By Alex Berger
“Women are like tea bags. They don’t know how strong they are until they get into hot water.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt
“Despite [their] contributions, the role of American women in history has been consistently overlooked and undervalued in the literature, teaching and study of American history.” – U.S. Congress resolution designating March as Women’s History Month (1987).
March will soon be blowing in. It is the time in which we celebrate Women’s History Month and the achievements of women who have made a difference. March was chosen because March 8 is International Women’s Day. In addition, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the National Women’s Council of the United States in March 1888.
These 19th century pioneers knew the arduous life most women of their time were experiencing. Their fellow sisters were responsible for “home and family,” producing the food, goods and services necessary for family survival.
Typically, March was a time for annual housecleaning. Every surface of the house, covered by soot and ashes from heating and lighting during long winter nights, had to be cleaned. Bleaching linen was also one of the March tasks.
Over the following 100 years, women witnessed and led the technology required to save labor and time. More than 140 cooking devices were patented by women in the 19th century alone. Food processing devices patented by women ranged from apple peelers and ice cream freezers to mechanical mixers. Women were indeed on the march but met glitches along the way.
As late as March 1908, the mayor of Cincinnati told the City Council that no woman was physically fit to operate an automobile. He never could have envisioned that the first popularly elected mayor of Cincinnati would be a female or that March would be celebrated as Women’s History Month. Yes, women have come a long way.
The number of working women in the United States has since grown from 5.3 million in 1900 to more than 64 million today — 48 percent of this country’s workforce. And, more and more women are entering the workforce and receiving deserved recognition.
Today, it is not unusual to see your sisters, daughters, granddaughters, nieces, mothers, grandmothers, wives and nieces (twice removed) working side by side with (and higher than) men in politics, writing, art, movies, education, medicine, sports, military and many other fields formerly considered male areas only.
This advancement for women would never have been accomplished, however, without the trailblazers who shattered the steel curtains surrounding the strictly male bastions. This is especially true of the following:
Women in Flight — Fay Gillis Wells flew for the Curtis Flying Service in 1929.
Women Sailors — For centuries, fishermen, pirates and explorers roamed the high seas while their wives and children stayed ashore. Life aboard ship was a male domain, or so it is often assumed; however, an astonishing number of women went to sea in the great Age of Sail.
Some traveled as wives or mistresses of captains. Some were smuggled aboard by officers or seamen. Other young women dressed in men’s clothing and worked alongside male sailors for months and even years.
“Women in Harm’s Way” — Barton (the “Angel of the Battlefield”) volunteered to serve as a nurse during the Civil War. She later founded the American Red Cross.
“Clandestine Women” (Women in Espionage) served our country throughout its history. Their participation in the defense of our nation dates as far back as the beginning of America. While defending against the British offensive, Gen. George Washington relied heavily on information provided by a member of the fair sex, “355,” the code name for “lady.”
The indispensable role of Sacagawea on the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 1800s was one of the most important and earliest intelligence-gathering missions of this country. She provided crucial knowledge of topography and Indian languages.
Aside from her value as an interpreter and guide, Sacagawea collected edible plants and roots as food and medicine and rescued many important documents and supplies. More importantly, she and her infant helped to make peaceful contacts with Indian tribes. As Clark noted in his journal, “A woman with a party of men is a token of peace.”
African-American women also undertook innumerable acts of bravery and selflessness, and Harriet Tubman is one of the most famous. The former slave became well known as she helped slaves escape along the passageways of the Underground Railroad. Tubman also served as a valued Union scout, spy and nurse. She is considered the first recorded African-American woman to serve in the military.
More recently, during World War II, 4,500 women served in positions from code clerks to actual undercover agents in the Office of Strategic Services, or the OSS, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency.
One such woman is Julia Child, the famous “French Chef” who started her service in the OSS headquarters shortly after the United States entered the war. She was transferred overseas in 1944 and served in Ceylon and China. Child was awarded the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service for the leadership she displayed as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat in China.
Another woman who contributed to the war effort is Virginia Hill, who initially joined the Department of State as a clerk. After she was turned down for a position in the foreign service because of her gender and a disability, she went to Europe and operated with members of the French underground as the first female field officer.
She returned to the OSS fluent in German and French and with a knowledge of Morse code. These qualities and her ability to work a wireless radio made her the most valuable asset to the OSS.
Maintaining her cover as a milkmaid, she delivered milk to German soldiers to gather invaluable information. After the war she became one of the CIA’s first female operations officers.
So, my hat is off to all women, past and present, who never gave up. They have climbed, or are still climbing, the ladder of success in every field imaginable. To all women: Keep raising the height of that ladder, and remember, no job is out of your reach.
Contact columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at email@example.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 140.