15-38 Segment 2: Unconventional Women: Two trailblazers who forged their own ways in the world

Synopsis: Many women today take for granted their independence and the rights they have socially and legally. It wasn’t always that way, and we’ll hear about two women – one a socialite and the other a bandit – who felt constrained by the codes of behavior imposed on women in the early part of the 20th century, so they decided to live their lives in non-traditional ways. You probably have never heard of them, but our guests say that there are thousands of unknown women like them who, in their own small ways, made modern women’s lives much more free. We’ll also hear how one author was inspired to open girls’ schools to create more female leaders in the future.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: Emily Bingham, author of Irrepressible: The jazz age life of Henrietta Bingham. Victoria Shorr, author of the historical novel, Backlands.

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Unconventional Women

Marty Peterson: Downton Abbey’s last season is set to premiere next January, and it’s been fun to see how the Crawley family has navigated the changes in society from 1912 through the 1920’s. Perhaps the biggest transformations have been with the aristocratic women on the program: we see Lady Sybil becoming a nurse during World War I; Lady Edith driving a tractor and heading up a publishing company; Lady Mary taking a very active role in the running of the Downton estate, and cousin Rose frequenting jazz clubs and dating a Black singer. In their day, these fictional women would be known in all of the elite social circles, and their behavior scrutinized, gossiped about and remembered to this day. There are many women, however, who took non-traditional paths and few if any of us even know their names. Our guests discuss two very different women – one a socialite and the other a bandit — and show how these ladies lived their unconventional lives and made their marks despite social disapproval. Emily Bingham’s great-aunt Henrietta was one of these trailblazers, and in Bingham’s book, Irrepressible: The jazz age life of Henrietta Bingham, she talks about how Henrietta bucked the tide of what was expected of a wealthy young woman in Kentucky at the turn of the 20th century…

Emily Bingham: She was absolutely part of the elite, white, social and the cultural elite of Louisville, Kentucky. She was expected to go to school, which girls were doing then, become a debutante and probably just grace society in Louisville, Kentucky, and maybe do some good.

Peterson: None of Bingham’s relatives wanted to talk about great-aunt Henrietta – she was beyond the black sheep of the family – so the writer had to do her own research. She found an old trunk that contained letters, photos and other memorabilia and started pasting Henrietta’s adventurous life together. As a child, Henrietta showed that she wasn’t cut from the same cloth as other Southern socialites…

Bingham: I did notice that many pictures of her, almost all the pictures of her as a child she wears this kind of tough and kind of intense look on her face. She likes to dress up, she especially likes to ride horse, she liked to dress up in cowboy clothes and even though her father had two other children who were both male, she seems to have been encouraged by him to be as strong and athletic and, I don’t know, ambitious, really, as she wanted to be.

Peterson: Bingham says that Henrietta’s father was obsessed with Joan of Arc, and this could be why he encouraged his daughter to take chances in a society that really limited women’s prospects. He even looked to her as his successor in his publishing empire. Despite her tomboy ways, Bingham says that Henrietta was irresistible to both men and women, and she had romantic liaisons with both during her life. Henrietta fit into circles both at home and abroad. She was a member of the famous British set The Bloomsbury Group, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes. One of her admirers was the actor-producer John Housman, star of the 1973 film and television show The Paper Chase, and a long-time collaborator of Orson Welles’. Bingham says Houseman came to New York and fell head-over-heels for Henrietta…

Bingham: He was a half-Jewish immigrant from England with parentage that wasn’t really English, in the mid-20s, coming to the United States to be a grain trader who’d buy and sell vast quantities of American corn and wheat. And he fell in love with Henrietta, having also had his own intellectual side and aspirations. He’d met her briefly in London, but she was living in Lower Manhattan in 1925, and she basically introduced this very young man – they were peers, they were in their mid-20s – to the Harlem Renaissance and he fell in love with her, spent his first several years in America obsessed with her.

Peterson: Bingham found a stack of letters from Houseman to Henrietta that recalled their outings which were very uncharacteristic of a wealthy young woman in the 20’s, such as Henrietta driving a car, going to Harlem jazz clubs and rent parties, without a care who saw or talked about them. But Houseman wasn’t Henrietta’s big love. That was tennis star Helen Jacobs, and they did have a romance for a time. But coming up to the 1950s, same-sex relationships were dangerous…

Bingham: It came at a time in the 50s when many lesbian and gay people in the United States were very conscious of the homophobia that was associated with the McCarthy era. Many gay and lesbian people actually lost their jobs if they were teachers or if they were working in the military or the federal government because it was thought, on the federal government side, it was thought that they were a risk to be spies, because if somebody found out the secret about them, they could blackmail them, right?

Peterson: So Henrietta took a long look at her life and decided it was safer to marry than to continue with her unconventional lifestyle. In 1954 she married Benjamin Franklin McKenzie, a man she’d known only briefly. The marriage broke up after only a few months and she fell into a depression, suffered from anxiety and for years her health continued to deteriorate. Doctors suggested that Henrietta undergo therapies that were on the cutting edge at the time, but nothing worked…

Bingham: She was put into treatment with psychiatrists who prescribed all kinds of traumatic things, including shock therapy, and pre-frontal lobotomy. We’ve read stories like this about that period in the 50s, especially, when those procedures became very, very popular to treat all manner of things, whether it was depression or alcoholism or homosexuality.

Peterson: In 1968, Henrietta died of an internal hemorrhage and was buried next to her father in Louisville, Kentucky. Bingham says that Henrietta Bingham’s life would have been very different if she had lived today, but even though she came to a bad end, she did pave the way for the more tolerant societal attitudes we enjoy now…

Bingham: I want people to understand that Henrietta is one of many, many figures in our past who are not famous, who didn’t become president, who didn’t invent a new technology, who didn’t write The Great American Novel, and yet whose lives give us a window onto a rich, rich, and compelling and human experience.

Peterson: Our next pioneering woman had a life completely different from Henrietta Bingham’s. Victoria Shorr writes a fictional account of her in her new novel, Backlands. The woman’s name is Maria Bonita, and she wasn’t a socialite but a bandit in Brazil in the 1920s and 30s…

Victoria Shorr: Maria Bonita became a bandit, not a girlfriend or a sidekick; she was a real member of the group. She learned to shoot really well, she was just as brave – they had to be. After she joined the band, other women did too, and they were all brave people out there fighting for their way of life. And it was a fabulous; in a way it was a passionate life. It was terribly dangerous but it was also thrilling.

Peterson: Shorr says that Maria and her band of mostly men, didn’t rob to get rich. They were more like Brazil’s version of Robin Hood, taking only what they needed and trying not to hurt their victims…

Shorr: What they would do was when they would get to a village, if there were no police there – the police would often flee if they knew the bandits were coming – they would come into the town, talk to the mayor, find out who could give them how much without feeling it, as they said. Then they would spend the money in the town. They would buy supplies that they needed like cloth and needles, things we don’t think about. And then, once they’d supplied themselves, they would host a fabulous dance for the people. And I met plenty of people out there who’d been to these dances and it was really the only dances that they ever had.

Peterson: Maria was a good horsewoman and an excellent shot, and she and her associates were much feared by law enforcement at the time. You might think that having a woman as a full-fledged partner in a gang would make her ruthless and cruel. Shorr says that, in fact, Maria had a softening affect on her male counterparts…

Shorr: When Maria Bonita joined the troop, they stopped fighting so much. They would run when they could rather than engage, so there was much less killing. They still had their primacy and they lived their lives, but there was much less actual violence, it reduced the violence.

Peterson: One thing that impressed Shorr about Maria was that she was a real leader – albeit a bandit. Women are making inroads these days, but she says they aren’t in positions at the top in great numbers. Fostering leadership in women is a special interest of Shorr’s. That’s why she helped found The Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles. She says that single-sex schools help girls focus on their studies without the distraction and, sometimes, intimidation that coed culture creates….

Shorr: You walk into a girl’s school and, any girl’s school, and you’re in a girl empowerment zone. It is a different feeling. You’re in a different place. The president of the class is obviously a girl, always a girl; the basketball team is the girl’s team – it’s not called the girl’s team – it’s the team. That is profoundly different. You go to a girl’s school mostly you wear a uniform that everybody else is wearing and there you are with your friends, focused on math or science if you’re smart. You don’t have to pretend you’re not smart. As so many girls say at Archer when people ask them, “why did you choose to go to Archer School?” because here I can be as smart as I want to be.

Peterson: Archer is a success, and now Shorr, a graduate of Wellesley College, is focusing on building another girls school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota…

Shorr: About two years ago, I read a few articles in the New York Times about Pine Ridge where, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is the poorest place in America. It’s actually poorer than Egypt. And I read that one in four babies is born with fetal alcohol syndrome and that floored me. And I realized that girls who go to girls’ schools don’t have babies with fetal alcohol syndrome, they are going to college. And then, suddenly, oh no, I might have a credential having co-founded Archer School that I could put to use for these girls on the Pine Ridge. And what if we did start a girls’ school there? What would happen? A college prep girls’ school.

Peterson: Along with another advocate for Native American causes Shorr has started work on the school and they hope to open this year. Like Bingham, Shorr hopes readers of her book will take note of the contributions that unconventional women have made to our world, and take away a new appreciation of their courage and strength…

Shorr: These bandits were seeking justice, their lives were very dangerous but they were also really wonderful and really free. And they woke up every day excited with life, thrilled with life. And they watched the sun rise, they watched the sun set, they watched the stars rise, they had their dances, they had their love, they had their music – they lived a passionate life. And I think that’s something that we can all tap into.

Peterson: You can read a fictional account of a real female bandit in Victoria Shorr’s novel, “Backlands,” available now. She also invites listeners to her website at VictoriaShorr.com. For a look back at the life and loves of a truly unconventional woman, pick up Emily Bingham’s book “Irrepressible,” also available in stores and online. You can log onto her website at EmilyBingham.net. For more information about all of our guests, visit our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there, and on i-Tunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.

 

 

 

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