| By Carol Brennan |
Welcome to another fascinating tour of Gale In Context: Biography, your comprehensive source for researching topics for Women’s History Month! Our archives are not only full of solidly researched and informative essays on major names in the history of women’s achievements and activism but also thrillingly packed with thousands of articles about lesser-known figures, such as Emma Edmonds (1841–1898), a Canadian who donned men’s clothing during the U.S. Civil War and infiltrated Confederate army camps to spy for the Union army, and Margaret Chase Smith (1897–1995), the senator from Maine who at the 1964 Republican National Convention became the first woman ever nominated to the presidential ballot by a major U.S. political party.
In October 1956, both Chase and former U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) became the first female panelists permitted to debate political topics on the long-running CBS News television program Face the Nation. Roosevelt set a high bar for future spouses of the White House, urging her husband to support legislation and federal-agency directives that guaranteed women’s participation in the labor force. She also supported the efforts of countless other women, like Chicago activist Hannah Greenebaum Solomon (1858–1942), founder of the National Council of Jewish Women, who successfully argued for the establishment of the first separate court system for juvenile delinquents in Cook County, Illinois.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a contemporary―and occasional ideological foe―of American women’s suffrage leader Alice Paul (1885–1977), one of the main campaigners ultimately credited with the success of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote in 1920. Paul had visited Britain in the years just before World War I and learned valuable organizing and civil-disobedience strategies used by British suffragists. The most infamous of those campaigners was Emily Wilding Davison (1872–1913), who waited at the 1913 Epsom Derby horse race for the thoroughbred owned by King George V and then stepped onto the racetrack. It is thought that Davison planned to attach a suffragist banner to the horse, but was instead fatally trampled in front of thousands of spectators, among them the king and his family.
Just three decades later, millions of artillery guns deployed by U.S. Navy battleships in World War II relied on guidance tables that were compiled with the aid of a room-sized computer located in a basement of a Cambridge, Massachusetts, facility. In charge of feeding data into the Harvard Mark I computer in 1944 was the brilliant mathematician Grace Hopper (1906–1992), an early computer-science pioneer who became a rear admiral in the Navy and continued to serve all the way up to the end of the Vietnam War. Hopper championed the adoption of the COBOL programming language and, famously, discovered a moth that was causing the Harvard Mark I computer to malfunction, giving rise to the term “debug.”
Another trailblazer who entered the U.S. military during World War II was Martha S. Putney (1916–2008), the first Black woman to serve as a commissioned officer in the armed forces. Putney faced enormous discrimination as a female Black American in uniform, but went on to earn a Ph.D. in history at the University of Pennsylvania and become an important scholar of Black American participation in the U.S. military.
Putney’s major work of scholarship, When the Nation Was in Need: Blacks in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, was published in 1992, the same year U.S. astronaut Mae Jemison (born 1956), became the first Black woman in space. Her journey was an epic one, as was the walk on the ocean floor undertaken by American marine biologist Sylvia A. Earle (born 1935), who in 1979 became the first woman to walk on the floor of the ocean. Earle descended to a level of 1,250 feet―roughly the height of the Empire State Building in New York City―and 44 years later, still holds the world record for the deepest untethered sea walk. Her published works include 2009’s The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One, which was immediately heralded as a classic of environmental science.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this short walk through some of the gems inside Gale In Context: Biography―a phenomenal resource for exploring further topics related to Women’s History Month―and come back every month to discover more inspiring stories!