Kara Lee Corthron started this. I’m so happy she did.
“My hunger for knowledge is practically pathological,” writes Corthron.
So is her passion for storytelling and sharing what she learns with her fellow travelers on this big blue marble.
Every day for this past month, I have been profiling a different woman to celebrate Women’s History Month, along the way enlarging my world and finding connections to positive role models. I got the idea from Corthron who did the same kind of thing in February on her blog, Things I Think About.
“For each day of February, I’m going to feature a Black individual on my blog who falls into one of the following categories: 1) someone who rarely or never receives any attention during Black History Month, 2) someone whom I’d like to learn more about, or 3) someone I’ve only just heard of!” writes Corthron in her introduction to the project.
“Keep in mind that these entries will be very casual—I’m not a historian or a biographer—so please feel free to add other facts that I’ve left out or to add your own discussion questions/topics in the comments section. I want this to be an interactive project so I hope readers will be inspired to contribute.” Read More
Today’s profile begins with a triggered memory about the first time I ever had a poem published. While I don’t remember the poem, I remember my third grade teacher–or was it fourth?–announcing my name to the class as one of that years’ poets in Pencils Full of Stars.
Oh, I was thrilled!
She asked if I wanted to read it out loud to the class.
Then I was mortified.
Every year, the Anchorage School District published a book of the students’ poems. I haven’t thought about that little slim volume in years. I do still have my contributor’s copy somewhere. I need to go back and find that first little poem. I bet it was about trees.
I started wondering last night who had started the Pencils Full of Stars so I went on line looking for my first poetry editor. Her name was Bell Benton.
In 1969, teacher and poet Bell Benton conceived the idea for Pencils Full of Stars, a collection of poetry by young writers.
“One day I said to my first graders: ‘You write such beautiful thoughts, your pencils must have stars in them!’ They laughed with delight, and one little boy held up his pencil and said, ‘Look! My pencil’s full of stars!’ I hugged him and said, ‘You’ve just named our poetry book!’ And Pencils Full of Stars was born,” said Bell Benton.
Written by elementary children across the Anchorage School District, in Anchorage, Alaska, the collection was compiled and published following each academic year. For the next 29 years, Benton guided the pencils, discovered the stars, and kept Pencils Full of Stars alive through its yearly publications.
Bell Benton passed away in 1998, after which the Eta Chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma International, a society of women educators, set up the Bell Benton Memorial Poetry Award. The Award works to honor excellence in poetic expression and honor Bell Benton, founder of Pencils Full of Stars.
I never met Benton. I wish I had. I’d like to tell her that she made a huge difference in my life. I knew I wanted to be writer from the moment I learned to read and Benton encouraged me in that dream and today I am a published poet and playwright.
I wonder how many other writers she helped foster and start on their way?
Growing up in Anchorage since the 70s, I’ve heard the name Laura Wright many times. More than that, I saw her handiwork everywhere in the beautiful parkas worn by Alaskans and visitors who were lucky enough to own one. While I could recognize her distinctive parkas, it dawned on me this week I had no idea who Laura Wright was. Was she even a real person? Or was she a name only, an invented persona to lend authenticity to a downtown vendor?
She’s real all right! And what a life!
Laura Wright is a world famous parka maker. She opened her own shop in downtown Anchorage on Fifth Avenue, Laura Wright’s Alaskan Parkys, selling her beautiful creations. I walked by her windows many times as a young woman, stopping to marvel at the colorful fabrics and ribbons that went into these beautiful coats.
Wright designed and patented Laura Wright Alaska Parkys, an original
winter parka incorporating traditional Alaska Native designs. Her parkas won numerous awards including Best Costume in a Miss Universe Pageant. Her parkas also caught the eyes of several celebrities. Notable clients included Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Ricky Nelson, Shirley Jones and Burl Ives.
Wright was born in Candle, Alaska in 1926. She passed away in 1996 at the age of 87. The following is taken from her obituary posted in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner (I especially love the part about the sharpshooting!):
Wright moved to Haycock. In 1926 she marred John Albert Hagberg. The couple operated a gold mine and raised their six children, eventually moving to Fairbanks so the children could attend high school.
After John Hagberg died in 1948, she married Dallas A. Wright in 1951. In 1971, they moved to Anchorage to open their downtown parka shop. Dallas Wright died in 1981.
As a member of the World War II Tundra Army in Alaska’s Territorial Guard, Wright proved to be a sharp shooter: During a training drill she hit the bull’s-eye 49 out of 50 times. She also delivered the U.S. mail by dog team, delivered babies, conducted funerals, and was involved in community activities. The Alaska Federation of Natives named her “Most Outstanding Living Eskimo,” and she was listed in Who’s Who of American Women in 1967. She also was nominated for the Alaska Mother of the Year award in 1968.
Wright was described by a family friend, the Rev. William Warren, as living a life that was “more unbelievable than a novel.”
“She had a compassion for placing others’ needs before her own,” her family said. “Her cheerful heart and home were always open. She was an inspiration to all who knew her.”
The success of Wright’s parkas and sewing enterprise was due to her attention to detail. To me, each parka looks like a masterpiece. The people inside her parkas are toasty and happy, even on the coldest days–these are people that long for winter bluster and flurries so they have a reason to don their parka.
I’m thinking right now of a distant friend of mine who had a Laura Wright Women’s Winter Parka in turquoise, with gold embroidered ribbon and a white fox ruff. The coat came below her knees. The fabric sort of glittered and rippled like the waters of Kenai Lake on a sunny day. My friend looked like an extraordinary work of art–an extraordinary work of art that lived and breathed and walked around our town doing ordinary things like carrying groceries in from the car or checking the mail.
That’s the thing about these parkas. They are magnificent. If you owned one, you might be tempted to pack it away and save it for dress occasion or to pass down to your descendants. But they are meant to be part of everyday life when the weather turns cold.
In 1985, Sheila Ezelle, Wright’s granddaughter bought the sewing shop, still calling it Laura Wright’s Alaskan Parkys, and moved it one block over onto Anchorage’s 4th Avenue. Ezelle continues in the family tradition of quality workmanship using the same patterns her grandmother created to make parkas with a distinctly Alaska aesthetic– warm, durable, and so beautiful everyone wants one.
She will tell you her first thought was providing for her family and her village, never mind that in 2014 when Bernadette Adams struck a bowhead whale with a harpoon, striking and accurate and deadly blow with her first throw, she made history becoming the first woman in her culture to ever do so.
Adams is a 34 year old Inupiat woman, born and raised in Barrow, Alaska, where every year for thousands of years crews of men push off shore in small boats to hunt whales for their village.
Alaska Natives living along the Arctic coast rely on the whales for food and materials to make tools and equipment. Hunting whales is for survival and for their cultural identity.
“Since I was 7 years old, I have wanted to go with the men,” Adams told a reporter.
Every member of the village has an important role to play during whaling season. These roles for the whale hunt are assigned from a young age. When a boy turns 10, his father starts taking him out on the sea ice to teach him to carve trails and build camps. Meanwhile girls learn to clean the meat and pots, divvy out portions and cook.
That means almost all whalers are men.
Hunting whales still remains the province of the men, but occasionally women do go along in the boat. Adams was in Whaling Captain’s George Ahmaogak Sr.’s boat, 20 miles off Alaska’s northern coast in the Arctic Ocean in September of 2014 when she spotted something under the surface.
They chased the whale for 30 minutes before she was able to get a clean shot. Being an Alaska Native, she would never boast about this. Adams has been whaling for six or seven years during the fall hunt, so she’s knows how important the entire crew is for a successful hunt.
“You can’t get close enough to a whale without a good driver,” she said. “I give a lot of credit to the driver… but we talked and we both said we couldn’t have done it without the good Lord.”
By the time the whale was brought to town and the meat, muktuk and organs were harvested, it was getting dark. A large portion of the whale goes to the captain who hands it out at Thanksgiving and Christmas, while the rest is divided up and given out to the crew and the rest of the community. Locals line up outside the captain’s house the day after to collect a portion of the bounty.
“It’s a good time to see the community come together; that’s what we do during whaling,” Adams said. “Whaling is year round, you get ready for it all year long.”
Adams hunting career began at an early age shooting ducks with a bb gun. Her father taught her to hunt caribou, walrus and s bearded seals which are killed with a hand held device, much like a whale harpoon. “I happen to have no brothers, so I had to find some way to help the family out.”
Heroes are the ones who run toward danger. Their first impulse is to rescue others, even though they put themselves at risk. We never forget the images of the rescuers rushing headlong up the stairwell of the burning tower hit by the second plane. We remember the race officials running toward the sound of the bombs to help survivors at the Boston Marathon.
Heroes’ first thoughts are get the survivors. Today’s profiles are of two women, each named Grace, who rushed into history and the raging seas of their respective coastlands to save shipwreck survivors, putting their own lives in peril.
Grace Darling, born in 1815, was a lighthouse keeper’s daughter. Her father tended Longstone Island lighthouse of the North Eastern coast of Britain. The family lived mostly on the ground floor of the lighthouse which consisted of a large room, heated by a wood stove. This room was living room, dining room and kitchen in one and had a spiral staircase leading to three bedrooms above. The great light, of course, was at the top of the tower.
In the early hours of 7 September 1838, Darling, looking from an upstairs window, spotted the wreck and survivors of the Forfarshire on Big Harcar, a nearby low rocky island. The Forfarshire had foundered on the rocks and broken in half: one of the halves had sunk during the night. Read More
In 1931 the United States Coast Guard found a traditional Alaska native dugout canoe adrift in the waters off the San Juan Islands. They brought it to shore and when no owners stepped forward to claim it, Ray Lowman bought it. With his four sons helping him, he painted it red, strengthened it with oak ribs, fitted it with oar locks then presented it to his daughter, Betty on her 18th birthday.
Betty Lowman Carey was a tomboy. She took to the canoe instantly and named it Bijaboji, an acronym of her brother’s names, Bill, Jack, Bob and Jimmy. She spent hours rowing the waters around Anacortes, Wa. It wasn’t long before she hatched a plan to row the boat to Alaska under her solo power.
Her father strictly forbade it. She persisted.
Zahra Hussaini has been riding a bike since she was five years old in a refugee camp in Iran. When she and her family relocated to the Herat province in Afghanistan, she kept it up, often donning male clothing to avoid attention.
Her passion for cycling only grew as she grew and today Hussaini is the leader of the Afghan Women’s Cycling Team. And this year, that same team has been nominated by a group of Italian MPs for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Hussaini, along with her bike, have become a symbol for women in Afghanistan. But she is not content to be just a “idea” of female empowerment. She has started a campaign to support Afghanistan’s female cyclists called Randan Haq-e-mast (Biking is our right) highlighting the young women in her country and the future they will have there. Her work and her cycling have earned her praise and criticism by many conservative figures who see the bicycle as a threat to appropriate female behavior.
Sampat Pal grew up Bundelkhan with four brothers who were sent to school to be educated while she was sent to mind the cattle and do the household chores. This did not stop her from learning all she could. When the cattle went out to graze, she would seat herself outside the school window and and listen to what the boys were learning. With a stick and some soft ground she would practice her letters and soon she had taught herself to read and write.
“I was scared to ask my parents to send me to school,” Pal recently told the New York Times. “That is how girls used to be in those days.”
She was married by age 12 and at 15 gave birth to her first child. But family life was not smooth. She rankled under the rules imposed by her mother in law and began standing up for herself and other women. When she was 20 a man in her neighborhood thrashed his wife. Pal warned him to stop and when he didn’t she organized a group of women to go with her and they beat the man up.
No man in that village dares to beat his wife anymore.
One woman cannot re-plant an entire forest. But she can start a movement that teaches other women the skills to plant trees. Soon the forest that was destroyed is growing again.
New forests in Africa have come about largely because of Wangari Maathai. In 1977 she founded the Green Belt Movement, an ecological foundation which has replanted over 30 million trees to reforest the land.
“When we plant trees, we plant seeds of peace and hope,” said Maathai, who won a Nobel Prize for her conservation efforts in 2004. Trees heal the land and make a difference in the lives of the people, especially African women who over the last few decades have had to wander farther and farther in search of firewood and other basic necessities they need to maintain their lives. Streams that once were clear, now run muddy due to compromised watershed and deforestation. The Green Belt Movement is working to reverse the damage.
Maathai’s trees have become a powerful symbol of hope and power for the people who planted them. In her Nobel Lecture, Maathai describe the trees evolution as into a symbol of democracy: In time, the tree also became a symbol for peace and conflict resolution, especially during ethnic conflicts in Kenya when the Green Belt Movement used peace trees to reconcile disputing communities. During the ongoing re-writing of the Kenyan constitution, similar trees of peace were planted in many parts of the country to promote a culture of peace. Using trees as a symbol of peace is in keeping with a widespread African tradition. For example, the elders of the Kikuyu carried a staff from the thigi tree that, when placed between two disputing sides, caused them to stop fighting and seek reconciliation. Many communities in Africa have these traditions.
Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya in 1940. She was the first woman in Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She studied in Africa, America and Germany. She was internationally recognized for her tireless fight for democracy, human rights and conservation. For her, the planting of trees was never a project she oversaw from behind a desk of a nonprofit agency.
“Although I was a highly educated woman, it did not seem odd to me to work with my hands, often with my knees on the ground, alongside rural woman,” Maathai said. “Some politicians and others in the 1980s and 1990s ridiculed me for doing so. But I had no problem with it, and the rural women both accepted and appreciated that I was working with them to improve their lives and the environment. After all, I was a child of the same soil.
“Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from land, but instill in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost. The future of the planet concerns all of us, and we should do what we can to protect it. As I told the foresters, and the women, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.”
Maathai authored of many books, earned numerous awards around the globe for her efforts and remained committed to healing the planet and bettering the lives of women until her death in 2011 from ovarian cancer.
In her Nobel speech she reflected on why she was compelled to work so hard planting trees:
… I reflect on my childhood experience when I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother. I would drink water straight from the stream. Playing among the arrowroot leaves I tried in vain to pick up the strands of frogs’ eggs, believing they were beads. But every time I put my little fingers under them they would break. Later, I saw thousands of tadpoles: black, energetic and wriggling through the clear water against the background of the brown earth. This is the world I inherited from my parents.
Today, over 50 years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder.
The easiest thing to do in London is get lost. In 1935, Phyllis Pearsall was exactly that, lost in the Belgravia area of London on a business errand. By 1936, Pearsall had founded the A to Z Map Company and found her way to becoming one of the most notable and useful mapmakers of the Twentieth Century.
Her journey to celebrated mapmaker has its twists and turns, no less frustrating than the labyrinthine streets of London at times. She was born in 1909 in the Dulwich area of London to an artist mother and a Hungarian immigrant father who had started his own mapmaking company, Geographia. By the time she was 9 years old, her father had left for London. Then, by the time she was 14 years old, her mother had remarried and her stepfather kicked her out of the house.