Mary McLeod Bethune, the woman that revolutionised America (and you’ve never heard of…)

From battling the KKK to taking on sexism and education reform, oh and changing the world – meet the hero you’ve never heard of.

Born in 1875 to former slaves, Mary was the youngest of 17. Despite her parents working long hours and constantly grafting, the family barely managed to scrape by. And it didn’t take little Mary long to work out the root of this struggle.

There was only one difference between hers and other families. One thing separating her and the possibility of coming home and knowing there would be food on the table. Knowing that in the future she’d have opportunities; could expect to earn a fair wage and work to live in a house with basic features like windows.

The only thing stopping Mary and her family was the colour of their skin.

Mary vowed to change this.

michelle obama clap.gif
Again, Mary was A CHILD when she decided to dedicate her life to revolutionising black rights

And so, everyday, Mary walked miles to get to the only school that would teach her. Then she’d return home and teach her parents and siblings what she’d learnt that day.

Her tenacity didn’t go unnoticed and a local missionary reached out, offering to pay for the reminder of her education.

Soon Mary started attending religious and missionary schools, in 1895 becoming the first African American student to graduate what is now known as The Moody Bible Institute (great name by the way Moody)

Mary dreamed of becoming a missionary, spreading her love for education across the world. BUT this dream was quickly dashed when she was curtly informed that nobody needed nor wanted a black missionary.

Did this stop Mary? OF COURSE NOT!

If she wasn’t allowed to join a mission, she’d set off on her own.

So, just like that, Mary packed up her bags and headed around the US to teach overlooked children from minority backgrounds.

Then in 1898 Mary met and married her husband, Albertus and the two soon welcomed a son, Albert.

Having a child to look after didn’t slow Mary down, in fact she decided the time was now right for her to open up her own school.

wink gif.gif
Seriously, just you wait, Mary hasn’t even gotten started showing how strong she is!

Mary set up shop in Daytona, Florida, with (supposedly) just $1.50 in her pocket, opening the doors to The Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls in 1904.

Desks and chairs were made from crates, ink was elderberry juice and pens were whittled from wood. Mary kept the lights on by joining forces with local parents to sell homemade pies.

The whole endeavour was shaky as all hell, only being held together by the sheer force of Mary’s willpower. Which was good – because this patchwork school was proving to be revolutionary, finally allowing black children an education.

….This didn’t go down well with the KKK.

Now let’s be clear, this was not a good time to be a black person in Florida. Lynchings were a regular occurrence, with Florida going on to have some of the highest rates of lynching anywhere in the US. The May before Mary opened her school, 4 Florida men were murdered in separate lynchings within just 2 days. In short – Daytona, Florida in 1904, was not the kind of place that was ready for the kind of monumental change that Mary was creating.

And so the local branch of the Klu Klux Klan showed up outside Mary’s school.

BUT Mary stood strong in the schools doorway. Unmovable. Despite the very real threat to her life, she steadfastly refused to stand down. Eventually the KKK left.

Two years later Mary’s school had gone from less than a dozen students to 250.

Mary Mcleod Bethune with students from her school
Mary with early students of her school

But as the school flourished, Mary’s home life was crashing and burning.

The huge workload had put a huge strain on her marriage and in 1907 Albertus left her.

Mary was now a single mother; one that not only had her own child to care for, but hundreds of others.

And yet despite ALL the obstacles against her, Mary persevered.

She decided she wouldn’t just care for her son, her students and staff, but she’d help the entire community!

Mary opened medical facilities by her school, to tackle the awful quality of available local healthcare for black people.

She arranged for her school to be combined with a local college; forming The Bethune-Cookman College and allowing even more kids a shot at an education.

Mary then focused her attention onto women; believing this to be group that particularly overlooked. So she started clubs that would simultaneously help women gain new skills, create opportunities for them AND equip these women with the tools they’d need to fight for their rights.

By 1924 she was elected head of the National Association of Colored Women; immediately getting to work overhauling the NACWs management system and creating a headquarters in the capital.

AND OF COURSE MARY DIDN’T STOP THERE!

  • She led a drive to encourage African Americans to register to vote.
  • She invested in black business and worked to maximise those businesses potential.
  • She helped launch newspapers that were run by African Americans and covered news that was otherwise (quite literally) white washed.

All this work –of course- meant that once more the Klan were at Mary’s door, threatening her life unless she stopped.

Spoiler: she didn’t stop.

Mary Mcleod Bethune at work
Mary at work, probably writing a haiku about all the fucks she doesn’t give

In the 1930s Mary started putting together what she called ‘the black cabinet’ ;a group of leading African Americans who advised President Roosevelt.

The cabinet helped lay the foundations for the civil rights movement; bringing issues facing black Americans into the forefront of politics and actively working to create change.

Groundbreaking doesn’t even cover it, and it could never have happened without Mary acting as the groups organiser and intermediary!

Mary Mcleod Bethune and members of the 'black cabinet' in the 1930s
Mary with other members of the ‘Black Cabinet’ in the 1930s. Mary is (of course) standing in the middle of it all

Mary eventually retired due to her failing health. Returning to Florida, to live out the rest of her life

In 1955 Mary delivered her last speech at a luncheon held in her honour.

She used the moment, not to celebrate her work but to thank those around her and encourage others to continue the fight:

‘I have been the dreamer, but oh how wonderfully you have interpreted my dreams’

Mary died just a few months after that speech, at the age of 79. 

She’d started life in poverty and fought her way out; transforming not just her own life, but millions of others too. Leaving a legacy that lives on today.

Mary Mcleod Bethune in the late 1940s
The Incredible Mary Mcleod Bethune: Did I not tell you, you’d become obsessed with her?!?

This was interesting, where can I find out more? Now I’ve struggled finding a really amazing book on Mary (please do let me know if you have one!!) HOWEVER I’m going to leave you with this, Mary’s public will, in which she outlines the legacy she is leaving and urges you to continue the fight. I promise, it’ll be the best thing you read this week: link here

 

 

Nancy Astor VS Churchill’s Mean Girls

Nancy Astor was a glamorous American in London. Now onto marriage number 2 she could easily have been the stuff of turn of the century gossip, but Nancy had better things to do; see Nancy wanted to be in politics.

Now, in 1918 this was not an easy thing to do! Women had just gotten the vote (literally; some women in the UK could first start voting in 1918) BUT Nancy’s husband had just had to give up his seat as MP (Member of Parliament) for Plymouth Sutton, and seeing as Nancy was the one who actually got her husband into social reform and politics in the first place, she figured it made sense for her to take his place.

So Nancy made the ballsy decision to become one of the first women to ever run for a seat in the Houses of Parliament.

And in 1919, she only went and won! 

Nancy Astor.jpg
Nancy Astor, casually knocking down all the gender barriers

Nancy was really popular with the voters; they loved her informal style, charms, wit and that she campaigned for womens rights.

Sadly, her fellow MPs were not huge fans of Nancy. 

Though she wasn’t the first female MP (that was Irish Republican, Constance Markievicz, who couldn’t take her seat because she was in prison…) Nancy WAS the first female MP to actually serve in the Houses of Parliament.

Many male MPs were not down with this. And so began a campaign of icing Nancy out.

Because apparently, in 1919 MPs were the cast of Mean Girls.

You cant sit with us gif.gif
Said every douchebag MP

Along with the frostiness was a healthy level of good old fashioned bitching. Winston Churchill (The Regina George of Parliament) did not get along with Nancy.

Winston was not a fan of the fact Nancy was in parliament full stop and Nancy was not a fan of the fact that Winston was against her being an MP and was also a highly functioning alcoholic in such an important role.

In one notable spat, Nancy shot at Winston:

‘If I were your wife, I’d put poison in your tea’.

To which Winston Churchill supposedly replied:

‘And if I were your husband, I’d drink it’ 

Churchill
Winston Churchill, King of Maturity

But being an MP wasn’t just forming cliques and griping, there was actual work to be done; Nancy and her ilk needed to run the country!

A quick note, before we move on: I know we have a lot of non UK based readers so a quick FYI for you guys: in Parliament MPs respond by shouting, jeering and sometimes just making a ton of guttural noises as a sign of disapproval.
Politicians started doing this centuries ago, and despite it slowing everything the fuck down, we’ve just continued, because, history.

So to summarise, Parliament looks a lot like this: 

rabble gif.gif
And you thought Brits were classy

Nancy was due to make her first speech, highlighting the need for alcohol control.

Considering this was a topic she had campaigned for during the election and she was about to stand in front of several hundred men that hated her, you’d understand if she was nervous.

Luckily though, Parliament has a rule that during a new MPs first speech (known as a Maiden Speech) every member of Parliament must be quiet, because giving a speech is scary enough without some randomer suddenly screaming.

BUT: Nancy was about to be the first female MP to give a speech to Parliament…

So naturally that unwritten rule went out the window as her fellow MPs happily jumped aboard the ‘let’s all be cocks for no reason’ train.

eye roll
Toot Toot! All aboard the wanker express!

Nancy started her speech by immediately addressing the fact that she would not be ‘craving the indulgence’ of her fellow MPs. That she was there to do a job and like it or not, she was damn well going to do it.

As she continued her speech she was met with shouts of:

‘No’ 

To this Nancy cooly shot back:

‘I know what I am talking about and you must remember that women have got a vote now and we mean to use it.’ 

And just like that, Nancy made it clear that she was not to be fucked with.

michelle obama.gif
Get it Nancy!

For over 2 years, Nancy remained the sole female MP in parliament.

She fought for the voting age for women to be lowered (which it was in 1928) and for the legal drinking age to be made higher (because it used to be 14, what the actual fuck?!?) as well as championing countless causes for women and children.

Nancy also became renowned for put downs, should another MP try and have a go.

By the time Nancy Astor left her post as MP she had served for a whopping 26 years, and opened the door for female politicians everywhere.

Nancy Astor at a war equality rally at 1941
Nancy speaking in Trafalgar Square, 1941

This was interesting, where can I find out more? You should totally check out, Adrian Forts, Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor. There are also some cracking documentaries on Nancy Astor, including a BBC4 one which is often on repeat (*cough* and on the web *cough*)

 

 

 

 

The sisters that brought down a dictatorship

Rafael Trujillo was a dick. Ruling as dictator of The Dominic Republic for over 30 years. Following a rebellion Trujillo was voted into power with 99% of the vote in 1930 with essentially no opposition (after his opponents were subject to military threats). Once the Commander in Chief of the army Trujillo now wielded ultimate power. Of course, he did have his supporters and under his control The Dominican Relublic soon became a founding member of The United Nations, enjoyed a great deal of economic stability and even saw its first national park-but the cost of this was incredibly high, human rights violations were a daily occurrence, torture and assassinations routine and order was maintened through fear and brute force- it is thought that Trujillo was responsible for at least 50,000 deaths (his mum must have been proud) his bloody reign seemed unstoppable.

trujillo
Notorious dick Trujillo – I’m not even going to pretend to be unbiased on this one

Enter the Mirabel sisters. Patria, Dede, Minerva and Maria Teresa Mirabel all came of age under Trujillo’s rule. The sisters came from a well connected middle class family, were feisty, well educated and with the exception of Dede, all the sisters made the unusual (for the time) step of attending higher education institutions.

Whilst attending law school Minerva started to learn about the families of her new friends who had been killed (or simply vanished) under the dictator, this paired with a blossoming knowledge of her uncles involvement in the resistance started to spark something in Minerva.

Shortly after this Minerva came face to face with Trujillo. In 1949 the family were asked to attend a party he was hosting (I say asked, I mean forced-Trujillo liked to ensure his parties had a high percentage of pretty young women). During the party Trujillo’s men separated Minerva from the family, seating her at his table. Accounts from here seem to vary and are a little fuzzy, but what we do know is that Trujillo made a move on Minerva and she rejected him. The family then swiftly left the party, this was was a risky move.

minerva 2
Minerva Mirabel

Unsurprisingly Trujillo was not often told no and did not respond well to Minerva rebuffing his sexual advances or to the family leaving the party before he did (a big no no as it suggested disrespect towards the dictator) and so he ordered the entire Mirabel families imprisonment.

reasonable
cool, sounds perfectly reasonable: giphy

 

The family were eventually released, from prison. However Trujillo blocked Minerva from continuing her legal education and maintained a constant ebb of harassment towards her (again-his mum must be proud)

The families every move was now being monitored, with Minerva in particular reported to Trujillo’s forces several times for crimes including not toasting Trujillo at dinner. Soon Minerva started to become more active in resisting Trujillo, her youngest sister, Maria Teresa quickly jumped on board, outraged at the intimidation and human rights abuse that had not just seeped into the Mirabel household but the entire country.

Then on 14 June 1959 Patria witnessed the Luperion Invasion, an attempt by ousted Dominicans to topple Trujillo’s government. The rebels were quickly and brutally crushed, but rather than serving as a warning to Patria of the consequences of fighting Trujillo, she was inspired by the rebels. This is of course perhaps not that surprising as Trujillo’s years of continued pressure on the family had only ever served to weaponise them.

Patria went home and joined forces with Minerva and Maria Teresa. Round their kitchen table the sisters hatched a plan to continue the rebels fight and put an end to Trujillo’s reign of terror.

The group called themselves Movement of the Fourteenth of June, named after the slain rebels. With the help of their husbands, the three sisters started to distribute leaflets and pamphlets detailing Trujillo’s crimes, the people he had killed and the resistances work. The sisters started to become known under the moniker Las Mariposas or The Buttleflies.

In addition to their written work the group slowly started to weaponise. Once more the sisters sat around their kitchen table, this time making bombs from fireworks. They also gathered weapons, learnt how to use them and began to talk about taking a much more radical step-assassination.

Mirabel Sistsers

Their attempted assassination of Trujillo in 1960 failed and Minerva, Marie Teresa and their husbands were thrown in jail. But though Trujillo had survived the sisters attempt on his life his political career was heading towards its demise. An assassination attempt of his own (on The Venezuelan President) had failed, he had lost the support of the Catholic Church, his former powerful allies America and even the top tiers of Dominican society and now the work of the Mirabel sisters and others like them was starting to threaten his already weakening grasp on power.

Trujillo did what he did best, he tortured and executed many of the captured rebels, but it didn’t quell the murmurings of discontent at the regime that were now becoming ever louder. To make matters worse in 1960 growing international pressure forced Trujillo to release the incarcerated Mirabel sisters; the butterflies were once again free.

But Trujillo became fixated on the idea that the root of his problem was Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa Mirabel.

Warning – This next bit is rough

On 25 November 1960 the sisters were driving home after visiting their husbands in prison. Their jeep was stopped by secret police, who included Trujillo’s right hand man, Victor Alicinio Pena Rivera. The sisters and their driver were made to get out the car. They were taken to a sugarcane field and separated, then secret police beat and strangled each of the sisters. Their bodies were taken back to the jeep, which was then pushed off a cliff, in an effort to make their deaths look like an accident.

But this isn’t the end of the Mirabel sisters story.

You’ll pleased to know that cover up didn’t work work. The public soon realised that Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa was assisnated. The people were angry and the tide turned against Trujillo in almost an instant.

People were inspired by the sisters and keen to pick up where they had left off; as the Mirabel sisters had done for the Luperion Invasion rebels. Less then six months after thier deaths, in May 1961 Trujillo’s own car was ambushed and he was shot in an assination carried out by Dominican Rebels with American backing.

cheering.gif

The sisters became known as national heroes and their sister Dede opened a museum which told thier story. The Mirabel family also continued their legacy, Minerva’s daughter went onto become the Dominican Republics Under Secretary of Foreign Relations and Dede’s son the Vice President.

stamp.jpg

That was really interesting, where can I find out more? If you read Spanish then you my friend are in luck, there are tons of great resources out there, so go nuts!

If you don’t speak Spanish it’s a little bit harder BUT there is still some great material. In the time of butterflies is a cracking book all about the sisters (shout out to my Twitter followers that suggested it) it is a fictionalised version of events but still historically good and if your feeling lazy there is even a film staring Salma Heyak (the whole things currently on YouTube-just saying)

%d bloggers like this: