At 10 o’clock in the morning on January 10, 1917, 12 women from the National Woman’s Party took up posts outside the White House entrances. They stood in silence, wearing purple, yellow, and white ribbons, and holding large banners, which read: “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” By the fall, many of the picketers had been jailed and reports of prison abuse hit the newswires.
When President Donald Trump's wife, Melania, stayed in New York during the beginning of his presidency, some speculated that the President's daughter, Ivanka, might take on some of the traditional duties of the First Lady in Washington. Some worried this would be another break from tradition by America’s unconventional 45th president; however, there have been numerous other times in US history when the ‘First Lady’ has been a woman other than the president’s wife. Sometimes, it’s because the president is a bachelor or a widower; other times, the First Lady is too ill to fulfill her duties as hostess and appoints a substitute. Or, as often seemed the case in the 19th century and perhaps now, the president’s wife took one look at the job and said “No, thank you!”
Rose O'Neal Greenhow hosted some of the most prominent politicians of her time in her house on 16th Street. At the beginning of the Civil War, she turned it into a hub of Confederate espionage. Then, it became a Union prison.
By the end of her life, Elizebeth Smith Friedman was renowned for her work deciphering codes from civilian criminals. She cracked the codes that sent members of what one prosecutor called “the most powerful international smuggling syndicate in existence” to jail, took down a Vancouver opium ring, and caught a World War II Japanese spy.
In 1916, Jeannette Rankin made history as the first woman elected to Congress. A renowned pacifist, Rankin was the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. involvement in World War II. At age 87, Rankin made one final push for peace by leading an anti-Vietnam march: the Jeannette Rankin Brigade.
She was one of the first female government employees, she was the first woman legally allowed on the battlefield in America, she founded the American Red Cross, and she chose to live out her days in Glen Echo, Maryland. Clara Barton, the unstoppable force of the 19th century.
Educator, author, and activist Mary Church Terrell was the first president of the National Association for Colored Women, the first African-American woman elected to a major city school board, and a founding member of the NAACP. A lifelong advocate for equality, Terrell participated in sit-ins well into her eighties. But out of all of her activism, one 1906 speech stands out as an insightful and damning critique of racial dynamics in the nation's capital.
In the early 1900s, Dr. Anna J. Cooper, eschewed inherently racist notions that education for African American students should be solely vocational. Pursuing more classical studies, she pushed her students toward some of the best colleges and universities in the country, but her dedication raised the ire of the D.C. Board of Education.
Of all the Union government departments during the Civil War, the Treasury in particular was working overtime. In 1862, Congress passed the first Legal Tender Act, which gave the federal government the authority to issue currency. But with so many men off to war, who would make the money? Treasurer Frances E. Spinner took a note from the US Patent Office (which had a few female clerks) when he decided in 1862 to hire Jennie Douglas to trim money. Douglas would be the first of many young women to work for the government and, while most accepted them, these pioneers faced some unique challenges.