The short story of astronomer Williamina Fleming

Williamina Fleming

Williamina Fleming, circa 1890s

“We cannot maintain that in everything woman is man’s equal. Yet in many things her patience, perseverance, and method make her his superior.”
Williamina Fleming was in her early 20s, a recent immigrant from Scotland to Boston, and pregnant when her husband left her.
Responsible now to raise their son, she took a job as a housekeeper in the home of Edward Pickering, who was the Director of Harvard College Observatory.
As the story goes, one day when frustrated with the men he employed, Edward yelled out that “My Scottish maid could do better!” While said in jest, there was much truth to his comment.
Williamina was an advanced student while in Scotland. She was a pupil-teacher by the time she was 14 years old and continued to teach for five years until she got married.
In 1881, Edward hired Williamina as the first of what would become a famous group of Harvard Computers. All women, they studied the stars through glass plate photographs. Then only a few years later, while still not even 30 years old, Williamina became curator of astronomical photographs. This role came with the responsibility of managing a dozen women computers.
The work was a grind. Williamina wrote in her diary:

“In the Astrophotographic building of the Observatory, 12 women, including myself, are engaged in the care of the photographs…. From day to day my duties at the Observatory are so nearly alike that there will be little to describe outside ordinary routine work of measurement, examination of photographs, and of work involved in the reduction of these observations.”

Williamina become a prominent astronomer of her time, one of most prominent amongst women. She received many awards, earned numerous honors. She became the first American woman elected as an honorary member of the British Royal Astronomical Society. And she would go on to discover 10 novae, 52 nebulae, and 310 new variable stars.

Susan La Flesche Picotte, first native american woman to earn an M.D.

Susan La Flesche Picotte

“The shores of success can only be reached by crossing the bridge of faith, and I shall try hard.”

Susan La Flesche Picotte was born in the Omaha Native American tribe in 1865. She was the daughter of the tribal chief, one who believed that Native Americans were going to need to assimilate into white society. So he raised his children with Native American markings. And he sent them to schools for white children. He gave them white names and had them learn English. But while he believed in assimilation, he also fought for the rights of his people.

Growing up, Susan developed a love for medicine and desire to become a doctor. It’s not clear exactly when this passion began. It might have been when she nursed a white woman back to good health. Or maybe it happened while she watched many of her people fall ill.  The Omaha were used to living in the plains, but were now living cramped in wooden homes on a reservation. This was a difficult adjustment and many were struggling, falling ill. There was little medical care for them. Which may have inspired Susan as she wanted to help her people.

After attending Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Susan went to Medical School at the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. She was able to attend because the Connecticut Indian Association paid her tuition. Through this pursuit, her father encouraged her, telling her to “learn all they can teach you.”

On March 14th, 1889, she graduated as one of the top students in her class, thus becoming the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S.

Susan moved back to live with her tribe, where shortly after the tribe voted for her to be the doctor for everyone. She would travel on horseback and covered wagon to make sure she offered care to all 1,244 people living on the reservation.

Source: American women of medicine by Russell Roberts

The love of Katherine Dunham and John Thomas Pratt

Katherine Dunham and John Thomas Pratt

She was black. He was white.

But they had a shared interest in dance. She was a famous theatrical dancer and he was one of America’s most renowned costume and theatrical set designers. And they shared an interest in African-Carribean culture.

Over these interests they bonded. And even though it was the 1930s and interracial marriages weren’t recognized in the U.S. and tolerance was low, they decided to pursue their love.

They went on to marry abroad. They adopted a child. He would go on to design every set and every costume she ever wore.

Katherine Dunham and John Thomas Pratt would live life together for almost fifty years.

The short story of Te Ata Fisher

Te Ata Fisher

Te Ata Fisher was a Chickasaw Native American woman who was born in the late 19th century. Which meant there were many constraints on what she could do in life.
Unfazed by what society said she should be, Te Ata became what she wanted to be.
As a student at the Oklahoma College for Women (now University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma), she worked as an assistant in the theatre department. And it was this position that set the foundation to her career.
Te Ata became a one woman show, creating performances of Native American songs and stories. She performed locally, then nationally and eventually all around the world. She performed at the first state dinner when FDR became president. And she performed for the King and Queen in England.
Te Ata stood proud of her Native American roots, not just as a Chickasaw, but as a Native American. And with this pride and her ability to perform, she helped educate the world about Native American culture.