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Courier Article by Carol Banks
Sunday, March 20, 2005

American Women Have Their Fair Share of 'Firsts'

To celebrate Women's History Month in March, let's look at some of the "firsts" American women have achieved.

A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet
by Kathryn Lasky; illustrated by Paul Lee (Candlewick Press).

Phillis Wheatley, the first black American woman to have a book published, arrived in Boston in 1761 by slave ship as a young, frightened girl. She was sold to the Wheatley family, and wife Susanna Wheatley sensed something special in the girl, whom she named Phillis, after the ship that had brought her to the colonies.

Some 16 months after her arrival, Phillis was able to speak and write English and read the Bible. At age 9, she moved on to Greek and Latin languages as well as geography and mathematics. What she loved best, however, was poetry. At age 14, Phillis published her first poem in the Newport Mercury, a newspaper of the time. The turbulent days before the American Revolution provided Phillis with topics of freedom and liberty for her poems.

In 1773 Phillis ventured on another ocean voyage, this time to England, where her book of poems would be published. Her final poem, appropriately called "Liberty and Peace," celebrated the war's end. Wheatley died at 31, penniless but leaving a lasting impression upon the body of American literature.

What Was Cooking in Martha Washington's Presidential Mansions? by Tanya Larkin (PowerKids Press).

From her early married years at Mount Vernon, Martha Washington established herself as a charming hostess and fine cook, known especially for cakes. This training was indispensable when George Washington was elected president and his wife presided over weekly informal receptions and formal dinner parties as well as her own Friday afternoon receptions for society ladies.

Larkin's book, part of the "Cooking Throughout American History" series, takes readers on a culinary tour of life in the presidential mansions in New York City and Philadelphia.

Recipes for various foods she served during this period are included in the book, as well as color photographs of the completed recipes. I'll have seconds on the Cherry Bread Pudding, thank you.

Coast to Coast With Alice by Patricia Rusch Hyatt (Carolrhoda Books Inc.).

In 1909, Alice Ramsey became the first woman to drive an automobile across the country. Leaving New York City on June 9, Alice and three female companions departed for San Francisco, arriving there Aug. 6.

The roads between the two cities were rocky and not without danger, especially west of the Mississippi River, where wagon ruts and telegraph poles marked the way.

There were few road maps, and motorists back then relied on something called the "Blue Book." This guide had no pictures or drawings, only written directions, which led to much confusion, especially if the "yellow house on the left corner" had been repainted green! Even so, the "Blue Book" was good only to the Missouri River. After that, drivers were truly on their own.

Authentic photographs pro-vide a beginning-to-end remembrance of the famous trip and show the fashionable attire of the four motoring pioneers.

Ramsey lived to cross the United States another 30 times. By the time of her death in 1983 at age 96, she had been driving for 80-plus years.

Talkin' About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman by Nikki Grimes; illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Orchard Books).

Grimes' illuminating book, which received a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award and the Illustrator Award, is about the first licensed African-American female pilot. It draws upon many voices to relive the extraordinary life of Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman.

She was born in poverty in Waxahachie, Texas, in 1892. Coleman and her family moved to Oklahoma for a better life.

She worked the cotton fields, took in laundry and saved to attend Colored Agricultural and Normal University. After the money ran out, she headed to Chicago. There, her older brother John planted a seed in her mind. John Coleman, a World War I veteran, remarked that "You Negro women ain't never goin' to fly, not like those women I saw in France." After that, her mind was made up: She would study to be a flier, and she would succeed.

For a year she studied French. By 1920, she was ready to sail for France on the SS Imperator to begin the next segment of her life. Her aviation studies introduced her to another language: cowling, struts, joystick, rudder bar -- all of which would become very important to her.

She returned to America, where she hoped to start an aviation school for African-Americans. She never made this last dream come true. At 34, she was killed in a freak aerial accident.

Mighty Jackie, the Strike-Out Queen by Marissa Moss; illustrated by C.F. Payne (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers).

A little bit of baseball trivia comes to light thanks to Moss in her retelling of a 1931 exhibition game between the traveling New York Yankees and the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Lookouts. That game provided another "first" for American women: On that April day, 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell became the first woman to pitch in a professional baseball game.

And pitch she did! Not only did she strike out Lou "The Iron Horse" Gehrig, but also the "Sultan of Swat," Babe Ruth himself. (No one was more stunned than Ruth.)

Payne's rendering of the Babe at "Strrrrike three!" is a bulge-eyed study in total disbelief and exasperation.

After Mitchell's red-hot pitching during that fateful game, she continued her career in the minor leagues for many years. Once she even struck out Leo Durocher of the St. Louis Cardinals, but this "dirt-in-the-skirt" girl will always be known as the girl who struck out Babe Ruth.

Carol Banks is supervisor of the READ Center, Central Library's children's Department. Contact her at (812) 428-8222. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of the library.