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Female Badasses in History: Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)


Margaret Bourke-White was the first female war correspondent of the 20th century and after Kit Coleman the second female war correspondent in the English-speaking world as well as the first female photographer for Life where one of her pictures was featured on the first issue of the magazine. She produced some of the most iconic images of the 20th century including her extensive coverage of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, the first pictures taken by a Western photographer of Soviet industry, the shot of Ghandi and his spinning wheel, and the beheading of a prisoner in the Korean war.

Margaret Bourke-White was born Margaret White in 1904 in New York City to a family of Irish descent. Her interest with photography began early on due to her father having photography as a hobby. Despite her interest, she started studying herpetology at Columbia University in 1922, only to leave after one semester. She transferred colleges several times, especially after the death of her father in 1923 and graduated in 1927 from Cornell University with a B.A. in Photography leaving behind one of the best known photographic studies of the campus and its surroundings as her graduating works.

Margaret originally began working in commercial photography, opening her own studio but in 1929 she accepted a job as a photo editor for Fortune magazine. At the time Soviet-US relations were thawing and steps were taken to advance mutual understanding. Margaret saw an opportunity in this and started lobbying to have Fortune give her the opportunity to go to the USSR to get a photo reportage. In 1930 she became the first Western photographer taking pictures of the Soviet Union.

Due to her outstanding work she was hired by Henry Luce as the first female photojournalist for Life magazine in 1936. Her picture of the Fort Peck Dam construction appeared on its first cover on November 23, 1936. She held the title of staff photographer until 1940, but returned from 1941 to 1942 and again in 1945, where she stayed through her semi-retirement in 1957 (which ended her photography for the magazine) and her full retirement in 1969.

Her photographs of the construction of the Fort Peck Dam were featured in Life’s first issue, dated November 23, 1936, including the cover. This cover photograph became such a favorite that it was the 1930s’ representative in the United States Postal Service’s Celebrate the Century series of commemorative postage stamps.

During the 1930s she also covered the Dust Bowl and its vicitms in the US as well Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia under Nazism and the USSR. While in the Soviet Union, she photographed a rare occurrence, Joseph Stalin with a smile, as well as portraits of Stalin’s mother and great-aunt when visiting Georgia.

During the Second World War she was the first female war correspondent allowed to cover front combat zones. She was present as the only foreign journalist in Moscow when the Germans began attacking the Soviet Union in June of 1941 and took several iconic photographs of the ensuing fire storm after the German attack.

Later she was attached to the US forces fighting in Italy and Germany. During that time she earned the nickname “Maggie the indestructible”. She had been on ships that had been torpedoed, strafed by the German Luftwaffe, shot at by the German army, on a sinking ship and subsequently stranded on an Arctic island, and been in a plane crash.

In the spring of 1945 she traveled with Patton’s army when they came across the Buchenwald concentration camp. Some of the most iconic picture with which we remember the Holocaust by are shot by her, including one of a German woman being led through the camp and turning her eyes from a pile of corpses. She said about her experience there: “Using a camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me.”

After the war Margaret Bourke-White first covered the Indian-Pakistani division where she took the famous picture of Ghandi at his spinning wheel and shortly afterwards the Korean war where she took the iconic picture of the beheading of a POW summing up all the brutality of the conflict in one picture.

At the end of the war in 1953 she started to show the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, an illness she would fall victim to 10 years later in 1963.


Margaret Bourke-Whit can not only be remembered for her iconic photos but also for her courage and pioneer role for women in journalism. Especially in light of Marie Colvin’s recent death, it is important to remember women like that who put their lives and well-being on the line to keep the public informed and further understanding of conflicts.


Pop-culture history: Les Miserables: The Dream lives?

This year around Christmas Universal will release its movie adaptation of the musical Les Miserables. The description of the movie reads as follows: “Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, Les Misérables tells an enthralling story of broken dreams and unrequited love, passion, sacrifice and redemption—a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit.“ While true, this description sums up the problems of almost all adaptations of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece of romantic French literature. Les Miserables is not just a collection of stories about love, redemption, and passion – it is scolding political commentary and agitation against social injustice and the French monarchy (and in extension of this against undemocratic Regimes) and a tribute to the students and fighters for a republican government who fought and died in the July Revolution of 1832.


Victor Hugo born in 1802 was a monarchist in his younger years. Under the impression of the social misery and poverty so rampant in Paris in his day, Hugo turned to republican politics. He saw the establishment of a French Republic under a government that would care about the poor, infringed, and neglected as the only way of progress. After being caught up in the events of the July Revolution, which he describes in Les Miserables, and because of his already considerable fame in the 1830s (mainly due to his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame – another story of social outcasts and injustice), he planned to write a grand story about the misery so rampant in France. It should take him 30 years to finish.

He also participated in the 1848 Revolution in France and afterwards became a parliamentary in the freshly established Second French Republic. His main political issues were social injustice, the abolition of the death penalty, and the freedom of the press. With the coup d’etat by Napoleon III and the subsequent anti-parliamentary constitution, Hugo went into exile in Great Britain. Here he not only wrote several anti-Napoleonic pamphlets but also finished Les Miserables.

In its original French version about 1900 pages long, the book was intended by Hugo as a criticism of France’s monarchic past as well as its present. Long passages in the book consist of Hugo’s examination of topics such as law and moral, social justice, Paris architecture, religion, the idea of justice, politics, and finally the nature of love. The characters a vividly written as they are and their stories as beautiful and well-planned as they are, are also vessels for Hugo’s message that in today’s terms could be described as liberal – he opposes the monarchy, he wants to show the impact of social injustice, stigmatization, and oppression on people and pleads the case for a more just and republican France. He strongly favors liberal politics and glorifies the students and their uprising against the French monarchy and its system of political and social injustice. Even the main character, Jean Valjean, convicted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving siblings, is transformed from a man who just wants to lead an honest live after his unduly conviction to a political player and almost revolutionary trying to change the world for the better. Hugo’s message is clear, redemption or the road to progression lies in the political activity of Republicanism.


Yet, what do most adaptations – and from the looks of the trailer especially the upcoming movie adaptation – focus on? Love, redemption, and passion. All important parts of Hugo’s novel but only half of it without the grater political message – a political message that could and would work in modern times and terms. There obviously still is social and political injustice and misery. Of course it would be naïve to expect a movie studio or a musical company to focus on these aspects of one of the most acclaimed novels ever written but the twisting of a still sorely needed political message in order to turn political commentary into entertaining sing-songy sludge is still one of the grossest historical deceptions in the musical film world since The Sound of Music. While personally, I am not opposed to enjoying it, I think it is important to be aware that there is an important political message behind all these songs and characters and that turning this story into something like that not only does Hugo’s novel injustice but is an injustice akin to if a movie studio had turned the novel Push into a story about successfully losing weight and not the social drama that is Precious.

The tagline of the Les Mis movie is “The Dream lives”. Unfortunately, Victor Hugo’s dream certainly doesn’t live with this adaptation.

Female Badasses in History: Manshuk Mametova (1922-1943)

Manshuk Mametova was a distinguished Soviet soldier in the Second World War. Originally only assigned clerk duty, she managed to be assigned to combat duty rather quickly and played a very crucial part (if not the crucial part) in deciding the battle for Nevel, a strategically important town in Western Russia. For her role during this fight she was awarded the Order of the Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest military honor in the USSR, and effectively became the first woman from the Asian parts of the Soviet Union to be awarded this order.

Manshuk Mametova was born on October 23, 1922 in the Zhaskus settlement in the Ural region of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, today Kazakhstan. From age 5 on she was an orphan who was brought up by relatives of her father. While twenty years earlier in Tsarist Russia, being an orphan would have meant that she would have had no chance of securing any kind of career, the Soviet systems allowed for her to first go to High School (a school named after her today) and later enter medical school. While still at medical school Manshuk, a dedicated socialist, began working for the Kazakh SSR Secretariat of the Republican Enforcement Authority, which was less menacing than it sounds since it was mainly tasked with cultural and propaganda programs designed to combine Kazakh culture and nationalism with the values of Soviet socialism (odd it may sound but it worked for the most parts).

When Nazi-Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 21, 1941 Manshuk was 18-years-old and was one of the first people to volunteer at her local recruitment office. The Red Army distinguished itself from all other Allied (and for that matter Axis) armies – except irregular ones like the partisan armies in Yugoslavia, China, Korea, Vietnam and so forth – by admitting women into its ranks partly due to socialist ideology that took pride in emancipation as understood at the time, partly due to basic necessity for soldiers. Soviet sources often say that Manshuk was motivated to sign up by patriotism and believe in the Soviet system – which seems true at least to a certain extent – but some source also point out that Kazakhstan has a whole host of folklore and mythology based in historical reality that glorifies female warriors – something very common in this region of the world from the Iron Age all throughout the Kazakh Khanate and up until the 18th century. This might also have been a motivational factor for her.

In the Red Army Manshuk was assigned clerical duty for the 100th Rifle Company, mostly composed of Kazakh troops. Manshuk was one of two women who served in this specific company. While carrying out her clerical duties, she used her free time to study the design of Soviet machine guns and learn to shoot them. Because of her apparent talent, her superiors decided to make her one of the machine gunners of the company. They left for the front in October of 1942 and served with distinction.

A year after going to the front to fight the Germans, the company was assigned to take part in the battle for Nevel in Western Russia. The fight was very difficult since the Germans had the advantage of being above the Soviet troops and stopped their advance while inflicting heavy casualties on the Soviet troops. At some point in the battle Manshuk and her fellow machine gun operator went off alone and snuck around German positions and up a hill on their flank. Manshuk killed the Germans on this position with her pistol and knife and took over the German machine gun nest. From there she and her fellow gunner started shooting on the Germans effectively breaking their counter-offensive and giving Soviet troops the time and space to attack. After an hour of non-stop assaulting German troops a hand grenade hit their position immediately killing her fellow gunner and mortally wounding Manshuk. Still she carried on fighting the German army and her continued one-woman assault on the Germans turned the tide of the battle. She died the same day but because of her actions Nevel could be won by Soviet troops and she was awarded the Order of the Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously.

Without Manshuk probably many thousands of Allied soldiers more would have died in the fight for Nevel. Manshuk is buried in Nevel and can be remembered  not only as a hero of the Second World War but also as another woman in the long line of Kazakh female warriors who fought with bravery.

Female Badasses in History: Dolores Huerta (1930)


Author’s note: This post was written by a friend of mine know around the internets as Monotreme Extraordinaire. Thank you for your contribution and I am really happy to be able to put something by somebody else on this blog.


Dolores Clara Huerta was born on April 10, 1930 in the mining town of Dawson, New Mexico. She was the second child and only daughter of Juan Fernandez and Alicia Chaves Fernandez. Her parents divorced when she was three years old and her mother relocated Dolores and her two brothers to Stockton, California in the predominantly agricultural San Joaquin Valley. Her mother worked as a cook in two restaurants to support Dolores, along with her two brothers, and later two sisters, during the Great Depression. Alicia later purchased two hotels, one from a Japanese family who was relocated to a concentration camp, and a restaurant. She allowed farm workers to stay at her hotel for free. Alicia taught Dolores the importance of community activism.

Dolores stayed in contact with her father. To supplement his wages as a coal miner, he became a seasonal farm worker, traveling to Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. He was unhappy with working conditions and became active in labor unions. He eventually returned to school to earn a college degree. In 1938 he won election to the New Mexico state legislature where he worked for better labor laws. His union activity inspired Dolores’ own work.

Dolores received a teaching certificate from the University of the Pacific’s Delta Community College. She was the first of her family to receive a higher education and one of few women to graduate from college at that time. After graduating, she taught grammar school but decided to resign from teaching because, in her words, “I couldn’t stand seeing farm worker children come to class hungry and in need of shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing their parents than by trying to teach their hungry children.” In 1955, Dolores quit her teaching job and became founding member of the Stockton Chapter of the Community Service Organization (“CSO”), a grass roots organization started by Fred Ross. The CSO battled segregation, police brutality, led voter registration drives, pushed for improved public services in Latino communities throughout the State of California and fought to enact new legislation. The CSO played a leading role in electing the first Latino in over one hundred years, Ed Roybal, to the Los Angeles City Council.

Recognizing the needs of farm workers while working for the CSO, Dolores organized and founded the Agricultural Workers Association (“AWA”) in 1960. She became a fearless lobbyist in Sacramento at a time where few women, not to mention women of color, dared to enter the State Capital and National Capital to lobby legislators. She obtained the removal of citizenship requirements from pension and public assistance programs for legal residents of the United States and California State disability insurance for farm workers, passage of legislation allowing the right to vote in Spanish, and the right of individuals to take the drivers license examination in their native language. In 1962 she lobbied in Washington D.C. for an end to the “captive labor” Bracero Program. In 1963 she was instrumental in securing Aid for Dependent Families (“AFDC”), for the unemployed and underemployed.

It was through her work with Fred Ross and the CSO that Dolores met Cesar Chavez. It was Fred who recruited and organized both Dolores and Cesar and trained them in community organizing. While working with the CSO, both Cesar and Dolores realized the immediate need to organize farm workers because of their dire conditions. In 1962 after the CSO turned down Cesar’s request to organize farm workers, Cesar and Dolores resigned from their jobs with CSO in order to do so. At that time she was a divorced mother with seven children. She later joined Cesar and his family in Delano, California where they began the National Farm Workers Association (“NFWA”), the predecessor to the United Farm Workers Union (“UFW”).

Dolores directed the UFW’s national grape boycott that resulted in the entire California table grape industry signing a three-year collective bargaining agreement with the United Farm Workers. She negotiated the first NFWA contract with the Schenley Wine Company. This was the first time in the history of the United States that a negotiating committee comprised of farm workers and a young Latina single mother of seven, negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with an agricultural corporation. The grape strike continued and the two organizations (“AWA” and “NFWA”) merged in 1967 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (“UFWOC”). As the main UFWOC negotiator, Dolores successfully negotiated more contracts for farm workers, she also set up hiring halls, the farm workers ranch committees, administrated the contracts and conducted over one hundred grievance and arbitration procedures on behalf of the workers. She obtained many “firsts” that had been denied to farm workers: toilets in the fields along with soap, water and paper towels, cold drinking water with individual paper cups, the Robert F. Kennedy medical plan that covered farmworker families, the Juan de la Cruz pension fund (paid for by employers), job security, seniority rights, rest periods, paid vacations and holidays, and protections from pesticides in union contracts. Dolores and Cesar also formed the National Farm Workers Service Center which today provides affordable housing with over 3,700 rental and 600 single family dwelling units, and educational radio with over nine Spanish Speaking Radio Stations throughout California, Washington and Arizona.

Dolores directed the consumer boycott of grapes, lettuce, and Gallo wines which resulted in the enactment of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, the first law of its kind that grants farm workers the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions. In 1974 she was instrumental in securing unemployment benefits for farm workers. In 1985 Dolores lobbied against federal guest worker programs and spearheaded legislation granting amnesty for farm workers that had lived, worked, and paid taxes in the United States for many years but unable to enjoy the privileges of citizenship. This resulted in the Immigration Act of 1985 in which 1,400,000 farm workers received amnesty.

In 2002 Dolores was the second recipient of the Puffin Foundation/Nation Institute Award for Creative Citizenship (visit that included a $100,000 grant which she utilized to establish her long time dream, the Dolores Huerta Foundation’s Organizing Institute. The Foundation’s mission is to focus on community organizing and leadership training in low-income under-represented communities. Dolores serves as President of the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

Dolores Huerta speaks at colleges and organizations throughout the country about public policy issues affecting immigrants, women, and youth. Dolores is a board member for the Feminist Majority Foundation (visit that advocates for gender balance. She teaches a class on community organizing at the University of Southern California. Dolores is also Secretary-Treasure Emeritus of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO (UFW). She has 11 children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Video of Dolores Huerta on YouTube

The Delores Huerta Foundation


Female Badasses in History: Nathalie Lemel (1827-1921)

Nathalie Lemel was a French socialist activist, feminist, anarchist, and fighter for the Paris commune. Together with other like-minded women she founded the Union of Women during the Paris commune, which additionally to its role as an organizational extension of the First Socialist International played a vital role in furthering feminist and socialist causes during the Paris commune.

Nathalie Lemel was born in Brest in 1827. She was in school until age 12 when she became a bookbinder. In 1861 the business she and her at the time husband ran in Brest went bankrupt and Nathalie moved to Paris to work as a bookbinder and book retailer. During her time in Paris she became involved in socialist activism. Her first action was when the newly founded First Socialist International supported the French bookbinder’s strike of 1864. Lemel joined the First International and when a second strike was called a year later she was elected a union delegate and a member of the strike committee, which was rare for women at the time. Additionally to her socialist activism, she also used her position to fight for feminist causes, mainly equal salary for men and women and women’s right to vote should democracy be re-established. France at the time was ruled by Napoleon III in the style of an absolutist monarchy but in 1868 slow attempts at re-democratization were made. One of these measures was the repeal of the prohibition on public meetings. Additionally to the discussion of the social question, many meetings were held concerning the “question of women” mainly by socialists like Lemel. This lead to the general politicization of women in France, which should become a major factor in the Paris commune a few years later.

In 1870 war between France and Germany broke out. Paris was under siege by German forces and as unrest grew, riots broke out. Socialist and other left-wing revolutionaries seized this opportunity to form a city government that would govern the city according to socialist principles. The so-called Paris Commune was the first attempt in history to create a socialist order in any form of governance. It existed for two months, from March 18 to May 28 1871. Nathalie Lemel was closely involved in the Commune. Not only did she fight against German as well as French government troops but also was closely involved in Commune politics. Together with other like-minded women she formed the Union of Women in an attempt to further feminist politics in the Paris Commune. The Union had about 1800 members and was the biggest women’s organization in Paris. Its members organized oublic talks on the rights of women, were involved in the fight against enemy troops not only by supporting men in combat but by fighting themselves. Lemel and the co-founders such as Elisabeth Dimtrieff were also big critics of Commune politics, especially since there was no woman in the Commune’s government and its rulers did not introduce women’s suffrage arguing that this was not the time given the precarious military situation.
One of the biggest achievements of Lemel and the Union was that they organized women’s labor. They created places to work and founded soup kitchens and other places of supply for all of the Paris’ population, opposed to the Commune or not. Lemel saw socialism as a movement for everybody.

The Paris Commune was ended in a very bloody fight in May of 1871. Unlike many of her fellow fighters Lemel did survive the Commune’s end and was banished from France’s mainland to New Caledonia from where she returned in 1880 to continue her fight for socialism and women’s rights through publishing several magazines until her death in 1921.
Lemel does not only stand out as a practical fighter in the field of activism and real military fighting (she stood on the barricades of Paris, rifle in hand) but one of her and her fellow founders of the Union of Women lasting contributions is that the socialist movement was forced to discuss feminist politics and women’s rights issues. Through their active participation in all areas of life during the time of the Commune Lemel and the members of her organization basically proofed that the cause of socialism could not go on without including women. Although it was a very slow process, later prominent female socialist activist such as Adelheid Popp or Rosa Luxemburg could find a political home also concerning women’s rights with the Socialist International in part due to activists like Nathalie Lemel.

Female Badasses in History: Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

Sojourner Truth was an African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She also was the first escaped slave to win a court case against a white man to recover her son from him. She is best known for her “Ain’t I a woman” speech delivered in 1851 given extemporaneous to attack racial inequalities in the United States.

Sojourner Truth was born as Isabella Baumfree to a family of slaves in Esopus, New York. She was the first generation of her family born in the United States since both her parents came to the US as slaves from Ghana respectively Guinea. She was sold three times and forced to marry another slave by her fourth master. The same master had promised her freedom once the state of New York legislated abolition, a process starting in 1799 but not complete until 1827. When her master changed her mind claiming she had not done well enough to earn her freedom Truth escaped in 1826 together with her infant daughter Sophia. She escaped to the Van Wagner family who took her in for the remainder of the year so that she could be free. In 1827 New York State Emancipation Act was decreed and Truth was free. She had however learned that her previous owner had sold her five year old son illegally to a plantation owner in Alabama. With the help of the Van Wagner family she sued him and became the first African-American to win such a case. She recovered her son as well as all the illegal proceeds of his sale. The story of her son did take a very tragic end though for in later years he would become a sailor on a wailing vessel and vanish forever.

During her time at the Van Wagner’s, Truth had become a devout Christian. Her faith was her motivation to become involved in abolitionist activism. In 1843 she changed her name to Sojourner Truth and set forth to go and preach all over the US for the abolition of slavery. In 1844 she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, an organization founded by abolitionists and dedicated to abolition of slaver, women’s rights, religious tolerance and pacifism. There she even met Frederick Douglass.
The organization disbanded in 1847 but Truth kept on fighting. In 1851 she was at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akon, Ohio. There she would deliver her famous “Ain’t I a woman” speech.
In her speech she attacked gender and racial inequality with probably her most famous words:

“I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear de lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman? (…) If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yourn holds a quart, wouldn’t ye be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full? (…)Den dat little man in back dar, he say women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wan’t a woman! Whar did your Christ come from? Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothin’ to do wid Him.” (Quoted from Matilda Joslyn Gage (ed.), History of Woman Suffrage, 2nd ed. Vol.1. Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1889.)

Her speech that was reprinted several times, especially during the civil war, mad Truth a famous speaker in abolitionist and women’s rights circles. In the subsequent years she spoke over a hundred times before different audiences.

During the Civil War Truth made it her mission to recruit African-American soldiers for the Union. She was employed by the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C., where she worked diligently to improve conditions for African-Americans. In October of 1864, she met President Abraham Lincoln. In 1865, while working at the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, Truth rode in the streetcars to help force their desegregation. After the war Truth started a campaign to secure land grants from the federal government for former slaves but unfortunately was not successful. She dedicated the rest of her life to fight racism, racial inequality, capital punishment, and the oppression of women in the United States. She died in 1883 at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Sojourner Truth can be remembered as one of the most outstanding activists for women’s rights and racial equality of the 19th century. Not only did she overcome great adversity in her own life, she helped many people to overcome the adversity that they met and in her speeches was far ahead of her time in terms of progressive thoughts, ideas, and ideals. She truly deserves to be remembered as a hero.

Female Badasses in History: Salaria Kea (1913-1990)

Salaria Kea was the one of the few African-American women to serve with the American volunteer unit, the Abraham-Lincoln-Brigade, in the Spanish Civil War. Out of her Christian and also Communist convictions, she used her skills as a nurse to dedicate her life to social change and the improvement of the lives of the disenfranchised, poor, non-privileged, and oppressed in the United States and other countries. Despite her rather unique story and her life-long commitment and activism against racism, prejudice, and oppression, her life-story is not very well documented and her life largely forgotten outside of circles that concern themselves with the history of US-volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.

Salaria Kea was born in 1913 in Georgia. Early on in her life her father, who worked in a sanatorium was killed by a patient there and subsequently the family moved to Akron, Ohio. Kea was the only child in her family that completed high school but she still had to work besides school in a doctor’s office to support her family. She wrote that this was what prompted her to become a nurse. Nursing schools in Ohio however rejected her on basis of her race, so in 1930 Kea moved to New York to start training as a nurse at the Harlem Hospital Training School from which she graduated in 1934. After graduation she become head nurse of Sea View Hospital’s tuberculosis ward and became involved in left-wing politics culminating in her joining the Communist Party in 1935. Later on, she would omit the fact that she had joined the CP because in her life in post-WWII America this would become a factor of discrimination on top of the already existing discrimination based on her race she had to face.

Her involvements in left-wing politics lead Kea to her first activist campaign. In 1935 fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia – one of the few nations in Africa that had never been colonized – in order to re-built a fascist version of the Roman Empire. Kea was involved in aid work such as raising money and medical supplies to send to Ethiopia. She also tried to volunteer to go to Ethiopia but the Ethiopian government did not accept international volunteers at that point in time. A year later she tried to volunteer with the American Red Cross to help flood victims in the Mid-West but again was rejected on basis of her race. The same year the Spanish Civil War broke out. A fascist clique of generals staged a coup d’etat against the democratically elected left-wing government in Spain. The western powers decided on a policy of non-involvement in the conflict and Spanish Republican Forces – made up of centrist and left-wing Democrats, Socialists, Communists, and Anarchists – had to face the General Franco’s fascist forces, which were actively supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, with only marginal support by the Soviet Union. Thousands of men and women from virtually all over the world decided to volunteer to fight for the Spanish Republic with the volunteers from the US forming the Abraham-Lincoln-Brigade. Kea also decided to volunteer and in1937 sailed for Spain as the only African-American female in the medical corps of the Abraham-Lincoln Brigade.

In Spain she was assigned to a hospital in Villa Paz where she treated wounded volunteers, members of the regular army of the Spanish Republic, and civilians wounded in the fighting especially by the extensive civilian bombing campaign Spanish fascists launched with the help of Nazi Germany. Despite the horrors she saw during that time, Kea refers in her own accounts to this time as “the best of my life.” “Finally I was not seen as a Negro or as a woman but as a human being”, were her own words. She still had to battle racism from her fellow American volunteers though. Several of them refused to associate with her and she even speaks of one of the American doctors she worked with referring to her as a “Nigger wench”.
It was also there in Spain she also wrote extensively about the parallels between American racism, European anti-Semitism, and Spanish fascism, which only deepened her conviction to fight oppression everywhere. And fight oppression she did, not only by treating the wounded but also in the ranks of the fighters of the Spanish Republic. She would actively challenge any form of discrimination within the group of volunteers and never let anyone silence her.
During her time she also met her later husband, John Patrick O’Reilly, an Irishman who had come to volunteer with the British brigade in Spain. After she had recuperated from her injuries sustained in a bombing raid in Barcelona, the two married and Kea returned to the United States in 1938 where she not only lobbied and raised money for the cause of the Spanish Republic but also managed to gain an immigration certificate for her husband in 1940.
Kea served again, this time in WWII in 1944, after the US military had started accepting African-American females. After the war she and her husband moved to New York where she started working in hospitals again and stayed involved in left-wing politics, especially anti-racism campaigns. The McCarthy years were very difficult for Kea since on top of the race-based discrimination she and her husband had to face as an interracial couple, she was also discriminated against based on her political convictions. Several employers turned her down, it is suspected that the FBI had a file on her, and even threats against her life and property were issued.

In 1973 she retired and the couple moved back to Akron, Ohio. She stayed involved in campaigns against racism and oppression for the rest of her life. She also used her skills as a nurse to help by volunteering to provide medical aid for free in poor neighborhoods in New York and later on to the impoverished inhabitants of Akron.
She died after a long illness in 1990.
Salaria Kea was an outstanding woman and deserves to be remembered as such. The knowledge of her life, outstanding commitment, and passionate activism deserves to be spread and celebrated for she was a truly outstanding and amazing woman that dedicated her life to good causes and social change.

Female Badasses in History: Josephine Baker (1906-1975)

Josephine Baker’s accomplishments are almost too numerous to list them all: The American-French singer, dancer, and actress was the first African-American woman to star in a major motion picture, to integrate an American concert hall, and to become the first world-famous entertainer. She also was a member of the French resistance against the Germans and a political icon of the civil rights movement in the US, going so far that after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. his widow, Coretta Scott King (who will get her own entry) offered Josephine Baker the unofficial leadership of the movement.

Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri, into a family of French, African-American, Native-American, and Jewish decent. At age 12 Baker had to drop out of school to work full-time under such ghastly conditions that she chose to rather be homeless. For three years she lived in the slums of St. Louis earning money by dancing on street corners. Apparently her talent was noticed and she joined a vaudeville troop, which ultimately brought her to New York during the height of the so-called Harlem Renaissance. In New York her career started to take off and Baker started performing on Broadway as a dancer and singer. Her dancing and singing was noticed by talent agents of the time and lead to her being invited to France to open at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1925. There she started an erotic one-woman show that soon became world-famous. She toured Western Europe with her show and was a success in every country.
Baker was the most successful American entertainer outside of the USA in the 1920s and early 30s. She took roles in European movies and also in 1934 starred in an Offenbach opera performed at the most prestigious opera house in Paris. Contemporary artists and celebrities like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior flocked around her all attesting to her beauty and talent.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939 and German forces subsequently occupied France in 1940, Josephine Baker immediately volunteered to spy and work for the French resistance. She helped the cause of the French resistance by attending parties together with high-ranking Axis officials and through subtle interrogations disguised as gossiping she learned of important details of Axis policy in France and all of Europe, which she immediately passed on to her contacts in the resistance.
She also used her status as a celebrity to get false documents for members of the resistance and Jews who needed to flee France for fear of being deported to one of the camps. She also smuggled important information and messages from France to Morocco or Spain by hiding the messages in her underwear, again relying on her celebrity status to avoid strip searches.
When she relocated definitely to Morocco in 1942 she began to entertain French colonial troops urging them to join the forces of the Free France government in London and not serving the Vichy government that was in bed with the Germans with quite a degree of success. One of the first things she did after the war in Europe ended was to visit the freshly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp where she spontaneously put on a performance for the recently liberated former inmates there much to their enjoyment according to British and American eyewitnesses.
After the war Baker became the first American woman to receive three of the highest honors of the French state, the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Resistance, and being made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur; all given to her by Charles de Gaulle personally.

In the 1950s Josephine Baker became very active in the American civil rights movement. Not only did she protest racism by adopting 12 multi-ethnic orphans as her legal children, she also forced clubs, theaters, opera houses and other cultural venues to open themselves to an integrated audience by either refusing to perform there or by simply buying the establishment and changing the audience guidelines. She also started working closely with the NAACP using her wealth and fame to bring attention and fight for their cause. This lead to her being the only official female speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. She spoke at the side of Martin Luther King Jr. wearing her Free French army uniform and her medals. Baker used this opportunity to introduce the “Negro Women for Civil Rights” and brought Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates to the stage to give brief speeches.
By 1968 Baker had become a true icon of the civil rights movement in the US and despite her still living in France at the time Coretta Scott King approached her after Martin Luther King’s assassination and offered her the unofficial leadership of the movement. After careful deliberation Josephine Baker refused, mainly because of her young children.

As for her personal life, Baker was married several times, had never any children that were not adopted due to health reasons, and according to the biography one of her sons wrote about her was bisexual, having had affairs with several women among them Frida Kahlo.
Josephine Baker died at age 68 in Paris where she was the first American woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral. She has several places in France and the US named after her and can be remembered as one of the most outstanding women of her time in show-buisness, paving the way for African-American women, an important civil-rights activist, and a fighter against racism, inequality, injustice, and the terrible German Nazi regime.

Female Badasses in History: Haika Grosman (1919-1996)

Today is Yom HaShoah, the Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. It was very difficult for me to decide who to write about today since there are many, many stories of outstanding women in connection to this day; women who saved people; women who resisted; women who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. All of the should be remembered and honored today. I decided for Haika Grosman because her story is one of resistance, defiance, conviction, passion, courage, and ultimately hope. While it is important that this day is one that ultimately is not solely about hope because of the millions of men, women and children who were murdered by the Germans, Austrians and their collaborators, I believe a message of hope is needed sometimes.

Haika Grosmann was an active member of the Zionist Socialist Movement in Poland and was involved in the anti-Nazi resistance in her homeland from the first day on. She was involved in resistance activities in Poland and Lithuania. She was one of the leaders of the Jewish resistance in the city of Bialystok where she was involved in the armed uprising against the Germans who “terminated” the Ghetto. The uprising ultimately failed but Grosman survived and continued her activity in the Jewish resistance in Poland until 1945 despite the fact that she had been offered to emigrate to the British mandate Palestine numerous times. After the war she stayed in Poland helping to trace Nazi collaborators and assisting Holocaust survivors to emigrate. After her emigration to Israel in 1948 she was very active in the Kibbutzim and union movement and through her writings aimed at spreading knowledge about and preserving the memory of the Holocaust. She also was actively involved in the struggle for full civil equality for the Arab population, as well as social justice and peace.

Haika Grosman was born in 1919 in Bialystok into a wealthy Jewish family. She was one of the few members of her family as well one of the few of the sixty thousand Jewish inhabitants of Bialystok who would survive the Holocaust.
From an early age on she was involved with the Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir, a Jewish socialist youth movement, which educated its members towards a socialist ideology as well as immigration to the British mandate in Palestine. Grosman rose the ranks in the movement, eventually becoming a public representative and speaker. In 1938 she was accepted at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem thereby gaining her immigration certificate. The movement’s leadership asked her to stay though to continue her instructions on Socialism and Zionism to Jewish communities in Eastern Poland. Grosman decided to stay.

With the German invasion of Poland in 1939 Grosman together with many others fled eastward, in Grosman’s case to Vilna. Grosman had also become one of the leaders of the Ha-Shomer movement by now, well known for her leadership skills and her dedication. With the Soviet invasion of Lithuania, she and others went underground because of the uncertainty what to expect form the Soviet occupation. She continued her work in education Jewish communities and assisting with matters of emigration. She also once again turned down her chance to emigrate.

With the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, the question what to do came up again. Most of Grosman’s fellow leaders of the movement decided to go east yet again but Grosman declared that she would stay. As a woman with Aryan looks she would be able to move in German occupied territory she reasoned.
In the fall of 1941 the Germans rounded up most of the Jews of Vilna and deported them 10 kilometers from the city to kill them. The few remaining Jews were forced to live in a Ghetto. Grosman who had obtained false papers lived outside the Ghetto and traveled back and fourth between Poland and Lithuania in order to inform her movement of the German atrocities. She participated in the “movement” gathering in a convent near Vilna, where the group, led by famous jewish partisan Abba Kovner, decided on armed resistance. Sent to Bialystok to organize the fighting underground, she served as a contact person between Vilna and Bialystok and other ghettos.

In Bialystok, Heika Grosman’s mission was to create a unified front between all the Jewish resistance organizations (such as the Zionists, the socialist Bund and so forth) and the Judenrat (Jewish council, the administration of the Ghetto put in place by the Germans) in order to be able to resist violently against the Germans. It was a difficult task and it was only completed in August of 943, on the eve of the German extermination of the Bialystok Ghetto. An uprising was staged with Grosman as one of the leaders but the Germans who had learned from their experience in Warsaw were quick to crush it violently. Grosman managed to survive and escaped to the “Aryan” side of town under grave danger. Under even more danger for her own life, she stayed in Bialystok and together with six other women formed her anti-fascist committee which had the purpose of marinating contact with the Soviet partisans outside of the city supplying them with information as well as helping the few remaining Jews in the city escape to safety in the woods.
With the surrender of the German troops, Grosman and her friends marched in the front line, side by side with the Soviet Brigade fighters who entered the city in August 1944. Grosman, who was awarded the highest national medal for utmost courage by the Polish government, stayed in Bialystok, but declined her friends’ repeated appeal to officially join the communist leadership. At the same time, she integrated into the new regime, and served in the security forces tracing Nazi collaborators. At this time, the end of 1944 and beginning of 1945, the remaining leadership of the Halutz movements were looking for a way to reach the survivors of the camps and the refugees who had returned from central USSR. The members of Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir in Poland located Grosman and, in an emotion laden meeting, told each other about the hardships and horrors of their personal experiences. Informing her superiors in the security forces that she was joining her Jewish Zionist comrades, Grosman reached the joint commune in Warsaw in April 1945. Until her immigration to Israel in May 1948, she operated mainly in the political field, serving as head of the youth department in the Central Jewish Committee formed by the Polish authorities. As an acknowledged hero of war, she established political connections which helped her to organize institutions for the absorption of refugee children.

Arriving in Israel in 1948, Grosman fought in the war of independence and afterwards became very active in the Kibutzim and union movement as well as in socialist politics. She also wrote her autobiography about her time in the resistance and the loss of her relatives. Until the end of her life in 1996 Grosman never tired of promoting the memory of the Holocaust and the commemoration of its victims. Due to her socialist politics, she was also involved in campaigns for social justice and civil liberties for the Arab population. Highly honored by the Polish as well as the Israeli government, Heika Grosman stands out for her brave resistance conducted under life threatening conditions, her convictions, her tireless effort to save people and fight the Germans and their campaign of extermination.

Female Badasses in History: Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000)

Hedy Lamarr is probably best know for being a world-famous movie actress of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” with starring roles in movies like “Comrade X” with Spencer Tracy and Cecille B. DeMille’s “Samson and Delilah”. But Lamarr made an even greater contribution than her art when she and composer George Antheil invented an early technique for spread spectrum communication and frequency hopping – both techniques essential for wireless communication. Modern day cell phones and WLAN would not be possible without Lamarr’s and Antheiler’s invention.

Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1913 in Vienna to a family of the Austro-Hungarian Jewish bourgeoisie. She soon fond her way into acting and as a young teenager worked with max Reinhardt – one of the most famous German actors and acting coaches at the time – in Berlin and started reprising roles in major German movie productions of the 1920s.

Lamarr became world-renown for the first time because of a scandal: In a 1933 Czech film entitled “Ecstasy” she was the star of only the second nude scene in European commercial feature film. In a sequence of scenes lasting ten minutes the movie going audience of Europe saw Lamarr bathing naked in spring and then walking around the woods. The scandal didn’t end there. Also in the film is a close-up shot of Lamarr’s face while she is having an orgasm (rumored to be real which she later objected to in her auto-biography).

The same year Lamarr at age 19 married Friedrich Mandel, an Austrian arms manufacturer and prominent fascist. Mandel was extremely controlling and abusive. He prevented her from pursuing her acting career and even locked her up in his mansion. He also took her to business meetings with his partners where she got interested in military technology. In 1937 after four years of marriage to Mandel, Hedy disguised herself as one of her maids and fled Mandel and his abuse to Paris where she immediately obtained a divorce.

From Paris she went to London where she met Louis B. Meyer of MGM fame. Meyer was very impressed by Lamarr and hired her on the spot. Also he insisted that she change her name for marketing reasons and because of her personal story with Mandel. She chose Lamarr in reference to silent film actress Barbara La Marr who had did in 1926.

Lamarr moved to Hollywood and started a successful movie career in the 1940s, staring alongside Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, and even as comedic support for Bob Hope.

In Hollywood Lamarr lived next door to avant garde composer George Antheil, also a German immigrant and famous for his experiments with automated musical instruments. Lamarr, who had always been mathematically talented and was since her marriage to Mandel interested in military technology, had the idea to use Antheil’s technique for automated pianos as the basis for a secret communications system. In 1941 they built a device out of a piano roll that was able to hop between 88 different frequencies. According to the patent they handed in, it was indented to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for the enemy to detect or jam. They even presented the idea to the US Navy but officials rejected the idea. It was not put into military use until the Cuba blockade in 1962 after the patent had already expired. It was only form the 60s on that military and civil developers recognized how useful the idea was and started adopting it. Today Antheil’s and Lamarr’s technique is the basis for Bluetooth, WLAN, Wi-Fi networks, and cell phones.

Lamarr who very well recognized the use of the technique wanted to join the National Inventors Council, where inventors banded together to develop for the US military in the Second World War, but the president of the council rejected her  – one would suspect because she was a woman – and told her she should rather use her celebrity status to sell war bonds.

In the early 1950s Lamarr’s movie career was fainting and she began living in seclusion for basically the rest of her life. She appeared again in the tabloids for a shoplifting incident in 1965 but was largely forgotten in the 1970s. She died in Florida in the year 2000. Her children followed her testamentary wish and took her ashes back to Austria to spread them in the Wiener Wald, an area of woods surrounding the city of Vienna.

It was only after her death that her contribution to science and modern technology was recognized. In 2003 Boeing has ads featuring Lamarr without any reference to her movie career. In 2008 Elyse Singer wrote an off-broadway play about her. In 2004 a documentary entitled “Calling Hedy Lamarr” was made that detailed the story of her’s and Antheil’s contributions. Today not only is a srtee in Vienna named after her but the International Inventor’s Day is celebrated on her birthday, November 9. Lamarr contributed to the world not only through her art but what she and Antheil invented shaped our everyday life today in a very profound way because no matter what you think about it cell phones and Wi-Fi have become a most integral part of society and life.