52 Weeks of Women – December
52 Weeks of women is a weekly series of posts allowing us to rediscover the important role that women have played in history. To find out a little more about what we are doing or why visit Introducing 52 Weeks of Women.
To continue our series, this month we bring you Amalasuntha, Bessie Coleman, Susan B Anthony, Alfonsina Strada, and Vivien Bullwinkel. We hope that each post will prompt you to read more, and if you do we’d love you to share what you find out! Likewise, if you know of any women who you think should be included in our series, let us know.
Daughter of Italian Ostrogoth ruler, Theodoric the Great, Amalasuntha was born in 498CE, just after the official fall of the Roman Empire. It was a time when Italy was nominally ruled as a war like Ostrogoth kingdom, but in actuality was ruled more like the Roman Empire had been. She was given a good Roman education and grew up to be an intelligent, politically savvy woman. Amalasuntha married and gave birth to a son called Alatheric, who was named as the successor to the Ostrogoth throne in Italy upon the death of his grandfather. When Theodoric died, however, Alatheric was only 10 and so Amalasuntha assumed the role of Regent.
She wished for her son to have a proper Roman education with law, rhetoric, and humanities featuring highly; but the Goths placed more value on power and warfare, and believed her son and future ruler should be trained as a soldier. This led to trouble between the people and their female regent, and Amalasuntha discovered a plot to kill her. She had three nobleman exiled and later executed.
Taking heed of the general wishes, she did adjust her son’s education to include associations with some fierce young Goths, in the hope that they would teach him some of the art of warfare. Unfortunately, they turned out to be better at teaching him the art of overindulgence. Alatheric quickly drank himself to an early grave; he died at the age of 17. Fearing deposition by the Ostrogoths after her son’s death, Amalasuntha offered the kingship to her cousin Theodahad with the hope of ruling jointly with him. Sadly, his allegiance sided more with the general public, and he had her inprisoned on the island of Martana. It was here – and most likely with the approval of Theodahad – that Amalasuntha was strangled in her bath by relatives of the three traitors she’d had executed.
Before her murder, Amalasuntha wrote to Justinian I, ruler of the Byzantine Empire, with whom she had a long diplomatic relationship. Whilst unable to protect her from death, Justinian’s response to her terrible treatment was invasion of Italy. He began a war which waged between the Byzantines and the Ostrogoths for the next 15 years, which ultimately demolished what was left of the Roman Empire.
We remember and Amalasuntha as a strong woman who ruled with a desire for knowledge in an empire of men who are hungry for war.
Born to sharecroppers in Texas 1892, Betty Coleman was African-American and Native American by descent. As a child she worked in the cotton fields as well as walking to school even though it was more than 6 km away from home. The school was small and segregated, but she chose to keep attending as she enjoyed learning. She used her time there to learn to read and write (which neither of her parents could) and became an excellent maths student.
As a young adult Bessie worked as a manicurist in a Chicago barbershop. It was there that she formed an interest in flying after reading about the airmen in the RAAF, and she decided she wanted to become a pilot. She believed that “The air is the only place free from prejudices.” When she applied for aviation school, however, she found that none of the aviation schools in America would take on either female or African-American students.
One day she discovered that women in France with becoming pilots, so she began saving and learning French with the intent of travelling there to gain her training. With the financial backing of an interested friend, Bessie moved to France in 1920 and attended their famous flying school. Within seven months she was awarded her pilot’s license, making her the first Native American and the first female African-American pilot in the world. She returned to America, but as the commercial aviation industry was yet to be developed, the only work she could find was to perform shows at as a stunt pilot. She would only perform to shows where the crowds were integrated as a way of strengthening her standpoint on racial segregation. Bessie’s dream and goal was to open a flying school for African-American men and women.
Sadly, this was not realised in her lifetime, as Bessie fell to her death in 1926 when her plane engine malfunctioned in the air. 15,000 mourners attended her funeral in Chicago and another 5000 attended the memorial service in Orlando, showing how big an impact she had on people’s lives. In 1929, William J Powell established the Bessie Coleman Aero club in Los Angeles and because of this club African-American men and women were able to learn to fly. As a result many famous flyers were able to live out Bessie’s dream of equality in the skies. At annual flyover is conducted in honour of Bessie over the Chicago Lincoln cemetery, and in 1995 the US Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating Bessie’s “singular accomplishment in becoming the world’s first African American pilot and, by definition, an American legend.”
“I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation…”
– Bessie Coleman
Born in 1820 in Massachusetts , Susan Bronwell Anthony was raised in a Quaker household, with self-discipline and concern for others featuring prominently in the quest for living a principled life. A bright girl, Susan was homeschooled after her father discovered the school wouldn’t teach her long division because she was female. As a result of her father’s beliefs in a good education for all, Susan grew up to be intelligent and well informed woman.
When her family suffered hardship after the financial panic of 1837, Susan took on work as a teacher to help pay off her father debts. It was while working in schools that she became aware of the disparity in pay between men and women, and she began her lifelong interest in promoting equality for women. At 26, she retired from teaching and focused on her political campaigning career. She was involved in the local Temperance movement, anti-slavery campaigning, and in women’s sufferage.
In 1869, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan founded the National Women’s Suffrage Association in America. Hopefully later orchestrated and merger with the American Women’s Suffrage Association to form the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. Susan was creator and publisher of ‘The Revolution’, a weekly publication advocating for equal rights of negroes and women.
In 1868 Congress passed the 14th Amendment to the Constitution which granted equal rights to all citizens with no reference to gender. However, when Susan voted in the 1872 presidential election, she was arrested and fined $100 at trial. She refused to pay, and due to the massive public notice the trial had garnered, coupled with the apparent injustice of the sentence given the recent constitutional amendment, the courts did not enforce the fine. This was a massive landmark for women’s suffrage, and it raised Susan’s public profile immensely. From then on until 1900, Susan travelled around the United States delivering speeches and spreading the message of support for women’s equal rights. It was not until 14 years after Susan’s death that the 19th amendment to the Constitution was passed, allowing women the legal right to vote, but it is certain that without her tireless work, it may have taken even longer.
Born into a peasant family in Modina, Italy, in 1891, Alfonsina you know Marini discovered her love for bike riding at the age of 10 when her father traded some of the family chickens for a run down bicycle with a local farmer. At the turn-of-the-century women weren’t generally accepted on bicycles. It was considered uncouth, unseemly and unnecessary. Alfonsina didn’t care though, and she would ride around the streets of Modina, racing faster than the girls and boys and earning herself the nickname Devil in a Dress. She rode in her first race aged 13 and won a pig for coming first!
Alfonsia rode in every race she could has a young girl, and won most of them – even the boys races. Her success earned her an invitation to the Grand Prix in St Petersburg in 1909, where her performance prompted Tsar Nicholas II to award her a gold medal. In 1911 she set the women’s world speed record for riding in one hour at 37.192 km. This record stood uncontested for 26 years, even though her single speed bike weighed nearly 3 times what multispeed bikes do today.
Each year since 1905 one of the world’s three major Grand Tour bike races is held in Italy, known as the Giro d’Italia. In 1924, by entering under a gender ambiguous name, Alfonsina was able to ride in the race which is expressly only open to men. To this date she’s the only woman to have ridden in the Giro d’Italia. The race is ridden over 12 stages, and in 1924 covered 3613 km of treacherously unpaved roads and steep mountainous climbs. Alfonsina successfully completed the first seven stages but after a particularly bad fall where she had to repair the handlebars of her bike with a broomstick, Alphonsina was disqualified because she finished that stage outside the time limit. The officials however, seeing how much she was adored by the fans and how much publicity she was bringing the race, allowed her to complete the tour alongside the male competitors. She finished the race which in itself was an incredible feat: only 30 of the 90 original competitors made it to the finishing line.
Although no woman has ever raced in any of the Grand Tours again Alfonsina’s strength and determination to finish this gruelling physical ride is testament to how the concept of women and men’s sport isn’t as clear cut as history has made out. This impressive woman is known to have said: “I didn’t allow myself to become a prisoner of other people’s opinions or expectations”.
Vivian Bullwinkle was born on December 18, 1915 in Kapunda, South Australia and spent her childhood years in Broken Hill and Adelaide. She studied nursing and midwifery at Broken Hill and District hospital, graduating in 1939.
At the outbreak of WW2, Vivian moved to Melbourne to enlist as a nurse for the RAAF, however she was turned down because she had flat feet. She then volunteered for the Australian Army Nursing Services and aged 26 she was assigned to the 2/13th. She travelled to Johor Bahru just north of Singapore where she began working at the Australian General Hospital in 1941. Japanese troops invaded Malaysia in December that year, and by late January 1942, had encroached on Singapore and the hospital was evacuated.
265 men, women and children, and 65 nurses fled the hospital and boarded the SS Vyner Brooke which was originally designed to hold only 12 passengers. As they pulled out from Singapore, Japanese aircraft bombed them and many of the passengers were killed or drowned.
Those that survived the attack swam to the shore of Banka Island. Shortly after, the group decided to surrender and the women and children departed to do so. What followed became known as the Banka Island massacre, when all soldiers and nurses were gunned down by Japanese soldiers. Vivian and one soldier were the only survivors. After 12 days lying injured in the jungle Vivian was captured and interred in a POW camp where she survived great hardship and brutality for the next 3 1/2 years.
After the end of the war live in served another two years in Singapore before retiring in 1947 as an army captain. Postwar and back in Australia, the ends work for 16 years as the matron of Fairfield hospital and then became director of nursing after that. She was president of the Australian College of Nursing, and a member of the Council of Australian War Memorial. She gave evidence in the 1945 war crimes trials in Tokyo, and in 1993, unveiled a shrine on Banka Island to memorialise the nurses who died there.
Vivien worked throughout her life to ensure that all members of that horrific day we remembered, as she was “…determined that her friends and colleagues wouldn’t be forgotten as another wartime statistic.” Awarded the order of Australia (AO), MBE, Royal Red Cross Medal, and Florence Nightingale Medal, the determination of this fiercely loyal young nurse has helped us to remember the real cost of war and recognise the true dedication of Australian nurses throughout time.