Marvelous Woman Monday

In honor of the Mirai Nagasu’s historic triple axel last night, let’s talk about another incredible American figure skater, Debi Thomas. Debi was a powerful skater in her own right, but she was also the first Black athlete to win a medal in the Winter Olympics.

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Debi grew up in San Jose, California where she began skating at the age of five. She entered her first competition at nine years old and won. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she attributes her success to her mom’s commitment to shuttling her over 100 miles a day between school, the ice rink, and home. In addition to driving, the cost of Debi’s costumes, ice time, equipment,and  coaching was over $25,000 a year. Debi had to put her training on hold multiple times due to finances. The time and cost is why “Winter Sports are for Rich White People” is something I still absolutely to very true (ask Tonya Harding). Winter sports are not accessible for many people, and figure skating is notoriously biased and exclusive.

Debi made her first national appearance when she made the national novice finals at age 12 when she won a silver medal. Her mother let her finish eighth grade via correspondence course, but after Debi did not finish as well as hoped in the junior ladies’ competition, she and her mother decided never to let skating take higher priority over her education.

Debi rose to fame when she won the U.S. national title at the 1986 World Championships. She is the first Black woman to hold the national title for ladies’ singles figure skating. She was also named ABC’s Wild World of Sports Athlete of the Year. Debi was one of the few female skaters of the 1980s who could complete a triple toe-triple toe combination.

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While she continued to rise in the skating world, Debi was also working toward a degree in engineering at Stanford University. I cannot even imagine training as a world class athlete AND going to school for an engineering degree. HOW. She was the first woman to win the U.S. national title while attending college full-time since the 1950s. Absolutely extraordinary.

Debi experienced Achilles tendinitis in both ankles in 1987 which resulted in a second place finish at the U.S. Nationals. She recovered in time for the World Championships, but landed a close second behind Katarina Witt. Debi moved to Boulder, Colorado to focus on her training for the 1988 Winter Olympics, and in January 1988 she reclaimed her U.S. national title.

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The 1988 Winter Olypmics were held in Calgary with Debi and Katarina both competing. Enter “Battle of the Carmens.” Both women independently elected to skate their long programs to Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen which is a now memorialized as a historic sports rivalry.

(you can watch an interview with Katarina about it here – the part about her makeup is pretty cute).

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Debi went into the long program in first place, but after several mistakes, she placed fourth in that segment. In the end, Debi made the podium with a bronze medal while Katarina took gold.

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With her bronze, Debi Thomas became the first Black athlete to win any medal in the Winter Olympics. That is crazy.

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Debi went on to earn a bronze medal at 1988 World Championships, then retired from amateur skating. She won the 1988, 1989, and 1991 World Professional Championships. She was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2000, and was selected by George W. Bush to be in the delegation for the Opening Ceremonies for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. In 2010, she returned to the ice for “The Caesars Tribute: A Salute to the Golden Age of American Skating.”

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In 1989, Debi resumed her collegiate students at Stanford and graduated in 1991. She graduated from medical school in 1997, and went on to be an orthopedic surgeon specializing in knee and hip replacement.

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Debi’s life has taken several challenging turns over the past decade. While she was a successful surgeon with a good reputation among her patients, she never stayed at one clinic longer than a year and had difficulty working with other doctors due to her “personality.” She went into private practice in a small and diminishing town in Virginia, but due to her inexperience running a business and the sparse population, she had to close her business. She has not since renewed her license.

In 2012, Debi was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She has a son with her former husband who she lost custody of when was 13. She now lives with her fiance and his sons. In 2015, it was reported that was bankrupt and living in a bed bug-infested trailer. Debi lost all of her savings due to her two divorces and failed medical practice.

Despite her recent struggles, Debi Thomas remains the greatest African American figure skater that this country has ever seen.

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Sources:

Where are they now? Debi Thomas
Athletes Turn Torchbearers After the Olympics
The best African American figure skater in history is now bankrupt and living in a trailer
1988: Katarina Witt wins her second Olympic gold in thrilling ‘Battle of the Carmens’
Debi Thomas Biography

Marvelous Women of Monday

In honor of Black History Month, let’s remember Georgia Gilmore.

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Georgia was born in 1920 and spent her life in Montgomery, Alabama. She worked as a midwife and cook, and had six children of her own. She was known for her “fiery” temper when it came to the racial injustices that she witnessed and experienced in Alabama in the 1950s. The city exploded when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on December 1, 1955.

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The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed on December 5 by Black ministers and community leaders, with Martin Luther King Jr. taking leadership of the group. They declared a boycott of the city bus system on that same day. It was estimated that 90% of the Montgomery Black community did not use the buses that day. Their success with a one day strike prompted them to extend the boycott to improve “the general status of Montgomery, to improve race relations, and to uplift the general tenor of the community.”

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Georgia was vocal in her contempt of the discrimination by the white bus drivers. She even publicly denounced the racism in the city bus system in the courtroom which made her a hero in her community. As a result, she was a pariah in the white community, and was fired from the National Lunch Company where she worked as a cook. This fueled her fire, and with the support of Martin Luther King, Jr., she establish her own restaurant in her home so that she could continue to earn a living. She started the “Club from Nowhere,” and began fundraising for the boycott. The group was named as such to protect the identities of those involved. She established herself as the sole officer of the club, and members paid her their dues which she passed on to the MIA.

She leaned into her own talents in the kitchen, and began making sandwiches with a group of friends to sell at the MIA meetings and to groups who were meeting over the boycott. The money from the sandwiches went to the MIA to help fund the boycott for as long as possible. Before long, the club was bringing in hundreds of dollars each week, and they were selling their meals out of local laundromats, beauty parlors, and other locations where boycotters frequented. Her kitchen became so famous that Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert Kennedy both visited her.

Georgia presented her funds at meetings in order to demonstrate her success and to encourage other “ordinary folks” to find the ways that they could help the movement. Many believed that her club and others like it helped keep the spirit of the boycott alive by providing support in the community and funding. Georgia is the perfect example of someone taking an an ordinary skill and turning it into something extraordinary. In 1986 she stated the importance of African American women as the driving force behind the boycott, “you see they were maids, cooks. And they was the one that really and truly kept the bus running.” Georgia showed that each of us can find a way to make a difference.

In the end, the Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted a full 13 months. The related civil suit, Browder v. Gayle (1956) ruled that the racial segregation laws for buses in Alabama were unconstitutional. The boycott continued as the state appealed the decision. On November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court upheld the ruling, and the boycott ended after 381 days. The boycott stimulated activism in the South and fueled the Civil Rights Movement across the country. The successful length of the boycott and outcome of the effort launched King to national attention.

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Sources and additional reading:

The Club From Nowhere: Cooking for Civil Rights” on NPR (this one has great interviews with people who knew her)
Meet The Fearless Cook Who Secretly Fed — And Funded — The Civil Rights Movement” by Maria Godoy
Montgomery Improvement Association
How White Supremacy Forgot the Women” by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae

Marvelous Woman Monday

There are numerous things about Tonya Harding‘s story that I find incredible, but unfortunately for her, she got involved with the wrong people and made some terrible choices. While things did not end in a marvelous fashion for her, I still think she’s worth talking about. Also, I finally watched I, Tonya last weekend and I have some feelings.

Figure skating is my favorite sport in the Winter Olympics, and Tonya Harding was one of my favorite skaters as a kid. I most enjoy watching female skaters who are powerful and have big jumps. I respect the elegant and dreamy skaters, but I prefer the powerhouses. For that reason I loved Tonya, Katarina Witt, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Surya Bonaly.

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I especially liked Tonya because I felt like she could be from my hometown. She seemed like a normal girl who was doing something special. It wasn’t until much later in life that I understood the true class dynamics at play and how hard she was fighting against an industry and system where she was absolutely not welcomed or wanted. Her whole life up until that point had been a truly miserable uphill battle to just be someone and escape her hellish life. She was a survivor, and I respect that about her.

My favorite quote I’ve read about Tonya and Nancy is this: “Both skaters are more complex than the story that disdains them; both skaters are more complex than the story that admires them. And what’s truly shocking is that the media and athletic institutions that are far more powerful than either of them largely escaped scrutiny after essentially devouring them both.” (source)

I feel for Tonya because her mom was awful, her husband was extra awful, and the media around her was a nightmare. Nancy had a family, resources, and a community that rallied around her to protect her, but even she faced backlash after a while. Both women were used and abused for ratings. There was no way around it. And Tonya had no one and nothing.

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Despite my empathy, her inability to accept any responsibility remains a source of frustration for me. Despite painting a sympathetic picture of Tonya, the movie does emphasize her consistent inability to accept the reality of her choices. I believe that Tonya was complicit in terms of knowing that something was going to be done to try and derail Nancy. Regardless of how I feel about Tonya, Nancy was assaulted and she is absolutely a victim here.

I liked the movie, and it brings to life a lot of things that I don’t think a lot of people know about Tonya such as the extent abuse and the effort that Jeff went to in order to control her. I didn’t know that the USFSA told her to go back to Jeff after she left him in order to look like she had a “stable life.” UNREAL. It is unbelievable to me how involved the USFSA is in these young women’s lives. And sure enough, she went back to him, he kept beating her, then he and his idiot friends assaulted Nancy. If anything, the movie is a deep dive into the pure stupidity and delusion of the men in Tonya’s life. Bless Paul Walter Hauser because he was a PERFECT Shawn Eckhardt, Doofus esq.
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Further reading and watching:

Tonya Harding Thought Skating Would Make Her Rich. It Never Would Have” by Amanda Hess for Slate.

Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, and The Spectacles of Female Power and Pain” by Sarah Marshall.

Figures in a Mall” by Susan Orlean for The New Yorker

Revisiting Tonya Harding” on the Stuff Mom Never Told You Podcast.

I also highly recommend the 30 for 30 episode, The Price of Gold, if you haven’t seen it.

Marvelous Woman Monday

Ida B. Wells! This one is pretty long, but completely worth it.

Ida B. Wells was an activist and writer who gained international attention for her publications about the lynchings of African Americans in the South in the 1890s. She was born into slavery in 1862 Mississippi. After emancipation, her father enrolled in Rust College. He was not able to complete his degree because he had to work to support his family, but Ida followed in his footsteps and enrolled at 16. Unfortunately, she was expelled after confronting the college president with “rebellious behavior.”

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Ida was no shrinking violet. While visiting her grandmother, she learned that there had been an outbreak of yellow fever in her hometown. Sadly, both parents and her infant brother died during the epidemic. Friends and family believed that the six remaining Wells children should be split up or sent into foster care. Ida pushed back, and was able to keep her younger siblings together by working as a teacher at a black elementary school. Her grandmother, family, and friends helped watched the children while she was working. Her interest in politics, race, and the causes of African Americans was ignited by her resentment that white teachers made $80 a month while she was only paid $30. In the 1880s, she moved from Mississippi to Memphis with some of her siblings in search of better pay.

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On a side note, I think this is such a pretty picture. She looks so young and determined in it.

Her first real experience with activism came during a train ride from Memphis to the rural area where she taught. The Supreme Court had ruled against the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which sided with the railroad companies that allowed the racial segregation of passengers. Despite having purchased a first-class ticket, Ida was ordered to give up her seat and move to the smoking car. Naturally, she refused. And when she began protesting the treatment of African Americans in the south, two men and the conductor dragged her off the train.

Ida was not having it, and when she returned to Memphis she hired a lawyer and sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company. And she gained publicity for her case by writing an article in The Living Way (a newsletter for African American churches) about her experience.

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The court decided in her favor and she was awarded $500. Unfortunately, the railroad company appealed, and the Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed the decision and ordered Ida to pay court fines. The Court stated this bullshit: “We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error was to harass with a view to this suit, and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride.” Asshats.

But Ida would not be silenced! She started writing about Jim Crow Laws for editorials in Black newspapers under the pseudonym “Iola.” She was even offered an editorial position for the Evening Star in DC. She went on to purchase a share in the Memphis newspaper, The Free Speech and Headlight, where she continued to write about civil rights and the causes of African Americans. Unfortunately, she was fired from her teaching job by the Memphis Board of Education because many of her articles criticized the conditions of schools for children of color in the area. I highly doubt that the deplorable condition of schools for children of color was news to anyone.

In 1892, she quickly became one the most vocal anti-lynching activists in the country after learning that her friend had been lynched alongside two other men. The three men were Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss (her friend), and Henry Stewart. They owned a local grocery store, and their success angered the white owners of a store across the street. The white men confronted the Black businessmen for having the audacity to be successful. A scuffle ensued where a few of the white men received injuries, and the three black business owners were arrested and jailed. A white mob captured the men by breaking into the jail, then lynched them. The murders occurred in 1892, but it could easily be a story from today.

Ida was so outraged by their deaths, that she launched her own investigation of lynching in the United States. She returned to a Memphis where Black people were fleeing and stated, “There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” In the end, more than 6,000 Black citizens of Memphis left while others stayed and boycotted white businesses.

She began touring the area and speaking about lynching at African American women’s clubs. She raised over $500 to investigate and publish her results. She first published a pamphlet later that year that detailed her findings, it was titled “Southern Horrors.”

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She continued to give lectures and wrote books. Through her work, she challenged the “rape myth” (typically the rape of a white woman by a black man) that was so frequently used to necessitate and justify the lynching of African Americans. She found that instead of rape, African American lynch victims had challenged the authority of white people or had successfully competed against white people economically, in business, or in politics. As a result of her work, a white mob threatened to kill her and destroyed the offices of her newspaper. Modern studies support her research finding that lynchings were higher when marginal whites where threatened with uncertain economic conditions [source].

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After the mob violence, Ida left Memphis in order to continue her advocacy and work. She lived for a while in England where in 1894 she established the British Anti-Lynching Society. She also used her connections in Britain to shame the racist practices of the United States. In 1895, she returned to the United States to live in Chicago where she married a local attorney and newspaper editor, Ferdinand L. Barnett. Despite having four children, Ida kept fighting and working to advance the causes of civil rights and suffrage (see articles below on issues with that cause). One of my favorite tidbits about Ida is that she was allegedly one of the first American women to keep her last name after marriage. AND her wedding announcement was on the front page of the New York Times. THE NEW YORK TIMES! You go, Ida.

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Before returning to Chicago, Ida had also protested the exclusion of African Americans in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She helped launch the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) three years later. She was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and actively campaigned for women’s suffrage. There is some disagreement with what happened, but she is not listed as an original founder of the NAACP. She and W.E.B. Du Bois seemed to have had some friction. He claims that she asked to be left off and she wrote that he deliberately excluded her. RUDE.

Ida died at the age of 69 in Chicago. Her Chicago residence is a designated Chicago Landmark. What a life!

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Further information:

  • The Biography website has a nice video about her.
  • The New York Times has an excellent article on the correlation between police violence and lynchings. They specifically focus on speeches that Ida gave regarding violence against Black Americans.
  • NRP has a piece (“The Root: How Racism Tainted Women’s Suffrage“) on Wells and her struggles with the suffrage movement and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union regarding the lack of support by white Americans for the anti-lynching movement.

Sources:

Biography
The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells
National Park Service
National Women’s History Museum
The New York Times

Marvelous Woman Monday

Last month, Katy suggested adding women to the Monday rotation to celebrate their accomplishments. I loved that idea, so here we go! Let’s start with Amelia Jenks Bloomer – a woman who fought for our right to be comfortable in our clothes!

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I did a report on her when I was in third grade because comfortable britches has always been a priority around here.

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Amelia was born in New York in 1818. She married in 1840 and was encouraged by her husband to write on social issues for his newspaper, Seneca Falls Country Courier. What a gem he was! She attended the First Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, and the next year she created The Lily (a temperance newspaper).  Her mission: “It is woman that speaks through The Lily. It is upon an important subject, too, that she comes before the public to be heard. Intemperance is the great foe to her peace and happiness.”

 

Despite its initial goal to be a local newsletter for “home distribution,” The Lily eventually had a circulation of over 4,000. Initially the paper was “Published by a committee of ladies,” but after 1850 only Bloomer’s name was listed as publisher. She is considered the first woman to operate, edit, and own a news publication for women.

With the support of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Lily expanded its primary focus on temperance to include other topics such as child-bearing, education, and other issues surrounding women’s rights. Stanton was a significant influence on Bloomer (CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE???), and Amelia wrote more frequently about the unfairness of laws toward women and demanded reform.

One of which was women’s dress reform. Amelia pushed for women to adopt new clothing styles that did not require the misery of a corset or multiple petticoats. She advocated for looser tops and skirts that didn’t pass the knees to be worn with a pair of pants under them. This horrid 2002 version was my first thought:

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Below is Elizabeth Smith Miller (another badass lady) who began to wear the outfit after seeing the style during a trip to Europe. Elizabeth Cady Stanton also took to wearing the style after seeing it on Miller. The bloomer style really took off after Amelia began enthusiastically promoting it in The Lily. Bloomer refused to take credit for the idea, but the name of “bloomers” stuck for the style of pant.

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Raise your hand if you wore bloomers when you were little.

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If so, what part of the South are you from?

Amelia’s idea was so popular that she reported the following: “As soon as it became known that I was wearing the new dress, letters came pouring in upon me by the hundreds from women all over the country making inquiries about the dress and asking for patterns—showing how ready and anxious women were to throw off the burden of long, heavy skirts.” I CAN IMAGINE. I get cranky when I have to a wear a nice dress for just a couple of hours. I cannot imagine this much material on my body. I would FREAK OUT.

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Unfortunately, the press attention was so negative regarding the bloomer outfits that the style was ultimately abandoned. Amelia once noted, “I stood amazed at the furor I had unwittingly caused.” I wonder if she tweet whined about it though?

The Lily continued to gain subscribers after the bloomer scandal, and it eventually reached a national circulation of over 6,000. She moved to Ohio in 1853 and continued to edit the paper. She eventually sold The Lily in 1854 when she moved to an area of Iowa where there were no publishing facilities available. Despite selling, she continued to write on the women’s political and social topics of the day and was a contributing editor for the The Lily for two years after the sale. She was so significantly involved in the women’s suffrage movement in Ohio that she is credited with helping secure the women’s vote there. She also led suffrage campaigns in Nebraska and Iowa, and served as the Iowa Woman Suffrage Associate president from 1871-1873.

Of additional significant importance, Bloomer introduced Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Susan B. Anthony in May 1851 (TO BE A BEE IN THAT AIR). It was such an important moment in the women’s suffrage movement that the meeting is now commemorated with a statue in Seneca Falls.

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LOOK AT THOSE BLOOMERS!!!

Amelia Bloomer is remembered for her efforts in making women’s fashion less constricting, fighting for the vote, and her journalism. She was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1975 and her home in Seneca Falls is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2002, the American Library Associated created the Amelia Bloomer Project in her honor. The Project produces an annual list honoring children’s books with feminist themes. These lists are a great resource if you’re looking for feminist books for yourself or the young people in your life.

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What a badass outfit and pose!

Of relevance: “Why must women still choose between beauty and function in clothing?”

Sources:

Amelia Bloomer Project
Atlas Obscura
Biography
Encyclopedia Britannica
Women’s Rights National Historic Park