For my very last Sleuth Thursday, I thought I would talk about Real Life Lady Sleuths, because the times I have discussed real life ladies before–with Nellie Bly and Mildred Wirt Benson–they have been so awesome, and I have found it awesome to do.
So… with no further ado, I now unleash upon you a TORRENT OF AWESOME.
Elizabeth Banks started off as a typewriter girl in a grocery store window, got an article published in the Daily Hustler, and then walked into the owner of the paper’s office and demanded a job. ‘I’m determined to be a newspaper reporter. If you won’t give me a place in your paper, I will go to Chicago and get a place. There are lots of papers there, you know.‘ She became a society journalist. then got her big break working as a secretary to the American ambassador in Peru. She used that to jump off to being a stunt journalist.
She lived in London for forty years, sometimes wrote under the pen name ‘Enid and pretended to be British, was pals with George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy, and worked for the Allies during World War I.
In ‘Feminists, Islam and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt’ it says ‘women entered journalism mainly to debate and to claim a public voice.’ It was the motivation for a lot of women, and as you can see was certainly true of Egyptian women:
In 1928, age 24, Mounira Sabet directed a Cairo newspaper and was described as ‘the Amazon in journalism.’ She attended parliament in Egypt and everyone were like ‘WHAT IS A LADY DOING HERE?’ but then she got them all arguing about a cotton proposal because she was aces at politics.
–Duriyah Shafiq published The White Paper on the Rights of the Egyptian Woman. She also organised sit-ins in parliament and hunger strikes, and in 1956 partly because of her efforts, women were given the right to vote and to be elected. The women of France were given this right less than ten years before the women of Egypt, and there was collaboration between the groups.
LADIES OF EGYPT: Can you believe this ****?
LADIES OF FRANCE: Alors and also mon Dieu, we cannot.
LADIES OF EGPYPT: We got your back.
LADIES OF FRANCE: Vive la revolution!
Founding feminist philosopher who wrote Thoughts on the Education of our Daughters (1787) and most famously, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which changed the conversation about feminism. Kept writing and refused to be distracted by little things like ‘pregnant with illegitimate baby’ and ‘the French Revolution. Her husband wrote a book called ‘Why My Wife Was Awesome and Sexually Liberated’ which unfortunately led to England being like ‘your wife was a scandalous hussy’ for two hundred years until they realised they were being idiots and were very embarrassed and she was famous for being awesome instead.
Her daughter, Mary Shelley, wrote Frankenstein in her teens and thus invented science fiction. You’re welcome, science fiction! Be awesome to a teenage girl today.
AMELIA JENKS BLOOMER
–Amelia Jenks Bloomer was the editor of the Lily, which is believed to be the first newspaper edited entirely by a woman. She was also involved in dress reform through her defense of pantaloons, which came to be called “bloomers” in her honour.
I think when you have articles of clothing named after you, you have officially arrived. I hope for the day when someone says in horror ‘you’re not leaving the house without your Reesbrennans on!’
FAMILY: You are ugly and your spine is all curved!
JANE: I see you hatin’. I rollin’.
JANE: *establishes America’s most famous settlement house, a base for training social workers, becomes famous speaker, helps gets Roosevelt elected, writes THE SPIRIT OF YOUTH AND THE CITY STREETS, effects massive social change.
JANE: BUT IT’S NOT ENOUGH.
JANE: Honestly not sure about World War I. Guess I better get world leaders together to discuss peace.
NEW YORK TIMES IN 1915: This woman’s behaviour is unacceptable and unpatriotic!
AMERICA IN 1931: This woman’s behaviour is like the coolest most American thing ever!
EVERYONE: Plz be the first US woman ever to accept the Nobel Peace Prize!
JANE: Guess I changed the world.
–Glora Steinem was born in 1934: during the 1960s she appeared as a leader in the women’s movement in the United States and was the writer and editor of many articles, culminating in 1970 when she co-founded Ms. magazine, which grew to be a leading feminist magazine.
—BARBARA LEIGH SMITH AND THE REAL SPEW
Barbara Leigh Smith was the illegitimate daughter of a radical dude who left her an independent fortune. She became a bohemian artist who was friends with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot (two of my favourite writers, both quoted from in epigraphs in the Lynburn Legacy). George Eliot apparently modeled the heroine of her novel Romola on her.
She also became a suffragette. In 1854 Barbara wrote her first nation-wide publication, A Brief Summary, in Plain Language, of the Most Important Laws concerning Women, which document listed for the first time the legal disabilities and restrictions under which women lived. It inspired women all over England and led to Barbara buying the Englishwomen’s Journal so she could have a newspaper to spread her ideas and, oh you know, found the women’s rights movement in Britain.
She married a French doctor and would spend half the year with him in Algeria, and half the year in England writing and campaigning.
BARBARA: If dudes have all the interesting jobs and women can’t have them and women have to marry to get access to the money that comes from careers… I mean, England, you’re just making us all have sex with dudes for money, and what do we call that?
ENGLAND: …. Please fetch the smelling salts…
BARBARA: I’m just saying.
The organisation which Barbara founded was called either the Association or the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women. Harry Potter fans will recognise the initials SPEW as the name for the organisation Hermione Granger set up to promote the rights of house elves.
Well played, J.K. Rowling.
Awesomely played, Barbara Leigh Smith.
While organising picket lines to protest the ban on employment of gay people and setting up gay civil rights associations, she also edited the magazine The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the US, and worked with the American Library Association to promote literature with positive homosexual content. Because fiction is important.
The American Library Association named an annual award for the best gay or lesbian novel the Barbara Gittings Award.
MARY MAPES DODGE
—She was an internationally bestselling children’s author who used her power to, in 1874, establish St Nicholas, which would become one of the most famous and longest enduring children’s magazines in America. She published short stories by Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, and most importantly (one of my most favourite poets, Unspoken begins with an epigram from her) Christina Rossetti.
This magazine inspired, and gave a big break to, some really talented ladies.
‘In the June 1919 issue of her beloved St Nicholas magazine… appeared a short story by Mildred Augustine (later Mildred Wirt Benson).’ (Girl Sleuth, Melanie Rehak.)
A decade before that, St Nicholas published the first poem of a child Edna St Vincent Millay. (Another of my most favourite poets and, of course you see where I’m going here, an Edna St Vincent Millay epigram is in the Lynburn Legacy, too.)
ALICE DUER MILLER
–Alice Duer Miller was listed in the first ever edition of the New Yorker as an editor, and she wrote satirical political commentary (in poem form!) in the New York Tribune.
On Not Believing All You Hear (“Women are angels, they are jewels, they are queens and princesses of our hearts.”—Anti-suffrage speech of Mr. Carter of Oklahoma.)
“Angel, or jewel, or princess, or queen,
Tell me immediately, where have you been?”
“I’ve been to ask all my slaves so devoted
Why they against my enfranchisement voted.”
“Angel and princess, that action was wrong.
Back to the kitchen, where angels belong.”
Our Idea of Nothing at All (“I am opposed to woman suffrage, but I am not opposed to woman.”—Anti-suffrage speech of Mr. Webb of North Carolina.)
O women, have you heard the news
Of charity and grace?
Look, look, how joy and gratitude
Are beaming in my face!
For Mr. Webb is not opposed
To woman in her place!
O Mr. Webb, how kind you are
To let us live at all,
To let us light the kitchen range
And tidy up the hall;
To tolerate the female sex
In spite of Adam’s fall.
O girls, suppose that Mr. Webb
Should alter his decree!
Suppose he were opposed to us—
Opposed to you and me.
What would be left for us to do—
Except to cease to be?
Her columns were all published in a novel called ‘Are Women People?’ in 1915. I have been known to read aloud Alice Duer Miller’s poems and say ‘BOOM!’ at the end.
… Honestly, if I was a dude in the early 1900s about to make a speech against women having the vote and I saw Alice Duer Miller in the crowd holding her pen, I would weep, hide in the bushes and crawl away home. If I managed to give a speech, I would request to be pre-emptively put in a freezer so I would have enough ice to deal with her upcoming burn.
“Ladies, when in need of legal or confidential advice, why not confer with one of your own sex?”
Cora Strayer got married at sixteen in 1885, and disappeared into the mists of history for a little bit until she emerged in Chicago aged thirty-three, single, advertising her detective agency and a professional badass. She may have been lying about having a law degree and establishing her detective firm at the age of twenty-one. She may not have been, because whoa, Cora got a lot of stuff done.
She got people drunk and stole the letters they were blackmailing with from them. She was the subject of an article in the Sunday Tribune entitled ‘Business Women Who Have Made A Success of Bossing Men.’
Her lover was murdered by another man desperate for her affections: a year later Cora married a third dude (by the way, she was 42 and he was 24. Get it, Cora).
She formed the First Volunteer Women’s Calvary Regiment. She also, while investigating a cheating husband, got involved in a high-speed police car chase. What can you do? Cora had to get her man!
Sure, she wrote poems and short stories and was a screenwriter until she got blacklisted by Hollywood because of McCarthyism, but she started as a theatre critic for Vanity Fair and later edited both Vogue and Vanity Fair.
VANITY FAIR: You are fired for being too witty and upsetting powerful dudes.
DOROTHY PARKER: ‘Scool, bro. Me and all my friends resigning in protest will just go found this little thing we’re going to call… the New Yorker. Think it’ll catch on?
She also reported on the Spanish Civil war for a Communist magazine, wrote book reviews for Esquire and radio shows for the Columbia Workshop.
And lady was hilarious.
‘Brevity is the soul of lingerie.’
‘The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.’
‘What fresh hell is this?’ –actually coined the phrase
‘Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live.’
‘Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.’
She was America’s first female private eye.
The year was 1856. Kate Warne walked into the Pinkerton Detective Agency to ask for a secretarial position.
ALLAN PINKERTON: Actually we’re all full up on secretaries. But you are just too amazing to let out of my office! Also foxy but also amazing!
KATE WARNE: I’m listening.
ALLAN PINKERTON: Do you think you might like to be a detective? I mean, maybe not, it’s a dangerous game.
KATE WARNE: Becomes master of disguise, crossdresses during Civil War, captures jewel thieves by pretending to be a society belle, discovers and foils plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln and smuggles Abraham Lincoln to Washington DC pretending he is her sickly brother while never sleeping and carrying a gun under her shawl!
ALLAN PINKERTON: … So on the whole, I’d say that went well.
Model, journalist, celebrated photographer, renowned hottie, general Renaissance badass.
MILLER: Am tired of being scandalous supermodel. Think will be major figure in Surrealist art movement? Let me go learn from Man Ray and hang with Picasso.
Lee Miller on meeting Man Ray, surrealist photographer and artist, in 1929: “I told him boldly that I was his new student. He said he didn’t take students, and anyway he was leaving Paris on a holiday. I said I know, I’m going with you … and I did. We lived together for three years, and I learned a lot about photography.”
After the three years were up, Lee Miller moved back to New York and invented some new photography techniques like it wasn’t no thing. Man Ray apparently wandered the streets of Paris screaming her name. As you do.
After she became bored with being married to an Egyptian nobleman, she moved to Europe. When World War II started, her friends begged her to come home.
Lee Miller instead became a photojournalist and correspondent for Vogue, and thus one of the first female war correspondents of World War II. Her pictures of the concentration camps are famous.
In 1945, just after Hitler died and after a long day photographing Dachau, Lee Miller was photographed by the Life magazine correspondent, naked in Hitler’s bathtub, with her combat boots and army uniform beside her.
The New York Times described her very aptly: “A woman caught between horror and beauty, between being seen and being the seer.”
Codename: The White Mouse
Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, and was living in Europe, married to a French businessman, and working as a journalist (as Hearst newspaper’s European consultant) when the Nazis invaded France.
She got her job as a journalist by pretending to be fluent in Egyptian to a newspaper executive who was an Egypt buff.
NANCY: *writes random squiggles* Enjoy these hieroglyphics!
EXECUTIVE: Young lady you are so gifted.
NANCY: Oh you have no idea.
Nancy had interviewed Hitler in the past and knew what was up.
So obviously Nancy became a spy for the Resistance. She’s quoted as saying ‘God almighty, it’s a bit much and I’ve got to do something about it.’
Her husband was murdered for not giving up information about her whereabouts. Nancy on that subject: ‘I was broken-hearted, but I would have done it again.’ She trained to be a soldier and parachuted right back into France after escaping it: when she landed in a tree a Resistance fighter greeted her with ‘I hope all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.’ She replied ‘Don’t give me that French shit.’
She flirted with anyone she had to to get across the country passing codes, at one point lost all her codes, could not get in touch with anyone and conducted a marathon escape on a bicycle. She led armed forces in attacks on the Gestapo headquarters and at one point killed a dude with a judo chop. She could drink most dudes under the table, smoked cigars and always carried her Chanel red lipstick.
Several More Actual Quotes from Nancy Wake.
‘I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.’
‘I’d pass their (German) posts and wink and say, “Do you want to search me?” ‘
On a TV show of her exploits: ‘For goodness sake, did the allies parachute me into France to fry eggs and bacon for the men? There wasn’t an egg to be had for love nor money, and even if there had been, why would I be frying it when I had men to do that sort of thing?’ (When women are SUPER AWESOME in real life, why should fiction lie to make them less awesome?)
‘I was never afraid. I was too busy to be afraid.’
GESTAPO: BRING US NANCY WAKE! THE WHITE MOUSE IS OUR MOST WANTED CRIMINAL! WE WILL GIVE YOU FIVE MILLION FRANCS!
FRANCE: That is like twice as much as you’d pay for any of the dudes.
GESTAPO: Seems about right.
Nancy Wake died last year, at the age of ninety-eight.
These are all fierce and fascinating women: I thought they were interesting for so many reasons, but one of the reasons was how many of them gravitated towards words as well as actions.
Sometimes it feels like just talking about or writing about something can’t make any difference. Other times women are just crushed under the weight of a ton of voices saying: shut up, women talk too much, women don’t have important things to say, she wrote it but she shouldn’t have written it: but these stories, of these women, say: ‘Don’t listen.’ They say ‘Keep on living and keep on talking.’
These women are remarkable because they refused to be silenced: they changed the world with words.
I wanted to create a heroine inspired by women like this, and talk about changing the world with words, in Unspoken… out in five days now!
Writing up these Sleuth Thursdays about amazing crime-solving fast-talking ladies has been so much fun, but this one was perhaps the most fun: discovering all these women, and all these words, and all these wonders.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich says ‘well-behaved women seldom make history’… neither do well-behaved women write it. Here’s to the pack of badly behaved ‘damned scribbling women’ (TM Nathaniel Jerkface Hawthorne) : let’s never stop.