"Not all our foremothers wore taffeta and lace"
November 19, 2013 8:48 PM   Subscribe

Not so long ago, Western women who wore short hair, and/or garments usually tailored for men, had to be pretty badass to go so visibly outside the usual gender norms, whatever their reasons. And their reasons were many. A gallery on Flickr, with short descriptions of the women featured, from Ida Emily Leeson (1885-1964), the first woman to be named head librarian at the Mitchell Library, the state library of New South Wales, in 1932, to Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919), a Civil War surgeon who was the only woman to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor in the United States military, for her service during the Civil War.
posted by filthy light thief (23 comments total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
Very cool photos.

I found an old newspaper from 1913 under the linoleum in our house with the story of an 18 year old girl standing trial for impersonating a boy. She had come from Montreal and had been working in a Toronto shop. No other mention of any other illegal activities.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:31 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

The book 'We'll All Go Home In The Spring', first person accounts of Oregon Trail pioneers, contains a couple references to the 'short hair train', a wagon train in which the women, for a variety of reasons, not least that they had lost all the combs through various calamities, cut off all their long hair. It was still being remembered and remarked on decades later.
posted by perhapsolutely at 9:47 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Great post! Thanks.

From the Walker link (the only I've read thusfar):

In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 20-cent, first-class stamp in commemoration of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, as a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor and the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the United States.

Oddly enough, the full-color stamp portrays her wearing a fancy dress and curls. To the contrary, not only did she wear men’s clothes, but boasted she had been arrested for impersonating a man.

Oddly enough, eh? Certainly someone making the stamp design had to have seen pictures of her (as we have in this article) that reflected what she looked like. As someone who fought so passionately for the right to women wear what they wanted (and healthier for them, affording more mobility/freedom/etc), to be portrayed in a dress is pretty offensive.
posted by el io at 10:15 PM on November 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Maybe I'm just tired, but Nellie Kolle in her vaudeville boy outfit looks remarkably like Elijah Wood to me (which I guess is to her credit, given the roles she played). And the resemblance between Scarlet Johansson and "Girl wearing a striped dress" is uncanny.

Anyway, great photos and stories.
posted by jedicus at 10:23 PM on November 19, 2013

My great aunt nearly drowned in a flood because she wore all those petticoats. She swore she would never wear them again and she didn't. Only clothing I ever saw her in were overalls, but by then she was already old. I have a photograph of her on her motorcycle in 1914.
posted by Repack Rider at 11:22 PM on November 19, 2013 [24 favorites]

Distance walking is a thing? Gosh, I can just see her speed-walking from Boston to Providence, too. "Gotta go! No time to talk!"

I wish I knew where I read this, but the main causes of death for women once upon a time were 1) Childbirth 2) Skirts and hair catching fire.
posted by blnkfrnk at 12:29 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Walker's stamp appears to be based on this photograph, so the curls and clothing are accurate, but I don't think it's a "fancy dress" -- I think she has a lace scarf on top of something like this field uniform (essentially a tunic worn over trousers). So the stamp may not exactly celebrate her choices, but it doesn't deliberately falsify them either.
posted by dhartung at 12:36 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

blnkfrnk: QI? Cooking specifically, I believe.
posted by lazaruslong at 12:52 AM on November 20, 2013

Walker’s future relied heavily on her experiences as a child and the encouragement of her father. He planned for all his children to be educated, even building the town’s first schoolhouse on his land. Also a self-taught country doctor, it would be his collection of medical books that first sparked Walker’s interest in pursuing a medical career.

Her father was also pretty progressive for his time. Bootstraps and all.
posted by three blind mice at 12:52 AM on November 20, 2013

Sargent Jackrum!!! (okay nowhere near enough girth and she's actually a painter, but still!)
posted by Erasmouse at 2:06 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

That is a woman who loves her rocks.
posted by Katemonkey at 3:38 AM on November 20, 2013

Nice post, thanks for this!
posted by carter at 4:01 AM on November 20, 2013

My great aunt Josephine was this kind of lady. She also like to drive cars fast and drink fellas under the table! When she died and we had to clean out her seniors apartment, I found a photo of her with the name "Joey" on the back. Makes me wonder what kind of lives she had.
posted by Calzephyr at 6:06 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

It wouldn’t be until Oct. 5, 1964, that Walker would finally be commissioned as acting assistant surgeon, earning $100 a month — thus becoming the first female surgeon commissioned in the Army.

Wait, was this a posthumous thing or is that a typo for 1864? My sense is the latter, but does anyone know?
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:15 AM on November 20, 2013

I'd never heard of Helen Richie. Wikipedia doesn't have much on her, but San Diego Air & Space has some cool photos, including some of her ready to fly.
posted by postcommunism at 6:21 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

No. I refuse to believe that women were not as restricted back then as they are liberated now.
posted by mantecol at 7:43 AM on November 20, 2013

Thanks, this is a really cool gallery! Such a travesty (I see what I did there) that the only way some people could do the work they wanted, or the work that paid enough to support themselves, was to live in disguise. I remember reading letters in Elizabeth Blackwell’s biography advising her to go the same route, which goes back to ancient Greece. The most famous female doctor practicing as male kept her secret until 20 years after Blackwell started her training.

But, oh, how times have changed! I was just reminiscing to someone this morning about how I had to fight my parents tooth and nail when I was a kid to be allowed to wear long hair and dresses! It wasn’t until I was big enough that I couldn’t be physically held down and have my hair shorn that they finally gave up and let me grow it out. (Parochial school helped with the dresses; I just “never got around” to taking my school clothes off.)

Of course, a lot of that was rebellion against Dad's constant bitching about having only daughters - I felt like they were trying to turn me into some cheap, second-rate son impersonator - and a desperate attempt to mitigate the effects of being taller and bigger than all the other girls in my age group.

Grandma, on the other hand, started wearing trousers during WWII and never looked back. Postwar, you only saw her in a dress for formal occasions or if it was part of a work uniform.

Ella Wesner looks a lot like me in my Edgar Allen Poe costume from three Halloweens ago. Needless to say, I didn't look a lot like Edgar Allen Poe.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:48 AM on November 20, 2013

Charlie Parkhurst was one of the roughest, toughest stage coach drivers in the San Francisco Bay Area. No one knew he was born a woman until after his death, after which his business partner and friend spent many days of swearing upon hearing the unexpected information from the investigating doctor. He even voted (long before it was legal for women).

My favorite story: when applying for the stage coach driver position, each candidate was asked: when driving around a tight corner on a hill, how close do you think you could drive the stage coach to the edge of the road? His answer: "As far away from it as I can get!" He was hired.
posted by eye of newt at 8:53 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is a really cool gallery. I should mention, though, that the "Death by Petticoat" thing where women were supposedly constantly setting themselves on fire is one of those longstanding historic-house myths.
posted by PussKillian at 9:23 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ida leeson looks like Anderson cooper.
posted by empath at 2:14 PM on November 20, 2013

I am delighted to see the tip of the hat to my remote cousin courtesy eye of newt.
posted by Lou Stuells at 3:44 PM on November 20, 2013

Great gallery, thanks for the post filthy light thief!

I should mention, though, that the "Death by Petticoat" thing where women were supposedly constantly setting themselves on fire is one of those longstanding historic-house myths.

Well, it certainly happens a lot in India when women cook in saris. I don't think anyone is claiming it happened constantly, but it's not inconceivable it happened occasionally, enough to be a concern.
posted by goo at 6:11 PM on November 20, 2013

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