spaceinvaderjoe's history blog

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Month: February, 2012

Female Badasses in History: Mabel Normand (1892-1930)

Author’s note: A friend of mine inspired this post by pointing out in a post of her on another blog the issue of the (non)-canonization of female comedians of the silent film era. Since I view as the purpose of this blog to address exactly such problems, I want to thank my friend for inspiring this post.

 

Mabel Normand was a silent film actress and comedienne and one of the industries first female directors, screenwriters and producers. Not only did she star in films along side such well-known comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and write and direct several Charlie Chaplin movies, she also owned her own movie studio and can be remembered as one of the most popular and successful movie comediennes of her time.

Mabel Normand was born in New Brighton, New York in 1982. She grow up in extreme poverty and was forced to find work as a model before the age of sixteen. She entered the movie industry in 1909 working for D.W. Griffith’s Biography Company under director Mack Sennett who she was rumored to have an affair with. She left the company in 1912 to work for Sennett’s Keystone pictures. She co-founded the company and soon she became a fixture on the team of actors for Sennett together with two newcomers named Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. She wrote and directed as well as co-starred in several short-films together with the two and Historians agree about it, that it was Mabel that started off Chaplin’s carreer after his initial difficulties with acting for the screen.

In 1914 she and Chaplin starred in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, the first feature-length comedy.

In the second half of the 1910s she left Keystone but with the help of Sennett founded her own movie studio, Mabel Normand Productions. Unfortunately she was only able to produce one film called Mickey because she fell ill with bronchitis and split with Sennett professionally and personally.

In 1918 Mable signed with Goldwyn and went on to star in two very successful films despite the reported problems she and Goldwyn had, partly caused by Goldwyn’s sexist dealings with her, partly caused by her own taste for alcohol and parties.

The early 1920s were not a very good time for Mable. She was involved in two major scandals, the murder of director William Desmond Taylor and the shooting of an oil tycoon by her chauffeur and experienced health problems.

Mabel continued making movies until 1926 but as her health problems got worse, she was forced to retire. She died in 1930 at age 37 from tuberculosis. Today Mable Normand is not only remembered for her contributions as an actress but also as a writer and director. She made crucial contributions to starting Charlie Chaplin’s career and in the creation of his Tramp character. She also was very talented on both sides of the camera, as apparent in her film Won in a Closet, recently unearth by the New Zealand film archive, which she both starred in and directed. She is also a frontrunner in a long list of silent film comediennes that have been almost forgotten today for their contributions to the early movie industry.

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Female Badasses in History: Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Rosalind Franklin was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century but is unfortunately and, because of the sexism rampant in her time and profession, under-recognized. She was biophysicist and made critical contribution to the discovery of DNA, of the molecular structure of viruses, and to the polio vaccine.

Rosalind Franklin was born in 1920 to a very prominent British-Jewish family in London. She was related to Herbert Samuel, first practicing Jewish member of the British cabinet and of High Commissioner in Palestine fame, and Helen Caroline Franklin, trade union organizer and women’s suffrage activist. Already early on in her education she succeeded at science and in 1938 she went off to study chemistry at the Newnham College, Cambridge, where she graduated in 1947 but was only awarded a degree in 1947 when Cambridge started awarding academic titles to women.

After graduating she started to work for the British Coal Utilization Research Association where she study the porosity of coal, which also became the topic of her PhD thesis that she completed in 1945 (before being awarded a BA and an MA as stated above). This position was where she learned how to utilize X-ray vision in order to study the molecular structure of objects; something that would prove crucial to her later discoveries.

In 1951 she started working at the King’s College London at the Biophysics unit. Recently, two scientists at the King’s College had obtained a diffraction picture of DNA, which sparked the further interest in the subject matter. Rosalind was assigned to further research the matter and together with her research assistant she started to use her expertise in X-ray diffraction to the structure of DNA. To go into specific detail about her research would well supersede my own knowledge of the subject, but Franklin’s contribution proved critical to Watson’s and Crick’s discovery of the DNA double-helix, a crucial step for modern science. Crick and Watson actually based their discovery on Rosalind Franklin’s model she described in an unpublished paper some time earlier. When Crick and Watson published their model, they only gave credit to Rosalind and her partner in coming up with the model in a footnote that stated they had “stimulated” their own work.

In 1953 Rosalind left King’s College and started working Birkbeck College, where she began researching the structure of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus and gradually moved on to analyze the Poliovirus. Her research in this area proved crucial in subsequent years for the invention of the Polio vaccine.

In 1956 Rosalind started to show first signs of illness and after a brief period of recovery in 1957, she died of ovarian cancer in April 1958.

Due to her early death, she was never able to witness the recognition Crick and Watson received after proving the DNA double-helix model in 1960. She was also not included in the Nobel Price they received for it because the committee awarding the prize at the time refused to award it posthumously.

The sexism Rosalind had to fight and endure all her life (at King’s College there were only seven women in scientific position and they had to eat at the student’s cafeteria instead of with their male colleagues) even extended after her death since it took a very long time until her contributions were recognized in the scientific community. Watson only acknowledged her contribution 25 years after the fact but since the early 1980s her work has been recognized and she has been honored for it, including but not limited to by putting her name on several stipends and fellowships for women in the sciences, a posthumous prize given by Columbia University, and most importantly by the scientific community by citing her work as a critical contribution to one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century.

Female Badasses in History: Elizabeth „Bessie“ Coleman (1891-1926)

Bessie Coleman was one of the first female African-American civil aviators as well as the first African-American female to hold an international pilot license. She came from a poor family and worked her way up to fulfilling her dream of becoming a pilot. She is also credited with tearing down barriers for African-Americans in regards to the young flight industry and inspiring a whole generation of young women.

Bessie was born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas to a family that was part Cherokee. Her early education took place in an all-black, one-room school several miles away from her home. Despite the poor conditions, Bessie excelled as a student and at age eighteen she took all of her savings to enroll in a university in Langston, Oklahoma. Unfortunately she ran out of money before she could even finish one term.

In 1915 she and her family moved to Chicago where Bessie started working as a manicurist in a barber shop. It is said, that this was the place where she heard stories of flying told by pilots that visited the shop. Being inspired by these stories, Bessie tried to gain admission to flight schools but she always was rejected because she was a woman and black. At the time African-American aviators existed but they also refused to train her.

Having heard that in France women could become pilots, Bessie took out a loan, took French classes and in 1920 packed her things and moved to France. In Paris she gained admission to a flying school and in 1921 became the first African-American woman to hold an international pilot license. She returned to the US in the same year and became an immediate media sensation.

In order to make a living, Bessie reckoned she would have to become a stuntpilot.  After some more training in Europe (in the US she had been refused again), she started performing in 1922 as a stuntflier, which at the time was the true beginning of civil aviator ship since there was hardly any commercial traveling by plane.

She soon became known as a daring stunt flyer by the name of “Queen Bess” never backing down from a daring stunt. Her reputation even lead to her being offered a movie role, which at first she accepted but when she learned that the first scene of her in the movie would be in tattered clothes with a walking stick, she walked off the set because she disagreed on principle with this kind of presentation of African-Americans in movies.

Bessie Coleman dreamed of opening a flight school for African-Americans but unfortunately she didn’t live to see this dream come true. In 1826  at age 34 she purchased a new plane and when she took it on its maiden flight together with her mechanic, the plane spun out of control and Bessie was thrown out of the plane and died upon impact on the ground.

Her funeral was attended by thousands of people and her impact on the history of flight in the US became apparent immediately following her death. All over the country Bessie-Coleman flight clubs were founded in order to make it possible for African-Americans to learn how to fly. Not only has she been honored by the City of Chicago, by the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as by the US government, which issued a stamp of her in 1995, her most important post-mortem accomplishment was to inspire African-Americans, especially women. William Powell, who served as a pilot in a segregated unit in WWI, wrote in 1934 that Bessie Coleman helped not only to overcome racial barriers but also the “barriers within ourselves”. Mae Jemison, the first female black astronaut, wrote a book about Bessie Coleman in which she emphasized the following: “”I point to Bessie Coleman and say without hesitation that here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model to all humanity: the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty.“

Female Perpetrators of the Holocaust

 

As all students of the humanities, historians have to face questions concerning what English-speakers call the human condition. In case of historians in the field of Holocaust studies the main question that all – including myself – have to ultimately face is the question »Why?«. Why did humans commit such terrible acts? What were their motivations? What were the structural, political, and ideological circumstances that convinced people to participate in robbing, murdering, and annihilating millions of people in all of Europe?

Ultimately there might not be an answer to this essential question but for the last 70 years much work has been done to achieve an approximation i.e. pinning down factors that might have contributed to why people that were not sociopaths, psychopaths or otherwise deranged – as perpetrators of the Holocaust are often portrayed – decided to participate in the complex of crimes summarized by the term Holocaust.

However, even in this task historiography, academic and »mainstream« – i.e. what becomes popular outside of the confines of the academic community researching with the subject – has failed on a most essential level. Not because for the lack of trying but for the fact that most of the research produced on the subject in the last 70 years has ignored women. Not only have historians ignored the specific perspective of female victims, female bystanders and female perpetrators but for a very long time even their existence has been ignored all together.

While since the 70s and especially the 80s historians made an effort to write separate histories and/or include the perspective of female victims and to a lesser degree female bystanders in their research and work, female perpetrators and their perspective are still considered a »odd« subject to research as pointed out in an article of »Arts and Humanities Research Counsel« of the UK in an article on Sonia Smith doctoral research on female concentration camps guards:

» Female concentration camp guards have long been ignored in Holocaust scholarship.  Women have largely been portrayed as victims, while atrocity has been regarded as a function of extreme masculine behaviour.  The presence of female overseers in the women’s sections of concentration camps presents an uncomfortable reality to those who would rather paint women as a homogenous group of victims of the Third Reich.«

While ignored in scholarship – probably due to the male dominance of the field that remains a problem to this day – , the popular image of female perpetrators is even worse. Solidified by popular imagination, literature, movies, and folklore the image of the female Nazi perpetrator is either that of Ilse Koch, the »Witch of Buchenwald« making lampshades out of human skin, or in a nasty form of pop-cultural progression that of the whip-wielding, scantly clad, sexual or otherwise deviant »Ilse, She-Wolf of the SS«.

Fortunately in the years since 1991 and the publication of Christopher Browning’s »Ordinary Men«, historians have shown renewed interest in the study of perpetrators and especially in the last couple of years this renewed interest has lead to a couple of outstanding studies of female perpetrators, the afore-mentioned study by Susan Smith being only one of them.

These studies concentrating to a large degree on the Ravensbrück concentration camp, the only concentration camp almost exclusively for women and with an almost exclusive female staff, have pointed out several factors that might seem not very surprising, yet are very important in order to combat the popular image of female perpetrators and extend the standards established with male perpetrators to their perspective.

Over 3.000 female SS-auxiliaries called »Aufseherinnen« (overseers) worked in the Nazi concentration camp structure. They were not an official part of the SS (Schutz Staffel, loosely translated as protective formation was the institutional body that ran the camps and supplied the camp personnel) but remained auxiliaries.

As Karen Partee pointed out in a short paper on the subject, most of them »could be described as average. They tended to be single; hail from middle-class families; and most of them only received rudimentary schooling«. Also, up until 1943 all of them served as concentration camp guards voluntarily which attests to the fact that while their background might have been average, they themselves possessed a certain degree of ambition and sense of adventure. »After all, becoming a guard in a concentration camp offered unparalleled opportunities for females that were not available in normal civilian life during the Third Reich, including career advancement, privileged living conditions, and opportunities to meet men« (Partee). Only after 1943 due to the lack of workers caused by the war, the Nazi government started recruiting women between 17 and 44 for mandatory work service including serving as a »overseers« in a concentration camp.

Their role as »overseers« in the camps only slightly differed from the role of male guards. Regulations prohibited female guards from carrying firearms and ruled that punishments of the camp inmates such as whippings or beatings had to be carried out by the prisoners instead of the female guards. These regulations were not always adhered to however.

Concerning their behavior, female perpetrators did not differ from male ones. As Christopher Browning first described, Nazi perpetrators committing cruelties as opposed to ordering or planning them can be seen as a small group consisting of a small number of outstandingly cruel people with the majority of the group participating in cruel and atrocious acts due to social pressure and group dynamics. Exactly this dynamic also applies to female perpetrators in the camps. »They hit and beat without provocation and passion. They were simply part of the Ravensbrück order of terror and death.« (Partee). Being put in a new and foreign environment that encourages violence and indifference towards human life creates a certain group dynamic of these promoted behaviors and cements them within the group so that not conforming or participating can lead to social exclusion. This is not only a major factor contributing to the behavior of perpetrators but also contributing to their seamless integration in post-war society.

 

While the above described was a major factor and not confined to one specific gender, there is still a specific and different perspective when it comes to female perpetrators for example their reasons for volunteering to work in a camp. To research and explore this and many other factors that not only give insight into the history of female perpetrators but contribute to the understanding of the issue at large, historians in the future should not write of “Ordinary Men« but also of »Ordinary Women« or at least »Ordinary People«.

 

Further Reading:

 

Kimberly Partee, Evil or Ordinary Women: the Female Auxiliaries of the Holocaust. http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/parteeepaper.pdf, February 12, 2012.

 

Wendy Adele-Mari Sarti, Women and Nazis : perpetrators of genocide and other crimes during Hitler’s regime, 1933-1945. (Palo Alto, CA : Academica Press 2011).

 

Brown, Daniel Patrick. The Camp Women: the Female Auxiliaries who assisted the SS in running the Nazi Concentration Camp System. (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2002).

Female Badasses in History: Anita Loos (1888-1981)

Anita Loos was the first female screenwriter with a contract in Hollywood. Not only did through her work help revolutionize the way to tell a narrative in silent movies, she also was a revered author, writing for example the classic “Gentlemen prefer Blondes” (the book and the movie) and wrote several Broadway plays.

Anita Loos was born in Sisson, California in 1888 to couple that owned a tabloid there. The family moved to San Francisco in 1892. From an early age on, Anita started performing as a Theater actress. According to her own writing, she always wanted to become a writer and first started to write screenplays in 1911. She sent her first screenplay “The New York Hat” to a movie company in New York and it immediately became a success being turned into a movie directed by D. W. Griffith. Between 1911 and 1915 Anita went on to write 105 screenplays, only four of which went unproduced. Her mother however, objected to her working for the movie industry, so to escape the influence of her family she married a penniless son of a conductor who she eventually left six months later.

In 1915 she started working in the movie industry again, this time as a staff writer for D. W. Griffith. For him she wrote scenarios and one of her most influential pieces of work certainly were the intertitles (the cards in-between scenes in silent movies used to show dialogue or tell the story) for Griffith’s masterpiece “Intolerance”. With her intertitles Loos started a trend. Her cards were often written in a witty and entertaining way, thus contributing to the overall tone and narrative of the movie. Together with Griffith who through his film techniques introduced methods commonly used until this day, Anita Loos helped revolutionize the way movies told a story. She basically introduced the comedic trope of breaking the fourth wall to cinema.

This new trend was an immediate success with audiences and critics alike and made Loos one of the most successful and sought after screenwriters of her day.

Anita Loos’ next big success came in 1925 when she published her novel “Gentlemen prefer Blondes”. Originally a collection of shorts that were published in magazines, the book featuring the main character Lorelei, a modern girl who had internalized the values of American materialism dominant in the 1920s became an instant hit. Loos collected praises from fellow authors like Joyce, Faulkner, Wharton, and Huxley and the Times Literary Supplement called it “a masterpiece of comic literature”.

The following years were hard for Loos despite the success of “Gentlemen prefer Blondes” (which was turned into a musical and saw its first and now lost movie adaptation in 1928). Plagued by poor health, she traveled Europe with her second husband and fellow screenwriter John Emerson returning to the United States in 1932 to write movies again, mainly for production company MGM.

After the Second World War, she started working on another movie adaption of “Gentlemen prefer Blondes”, which was published in 1953 under the direction of Howard Hawks starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russel.

Antia Loos continued to write movies and her later life also articles and Hollywood memoirs. She died in 1981 at age 93 in new York City.

Anita Loos should be remembered not only as one of the most successful female authors in golden-age Hollywood but also as a writer that contributed to her industry in a tremendous way. She stands out for her humor, wit, talent, and determination and was essentially a pioneer of modern cinema.

Female Badasses in History: Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979)

Dorothy Arzner was an American film director. She was one of the few female directors who made movies in the 1920s and 1930s Hollywood system and one of the even fewer women who stayed in the industry after the Hayes Code (the list of “voluntary” regulations of the industry, effectively being a moral censorship code) and the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America. She is also credited with starting the careers of several famous actresses and with making movies that are often cited as progressive examples of Hollywood before the Hayes Code.

Dorothy Arzner was born in San Francisco in 1897 and spent her youth in LA, where her father owned a restaurant that was frequented by Hollywood celebrities. She started studying medicine but when the First World War broke out she enlisted in the ambulance corps. After the end of the war she gave up her studies and instead decided to pursue a career in Hollywood.

Her first job was as a stenographer at the Paramount Pictures movie studio. Dorothy because of her apparent talent began rising through the ranks quickly, first being promoted to a screenwriter and in 1922 becoming an editor. Her first assignment was the movie “Blood and Sand” starring Rudolph Valentino. People at the study were very impressed with her work and she started editing and writing for actor and director James Cruze, ultimately working on over fifty movies for Paramount.

In 1927 Dorothy threatened the studio with moving to a rival studio unless being able to direct movies. Paramount, afraid of losing such apparent talent, conceded and put her in charge of “Fashions for Women”, which turned out a financial success.

Her greatest success and one of the best examples of her progressive work was the 1929 feature film “The Wild Party” starring Clara Bowie in her first speaking role. Not only was the movie a success with critics and movie audiences, Dorothy Arzner also essentially invented the boom mike during its production by tying a microphone to a fishing rod.

Similar to other productions worldwide, “The Wild Party” is till this day discussed as an example of progressive movies featuring a lesbian undertone and introducing women-centered themes very often referred to in Arzner’s later work such as featuring strong, independent, and free-spirited women in its main roles.

With the introduction of the Hayes code in 1930 however made it more difficult for Dorothy to make these kinds of movies. Showing strong women in movies often with a lesbian sub-text was something deemed unacceptable by the men controlling the industry. It might have been due to these restrictions that Dorothy left Paramount in 1932 to work as an independent director for several studios. Her movies of this period are probably her best known. They not only include classics like “The Bride wore Red” but also started the careers of several well-known actresses such as Katherine Hepburn and Lucille Ball.

In 1943 Dorothy Arzner stopped working as director of feature length movies. The reasons for her decision are not known and have never been disclosed. She still continued to work on minor projects such as army training films and TV-commercials and taught screenwriting and directing at UCLA until her death in 1979.

Dorothy Arzner, while not being the only women directing movies in golden-age Hollywood, is certainly one of the best known and successful female directors of her era. One would like to assume that her movies portray women that were very similar to her: strong, independent and talented. To honor her achievements in the field of motion pictures, Dorothy Arzner was awarded a gold star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Female Badasses in History: Cathay Williams (1844-1892)

Cathay Williams is the first (known) black woman to have served in the United States Armed Forces. Born a slave, she still defied the time’s norms regarding gender, race and even class and stands as an example to remembered, not just for her own courage, strength and bravery but for all women and especially black women who served and fell for their country but have been forgotten by the history books due to their own success in masking their identity or due to racial and gender prejudices.

 

Cathay Williams was born in Independence, Missouri in 1844 as the daughter of a free man and an enslaved woman, making her too a slave. She worked as a house servant on a plantation near Jefferson City until the Union army liberated the area in 1861. She was declared a “contraband” and went on to serve in the army for the first time as a cook in the 8th  Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

During her service she was transferred to Little Rock for some time where she must have seen African-American soldiers fighting in the Union Army thereby maybe inspiring her to also serve.

 

After the end of the Civil War, Cathay decided to enlist in the army for a three-year engagement, disguising herself as a man and using the alias William Cathay (which in my opinion is genius in its own right). Only two other people knew her secret. Unfortunately she contracted smallpox shortly after her enlistment and was hospitalized for a considerably amount of time. In 1868 she re-joined her regiment in New Mexico but due to the heat, the physical strain of the march to New Mexico and the smallpox, she again had to be hospitalized and this time the doctors discovered her secret. She was immediately discharged by her commanding officer.

 

After her service in the army she became a cook in New Mexico. In 1876, almost ten years after her service, details of her story became public and Cathay by that time sick again decided to apply for a disability pension from the army the same way Deborah Sampson had done.

What had worked in the case of Sampson, however did not work for Cathay Williams. Despite the fact that she suffered from diabetes and her toes had been amputated, official examiners from the army did not grant her application. This certainly had to do in part with Cathay having no influential friends – like Sampson had Paul Revere – and even more with the fact that Cathay was African-American.

The exact date of her death is unknown but is likely to have occurred in 1892 based on the report of the examiners from the Pension Bureau detailing how severe her illness had become in 1890.

 

Cathay Williams’ story has a very sad ending. She had served her country defying patriarchal and racist norms and was denied her due payment for it. A payment, which other white women who had done the same, had already received. She died at an unknown time, at an unknown place under unknown circumstances and is hardly present in official memory today – also something that does not apply to her white counterparts like Deborah Sampson.

Cathay Williams’ story also certainly wasn’t the only one of its kind. Historians suspect that African-Americans and also African-American women already had served in the Armed Forces in the War of Independence. They are, however, largely forgotten today. Let us remember Cathay Williams in the place of all of them.

Femlae Badasses in History: Deborah Sampson (1760-1827)

Deborah Sampson certainly was one outstanding example of female badassery in American history. Serving at the frontlines of the American Revolutionary War, she is an example that, even in its earliest days, women had served the United States in combat roles. By publicly campaigning for her role as a soldier to be recognized and succeeding, she not only, as Lucy Freeman and Alma Pond put it, bridged gender differences but also asserted the sense of entitlement felt by all veterans.

 

Deborah Sampson was born in 1760 in Plymouth, Massachusetts to a family of colonial stock. Because of their poverty, Deborah was forced to become an indenture servant, spending her youth in seven different households. After being released from servitude at age 18, Deborah chose a career as a schoolteacher and rejected the notion of getting married.

Being a staunch patriot of the very young United States, Deborah decided to enlist in the Continental Army in 1778. Since women could not become soldiers, she disguised herself as a man and going by the name of Robert Shurtleff Sampson, enlisted at her local recruiting office.

She was assigned to the 4th Massachusetts Regiment consisting of 50 to 60 men with only her distinct cousin, a reverend, knowing her secret. As part of the regiment, Deborah fought distinctly in several skirmishes until she was wounded during her first battle in 1782. She was shot two times in the leg and after unsuccessfully pleading to her fellow soldiers to let her die, she snuck out of the hospital they brought her two and removed one of the two musket balls in her leg herself with a penknife and a sewing needle.

For the rest of the war she was assigned as a waiter to General John Patterson due to the injuries she sustained.

In 1783 she came down with a fewer and a doctor discovered her secret. The doctor decided not to betray her outright but seems to have informed General John Patterson. In the same year after the treaty of Paris brought Peace she received an honorable discharge from the army at West Point, although not receiving her fully pay.

 

In 1792 Deborah petitioned the Massachusetts State Legislature for the pay the army had withheld from her because she was a woman. Her petition was approved by the Senate and signed by then Governor John Hancock, citing her extraordinary display of female bravery.

Ten years later, Deborah Sampson, by then married with four children and considerable financial trouble, started petitioning again in order to receive her military pension. For this purpose she enlisted her friend Paul Revere from whom she also occasionally borrowed money. She was successful in her petitioning to Congress but it took until 1816 until she received her full military pension for invalid soldiers of a total of 76.80 Dollars per year.

She died in 1827 at age 66 due to yellow fever.

 

Deborah Sampson stands until this day as an early example of women serving in combat roles, which sheds the debate concerning this issue today in a quite ridiculous light. Also, by her petitioning, she asserted the claim to wellfare for veterans everywhere and of every race and gender. Several books have been written about her and a monument to her memory can be found in Sharon, Massachusetts. Despite this, American politicians concerned with the issue of women serving in combat roles would do good to remember her outstanding example of bravery.

Female Badasses in History: Clara Zetkin (1857-1933)

Clara Zetkin was one of the most famous socialists of her time. She stands out for her involvement in German and international socialist politics, was one of the socialist movement’s most revered fighter’s for women’s rights and never shied away form criticizing, even when it came to her own movement’s politics. She is remembered today as a successful fighter for women’s rights (including being one of the initiators of the Internal Women’s Day) as well as a fighter for a more just world including her opposition to Stalin.

 

Clara Zetkin was born as Clara Eißner in 1857 in Germany as the daughter of Josephine Vital, an early women’s rights pioneer, and granddaughter of Jean Dominique, a participant of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. She became a elementary school teacher by trade and through her contacts to the women’s rights and workers movement joined the Socialist German Workers Party in 1878. The same year the German imperial government outlawed any socialist activity outside of parliamentary institutions. This prompted Zetkin to go into exile, first living in Zurich and the in Paris where she met Ossip Zetkin who had fought in the Russian Revolution. Despite the fact that she had two sons with Ossip and that she took his name, Clara never married him. She participated in the International Workers Congress in Paris in 1889 and was one of the main initiators of the second Socialist International.

 

Returning to Germany in 1890 she became together with Rosa Luxemburg one of the most outspoken and known people in the left-wing of the German Socialist movement, rejecting reformist politics and striving for revolution. In 1907 she met Lenin in Germany with whom she developed a life long-friendship.

Early on, Clara Zetkin became one of the most outspoken fighters for women’s rights. At the International Workers Congress in Paris she held her very famous speech elaborating how the fight for the worker was also a fight for women’s rights. Despite the fact that she criticized the non-socialist movement for women’s rights – denouncing them as bourgeois -, this speech made her one of the pioneers for this cause in the socialist movement.

Following her return to Germany, she became head of the Women’s Bureau of the socialist party and managed together with Luxemburg to incorporate the demand for women to be able to vote into the German Socialist Party’s program. She also was a founding member of the Socialist Women’s International, an organization dedicated to the fight for the rights of female workers world-wide.

 

In the years between 1914 and 1918 Clara Zetkin together with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, fought against the German Socialist Party’s politic regarding the war. The party had decided to participate in the German war government in order to support the German state in its war efforts. Zetkin rejected this because she believed that the First World War was a war fought by imperialists against the interest of working men and women all around the world. Again together with Luxemburg and Liebknecht, Zetkin split from the party and founded a new Socialist Party in 1916, which would ultimately after the war become the German Communist Party. In contradiction to Luxemburg and Liebknecht who were murdered by right-wing death squads, Zetkin narrowly escaping the politically motivated violence that followed the right-wing orchestrated backlash against German communists and the Munich Revolution in 1918.

 

Following the end of World War I and the founding of the Weimar Republic, Zetkin was elected into the German parliament as one of its first female delegates. Within the Communist Party she retained considerable influence, which she used to fight for women’s rights such as the right to vote, the right to maternity leave, institutionalized care for women’s health, the legalization of abortion and generally a greater participation of women in the political process. Also within the party she routinely criticized political orders from Moscow – by then the capital of the only socialist state thus the Soviet Communist Party’s understanding of itself as the “mother party” of all communists world-wide – and the attempts to use political violence.

At the conference of the executive committee of the Comintern 1923 she stood out by reject the theory that fascism was the next stage of capitalist development, instead attributing the growing number and influence of fascist and extreme right-wing parties to the failures of the socialist movement itself, especially the socialdemocrats and their willingness to join alliances with bourgeois parties.

 

Zetkin remained a delegate to the German parliament until 1933 continuing her fight for women’s and workers’ rights. With the Nazi takeover of power she fled Germany to the Soviet Union, living isolated for the next couple of months until her death at age 76. Stalin himself carried her urn to her grave in the Kreml murals.

With her death the official socialist movement immediately began to remember her while at the same time she her memory was distorted. In official writings neither her fight for women’s rights nor her critique of the Stalinist system and methods were remembered. Instead she was turned into a martyr for the movement.

Clara Zetkin stands out as an independent and determined woman, even by the standards of the socialist movement. She never shied away from critique and conflict, especially if it was in a fight for something she believed would contribute to a better and more just world. Her political career and her fight were dedicated not only to workers but to all people, especially women who at the time were marginalized even by the socialist movement in many ways.

Female Badasses in History: Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova (1916-2009)

Anna Yegorova stands out for her badassery even among other Soviet aviatrixes because she was one of the few female pilots in the USSR that did not join the female fighter brigade of the Soviet air force (the so-called Night Witches) but lead male pilots into battle. She also survived more battle missions than many other pilots, survived German captivity and broke out of an NKVD prison after the war.

 

Anna Yegorova was born in a village in Western Russia as one of 16 children of a peasant family. Not being satisfied with prospect of plowing field and having 16 children herself she decided to make good use of the opportunities the new socialist state had to offer her and at the age of 16 went off to Moscow to study history and physics, work as a locksmiths apprentice, help built the Moscow metro as a construction worker and become a flight instructor.

When German attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Anna was one of the first people at her local recruiting office and since she was already an experienced pilot, was drafted into the Soviet airforce to fly reconnaissance missions against German positions, which she did for the next two years. Flying reconnaissance missions was one of the most dangerous jobs a pilot could have in WWII. It meant to fly low in broad daylight in a plane with an open hood mainly manufactured from wood being up against heavily armed German fighter planes as well as anti-aircraft batteries.

The dangers of her work as well as her unquestionable badassery are probably best exemplified by a mission she flew in mid-1942. Order to deliver a set of important orders to a Soviet frontline commander, Anna found herself facing a German fighter plane hardly 20 minutes into her mission. Being much faster than her and having machine guns at his disposal while Anna only had her handgun, the fighter pilot shot her aircraft full of holes and managed to set in on fire that. After flying as far as she could in an airplane on fire and under fire Anna parachuted from her airplane. In a scene comparable to Hitchcock’s North By Northwest she evaded the German fighter pilot who was still shooting at her by hiding in a nearby field. After the German aircraft had given up, Anna ran all the way to the frontlines to deliver her orders all while being bruised and injured and having evaded death just a short time before.

 

Due to actions like this her officers decided to make Anna a fighter pilot. As one of the few women she didn’t join the female pilot unit of the Soviet airforce but instead was the only woman assigned to the all-male 805th Ground Attack Regiment. In this capacity Anna fought the German as well as misogynistic colleagues in the airforce for the next two years. She was mainly assigned to missions that consisted of bombing German ground troops and installations from the air. She flew a total of 243 missions in the next two years, at a time when the average life span of a Soviet pilot did seldom exceed 10 missions. She proofed herself so many times eventually that she not only received the order of the Red Banner, rose in the ranks to Lieutenant and was promoted to the 805th’s squad leader. Even at a time when it was not uncommon for women to serve in the Red Army this was an outstanding achievement. She lead the men under her command in many battles until in 1944 she was shot down by a German anti-air gun over Poland. Anna was brought to a German POW camp where she not only survived her injuries and the German’s infamous bad treatment of Soviet POWs but also Gestapo interrogation. Soviet troops liberated the camp in early 1945 and Anna was immediately arrested again under the suspicion that as the only woman in the camp she must have been a German spy in order to survive. She was brought to an NKVD prison in Western Russia and interrogated for the following 10 days. Lore has it that on the 11th day Anna knocked over two armed guards, bust into the room of the Corporal in charge and boldly exclaimed: “You can shoot me right now but I won’t let you torture me.” She was released the same day.

After the war the airforce released her due to the injuries she sustained. Anna Yegorova went on to teach High School history and physics (certainly as a teacher you didn’t want to mess with) and continued to fly on some occasions. She died in 2009 of old age.