Feisty Females: Sara Payson Willis, aka Fanny Fern

March is Women’s History Month and what better way to kick it off than to highlight the accomplishments of first female newspaper columnist and highest paid nineteenth century newspaper writer Sara Payson Willis, a.k.a. “Fanny Fern”. Sara was born in Portland, Maine on July 9, 1811, the daughter of Nathaniel and Hannah (Parker) Willis.  Her parents had planned to name their fifth child after Reverend Edward Payson, pastor of Portland’s Second Congregational Church (five years later they named a son after the reverend).  Instead, she was given the middle name of Payson. Six weeks following her birth Nathaniel moved his family to Boston where he founded the first religious newspaper published in the United States, The Puritan Recorder.  As a deacon at Park Street Church and a strict Calvinist, Nathaniel frowned on dancing and other ungodly pursuits and worried about the soul of his free-spirited daughter Sara.  Hannah, however, was the polar opposite of her husband and the parent Sara most identified with. Her older brother Nathaniel Parker Willis experienced his own religious conversion at the age of fifteen, but after his rising success as a poet resulted in his being excommunicated from the Congregational Church, the elder Willis was more determined to see Sara embrace his faith as her own, sending her to Catherine Beecher’s Female Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. Sara, however, had no intention of conforming to her father’s strict faith.  Years later Catherine Beecher would tell Sara she remembered her as the worst behaved child in the school – and the best loved!  Harriet Beecher Stowe, a pupil-teacher at her sister’s school, remembered Sara as a...

Feisty Females: Sarah Jane Ames

When she died in 1926 Sarah Jane Ames was hailed as one of Boone County, Illinois’s “most virile, energetic, and withal most interesting citizens”.1 She was born Sarah Jane Hannah in Montreal, Canada on December 4, 1843, and in 1854 migrated to Belvidere, Illinois with her parents (Thomas and Jane) and two brothers. Save for a few years she spent pioneering in South Dakota, Sarah remained in Boone County the remainder of her life. Sarah married Albert T. Ames in December of 1865.  The couple adopted a son, Earl Theodore, and her obituary mentions a woman, Mrs. Esther Hickey (née Peterson), a Swedish immigrant who lived as a daughter in their home for several years.  While Albert engaged in various pursuits such as farming, auctioneering, cattle buying, “groceries, crockery, tin and stoves”,2 Sarah was an entrepreneur, a milliner. Sarah was a well-known horsewoman who regularly took the top prize in local competitions.  During a competition held in Chicago she rode the horse belonging to General Phillip Sheridan, winning the first prize of a gold medal encircled by diamonds.  In 1868 she was recognized at the county fair for her “taste and skill”.  As an astute businesswoman she regularly made buying trips to New York and Chicago to stock her shop with the latest styles. She actively participated in various civic affairs in Belvidere as a member of the Ladies Union,  Universalist Society and the First Baptist Church.  Neither did she shy away from politics, “an enthusiastic Republican always”,3 this despite the fact women weren’t allowed to vote until the nineteenth amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in...

Feisty Female Sheriffs: Claire Helena Ferguson, in her own words

   This headline introduced some fearless and celebrated women to the readers of the Milwaukee Journal in 1899: “What Man Has Done Women Can Do”.  The author had written a recent article “about dependence being an old fashioned virtue and that the clinging ivy type of women were no longer considered the highest ideal.”1.  Exhibit number one for the premise of her article was one of the most celebrated women of that time, Miss Claire Helena Ferguson. Claire Helena Ferguson, member of a well-known Utah family, had two years prior received a commission as deputy sheriff of Salt Lake City.  Her father William Ferguson, a Scotsman, and her English mother Ellen arrived in Utah in 1876 where they became members of the Mormon Church.  Ellen co-founded the Utah Conservatory of Music in 1878, and following William’s death devoted herself to the practice of medicine. Ellen spent her career working in hospital clinics in both New York City and Salt Lake and drew up the plans for an L.D.S. hospital in 1882.  She organized the Women’s Democratic Club in 1896 and was a Utah delegate to the national convention that year when William Jennings Bryan was nominated. Claire’s sister Ethel was an actress and Claire, born in Utah in February of 1878, was accomplished and highly educated.    Was she a rough and tumble sort of gal?  It doesn’t appear so – Claire Ferguson was quite feminine. She declared herself “fond of pretty clothes and beaux” and strongly domestic.  Newspaper articles, however, depicted her as the “Daring Woman Sheriff of Utah”.2  The Deseret Evening News  reported in early 1900 her duties...

Feisty Females: Was Emma Daugherty Banister Really America’s First Female Sheriff?

I ran across the name of Emma Daugherty Banister awhile back, along with claims she became the first female sheriff in the United States in August of 1918 after her husband John Banister, elected sheriff of Coleman County, Texas in 1914,  died in office.  I don’t remember what prompted me to investigate the claim further, but investigate I did.  Here’s what I found out. I don’t think Emma was the first female sheriff in the United States — as it turns out not even close.  The New York World certainly thought it a big deal, however, with the headline “Woman a Sheriff!”.  By 1918 it wasn’t unheard of – in fact had happened several times since the 1890’s – despite the fact the women’s suffrage movement had yet to win their years-long battle for equality.  A quick search at Newspapers.com confirms it. Some of the stories I found were like Emma’s – a sheriff’s wife appointed to serve out the remainder of her husband’s term.  One woman had been serving as the de facto sheriff for several years because her husband wasn’t physically able to perform his duties.  Another – “a bewitchingly pretty woman sheriff” – was elected in Salt Lake County, Utah in 1897. Looking through newspaper archives I found some interesting stories about female sheriffs.  These accounts seemed to have been stirring the pot in favor of women’s equality as early as the 1890’s and spicing up the editorial pages. Having found some interesting stories, I’m today beginning a series as part of Feisty Females about female sheriffs.  I’m just beginning the research but expect to find...

Feisty Females: Dr. Lillian Heath

Lillian Heath was born in Burnett Junction, Wisconsin on December 29, 1865, the daughter of William and Calista Hunter Heath.  Her father later moved the family steadily west, first to Aplington, Iowa and in 1873 to Laramie, Wyoming. The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 and William worked for the Union Pacific as a baggage handler.  In 1877 he moved the family a bit farther west in Wyoming to Rawlins where he worked as a decorator and a locomotive and house painter. It’s interesting that the Heath family chose Wyoming, historically the place of several “firsts” in women’s history.  In 1869, Wyoming Territory was the first place in the world, not just the United States, to grant women the right to vote.  The legislature may have passed the legislation in order to have enough voters to pursue statehood, but when the United States Congress threatened to deny statehood because of their stance on women’s rights those same lawmakers refused to back down. A short time later, on February 17, 1870, Esther Hobart Morris (called the “Mother of Women’s Suffrage in Wyoming) became the first woman appointed to serve as a justice of the peace.  Following the legislature’s actions in 1869, Louisa Swain became the first Wyoming woman to cast a vote in Laramie on September 6, 1870. Years later Estelle R. Meyer became the first woman in the country to be elected to public office as Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1894.  In 1924, Nellie Taylor Ross became the country’s first woman governor, taking office twenty days before “Ma” Ferguson of Texas.  No wonder Wyoming is called the...

Feisty Females: Theodate Pope

Today’s feisty female, Theodate Pope Riddle, dared to be different.  She was born at the stroke of midnight on  February 2 (or 3), 1867 in Salem, Ohio to well-to-do parents Alfred Atmore and Ada Lunette (Brooks) Pope.  Her birth name was Effie Brooks, but despising it so much and refusing to answer to it, at the age of nineteen she changed it to her grandmother’s first name (Theodate Stackpole).  In part, she chose the name to honor her grandmother’s strong “belief in the Quaker principle of emphasizing the spiritual over the material.”1 Her family lived on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, also known as “Millionaires’ Row”, but she wanted nothing to do with the path young women born to wealth were expected to travel from debutante to society matron.  Alfred and Ada were so busy with their lives – he as an iron tycoon and she as a societal matron – that there was scarcely any family time together.  Theodate once wrote that she had no memory of ever sitting on her mother’s lap. Perhaps it was her education at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut that sparked a desire to step away from the societal norms of the day.  Her parents sent her there, no doubt expecting her to return to Cleveland and take her proper place in society.  Sarah Porter founded her school in 1843 with only eighteen students, growing to prominence as more parents sent their daughters to receive a progressive education.  Of course, young women were still expected to someday take their proper place in society and wives and mothers – that was tradition. The school’s...