Shady Ladies: Nineteen Surprising and Rebellious American Womenby Suzann Ledbetter
Unsung though they
Suzann Ledbetter has researched and written about American history for almost twenty years. The depth of her work is reflected in these well-crafted and enormously entertaining biographies of little-known--till now--Shady Ladies. Some were crackpots, some criminals, some charlatans, some genuine talents, but almost all have been sadly forgotten.
Unsung though they may be, these defiant women challenged post-Victorian society in an era when females were second-class citizens. They are every bit as intriguing as their more famous sisters. Who knew Harriet Hubbard Ayer and her cosmetic concoctions predated Helena Rubenstein, and that Ayer virtually invented the newspaper advertorial?
Photographs of Lydia Pinkham were the first photos ever used in advertising. A century after her death, modern science has confirmed that her black cohosh--laced elixir is a viable treatment for menopausal symptoms.
"The way to a man's heart is through his stomach" was coined by Fanny Fern, aka Sara Parton, who, unlike the better-known Nellie Bly, became the highest-paid newspaper columnist in the country. And Laura Fair was as dangerous to men as Calamity Jane ever was . . . and faced up to the Supreme Court no less.
Shady Ladies is the story of early American rebels and a fascinating view of the lives of seventeen notorious and notable women. Suzann Ledbetter chronicles the exploits of feminist pioneers, bringing them to life with humor, empathy, and meticulous research.
This breezy romp through 19th-century American history touches upon the colorful lives and careers of women who are largely unfamiliar now. Most, however, were widely celebrated in their time, if not downright infamous. An artistically talented and sometimes delusional eccentric, wealthy Elizabeth Ney built her Xanadu in the wilds of Texas. Adah Isaacs Menken ("The Menken"), a gifted actress, cut a dash through the society of artists and poets while scandalizing and entertaining the public. Some wrested a remarkable life from poverty, like the legendary dance-hall denizen known as "Silver Heels" and the famously voluptuous Sarah Bowman, who rose from camp follower to proprietor of a "full service hotel" for soldiers during the war with Mexico. As for some better-remembered names, such as Ann Rutledge (Abraham Lincoln's mysterious lost love) and Margaret "Molly" Brown (of Leadville and Titanic fame), the author corrects misconceptions and provides details that make the women spring into focus for today's readers, while Lydia Pinkham, entrepreneur, and Fanny Fern, writer, are shown to be surprisingly modern figures. Filling out the collection are gritty pioneers of medicine, photography, law, finance, and other fields and walks of life. Adding a little spice to history and biography, this book takes its place alongside Barbara Holland's They Went Whistling: Women Wayfarers, Warriors, Runaways and Renegades (Pantheon, 2001) and Sara Lorimer's Booty: Girl Pirates on the High Seas (Chronicle, 2002), though it isn't in the same league with Milbry Polk and Mary Tiegreen's outstanding Women of Discovery: A Celebration of Intrepid Women Who Exploredthe World (Clarkson Potter, 2001).
Christine C. Menefee Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
- Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
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- First Edition
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Read an Excerpt
You will change your mind when I come back a physician,
and charge you more than I ever have for your hats and bonnets.
The phrase mad as a hatter derived from the addlepating (often fatal) side effects of the nitrate of mercury haberdashers once employed to shape and stiffen felt. In 1870, Bethenia Owens's family questioned her sanity when she announced her intention to shutter her successful millinery shop and study medicine.
As word of Bethenia's lunatic ambition spread through Roseburg, Oregon, a respected female friend confided that she'd never "submit" to a woman doctor. If the woman explained why she preferred a male doctor, the reasoning was never elucidated. It surely stemmed from gender bias rather than common sense, as less than a fourth of frontier doctors in those days actually held degrees from accredited colleges. The rest either apprenticed themselves to formally, or equally unformally, trained physicians, were self-taught by means their patients were probably better off remaining ignorant of, or simply tacked doctor on a shingle in front of their Christian names and slapped it upside their office door.
Bethenia was wounded by the criticism and dearth of support, but had already overcome enough hardships in her then thirty years to feel she'd earned the right to pursue a career in the healing arts. Ironically, her father might have contributed the inspirational impetus and necessary stubborn streak.
"Thomas Owens is not afraid of man or the devil," Bethenia once said of the former Pike County, Kentucky, sheriff, who'd arrived in Oregon Territory in 1843 with a wife and two children and naught but fifty cents in his pocket. Less than a decade of farming the fertile Clatsop plain at the mouth of the Columbia River parlayed Owens's four-bit nest egg into a princely net worth of twenty thousand dollars.
Though a self-proclaimed tomboy, Bethenia was the second eldest of Thomas and Sarah's nine children and the eldest daughter. This virtually preordained her role as "the family nurse, and it was seldom that I had not a child in my arms and more clinging to me. Where there is a baby every two years, there is always no end of nursing to be done...."
That is, when she wasn't engaged in farm chores or feats of strength to impress her older brother. According to Maverick Women by Frances Laurence, the petite Miss Owens once bet him she could tote four fifty-pound sacks of flour at once. Ever the gentleman, as he graciously loaded the sacks onto her back and under her arms, he was likely divining how he'd spend such easy money-after, of course, he rescued his boastful sister flattened in the dirt beneath two hundred pounds of flour.
Bethenia won the bet and probably several others, yet as the adage goes, sometimes when you win, you lose. Her mother vocally and often disparaged her unladylike daughter's shenanigans. When a former farmhand named Legrand Hill asked Thomas Owens's permission to wed then fourteen-year-old Bethenia, Sarah seconded the approval and quite possibly sighed with relief.
Lest contemporary readers be appalled by the Owenses' blessing, both boys and girls in their midteens were considered to be adults. Life expectancies were short, families large, and children expected to pull their own weight, practically as soon as they could walk upright.
That Legrand Hill's assets consisted of twenty dollars in cash, a horse and saddle, and a rifle didn't concern Bethenia one whit. "I thought my husband was the equal of any man living," she said.
Chalk it up to love's reputed blinding effect, or a heavy helping of wishful thinking. Before their son George was born in 1856, it was clear that Legrand preferred hunting, reading, and get-rich-quick schemes to anything that smacked of manual labor. Their first year together, Bethenia despaired that winter was coming on, yet the cabin Legrand had started months earlier was still absent a floor and a roof.
Pride and the sterner stuff she was made of might have induced her to endure her loafer-husband's lack of ambition, but she would not tolerate the abuse he began leveling at their son.
Childbirth had left Bethenia ill and weak, and the baby was sickly and often fretful. Legrand spanked the child for crying. Bethenia intervened, only to be struck and choked for trying to protect her son. The day Legrand threw the baby on the bed and stormed out in a rage, Bethenia packed her and George's meager possessions and moved back to her parents' farm.
"I was never born to be struck by mortal man," she said-a statement personalized and elaborated upon when her hot-tempered husband begged for a reconciliation. "I have told you many times that if we ever did separate, I would never go back, and I never will."
Filing for divorce triggered an ugly court battle with her mother-in-law for custody of George. Bethenia prevailed on all counts and won the right to revert to her maiden name, as though it would expunge all memory of the hellish three years she'd spent as Mrs. Legrand Hill.
Loath to accept charity, which is what she deemed the financial assistance her family offered, Bethenia took in laundry and ironing, sewed, picked berries, and hired out as a nurse and housekeeper to support herself and her little boy.
Between her numerous jobs and mothering a small child, one would think she'd have scant time to sleep, yet Bethenia wasn't content "because of my intense thirst for learning. An education I must have at whatever cost."
The price exacted was the humiliation of a twenty-year-old functionally illiterate single mother attending a one-room schoolhouse and "reciting with children from eight to fourteen years of age."
Friends often found her studying a propped-up book while ironing or laundering other people's clothes for the pennies it paid. Reflecting on those grueling years, she said,
No more is it necessary for the student to pore over the old, thumb-worn books by the light of a pitch stick, or a tow string in a broken mug of refuse kitchen grease; and yet those times produced from and for this nation a Franklin, a Jefferson, a Greeley, a Clay, a Webster, and a Lincoln...who possessed the sterling qualities of intelligent, incorruptible citizenship...
In 1861, her diligence and persistence reaped a steadier income when she qualified for a teaching certificate-unusual for an era when schoolmarms were commonly required to be spinsters, which technically, Miss Owens was not.
The roof over her and George's heads, she provided with the four hundred dollars she'd saved to build a tidy cottage in Astoria, Oregon. As Gayle C. Shirley relates in More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Oregon Women, "[Bethenia]...judged herself now to be ready to take on the world."
Centuries before, Horace observed in his Epistles, "As soon as a man perceives how much the things he has discarded excel those which he pursues, let him return in time, and resume those which he relinquished." That was precisely Legrand Hill's intention when he appeared on Bethenia's "cozy little porch."
Since the divorce, Hill had written her any number of letters, apologizing for his abusive behavior, promising he'd never raise his voice or hand to her or their son again, pleading with her to remarry him.
"But alas for him," Bethenia wrote in her memoirs. "He found not the young, ignorant, inexperienced child-mother whom he had neglected and misused, but a full-grown, self-reliant woman who could look upon him only with pity."
She did grant Hill the equivalent of visitation rights, but was wise and wary enough to inform the sheriff of the arrangement, fearing her former husband might try to smuggle George out of town.
At her parents' urging and to further her now twelve-year-old son's education, Bethenia moved back to Roseburg to profit on her sewing ability by opening the town's only dress and millinery shop. Exclusivity being the handmaiden of supply and demand, for two years, she eked out what passed as a living, until a competitor stole away her customers and declared Bethenia to be "a rotten hat designer and an even worse businesswoman."
Vitriol notwithstanding, Bethenia agreed. Armed with a $250 bank loan, she decamped to San Francisco for a short course in professional millinery design. Upon her return to Roseburg, she leased a storefront across the street from her sharp-tongued rival. The ensuing (albeit fickle) female stampede to Bethenia's door netted a $1,500 profit within the first year.
In 1870, two unrelated life-changing events propelled her toward a secret yet longheld dream. While her business was flourishing, George's departure for the University of California at Berkeley left her nest empty in ways designing fashionable chapeaus and voraciously reading medical textbooks couldn't fill. Providence intervened when a friend, aware of Bethenia's nursing skills, summoned her to treat her seriously ill child.
Bethenia arrived to witness the local sawbones' (a probable graduate of the hang-out-a-shingle school of medicine) umpteenth attempt to insert a catheter in his small, screaming patient. Frustrated, he laid down the instrument to wipe his spectacles.
Bethenia pounced. In seconds, she accomplished the procedure, bringing immediate relief to the tortured child. Rather than thank Bethenia for her assistance, the ham-fisted physician lambasted her for interfering.
Instead of putting her in her place, the experience galvanized Bethenia's passion to earn a medical degree. Within days, she was memorizing a borrowed copy of Gray's Anatomy in preparation for her enrollment at Philadelphia's Eclectic School of Medicine.
Copyright &169; 2006 by Suzann Ledbetter
Meet the Author
Suzann Ledbetter has been a writer since she was ten years old. Born in Joplin, she has lived in Missouri her whole life. The author of nearly two dozen books, Ledbetter writes both historical and contemporary fiction, nonfiction, humor, and biographies. She was inducted into the Missouri-based Writers Hall of Fame of America in 1997 and received the Spur Award for her biography Nellie Cashman: Prospector and Trailblazer.
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