I had my own list of possible of possible replacements for Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill long before the choice of Harriet Tubman was announced (see my previous article “Civil Disobedience Pioneer on $20 Bill”). I didn’t look at it from the standpoint of finding a suitable woman to be on the currency, but as a challenge to pick someone who was NOT a top government official or military leader. Women almost automatically fit that criterion. Look at whom we currently honor on our coins and currency in general circulation – Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, F.D. Roosevelt, and the only partial exception to the list, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is famous both for his work outside of government — as a printer, writer, experimenter, and inventor extraordinaire – and within as a delegate to the Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and ambassador to France. Celebrity status alone or being the first in something is insufficient to make my list, she had to have made a significant contribution to a better society in some way. And, of course, American. Because our society is focused so much on celebrities, one has to dig a little to come up with such a list of either women or men.
Here are the ones whom I call my runners-up, in roughly chronological order: Dorothea Dix, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dorothy Day, Grace Hopper, and Rachel Carson. I’m giving honorable mention to Deborah Sampson and Jeanette Rankin, which I’ll explain later. Three on the list have been the subject of U.S. postage stamps, which are pictured here. The others certainly deserve that recognition, too.
Dorothea Dix was an activist who, through vigorous and unrelenting lobbying, was responsible for the first system of humane mental asylums in America. Starting in Massachusetts in 1840, she investigated the existing facilities funded by towns and which were often almost medieval, with the inmates being chained and treated as beasts. Prompted by her reports the Massachusetts legislature expanded the state mental hospital in Worcester. Then she moved her attention to New Jersey, which passed a bill establishing a state facility in 1845. She worked and had success in other states such as North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.
During the Civil War she was the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union Army. Her tenure did not go smoothly, to say the least. She wanted female nurses in the hospitals, many doctors did not. She often didn’t trust nurses she hadn’t trained or hired herself, and that included Catholic nuns serving as nurses. Such issues aside, she was widely known for her even-handed treatment of both Union and Confederate wounded. She resigned her post in 1865 after the end of the war. Dorothea Dix then continued her efforts to improve the care of the mentally ill. The change in attitude towards the mentally ill in this country from chains to treatment is due to her.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was an author who is known today for just one book, but what a book it was. In the years leading up to the Civil War there were arguments back and forth between the abolitionists and those in favor of slavery. There were periodicals and lectures, and some former slaves spoke out forcefully against it. But her 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin provided characters and stories that captured the attention of the nation. The events it narrates, such as a Kentucky farmer selling some of his slaves – and breaking up their families — to pay his debts, an escaping slave crossing the Ohio River, and life under an extremely cruel slave owner who in the novel is named Simon Legree, were often based on real events. It became a best seller and inspired Southerners to write novels that would portray their society in a more favorable light, but which were not nearly as popular.
By today’s standards it would be considered to be melodramatic and overly sentimental, but for its time it was a sensation. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s son recalled that President Lincoln greeted her at the White House by saying that she was the “little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Whether or not Lincoln actually said this, her book certainly imparted to the North a moral purpose to the war that was coming. Historians sometimes overlook the things that shape the moods and beliefs of people and create the conditions that make subsequent events possible.
Dorothy Day was an American journalist and social activist. She helped start the Catholic Worker movement, a pacifist movement that practices direct aid for the poor and homeless. The recent story in Streetvibes about Joyce Asfour and the Grace Place Catholic Worker House she founded comes from that tradition. She believed that we should work directly with the poor and not delegate this responsibility to the government.
Dorothy Day was an ardent pacifist, refusing to participate in mandatory Civil Defense drills, picketing the offices of the Atomic Energy Commission, and opposed the war in Vietnam. She did not believe there was such a thing as a “just war.” In 1973 she worked with Cesar Chavez in his campaign for farm workers and was arrested for picketing in spite of an injunction, spending ten days in jail. She was deeply religious and loved those whom Jesus loved, especially the poor. She wrote extensively and was a strong advocate of distributism, which she said was between capitalism and socialism. For her work and her inspiration, which still motivates people today, she is included in this list.
Grace Hopper joined the Navy Reserve in 1943. She was first in her class at the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Smith College. She was assigned to serve on the Mark I computer programming staff, where she co-authored three papers on the first computer that could execute long computations automatically. After the war, and still in the Navy Reserve, she worked for the Remington Rand corporation. In 1952 she built the first compiler for a computer. This compiler could take instructions in a programming language that was something like English and translate them into the commands that the computer needed to execute its instructions.
According to Hopper, no one would at first believe her, thinking that computers could only do arithmetic. And writing commands in an unnatural, artificial language was prone to errors. With her compiler, this could be done much easier, quicker, and with fewer errors. She was named the company’s first director of automatic programming and her department was responsible for some of the first programming languages.
Someone else would surely have done this eventually, but she was the first. And because she was an American whose native language was English, she wanted programming languages to be similar to English. If it had been someone else, another language might have been used, such as German or Russian. Her invention helped boost the young American computer industry and was a major step towards our modern, internet-filled world.
Grace Hopper retired from the Naval Reserve in 1966 at the mandatory age of 60. She was recalled to active duty in 1967 and retired again in 1971. She was asked to return again in 1972 and, after attaining the rank of Rear Admiral, finally retired in 1986 at the age of 79. She was hired as a senior consultant to Digital Equipment Corporation, where she worked until her death at age 85. In addition to helping develop our modern computer era, she showed that often age is just a limitation we impose on ourselves.
Rachel Carson was a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service who transitioned to a full-time nature writer in 1952. Her articles and chapters from works in progress appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Nature, Science Digest, The New Yorker, and Collier’s. Her book The Sea Around Us was on the New York Times best-seller list for 86 weeks. Her most famous book, Silent Spring, called attention to the use of synthetic pesticides and the effect they were having on the environment and connection with cancer.
She is most well-known for her warnings about the unrestricted use of the pesticide DDT. She foresaw that insects would develop resistance to it and other chemical agents and wrote that their use should be restricted to as little use as possible. Not only would that lessen damage to the environment, but it would slow the development of resistance. Her works were a major inspiration to the environmental movement and served notice that technological progress is not an automatic benefit to humankind.
Deborah Sampson: The choice of Deborah Sampson would break my rule of not choosing a woman because she was first in something, and she may not have affected history in any significant way, but her perseverance and shear gumption definitely earn her an honorable mention.
Deborah Sampson was not the first woman to fight with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War as there were several instances of women helping in the fury of battle. She was, however, the first to enlist, serve, receive an honorable discharge, and later receive a pension from Congress for her military service. In 1782 she took a suit of clothes from a man about her size, bound her breasts with cloth, and enlisted under the name Timothy Thayer. She was quickly found out, however, when an acquaintance recognized her soon afterwards in a tavern. She had another suit made from cloth she had woven herself, telling the tailor it was for a male relative about her size. She enlisted again, this time under the name Robert Shurtleff, joined the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, and fought in several skirmishes. During a battle in 1782 she was hit by two musket balls in her thigh. Rather than let a surgeon remove the balls and probably discover her true sex, she left the hospital. She removed one of the balls herself with a penknife (Hollywood, are you paying attention?), but the other was too deep and left it in. She sewed and dressed the wounds, and after a few days recuperating in the woods went back to her regiment.
In April 1783 she was promoted and served as an orderly to General Paterson. That summer she became deathly ill and was sent to an infirmary. While unconscious, the doctor making his rounds examined her and discovered the cloth she was using to bind her breasts. She was promptly moved into his house where he and his family took care of her. He kept her secret until after the war was over with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Then he had her take a note to General Paterson and her secret was out. But the general had been impressed by her service and gave her an honorable discharge. Before he sent her home, and with her wearing female clothing, he had her parade down past the ranks of her former comrades-in-arms. Not one recognized her. She was discharged on October 25, 1783, after 17 months of service.
Jeanette Rankin: Like Deborah Sampson, Jeanette Rankin breaks my rule of not choosing a woman because she was the first in something. In this case she was the first woman elected to Congress, having won her seat in Montana in 1916. This was even before the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women nationally the right to vote had been ratified in 1920, but was possible because most states had already changed their own voting rules. She was a pacifist and deserves to be remembered for her convictions even in the face of overwhelming sentiment for war during both her terms in office.
Shortly after she took her seat in 1917, President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. The reason he gave, which is the normal explanation given today, was Germany’s U-boat attacks against American shipping. Of course much of that shipping was to deliver war materials to the British and French, but that was rarely mentioned. The alternative explanation for President Wilson’s request for a declaration of war was that it was going badly in the west, especially for the French. There had been widespread mutinies and refusals to follow orders among the French troops, and there were fears that this would spread to the British troops. (Interestingly, some of the French documents relating to the mutinies are still classified.) In the east, there was a revolution in Russia and Czar Nicholas II abdicated. As there were many millions of dollars in loans to the British and French, but not to the Germans, losing the war would place repayment of those loans in jeopardy. A number of Americans suspected there were other motives than the U-boats and wanted us to remain neutral. Besides, the United States had a large population of German immigrants and their descendants – in Cincinnati German was often heard in the streets.
Jeanette Rankin was one of 50 House members who voted against the declaration, but as the only woman in the House she received most of the attention. However, once the United States was in the war, she supported our military efforts. In December 1917 President Wilson again asked for a declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, which was Germany’s ally. This time she voted for the declaration. As she explained when casting her vote: “The vote we are now to cast is not a vote on a declaration of war. If it were, I should vote against it. This is a vote on a mere technicality in the prosecution of a war already declared. I shall vote for this, as I voted for money and for men.”
Due to redistricting, Rankin decided not to run again for the House in 1918 but ran for the Senate, and lost. She ran again for the House in 1940 and won. On December 7, 1941 Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and on the 8th, she was the only member of either house to vote against war with Japan. This vote was extremely controversial, to say the least. She explained that, “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” Within days there were similar declarations against Germany and Italy, and this time there were a few others who joined her. After the war she was asked if she regretted her votes. She explained, “Never. If you’re against war, you’re against war regardless of what happens. It’s a wrong method of trying to settle a dispute.”
In retrospect, there are certainly ample grounds to question America’s involvement in World War I and especially its acquiescence in the Treaty of Versailles. Its onerous terms and the subsequent depression in Germany were fertile grounds for Adolph Hitler to exploit. Even before Pearl Harbor, Rankin suspected FDR wanted to send troops to Europe and introduced resolutions requiring congressional approval before doing so. The resolutions failed. I’m not defending her vote against war with Japan – by that time it was too late for any other action. I do want to point out that much more information has been uncovered or declassified about the lead-up to the attack that was not generally known then, or only suspected. See Robert B. Stinnett’s book Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor for more information.
Once again, the above is my list of women whom I think should be better known for their actions, convictions, and in most cases, their effect on history. I think the world is a better place because of them. For what it’s worth, I did find the address and procedure for nominations for subjects for postal stamps. Three of them – Dix, Stowe, and Carson – already have been the subject of stamps that did not, however, give much of a hint as to what they did. I’ll be nominating the four women above who haven’t yet been so honored. I will also suggest the Post Office re-issue stamps for Dix, Stowe, and Carson that give some explanation as to why we should remember them.