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Belated International Women’s Day

Artemisia Gentileschi, "Self-portrait as an allegory of painting."

Artemisia Gentileschi, “Self-portrait as an allegory of painting.”

I spent most of yesterday recovering from jet-lag after a feminist conference on the other side of the country, and I didn’t have the foresight to prepare an International Women’s Day post in advance.  Silly me.

But better late than never, and I will write about a handful of women I deeply admire.

Julia Alvarez

She is a Dominican-American writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry for both children and adults.  Currently writer-in-residence at Middlebury College, her work often touches on issues of identity, assimilation, and her experiences in the Dominican Republic.  A winner of the National Medal of Arts, she is considered one of the most successful Latina writers, but still notes a glass-ceiling for female authors.

“Men’s novels are universal; a woman’s novel is for women,” she said in an interview.

I first encountered her in my sixth-grade lit book in a short story about a Dalmatian named “Liberty.”  Then the next year in an essay about names.  And in tenth-grade with a short story about a Puerto Rican girl dealing with her crush on a white boy who is not allowed to have friends (he’s a military brat).  I read other essays and stories over the next few years and then, in the fall, was pleasantly surprised to find an article by her in Ms. Magazine.

Artemisia Gentileschi

Born in 1592, she was an Italian Baroque painter and survivor.  Her father, Orazio, was also a painter of note, who had a studio full of assistants, one of whom raped her.  Her father initially only demanded that the rapist marry her, but when he reneged on that promise, Artemisia and Orazio took him to court, in what would be a drawn-out ordeal fraught with humiliation for her.  Fortunately, they won the case.  Later, she married another artist and they had one daughter, who also grew up to become a painter.

The trauma she endured is, most scholars think, reflected in her surviving paintings, including Susanna and the Elders (from the Apochrypha), several paintings of Judith Slaying Holofernes (the painted Judith always resembles the painter), and other work depicting strong women.

It was thought that history paintings (Biblical scenes, etc.) were impossible for women to achieve, and that they were better suited to still life, but Artemisia proved society wrong again and again before she died from illness, possibly the plague, in 1636.

Katherine von Bora Luther

It’s a shame that so very little is known about Katie Luther, but what is known is incredibly interesting and reveal a very smart, practical, brave woman.

Born, perhaps in 1499 to landed gentry (the “von” is how we know her family was well off), she was sent to a convent as a child for education and eventually became a nun.  Sympathetic to the Reformers’ cause, she and several other nuns escaped in a fishmonger’s wagon in 1523.  A year later, she was the only one who had not yet found a husband, house to stay in, or job.  She confided in reformer Nikolaus von Amsdorf that she would only marry either Martin Luther or him.  The 1953 movie about her husband handles this incident very humorously, by the way.

Marriage to a man like Luther had to have been interesting, but it seems to have been very happy.  He called her “my lord Katie” or “the boss of Zulsdorf”, the farm where they lived, taught, wrote, and raised their large family consisting of six children of their own plus four orphans.  She ran a brewery, managed the home and money, helped her husband deal with occasional bouts of melancholy, and sometimes assisted him with church matters.  After his death, the family had to flee twice when home became unsafe, but she was always unwavering in her faith.  Her last words were said to be, “I will stick to Christ as a burr to a topcoat.”  Evidently she had a sense of humor, too.

Mary Seacole

I first head about this awesome woman via Horrible Histories.  Usually when one hears about Crimean War medicine, Florence Nightingale (she’s awesome, too) is usually all they think about.  But Mother Seacole, as she was sometimes called, deserves a nod, too.  She was born in 1805 to a Jamaican mother and a Scottish father, and learned the art of healing from her mother– first practicing with toys, then doctoring pets, and then humans.  She wanted to join Nightingale’s team but wasn’t considered British enough.

Undaunted, she set off on her own, founding The British Hotel, a “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers”, and nursed on the battlefield, as well.  She proved very popular with the troops, although Nightingale criticized her belief in medicinal alcohol, and when she went broke after the war, many former patients pooled together to help her out.  Seacole published an autobiography and eventually became the Prince of Wales’ masseuse, generating controversy all the way.

It seems that for each person who admires her, there is someone else who claims that the only good she did was to serve hot lemonade.  There have been moves to take her out of the UK’s National Curriculum, and placing a statue of her at St. Thomas’ Hospital was met with much resistance.  However, she received a posthumous Order of Merit from Jamaica in 1991 and in 2004 was voted “greatest black Briton.”

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These names were just a drop in the bucket out of the thousands of years to choose from.  Who are some women you admire?  Your grandmother?  Eleanor Roosevelt?  Please leave a comment.

 

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