Minna Canth – Finland’s First Feminist

Because it’s my Mum’s birthday, I want to honor another badass mother today. After her husband died, she raised their seven(!) kids by herself and even found time to not only manage the family store, but also fight for gender equality, writing text that were way ahead of her time. Let me introduce you to Minna Canth.

We’re in Tampere, Finland in Spring 1844 and a after their first son had died in infancy, textile worker Gustav Johnsson and his wife Ulrika were overjoyed when their daughter Ulrika Wilhelmina, or Minna for short, was born. In 1850 another boy would follow and two years later another girl. One year after her little sister was born, her father was promoted to managing a yarn store and the whole family moved to Kuopio. Even before that she had attended the school at the factory her father worked for and continued her education in her new home. The shop was so successful under her father’s management that Minna was even admitted to an upper class school! 

That meant she was able to get a much better education than most working-class women at the time, not only learning the basics of reading and writing, but also history and geography and mathematics! Besides the main language, Swedish, she also learned to speak German, French and Russian, while at home she spoke Finnish. (Back then Swedish was the official language of Finland and it wasn’t until 1923 that Finnish was recognized in the same way.) Half the day was put aside for crafts – of course, it was a women’s school – but Minna really didn’t have the patience for that, she’d much rather devour every book she could find. 

When a school to train female teachers was established in a city near her home, 19 year old Minna was among the first to apply. The Jyväskylä Teacher Seminary was the first school in Finland to make higher education accessible for women and of course Minna wanted in. And she got in. 

In 1963 she began her education as a primary school teacher and she absolutely loved it! Not only was she elated to keep learning, but she also loved the philosophy of teaching and unexpectedly enjoyed the hour of gymnastics everyday and regular outdoor activity. In her journals she wrote: “Here, even the careless, like me, are forced to take better care of their health” and the habit of daily exercise and long walks would accompany her throughout her life. Minna also found love somewhere unexpected: in her natural science teacher Johan Ferdinand Canth. And in 1965 the two of them married. Unfortunately that also meant that she wasn’t allowed to continue her education at the Teacher Seminary, as married women weren’t allowed to study at the time. 

Even though her formal years of education were over, Minna had learned a lot and began to see society – and especially the role of women within it – in a whole new light. But for now she fully immersed herself in married life, taking care of the household while her husband worked at the school and as a newspaper editor. Her joy and pride was tending to the garden where she grew vegetables that not only fed her family but also produced a bit of income at the side. Apparently Minna had inherited her father’s talent as a salesperson. But not only her garden grew, her family did too. Between 1866 and 1890 the Canths had seven children!

Somehow in 1974 Minna found the time to start writing for the newspaper her husband worked at, focussing on women’s issues. She was incredibly happy to finally have intellectual stimulation in her life again, or as she called it “spiritual nourishment.” Her articles didn’t go over with the editors however and both her and her husband had to leave the paper only two years later. They were both immediately hired by the competition though and Minna began publishing her first fiction stories. They were even collected in a book in 1878!

But the happy family life came to a screeching halt when Johan Canth died unexpectedly in July 1879, leaving Minna alone with six children and a seventh on the way. Not only was she now a widow at 35, she was also really really broke.

She knew that continuing to write only newspaper articles would not sustain a large family like hers for long, so she thought bigger and sent a play to the Finnish National Theater in Helsinki where it was enthusiastically accepted. This would lead to a lifelong partnership with the director of the institution who taught her much. Still Minna knew it would be hard staying in the big city and after her youngest daughter Lyyli was born, she sold the family home in Jyväskylä and took her children on a three-day journey back to her hometown, Kuopio.

Returning home after 17 years of absence, Minna lost no time. Her parents had opened their own draper’s shop, but her father had died shortly after and now it wasn’t doing too well. So Minna took charge. Soon she had turned business around and was earning enough to not only take care of her seven kids and the family cat, but her mother and ailing brother as well. After her brother’s death in 1884, she took over his general store as well and she seems to have had a real talent for business: in 1895 she was elected as the first woman to be a voting representative in the General Merchant Meeting. There wouldn’t be another woman of a similar rank for the next 100 years. She also greatly enjoyed the freedom her existence as a businesswoman granted her. She made enough to hire people and finally, finally she had the time to write again!

Her home in Kuopio quickly became a meeting point for intellectuals and creative to discuss new ideas and Minna established a women’s circle to discuss social issues and needed reforms. But she didn’t just keep her ideas in her home, she wrote articles focussing on social and gender inequality for different newspapers and even planned a women’s magazine for which she ended up being too busy. Even if Swedish was the official language and she did speak it well, Minna made the choice to write in Finnish. Not only the language was unusual, but her opinions were often controversial and way ahead of her time as well – her topics included the wealth divide, public education, sexual repression and morality, as well as the stigma against sick and disabled people.

Often the deeper meaning of her work was overlooked in order to criticize the imperfect but very human characters and progressive ideas; some of her works were even banned! In 1889 she started a newspaper where she translated texts from all over Europe to debate international ideas with her readers, but that too was censored after just one year. She knew that she was ahead of her time – “a woman of a completely new age,” she called it – but she never gave up trying to usher in that new age for everyone else. 

And she had her personal reasons to keep standing up to against the system. As her daughters grew older she once again realized how difficult it was for a woman to get a good education. Without further ado she hired high school boys to teach her daughters what they learned, like mathematics and Latin, in addition to their regular lessons at the girls’ school. Of course Minna didn’t just stop at that. She and some members of her women’s group saw the need for women’s education and In 1886 the first Finnish-language co-educational school in the country was established – all paid for via fundraisers! One of her daughters, Elli, followed her mother as an intellectual, even going to Switzerland for a few years to study natural medicine. I imagine that must have made Minna very happy, as she firmly believed that to achieve true gender equality, we must empower our young women, not only by educating them but also by teaching them to navigate the world outside the home without relying on a husband.

And we know that at least with Elli she did a great job in doing so for her own daughters. When Minna died in 1897, at age 53, Elli and her brother Jussi continued their mother’s businesses and they kept operating (under various names) until 1974! But Minna’s story is not completely over yet. Ten years after her death, Finland became the first European country to give women the right to vote. It is not unlikely that her writings had at least a little influence on that progress. 

image credits:

1: “Finnish author Minna Canth (1844-1897) in her youth (age 13-16)” from her biography “Monisärmäinen Minna Canth : kirjoituksia hänestä ja hänen tuotannostaan” by Liisi Huhtala, 1998 – via Wikimedia Commons – Link
2: “Finnish author Minna Canth (1844-1897) and lecturer (teacher) Johan Ferdinand Canth (1835–1879) in Jyväskylä” from the biography by Liisi Huhtala, mentioned above – via Wikimedia Commons – Link
3: “One of the first uses of photographs in Finnish newspapers – Uusi Kuvalehti, June 1891, published in Kuopio – In picture: Kuopio-based authors Minna Canth and Juhani Aho” – from the biography by Liisi Huhtala, mentioned above – via Wikimedia Commons – Link
4: “Landscape from the cathedral tower” – Kuopio between 1889 and 1893, Minna Canth’s house is the light one at the corner. Photo: Aug. Schuffert [cropped] – Link
5: “Screw game in Kanttila [Minna Canth’s house in Kuopio]” – Pictured are Hanna Levander (left), Alma Tervo, Maiju Canth and Minna Canth, between 1890 and 1896. Photographer unknown – Digitized at the Kuopio Museum of Cultural History – Link
6: “Finnish author Minna Canth (1844-1897)” – date and photographer unknown – via Wikipedia Commons – Link

Susan La Flesche Picotte – Doctor Between Two Worlds

This week I want to pay tribute to the medical workers of the world with an article about a doctor whose work spanned two worlds. Determined to provide adequate medical care for her community, she became the first Native American woman to hold a medical degree. But she wasn’t only a doctor! She helped out with financial issues as well as family disputes. Her name is Susan La Flesche Picotte and here is her story. 

Born in 1865, Susan came into life already inbetween worlds. Her father Joseph became Chief of the Omaha Tribe little more than ten years earlier and had since been pushing for assimilation. In his opinion only adapting the traditional lifestyle to the changing world would save his people. By the time Susan was born, there was a schism in the tribe between the traditionalists and innovators. She and her three older sisters grew up in a log cabin instead of a teepee, but were still taught the traditional ways and the Omaha language, walking the fine line between cultures.

When Susan was eight years old, she witnessed the death of an elderly tribeswoman as the local, white doctor simply didn’t come to treat her. She would think back to that incident for the rest of her life and later remember it as the moment she decided to become a doctor. But first she needed to go to school. After attending school on the Reservation until she was 14, being homeschooled for a few years and studying in New Jersey for a while, she returned home to Nebraska at age 17 to teach at the local Quaker Mission School. It was there that she met Harvard anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher who encouraged her to pursue a higher education and to fulfill her dream of becoming a physician. They would remain close friends and Alice would become somewhat of a mentor to our young heroine.

So Susan travelled East again. This time to Virginia, where she had enrolled at Hampton Institute, one of the most prestigious schools for non-white students in the US. There she met another woman to support her on her way, the resident physician Martha Waldron, who was a graduate of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and urged her to apply to the school as well. With the help of Alice Fletcher, Susan was able to secure funds for a scholarship from the Office of Indian Affairs, likely making her the first person to receive aid for professional education in the US. The one catch was that she was forbidden from entering any kind of romantic relationship during her studies as well as a few years after to “allow her to fully focus on her practice.” It seems that she didn’t care that much though, or at least she never mentioned it, and so off she was, her dream within reach.

In 1889, after just two years instead of three, she graduated the WMCP with honors on top of her class and finally returned home to Nebraska to become the physician for the Omaha Agency, operated by the Office of Indian Affairs. Quickly people began flooding in. As you might have deducted from the incident with the old woman back when Susan was still a child, the medical care at the reservation was bad. Many tribespeople were sick with cholera and tuberculosis and many came to her for help in other matters as well. She became more than just their doctor, she was a lawyer as well as a priest and accountant to them. So many insisted to be treated by her, that her white partner quit, leaving her solely responsible for the medical care of over 1300 patients in a 450 square mile area. 

Susan wasn’t easily deterred though. While she was dreaming to build a proper hospital someday, for now she was making house calls on foot, often taking hours to reach just a single patient, risking her life in the process. Although she did eventually upgrade to a horse and later a buggy, things improved only slightly. She had always been suffering from chronic illness and already had to take a break in 1892 due to chronic pain and another one a year later after a fall from her horse left her injured. Since then her hearing worsened continuously. In addition to all that, some of her patients kept rejecting her diagnoses and questioning her knowledge. Again Susan didn’t even think about giving up though and kept advocating for changes in sanitary routines and against alcohol. She was quick to realize the damage that living in a white world did to her people and saw that changes had to be made in order to survive. And she was determined to bring about these changes. 

But first she fell in love. In 1894 she met Henry Picotte, a Sioux, and they married the same year. The couple settled in Bancroft on the Reservation and Susan opened her own little practice there, making no difference between the ethnicities of her patients. One or two years later their first son Caryl was born and two or three years later the second one, Pierre, arrived. After giving birth (and presumably resting for a little while) Susan continued to work, relying on her husband to take care of the family and household. We are in Victorian times, mind you, this was incredibly unusual! Shortly before her death she would even get to build the hospital she always dreamed of, but more on that later.

For more than 25 years Susan would work tirelessly for better medical care and illness prevention for her people, advocating for the use of screen doors to keep the flies out, for better sanitation and most of all against alcohol. She had recognized the growing numbers of people with tuberculosis which can be directly traced back to alcohol consumption. She also witnessed first- hand the white whiskey peddlers and how people pawned clothes and even land just to get more to drink. Even her husband slipped into alcoholism and would eventually die from tuberculosis in 1905. She saw her people suffering and she saw alcohol as the culprit – at least the culprit she could do something against. And she did. 

In the 1890s she ran a campaign to enforce prohibition on the reservation which failed, partly because many Omaha people were illiterate at the time and liquor dealers were handing them ballots against prohibition and/or bribed them with alcohol. Finally in 1897 a law was introduced that outlawed trading alcohol against land …however it proved impossible to enforce.

For the rest of her life, Susan would continue this fight but never truly get rid of the problem. But she did have some success in fighting for her people’s land after all! You see, the land of the Reservation was held in trust by the government at the time, so it didn’t truly belong to the Native Americans even though they had lived there for ages. Her first brush with bureaucracy was when her husband died and although he left the land to her and their children, there was no other adult man to legally take the land and it was all very complicated. But after a series of quite infuriated letters over the course of three years, she did get to inherit her land and sell some of it (which was a whole other can of worms because technically it still wasn’t her land – the trust-thing, you remember – but yeah, she managed.) Soon others came to her because they had similar problems and she quickly had established a side-gig in addition to her doctor’s work. And raising two kids. And campaigning against alcohol. In 1907 she moved her family to Walthill. Gosh, where did she take the time?!

Anyways, she helped people with their inheritances and land sales and at some point she realized there was a circle of men, both white and Omaha, who cheated minors out of their inheritances and thus out of Omaha land. After campaigning for her tribes right to their land for years she now suddenly wrote to the Office of Indian Affairs that the Omaha people needed the continued guardianship of the state. Yes, I was just as confused as you probably are, but it’s actually quite a smart plan. Susan accused the OIA of the lack of business skills of her people and held them accountable for minors under their guardianship losing their land to fraudsters and reminded them of their duty to protect the Native Americans. Simultaneously she chastised them for having treated her people like children since the beginning which was the whole reason for this mess. The plan kinda backfired though and in the end the Omaha became even more dependent on the OIA and lost even more land, if not to fraudsters. 

But even though many of her endeavors ultimately failed, she did make illness prevention and proper health care available to her people. And one more thing: Remember that hospital I talked about earlier? In 1913, two years before she died from bone cancer, her dream of opening a hospital for her community finally became reality – completely funded by the community through her tireless crowdsourcing (she did ask some rich people too.) Even though she was gone, the hospital remained operational well into the 1940s and the building still exists today!

image credits:

1: “Susan La Flesche Picotte, M.D.” – National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution (54752), via the Changing the Face of Medicine Exhibition – Link
2: “Susan La Flesche Picotte”, 1889 – Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania Photograph Collection (ACC-AHC1) Item Number p0164a, via iDEA by Drexel University Libraries – Link

3: “Susan La Flesche, early 1900s, when she returned to the Omaha Reservation” – National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution (54752), via the Changing the Face of Medicine Exhibition – Link
4: “Picotte, Dr. Susan, Memorial Hospital”, National Register of Historic Places Collection (88002762) via National Park Service Gallery – Link

Helen and Elizabeth Cumming – Women Behind the Whisky

Today I’ll introduce you to not only one but two extraordinary Scotswomen who founded a whisky distillery that still exists today – and they did it illegally!

You see, in 18th century Scotland, the taxes on whisky were raised and raised as the English tried to control Scottish production. The laws honestly got pretty confusing and no distillery was charged at the same rate – and for most the taxes became unmanageable. By the end of the century there was a flourishing black market and illicit distilleries thrived. And one of them was spearheaded by our heroines for this week: Helen and Elizabeth Cumming.

Our story begins in 1811 when 34-year-old Helen and her husband John leased a small farm in on Mannoch Hill, above the River Spey in Scotland. They named their new home Cardow and, like many of their neighbors, set up an illicit distillery. While John worked the farm, Helen took care of the household and the whisky. Not only did she work the stills, the first recorded woman to do so, she was also responsible for the product’s distribution. 

And so she would walk the 20 miles or so to the nearest township of Eglin, whisky skins hidden underneath her skirts, and sell them on the streets to whoever was interested. She also sold bottles of her whisky through the window of her farmhouse to whoever passed by. To avoid detection by the authorities, she developed a pretty smart scheme: Whenever officials were approaching her hometown she would disguise the distillery as a bakery and invite them in for tea. As there was no inn in the area, she would invite them to stay the night as well and while they were busy stuffing their faces, Helen would go into the back yard and raise a red flag or hung her laundry for all her neighbors to see, warning them to hide their whisky production as well. And even though John was convicted three times over the next five years, business never halted and soon the Cummings had earned a reputation for their high quality single malt. It wasn’t only their business that flourished, their family did too and before long there were eight children out and about – although some of them were likely born before they moved to Cardow.

Finally in 1824 taxes were lowered and one of the first people to purchase an official distilling license was Mr. John Cumming. Their eldest son Lewis had established a network of contacts already and helped Helen expand their distribution. It was also Lewis who had married our second heroine, Elizabeth, at some point and the young woman got involved with the family business almost immediately. She possessed a quick mind and an understanding for numbers and in the following years they grew their reputation; despite being the country’s smallest distillery they became quite well known.

In 1846 John died, leaving the brewery to his son. Yes, John was the official owner, not Helen, as married women still were not allowed to own property and her late husband had left it to their son. It was a wise decision though, Elizabeth and Lewis were an amazing team and soon doubled their output, meeting the increasing demand. By 1854 their business went so well that they had to employ two more people and couldn’t maintain their farm year-round, starting seasonal work. Now the fields were only worked during the summer while the other seasons were reserved for whisky-making.

The news came that the new Strathspey railway was being built, a promise to increase business even more. What a disappointment it was when it was finally finished but the nearest station was four miles away from their home, connected only through poor roads. Then in 1872 Lewis died prematurely, leaving his mother, wife and their four children behind. But that didn’t get Elizabeth down; she took over the distillery and registered their single malt under the trademark Car-Dhu, meaning “Black Rock.” It was a total success. Unfortunately it wasn’t over with deaths in the family. After continuously working in the family business for more than fifty years, Helen passed away in 1874 only three years short of her 100th birthday. She lived to see her eight children grow up and met all of her 56 grandkids.

Under Elizabeth’s management the production grew steadily but still by 1884 she could’t meet the high demand for her product anymore. Promptly she bought four acres of land in the neighborhood and moved the business to the new buildings which she simply called New Cardow. The old building was sold to a then brand-new startup distillery called Glenfiddich. New Cardow had three times the capacity of the old premises and once again business boomed. 

According to brewing and distilling historian Alfred Barnard

“Mrs Lewis Cumming personally conducted the business for nearly seventeen years, and to her efforts alone is the continued success of the distillery entirely due.”

She had just begun to show her son John the trade when the market suddenly took a dive. It was only a short crisis however and only two years later the distillery entered a decade-long boom again and by 1892 they had outgrown their capacity again.

Elizabeth, now an old woman, realized that the business had become bigger than their family could handle. Just one year later she sold the distillery at just the right time to John Walker & Sons, a blending house that had been a customer for years. She made a lucrative deal too and made sure that none of her workers would lose their jobs. Furthermore she negotiated that electricity was brought to their area – as one of the first places in the Spey Valley. But she didn’t let go entirely, although she herself retired: she only sold under the condition that her son was made board member and would continue to be involved in the business. And she bought 100 shares of the new company, thus securing her family’s fortune.

One year later Elizabeth died, leaving her family with a tremendous legacy and the business she helped to build still flourishing. Until this day every bottle of Cardhu Whisky has a woman on its red label, waving a flag.

Find out more about Cardhu Distillery on their website!

image credits:

1: The first Cardow farm – Link
2: Cardhu Distillery in 1893, ctsy Cardhu – Link
3: Cardhu Distillery, 1846 – Link
4: Elizabeth Cumming – Malt Whisky Trail on Flickr – Link
5: Cardhu Distillery, 1892 – Link
6: Elizabeth Cumming – Malt Whisky Trail on Flickr – Link
7: Cardhu 12 Jahre 40%vol. 0,7l on Home of Malts

Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir – Iceland’s Pioneer of Women’s Rights

Today Iceland is known for its gender equality and it was this week’s heroine who paved the path for this reputation. Meet Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, a journalist, educator and politician and the driving force behind the campaign for women’s suffrage in Iceland.

Bríet was born in 1856 at Böðvarshólar, a small farm in North Iceland’s Vesturhóp, the first of four surviving children. They grew up to stories of heroes and monsters and were told the tales of the hidden people, the fairyfolk. Although there was no school for young children at the time, Bríet longed for knowledge and before she could even read she was recounting stories and the Sunday sermons to the younger children. It didn’t happen often that news found their way to the remote farm village, but whenever a newspaper did reach their household, it was a big event for everyone and the young girl loved the discussions that ensued. She also loved life on a farm, where the stories from her childhood seemed to come to life. Where the sky told of the coming days and where nothing ever stayed the same for long. And where riding a pony could be the greatest joy on earth.

Careless moments like this became scarce when her mother fell ill, being confined to her bed for four years. Bríet was only 13, yet she had to take care of the household in her mother’s stead. And for the first time she realized that she was treated differently than her brother. When he came home after a day’s work, he would be free to do as he pleased while her duty was to wait on him. Their father asked for his opinion while hers was not wanted, even though she was older. Soon she realized that her future would either be that of a wife or a servant. Higher education was out of reach entirely, not only because it was expensive but because no schools would accept her, a woman. She later said that she would have “given any other prospect of happiness offered in life for the possibility of satisfying [her] thirst for knowledge.”

Luckily this was the time of a great shift in Icelandic society and politics. The country advocated for its independence from Denmark, inspiring not only poets but the youth as well and a teenage Bríet wrote her first feminist article on women’s education – although she kept it a secret for now. Finally in 1874, a thousand years after the first acknowledged settlement, Iceland was granted home rule. Soon the first constitution and an established parliament, the Alþing, followed. Bríet, now 18, was moved and oh so thankful to be alive at a time like this. And when in that same year a school for girls was opened in Reykjavík there was no stopping her.

Determined to finally get the education she so longed for, she left her now widowed mother and moved in with a cousin in the city. This cousin also happened to be a prolific politician of the time and the owner of a vast collection of books, which proved a well of knowledge for the young woman. She stayed for two years. You might wonder what happened to the goal of attending school. Well, I mentioned before that it was quite an expensive endeavor and Bríet’s family was not exactly rich. But eventually she secured a loan that would allow her to attend school for one winter. Although the other girls in her class had been spending the previous year in school already, she surpassed them all and came out on top of her class. She had passed the exam for 2nd class now, but that was all that was open to her. The only thing she could do was resort to teaching and that is what she did. But again she found herself unsatisfied in her quest for knowledge.

Once more it was the zeitgeist that came to her rescue. In 1882, two years after her graduation, women gained partial suffrage – at least widows and “independent unmarried women” were allowed to vote now. In 1885 Bríet found an interesting article in the local newspaper ‘Fjallkonan.’ It was written by the editor himself, Valdimar Ásmundsson, and it centered on women’s suffrage. And Bríet decided to send in a polished version of her own article; after all she had written about the topic years ago! And in that same year her article was published as the first newspaper article ever written by an Icelandic woman. Two years later she was asked to give a lecture on the position and rights of women, the first woman to do so, and her performance was well received by audience and press alike.

You might think this is where her career took off, but you’d be mistaken. In 1887 she married Valdimar, the editor who published her article, and dedicated herself entirely to the role of wife and soon mother of two. Her husband tried to convince her to start a career in the newspaper business, editing a women’s paper but she wouldn’t be persuaded. Only in 1894 would she return to the political landscape, founding a women’s society in Reykjavík that propagated gender equality. And a year later she would go into journalism after all, founding Iceland’s first women’s magazine, Kvennablaðið (which literally means “women’s magazine). The paper focused on home and educational reform and quickly became popular with the country’s population and was widely circulated.

In 1902 Bríet’s husband suddenly died. Not only did she find herself a single mother now but she was also left alone with not only her magazine but his publications as well. For a while she took the workload, editing his paper as well as a small journal for children and of course her own magazine. After two years she decided it was time that she got a break and booked a trip to Scandinavia. Travelling Denmark, Norway and Sweden she met many interesting women and saw much and so the trip became a study trip as well as a well-earned holiday. For the first time Bríet realized there was an international women’s movement and in 1906 she was invited to the congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) in Copenhagen.

Inspired she returned home and promptly opened the conversation about women’s suffrage. While she had been abroad however the feminist groups had dispersed; her original women’s society had ceased to be political after its president died and there were no feminist publications left. But that only motivated Bríet even more and in 1907 the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association was founded in Reykjavík. She began travelling around the country, organizing public meetings and founding branches of her association. In that same year women were allowed to be elected to city council – an early success! It was however difficult to find women willing to even stand for election, but Bríet stepped forward and soon three others followed. All of them were elected to Reykjavík city council in 1908. Bríet got to work immediately and introduced many educational reforms, like school physicians and nurses, swimming lessons for girls, playgrounds and many more. Bríet’s work now truly bore fruit. In 1911 women were given the same rights in education, scholarships and all schools were opened to women as well as men. In 1913 she was elected for a second term in the city council.

Along the way Bríet also took care of her children’s education and in 1910 her eldest, Laufey Valdimarsdóttir was the first woman to graduate from Reykjavik High School with the highest grade possible! Both, Laufey and her younger brother Héðinn Valdimarsson became politicians themselves. But that came much later.

In 1920 Bríet’s quest was won: women received equal suffrage rights. Coincidentally it was also the 25th anniversary of her magazine, the Kvennablaðið. It had propagated all of the rights for women that had slowly been implemented since and although it had lost a lot of its following one its focus shifted to more political topics, the paper prevailed. Now that  the vote was granted, all women who had previously been indifferent to the suffragists’ work streamed to the polls, eager to make their voices heard. And Bríet saw her chance. After she had unsuccessfully tried to run for parliament in 1916, she tried again ten years later. Unfortunately she was not elected once again or she would have been the first woman in a country’s parliament, but as it is she was the first woman to run for a seat.

Then it became quiet around our brave suffragette. Her Women’s Association became less of a partisan group and instead focused to support women in their daily lives. The struggle was over and Bríet returned to her life as an editor. For over ten years she was able to enjoy the world she helped to create until she passed away in 1940. She lived to see the fruit of her labour and made the world a better place for her children and theirs – and she did it on her terms.

image credits:

1: “Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, Icelandic leader of women’s suffrage” by Magnús Ólafsson (ca. 1886 – 1890) – Link
2: Picture of the young Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, ca. 1880 – Link
3: Valdímar Ásmundsson, his wife Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir and their children Laufey and Héðinn around 1900. – Link
4: undated photograph of Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, probably around 1880 – Link
5: image obtained from Óðinn, May 1908, page 12

Changunak Antisarlook Andrewuk – Queen of the Reindeer

Did you know that Alaska used to be Russian territory? It was only sold to the US around 1870 and suddenly the social landscape changed. Into these tumultuous times today’s heroine was born and against all odds, she became one of the richest people in the state. Hear the story of Changunak Antisarlook Andrewuk, Sinrock Mary, the Queen of the Reindeer.

When Alaska changed government, Changunak was born. Her mother was of the Native Inupiat people and her father was Russian. Likely a merchant or fur trader, he came to Alaska to make money, but returned home once his contract with the trading company ran out – alone. Their fate was not a singular one; when the Russian traders departed, they left behind a new generation of children with mixed heritage.

Changunak’s childhood was never boring. She grew up in St. Michael, a trading post where lots and lots of foreign ships docked and where there was always something to see. She observed the strangest people coming from these ships, dressed in foreign clothing and speaking languages she had never heard before. The girl soaked up everything she saw and before she was past her teens she spoke Russian and English besides her native tongue, Inupiat, and several of its dialects. But not only did she learn about other cultures but also her own. Her mother taught her the ancient ways of her people. She learned about herbalism, how to hunt and set traps and how to tan and sew animal hide, the trades of her ancestors. But most importantly she learned generosity, as was the Inupiat way.

At some point, when she grew from child to woman, she would receive the traditional chin tattoos. Presumably not much later, Changunak met a young Inupiat hunter named Charles Antisarlook, and in 1889 they married. The couple settled in Cape Nome, not far from St. Michael, where they soon met the man who would change their lives. Captain Michael A. Healy was an American who had been sailing the Alaskan sea for more than two decades and served as the only contact to the government for many remote villages. So even though he looked a bit unusual to the Natives, being half black, he was always a welcome guest. When the Antisarlooks met him, he was looking for interpreters to help him document the population of the coastline and upon finding out that the pair spoke English, he hired them on the spot. I suspect that this is when she got the name she was known by: Mary. And soon they set sail on board the USS Bear.

During their travels the Captain once more witnessed the Native Alaskan’s fight against the long, harsh winters, against starvation, and an idea that had been brewing in his head for years finally took form. The Chukchi people of Siberia were herding reindeers, why couldn’t the Alaskans? They just needed to ship the deer over, because at that point there were none in North America. Of course such a plan needed time but in 1892, only two years after he had delivered them back home, the Captain stood at the door of the Antisarlook family once again. This time he asked them to come with him to Siberia to help with the negotiations. And once again they sailed out on the Bear.

Arriving at their destination, they met up with a delegation of Chukchi and soon enough Changunak was called up to translate, being the only one in the party to speak Russian. She could however not fully understand the Siberian dialect, which angered one of the men who struck her right across the face. She did not flinch but instead stood tall, calmy asking in Russian: “Is there anyone who can understand what I’m saying?” Slowly one of the Chukchi raised his hand. “Come over here and help me,” she demanded. And he came and stood next to her. He would translate his comrades’ words into Russian which she then would translate into English for the crew of the Bear. From there negotiations went smoothly and the ship returned to Alaska, having secured 1300 reindeers to arrive over the course of the next four years. The Teller Reindeer Station was opened to teach the Alaskan population how to care for the new animals and husband Charlie began an apprenticeship there. During that time Changunak noticed that contrary to their original purpose, the reindeer were exclusively distributed amongst missionary posts and she complained. Eventually the government gave in to her constant pressure and Charlie and Changunak were the first Inupiat to own their own herd of reindeer.

Two years later their herd had doubled and now Charlie’s two brothers had become herders as well to help them out. They build their own reindeer station in the small settlement of Sinuk or Sinrock, which is where Changunak’s more familiar name comes from: Sinrock Mary. Their herd was now one of the largest in the country and that winter the government asked them for a favor. There were people trapped in the ice and they asked for them to send their herd up there to save them from starvation. Following the Inupiat principle of generosity they decided Charlie would go North with a large part of the herd while Changunak would keep house. It was a hard winter. Seal and fish were scarce and she could not afford to lose a single deer, who knew when her husband would return – if he would.

Her husband did return, albeit two years later around 1900, with 100 deer lost and in terrible health. He had contracted the measles and despite her care, he died quickly. Changunak did not have time to grieve long though. She had just buried her husband as word arrived that she might not keep her herd, being a woman and all. Finally she won the right to keep half of the couples 500 animals. But her troubles were far from over. In 1902 the gold rush had arrived in Alaska and miners were flooding the small settlements, taking the reindeer as easy ressources. Parts of Changunak’s herd was stolen to serve as packing animals or shot for food and their remains left to rot on the tundra. The officials were worrying that soon her entire herd would be gone and decided it would be best to take the animals from her and move them farther north to safer ground. But Changunak would have none of it. Instead she went south with her stock, resettling in the village of Unalakleet.

Safe from the miners, she was now confronted with another problem: word had gotten out that the Reindeer Queen was widowed and suitors lined up. Everyone wanted to get their hands on the biggest herd in the state and thus the woman it belonged to. She refused them all. But not only the suitors wanted their piece of the cake, Charlie’s brothers too claimed that the herd belonged to them; they referred to the ancient Inupiat ways according to which the widow only gets what the brothers give her. She reminded them that they were living under white man’s laws now and according to those the woman inherits the man’s property. The legal battle went on for seven years but eventually she won. She was now the undisputed owner of the largest reindeer herd in the entire Arctic.

Changunak did marry again eventually, a tall, quiet hunter called Andrew Andrewuk. This time her husband did not take any part in the reindeer business and under her proficient management her herd grew to 1500 animals at its peak, making her a true Queen of the Reindeer. And she passed on her craft. As she did not have any biological children, she adopted orphans as epidemics were decimating the population and taught them all she knew. Continuing to follow the tradition of generosity Changunak never turned away anyone in need and shared everything she had with those less fortunate. Thus she became known not only for her success as a businesswoman but also as an important and beloved member of the community.
In 1914, when she was nearing her fifties, her children could barely remember a time without reindeer and it was then when the last big catastrophe hit. The Inupiat and other tribes were forbidden from selling reindeer to the white population to secure their livelihoods, but one white man, Carl Lomen, managed to get his hands on a herd anyways, through a Finnish herder to whom the restrictions did not apply. Immediately he began building a business American-style, steadily driving the Natives out of business. Changunak lost her best herders to him and her best customers, she began losing animals as she could not supervise them all at once. And again she began to complain, rallying the other deerkeepers to do the same. Fifteen years they fought, then the Great Depression came along and prices plummeted, Mr. Lomen was in financial trouble. Finally in 1937 his herd was sold and the Reindeer Act was passed, which forbids anyone except for Alaskan Natives to own reindeer in the territory.

Now almost 70, Changunak realized that the world around her had changed fundamentally. There were fewer and fewer reindeer now and she became too old to care for her own herd. Two of her grandchildren moved in with her to lend her a had. She became known as the village elder who had known the Russians and people would bring her hides to make into shoes, the way her ancestors had done it, the way her mother had taught her.

On a winter’s day in 1948 Changunak Antisarlook Andrewuk, Sinrock Mary was pronounced dead. She received a communal burial and is remembered dearly by her community, not only as the Reindeer Queen, but also as someone who kept the Inupiat way alive against all odds. Until this day whenever reindeer are seen in the north people think of her. And sometimes people say they can still see her large herd roaming the hills.

image credits:

1: “My Great-Great Grandmother Sinrock Mary (1870 -1948)” – Jodi Velez-Newell’s Eskimo Heritage Page
2: “Reindeer Committee with Esther Oliver, Sinrock Mary, Mrs. Willie Aconran [sic] with children, Clyde and Pauline, Kliktarek [sic] corral,” 1938 – © Anchorage Museum (AMRC-b75-175-161)
3: “Sinrock Mary and Esther Oliver. Klikiktarek [sic], Alaska,” 1938 – © Anchorage Museum (AMRC-b75-175-160)
4: “Sinrock Mary. Klikiktarek [sic], Alaska,” 1938 – © Anchorage Museum (AMRC-b75-175-158)

Maria Quitéria – The Brazilian Joan of Arc

This week I’m taking you to Brazil where a brave woman joined the army in the War of Independence, dresses as a man. And although she was outed, her valor and skill in battle allowed her to continue fighting. She even was promoted and endorsed by the emperor! Let me tell you the story of Maria Quitéria, the Brazilian Joan of Arc.

On June 27, 1792 Maria Quitéria de Jesus Medeiros was born as the first child of a farming family in the state of Bahia on the country’s eastern coast. Two brothers would follow. Although she did not receive a formal education, she learned to ride, hunt and fish and even how to handle a weapon. Mother Dona Quitéria was queen of the home while father Gonçalo tended the cattle. And Maria took the best from both worlds. She loved to prepare dinner with her mother, but she also loved to run in the fields with her brothers.

This carefree time however ended when her mother died when Maria was only ten. Suddenly she had to take care of her younger brothers and fulfill a more important role in the household, although even that could not completely cure her of her independent ways. And only five months later, while Maria was still grieving, her father remarried. The marriage was short-lived however, as the woman was, but soon her father married a third time. Maria didn’t quite like this new women who tried to meddle with their family and who opposed her tomboyish lifestyle. She did however love her new sisters that came from this marriage.

This is where our story leaves off and doesn’t continue until more than a decade later, in 1822. The relationship between the colonizing power of Portugal and the people of Brazil had been tense for a while and in that year, war broke out. Partisan groups were travelling cross-country, recruiting volunteers and/or asking for funds, and before long they came by Maria’s home. Her father, by now a widower with his sons having moved out of the house, told them he didn’t have anything to offer and tried to shoo them off. To his surprise, Maria stepped forward, asking him for permission to join the fight. Of course he refused vehemently. Of course she paid him no heed. Instead she ran away to her sister’s house who had married a man in a neighboring village. Her sister cut her hair while her brother-in-law provided her with proper male clothing and allowed her to use his name. In this attire she went to the nearest Artillery Regiment to register – the first woman in the country to do so, albeit incognito.

Her battalion travelled her home region of Bahia, engaging in battle several times and each time Maria, or “Soldado Medeiros,” stood out for her valor and skill. After a few months however, in June 1823, her father caught up with her, revealing her true identity to her comrades. Surprisingly they didn’t really care. She was brave, she fought well, so who cares about her gender? The captain personally forbade her to leave and so her father had to return home empty-handed. Maria in the meantime dropped her male attire and embraced her female identity. She went on to be promoted cadet in July, allowing her to officially carry a sword, and one month later reached the rank of lieutenant, including royal honors and everything!

In 1824 the Portuguese garrison in Montevideo surrendered and the war was won. Maria returned home a decorated soldier. She reconciled with her father and rekindled the relationship with her former boyfriend Gabriel Pereira Brito. Soon the pair was married and not much later their daughter Luísa was born. This is where her story gets a little foggy. It is known that she was widowed about ten years later and that her father died not soon after. Maria claimed her inheritance and moved near Salvador with her daughter. There she died in August 2853, aged 61, poor and almost blind. It wasn’t until decades later that her achievements were recognized. Today she is revered as the Brazilian Joan of Arc, a comparison to another woman who actively participated in battle, defending her country and its independence as well as their personal ones.

image credits:

1: “Maria Quitéria” by Domenico Failutti (1920) – Link
2: Monument to Maria Quitéria – A Verdade