A Woman to Know: Mary Musgrove Matthews Bosomworth

She can read and write, and is a well-civilized [woman]. She is likewise to teach us the Indian tongue. — John Wesley

She can read and write, and is a well-civilized [woman]. She is likewise to teach us the Indian tongue. — John Wesley

(image via University of Georgia Libraries)

In 1733, when English settlers established the colony of Georgia, they owed their relatively amiable relationship with the native Americans to a 30-year-old bilingual trader: Mary Musgrove.

As a prominent member of the Creek clan and a wife to an English deerskin trader, Mary Musgrove knew how to bring two different worlds together. Before James Edward Oglethorpe brought the English to Georgia, Mary had already been traveling back and forth between her Creek family one one side of the Savannah River and the English settlers on the other, in the colony of South Carolina. She spoke fluent English as well as her native Muskogee, so General Oglethorpe sought her out as a valuable translator in his discussions with the Yamacraw and Chief Tomochichi. Mary knew the English desperately needed her services, so she negotiated with Oglethorpe directly, demanding higher compensation for every meeting he required.

Mary’s profile grew with time. Tomochichi granted her a plot of land in the Sea Islands as thanks for her role in forging their alliance, and as the colonial Georgia society grew larger and larger, Mary used her marriages to white men as stepping stones in the social hierarchy.

The new settlers felt threatened by her speedy ascension and growing fortune. Gossipmongers whispered that her wedding to her third husband, a Christian missionary, never took place. And even as Mary celebrated her new status, she fought to keep the land she was awarded from Chief Tomochichi. Georgians contested her right to the Sea Islands and demanded she visit England for a Board of Trade trial in 1760.

As Colonel Heron wrote:

I am highly sensible of the singular service she has done the country (a great part of the expense of her own private fortune) in continuing the Creek Indians in friendship and alliance with the English.

In England, facing the court, Mary once again brokered peace, but this time at her own expense; she forwent her massive claim in exchange for keeping one island, St. Catherine’s. She died there three years later.

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A Woman to Know: Susanna Valenti

They formed a secret society just to be ... ordinary. — Murray Moss

They formed a secret society just to be ... ordinary. — Murray Moss

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In the mid-1950s, Susanna and her wife bought 150 acres in the Catskills. Susanna was looking for a place to live out and proud as a transgender woman, and her wife Mary ran the town wig shop. They decided to turn their mountain hideaway into a secret resort for transgender women and other queer guests (at the time, many visitors identified as cross-dressers, which was still considered a crime in New York state).

“Casa Susanna” became a legendary haven for transgender travelers. Photos from the time show guests playing board games, sipping cocktails on the porch and laughing with other visitors.

As Susanna wrote in her column for Transvestia magazine:

Scene: The porch in the main house at our resort in the Catskill Mountains. The time: About 4 o’clock in the morning as Labor Day is ready to awaken in the distant darkness. The cast: Four girls just making small talk. ... It’s dark in the porch; just a row of lights illuminate part of the property at intervals — perhaps a bit chilly at 2,400 feet. ... An occasional flame lighting a cigarette throws a glow on feminine faces — just a weekend at the resort, hours in which we know ourselves a little better by seeing our image reflected in new colors and a new perspective through the lives of friends.

Some time in the 1960s, Casa Susanna closed to visitors. Susanna and her wife disappeared into their private lives in Hunter, New York, and the resort fell into disrepair.

In 2004, a man named Robert Swope bought a box of old photographs at a Manhattan flea market. He found a treasure trove of Casa Susanna photographs, which led to Susanna’s life’s work later being honored with a glossy book of photographs and a Broadway play.

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A Woman to Know: Olympias

Most of the blame attached itself to Olympias, on the grounds that she had encouraged the young man in his anger … — Plutarch

Most of the blame attached itself to Olympias, on the grounds that she had encouraged the young man in his anger … — Plutarch

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Olympias claimed that even while pregnant, she knew her son, Alexander (one day known as “Alexander the Great”) was destined for greatness. As Plutarch wrote:

On the night before they were to be locked into the bridal chamber together, the bride had a dream in which, following a clap of thunder, her womb was struck by a thunderbolt, this started a vigorous fire which then burst into flames and spread all over the place before dying down …

But even before her son became famous for expanding its borders, Olympias herself was very well-versed in the politics of her homeland. In 357 BCE, she became the second wife to Philip II, then ruler of Macedonia. The marriage was more advantageous to Olympias, then just a forgotten orphaned daughter of the king of Epirus, than to Philip. But he was entranced by her quick wit, passionate temper and fiery red hair.

As familiar as Olympias was with the politics of battle, however, negotiating the politics of the court posed its own challenges for the “arrogant, headstrong and meddlesome” young woman. Olympias hated Philip II’s other wives. Rumors claimed she even sought to destroy the other wives’ children, feeding one a poison that “ruined his mind.”

Philip II started to fear his once-intoxicating wife. Olympias followed the cult of Dionysos, the god of wine and bacchanalian pleasure. She started carrying snakes, one of the symbols of the cult, and wore them as ornaments when she appeared in court. When Philip II saw she even slept with snakes in her bed, he refused to visit her again — until their son was born in 356 BC.

Once Alexander was born, Olympias set her sights higher. She told her son that his real father was Zeus, not Philip. She asked Leonidas and Aristotle to tutor him, angering Philip even more. He divorced Olympias and sent the young mother and her son back to Epirus, where they stayed until 336 BCE, when Philip was (conveniently for Olympias) assassinated at a wedding banquet.

With Philip out of the way, Alexander ascended to the throne. He brought his mother along with him, treating her as a right-hand woman and adviser on all things royal. As Alexander led his military campaigns throughout Europe, his mother mailed letters offering guidance and consulting on battle tactics and political negotiations.

When Alexander died in 323 BCE (under mysterious circumstances still debated today), Olympias sent her daughter-in-law and her grandson into hiding, desperate to protect any claim to the throne. She formed an alliance with connections in Epirus and attempted to stage a coup. She wanted to place Alexander’s heir on the throne, but enemy forces captured her and her family. She spent a year in prison, negotiating for her release and that of her grandson.

In 316 BCE, Olympias’s powers of persuasion finally failed her. The new king ordered her put to death. He ordered the same for Olympias’s daughter-in-law and her grandson, finally extinguishing Alexander the Great’s (and Olympias’s) claims to the throne.

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A Woman to Know: Helen Hokinson

Investigating the city with Helen was fascinating for a great many reasons. When Helen said ‘Look!’ in a tone of the utmost excitement, it generally meant that she had discovered a tiny detail of some

Investigating the city with Helen was fascinating for a great many reasons. When Helen said ‘Look!’ in a tone of the utmost excitement, it generally meant that she had discovered a tiny detail of some kind that she hoped I would enjoy. — James Reid Parker

(image via The Library of Congress)

In 1925, Helen published her first cartoon in one of The New Yorker’s first-ever issues. From there, she made a career of caricaturing society women and their lives, memorializing them with humorous captions and fine-lined sketches.

As one of her fellow cartoonists remembers:

She was forever sketching people in parks, in restaurants, in the lobbies of hotels and business buildings, during theater intermissions, at the special events held in Madison Square Garden and the Grand Central Palace ... a man bending down to tie a shoelace, a woman rummaging through her purse for the elusive bus fare, an impatient youth scanning a hotel lobby for his date, a woman deliberating over a tray of pastries, a man studying his new haircut in a slot-machine mirror, a father hurrying a reluctant child past a pet shop window — and with her soft Erberhard pencil, Helen quickly drew a few wonderful lines on her pocket-size sketch pad.

In 1948, her cartooning career was cut tragically short. En route to Washington, DC, her passenger plane exploded in mid-air, killing all aboard.

Ladies with big hats, plump women clutching binoculars, frilly biddies at the beach and on the avenue — Helen was remembered long after her death for these hilarious “Hokinson women,” as they came to be called.

She created more than 1,800 cartoons and 68 different New Yorker covers, building her own reputation along the way. She once overheard a woman at a flower show cautioning her friends to be on their best behavior: “Watch out. I understand Helen Hokinson comes here for material.”

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A Woman to Know: Peggy Eaton

I must have said a great many foolish things. I am sure I did very few wise ones. I was foolish, hasty, but not vicious. — Peggy Eaton

I must have said a great many foolish things. I am sure I did very few wise ones. I was foolish, hasty, but not vicious. — Peggy Eaton

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Margaret “Peggy” Eaton grew up in her father’s tavern, a popular watering hole for Washington, DC gadflies and political hangers-on. Peggy won hearts with her charm and beauty, but she didn’t win nearly as many friends — a fact that ultimately proved her downfall.

In 1816, she married her first husband, a Navy purser. When he went off to sea, rumors swirled of Peggy’s “looseness.” When he died in 1828, Peggy waited exactly nine months before she married John Henry Eaton, a Tennessee senator and close friend of Andrew Jackson. The Washington gossip mill erupted — politicians and their prominent wives speculated that Peggy had been entertaining an extramarital affair the whole time, driving her first husband away.

In 1830, President Jackson promoted Peggy’s husband to be his Secretary of War, and the cabinet members’ wives staged a social protest. They refused to sit with Peggy, going so far as to blacklist her from Washington invitations and claiming her ostracization was for the good of the country, to “protect society from immorality.” As one historian wrote:

Accept her, and society was in danger of disruption. Accept this uncouth, impure, forward, worldly woman, and the wall of virtue and morality would be breached and society would have no further defenses against the forces of frightening change. Margaret Eaton was not that important in herself; it was what she represented that constituted the threat. Proper women had no choice; they had to prevent her acceptance into society as part of their defense of that society's morality.

Some of the cabinet members even supported their wives in the snubbing, including Vice President John C. Calhoun, whose wife Floride led the ladies against Peggy. The tabloids called this kerfuffle “The Petticoat Affair,” and Washington again blamed Peggy for the scandal.

In 1831, President Jackson had had enough. He continued supporting the Eatons and told the press “I did not come here to make a cabinet for the Ladies of this place.” He convinced his Secretary of State (future president Martin Van Buren, who had remained cordial with Peggy) to resign in exchange for future political favors. Once Van Buren left the cabinet, Jackson fired all the anti-Peggy members and completely reorganized his leadership team.

But Peggy’s life didn’t go back to normal right away. Jackson instead sent the Eatons to Florida, where John served as governor while the couple waited for the Petticoat Affair to blow over in Washington. They later moved to Madrid, where he acted as foreign minister.

When John passed away in 1856, Peggy didn’t enter widowhood quietly. Instead, she married again at age 59, this time to an Italian dancing master 30 years her junior. After just five short years of marriage, Peggy’s young husband absconded to Europe, taking all her money — and running off with her teenage granddaughter. The gossip mill churned on, even when Peggy died in poverty in 1879.

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