A Woman to Know: Sarah Edmonds

The women seemed honestly to want to fight in the war for the same reasons as men. — historian Bonnie Tsui

The women seemed honestly to want to fight in the war for the same reasons as men. — historian Bonnie Tsui

(image via the National Archives)

When she ran away from home at age 16, Sarah Edmondson first bought pants and shirts to disguise herself as a man. This was pre-Civil War America, and traveling alone as a woman was dangerous and, in some states, even illegal. In 1861, Sarah, then disguising herself as “Frank Thompson,” took a job as a traveling Bible salesman. She eventually settled down in Flint, Michigan, still hiding from her family back home.

That same year, Sarah enlisted with the Michigan infantry, eventually fighting in the Battle of Bull Run and even running spy missions in Confederate territory. She told her superiors she had no problem dressing as a woman to go undercover in Southern households; but at some point in 1863, her secret must have been compromised. She deserted the Union army and moved to Kentucky.

Then, in Kentucky, Sarah again chose a new name — this time, “Sarah Edmonds.” She couldn’t stay away from the front lines of the war, though, and signed up to work as a battlefield nurse. In 1865, just as the war ended, she anonymously published a hyper-scandalous memoir, “Soldier, Nurse and Spy.” The book hit the top of the best-seller’s list, eventually setting Sarah up for a later career traveling and speaking about her experiences.

In 1867, she again changed her name, this time after getting married and moving to Kansas. This time going by “S.E. Seelye,” she reached out to former Union Army colleagues, asking them to advocate on her behalf so she could receive a pension befitting her veteran status. In 1886, she succeeded, finally erasing her charge of desertion and receiving her $12 a month, as was her soldier’s due. When she died in 1898, she was buried in the veterans’ graveyard, complete with full army honors.

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A Woman to Know: Aida Overton Walker

I venture to think and dare to state that our profession does more toward the alleviation of color prejudice than any other profession among colored people. — Aida Overton Walker

I venture to think and dare to state that our profession does more toward the alleviation of color prejudice than any other profession among colored people. — Aida Overton Walker

(image via Library of Congress)

In the late 1880s, Aida ruled the vaudeville stage. She and her husband, fellow performer George Walker, appeared in shows around the United States, leading an all-black cast of vaudevillians. Aida choreographed the dances and starred as “Miss Hannah from Savannah” and other prominent lead parts.

In 1903, in their tour of Europe, Aida finally performed at Buckingham Palace. She killed it. Suddenly, she was an international, in-demand star, commanding huge audiences on both continents. She talked often of how her work raised visibility of black talent, and later, dancers like Josephine Baker and Florence Mills would say Aida’s work inspired them to envision careers on the stage.

But in 1908, Aida’s life — and career — took a sudden turn. When George’s health suddenly declined, Aida had to find a way to keep their act going. She continued performing the duo’s dances, dressing up in her husband’s clothes to play his own parts. In 1912, at the height of Europe’s “Salomania,” she choreographed and performed her own Salome dance at the Victoria Theatre. The performance cemented her status as an international star; but her husband died that same year.

After George’s death, Aida continued performing, touring with her show and reprising musicals she made famous with her husband. But just three years after George’s death, Aida — then known as “The Queen of the Cakewalk,” “The Black Venus” and the “Salome of the Stage” — took ill herself. She died at just 34 years old.

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A Woman to Know: Veronica Franco

When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong. — Veronica

When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong. — Veronica Franco

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Veronica was known as “the honest courtesan.” That’s the term 16th century Venetians used to describe a local call girl who attracted men with her intelligence and wit as well as her good looks and sexual prowess. She certainly earned the so-called compliment — by the time she was 20, Veronica could play multiple instruments, including the lute and the spinet piano; dazzle scholars with her adept references to Greek poetry and ancient history; paint alongside the best of the Renaissance artists, some of whom were her clients; and even (notoriously) write epic poems.

In 1575, already well-known (and even officially recorded!) as one of the city’s most popular courtesans, Veronica published her first book of poems — erotic poems. She included original verses of her own as well as a selection of her lovers’ own works, all written in praise of her charm and beauty. She set up her legendary parlor as an artists’ salon, bringing her patrons together with contemporary painters and writers.

The same year, she petitioned the city to fund a home for courtesans and their children, with Veronica herself working as the official administrator. There, she taught the women to read and write and eventually opened the house to other impoverished families in need.

But later that year, the threat of plague forced Veronica and her young nephews, then in her care, to flee the city. When she returned in 1577, she found her house ransacked and her reputation destroyed. In 1580, the Inquisition called her to stand trial for witchcraft. She called a prominent patron to come to her defense, and the court ultimately found her innocent of all charges.

But recovering her title of “honest courtesan” proved almost impossible. Veronica managed to published one final book of poems, but her client list began to dwindle. When her last suitor died in 1582, Veronica moved out of her once-beautiful house. Her tax declaration in 1582 records Veronica living in the area of Venice where old prostitutes were exiled, the neighborhood in which historians presumed she died.

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A Woman to Know: Veronica Franco

When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong. — Veronica

When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong. — Veronica Franco

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Veronica was known as “the honest courtesan.” That’s the term 16th century Venetians used to describe a local call girl who attracted men with her intelligence and wit as well as her good looks and sexual prowess. She certainly earned the so-called compliment — by the time she was 20, Veronica could play multiple instruments, including the lute and the spinet piano; dazzle scholars with her adept references to Greek poetry and ancient history; paint alongside the best of the Renaissance artists, some of whom were her clients; and even (notoriously) write epic poems.

In 1575, already well-known (and even officially recorded!) as one of the city’s most popular courtesans, Veronica published her first book of poems — erotic poems. She included original verses of her own as well as a selection of her lovers’ own works, all written in praise of her charm and beauty. She set up her legendary parlor as an artists’ salon, bringing her patrons together with contemporary painters and writers.

The same year, she petitioned the city to fund a home for courtesans and their children, with Veronica herself working as the official administrator. There, she taught the women to read and write and eventually opened the house to other impoverished families in need.

But later that year, the threat of plague forced Veronica and her young nephews, then in her care, to flee the city. When she returned in 1577, she found her house ransacked and her reputation destroyed. In 1580, the Inquisition called her to stand trial for witchcraft. She called a prominent patron to come to her defense, and the court ultimately found her innocent of all charges.

But recovering her title of “honest courtesan” proved almost impossible. Veronica managed to published one final book of poems, but her client list began to dwindle. When her last suitor died in 1582, Veronica moved out of her once-beautiful house. Her tax declaration in 1582 records Veronica living in the area of Venice where old prostitutes were exiled, the neighborhood in which historians presumed she died.

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A Woman to Know: Doreen Valiente

She became a high priestess during an era when witchcraft was still very much in the broom closet. — Phyllis W. Curott

She became a high priestess during an era when witchcraft was still very much in the broom closet. — Phyllis W. Curott

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1937, Doreen, then a 15-year-old girl brought up in a strict Christian home, walked out of her convent school. She never returned.

From there, she pursued a lifelong fascination of hers, one that took her deep into a world of paganism, spells and “white witchcraft.” In 1953, following her research to the Isle of Man, she joined a group of witches known as “The New Forest Coven.” She quickly rose through the coven’s ranks, becoming the gathering’s high priestess and eventually revising the liturgy the other witches used as a sacred text. Her resulting book, “The Book of Shadows,” is now a cardinal text for many wiccans.

With her many books and speaking appearances, Doreen popularized “white withcraft,” or the practice of using the practice for the benefit of others. She advocated for the inclusion of other movements, like feminism and environmentalism. She rewrote and modernized the “Charge of the Goddess,” a text which witches today use when gathering in covens. Before she died in 1999, she was honored as “the mother of modern paganism.”

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