Women's History

Elizabeth Smith Friedman Photograph (Source: National Security Administration)

Elizebeth Friedman: Coast Guard Code Breaker

By the end of her life, Elizebeth Smith Friedman was renowned for her work deciphering codes from civilian criminals. She cracked the codes that sent members of what one prosecutor called “the most powerful international smuggling syndicate in existence” to jail, took down a Vancouver opium ring, and caught a World War II Japanese spy.

Jeannette Rankin

The Jeannette Rankin Brigade

In 1916, Jeannette Rankin made history as the first woman elected to Congress. A renowned pacifist, Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. involvement in World War II. At age 87, Rankin made one final push for peace by leading an anti-Vietnam march: the Jeannette Rankin Brigade.

Clara Barton: Angel of the Battlefield

Clara Barton during the Civil War. Photo by Matthew Brady. (Source: Library of Congress)

She was one of the first female government employees, she was the first woman legally allowed on the battlefield in America, she founded the American Red Cross, and she chose to live out her days in Glen Echo, Maryland. Clara Barton, the unstoppable force of the 19th century.

Photograph of Mary Church Terrell as a young adult.

Impressions of Washington: Mary Church Terrell's Activism

Educator, author, and activist Mary Church Terrell was the first president of the National Association for Colored Women, the first African-American woman elected to a major city school board, and a founding member of the NAACP. A lifelong advocate for equality, Terrell participated in sit-ins well into her eighties. But out of all of her activism, one 1906 speech stands out as an insightful and damning critique of racial dynamics in the nation's capital.

Anna J. Cooper (Source: Wikipedia)

Dr. Anna J. Cooper: MVP of D.C. Education

In the early 1900s, Dr. Anna J. Cooper, eschewed inherently racist notions that education for African American students should be solely vocational. Pursuing more classical studies, she pushed her students toward some of the best colleges and universities in the country, but her dedication raised the ire of the D.C. Board of Education.

The First Treasury Girls

 Female clerks leaving the Treasury Department

Of all the Union government departments during the Civil War, the Treasury in particular was working overtime. In 1862, Congress passed the first Legal Tender Act, which gave the federal government the authority to issue currency. But with so many men off to war, who would make the money? Treasurer Frances E. Spinner took a note from the US Patent Office (which had a few female clerks) when he decided in 1862 to hire Jennie Douglas to trim money. Douglas would be the first of many young women to work for the government and, while most accepted them, these pioneers faced some unique challenges.

Margaret Gorman was as surprised as anyone when she was named Miss America. (Source: Wikipedia)

D.C.'s Margaret Gorman Becomes the First Miss America

Most 16-year-old girls dream of being popular. And while some can claim to be the queen bees of their high schools, not many can maintain that they are the most popular girl in the country. In 1921, though, Margaret Gorman could. Fresh out of her junior year at Western High School (later the Duke Ellington School of the Arts) in Georgetown, Margaret went from being a regular teenager to the best-known girl in the nation when Atlantic City judges crowned her the first Miss America.

Mrs. Woodhull Goes to Washington: The First Female Presidential Candidate Petitions For Women's Suffrage

Victoria Woodhull speaks in front of the Judiciary Committee on January 11, 18. I

Hillary Clinton may have been the first woman to win a major party's presidential nomination. However, she is far from the first woman to run for president. That distinction belongs to Victoria Woodhull, a spiritualist, suffragist, and stockbroker who ran for president on the Equal Rights ticket in 1872. We look into her campaign and her visit to DC in order to argue for women's suffrage before the House Judiciary Committee.

Elizabeth Keckley rose from slave to the Lincoln White House thanks to her supreme skill as a dressmaker. Her autobiography provides one of the most powerful accounts of the First Family's personal lives. (Photo from Documenting the American South collection at UNC-Chapel Hill via Wikipedia)

Elizabeth Keckley: D.C.'s Dressmaker to the Stars

In 1867, Mary Todd Lincoln became embroiled in the “old clothes” scandal. But this story isn’t about Mrs. Lincoln; it’s about one of her associates, dressmaker to the stars, Elizabeth Keckley.

Keckley was born a slave in Virginia around 1820. Her earliest duty was to watch after the baby of the white family; she was beaten severely for making mistakes. Following the sexual abuse of her mother, which led to Keckley’s birth, Keckley herself was sexually assaulted.

In addition, she was loaned out to a family in St. Louis who used the income she brought in from dressmaking to support themselves.  From her autobiography:

With my needle, I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months.

In 1860, Keckley was able to buy her freedom with the sum of $12,000. Her clients, the well-to-do women of St. Louis had heard of her struggles to raise the money and passed the hat between themselves to provide the amount.

Keckley moved to D.C. to set up shop and teach young colored women in her trade. Here she confronted the laws obstructing the movement of freed people in the capital. Unless she could obtain a license to stay in the capital (which required money) and have someone vouch that she was free, Keckley would have to leave. Here again the lady clients of Keckley came to her aid.

Shortly after her arrival in Washington, Keckley entered the employ of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, though she still made dresses for other women of the city, like Mrs. Robert E. Lee.

Keckley’s time with Mary Todd Lincoln, however, is particularly noted by historians, who use Keckley's book to draw conclusions about the First family’s private life.

Roberta Flack in 1971. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Arlington's Roberta Flack Gets Her Start at Mr. Henry's

Born in Asheville, North Carolina, Roberta Flack started playing the piano at an early age. When she was five, her family moved to the Nauck community in Arlington and she took up the organ, lending her musical talents to Macedonia Baptist Church. At 15, she entered Howard University with a full music scholarship and, by 19, she was a college graduate seeking.

She accepted a position in a segregated school district in Farmville, North Carolina and wound up being the only music teacher for 1300 students, kindergarten through 12th grade. “I lost 40 pounds and almost had a nervous breakdown but we did some beautiful things that year.”

Flack returned to Washington and taught at Rabaut Junior High School and Brown Junior High School. In the evenings, she started performing – first at the Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights and then at Mr. Henry’s, a Capitol Hill nightclub at 6th and Pennsylvania Ave, SE, which was owned by Henry Yaffe.

Pages