If you’re interested in the American Civil War, you’ve probably heard of Dr. Mary Walker. You probably know that she:
1) Worked as a surgeon in the war
2) Is the only woman to have received the Medal of Honor
3) Wore pants long before it was common for women to wear pants.
All those things are true. But they are only a small part of Walker’s story. In Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War: One Woman’s Journey to the Medal of Honor and the Fight for Women’s Rights, historian Theresa Kaminski paints a portrait of Walker as a whole person and sets her in a broader context than the Civil War. Walker was a shin-kicker by any standard. As Kaminski demonstrates, Walker wanted to “be somebody.” She also wanted to change the world for the better, whether it was reforming standards of women’s clothing or fighting for women’s rights.*
Like many crusaders, Walker did not play well with others. She was both thin-skinned and abrasive, quick to take offense and often offensive. She often took unpopular positions within the movements she supported. As a result, one of the most fascinating parts of Kaminski’s account is the way Walker’s contemporaries, fellow reformers and antagonists alike, systematically attempted to erase Walker from the narrative, with substantial success.
If you're interested in Civil War medicine, the history of the women's rights movement in the United States or kick-ass historical women, you'll want to read Dr. Mary Walker's Civil War.
If you want to know more about Theresa Kaminski or Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War:
Check out her website: https://theresakaminski.com/
Follow her on Twitter: @KaminskiTheresa
Like her Facebook page: Theresa Kaminski Historian
Follow her on Instagram: Hers_torian
*Speaking of suffragists and the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, as I believe we were.
A hundred years ago, on August 18, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified. A lot of us planned to celebrate, in public and out loud. Many of those celebrations have been postponed for a year so we can party like it’s 1920.
Luckily, it’s easy to practice social distancing on a blog, so I will continue with my plan to run suffrage-related blog posts for much of the summer. Starting now.
I am please to kick off my suffrage coverage with the story of an amazing suffragist I never heard of, courtesy of Nancy B. Kennedy. Nancy is the author of Women Win the Vote! 19 for the 19th Amendment, a lively illustrated biography of women—well-known and otherwise—who fought for the right to vote.
Take it away, Nancy!
In the mid-1800s, John St. Pierre married Elizabeth Matilda Menhenick. History doesn’t tell us when exactly, but they were quite the couple. John was a successful young businessman of French and African descent whose father came from Martinique. Elizabeth was a young Englishwoman from Cornwall who was descended from an African prince who married a Native American woman.
The couple were married in Boston, and in 1842 their sixth child, Josephine, was born. They named her after the Empress Josephine, the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, herself a native of Martinique.
Josephine traveled in Boston’s highest social circles. At age 16, she married George Ruffin, who went on to become the first African American man to graduate from Harvard Law School, the first elected to the Boston City Council, and the first appointed a municipal judge.
Josephine was a journalist who founded the Women’s Era newspaper, the first newspaper written by and for black women in the United States. She later became editor of the Boston Courant, a black weekly paper.
As my host Pamela Toler frequently reminds us, women are often relegated to the margins of history. So, with a lineage and resume like this, why don’t we know about Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin? Josephine was an ardent suffragist, and I was happy to learn about her when I researched my book, Women Win the Vote! 19 for the 19th Amendment.
Like many suffragists, Josephine came first to the abolition cause. After she married, the couple moved to England in protest of the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision ruling that African Americans had no claim to freedom or citizenship. But the Civil War soon called them back. Josephine helped recruit black soldiers for the Union and provided aid and care for them both during and after the war.
In 1869, she co-founded the American Women Suffrage Association with two white women, Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe. She was also a pioneer in the founding of black women’s clubs, which worked to improve the lives of African Americans. In 1896, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.
Even so, Josephine is most known for a single moment in her life. In 1900, she attended a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs in Milwaukee as a delegate of two Massachusetts women’s organizations. But she also represented the Women’s Era Club, an all-black women’s group she had founded along with the newspaper.
After Josephine pinned her delegate’s ribbon to her dress, a commotion arose. Federation president Rebecca Lowe, a delegate from Georgia, protested inclusion of the Women’s Era Club. The Southern clubs then threatened to withdraw if the Women’s Era Club was admitted. “It is the high-caste negroes who bring about all the ill-feeling,” Lowe groused. “The ordinary colored woman understands her position thoroughly.”
At that, someone stepped forward to rip the delegate’s ribbon from Josephine’s dress. She was having none of it! She gripped the ribbon firmly and fought off the attacker. Yet Josephine ultimately declined to participate in the convention, to protest the exclusion of the Women’s Era.
This ugly display of prejudice must have been crushing for Josephine. Here she had worked with suffrage pioneers Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe at a time when the movement was fully integrated. In fact, when Josephine started the Women’s Era newspaper, she chose as its motto, “Aim to make the world better” — words Lucy Stone spoke on her deathbed.
Sadly, racial bias continued to taint the suffrage movement. But Josephine always hoped for better. She publicly praised the white women who led it — the same women who were excluding her race. “The success of this movement for equality of the sexes means more progress toward equality of the races,” she wrote in 1915 in The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Women won the vote four years before Josephine died in 1924. She could have predicted the victory. She once said of the Women’s Era Club: “Being a woman’s movement, it is bound to succeed!” She might as well have said it about the woman’s fight for the vote.
Interested in learning more about Nancy and Women Win the Vote! ?
Check out her website: https://www.nancybkennedy.com/
Follow her on Twitter: @NB_Kennedy
In my experience, once a subject has grabbed me by the throat and said “Pay attention to me, dang it!” it never really goes away. I continue to stumble over new stories related to the topic, or at least interesting bits long after I’ve written a blog post or article or book on the idea. That seems to be particularly true in the case of women warriors, and rightly so. My major point in the book is that women have always fought, despite the fact that we have generally forgotten their stories. Of course there are more stories to be told. And I am happy to tell them.(1)
Which brings me to Rafaela Herrera, the national heroine of Nicaragua.(2)
The Anglo-Spanish War of 1762-1763 was a tiny part of the Seven Years’ War (1757-1763), a global campaign in which Britain and France duked it out for world dominance over four continents. The British and French conflicts in Europe were fought in parallel wars in the Indian Subcontinent and North America. (Do the French and Indian Wars ring any bells?) Worried by French losses and the possible threat to their colonies of a British victory, Spain finally entered the war on the side of France in 1762. The main focus of conflict between Britain and Spain was Portugal, but war spilled over into Latin American and the Caribbean.
In the case of Nicaragua, the spilling occurred when William Lyttelton, the British governor of Jamaica, sent an expedition against the Spanish colony in early 1762: reportedly fifty some boats (size unknown) and 2000 men. With the objective of capturing the town of Granada and thereby effectively cutting Spanish America in half, the British expedition sailed up the San Jose River, destroying villages, cocoa plantations, and a Catholic mission as they went. On July 26, they laid siege to the strategically important Fortress of the Immaculate Conception.
The fortress was defended by only a hundred soldiers. (4) To make matters worse, the fortress’s commander had died eleven days before the British fleet arrived--a fact the British learned when they captured a nearby observation post. The British commander, no doubt thinking the fortress would fall like [fill in the cliche of your choice], sent an envoy demanding immediate surrender in exchange for an immediate cessation of hostilities. The lieutenant who had inherited command of the fortress was prepared to surrender. Rafaela Herrera, the nineteen-year-old daughter of the dead commander, refused to let the the fortress go without a fight.
At this point in the story, I suspect there is a certain amount of fiction mixed in with the fact. Without access to a library, I’m just going to give it to you as it appears in the sources available to me. (5) (Neither of my Big Fat History Books about the Seven Years’ War include a single mention of Nicaragua. And dang little on Spain.)
Rafaela was a fourth generation military brat and her father’s only child. (6) She was raised by her father, an artillery captain who taught her to fire a cannon.(7) Or perhaps to manage an artillery team. (The sources I’m working with are a bit vague on this point.) Either way, Rafaela commanded the cannons during the fortress’s defense. (The British commander died on the third volley of cannon fire. ) That evening, she instructed the troops to create makeshift rafts and load them with alcohol-soaked sheets and rags, which they then set on fire and floated down the river toward the British fleet. The British were forced to retreat for the night, giving the garrison of the besieged fortress time to catch its collective breath.
The siege continued for six days (or maybe nine, depending on who you believe) before the British withdrew and made a nuisance of themselves by blockading the mouth of the San Juan River.
Herrera received a pension for life from King Charles III of Spain for her heroic actions at the Battle for the Rio San Juan de Nicaragua. Today she is considered national hero in Nicaragua. Her actions are commemorated on the 20 cordoba Nicaraguan bank note, which is a step up from the postage stamps with which many countries honor women warriors.(8)
1) Which does not mean there will be a sequel to Women Warriors.
2) It feels like I have been sitting on her story for a long time, but in fact I was introduced to Rafaela at a speaking gig about women warriors in the Twin Cities in March, just a few days before all the book gigs stopped. (3)
3) If you live in the Twin Cities, I strongly urge you to put Global Minnesota on your list of organizations putting on interesting events. It's an impressive outfit.
4)This may be historical shorthand for “seriously outnumbered” rather than an actual count. Especially if the British numbers are inflated, as I suspect they are.
5) Minus the stirring speech Rafaela reportedly made to rouse the troops, which I strongly suspect is made up. Though that does raise the question of how she got anyone to listen to her.
6) It is all too easy to leave mothers out of these stories. In part because we often don’t know much. Rafaela’s mother was Felipa Torreynosa, who was reportedly criolla or mulatta, was not married to Lieutenant Colonel Herrera, and died shortly after she was born.
7)The tomboy whose father teaches her military skills is a recurring theme in the stories of women warriors. While there is no doubt that this did occur on occasion (and I’d like to think that this is one of them), it is also a way of making an woman warrior an exception in her time. Those of you who have read the book or heard me speak know this is a problem.
8) And speaking of women on currency, how much longer are we going to have to wait for Harriet Tubman to appear on the twenty-dollar bill?