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Clara Schumann

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Born on 13 September, 1819, Clara was no stranger to music. Her mother was a famous singer, and though she stayed with her father after her parents divorce, music was always present in her life. She received music lessons for one hour each day, and practiced an additional two hours after that. She began performing at age 8, and it was during one of these performances she met Robert Schumann, then 17, who admired her skill so much he quit law school in order to learn under her father. He moved into her house when she was 11, and when she was 18, he proposed and she accepted. Clara’s father disapproved. His daughter was already a respected musician, and despite seven years of instruction Robert was, well, not. Her father didn’t want her to “throw herself away on a penniless composer.” Elopement was more difficult in Germany those days and the two had to sue Clara’s father in order for a judge to approve of their marriage. Their tactic worked. They were wed, and began their lives together.

The Clara became famous in the artistic scene. Her husband, somewhat less so. Clara was a mainly a concert pianist. Robert encouraged her to propose, and he himself was mainly a composer. Unfortunately, the quality of his compositions has been debated by critics, both then and now. Robert was also prone to mental instability and in 1854 he attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhrine. He was rescued by fisherman, but insisted that he be committed to an asylum. He was granted his wish and remained in the asylum and remained there until he died. During this time neither his wife nor their 8 children were allowed to visit him. During that time, Clara composed regularly and performed, but performance had become a literal pain for her. She suffered from arthritis and underwent multiple homeopathic treatments for it.

Despite her success, after her husband’s death, She, like Mary Shelley, devoted her life to brining his works recognition. She suffered a stroke in 1896, and was subsequently rendered deaf and confined to a wheelchair. It’s odd then, that on her deathbed she demanded her grandson play her husband’s major romance in F-sharp. It would be the last song she ever heard. She died on May 20, 1896.

Fanny Cochrane Smith

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When the Europeans landed in Tasmania in 1772 they flowed like a river of Clorox through the island, bleaching out much of Tasmanian culture. By the time Fanny Cochrane Smith was born in 1834, aboriginal culture suppressed to the point of shame and secrecy, with much of it forgotten. She was born at Settlement Point, run by the self titled Reverend George Augustus Robinson, who ‘relocated’ aboriginal people to his facilities. By ‘relocated’, I mean he essentially  kidnapped aboriginal people from their own homes using false pretenses. Though Fanny’s mother and father were named Tanganutura and Nicermenic, respectively, Fanny, like all children born at the site, was given a European name. At the age of five she was made to live with the facility preacher, and at age eight she was sent to a boarding school to learn how to be a maid. Upon completing this education, she was shipped back to Settlement Point and was made to work for the same preacher she’d lived with. Thankfully, when Fanny was thirteen, the facility was shut down.

Seven years later, Fanny would find and marry William Smith, an ex-convict who had been shipped to the Southern Hemisphere like so many criminals. The couple lived a frugal life, partly because they did not come from wealth, and partly because they would have a total of eleven children.

Fanny’s culture was dying all around her, and when she was forty-two, another piece of her heritage, literally, died. Truganini, a woman worthy of her own article in this series, was one of the last full blooded aborigine people, and when she died in 1876, Fanny became the last Tasmanian aborigine. Wanting to preserve what was left of her culture, Fanny made a groundbreaking contribution to both anthropology and linguistics. She made the first and only recording of Tasmanian aborigine language. In 1903, five wax cylinder recorders were made of her singing and speaking her language, though once of these cylinders would later break and be lost forever. Upon hearing these recordings, she became emotional, hearing the similarity between her own voice and her mother’s. Fanny would die of pneumonia two years later.

She was remembered as being fiercely proud of her culture, spending much of her time in nature, diving for shellfish, gathering food, and engaging in aboriginal religious practices. Were in not for her confidence and pride, this vital piece of aboriginal culture would be lost to us forever.

Here is one piece of the recordings

Mary Shelley

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Mary Shelley was born into a family of free thinkers in 1797, a time of intellectual renaissance. Her father, William Godwin, was a highly respected philosopher, one of many who preached free love and equality in the early 1800’s. His book about justice was vital to the British Radicals. Not long after France had begun it’s revolution, the many Brits started hankering for their own. It was a time of great political unrest. Her father, however, wasn’t the only famous mind in her family. Mary was named after her mother, the renowned Mary Wolstoncraft, considered the mother of feminism and a visionary in women’s rights. Her mother would shape her future, but not just through her teachings. When Mary gave birth to her daughter, she was described as being too weak to feed the howling infant. Her placenta had broken apart and become infected, resulting in puerperal fever, one of the most common causes of women’s death in her time. She died a few days later, and the knowledge that her mother had died for her would forever haunt Mary Shelly.

Years later a man named Percy Bysshe Shelley would begin writing letters to her father. The revolutionary ideology was spreading and William Godwin was practically worshiped as the intellectual face of the would-be revolution. Percy Shelley was, for all intents and purposes, a fanboy bent on interacting with his idol, writing countless letters requesting friendship and even showing up to Godwin’s bookshop in hopes of seeing his senpai. Now, Godwin had read Shelley’s letters aloud to his family, for demonstration of his intellectual prowess or for a good laugh, we’re not sure. What is certain is that Mary knew of Shelley long before they ever actually met. When they did meet in Godwin’s bookshop she, just 16, fell in love.

Their relationship was rough from the start. Godwin, for all his preachings on free love, disapproved. His daughter was only 16, and there was another problem; Percy was already married. His was was pregnant with his first child, but whether Mary knew or cared, we don’t know. What we do know is that, one night in a fit of despair, the two made a suicide pact. Mary held a gun to her temple, but backed out at the last minute. Percy, slightly more serious, took an overdose of laudanum (a potent mixture of opiates), but survived. His survival inspired him to make the most of life – with Mary. They eloped in the dead of night, but they weren’t alone. Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister joined them. See, Percy was pretty sold on the idea of free love. So much so that he’s rumored to have intended to start a commune not unlike the hippies of the 60’s, with as many women as he could handle. Mary, though taught the same ideas as Percy, found sharing her man with her stepsister uncomfortable, and the relationships between all three would always be strained.

From birth, Mary heard stories of doctors attempting to bring back the dead. Medicine wasn’t the prestigious career it is today, and was generally regarded as being a shady practice. Medicine and science were still emerging from the dark ages. In ancient times, the most sought after goal of alchemy was to turn something not gold, into gold. In Mary’s time, the most sought after goal of medicine was to turn something not alive, into a living being once again. Shortly after arriving in Switzerland with Claire and Percy, Mary heard of Condrad Dippel, a man who was rumored to have stolen bodies from graves and injected them with substances supposed to bring them back to life. Condrad Dippel was supposedly born in Rocafor Franks castle, also known as Burg Frankenstein.

May became pregnant, but lost her first child shortly after she was born. Her daughter’s death hurt Mary deeply, and began a lifelong connection with the concepts of death and rebirth. Mary wrote once that she had dreamed her daughter was cold, yet they brought her near the fire and rubbed her vigorously and low, she returned to life! Yet upon waking, the darkness and heaviness would sink over Mary again. Shortly after, she gave birth to a son, William who would survive infancy. It was around this time the three romantics would take a trip up to a Lord Byron’s estate. Claire, pregnant with Percy’s child at the time, was enamored with Byron. They would read aloud to each other in the candlelight in the evenings, wine (and stronger substances) coursing through their veins. It was on one of those nights that it was suggested they come up with ghost stories. Mary took this light hearted suggestion quite seriously, wracking her brain for inspiration. It came to her when she had no control over it. After an intense nightmare Mary writes “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

She began what she thought would be a short story. As she wrote, a series of personal tragedies struck her. Just a few months after she put pen (or quill) to paper, her half sister, Fanny committed suicide, succeeding where Percy had failed, after overdosing on laudanum. After having had almost no contact with her beloved sister since her elopement, Mary was devastated, and it’s believed that this feeling of remorse and isolation inspired much of her novel. Yet hardship wasn’t through with the 19 year old Mary. Two months later, Percy’s wife committed suicide by throwing herself in a river, heavily pregnant with what was rumored to be Percy’s child. Just a few days later, Mary married Percy, and finally made peace with her own family.

This would lead to a brief period of happiness for Mary. She gave birth to a daughter, Clara, and finally published Frankenstein’s Monster. The novel was a hit, but Mary didn’t have time to relish in her success. Less than a year later, Clara died of dysentery. William contracted malaria and followed Clara out of life just 8 months later. Mary never recovered from her loss, growing more and more bitter towards Percy, who she felt had moved on too quickly. Nonetheless, she gave birth to another son, Percy Florence, who would be the only child to survive to adulthood and outlive his parents. One of the final blows to Mary’s psyche struck three years later. The unhappy couple had visited the gulf of Spezia, and Percy had decided to go for a sail. A sudden storm rolled in and drowned Percy less than a month before his 30th birthday. Mary was overcome with grief and guilt for having allowed her husband to sail. She would never be the same. Friends commented that she became cold and withdrawn, a far cry from the startlingly vivacious intellectual of her youth. She spent much of the rest of her life fighting not for her own recognition as an author, but for her husband’s. Were it not for her, much of his work would be lost in obscurity.

Artist of the Week, Edmonia Wildfire Lewis

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Edmonia Wildfire Lewis

Edmonia Wildfire Lewis was an african american / native american sculptor who rose to fame during the height of the american civil war. She was born to an afro-haitain father, and a mother who was of african and ojibwe decent. Though her parents would die early in her life, they and their heritage would forever influence Lewis’s works. She entered Oberlin College aged just 15, as it was one of the few places of higher educated to admit women of color. After college she traveled to Boston, and it was here she began her career as a sculptor specializing in portrait busts. Her favorite subjects were abolitionists, most notably the commander of a African American Civil War regiment from Massachusetts, Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. She eventually became successful enough to send herself to Rome where she honed her neoclassical technique. Her work was met with acclaim, and upon returning to the US, she was commissioned to sculpt the portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant, who marveled at her finished work.

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Ching Shih

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Ching Shih, Captain Ching Shih, was possibly the most feared and successful pirate of all time. During her nine year reign of terror she amassed over 80,000 pirates under her command and had empires bowing to her will. So who was this woman? Details on her early life have been swallowed up by the times, but they probably weren’t very pleasant since she first shows up in the historical record as a prostitute marrying pirate Captain Cheng I in 1801. Now, Cheng was already one hell of a pirate, and he and his crew were largely successful. However, business took off as soon as he married the young Ching Shih, and it soon became pretty obvious that he valued and respected her intellect and cunning when it came to how a pirate fleet should be run.

Too crafty to be poisoned and too badass to be skewered by another pirate, Cheng died in 1807 in a tsunami. Ching Shih promptly married his first mate and took over Cheng’s fleet. It’s unknown if Ching Shih was in love with this first mate, or if their marriage was more of a business contract to help her secure her role as captain. What is certain, however, is that Ching Shih turned that pirate fleet into the most feared and successful on the seven seas. She ruled with an iron fist, and passed out the death penalty like candy. Caught pillaging a town that had made friendly with Ching Shih’s fleet? You were beheaded. Caught raping a captured female or fellow female pirate? Instand death. If you were caught having consensual sex on duty, surely the penalty would be less severe, right? Nope. You both got to sleep with the fish.
Ching Shih spent that first year in command traveling the Chinese coast, attacking seaside towns and even sneaking up rivers to pounce on unsuspecting inland villages. She became a real pain in everyone’s collective ass. In 1808 the Chinese government decided it was time for an ass-kicking and the Imperial fleet was sent in search of her. I’m not sure what the Imperial fleet was expecting. Having to track her down? Almost definitely. A fight? Probably. For her to turn around and meet them head on for battle? I doubt it. The Chinese government had decided it was time for an ass-kicking and Ching Shih wholeheartedly agreed. She captured sixty-three of their ships, and offered the captured crew with two options: join her or die. Upon hearing this, the Admiral Kwo Lang of the Chinese Navy killed himself rather than face death at her hands.
With the hope and determination of a child who thinks that maybe if he stands up to the bully just one more time, the Chinese Government enlisted the help of the Dutch and British Navy. Ching Shih ripped through them like tissue paper. Finally, the Chinese government admitted defeat and gave her an unprecedented offer of amnesty. She accepted on the condition that her eight-thousand pirates be able to keep their money and retire as well. The deal was struck and Ching Shih invested some of her money into a brothel/casino, dying a millionaire at the impressive age of sixty-seven.
Jack Sparrow has nothing on her. In fact, she managed to rib the famous fictional pirate from beyond the grave. A cameo of her can be seen in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

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Sappho

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Born in the early 600s BC, Sappho entered life on the isle of Lesbos, which was the cultural center of Greece at the time. Though not much is known about her early life (or any details of her personal life, for that matter) one of the most common myths about this legendary woman is that she was exiled to Sicily for her political beliefs or homosexuality. The truth is that there is only a vague reference to her being sent to Sicily by her family when she was a child because of political unrest in lesbos at the time.

We’re also not sure when she first began writing her poetry, or when she first picked up her lyre

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but once she did she was met with universal acclaim. Her writings were more introspective and personal than that of other writers of the time, and was one of the first poets to write in the first person. She was so highly regarded that Plato commented that she would be considered the ‘tenth’ muse, and the poet Solon was so moved by one of her songs, he requested his friend teach it to him “Because I want to learn it and die.”

Sappho also wrote homoerotic poetry, and if you haven’t guessed already, she’s responsible for the word ‘lesbian’, though lesbian was not used to refer to a female homosexual until the 19th century. There’s much debate over whether Sappho was a lesbian herself, with many scholars advising against reading her poetry as autobiographical, there’s no questioning that much of it was about women.

“Some celebrate the beauty
of knights, or infantry,
or billowing flotillas
at battle on the sea.
Warfare has its glory,
but I place far above
these military splendors
the one thing that you love.

For proof of this contention
examine history:
we all remember Helen,
who left her family,
her child, and royal husband,
to take a stranger’s hand:
her beauty had no equal,
but bowed to love’s command.

As love then is the power
that none can disobey,
so too my thoughts must follow
my darling far away:
the sparkle of her laughter
would give me greater joy
than all the bronze-clad heroes”

The Suda (a 10th centruy encyclopedia) makes the claim that Sappho was married to a “very wealthy man called Cercylas, who traded from Andros”, which is probably false, as ‘Ceracylas from Andros’ translates to ‘Penis, from Man Island’. There’s also a legend which has Sappho committing suicide by throwing herself off a cliff because of an unrequited heterosexual love. However, there’s no evidence of this actually happening and many have speculated that the legend was invented to give dear Sappho a heterosexual identity.

Whatever her sexuality was, the lady-loving Sappho will forever be remembered (or, actually, mostly forgotten) as one of the greatest poets of all time.

The Night Witches

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There’s a saying which goes ‘Give a woman a single cell and she’ll give you a baby. Give a woman flour and she’ll give you bread, etc’. What happens when World War 2 is raging and you give 80 women the shittiest biplanes you have? They gave us the Night Witches.

In 1941 the German army was dangerously close to Moscow and Marina Raskova, already an accomplished military pilot, was asked to create a female only aviation regiment. She created the 588th regiment, and from the mechanics to the pilots, everyone was female. Their purpose was to conduct ‘harassment’ attacks, bombing German factories and pissing them off in general. There were a few problems, however. Though women were allowed to be pilots, they did not have access to the same equipment as the male pilots, and the women of the 588th had to make do with Polikarpov Po-2s. These biplanes made of wood and canvas, out of date since the first world war and mainly used for crop dusting. Even worse, these were not planes designed for carrying much. They could only hold six bombs. That its, they could only hold six bombs if the pilot and her co-pilot didn’t wear parachutes.
This didn’t deter the enlistees, most of them in their late teens or early twenties. Training began in Engels, just north of Stalingrad, and on June 8th, 1942, they flew their first mission. Their target: the headquarter of a German division. Though one plane was lost in the attacked, the pilot and co-pilot assumed dead, the raid was successful. Nadezhda Popova, who enrolled in an aviation school at just fifteen, recalls that it was a miracle the Night Witches hadn’t suffered more casualties. After the war, said she looked at the night sky sometimes and remembers her harrowing missions, asking aloud “Nadezhda, how did you do it?”
They did it through death defying arial acts. Their biplanes were far too noisy for stealth missions, so the Night Witches had to stall their engines midair to coast down to their targets. When the Germans tried to shoot them down, they would use their slow stalling speeds to their advantage. They could slow their planes far more than their enemies could, forcing the Germans to fly past them, turn around, and try to take another shot, only to be met with the same tactic. That wasn’t the only trick they thad, though. They could fly their planes so low to the ground, they would be concealed by hedge rows and trees. Their wood and canvass planes made them almost impossible to detect by heat seekers and radar. In fact, only the noise of the wind flying through the canvas of their planes alerted the Germans to their presence, but by then it would be too late. It was this noise, likened to the sound of broomsticks sweeping a wood floor, that gave the 588th regiment their nickname. Nachthexen, in German, translated into English as ‘Night Witches’.
By the end of the war the Night Witches had flown over 23,000 missions and dropped over 3,000 tons of bombs.

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