Like many who grew up in the 1960s, I'm a huge space nerd and as a by-product also a big sci-fi fan.

I'll shell out for just about any sci-fi movie. Watching The Martian, which BTW was fantastic (but as great as the movie was, of course the book by Andy Weir was even better), and more recently a re-run of Gravity on TV (great special effects; sappy internal conflict aka pity party), I was reminded of why we don't send stupid people into space. NASA's astronaut training program is highly selective and rigorous, as well it should be.

I had the privilege of writing a children's biography of one of these space geniuses several years ago. Ellen Ochoa was the first female Hispanic astronaut in space. I felt some kinship with her when I discovered

  • we share a birth year
  • we're also both female, natch
  • we love to read
  • we had a hard time deciding on a major in college

and that's where our paths digress. Dr. Ochoa finally settled on physics for her bachelor's. Let's just say, I didn't. She got that 'Dr.' in front of her name studying electrical engineering at Stanford. She has some patents in optics. And of course there's the whole astronaut thing.

Although she was a bright kid, Ochoa never considered becoming an astronaut because there was no such thing as a female astronaut. Imagine that! Oh, the irony of growing up in the 1960s. But when she was in grad school at Stanford, guess what happened? Or should I say, guess WHO? Yep, Sally Ride broke the glass ceiling in space in 1983, and Ellen started getting ideas. It took her a couple of tries and a year of training, but she made history as part of space shuttle Discovery's crew in April 1993. She was also a crew member for the first time the space shuttle docked with the International Space Station in 1999. Ochoa completed a total of four space flights and has logged more than a thousand hours in space.

Her last space flight was in 2002, but Ochoa was hardly put out to pasture. She continued a career at NASA. Dr. Ochoa is currently the director of the Johnson Space Center (second woman director; first Hispanic director). Something tells me if she ever found herself in a pickle like Sandra Bullock's character in Gravity, there would have been a lot less pity party, and a lot more git 'er done.

Note: the original version of this post first appeared on my blog in May 2016.

Legend says she constructed the prototype from two hankies and some ribbon

I've had the idea for this topic sitting around in my drafts folder ever since I learned that bras were originally designed to reduce the silhouette of the bosom, not enhance them. During the Roaring Twenties, the Flapper look was all the rage. It was as far from the previous style as one could get, from neckline to hemline. It dispensed with corsets altogether, thank goodness!  But as most of us ladies know through sad experience in the 1960s, the majority of the female population benefits from a little support up there, whether it is pushing up, pushing out, or pressing flat. Enter one Mary Phelps Jacob, a plucky New Yorker who invented the modern brassiere out of frustration with corsets.

Some interesting tidbits (yeah, yeah, insert bosom wordplay if you must):

 

  • Ms. Phelps used a nom de bra and marketed her new invention as 'Caresse Crosby'. That's a name made for a romance novel if I ever heard one.
  • She sold her idea to Warner Brothers Corset Company. Warner's Bras is still in business. They do not have any apparent connection to the movie studio of the similar name. However, they are the inventors of the alphabet cup sizing method still in use today.
Flappin' in the breeze 

As for the nether regions, modern undies also came on the scene in the first half of the twentieth century. Prior to that, there was a time when nothing was worn under all those heavy long skirts. Fresh air was considered good for the privates. In the 1800s, a light garment known as pantaloons added an extra layer, especially welcome in chilly climates. Initially they covered only the legs and were open nearer the top (some might say crotchless), for ease in answering the call of nature. Eventually they came to look more like a loose set of capri pants. As dresses shortened and became more form fitting, unmentionables needed to evolve as well. More items of interest:

  • Some think the modern ladies' brief is based on the design of a baby's diaper. Now that you mention it . . .
  • Wearing form-fitting undies daily is a relatively recent (20th century) development. Prior to that time, they were only worn during a certain time of the month to keep feminine hygiene products in place.

And with that, we'll stop and save that whole discussion for another blog post. You gents reading this can exhale now.


This post originally appeared in the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.

In honor of Women's History month, I want to give props to The State, our local newspaper here in Columbia, SC, for the fun article on South Carolina women they published last spring. The article was in a quiz format. Being relatively new to SC, I failed the quiz big-time.  I cherry-picked some favorites from the original 19 questions, just in case some of you are as woefully unaware of these cool factoids as I was.

Mary Chesnut. Photo credit: Ohio State University. What?? Not Gamecocks??

Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut was born on her father's plantation in 1823 in Stateburg SC which is between Columbia and Sumter. Chesnut is the 1860s female version of Jon Stewart - educated, opinionated, entertaining. Her claim to fame is her Civil War diary. An annotated version won the Pulitzer Prize. Ken Burns referred to it extensively in his Civil War documentary. I'm super pumped to get reading it as my kids gifted it to me on my recent birthday. One of hundreds of her pithy quotes regarded plantation life versus life in the big city: "These people have grown accustom to dullness. They were born and bred in it. They like it as well as anything else."

Mary McLeod Bethune. Photo credit: Talbot School of Theology.

I actually knew the answer to the first question in their quiz because I wrote a biography of her several years ago. But I had forgotten she was from South Carolina. Mary McLeod Bethune was born in 1875 in Mayesville SC, a hamlet of a few hundred souls between Sumter and Florence. She was obsessed with education. Through a somewhat miraculous series of events considering her family's humble circumstances, she attended school and eventually earned her teaching degree. Bethune founded a school for girls and was one of the first of her race and gender to serve as a college president. This child of former slaves advised Franklin Delano Roosevelt and three other presidents.

Eartha Kitt. Photo credit: Daily Mail

Who doesn't love Eartha Kitt? So talented, so lovely, so purrfect. She's been described in more feline terms than the Pink Panther. Orson Welles called her 'the most exciting woman alive'. Apparently he also found her delicious, as he is reputed to have bitten her during a scene they had together in the play "Time Runs". She was born in 1927 the amusingly named North, SC, a small town south of Columbia. So many fun little factoids about her, it's hard to choose one (and that one about Welles is pretty tasty!) but I love that later in her career, she referred to herself as "the original 'Material Girl'". Take that, Madonna!

Althea Gibson. Photo credit: whiskymoods.com

Tennis Grand Slam champion Althea Gibson grew up in Harlem but was born in Silver, South Carolina (between Sumter and Lake Marion) also in 1927. She struggled in the classroom but was an athletic prodigy. Her tennis skills earned her a scholarship to Florida A&M University. Gibson was the first African American to compete in the U.S. Open; the first to win the French Open; and the first to win Wimbledon, in 1957- almost 20 years before the first African American man would win that title (Arthur Ashe, 1975).  Not satisfied with breaking barriers in tennis, Gibson was also the first African American member of the LPGA (golf). Is there any game she couldn't play??

Peanut Johnson

Have you seen that commercial envisioning the time when we see the first pitch thrown by a female in a major league baseball game? Well, it's sorta been done. Mamie 'Peanut' Johnson was one of the first women, and the first pitcher, to play in the Negro Leagues baseball league. She was born in Ridgeway, just north of the Columbia metro in 1935. She honed her pitching skills by throwing rocks at the crows on her grandmother's farm. Peanut played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the 1950s. She retired with a record of 33-8. All those wins from a player who was only 5'-3".

Linda Ellison aka Fabulous Moolah taking down an opponent

There are some wild and woolly tales floating around out there about Lillian Ellison, aka Fabulous Moolah. Even her birthplace sounds fantastical: 'Tookiedoo'. I have never heard of this place but apparently it is, or was, in the Columbia area. Moolah led quite a life. Sex, drugs, match fixing, racial tensions, sexism, feminism, fraud, midgets (their term, not mine) - name the issue, Moolah dabbled. Her favorite move: the 'flying mare'. "A flying mare is when you get a girl by the hair of the head and pull her over your shoulder, then slam her to the mat as hard as you can. And I love doing that."

She only lived there for two months before moving with her family to the

Viola Davis. Love the hair!

northeast, but South Carolina is not one to be swept up on a technicality, so that two months counts, by golly! Viola Davis was born in 1965 in St. Matthews, which is an easy drive down I-26 from Columbia. She's been in a ton of stuff, but here's a fun tidbit: it's her voice we hear grilling George Clooney in the first scene of Ocean's Eleven. She's got a hit with the TV show, How To Get Away With Murder. And she can now add an Oscar to her list of accomplishments.

I would love to see all of these gals at together at a Girls Night Out. I think Chesnut and Moolah would get along like a house on fire.

The original version of this article was published in March 2016.

 

Martha Matilda Harper, a real-life Rapunzel, had a great reason for keeping her hair long: it was her livelihood

Raised in a Southern Baptist household, I recall it being said on more than one occasion that a woman's hair was her 'crowning glory'. I understood the words and concept. But like most children, the deeper meaning sailed over my head.

I certainly didn't see that principle practiced at home. My mom experimented with many different hair styles when I was growing up. There was the home perm, the 'Dorothy Hamill', the pixie cut, the peroxide blonde, even one phase of wigs! None of which were anything I would put in the 'crowning glory' category. Not that her hair wasn't attractive - Mom always took great pains with her appearance. But when I thought of 'crowning glory', I guess I had more of a Rapunzel look in mind, and believe me, Mom never reminded me of Rapunzel. I believe it is the Pentecostal faith that disallows women from cutting their hair, not the Baptists. If indeed it was a Baptist tenet, Mom sinned mightily.

In my former day job as a tennis instructor, I have students of all different cultures and faiths. One of my Muslim students was eager to share about her faith and its various precepts. From her I learned how much a woman's hair is revered in their faith, and why after a certain age (when they 'become a woman'; i.e., get their period) they cover it up. Apparently the logic goes like this: when it is so long and luxurious, it is a tremendously attractive temptation to the males. Best cover it up rather than invite unwanted advances. Keep in mind she was about 10 at the time, so something may have been lost in the translation there. Apologies if this is incorrect.

I understand why long hair on women was perceived as desirable and attractive back in the day. With the origins of Christian and Muslim faiths in the Middle East where long, thick, wavy 'Princess Jasmine' hair runs strong in the gene pool, I bet Princess Jasmine hair was pretty common. If I had hair like that, I wouldn't cut it, either! But much has changed. Genetic diversity has resulted in diluting the Princess Jasmine gene. For every head of Princess Jasmine hair, there are many that are more Phyllis Diller or Bride of Frankenstein.  Leaping into the breach, technology in the entertainment industry has made fictional hair do things no natural hair could ever achieve. I love long hair when it looks like Cher's. But it's so rare anymore to see hair in a natural state that hasn't been colored or processed or flattened or curled or blown out and sprayed to within an inch of its likely very damaged split ends to achieve, however briefly, the cartoon ideal.

Actress Louise Brooks sporting her 'black helmet'

The Roaring Twenties ushered in an age of follicle liberation. Someone, somewhere decided all that long hair and tedious braiding and brushing and pinning just wasn't worth the trouble. That someone was a man: Monsieur Antoine, by some accounts the first celebrity hair stylist. The Czech-born Paris resident claimed he was inspired by Joan of Arc, who was in the process of being beatified about the time Antoine got his inspiration (early 1900s). Joan claimed to be inspired by no lesser style icon than God Himself to cut her hair into a 'pageboy', a style worn by many male knights of her era. Didn't work out so well for Joan, but nearly 500 years later there was a decidedly better outcome for women around the world when Antoine's stylings set off a short-wave tsunami.

Short hair styles for women have come a long way, but we've got a ways to go. For every chic trendsetting Twiggy, there are three extension-wearing pseudo celebrities. Short hair is often depicted as a tragedy or punishment in movies. One exception, ironically, is reality TV, where spiffy short 'dos are typically part of the winning formula in makeover shows featuring 'real' women. I'll feel better when we see a blockbuster with a strong, smart, female lead whose prospects improve AFTER she cuts her hair. Hey - there's an idea! Sorry - gotta go - there's a niche that needs filling!

The original version of this post was published in March 2014.

Not being a country music fan, about all I know about Kitty Wells before listening to her obit on NPR is that she was a singer in that genre. What piqued my interest was that she was one of the first female singers to hit big.  Her first hit, 1952's "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels", was an answer song to country music superstar Hank Thompson's version of "Wild Side of Life". Apparently one of the song's writers had been dumped, and wrote "Wild Side" to vent about what a tramp his ex was. "Angels" rebutted, basically saying if she was a tramp, it was probably due to some no-good man treating her bad. (Pardon my grammar - I am trying to be authentic with the topic here.)

First things first: are you telling me NO women were popular singers until the 1950s???? That just seems strange to me. But if it says so on Wiki, it must be true. Apparently record labels were hesitant to record solo women, thinking they would only sell if they were in duets or backup singers. Kitty Wells changed all that. Although it was initially banned by NBC radio, the Grand Ole Opry and others for its adult theme, people couldn't get enough of "Angels". With it, Wells became the first woman to have a number one song on Billboard magazine's country chart.

Note Thompson's song with the similar theme was not banned.

Secondly: to be honest I think I was more intrigued by the concept of the "answer" song. Apparently it was a popular trend in country music of that era. It has popped up in other genres from time to time. I wonder if there are more answer songs out there than we realize?

I Heard It Through The Grapevine - Marvin Gaye
answer: Won't Get Fooled Again - The Who

I Want To Hold Your Hand - The Beatles
answer: Born To Run - Bruce Springsteen

Ain't Too Proud To Beg - Temptations
answer: Let's Get It On - Marvin Gaye

Let's Stay Together - Al Green
answer: Beat It - Michael Jackson

Welcome To The Jungle - Guns n Roses
answer: I Will Survive - Gloria Gaynor

Like A Virgin - Madonna
answer: Losing My Religion - REM

How Will I Know - Whitney Houston

I'm a sucker for a good singer-songwriter

answer: You Oughtta Know - Alanis Morissette

Yes, I am just having a little fun with titles. The true answer songs are 100% devoted to answering the original, beginning to bridge to chorus to end. Some answer songs are lame, simply turning a few of the original song's lyrics around to reflect an opposite viewpoint. Others are fully formed and could stand on their own. My favorite example of this is Lynyrd Skynyrd's angry, indignant "Sweet Home Alabama" in answer to Neil Young's "Southern Man". Extra points awarded when the performer is also the songwriter. Somehow this gives more authenticity to the 'answer'. It's not unusual for singers to perform songs written by others. In fact, it is the norm. But after all the hype about Ms. Wells' groundbreaking offering with "Angels", it was a letdown to learn she had not written the lyrics and was just called in to sing that day as part of her recording contract. Who even knows if she actually identified with the lyrics, and was striking a musical blow for women's rights? Unfortunately it is more likely she just came in to the studio, sang the song, collected her paycheck, and went home.

Whatever the circumstances, thanks, Ms. Wells et. al., for giving female performers a jump-start in 1952 and also to the writer of 'Wild Side', without which we would have had no need for an 'answer' song. Who knows how long it would have taken otherwise?

The original version of this post first appeared in July 2012.

While browsing the news one day when we still lived in Minnesota,  I read about a woman called Ann Bilansky. Ann has the dubious distinction of being the first white person and first (and last) woman executed after Minnesota became a state. She was hanged in 1860 after being convicted of the poisoning death of her husband.

This news nugget made me wonder about other women who have been executed for their crimes. There aren't that many, thank goodness! But there are more than fifty that have met that fate from colonial days to the present. A small percentage compared to five figures' worth of men executed, but still, fifty is a lot.

Of these, half a dozen were considered serial killers; most in the modern era. Several were killed during the Salem Witch Trial era. A disturbing number were convicted of murder by poison, usually arsenic. I suppose it's true what they say: poison is a woman's weapon (unless you run Russia or North Korea).

Fellow writers, if you're looking for story ideas, look no further. There are some real doozies. And as they say, truth is stranger than fiction.

Some notorious female criminals are familiar to many of us.

  • The movie Monster starring Charlize Theron was based on the life of serial killer Ailene Wuornos, who was executed by lethal injection in 2002.
  • Ethel Rosenburg and her husband Julius got the chair in 1953 after being convicted of espionage (selling nuclear secrets to the Russians).
  • Mary Surratt was hung in 1865 for her role in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

And then there are the less well-known. As you can imagine, there are some fascinating stories lurking in the background. Consider:

  • Martha Beck, who got the chair at Sing Sing in 1951. She was one half of the infamous Lonely Hearts Killers duo. Trust me, folks, this is one of the rare occasions I did NOT enjoy the research process. Lawd. I think the entire series of Law & Order SVU is some iteration of their sordid tale.
  • Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh was executed in 1846 for poisoning her husband. She was hanged while sitting in her rocking chair, as she was tremendously overweight and the executioners wanted to avoid botching it.
  • Two unfortunates who did not avoid botching: Roxana Druse, whose botched hanging in 1887 resulted in a slow, agonizing death by strangulation; and Eva Dugan, who was decapitated during her hanging in 1930. Both fiascos resulted in a change in methods of execution in the respective states (Arizona and New York). 
  • Josefa "Chipita" Rodriguez was hanged in Texas in 1863. She said little during her trial for murder during the commission of a robbery. It's thought she was covering for her son.  Her last words were something to the effect of 'I'm not guilty'.  Rumors abound that moans were reported coming from her coffin. Her ghost is said to haunt the town of San Patricio, where she died.
  • Hannah Ocuish is the youngest known legally executed person in American history. She was 12 when hanged in 1786; her victim was 6. Hanna beat her friend to death for ratting on her over some stolen strawberries.
  • Lavinia Fisher was hanged in 1820, convicted of crimes perpetrated on guests at an inn she and her husband owned in Charleston, South Carolina. There are some wild rumors about their exploits. My favorite is that like one of the female villains in the James Bond lexicon, Lavinia killed by crushing her victims' heads between her legs.

    Lavinia Fisher

Presently there are fifty or so women sitting on death row somewhere. They may not all face execution. Some may escape, a la The Shawshank Redemption. Some may escape legally by having their convictions overturned. Some may avoid the chair or the needle if the capital punishment laws in their area change. Some may not outlive their sentence. One thing's for sure: that extra X chromosome is not much protection if you do the crime.

This post originally appeared as part of the 2016 A to Z Blog Challenge.