By Robyn Young
In celebrating Women's History Month, we acknowledge the unique and lasting contributions that women have made to our state.
"Who were the mothers of great men? Women of mind, of thought, of independence; not women degraded by men's tyranny, laboring in prescribed limits, thinking other people's thoughts."
Those words were spoken by Evan Pugh, the first president of the Pennsylvania State University, during the women's rights convention held in West Chester in 1852.
A historical marker on High Street in the borough celebrates that convention, and more markers have just been approved by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to honor women from our region who were certainly not limited to thinking other people's thoughts: Sarah Josepha Hale, Mildred Scott Olmsted, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, and Ethel Waters. The four markers are among 22 recent approvals by the commission.
Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), of Philadelphia, was a novelist, poet, and, for 40 years, editor of Godey's Lady's Book, retiring at age 90. Godey's was a women's literary and fashion periodical, the Vogue magazine of its day. Hale increased subscribership from 10,000 to 150,000. She is also known for petitioning for a national Thanksgiving Day for 20 years. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln approved her request.
Mildred Scott Olmsted (1890-1990), of Rose Valley, was an antiwar campaigner, an activist in the civil rights movement, and an advocate for women's rights from the suffragist movement until her death at age 99. In World War I, Olmsted was a social worker with the YWCA, assigned to France and Germany. She later worked with the American Friends Service Committee's child-feeding program. Returning to Philadelphia, Olmsted joined the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and soon became executive secretary of the Pennsylvania branch. Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, the league's first president, recruited Olmsted to work on the national level when WILPF moved its headquarters to Philadelphia. Olmsted was national executive director until her retirement in 1966. She traveled the world on behalf of peace and freedom, attending conferences in Europe, India, Guatemala, Mexico, Japan, China, and Thailand.
Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909-1985), of Lansdowne, worked in Mayan studies at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. In 1937, she accompanied an expedition to Piedras Negras, Guatemala, as an unpaid excavator to complete drawings of the Mayan site. Those illustrations led to a full-time position, and she was sent back to Guatemala to continue her work. After many years, Proskouriakoff noticed sequences of dates and signs in the hieroglyphics, and published a breakthrough paper disproving the previous method of interpreting the "Mayan Code." After reading her work, famed archaeologist J. Eric S. Thompson stated that his interpretations had been "completely mistaken." In 1962, Proskouriakoff was awarded the Alfred V. Kidder Medal - a medal she had designed in 1950. She later received the Order of Quetzal, the highest honor awarded to a foreigner by Guatemala. Her work is included in a National Geographic documentary Code of the Maya Kings. Proskouriakoff's ashes are buried at Piedras Negras.
Ethel Waters (1896-1977), of Chester, was a blues, jazz, and gospel singer, as well as an actress known as "Sweet Mama Stringbean" for the way she danced the Charleston. Waters was the highest-paid Broadway performer in 1933 and had a hit record with "Stormy Weather." In 1949, she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for the film Pinky. Three of her recordings were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and there is a postage stamp in her honor.
My passion is women's history, and I have been sending proposals for markers to Harrisburg since 2001. So far, 14 of my submissions have been approved. People may not read books on women's history, but they will notice these markers.
Women's history is represented in a fraction of our nation's public monuments. By bringing these women and their contributions to life in markers, we tear a page out of the history books and place it along the road for all to see.
Perhaps you have a woman "of mind, of thought, of independence" in your family history worthy of a marker.