Women’s History Month March Madness Smackdown: Southern Edition
12:15 pm, March 8th | by Colette McIntyre
Earlier this week, we put together a March Madness bracket in honor of Women’s History Month, featuring some of the most impressive, famous and notorious women in American history. This week, we match up the eight ladies from the South to see who will emerge victorious.
Anna J. Cooper (North Carolina) v. Jacqueline Cochran (Florida)
How could you not admire a woman who was born into slavery and then, years later, became the fourth African-American woman to earn a doctoral degree? Anna Julia Cooper was born into enslavement in Raleigh, North Carolina. Cooper began her academic career at the age of ten when she received a scholarship to the newly opened Saint Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute. Cooper excelled at academics, becoming a teacher and then principal at M Street High School. While at M Street, Cooper completed her first book, A Voice From the South: By A Woman From the South. Published in 1892, A Voice From the South stands as one of the first articulations of Black feminism. Eloquent and thoughtful, Cooper was a lauded speaker — she was one of only three Black women invited to speak at the World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago. In 1924, at sixty-five, the common age of retirement, Cooper received her Ph.D in history from the University of Paris-Sorbonne.
Jacqueline Cochran was one of the most gifted racing pilots of her generation, regardless of gender. At a time when women were expected to be fragile and demure, Cochran became a pioneer American aviator, learning how to fly an aircraft in just three weeks. (It took me more than three weeks just to figure out how to work my TV remote!) Not only was Cochran the only female pilot to compete in the Bendix race but she also set a new woman’s national speed record that very same year. Cochran’s career is so remarkable because she not only broke woman’s records, she set overall aviation records in speed, distance, and altitude. By the time of her death, the “Speed Queen,” as she came to be known, won a total of five Harmon Trophies as the outstanding woman pilot in the world. Cochran was also BFFs with a little lady known as Amelia Earhart.
Oof, this is a tough call to make. On the one hand you have Cochran, a fearless flying woman, who set records in a male-dominated sport but was never ashamed of her gender. I mean, the woman had her own line of cosmetics called “Wings” and one of her lipstick lines was endorsed by Marilyn Monroe! How much more feminine can you get? On the other hand, there’s Anna Julia Cooper, who fought against all odds to obtain the highest level of education she could. Today, Cooper is the only woman quoted on the US Passport. Where’s your passport quote, Cochran? Also why did you deny your past, instructing family members who lived on your ranch in California to say they were your adopted family, Jacqueline Cochran? WHAT UP WITH THAT? With those two things in mind, my vote is in favor of Cooper.
- Anna J. Cooper (80%, 8 Votes)
- Jacqueline Cochrane (20%, 2 Votes)
Total Voters: 10
Bessie Coleman (Texas) v. Alma Thomas (Georgia)
Another fierce lady of the skies! Bessie Coleman was not only the first African-American woman and first American to earn an international aviation license, but also the first African American woman in the world to earn an aviation pilot’s license — so, in short, Coleman was in the aviation vanguard. Coleman was inspired to pursue an aviation license while working as a manicurist at a barber shop in Chicago. Unfortunately, American flight schools wouldn’t train her because of her race and gender. Even male African-American U.S aviators refused to take her on as a student. Coleman refused to be limited and traveled abroad to France, learning how to fly at at the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Caudon. Upon her return to the United States, Coleman became a highly popular exhibition flier, performing daredevil maneuvers like fire eights and near-ground dips that even male pilots wouldn’t attempt.
Alma Thomas was a nationally acclaimed African-American Expressionist painter, a major force in the burgeoning Color Field movement, and a dedicated art educator. After becoming the first fine arts graduate from Howard University, Thomas began teaching art at Shaw Junior High School where she implemented a community arts program that introduced students to fine art. She was also responsible for initiating the public school system’s first art gallery. After retiring from teaching in 1960, Thomas recommitted to her personal art career. Thomas worked out of her kitchen for a majority of her career; there she produced works like Watusi (Hard Edge), a manipulation of a Matisse painting that Thomas (pretty audaciously) named after a Chubby Checker song. In 1972, Thomas became the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2012, an abstract Thomas painting sold for $254,500, setting a world auction record for the artist.
Two of Alma Thomas’ paintings were chosen by First Lady Michelle Obama to be exhibited in the White House during the Obama presidency, which is pretty cool. I also love Thomas for her commitment to art education: she spent years working in DC public schools, years she could’ve dedicated to her own work. Instead of focusing on her career, Thomas spent time exposing students to a culture and world that they may not have experienced otherwise. But man, Bessie Coleman was cool. “Queen Bess” broke a leg and three ribs when her plane stalled and crashed and yet continued to fly. Imagine being in a plane when it stalls and crashes and then imagine getting in a plane to do more loop-the-loops after your broken leg heals. I certainly wouldn’t do it. For her guts (and because I really hope a female pilot moves on), I’m putting my money on Coleman.
- Bessie Coleman (55%, 6 Votes)
- Alma Thomas (45%, 5 Votes)
Total Voters: 11
Louise Smith (Georgia) v. Fannie Lou Hamer (Mississippi)
So I’ll admit it: I have a slight thing for women who take walks on the wild side (probably because I’m such a weenie myself). So I knew I loved Louise Smith before I met her. First woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, known as the “first lady of racing,” described in her USA Today obituary as “a hotshot driver who loved outrunning the law” — yup, I’m pretty much smitten. Without ever seeing a race before, Smith entered her first race at the Greenville-Pickens Speedway and came in third. From that moment on, Smith was hooked. In her nine years on the NASCAR circuit, she won 38 modified events. But it wasn’t easy: as Smith told The Associated Press in 1998, “It was hard on me. Them men were not liking it to start with and they wouldn’t give you an inch.” Luckily, Smith never needed an inch.
If you don’t recognize Fannie Lou Hamer‘s name then your knowledge of American history leaves something to be desired. Hamer was instrumental in organizing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1962. While traveling through Mississippi attempting to aid the local Black population, Hamer and her fellow SNCC members were falsely arrested and jailed. While in jail, the young activists were savagely and unrelentingly beaten by the police. As a result of the attack, Hamer suffered permanent kidney damage, a blood clot in the artery of her left eye, a limp when she walked, and profound long-term psychological effects; she spent more than a month in the hospital attempting to recover. Despite all this, Hamer’s indomitable spirit survived and she returned to Mississippi to organize voter registration drives. Hamer ran for Congress twice, in 1964 and 1965, and despite not receiving a bid, she was seated as a member of Mississippi’s official delegation to the Democratic National Convention of 1968.
Sure, Smith holds a special place in my heart — especially after I learned that she told the Baltimore Sun that she was “just born to be wild” — but come on! Fannie Lou Hamer! FANNIE. LOU. HAMER. How could I not? Hamer was the first volunteer for SNCC’s Freedom Summer; she later said, “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared – but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.” Hamer’s courage and strength knew no bounds. This round’s going to Hamer.
- Fannie Lou Hamer (90%, 9 Votes)
- Louise Smith (20%, 2 Votes)
Total Voters: 10
Madam C.J. Walker (Louisiana) v. Tallulah Bankhead (Alabama)
As a writer interested in women in business, Sarah Breedlove, a.k.a Madam C.J. Walker, is close to my heart. Walker was America’s first female self-made millionaire, founding and marketing a successful line of beauty and hair products for Black women. Walker’s journey to fame and fortune began when she noticed the amount of Black women experiencing hair loss in her time. Due to poor hygienic conditions, most women of color were plagued with scalp diseases that affected hair growth. With a keen entrepreneurial mind, Walker produced her own home-made shampoo and ointment that made scalps healthier and hair more likely to grow. Walker’s cosmetics empire quickly grew; in 1910, she opened her own college to train “hair culturists” in addition to a company headquarters and factory in Indianapolis, Indiana. Despite her extraordinary success, Walker never forgot her roots; throughout her career, she donated money to the NAACP, the YMCA, and to Black schools, as well as trained and mentored other Black women in order to help them build their own businesses.
Marlene Dietrich called her “the most immoral woman who ever lived”; Cecil Beaton described her as a “wicked archangel” — how much more endorsement do you need? Tallulah Bankhead was a fierce and ferocious actress who did what she wanted, when she wanted to, paying no regard to stereotypes, limitations, or the narrow minds of others. She starred in a series of smash plays in London’s West End as well as multiple Hollywood films, including Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and a romantic-comedy opposite Gary Cooper. Despite coming from a powerful, conservative political family (her father was Speaker of the House from 1936 to 1940), Bankhead lived out loud; she was known for her biting wit and outrageous antics, perhaps more so than her acting. In fact, Bankhead was partly the inspiration for Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians. There’s nothing I can say about Tallulah Bankhead that she can’t say better — and in a funnier way — herself. As Bankhead wrote in her autobiography, “No man worth his salt, no man of spirit and spine, no man for whom I could have any respect, could rejoice in the identification of Tallulah’s husband. It’s tough enough to be bogged down in a legend. It would be even tougher to marry one.”
This one is tough call. Madam C.J. Walker’s products continue to sell to this day, which is remarkable, but if I have to choose, I’ll go with the woman whose Wikipedia page describes her as a “bonne vivante” every time. Tallulah Bankhead, for the win.
- Tallulah Bankhead (55%, 6 Votes)
- Madam C.J. Walker (45%, 5 Votes)
Total Voters: 11