Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Miriam Amanda "Ma" Ferguson – Texas Governor

Texas governor Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson was the first woman elected to a four-year term as governor in the United States. By a quirk of fate, she was the second woman sworn in as governor as Wyoming’s Nellie Ross, elected to fill her husband’s unexpired term, was sworn in 15 days before Ma.
Ma Ferguson had lived in the Texas Governor’s Mansion before. Her husband Jim had served as governor before he was impeached, charged with using state funds for personal items. In 1924, Jim Ferguson talked his wife into entering the race, proclaiming that Texans would get two governors for the price of one. She ran with the slogan, “Me for Ma,” and the sunbonnet became her symbol during the election. She was not particularly happy about any of this but later came to appreciate its value. Under Texas law at that time, her husband was entitled to all of her salary, but this did not stop her from campaigning energetically–so much so that her right arm swelled to twice its normal size from shaking so many hands.
Controversy over her granting pardons (2,000 in her first 20 months) and highway contracts (Many believed the Fergusons received kickbacks.) dogged her first term as governor. She was defeated in 1926 and 1930, but ran again successfully in 1932. Her second term was less controversial, but she “retired” from politics after four years However, she attempted to seek another term in 1940. She was defeated, although she was still able to poll 100,000 votes in her effort.
Among her positions as governor, she is perhaps best remembered for a statement she uttered in defense of her opposition to teaching foreign languages in the public schools. She was quoted as saying, “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the children of Texas.”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lillian Evanti – Opera Star

Annie Lillian Evans was born into a Washington, DC, African-American family which counted a Revolutionary War soldier, two abolitionists at Harper’s Ferry and the first black U.S. Senator as ancestors. Lillian herself would become the first African American to sing Grand Opera anywhere in the world.
Her parents were both educators and for a short time she followed in their footsteps by teaching kindergarten. However, she left teaching to study at Howard University, receiving a degree in music in 1917.  Shortly thereafter she married her music professor, Roy Tibbs, and combined their last names to form “Evanti,” the name she would use professionally.
By 1925, she had moved to France, believing it would be easier to cross the racial divide in Europe. She lived there until the beginning of World War II, although she made a number of trips back to the United States during her time in France.  In 1932, she auditioned for the New York Metropolitan Opera but was not asked to join the company because she was African American. 
In 1934, she gave a command performance for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. On that same trip to the United States, she also performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
She and Mary Caldwell Dawson founded the National Negro Opera Company in 1941 in Pittsburgh. Newspapers of the time gave very favorable reviews to the efforts of this company. 
Lillian was quite popular in  South America and sang, as well, in Africa. She performed in 24 operas over her lifetime. A very versatile singer, she spoke (and sang) five different languages. Later in life, she returned to Washington, D.C., where she coached singers and gave voice lessons. She died in Washington in 1967.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Lydia Pinkham – Venus de Medicine

In the early part of the 20th century, Lydia Pinkham’s likeness was familiar to most American women. Born in Lynn, Massachusetts to a Quaker family, Lydia was well-educated when she married shoemaker Isaac Pinkham.
Poor Isaac, however, was not able to succeed in any of the several businesses he tried. He lost what little money he had been able to accumulate in the Panic of 1873, leaving the Pinkham family in serious financial straits.
For some time, Lydia, like most women of her day, had been brewing medicinal compounds. Most folks looked askance at the medical profession during this time. It was expensive to visit a doctor, and quite often the remedies they prescribed were more poison than medicine. There is a legend that Isaac Pinkham had received the recipe that would become Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound for female complaints as payment from one of his customers. However the Pinkhams received it, Lydia had been brewing it and distributing it free to her neighbors.
When the family found itself in serious financial straits, their son, Daniel, suggested marketing the elixir as a patent medicine. Lydia concocted it on her stove at home until 1876 when the volume of sales necessitated moving operations to a factory. By 1925, it had gross sales of $3.8 million, probably helped along by Prohibition. News stories in the 1920s noted that Lydia Pinkham’s “signature” often appeared on bogus prescriptions for “medicinal alcohol.” The plant continued operation until her great-grandchildren sold the formula to another company in 1973.
Lydia was also the inspiration for a number of popular folk songs. “Lily the Pink,” popularized by the Irish Rovers in the latter part of the 20th century was a sanitized version of one of these songs.
Lydia died in 1883, the same week as the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Catherine Schuyler – The Morning Star

A member of the privileged Van Rensselaer family, Catherine married Philip Schuyler in 1755. For much of the early part of her marriage, Catherine Schuyler seemed content to manage the household and take care of her children (She would have 15 in all.). 
During the French and Indian War, she distinguished herself by taking care of the sick and wounded. Philip Schuyler, serving in the military under General John Bradstreet, was called upon by Bradstreet to go to England in his stead (There has been much speculation over the years of a romantic entanglement between the much older Gen. Bradstreet and Catherine Schuyler during this time.)
While Philip Schuyler was away, it became evident that Catherine was completely capable of managing the business of the family’s estates. She arranged and oversaw the building of a pretentious residence in Albany. 
The Schuylers had a second home in Saratoga, and during the American Revolution as General Burgoyne advanced into this area, Philip Schuyler sent word that the wheat fields around the Saratoga house must be destroyed to prevent the British from harvesting it for their own use. Catherine Schuyler immediately left Albany for Saratoga although she was advised against travel after word reached them of the murder of Jane McCrea. Catherine personally set fire to the wheat fields. This act was immortalized in a painting by Emanuel Leuzte.
Catherine and Philip Schuyler’s daughters were not wallflowers, either. Four of the five arranged their own marriages–not at all usual for the time–with several of them eloping much to the dismay of their parents. The fifth daughter, Elizabeth, married Alexander Hamilton.
Catherine Schuyler spent her later years tending her homes and family, dying in 1803 of apoplexy.