A Woman to Know: Martha Gellhorn

Why should I be a footnote to somebody else's life? — Martha Gellhorn

Why should I be a footnote to somebody else's life? — Martha Gellhorn

(image via Library of Congress)

Martha covered 50 years of war. As a correspondent for The Atlantic, The New Republic and other legendary publications, she traveled around the world reporting from the Spanish War, Nazi Germany, Nicaraguan contras, the Vietnam War and more. In 1989, at age 81, she even filed from the U.S. invasion of Panama.

And yes, of course, she was married to Ernest Hemingway (the only wife of his to leave him, actually — rumor is he couldn’t stand her gall). We shan’t even make further mention of Hemingway in this edition, because Martha’s life was so much bigger than her literary husband.  

Before her romance even hit the literary scene, she was an accomplished writer in her own right. In addition to her war correspondence, she also wrote fiction. Her travels inspired characters in two shorty story collections, five novels and 14 novellas.

Martha married three times, but she ultimately adopted a child on her own and raised her son as a single mother. The two continued to travel throughout his childhood, making homes in Mexico, New York City and London. She continued writing and reporting until her death in 1997, at at the age of 89. “Journalism is education for me,” she once wrote. “Writing is payment for the chance to look and learn.”

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A Woman to Know: Sarah Boone

… a cheap, simple, convenient and highly effective device. — Sarah Boone’s patent

… a cheap, simple, convenient and highly effective device. — Sarah Boone’s patent

(image via Wikimedia)

Before Sarah Boone, people treated ironing as a particularly cumbersone chore: you had to set up an ironing station with unused furniture or random wooden beams or some other flat, stationary surface that could serve as a flat ironing platform. But in 1892 — a whole 40 years after she’d been freed from slavery in North Caroline, married a freedman in Connecticut and moved to New Haven — Sarah Boone patented an invention to simplify this household task. With her curved, collapsible ironing board, ironing was suddenly something women could do anywhere in the house. All you had to do was set up the board, iron the clothes and then tuck Sarah Boone’s invention back in a closet or storage room.

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A Woman to Know: Nellie Tayloe Ross

As long as my husband lived, it never entered my head, or his, that I would find any vocation outside our home. — Nellie Tayloe Ross

As long as my husband lived, it never entered my head, or his, that I would find any vocation outside our home. — Nellie Tayloe Ross

(image via The University of Iowa)

October 1924 was a huge month for Nellie Tayloe Ross. First, her husband, the then-governor of Wyoming, passed away suddenly. William had been governor less than two years, and much of the reform and progress he and his wife had dreamed of threatened to die along with him — unless, as one of his consultants urged her on the day of the funeral, Nellie decided to run for his open seat.

In the weeks after her husband’s death, Nellie contended with the decision. On the one hand, she knew no American woman had ever before run for the office of governor; but on the other hand, with the support of her late husband’s team, she knew she had a decent chance at winning. Plus, after she settled all of William’s outstanding debts, she realized she had another problem to solve: she needed money.

Still, her brother and other friends (“friends,” we should say) tried to discourage Nellie from running, arguing that it wasn’t a fit job for a woman. “No one ever wanted it more,” her brother wrote to his wife.

Later that October, less than a month after William’s death, Nellie declared her candidacy. In November, she was declared the winner, becoming America’s first-ever female governor — winning even more votes than her husband had in his own run two years earlier.

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A Woman to Know: Nancy Wake

My hatred of the Nazis was very, very deep. — Nancy Wake

My hatred of the Nazis was very, very deep. — Nancy Wake

(image via Wikimedia)

“A woman could get out of a lot of trouble that a man could not,” Nancy Wake once told an interviewer.

She knew this firsthand. As an journalist-turned-undercover agent in World War II, Nancy worked as a courier, escort and intelligence-gatherer for the French Resistance. The Germans called her “The White Mouse.” But in 1943, she was finally exposed. She fled France for England. Her husband, who stayed behind, was captured and executed.

But even in England, Nancy continued working for the Allies. In April 1944, she even parachuted into France to help other Resistance fighters prepare for D-Day. She helped establish vital communications between British troops and French fighters.

“I was never afraid,” she said. “I was too busy to be afraid.”

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A Woman to Know: Mary Kies

With the patent to Mary Kies, women could now protect both the originality and the integrity of their creations. — Paul D. Buchanan

With the patent to Mary Kies, women could now protect both the originality and the integrity of their creations. — Paul D. Buchanan

(image via New York Public Library)

There were other female inventors before Mary Kies, of course. But she was the first to get her name on a patent.

As a wife and mother in the late 19th century, Mary worked in the straw hat industry in part to support her family. She ran a small milliner’s shop from her home in Connecticut, and in 1809, she realized she’d created something entirely new — she’d created a better way to weave together silk and straw in her hats.

Technically, the Patent Act of 1790 opened the door for any American to protect their inventions. But because married women were still barred from owning property themselves, many couldn’t get the approval necessary to do so.

But in the midst of a tariff war with Europe, the government wanted to boost American makers. President Madison signed the hat patent to Mary Kies, giving her the recognition for a “new and useful improvement in weaving straw with silk or thread.” First Lady Dolley Madison, a hat lover herself, even sent Mary a personal note of congratulations.

But just as suddenly as Mary won success, she suffered a setback. Fashions changed and suddenly, women no longer wanted to buy straw-silk hats like Mary’s. She had to move to Brooklyn and live with her son to make ends meet.

In 1836, the Patent Office caught fire, destroying 10,000 patents — including any record of Mary’s invention. She died just the next year, buried in a pauper’s grave.

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