Monday, October 24, 2005

Three Pioneering Women, Hard as Nails

Today is birth anniversary of three hard-as-nails women who achieved unusual feats for their time.

Belva Ann Bennett Lockwood, born on this day in Royalton, New York in 1830, was educated as a schoolteacher before giving up her career to marry Uriah McNall, a farmer, and raise a daughter, Lura. When McNall died, Bennett returned to teaching to support herself and Lura, but became incensed by the fact that male teachers in the district made twice as much as female teachers, and went back to school at Genesee College.

Eventually she moved to Washington, DC, where she married Ezekiel Lockwood, a dentist and Baptist minister, and opened one of the first co-ed schools in Washington in 1867. While Lockwood assumed administrative duties with the school, Bennett pursued a law degree -- though was denied admission to three law schools on the grounds that she was a woman and married, before beginning studies at National University Law School. She completed her studies in 1873, but had to petition President Grant in order to receive her diploma. She was admitted to the D.C. Bar, but was not permitted to plead cases before the U.S. Court of Claims until she pushed enabling legislation through Congress in 1876. The following year she sponsored Samuel Lowery, the first Southern African-American to be admitted to the federal courts.

Bennett gained a reputation handling land cases on behalf of Indian nations in the West, obtaining a $5 million judgment against the federal government for the Cherokees. She became the first woman to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1879 after drafting and successfully lobbying for the passage of legislation permitting the admission of women to the Court.

As a women’s rights activist, she successfully campaigned for the passage of an "equal pay for equal work" bill for federal workers (1870) and legislation recognizing a woman’s right to own property in the District of Columbia (1896), and tried to secure passage of amendments to the Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico statehood bills giving women the right to vote. "Fight, fight, fight, everlastingly -- not with your claws and fists, but with your wits," she would say. In 1884 and 1888, Bennett became the second woman candidate for president of the United States, receiving the nomination of the National Equal Rights party, a symbolic effort opposed by Susan B. Anthony and the old guard of the women’s rights movement; yet Bennett managed to poll 4,149 votes in 1884 (not including votes in Pennsylvania, where ballots cast in her favor were thrown out).

Bennett had little patience for "professional suffragists" who talked too much and lacked practicality; she viewed herself as a feminist who liked men and only wanted to join them in their professional and civic pursuits. She died in 1917.

Throwing practicality to the wind, 46-year old Annie Edson Taylor (who was born on this day in 1855 in Auburn, New York), a widow and schoolteacher from Bay City, Michigan, became the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive to tell the tale, in 1901. Seeking to capitalize on the fad that had recently been revived when Bowser Nissen twice successfully went over the Falls in 1900 and 1901, the 160-lb. Taylor, dressed in a long black dress and a flowery hat, climbed into a four foot-long white Kentucky oak barrel and, standing on a 100-lb. anvil placed in the bottom of the barrel for ballast, sailed over the Falls. When she was retrieved from the barrel 40 minutes later, having suffered only minor cuts and bruises, she gasped, "Nobody ought ever do that again!" Unfortunately, Mrs. Taylor never managed to make much money from her stunt, living out the rest of her life (she died in 1926) quietly avoiding life-threatening activities.

Alexandra David-Neel was a daredevil of a different sort. Born on this day in Paris in 1868, Alexandra was a restless child of middle-class parents (her father was a friend of Victor Hugo). As a youngster she dreamed of traveling far and wide, and even ran away from home several times while schooling herself in religion and philosophy. At 17, she left her home in Brussels unannounced to hike in the Alps carrying only a raincoat and a volume of Epictetus; the following year, she bicycled around France with her belongings on her handlebars.

Upon reaching legal maturity, the 5-foot tall Alexandra left her parents for good to study Eastern philosophy and languages in Paris, and was warmly received by feminist and anarchist circles for having already lived a life of liberation unheard of among women of the time. She also studied music and virtually blundered her way into a career as an international opera star, touring Eastern Europe, Asia and Northern Africa with an opera company in Gounod's Faust, Massenet's Manon and Bizet's Carmen. Although she adored the travel, she didn't care for the career; and in 1903, at the age of 35, she turned briefly to journalism before marrying, against her better judgment, Philippe-Francoise Neel, a distant cousin who was a French bureaucrat in Tunis.

Little changed in her life, however, as Alexandra continued to write and study, living in London and Paris and occasionally visiting Philippe in Tunis. The marriage was largely a platonic arrangement, though the two were deeply committed to each other in their way. Honoring Alexandra's wanderlust, Philippe agreed to pay for her expedition to India in 1911. She promised to return in 18 months, but ended up not seeing Philippe for 14 years, apprising him of her travels by post.

She went to Sikkim in 1912 and befriended the prince while absorbing Tantric Buddhism from Himalayan monasteries, studying with the 13th Dalai Lama in Darjeeling and the young Lama Yongden, a 15-year old Sikkimese priest. In 1914, with Yongden as her guide, she retreated to a cave at 13,000 feet in the mountains of northern Sikkim and undertook the training of a Buddhist monk through 3 arduous Himalayan winters. Unable to return to Europe during World War I, the pair visited Japan in 1917; but Alexandra missed the Himalayas, so they crossed Korea, Mongolia and China on their way back.

In 1923, traveling incognito as a Tibetan peasant woman and risking capture and execution as an unwanted foreigner, Alexandra became the first European to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa, marching over 20,000-foot passes in the Himalayas with Yongden as her constant companion. She returned to Philippe in May 1925, knowing that she would be unable to resume a middle-class French life. They separated amicably (Philippe remained loyal and supportive until his death in 1941), and Alexandra settled with her adopted charge Yongden in Provence where she built a monastic retreat and wrote a memoir, My Journey to Lhasa (1927).

At 69, she returned to Lhasa with Yongden for several years, but had to flee on foot as China erupted in a civil war and World War II began, reaching India in 1946. She returned again to Provence, where she continued to write and study. In 1955, Yongden passed away, leaving her again nostalgic for Tibet. Even at the age of 100 she dreamed of returning; she caused shock and dismay when she showed up at the local Prefect's office to renew her passport. She died just before her 101st birthday, and 4 years later her ashes, along with those of Yongden, were scattered on the river Ganges.

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