Fascinating St. Louis Women

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Friday, March 1, 2013

categories: History

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March is Women’s History Month and St. Louis has a story to tell. Our history is replete with stories of fascinating women including:

  • Maya Angelou, noted author, poet and actress, who was born in St. Louis but won critical acclaim with her best-selling account of her upbringing in segregated rural Arkansas. Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia, was the first by a black woman to be filmed.
  • Josephine Baker who searched for food behind Soulard Market as a child, later performed in Paris with Revue Nègre, starred in the Folies-Bergère and became one of France’s beloved entertainers. She also was a civil rights activist in the United States.
  • Fontella Bass, daughter of gospel singer Martha Bass, whose 1965 number one R & B hit “Rescue Me” crossed over to the pop hit parade.
  • Kate Brewington Bennett, “the Belle of St. Louis,” who was admired for her pale complexion. At her death at age 37 in 1855, it was determined that she used small amounts of arsenic to achieve that pale look. Little did she know that taking the poison had cumulative effects.
  • Susan Blow who opened the first successful public kindergarten at St. Louis’ Des Peres School in 1873. She was later instrumental in establishing kindergartens in schools throughout the country.
  • Literary great Kate Chopin, whose book “The Awakening,” condemned for its frank treatment of a young woman’s sexuality when it was published in 1899, is now considered an early feminist work.
  • Gerti Cori who with her husband Carl discovered the mechanism for blood glucose regulation earning them the Nobel Prize in 1947. They were researchers at Washington University School of Medicine.
  • Phoebe Couzins, the country’s first female law school graduate. She graduated from Washington University Law School, the first law school in the U. S. to admit students regardless of gender.
  • Saint Rose Philippine Duchene who in 1818 founded the first house of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus outside of France and the first free school west of the Mississippi. The school was in St. Charles, Missouri across the Missouri River from St. Louis.
  • Katherine Dunham, dancer, choreographer, author, educator, anthropologist and innovator in African-American modern dance. Dunham was also a social activist. In 1967 she established the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis, Ill., to train new generations of dancers.
  • Julia Dent Grant, wife of President Ulysses S. Grant. Visitors to St. Louis can visit White Haven, Mrs. Grant’s childhood home and Grant’s Farm to see “Hardscrabble,” the log cabin Grant built for Julia when they were married.
  • Jackie Joyner-Kersee, hailed as the greatest female athlete of 20th Century. Joyner-Kersee is a six-time Olympic medalist with three gold medals. She is also a philanthropist and advocate for education, racial equality, social reform and women’s rights.
  • Irma S. Rombauer, considered one of St. Louis’ most charming hostesses, she used her own funds during the Great Depression to publish The Joy of Cooking. The book quickly became the country’s most popular cookbook.
  • Harriet Scott, a slave who, with her husband Dred, made history in 1846 by suing for their freedom. The case has been cited as one of the causes of the Civil War.
  • Sarah Teasdale, a poet whose lyrics were known for their intensity. In 1918 Teasdale’s Love Songs won what was “essentially the first Pulitzer Prize for poetry.”
  • Rock legend Tina Turner who began her career with Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm while still a student at Sumner High School in the 1960s. She would later launch a solo career that propelled her to the top of the pop, rock and R & B charts winning three Grammy Awards along the way.
  • Madam C. J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove), America’s first female self-made millionaire. Walker, an African-American woman entrepreneur, developed and marketed a line of beauty and hair products for black women.

Insider’s tip: Learn more about outstanding St. Louis women, including opera star Grace Bumbry; comedian Phyllis Diller; actresses Betty Grable, Virginia Mayo and Shelley Winters and gospel singer Willie Mae Ford, at the St. Louis Walk of Fame in the Loop neighborhood.

Guest Blogger Kathie Sutin a freelance writer from St. Louis, Missouri contributed this blog.