because the woman's place is wherever the woman is...

Friday, August 31, 2012

Nina Simone

Originally, Nina Simone wanted to be a classical pianist. In order to prepare for that, she applied to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but she was turned down because she was Black. So she took a jazz gig at a club in Atlantic City to pay for her continued classical training, but the club wanted her to sing, too. So she did. And the rest is history.

Between 1958 and 1974, Simone recorded more than forty albums. Her style combined jazz, blues, gospel and classical licks with a throaty contralto that mesmerized her audiences all over the world. But this isn't why she made the cut as an in-your-face woman. That happened because of the lyrics to the songs she wrote and the messages her performances delivered, especially when the Civil Rights struggle heated up in the 1960's.

Simone's song "Old Jim Crow" talked about how laws were used to disparage and oppress Black folks in the U.S. South. She covered Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" (about lynching), recorded Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free," and turned Lorraine Hansberry's "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" into a civil rights song.  Her response to the murder of NAACP organizer Medgar Evers -- "Mississippi Goddam!" -- was even boycotted in some states.

Two days before Simone's death in 2003, Curtis Institute of Music awarded her an honorary degree. Who knows what might have been different for this in-your-face woman -- and the world -- had they just admitted her all those years before. We'll never know. Perhaps that's for the best.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Etta Shiber

Etta Shiber was a 62-year-old widow from Manhattan living with a woman friend of hers in Paris when she discovered -- as many women have -- that she had what it took to be an in-your-face woman. It was 1940. The Germans had occupied France. And British soldiers who had been separated from their units were hiding out in the woods by the hundreds.

Coming across one such soldier in a cafe, Shiber and her roommate immediately stashed the man in their trunk and started through the streets of Paris stopping at one Nazi checkpoint after another. And in almost no time, they had crafted an entire system to move young Englishmen through and back out of France -- usually several at a time.

The system lasted about six months before Shiber, her roommate, and a Catholic priest who was also part of their underground railroad were all arrested. Both of the others were sentenced to death, but the priest escaped. Shiber, on the other hand, being a U.S. citizen, was treated differently, especially since the United States hadn't entered the war, as yet.

Sentenced to three years in prison, Shiber -- quite ill and malnourished -- was traded for a German spy after a year and a half. Her memoir about the adventure is entitled Paris Underground, but Shiber never did understand why some folks saw what she did as heroic. "The Nazi invasion did it, not I," she explained casually to a reporter after she had recuperated. "I was looking forward to a quiet old age. I still am." Or was that said with a wink?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Evelyn Sharp

Evelyn Sharp was born into a respected English family in 1869. Despite receiving little formal education, she passed exams that demonstrated her intelligence and eventually was not only a popular children's book writer, but a successful journalist, as well. By the time she reached her mid-thirties, however, she was giving the lion's share of her attention to the struggle of women to gain the right to vote.

Initially, while actively writing, organizing and speaking as a suffragette, Sharp honored her mother's request that she not risk going to prison. But five years into her commitment, her mother wrote her a letter releasing her from her promise and within a matter of days, she had been arrested for breaking out the windows in a government building (see photo above).

Unlike some women fighting for the vote, Sharp was militantly against the First World War, as well, and refused to pay taxes, which resulted in all her property being confiscated. A subsequent action in support of political prisoners got her arrested and imprisoned yet again. But as Sharp once wrote: "Reforms can always wait a little longer, but freedom, directly you discover you haven't got it, will not wait another minute."

At sixty-three, she married her lover of more than three decades (during which time he was married to someone else and had multiple other lovers, as well) and published her autobiography entitled Unfinished Adventure. Women of today are often given to understand that women of yesterday were good little girls. Some were. And some weren't.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Hannah Shapiro

In September of 1910, Hannah Shapiro went to her supervisor at Hart, Shaffner and Marx in Chicago to complain about a pay cut. It wasn't just her pay that was being reduced. All the seamstresses had been hit. And it was only a loss of one quarter of a penny per pair of pants, after all. So what was the big deal? The supervisor said nothing could be done.

Shapiro, only seventeen at the time, thought it over and went back to her supervisor a few days later to press the point, but to no avail. So Shapiro and her co-workers from Shop #5 went on strike. Much to the surprise of their bosses, not only did the workers in other shops sewing for Hart, Shaffner and Marx refuse to take up the missing seamstress' slack, but in rapid succession, six more shops followed right behind Shapiro and Shop #5. And by only a few weeks later, 40,000 women garment workers -- many of whom were immigrants and most of whom were very young -- had walked out, refusing to return to work until their demands were satisfied (a period of several months).

Somehow, after the fact, Hannah Shapiro disappeared from the historical accounts of this first important strike that helped to lay the groundwork for much of the labor struggle that came afterward. Despite the fact that she collected money and walked the picket line day after day in bitter cold, her quiet nature kept her out of the limelight and out of the photos. So gradually, her role was forgotten.

Still, when an in-your-face woman takes action, others follow. And whether she gets the attention she deserves or not, it was her courage in walking out first that became the bridge the others used to cross the great divide to a better life. How many in-your-face women have changed the world through the ages and then disappeared into the woodwork as if they never lived?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Assata Shakur

After 500 years of hard core, unapologetic oppression by White people and a White Supremacist system, Black people in America were still, in the 1950's, experiencing the same brutality and exploitation they had suffered under for so long. Some Black folks made picket signs and held marches. Others, like Assata Shakur, attacked back. Born JoAnne Byron in 1947 in Queens, New York, by the mid-1960's, she was protesting with the other college students at Borough of Manhattan Community College, demanding more Black and African Studies courses and Black faculty. But it didn't stop there.

Disenchanted with the Black Panther Party because she felt that the men who were members often acted in macho ways and that, overall, Black and African history were not being prioritized in the way she felt they should be, Shakur moved on to the Black Liberation Army. In short order, however, she moved again, this time to the Republic of New Africa, an organization that was trying to establish a majority Black nation in the southern United States.

It's hard to know what Shakur did and did not do in these organizations. We know that she helped to organize the Black Panther Party breakfast program, for example. But by the early 1970's, she was on wanted posters all over the United States, charged with a whole gamut of criminal mayhem. Called by the authorities a "revolutionary mother hen" and "the soul of the Black Liberation Army," Shakur was accused by the FBI and other agencies of being connected to virtually every crime in North America for a while, but after she was arrested none of the accusations became formal charges. Between 1973 and 1977, she was charged and tried for murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, bank robbery and armed robbery, but she was acquitted or the charges were ultimately dismissed in every case.

Still, the Powers-That-Be were determined to see -- and keep -- Shakur in prison and eventually, they accomplished their objective. Beaten, held in solitary confinement, subjected to continual vaginal and anal searches, and ultimately winding up as the only woman prisoner in a facility for men, Shakur was named a "political prisoner" by U.S. activists. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights concluded in 1979 that her treatment was "totally unbefitting any prisoner" and her sentence promised to hold her in this position for another twenty years at least.

So, some of her comrades went in to visit her and -- using guns (though nobody was hurt) -- took her with them when they left. And in 1984, Assata Shakur left the country for Cuba where she has lived in exile ever since, still considered an escaped convict and a "domestic terrorist" by the U.S. government. Whatever some think of her personal politics, Shakur is most certainly an in-your-face woman as evidenced in her writing from Cuba: "Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them...A woman's place is in the struggle."

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Huda Sha'arawi

Three years after Huda Sha'arawi was born into an upper class family in Minya, Egypt, in 1879, Great Britain invaded and occupied her country, but her life was circumscribed by ancient Egyptian rules for women. Women were expected to stay at home, even having their clothes delivered. Whenever a woman did leave the harem, they were required to cover their faces and hair. And though Sha'arawi was multi-lingual and well educated for a woman, she was married to a cousin at thirteen, as was typical. But that's where fate jumped in and changed her stars.

By whatever process of decision-making, the cousin chosen for Sha'arawi was not only a political activist, but a man who encouraged his wife to step out on her own as an individual in her own right. He supported her lecturing to and organizing women politically in their own best interests. He routinely sought her counsel and he even asked her to sit in on high level political meetings when he couldn't be present.

The result of all this was that, by World War I, Sha'arawi had established a women's welfare society to raise money for poor women, had helped to found a union for educated Egyptian women, and had opened a girls school that focused on academics instead of the things that women were usually allowed to learn. And, as soon as the war was over, in a particularly bold move, she started organizing women to protest the British occupation.

Then, in 1923, returning from a women's conference, Sha'arawi came down out of the train and shocked those who had come to meet her by simply removing her veil, instantly becoming -- quite literally -- the face of the Egyptian Feminist Union, a position she filled until her death at the age of sixty-eight. In one courageous act, Sha'arawi demonstrated her in-your-faced-ness by uncovering hers.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Blanche Stuart Scott

Blanche Stuart Scott's parents knew they had an in-your-face woman on their hands when the automobile was invented and she was driving all over town before she was fifteen. So they sent her to finishing school in hopes that she'd come back a "lady." It didn't work.

In fact, rather than leaving the car alone, she decided, instead, to drive from New York City to San Francisco with a woman reporter as her passenger. The trip had already been made the year before by another in-your-face woman -- Alice Huyler Ramsey -- but when the Willys-Overland Company approached Scott about making the follow-up run, she didn't hesitate (a trait common to in-your-face women apparently). In any case, by the time she reached San Francisco in July of 1910, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss had offered her flying lessons and she was really off to the races.

In no time at all, Scott -- called "The Tomboy of the Air" -- was part of Curtiss' exhibition team, flying upside down and plummeting to the earth in "death dives," aerial nosedives that would begin at 4000 feet and only end when she pulled up the nose of the plane about 200 feet above the ground. Next, she flew sixty miles non-stop across New York in what was then a long distance flight. And followed that up by being a test pilot for Glenn Martin prototypes before the final blueprints were even drafted.

Eventually, though, Scott quit flying when it became apparent that women were not going to be allowed to be flight mechanics or engineers and the audiences became more obsessed by crashes than stunts. In-your-face women love showing off, but they're not stupid.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Pat Schroeder

It was no surprise to a lot of people that Pat Schroeder ran for public office. She had graduated from Harvard Law School. She had worked for Planned Parenthood and the Labor Relations Board. She was an in-your-face woman. So, at thirty-one, she was representing Colorado in the United States House of Representatives. And she sat right there for twenty-three years.

Unapologetically female and a mother, Schroeder took diapers with her onto the Congressional floor and distinguished herself by making bold statements and bold stands on behalf of women. The Military Family Act of 1985 and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, for example, both owed their passing to her push. And she was always fighting the good old boys: undermining the power of committee chairs, questioning Congressional "hideaway" meetings, and challenging unethical traditional practices.

She's the one who called Reagan "the Teflon President." She's the one who talked about all the make-up President Nixon used to wear. And she's the one who told a bunch of Pentagon leaders -- when she was on the House Armed Services Committee -- that if they were women, they'd be pregnant all the time because they never said no.

Needless to say, they were all delighted when she wept in front of a microphone in 1987 as she announced her decision to abandon her run for the Presidency herself. Though, as a woman, she was never allowed to forget her show of emotion afterwards, she only dumped her file of men politicians crying in public when it got too big to keep. Her memoir, published in 1998, was entitled aptly enough 24 Years of Housework...and the Place is Still a Mess. Just imagine what laws might be passed if the female half of the U.S. population was actually represented by in-your-face women like Schroeder.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sophie Scholl

Much has been written about how difficult it was for Germans under the Nazi regime during World War II to resist government authority. Much has also been written about how that authority seemed to sneak up and grab a real strangle-hold on the mass public before they realized it had been done. But a small group of students, including one in-your-face woman saw what was happening, called it what it was, and did something about it.

Sophie Scholl, a biology and philosophy student at the University of Munich in the summer of 1942, had just turned twenty-one when she joined her brother and a scant few other of their friends in organizing a group they christened The White Rose Society after a novel that had been banned by the Nazis. Their primary action was to use a hand-cranked duplicating machine to print thousands each of six different leaflets against the Nazis and surreptitiously distribute them here and there in public spaces. Sophie was particularly good at it because soldiers weren't as suspicious of her as they might have been of one of the men.

Leaflet Three said in part: "Why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanised state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – or rather, your moral duty to eliminate this system?"

Highly frustrated at this bold resistance right under their noses, the Nazi Powers-That-Be identified and arrested Sophie, her brother and one other man on February 18, 1943. They were tortured, tried, convicted and beheaded within three days. Speaking of Sophie Scholl, a prison guard said later, "She went without the flicker of an eyelash. None of us knew how this was possible. The executioner said he had never seen anyone meet [their] end as she did." Which only means they hadn't seen a lot of in-your-face women.

As she walked to the guillotine, Scholl was heard to say, "Such a fine, sunny day and I have to go, but what does my death matter if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?" In 2003, proving that hundreds of thousands of Germans have been affected by Scholl's example, she and her brother were voted fourth on the list of the Top Ten Germans of All Time. Counting only the votes of those under forty, the two siblings were number one on the list. Not bad for one so young.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Odette Sansom

In-your-face women like Odette Sansom come out of the woodwork when a war's on. Sansom was French, but living in England with her three daughters when she accidentally sent some photos to the War Office and was invited to join the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) under the Special Operations Executive. FANY operatives were the ones who went into France to work with the underground resistance network there. And Sansom didn't hesitate a minute to put her children in a convent school and get on about the business of saving France from the German occupiers.

Landing near Cannes in 1942 with information, instructions and plenty of money to help support the resistance, Sansom began work immediately, which was a good thing because, within a year, a double agent had betrayed her and she was arrested. Even though interrogators branded her and pulled out all her toenails at Fresnes Prison in Paris, Sansom stuck to her cover story which protected not only her, but her superior, who had also been arrested and was later to become her husband.

Sentenced to death and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, Sansom somehow survived the rest of the war and lived to be liberated so she could testify against her captors. Since a third of the women in the Special Operations Executive died or were executed in captivity, Sansom was the only one of them who was still alive when she received her George Cross (Britain's highest civilian honor for courage). In-your-face women hate to miss a party -- especially one thrown just for them.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger was the sixth of eleven children born to her devout Catholic mother who got pregnant eighteen times in twenty-two years before she died at only fifty years of age. It may be this graphic reality that inspired Sanger to say over and over later in her life: "No woman can call herself free that does not own and control her own body."

After becoming a nurse and working with poverty-stricken immigrant women on the East Side of Manhattan in New York City, Sanger was further disheartened by seeing the effects of multiple pregnancies and self-induced abortions that were common among her patients. So, in 1914, she began producing an eight-page monthly newsletter promoting contraception and other radical ideas. It was entitled, of course, The Woman Rebel and freely discussed what she called "birth control." As if this wasn't enough, Sanger and her husband also made available a booklet called Family Limitation, describing in clear detail various methods to prevent pregnancy.

At the time, federal anti-obscenity laws banned dissemination of such information, which Sanger perfectly well knew. And in truth, within a few months, she'd been charged with violating obscenity laws and "inciting murder and assassination." So she left the country. By the time she returned the following year, however, support for her and her work was so strong that the government ultimately had to drop the charges.

It doesn't take much to encourage an in-your-face woman to do what she wants to do anyway, so Sanger soon opened the first family planning and birth control clinic in the United States, where she began distributing, among other things, diaphragms imported from Denmark and widely used in Europe but not typically available in America. Nine days later, she was arrested again and this time she was tried and convicted, but she was offered a deal if she would just stop doing what she was doing. Her response: "I cannot respect the law as it exists today."

Even though the judge in that case ruled that "women do not have the right to copulate with the security that there will be no resulting conception" and sentenced Sanger to twenty days in jail, a subsequent appellate court eventually ruled that doctors could prescribe contraception. And in-your-face woman Margaret Sanger had beaten the big boys. In court.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Christina Sanchez

Some people think bullfighting is horrifying. Spaniard Christina Sanchez -- who killed 316 bulls in her six year career as a bullfighter -- counters that she thinks what is done in slaughter houses is far more cruel. And there you have it. An in-your-face woman's response to someone questioning her choices.

Sanchez was twenty-one when she graduated third in her class of one hundred at Madrid's Escuela de Tauromaquia. She rapidly drew such crowds in Ecuador and Mexico, in addition to Spain, that male matadors started refusing to share billings with her. Why? Because her record and her popularity meant that her name would have to come first and be more prominent.

Frustrated, Sanchez quit performing altogether rather than accept second billing to a bunch of egoistic males who couldn't keep up. The bulls, of course, were delighted.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Deborah Sampson

When Deborah Sampson's father ran off and left his wife and six children destitute in Middleborough, Massachusetts, in 1768, Deborah was only eight years old, but she was farmed out as an indentured servant to one family after another until she turned eighteen and became a teacher. Deborah, however, was an in-your-face woman, bored with the routines of her life serving others and being appropriately circumspect. How do we know? Because she tried to join the revolutionary forces to fight the British, that's how.

For whatever reason, though, the first time she signed up (in 1778), she got the impression that the recruiters smelled a rat, so she didn't come back as expected. But that didn't stop her from trying again four years later and this time, she cut her hair, bound her breasts, put on men's clothes and was successful. Keep in mind that when she did this, it was illegal and when the Baptist Church where she was a member caught wind of it, they excommunicated her.

Fighting under the name Robert Shurtliff Sampson -- her dead brother's name -- she was fine until she took two musket balls in the thigh. Then, rather than have the doctor figure out her secret, she dug out the ball that was less deep with a pen knife and a needle and gave up on the other one because it was too deep, so it never did heal properly.  Still, she could at least return to her duties as a soldier.

She was finally discovered and discharged when she caught a fever, but despite her eighteen months of loyal service to the Republic, even with the support of her long-term friend Paul Revere, Sampson had to fight Congress like the in-your-face woman she was from 1792 to 1816 before she was given the pension she should have gotten all along. And folks think equal pay for equal work was an idea that developed in the 1960's. Not hardly.
NOTE: The statue pictured above is of Deborah Sampson and stands in front of the public library in Sharon, Massachusetts, which also boasts a Deborah Sampson Street, a Deborah Sampson Field, and the Deborah Sampson House.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Angelle Sampey

Angelle Sampey was a twenty-six-year-old intensive care nurse when she decided she wanted to race motorcycles instead in 1996.  Four years later, she took the National Hot Rod Association Championship as a Pro Stock Bike Racer.  Then, the following year, just to make sure they got the point, she took the Championship crown again by winning a record-setting twenty-two races.

At 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, Sampey's forty-one wins puts her just four behind the number one Pro Stock Bike Racer ever, so she naturally resisted using her gender to grab sponsors. Speaking about how she and other women racers feel about being seen as women first and competitors second, Sampey told one reporter: "In my mind and in my heart, I'm just a racer. When the helmet goes on, you can't see the faces. We want you to give us attention because we're winners."

Sampey retired in 2010 (at the age of forty) because she wants to have a baby, but her career stats, they say, will almost unquestionably put her in the Hall of Fame one day. Right where in-your-face women belong.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Lara St. John

Canadian Lara St. John began playing violin at two and started taking lessons at three. An impressive feat, but not in-your-face. Even spending a year in Paris at eight years old to study with a master and her subsequent professional debut with the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon at ten followed by a three-year tour of Europe was most certainly remarkable to the point of being amazing, but not in-your-face.

Graduating from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at seventeen and becoming the youngest post-graduate student at the Moscow Conservatory didn't make St. John an in-your-face woman either. Nor did any of her other tours, appearances, awards, accomplishments and distinctions.

What demonstrates her in-your-facedness is the covers on her albums, at least one of which sold 25,000 copies (a lot for Bach). Shocking the classical music community out of their sensible shoes, St. John's only response was, "I'm not a fat old man. Why should I dress like one?" Yup. In-your-face, all right. Violin and all.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lyn St. James

The first time race car driver Lyn St. James got behind the wheel of a car in competition (a Ford Pinto equipped with a roll bar and belts), she lost control and put it in a lake. She was a secretary and piano teacher named Evelyn Cornwall at the time, but when her husband suggested that she might should re-consider her hunger to speed, she said no way, changed her name to something snappier, and eight years later, won a slot on the Ford racing team.

Still, fifteen years with Ford didn't scratch the itch this in-your-face woman had to rev an even more serious engine. So, in her mid-forties, when she finally got a shot at racing Indy cars, she jumped at the chance and wound up Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500 in 1992. After that, at one point or another, she won the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring races and completed twice at the 24 Hours of LeMans. Further, she showed up and qualified in Indianapolis in 2000 at 53 years of age -- by far the oldest competitor on the track that day.

Asked by Car and Driver magazine what she would have done differently if she had it to do over again, St. James said she would have started earlier. Girls entering her Complete Driver Academy (and there have been 250 of them since 1994!) begin as early as twelve. But everything else racing has cost her -- the family sacrifices, the effects on her body of multiple crashes, the toll on her relationships -- has been worth it, she says. An in-your-face woman just can't help herself.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Vita Sackville-West

Being bi-sexual hardly makes you an in-your-face woman, in and of itself. But Vita Sackville-West did far more than just engage in an open marriage and have multiple sexual partners, most of whom were women. After all, one could do all that in secret. But her son Nigel wrote of her: "She fought for the right to love, men and women, rejecting the conventions that marriage demands exclusive love, and that women should love only men, and men only women. For this she was prepared to give up everything." And Sackville-West not only did this publicly (sometimes dressing as a man), but wrote about it.

In fact, she not only wrote about it herself, but one of her more famous lovers, Virginia Woolf -- also an in-your-face woman -- wrote a novel, Orlando, wherein the main character was powerfully inspired by Sackville-West. In it, Orlando keeps popping up over a five century period, switching genders back and forth, not by her own control. If that doesn't make your crazy, it will certainly make you an in-your-face

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dora Russell

Being an upper-middle class and rather intellectual young British woman in the early 1900's, Dora Black went to Cambridge for her college education. Being an in-your-face woman already, however, she made it a point while she was there to join the Heretics Society, a group of young thinkers like herself that questioned authority in general and religious dogma in particular.

After graduation, when Earl Bertrand Russell, the well-known mathematician and philosopher nearly twice her age, asked her to marry him, she hesitated because she believed that "marriage, laws, the police, armies and navies are the mark of human incompetence." Further, she was convinced that humans are not monogamous by nature and should be free to have sexual relations at will, which is why she worked hard to make birth control methods and information accessible to all women, especially for the poor. Black could not imagine how women could be free and equal to men, if they couldn't control their participation in reproduction.

Still, eventually, she said yes, and they had a couple of children and opened a progressive school called Beacon Hill. Then she had a couple more children with a journalist they knew and Bertrand fell in love with the kids' governess and divorced Dora to marry her. Some might find all this a bit messy. An in-your-face woman would probably just say, "Whatever." With a smile.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Running Eagle

Under normal circumstances, when a Blackfoot woman's father dies in battle, she just hopes somebody rides out there and brings back his body. But not Brown Weasel Woman. She jumped on a horse and brought it back herself.

The warriors of the tribe were, needless to say, impressed. So they gave her a new name (Running Eagle), invited her to join a warrior society, and in due time, even made her a war chief. As a chief, she not only took part in many raids and led many war parties, but she was allowed to tell about her adventures in the Medicine Lodge ceremonies.

Unfortunately, the Flathead tribe, enemies of the Blackfoot, didn't appreciate Running Eagle's valor. So when she got caught trying to steal their horses during a battle, they unceremoniously clubbed her to death.

Being an in-your-face woman can definitely have its downsides.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Dilma Rousseff

Born into an upper middle class family headed by a Bulgarian father in Brazil in 1947, Dilma Rousseff's childhood was relatively comfortable. But when she switched from a private Catholic school to a public school, she realized that "the world [is] not a place for debutantes" and espoused socialist principles instead. Then, after reading Revolution Inside the Revolution by Regis Debray, Rousseff embraced the idea of armed struggle and by the time she was in her early twenties, she was active in left wing and Marxist groups that were fighting to unseat the military dictatorship in power in Brazil at that time.

Since Rousseff is now the President of Brazil, the stories about her years as an in-your-face armed militant are wildly contradictory. Was she just another well-meaning young radical politico among the masses of youth committed to social change around the world at the time? Or was she one of the masterminds of multiple political and criminal actions, including bank robberies, that some have claimed she was? Was she just a "stuck up intellectual," as one witness said? Or was she the "Joan of Arc of subversion," as many called her?

Either way, Rousseff was captured, jailed and tortured for three years in the early 1970's. On her release, she finished her education in economics, had a daughter, and became active in the arena of electoral politics, working her way up the political ladder over a thirty year period until she was finally elected President of her country in 2010.

Some left-leaning Brazilian citizens have expressed great frustration at some of the policies and priorities of Rousseff's administration, which has, among other things, spear-headed an aggressive process to build hydroelectric dams across Brazil, displacing indigenous peoples, exploiting workers, and damaging the environment where they are located. Nevertheless, any woman who goes from prison to President has to be an in-your-face woman and Rousseff is no exception. "I hope the fathers and mothers of little girls," she has said, "will look at them and say, yes, women can." Got that?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Marie Rossi

Marie Rossi graduated from high school in New Jersey and went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology at Dickinson College in 1981. Nothing remarkable that, right?

But she also signed up for and distinguished herself as a Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) member while she struggled with final exams and turning in papers like any other college student. Slightly more unusual, right?

The public record doesn't tell us much about Rossi's next ten years. But we know that, by 1991, she had become a Major in the Army Reserves, had learned how to fly CH-47 Chinook helicopters (which takes more than a year of hellified basic training), and had been named commander of B Company, 2nd Battalion, of the159th Aviation Regiment in the 18th Aviation Brigade. Now, that's in-your-face women territory!

On her way to lead her troops into battle in support of Operation Desert Shield by flying ammunition and fuel into Iraq under fire in the early hours of the assault, Major Rossi told CNN, "Sometimes, you have to disassociate how you feel personally about the prospect of going into war and, you know, possibly see the death that's going to be out there. But personally, as an aviator and a soldier, this is the moment that everybody trains for -- that I've trained for -- so I feel ready to meet [the] challenge."

Unfortunately, on the night of February 24, 1991, in a severe dust storm in northern Saudi Arabia, Major Rossi and her crew flew into a microwave tower and all of them perished. There are those who would see this in-your-face woman's death in combat inappropriate because she was a woman. But Major Rossi herself saw it differently. "What I'm doing," she once said, "is no greater or less than the man who is flying next to me...or in back of me." In-your-face women don't want special consideration. They just want the respect they earn.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Ernestine Rose

Some people are influenced at a young age to take on specific beliefs. Some -- such as in-your-face woman Ernestine Rose -- are not so easily influenced. Growing up in a wealthy home in Russia-Poland in the early 1800's and counseled by her rigorously religious rabbi father to accept their traditional Jewish faith like the good little girl she was supposed to be, Rose not only rejected Judaism by the time she was an adolescent, but the very idea of God altogether. Further, she had simultaneously rejected the idea that women are inferior to men and ought to be subservient to them. This is the kind of thing that makes some folks ask where in the world do in-your-face women come up with this stuff?

Rose was only sixteen when her mother died, but she didn't sit around waiting for her father to marry her off to a man of his choice. She set out on her own, traveling all over Europe, selling room deodorizers to support herself. It's hard to keep an in-your-face woman indefinitely under the radar, though, and, over time, Rose became a sought-after speaker on secularism and human rights and ultimately even helped to found the Association of All Classes of All Nations, an organization that pushed for human rights for all people, no matter what their gender, race, class or nationality was.

Eventually marrying and emigrating to New York City, Rose was soon on the lecture trail again, speaking against slavery and for religious tolerance and women's rights everywhere. "It is an interesting and demonstrable fact, that all children are atheists," Rose was known for saying, "and were religion not inculcated into their minds, they would remain so." Needless to say, controversy followed. One newspaper editor, in an attempt to discourage listeners, called her "a female Atheist...a thousand times below a prostitute."

Still, Rose continued to speak and people continued to listen. Sometimes, she would whip up such a lather among local folks with her writing before she even showed up that everyone in town would come out to hear her. Of course, sometimes she had to run for her life.

For more than three decades, as is often the case with in-your-face women, Rose worked so hard, even as her age advanced, that she had to return to Europe and start over to slow down her level of activity. But when she left for England, her many supporters, a number of whom were in-your-face women themselves, gave her a big send-off with lots of gifts and plenty of money. Not everybody hates in-your-face women.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt was connected to America's White House before she moved in with her husband Franklin in 1933 because she was the niece of President Teddy Roosevelt. Born into the illustrious and very wealthy family in 1884, Roosevelt early on recognized and made peace with the fact that she was no "good-looker," so she was going to have to prioritize other qualities of her personhood. And she did.

Starting out as a shy, somewhat naive young lady who was so old fashioned as a child her mother called her "Granny," Roosevelt was eventually called "The First Lady of the World" and by 1999, she had appeared in the top ten on Gallop's List of the Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century. It was a long and difficult path.

Even though Roosevelt was presented to New York society as a debutante at the Waldorf-Astoria, her education at the exclusive Allenswood Academy outside of London, England, her years as a Junior League volunteer in the poverty-stricken tenements of New York City, and her subsequent studies at the radical New School University exposed her to a much broader world and much, much broader perspectives than most with her level of privilege.

When her husband was hit by a devastating illness in the sixteenth year of their marriage and lost his ability to walk just as his political career was taking off good, Roosevelt demonstrated her strength of character, not only by nursing him back to health, but by taking on some of the responsibilities of his various positions (including three terms as President of the United States) when they required gallivanting around, which he could not easily do. She made appearances all over the nation and all over the world. She held no fewer than 348 press conferences on her own. She went down into a coal mine to prove the federal government cared about workers. She stepped in and offered Marian Anderson the Lincoln Memorial for a concert when the world famous singer was denied the ability to perform at Constitution Hall because of her race. She asked Mary McLeod Bethune -- a seriously in-your-face woman and close personal friend -- to organize an informal Federal Council of Negro Affairs (otherwise known as the Black Cabinet) to advise the President. And when the United States Army Air Corps trained the Tuskegee Airmen, but wouldn't let them fly, Roosevelt herself went up in a plane with one of the Airmen, giving them the White House's official seal of approval (see photo above).

Eventually, after her death in 1962, it was acknowledged that FDR was a inveterate womanizer and that Eleanor Roosevelt had also had a long-standing and affectionate romance with journalist Lorena Hickock. Life can be complicated for in-your-face women. Yet the way she will always be remembered is typified by a quote from Roosevelt's 1958 speech before the United Nations which appears at her memorial in Riverside Park in New York City. It reads: "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity." Indeed.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Lilian Rolfe

Even though Lilian Rolfe's father was an accountant, she grew up in Paris and London and finished her education in Brazil, so maybe she developed a taste for excitement early in life. In any case, when Nazi Germany took over France, she parachuted into the French countryside and began working with the French Resistance.

Her official capacity as a member of the British Women's Auxiliary Air Force Special Operations Executive was as a wireless operator, sending back intelligence on German troop deployment, weaponry and so forth. But that left plenty of time for Rolfe to transport members of the resistance from place to place, as well as join them for an occasional shoot out.

Even after her superior officer was identified and captured, she kept transmitting until she, too, was arrested July 31, 1944. Rolfe was brutally tortured, sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp and ultimately executed (along with Denise Bloch and Violette Szabo) in February of 1945 -- just three months before Europe was liberated. One of the German SS officers who witnessed the execution remembered that, despite the fact that Bloch and Rolfe had to be carried to the point of execution because of their physical condition, "All three were very brave and I was very moved...[W]e were impressed by the bearing of these women."

Rolfe's contribution to the war effort as an in-your-face woman has been memorialized in multiple locations in Great Britain and France, including a street in Montargis (where she was particularly active) that has been named for her French resistance alias: Rue Claudie Rolfe. Looking back, the senior recruiting officer for the Special Operations Executive said, "Women were very much better than men for [undercover] work. Women have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men." He oughta know.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Marie-Jeanne Roland

Before she lost her head (quite literally) a few months before she turned forty, Marie-Jeanne Roland believed that a woman's genius resides in "a pleasurable loss of self-control" -- exactly the kind of thing an in-your-face woman might think. As she traveled around and learned more about the ways of the world and most particularly the ways of her world in France in the late 1700's, she began to develop a sense that thrones are fine, but governments ought rather to be in the hands of thinking people.

At twenty-six, she married a man nearly twice her age, but she soon began to wear the intellectual and political pants in the family, though often behind the scenes or through his work by "editing" his philosophical essays or letters before they were sent out.  Part of the Girondist revolutionary faction in the 1780's, Roland and her husband supported the idea of replacing the monarchy with a constitutional republic.  While "all her principles were with the people," however, "all her tastes were with the ancient nobility."

The result was a mixed bag of messages. In 1791, for example, Roland's salons in Lyon were the center of political development in France. By 1792, on the other hand, her pride and passion -- both written and vocal -- cost her husband his position at the top of the revolutionary food chain. And though a speech she gave in the Assembly bought them a momentary reprieve from their lack of favor, her unwillingness to go along to get along soon put them both in prison.

Though Roland was able to help her husband escape, she did not manage to free herself and so, when she was found guilty of treason and "political activism" (which wouldn't even have been considered a crime for a man), she was sentenced to die. Though she had once said she would "rather chew off her own fingers than become a writer," in the few months before she was carried to the guillotine, Roland wrote her memoirs. Published only two years later, they still stand as a historical record of how one in-your-face woman affected the politics of an entire nation at a time of crisis and change.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sarah Robles

In 2011, Sarah Robles was ranked the 11th strongest person in the world -- male or female. A three-time national champion in weightlifting, Robles can lift more than 568 pounds and qualified for the 2012 Olympic weightlifting team. One might have thought she'd have been on top of the world. Unfortunately, though, in London, she was relegated to living on $400 per month because she couldn't find a sponsor to support her. "You can get a sponsorship if you're a super-built guy or girl who looks good in a bikini," Robles explained, "but not if you're a girl who's built like a guy."

Her fans disagreed and started a Twitter campaign to encourage sponsors to step up and support a woman that's built -- not a like a guy -- but like a woman who's the 11th strongest person in the world. This is a sport, y'all. It ain't about being "cute." And even in-your-face women need friends.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Marilla Ricker

Marilla Ricker was left a wealthy farmer's widow at the age of twenty-eight in the late 1800's. So she did what any self-respecting in-your-face woman with a bunch of money might do. She became a lawyer. But not the type of lawyer that just sets up a pretend office with a big desk in a stone building in downtown Washington, D.C. Ricker chose, instead, to specialize in criminal defense and prisoners' rights.

Since it didn't matter whether they could pay her or not, Ricker soon became known as the "prisoner's friend." She visited prisons and jails, applied for releases and pardons, and even supplied prisoners with reading materials and other basic necessities she could so easily afford and they couldn't.

It isn't that Ricker couldn't have practiced at a higher status. In fact, she outranked all eighteen of the men who took the bar exam with her in 1882. And she was ultimately appointed the Examiner in Chancery by the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, as well as being named a U.S. Commissioner, in which capacity she heard many cases.

Eventually, it became a no-brainer that Ricker would seek political office and she ran for Governor of New Hampshire in her seventies. Unfortunately, at the time, women had not yet won the right to vote as full U. S. citizens, though Ricker had done her best to change that, registering to vote repeatedly for fifty years before it was finally legal for women to cast a ballot. In-your-face women are remarkable anyway. In-your-face women with money are downright stunning to behold.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Sarah Remond

When Sarah Remond and her sister passed an exam that got them admitted to Salem High School in Massachusetts in 1835 and the girls were pushed out only a week later because they were Black, her free Black father (who was born in Curacao) pushed back until they were readmitted. Salem was, after all, a center of abolitionist and Underground Railroad activity. But however well-read and socially savvy Remond was -- and even after she became a major abolitionist orator and fundraiser -- no matter where she went in the United States, she suffered racial insults, discrimination and harassment. And she never got used to it.

On one occasion when she was twenty-seven, Remond and several others went to see a production of the opera Don Pasquale at the Howard Athenaeum in Boston. When she flatly refused to sit in a segregated area designated for "colored" people, an over-zealous policeman made the mistake of pushing her down a flight of stairs. Furious, Remond sued in a court of law and was awarded $500. But such incidents simply fueled her frustration and the passion with which she presented the case against White Supremacy before whoever came to hear her speak.

Finally, she reached a status so respected among her abolitionist peers that she was asked to take her message to the people of Europe. Remond was initially reticent to do it because her lack of formal education had always made her feel less than adequate. Besides, she said, "No matter how I go, I know the spirit of prejudice will meet me."

What actually happened in Europe, however, was that Remond was a huge and highly respected hit, who was treated by the White Europeans much as they treated each other. Additionally, Remond used the opportunity to gain the formal education she had always dreamed of achieving, ultimately becoming a doctor in Italy and then marrying at the age of fifty to settle down happily for the rest of her life there. In-your-face women are sometimes unsure of themselves at first, but if they just keep putting one foot in front of the other, they have a way of winding up on top.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Charlotte Ray

Born to a middle class African-American minister and newspaper editor and his White wife in New York City in 1850, Charlotte Ray was given the benefit of an excellent education and became a teacher herself at the Howard University Preparatory School while still a young woman. But that wasn't enough for Ray, a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, so she enrolled in the Howard University Law School, specializing in commercial law, and passed the bar in 1872, still in her early twenties.

It was forever an uphill struggle for Ray to get clients because folks simply didn't believe that a woman lawyer could adequately represent them in or out of court. Still, she managed to work her way up to arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court, an honor afforded few lawyers. And she was known for accepting cases others might not, such as the one involving an uneducated woman who was suing for divorce from her physically abusive husband.

Some say Charlotte Ray got admitted to Howard University Law School by applying as C. E. Ray, rather than using her full name. Others say it wouldn't have mattered because she was so smart (even though few women were being admitted to law school anywhere at that time). What is for sure, however, is that in-your-face women like Charlotte Ray don't consider the standard parameters of society as boundaries beyond which they cannot go. In fact, it sometimes seems that they see those parameters as nothing more than a place to begin. Ha!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Marina Raskova

Originally, Marina Raskova wanted to be an opera singer. She thought. Then, she wanted to be a chemist. For a while. But eventually, she wound up navigating, flying and teaching others about flying. Until Operation Barbarossa in World War II.

Operation Barbarossa was the code name for Germany's mass attack on the Soviet Union. And some attack it was! Four million troops along a 3,000 kilometer front supported by more than half a million motor vehicles and three-fourths of a million horses. Almost overnight, three million Russians were taken prisoner, the Red Army was in shambles and the air corps was on the ground.

Then, Marina Raskova sold a solution to Joseph Stalin: three regiments of in-your-face women. The pilots, navigators, officers, ground crews and mechanics would all be women (1,200 of them) who would be issued ninety aircraft. With his back to the wall, Stalin agreed. And Raskova slammed into action.

A few months later, the three regiments were ready, having learned what normally took four years to master. Hitting the skies, these three groups of women warriors (most of them about twenty-years-old or so) racked up a total record of 30,000 combat missions dropping tens of thousands of bombs and responsible for the destruction of dozens of enemy aircraft. The 46th Tamar Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment alone -- who were called the Nachthexen ("night witches") by the Germans -- produced twenty-four Heroes of the Soviet Union, while flying fifteen to eighteen missions per night for months in second rate aircraft, planes that were usually only used for training.

The regiment Marina Raskova personally led, of course, commandeered the best equipment the Air Corps had to offer, which didn't set well with their male counterparts. But then, they hadn't turned the war around. She had. Those who are jealous don't understand that in-your-face women aren't better at what they do because they're women. They're just better. Period.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Thea Rasche

As soon as the Wright Brothers proved that it was possible for humans to fly, women jumped into the cockpits of planes around the world. The difference between German citizen Thea Rasche and the rest of the women pilots, though, was that Rasche was into aerobatics. And she was good. In fact, she was so good that, at one point, she entered a competition with twenty-five of the best pilots in the United States (very likely all male) and beat the lot of them.

Internationally recognized throughout the late 1920's and early 1930's, Rasche got a reputation in the U.S. for flying unexpectedly under bridges, including the Brooklyn Bridge. This was not actually against the law yet, but it eventually became so -- quite probably because of the rash young in-your-face woman pilot.

"Fast Thea" (as she was known in Germany) was monitored closely and sanctioned by the Nazis more than once during World War II for demonstrating "Anglo-American sympathies." So she joined the Nazi party in an attempt to get a little breathing room, but her heart was never in it, at least partly because the Nazi's wouldn't let her fly. It's interesting, isn't it, how hard some men folks work to keep women (especially in-your-face women) where they're told they belong?