Women’s History Month Smackdown: Eastern Edition
2:30 pm, March 13th | by Sarah Devlin
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 East to see who will emerge victorious.
Mae West (New York) East v. Gertrude Ederle (New York)
Well sure, Mae West is one of the most quoted people on the planet, but did you know that she was born in Bushwick? West was born to a former prizefighter known as “Battlin’ Jack West” who later became a private investigator, and to a former corset and fashion model mother in Bushwick, Brooklyn. That is so…hipster.
West basically broke every mold available, beginning her movie career at 38 and rewriting her lines on set in her now-famous quippy style. Though she suffered a number of professional setbacks, including The Heat’s On, a 1943 bomb that caused her to leave the movie business until 1970, she returned to film and made her last, Sextette, at age 83. However, she also kept busy while not in movies with radio and television appearances (often quite ribald) as well as, uh, two rock n’roll albums titled Way Out West and Wild Christmas? She died at age 87 due to complications from a stroke, and now I need to find all the songs on Wild Christmas and listen to them repeatedly between now and December 25th.
Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to ever swim the English channel, which she did in 1926. Oh, she was also only 19 years old (and had learned to swim just 10 years earlier). She got her sea legs, as it were, swimming the New York Bay in June 1925, breaking the current mens’ record by swimming from the New York Battery to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in a brisk 7 hours and 11 minutes. When her coach tried to pull her out early during her first attempt to swim the English Channel, she fired him. She managed it in her second attempt (though the water did damage to her hearing) and spent the rest of her life teaching deaf children to swim until her death at age 98.
Guys, I don’t even know here. As Mae West said, “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.” Yeah that definitely doesn’t apply here; I have no idea how this is going to go.
- Mae West (75%, 3 Votes)
- Gertrude Ederle (25%, 1 Votes)
Total Voters: 4
Elizabeth Jane Cochrane aka Nellie Bly (Pennsylvania) v. Sister Rosetta Tharpe (New York by way of Alabama)
Nellie Bly came to the attention of the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch after her letter regarding a sexist column published by the paper under the pseudonym “Lonely Orphan Girl” inspired the editor to ask “the man who wrote the letter” to come work for him. He balked at learning she was actually a girl, but she persuaded him to give her the gig (which led her to choose her pseudonym Nellie Bly, as was common practice for female writers at the time).
Bly didn’t love always being asked to talk about the latest clothing and gardening fashions, and jumped at the change to work as a foreign correspondent in Mexico. She had to flee the country when she began to be critical of the government (currently under the dictatorial control of Porfirio Díaz). That wasn’t nearly enough adventure for her, as she decided to go undercover in an insane asylum, finding it frighteningly easy to get herself committed and appalled at the conditions she found there. The exposé, Ten Days In A Mad-House, led to an $850,000 budget increase for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections, as well as a more strict screening process for patients.
Okay, so Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born in the South and made a name for herself in New York, but we couldn’t leave out the “Godmother of Rock N’Roll”! To give you just the facts: Sister Rosetta Tharpe was basically shredding on guitars before anyone knew what shredding was (as in, in the 1940s!). She was also one of the first artists to meld gospel and rock n’roll, creating a signature bluesy sound that was imitated by the likes Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.
Sure, those dudes are the recognizable names, but they wouldn’t have been able to make the music they made without Tharpe paving the way. In 1998, perhaps in an attempt to acknowledge Tharpe’s general erasure from the annals of rock music, the USPS put her on a postage stamp, and she was the subject of a PBS American Masters special this year.
So we have Bly, who was basically the pioneer of the “do something weird/terrible/awesome for x amount of time and then write about it” publishing phenomenon, or Tharpe, who shepherded the movement that gave us Elvis, Dylan and Cash. I’m going to call this one for Tharpe, but that’s just personal preference.
Justine Johnstone (New Jersey) v. Mary Tepe (Pennsylvania)
Justine Johnstone had a pretty unremarkable career path. Stage actress, silent film star, pathologist and syphilis expert. Nothing to see here. OH RIGHT, she was also part of the team that invented the intravenous drip technique. This happens every day.
Just kidding, no it doesn’t! Johnstone went from starring opposite Fred Astaire on Broadway to giving up performing and attending Columbia University to study under Samuel Hirshberg and Harold T. Hyman. She became the third author listed on their paper outlining their new IV “drip” technique, which helped avoid shocking patients by introducing large doses of drugs very quickly into their systems. She later had a lab built into Hollywood home where she studied endrocrinology and researched cancer treatments.
Mary Tepe was born in France, but she fought in the Civil War as part of the 114th Pennsylvanian infantry let’s just go ahead and claim her for the United States. Apparently she had followed her husband, a tailor, when he was enlisted as a private, where she proved herself useful as a cook, laundress, nurse, and general spirit-lifter (one account of spotting her during the war makes it sound like she thought being in battle was the most fun she’d ever had). Apparently having women fill supporting roles in the army was a longstanding French tradition, but the U.S. had yet to catch on and so Tepe was the first.
Unfortunately, even after serving as a decorated career soldier, Tepe died nearly penniless, drinking a lethal dose of paint pigment in a tenement house in 1901. In her heyday, however, she was known for her exceptional bravery and work ethic (not to mention the image of her “skirt riddled with bullets” is an indelible one).
Both of these women are amazing, I honestly can’t decide. Will Tepe’s bravery and resourcefulness win the day, or will Johnstone and her thousand careers prevail? Up to you guys.
- Justine Johnstone (75%, 3 Votes)
- Mary Tepe (25%, 1 Votes)
Total Voters: 4
Alice Roosevelt Longworth v. Emily Warren Roebling
Man, Alice Roosevelt Longworth was the best. The daughter of Theodore Roosevelt was known as “the leading political wit in Washington,” as well as for a pillow that had “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me” inscribed on it in needlepoint. Though she was raised without a mother, who died when she was an infant, and a somewhat distant father, Roosevelt, she certainly made an impression upon him later in life as she gained notoriety for chewing gum, smoking, and bringing a snake to parties. As you do.
She married Nicholas Longworth, who was perhaps not the best partner for her but certainly guaranteed her an interesting life, and she spent her time putting voodoo hexes on William Howard Taft, calling Woodrow Wilson a “whey-blooded schoolmaster” (no one measured up to her father), and being mean to Joseph McCarthy. She was one of the most colorful figures and influential women on the political scene for decades, and now I need that needlepointed pillow.
Emily Warren Roebling was suggested for inclusion in our bracket along with the hashtag “#PimpinAintEasy,” and it’s pretty easy to see why. Emily Warren married Washington Roebling, who was one of the architects working on the Brooklyn Bridge, in 1865. When Washington became bedridden with caissons disease Emily had to be the go-between for his assistants, becoming an expert on civil engineering so that she could assist and report back to her husband. For the next fourteen years, Emily was the de facto chief engineer on the project, standing in for her husband and defending the arrangement even when the city became nervous about allowing it to continue. When the bridge was finally completed, Emily was the first person to walk across it, carrying a rooster (??).
I love Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s sass, but teaching yourself to be an engineer to help your husband build the Brooklyn Bridge is pretty amazing. I’m calling it for Emily Warren Roebling.
- Alice Roosevelt Longworth (75%, 3 Votes)
- Emily Warren Roebling (25%, 1 Votes)
Total Voters: 4