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Discovering notable women in history

08 March 2024

Jill, the leader of Northwood & District u3a's Women In History group, talks about how it all started with a particularly fascinating session of their American Politics group. 

Victoria Claflin Woodhull, credit to Wikimedia commons

How did our Women in History group start?

Well, in 2016 a group formed to follow the American Presidential Election, led by Elfed a retired lecturer in American Politics. Needless to say, when Donald Trump became President the American ‘scene’ became more intriguing, and then, of course it all became even more interesting in 2020.

At one of these meetings Elfed told us of Victoria Claflin Woodhull(1836-1927) who was later known as Victoria Woodhull Martin. 

She was an American leader of Women’s Suffrage, who ran for President of the United States of America in the 1872 Elections.

As a child, Victoria and her family lived in the rural town of Homer, Lickey County Ohio. She was the 7th of 10 children - including her sister who later became a stockbroker, newspaper owner and editor. Her mother was illiterate and her father a con man and a snake oil salesman. 

At the age of 11, the family had to flee when her father burned their house down as an insurance scam. Victoria's first marriage took place when she was 15 to an older man (28), who turned out to be a womanizer and alcoholic.

Throughout her life, she railed against the hypocrisy of society tolerating men who had mistresses, and ‘outed’ several ‘respectable men’ who did this.

Yet, she believed in what she called ‘free love’ by which she meant the freedom to marry, divorce and bear children without social restriction or government interference.

Despite this she believed in monogamous marriage, although with the right to change her mind, and the right to have sex or not within marriage.

In 1870, with sister Tennie, they became the first female stockbrokers in the USA. One report called them 'petticoats among the bovine animals.'

With proceedings from the brokerage, the sisters founded a newspaper which achieved a circulation of 20,000. This was mainly to support Victoria's run for President of the United States in the 1872 elections.

Intrigued ?

There is so much more, which led particularly the women in the group to ask, ‘Why haven’t we heard of this amazing woman?

This led to a conversation about how many more amazing women we know so little about. The decision was made to form a group to explore them further.

Over two years later we are going strong.

We now meet in person. Originally we agreed to discuss one woman per meeting, but now hear about and discuss two women at the two-hour meeting. The only proviso is that the woman is no longer alive. This gives time for the presentation by a member followed by discussion. Plus of course there is time for coffee or tea and a social chat.

Two members volunteer to research a woman each. The rest of the group don’t have any prior information, which adds to the sense of discovery and delight when we are introduced to the subject.

Of course, many of the women we may have already heard of - such as Elizabeth Fry, Annie Besant, Helen Keller, Emmeline Pankhurst, Ada Lovelace, Coco Chanel, Josephine Baker, Hildegard of Bingen (we heard some of the music she wrote in the 12th century) - but our researchers always provide us with more detail than most of us knew, and a lively discussion ensues.

Some of the more unusual ones brought for our attention and delight/intrigue are:

  • Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962) - who developed the science of forensics by creating miniature dioramas in perfect detail as teaching tools for forensic work.
    In 1943, 25 years before female police officers were allowed out on the beat in America, the New Hampshire Police commissioned Lee as its first female captain and educational director.
  • Nelly Bly (1864-1922) - An investigative journalist who engineered a stay in an asylum and then introduced readers to the horrors of asylums at that time.
  • Maud West (1880-1964) - A master of disguise who ran a detective agency. This led to her being shot at in Paris by enraged heavies, shadowing an elegant woman around principal naval bases before exposing her as a highly paid enemy spy, and much more

So far, we have learned of over 30 women, with no sign of running out of steam.

We don’t claim to operate at a highly intellectual level, but our discussions always lead to consideration about the background of the topic, and what they may have overcome to achieve as they did.

This applies whether the woman is from an extremely privileged background, or born into poverty, or disability. The women concerned have shown remarkable tenacity and intelligence to go against the norms of the society they are in to make a huge difference to their cause or interest.

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