Hedy to attend. She was repulsed by this, as she was with her husband's rejection of his Jewish heritage and his acceptance of the title "Honorary Aryan" from the Third Reich.

Having witnessed the rising violence of the Nazis in Austria and hearing of their plans first-hand, Hedy knew she had to flee both her husband and her country. With the help of a servant one night in 1937, she disguised herself as a maid and escaped to Paris. From there, she would travel to London, and ultimately to Hollywood.

Success but not satisfaction

As Hedy changed her name to Hedy Lamarr and embarked on a successful career in Hollywood, she could not forget her experiences at home. She helped with the war effort in every way she could think of; by writing patriotic songs in the breaks between movie scenes, by signing autographs and washing plates for soldiers at the Hollywood Canteen, even by raising money for war bonds by going on tour - in one 10 day tour in 1942, she raised $6 million in one day alone.

Another of Lamarr's biographers, Stephen Michael Shearer, would state in his book Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr, "Her patriotism was astonishingly deep. She knew that the threat of fascism was very real."

Cast in the typical "beautiful girl" role in her movies, Hedy led a less than typical life in Hollywood. She did not enjoy going out, but preferred quiet evenings at home. She enjoyed spending time with friends, including one of her neighbors, composer George Anthiel, the son of German immigrants.

Inquisitive all her life, Hedy also took up inventing, as something of a hobby. She had a drafting table installed in her home, and started working on both new ideas and improvements to existing systems. She would laugh later about some of the things she tried to invent that never quite worked. Her most successful contribution, however, would go unknown for many years.


Having spent so many hours in conferences about munitions with Mandl, Hedy had some knowledge of torpedoes. She was also aware of the biggest issue for anyone using torpedoes: that they were powerful, but difficult to control. Together with her neighbor George, who was also an inventor, Hedy worked on a solution to this problem.

She felt that if they were radio-guided, torpedos might by more accurate when aiming for a target.
She conceived of a guidance system with transmitters that would that send signals with continuously shifting frequencies to receivers; by shifting the frequency around in what seemed like a random pattern, the signal would be virtually impossible for anyone from the outside to jam.

George was able to program the transmitters and receivers, and in August 1942, the duo patented their "Secret Communication System" and offered it to the U.S. government. As might have been expected from a military force that was not used to having ideas suggested from the outside, the Navy ignored it.

Late Praise

It was not until after World War II that the Navy dug the patent out of the files, and by then it had expired. By then, they were looking for a way to use sonar to detect submarines in the water and transmit the information to an airplane above - but they wanted to make sure the signal to the plane was secure.

They used Hedy and George's idea of a frequency-hopping signal, and it "caught on like wildfire," said Rhodes. It was used by the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam, and was later adopted by cellphone networks and wireless communication systems such as Bluetooth and GPS.

It wasn't until the 1990s that one of the pioneers of wireless communications for computers came across Lamarr's patent and realized she had never been credited. He pressed one of the major communication organizations to give her an award, so in 1997, exceedingly late but still appreciated, Hedy Lamarr was honored with an award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Her first words when they called her up to tell her she had gotten an award was, "Well, it's about time."

As welcome as that honor was, some stereotypes would never die - later in her life when Hedy expressed an interest in joining the National Inventors Council, NIC member Charles Kettering advised that she could help with the war effort better by using her celebrity to sell bonds.

Personal life and death

As gifted as she was, Hedy was never able to find a romantic relationship that suited her - she would be married six times. She became a naturalized citizen in 1953, and through to 1970 she was still being offered scripts, commercials, and stage products. None of these projects appealed to her however, and in 1981 she retired to Miami Beach in Florida.

Hedy died of heart disease and heart failure in January of 2000.


"Men are most virile and most attractive between the ages of 35 and 55. Under 35 a man has too much to learn, and I don't have time to teach him."

"American men, as a group, seem to be interested in only two things, money and breasts. It seems a very narrow outlook."

"The ceremony took six minutes. The marriage lasted about the same amount of time, though we didn't get a divorce for almost a year."

"It's funny about men and women. Men pay in cash to get them and pay in cash to get rid of them. Women pay emotionally coming and going. Neither has it easy."

  • Immigrant Inventors Past and Present, Newsletter Fall 2010, The Vilcek Foundation, 2010.
  • "Most Beautiful Woman" by Day, Inventor by Night, NPR Staff, November 22, 2011
  • Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, Philip Rhodes, 2011
  • Hedy Lamarr, Famous Scientists: The Art of Genius. 2016.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Maria Telkes, Chemist and Inventor

Maria Telkes
Maria Telkes was one of the first scientists to discover practical uses for the sun's energy. She invented a device that allowed downed airmen and sailors to distill salt water during WWII, and created the first house utilizing solar energy.

"Sunlight will be used as a source of energy sooner or later.... why wait?" ~ Maria Telkes

Maria Telkes was born on December 12, 1900 in Budapest, Hungary. Her parents were Aladar and Maria Laban de Telkes. Maria was interested in science at an early age and thrived in high school, then completed a B.A. in physical chemistry at Budapest University. She went on to complete her doctorate in physical chemistry, graduating in 1924.

After graduation, Maria worked for one year at the university as an instructor, but her life took a turn when she went to visit a relative in the United States. Her relative was the Hungarian consul in Cleveland, and during Maria's stay she was offered a job at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation to investigate the power produced by living organisms.

She accepted the job and remained in the position for twelve years working for scientist George Crile. Together, Maria and Crile invented a photoelectronic mechanism for recording brain waves, then collaborated on a book, Phenomenon of Life, to present their findings.

Maria's work on the nature of brain waves continued at the Foundation as she explored the source of that energy, what happens to it when a cell dies, and what changes occur when a cell becomes a cancer cell.

In 1937 Maria became an American citizen. That same year she would start working on a project that had captured her imagination ever since she was a child: how to capture heat energy and use its power in other ways.

Saving lives with solar energy

In 1939 Maria joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Solar Energy Conservation Project, where she built on her thermoelectric conversion research from the prior two years; this time, however, she would be using the sun as the source of energy.

With the onset of World War II, the U.S. government started looking for ways to help sailors and soldiers facing specific challenges in the field. Battles in the Pacific Ocean were leaving sailors and downed airmen stranded at sea for days, and they needed a simple way to be able to convert salt water into something that was drinkable.

Maria was recruited to serve as civilian advisor to the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). Her mission was to develop a device that could do this while being lightweight and portable.

Previously, salt water had been converted into clean drinking water by heating it and turning it into steam, leaving the salt behind, then cooling the air so the steam condensed back into pure water. Maria simplified this process and made it packable with the invention of a solar still, a lightweight water distillation device that used plastic film and the heat of the sun.

From the 1966 patent for Maria's solar still,
US Patent Office.
It was perfect for warm, tropical climates and was added to emergency medical kits, where it saved the lives of many downed airmen and sailors desperate for water after their ships had been torpedoed.

Maria's solar still invention was also created on a larger scale to process a higher volume of water; this system was put in place in the Virgin Islands, which did not have a large, reliable supply of fresh water. In 1945, Maria  received the OSRD Certificate of Merit for this invention.

First solar house

In 1948 Maria began working on one of her most famous projects, the Dover Sun House. Designed by Eleanor Raymond and financed by sculptor Amelia Peabody, the house was the first of its kind, heated entirely by solar energy.

To accomplish the conversion, Maria utilized a salt that would melt in the sun, capturing its energy, then release it as heat energy when the salt cooled and hardened.

In her system, sunlight passed through large glass windows to heat air trapped behind glass. The heat from the air was then passed through a metal sheet and into another air space. From there, fans moved the hot air into storage compartments filled with the salt, a solution of sodium sulphate. The storage compartments were kept in the walls, so the walls heated the house as the salt cooled, releasing the sun's energy.

The system was very cost effective and more efficient than any other alternative at the time. It worked well in the winter of Massachusetts when the house needed warming, and in the summer when the house got hot, the salt solution in the walls cooled the air inside by drawing out some of the heat.

The technology was heralded as an exciting breakthrough, and the fact that the house was developed and financed by three professional women made the project even more of a sensation. Maria was presented with the Society of Women Engineers' inaugural Achievement Award in 1952 in recognition of this accomplishment.

Developing a solar oven

The woman who would come to be known as the "Sun Queen" continued to work with solar energy after the development of the house. In 1953 she went to work for the College of Engineering at New York University, and organized a solar lab so she could continue her work.

Maria furthered her development of solar stills and heating systems, then was commissioned by the Ford Foundation to develop a solar oven for use in poor countries - her instructions were that it must be simple to make, and able to maintain a heat of 350 degrees, hot enough to bake bread or cook a roast.

Maria accomplished this by developing a cheap, easily operated oven that could heat to the required levels when the temperature outside was in the sixties. The ovens could cook any type of food, were safe for children, did not burn or scorch foods, and allowed the cook to do other tasks, as the food did not have to be constantly monitored.

Maria's solar ovens would be utilized by nations and in villages around the world.

Challenges of sea and space

In 1958 Maria was hired as the Director of Research at the Princeton Division of the Curtis-Wright Company, and she turned her attention to outer space. She researched solar dryers, and the possibility of using solar thermoelectric generators in outer space.

From 1961-63 Maria worked on the development of materials that could be used to safely store equipment that would be damaged by changes in temperature. The materials developed from this work were utilized in shipping and storage containers for such projects as the Apollo and Polaris, where the extreme temperatures of outer space and the deepest ocean posed a challenge to sensitive yet vital equipment.

In 1963, Maria became head of the solar energy laboratory at MELPAR company, where she continued her work on technology for converting salt water to fresh water for another six years. By 1969 she had received patents in the United States for her methods of storing solar heat.

Solar One

In the 1970s America experienced its first real oil crisis, and as usual, it turned to scientists for solutions.  Dr Karl Böer, a highly regarded scientist in the field of photovoltaic energy (a subset of solar energy), was organizing a conference at the University of Delaware to develop a building called Solar One, which would be the first residential house to be powered entirely by solar energy.

Maria was enlisted for her depth of knowledge in this area. "We had a team of ten that included the best architects and engineers in the country," said Böer, "but Maria was responsible for 20 percent of the work. She had an answer for everything."

Once completed, the building generated significant interest among the public and the business world, who was recognizing the possibility of solar power for what seemed like the first time. Speaking later about Maria's accomplishments in solar energy, Böer stated that it was she who laid the groundwork for the potential for America to drastically reduce their dependance on fossil fuels.

The Solar One building, University of Deleware
In 1977 Maria was honored by the National Academy of Science Building Research Advisory Board for her contributions to solar-heated building technology. She retired from active research in 1978, though she continued to act as a consultant for several solar energy companies until 1992.

In 1995 Maria made a visit to her hometown on Budapest, Hungary, her first visit in over 70 years. She would die there on December 2nd, 1995, nearly 95 years old.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Clara Wieck Schumann, Composer and Musician

Clara Wieck Schumann was a musician and composer whose career spanned six decades at a time when female musicians were exceedingly rare. She did all this while raising a family and supporting her musical husband.

"Composing gives me great pleasure... there is nothing the surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it, one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound." ~ Clara Wieck Schumann

Clara Wieck was born on September 13th, 1819 to Friedrich and Marianne Wieck in Lepzig, Germany. Her mother Marianne was a concert pianist and singer, and her father was a piano teacher and musical dealer.

While both parents were musically trained, it was her father who pushed Clara the most. Friedrich was highly ambitious and had decided even before she was born that his child would be a musical performer of the highest rank.

He began giving Clara piano lessons at the age of five, quickly shifting into the role of dominant taskmaster as he had her practice for hours every day while also learning languages and musical theory. Among Clara's lessons were those in piano, violin, singing, composition, harmony, and counterpoint.

Having long had their differences, Clara's parents divorced when she was five years old. Her mother married a man with whom she had been having an affair, and Clara went to live with her father.

She began attending school in addition to her musical training, and received lessons from Heinrich Dorn, director of the Leipzig Opera.

In March of 1828, Clara performed in the home of Dr. Ernst Carus. There she would meet another musical student who was nine years her senior, Robert Schumann. Robert enjoyed Clara's music so much he asked his parents for permission to discontinue his law studies, which had never really inspired him, and to begin piano instruction with Clara's father Friedrich.

While taking lessons from Clara's father Robert would stay at the Wieck residence, at one point staying for nearly a year. He developed a bond with the young Clara and would entertain her endlessly, even dressing up as a ghost to scare her. It was the beginning of a friendship that would grow in the coming years.

A solo career

In the early nineteenth century it was necessary to perform in Parisian salons, or gathering places, if one wanted to become a recognized and celebrated musician. In 1830 at the age of 11 Clara and her father left on a concert tour of these Paris salons, and other European cities.

Clara performed her first solo piano concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, playing the works of Herz, Kalkbrenner, Czerny, and two of her own compositions. Her performance was met with praise from the critics. In Weimar, she performed for the celebrated German politician and writer Goethe, who presented her with a medal and a written note saying "For the gifted artist Clara Wieck."

Delighted and encouraged by her success, Clara's father continued to take her on tours. At the age of 18 she performed a series of recitals in Vienna from December 1837 to April 1838. She performed to sell-out crowds and critical acclaim, such the report from that day by an anonymous critic:

"The appearance of this artist can be regarded as epoch-making... In her creative hands, the most ordinary passage, the most routine motive acquires a significant meaning, a color, which only those with the most consummate artistry can give."

Austria's leading dramatic poet, Franz Grillparzer, wrote a poem dedicated to Clara after hearing her perform. Composers Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt came to her concerts and praised her effusively in published journals and reviews. On March 15th of 1838 Clara was named "Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso" in Austria, their highest musical honor.

Personal life

While her professional life thrived, Clara had fallen in love in the meantime - with her father's student, the boy she met when she was eight, Robert Schumann. Her father disproved of the match, believing it would only distract Clara from the musical career to which he had dedicated so much time. Despite his vehement opposition, Robert and Clara became engaged. This led to a bitter estrangement between Clara and her father.

In 1840 when Clara was 21, the couple applied for permission from a court to marry without Friedrich's consent. The judge allowed it, and the couple were wed.

Clara's life changed dramatically after becoming married, as one might expect - she was now not only in a new relationship with Robert, but out from under the domineering influence of her father. Motherhood came to Clara in 1841, and the couple had eight children in relatively quick succession over the next thirteen years.


Clara continued to play and compose music while raising her children, a rare feat for any woman living in mid-19th century Europe. She performed not only due to her nature and training, but to raise money for the family - Robert suffered from depression and offered little support with either the children or the finances.

Clara was the breadwinner of the family and also organized her own concerts and tours, while continuing to teach. Tragedy would befall her family numerous times, as her first son Emil died when he was only one year old.

She was a proud and protective mother who would not accept the charity of others, even when it was offered from her friends. One story from the days of revolution during the May Uprising of Dresden in 1949 (an uprising in the streets of Germany against the King of Prussia and the constitution) describes Clara marching through the city to find her children and bring them home safely, stepping past mobs that confronted her with her children clasped in her arms.

Death and Illness

Though he was a talented composer who encouraged his wife in her own musical career, Robert was plagued with episodes of debilitating depression. It became so bad that in 1954, he attempted suicide, and he was committed to an insane asylum, where he spent the last years of his life. He died of syphilis in 1956.

Debate continued regarding the exact nature of his disorder, which has been described by different sources as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, manic depression, and "exhaustion brought about by overwork."

Regardless of the specific cause, the result was that Clara was left alone at the age of thirty-seven to earn a living and raise their seven children, one of whom also suffered from depression - this was her son Ludwig, who would similarly die like his father in an institution, in Clara's words, "buried alive."

Later Career

After Robert's death Clara resumed traveling more frequently, again with the purpose of earning money. In 1857 she toured Germany and earned a reputation as one of the country's elite musicians. She continued touring in Germany and England through the next few decades, though with less frequency in the 1880s as her health declined.

A champion of Robert's work while he was living, Clara became even more invested after his death, and dedicated herself to the interpretation and publication of his works. Though unpopular to begin with she promoted his works tirelessly, and she is credited with his compositions receiving the recognition and appreciation they do today.

While dedicated to her music Clara's family remained her primary focus, and when she lost two more children in 1872 and 1879, she was left to raise their grandchildren. She performed and taught classes to support them, working from 1878 to 1882 as a teacher of piano at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. She contributed greatly to the school's instruction of technique; students of Clara's would take these techniques and build them into tradition at other schools of musical distinction, such as the renowned Julliard School in New York.

Illness caught up with Clara in the 1880s, though she continued to tour with friends and give recitals when she could. She would play her last concert in Frankfurt in 1891.

Clara suffered from a severe stroke in March of 1896 in Frankfurt, Germany. She died on May 20th. She was 72 years old.


Though less well known that her husband, Clara was well established and respected in her day and left behind a small but significant body of work. Beginning composition at the age of fourteen, her output would decline after Robert's death in 1856, as she lost confidence in her work. As she once put in writing, "I once believed that I contained creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose - there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?"

Clara is credited with changing the way pianist perform, along several lines: one is that she was the first to commit long compositions to memory, so she could play them without sheet music. Additionally, she was instrumental in changing the programs concert pianists performed. In her early career, she played what was typical of that time, which were bold, almost show-off pieces that were intended to showcase the player's talent but when not played with enough heart, could leave the listener feeling empty - this was one of the criticisms of Robert regarding this type of performance.

As she matured however (and probably from the influence of Robert), she began to play more serious works, focusing almost exclusively on the works of Bach, Beethover, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. This was unlike what the more popular pianists were playing at that time, and it shaped what was performed going forward.

Clara was undoubtably a highly talented musician and composer who would make her mark during her lifetime and also following death, though her works and the teachings of her students. What was perhaps more amazing about her life was the amount of time she was able to give to her music at all considering her equal dedication to her husband and children.

As Robert wrote in a diary that the couple shared,

"Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out."