Several events involving women in sports, the military, and organizations for women occurred on March 21, spanning nearly one hundred and twenty years.
On March 21, 1868, Jane Cunningham Croly (1829-1901) founded Sorosis, the first US professional women’s club was formed in New York City. Sorosis was one of the most influential organizations for women in America during the late nineteenth-century. Until then, women’s social associations were mostly sponsored by churches or were subsidiaries of men’s organizations.
Croly was a nationally renowned journalist, who joined the New York Tribune in 1855. She became one of the first women to write a syndicated column in the United States under the pen name Jenny June. In April 1868, the New York Press Club held a dinner honoring Charles Dickens during his American tour. Women were initially barred women because their presence would make the event “promiscuous” though they eventually agreed to allow women if there was sufficient interest and later apologized.
In response, Croly and several other women – journalist and author Kate Field, New York Ledger writer and children’s book author Anne Botta, Croly’s co-editor of Y, Ellen Louise Demorest, poet sisters Alice and Phoebe Cary, writer Ella Dietz Clymer, and Celia Burleigh, soon to be an ordained minister – founded Sorosis, a press club. The name refers to “plants with a grouping of flowers that bore fruit… meant to symbolize women’s determination to transform supposedly delicate and feeble ladies into important members of public society.” Sorosis’s mission was to “establish a freemasonry among women of similar pursuits….[to afford] an opportunity for discussion…the results of which promise to exert an important influence on the future of women and the welfare of society.”
Croly used Sorosis to improve women’s status in the private and public spheres by making them more efficient homemakers so that they could spend more time improving themselves and the culture around them. To become a member, women had to be invited, pass inspection, take a loyalty oath, and pay an initiation fee of five dollars. Members were mostly women with careers often by necessity. Though there were many professions represented, most were those open to women, such as journalism and literature.
Members and guests gave presentations on various topics, including divisive issues such as religion, though women’s suffrage was forbidden, to create unity among members. Sorosis members were involved in reform movements such as abolitionism, suffrage, prison reform, temperance, and peace. Despite discussion of suffrage being forbidden, many Sorosis members favored and were involved in the suffrage movement. Members were also involved in abolitionism, prison reform, temperance, and peace.
Sorosis also included committees for literature, art, drama, music, philanthropy, science, education, house and home, and business. Discussions about art focused on female artists, or how women were portrayed in art. The club sponsored scholarships for female art students, and members bought paintings and sculptures by female artists.
George William Curtis, editor of Harper’s Weekly advocated for women’s rights and was a vice-president of the American Woman’s Suffrage Association. His cartoons often portrayed women’s rights and women’s organizations in a light-hearted manner. One of them was Charles Bush’s cartoon published in 1869, almost a year after Sorosis was founded. His cartoon, contrary to Croly’s intention, depicted Sorosis’s efforts to reverse gender roles, with men caring for children and women engaging in business and politics. Croly’s intention was to expand women’s sphere.
In 1889, in honor of Sorosis’s twenty-first anniversary, Croly invited other women’s clubs in the United States to a convention in New York City. On April 24, 1890, 63 clubs ratified the constitution and became the General Federation of Women’s Club.
The First Yeomanette
Although World War I had been raging for nearly two years, the United States had remained neutral. However, after Pancho Villa raided several Southwestern states. Congress ratified the National Defense Act in May 1816, which Wilson signed on June 3. The Act brought the states’ militias under federal control and gave the president the authority to mobilize the National Guard in the case of war or national emergency. The Act also made the National Guard a permanent reserve force.
In August, Congress passed and Wilson signed the Naval Act of 1916, to create ships for a “Big Navy.” As the possibility of war became imminent, Congress passed the Naval Reserve Act of 1916. The Naval Reserve Act of 1916 allowed “all persons who may be capable of performing special useful service for coastal defense” to enlist. When Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels asked, “Is there any law that says a yeoman must be a man?” he was told it did not. Daniels and the Bureau of Navigation, informed naval district commanders that beginning on March 19, that they could begin recruiting women. Most women took secretarial or clerical jobs, but there were also telegraphers, draftsmen, translators, mess attendants, camouflage designers, and recruiting agents. Women were only allowed to serve at shore stations, though some were accidentally given orders for sea duty. To avoid errors, the navy designated the women as “Yeoman(F)” but they were refereed to as “Yeomanettes.”
Loretta Perfectus Walsh (April 22, 1896 – August 6, 1925) enlisted on March 17, becoming the first woman to serve in the United States armed forces in a position other than nurse. On March 21, 1917 Walsh became the US Navy’s first female Petty Officer. She served at the Naval Shipyard in Philadelphia through the war and finished her enlistment on inactive reserve status until her enlistment ended on March 17, 1921.
Walsh died on August 6, 1925 at 29. She was buried under a monument commemorating her achievement. The Department of the Navy history program has a wreath laying ceremony in her honor.
The roughly 11,000 women were discharged from the navy by July 1919. Some were hired through an expedited process through the Civil Service, though nurses employed as civilians continued to serve during the 1920s and 30s. Women were not recruited for the navy again until World War II.
First Black Olympic Figure Skating Medalist
Feb. 15, 1988 – Time magazine
Debra “Debie” Janine Thomas (born March 25, 1967) is an American former figure skater and physician. She won numerous awards during the 1980s, from World Figure Skating champion in 1986, two U.S. National Figure Skating Champion titles. She won the World Professional Figure Skating titles in 1988, 1989, and 1991, and became the first black athlete to win a medal at the Winter Olympics when she won a bronze at the 1988 Olympic games in Canada.
While training for the 1998 Olympics, Thomas attended pre-med classes at Stanford. When she became U.S. national champion in 1986, she was the first female champion to balance full-time university with competition in thirty years, since Tenley Albright, the first U.S. women’s gold medalist in figure skating. When Thomas won the 1986 World Championships, she became the first black world champion in the skating history.
At the Olympics, Thomas and her rival, Katerina Witt of East Germany performed to Bizet’s Carmen, earning the program the name “The Battle of the Carmens.” Witt won the gold medal, Thomas the bronze and Canadian Elizabeth Manley took third.
After the Olympics, Thomas skated on the Stars on Ice tour from 1988 to 1992. She graduated from Northwestern University’s medical school and became an orthopedic surgeon. She eventually opened up her own practice in Virginia.