Wonderful Winifred

When  I first considered creating this blog, I thought about the many stories I had read over the years about incredible women who faced insurmountable odds in their lives and yet had gone on to such great achievements and rich experiences.

One such woman, Winifred Steger (1882-1981) hailed from my native Australia, and whose desperate circumstances and life as a single mother led her to the most unbelievable adventures in a time when these kinds of exploits by a woman were practically unthinkable .

An account of  Winifred’s incredible and fantastic life , written by Hilarie Lindsay, called “The Washerwomans Dream: The Extraordinary Life of Winifred Steger, 1882-1981“, is highly recommended reading if you can lay your hands on a copy.  I literally couldn’t put this book down.

After emigrating from England at ten years old, to the remainder of a deprived childhood spent in rural Australia eking out an impoverished existence from the land with her settler father, to her first abusive marriage to an alcoholic husband, then becoming a single mother to four young children by her mid-twenties, to finding work in remote outback Australia, going on to marry two camel drivers in succession and running a camel team, to traveling the world, being presented to royalty , to making the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, to becoming a published author, and living to nearly 100 years old, Winifred Steger was indeed a Can-Do Woman.

Running a camel team?

Australia is a vast country, with mostly unpopulated desert making up a good portion of the land mass.  Up until the early twentieth century, before roads and railways connected the cities with outback areas, the transportation of mail and other goods, was the responsibility of teams of camel drivers, many of whom hailed from Pakistan and Afghanistan, then part of the British Empire.

As a resident of the Australian outback in her twenties, and a single mother of four children,  Winifred had found  work at an isolated outback hotel where she came into regular contact with the visiting camel drivers.  She  ended up marrying two of the camel drivers in fairly quick succession, and became the first, and perhaps the only, white woman to own and run a camel team in outback Australia.

If you’re interested to read a little more about this phase of Winifred’s life, please see this article: THINKING ALOUD: From rural Punjab to outback Australia —Razi Azmi

Have you read an incredible story of  a pioneer woman? Or a story of an improbable and adventurous life of a seemingly ordinary extraordinary woman?  Please share.

Camel Team outside of Cloncurry, Queensland circa 1904

Example of Australian Early Settlers House

The Story of Being Sarah

Photograph of Sarah Horton taken by Karen Choudhary

Today I’d like to introduce you to Sarah Horton, author, artist, entrepreneur, blogger, filmmaker, activist and an all-round highly accomplished and creative Can-Do Woman.  I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah through my other blog, The Cancer Culture Chronicles, an insider’s view of living with breast cancer in today’s society.  I found Sarah’s story to be so incredibly inspiring, and I am delighted to be able to spotlight her achievements here today on the Can-Do Women blog. Here is a part of Sarah’s story.

In February 2007, at the age of 43, Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer.  To hear those words uttered is a moment so terrifying and raw, that one barely has time to think, let alone be able to string a sentence together in any cohesive manner.  Yet, that’s exactly what Sarah did.  Despite being paralyzed with fear (or perhaps “despite” should be read as “instead of”), Sarah began to write in earnest.  On the day after her diagnosis she took a leather-bound journal, had her husband Ronnie take a picture of her at their kitchen table, and  began compiling her thoughts, lists of questions for the doctors, research for treatment decisions; anything that seemed relevant to the horrifying road on which she was about to embark.

Sarah, who lives in the United Kingdom, soon realized that in order to secure the best treatment options for herself that she needed to seek out opinions from the country’s foremost experts on breast cancer.  Whilst her initial consultations and ongoing medical care were provided free through the country’s National Health Service (“NHS”), obtaining opinions from the country’s top specialists was going to cost money, and lot of it.  Now, this was money that was not immediately available, but would need to be found if Sarah was going to receive the best advice before deciding on and commencing her next lot of treatments.  By this time, Sarah and undergone two major surgeries with the NHS and was concerned about making the right decisions about treatment from that point on.

And so, Sarah turned to Yes To Life (“YTL”), a U.K. cancer advocacy organization that amongst other services, provides support to cancer patients in navigating their treatment options. In what turned out to be a fortuitous twist of fate, although Sarah could not have known it at the time, YTL suggested that Sarah set-up a website to help with the fundraising needed to pay for her upcoming private sector medical bills.  At the time, Sarah felt aghast and that she couldn’t possibly ask people for money, however YTL helped her to understand that this might just be feasible option, particularly if the fundraising was framed around her story.  And so with some misgivings, Sarah set up her website.

Sarah started to regularly publish an online diary and extracts from her journals, and created links for breast cancer resources as she came across them herself.  She included a “donate” page and despite her initial timidity in commencing the project, quickly gathered an email list of loyal “fans”.  As time went on and Sarah kept up with her diary entries, her following grew and that group of “fans”  began to metamorphosize into a virtual support network, in which real friendships started to develop.  And fortunately, Sarah was able to receive the financial help that she needed to pay for the ongoing medical opinions from specialist cancer doctors during her initial period of treatment, a time when the most important medical decisions needed to be made.  At this point,  no further fundraising activities were needed, and Sarah was able to move on with her treatment, receiving the rest of her healthcare for free under the U.K.’s NHS.  But she still kept writing her on-line diary.

Everything changes when you receive a cancer diagnosis, and Sarah’s experience was no exception.  In her words, “life changed beyond belief”.  Unable to work, debilitated by surgeries, and other medical treatments, feeling unsupported by family and her old circle of friends, Sarah felt a palpable anger bubbling away inside of her.  Surrounded by a breast cancer culture that seemed to be all about pink-ribbons and feel-good survivor celebrations, Sarah began reading about other women’s experiences, notably Barbara Ehrenreich’s famous article, “Welcome To Cancerland”, and came to understand that she “didn’t like pink” and that it was okay to feel angry at what had happened to her.  And so she kept writing, and reflecting, and being angry that control and choice throughout the whole breast cancer ordeal, seemed to be a consistently hard-fought battle for the patient.  And she began to consciously wonder, why she had developed breast cancer, and why at such a young age? And this made her angrier.

Continuing to write her journals throughout her entire treatment, on one hand, kept organized and safe the immense trove of medical information that amasses very quickly with a cancer diagnosis, allowing Sarah to keep control in navigating her treatment and medical decisions, but on the other hand proved to be a highly therapeutic outlet for  what is a lonely, frustrating and bewildering ordeal. By writing, Sarah was able to make sense of her anger and frustration, in the clear and coherent narrative that had started to take shape.  She realized there was immense power in story-telling, and her reflections on the “why’s” of her illness, and so the seeds of a book manuscript were unwittingly being sown.

By the end of 2009, Sarah’s arduous treatment regimen was almost at an end.  She had endured many complications and continued to fight fatigue and other debilitating side-effects of medication and numerous surgeries.  But she was almost there. In early 2010, Sarah began to feel strong enough to think about going back to work in the filmmaking business that she runs with her beloved husband Ronnie, A Sense of Place.  As well, she wanted to start getting back to some of the other activities that she had enjoyed before her diagnosis, like camping, painting, hiking, quilting, and her beloved allotment garden. It was at a meeting with her business adviser that they discussed the possibility of making a film or publishing a book about her experience.  At this point Sarah’s journals had grown to 80,000 words, and there was plenty of film footage shot by Ronnie during her treatment,  but Sarah was still unsure at this time which project would be the better fit.  In making a decision as to which project, Sarah’s business adviser suggested she meet with a local Liverpool book publisher, Fiona Shaw of Wordscapes.

As it happened, in early 2010, from the increasing popularity and visibility of Sarah’s website, Sarah was invited to a live debate on Sky TV, to discuss her views on the culture of positive-thinking that tends to surround the world of breast cancer.  It was a high-profile opportunity, seen by some 14 million viewers, and would be Sarah’s first foray into this kind of media.  As a result of her appearance, Sarah learned that she was naturally able to articulate her opinions and convey her anger, in a way that resonated with an audience.  And she liked the feeling of that.  After that appearance, and upon meeting with publisher, Fiona Shaw, they watched a clip of Sarah’s television debut via Sarah’s website.  Fiona was impressed with Sarah’s resolve and critical thinking in her views on the breast cancer cancer movement, and from there a book project was born.

Finishing the book at Lyme Regis. Photograph by Ronnie Hughes

Sarah took her journals, and commenced the extremely complicated process of completing and editing her journal writings into a format befitting of an audience, and in a way that clearly stated her politics with regard to breast cancer, but ultimately balanced with the story of her life.  A life interrupted by breast cancer. In order to achieve this mammoth task of completing the book,  Sarah and Ronnie took a trip to Lyme Regis, where they holed up in a little beach shack with no phone, Internet or television, and Sarah went to work.  What had started as a diary and a way to navigate her diagnosis and treatment, was at last a finished manuscript and ready for several months of fine editing with publisher Fiona, and finally, setting and design.

Click here if you would like to purchase this book

In October 2010, the book Being Sarah was published, and Sarah was finally able to sit back and catch her breath.  But not for long. Fast forward to today, and Sarah is now back at work part-time in her business with Ronnie.  She also undertakes speaking engagements, where she speaks out on the issues of breast cancer prevention and the importance of control and choice in breast cancer treatment.  Sarah also recently attended and spoke at an environmental summit at the European Union in Brussels on the issue of cancer prevention and environmental policy.  Most importantly, Sarah is finally now getting back to life’s simple pleasures, but she continues to  be an advocacy voice for those dealing with breast cancer who cannot speak for themselves, and passing on the knowledge of her own experience  with the disease in order to engage in debate and motivate future actions in breast cancer treatment  and policy.

I’m sure you’ll agree, Sarah Horton epitomizes the spirit of a Can-Do Woman, in what she’s accomplished so far, and as she continues to set the stage for raising public consciousness of breast cancer prevention and  meaningful debate within the breast cancer movement.  Sarah,  thank you for all that you do.  There is much to be learned from your story, and I am honored to be able to share at least part of your narrative today in this blog’s homage to the amazing achievements of extraordinary ordinary women like you.

If you would like to know more about Sarah, and read more of her writings,  you can purchase a copy of her book at the link above, or Sarah’s blog can be found by clicking on this link: Being Sarah.  I highly recommend you stop by and join in the discussion.

And here is a sampling of some of Sarah’s films.

A short video of Sarah’s book launch.

The Plot is a delightful piece about the Can-Do Gardeners who garden at  Sarah’s beloved allotment.

“What we love, we must protect” is a short film about Sarah’s recent trip to the European Parliaments summit on cancer prevention and environmental policy

Has an event in your life spurred you to greater action? Have you ever considered writing a book?  Fiction or non-fiction? Have you started it yet?

What Could A Woman Do in 1900?

What Can A Woman Do? Indeed, this is the question asked by Mrs M.L. Rayne in penning what must be a very early example of an occupational handbook for women.  The copy that I have in my library, although without a date, looks to have been written around 1900 or so.

Mrs Rayne explains her motivation for writing this book by saying;

“Equally blessed is the woman who has found her work.  Life is, indeed a burden to one who, day after day, must plod for a mere existence at some work for this there is no special adaptation, but it is peculiarly trying and discouraging to a woman, who cannot choose for herself the profession or vocation in life which will give her the most pleasure to follow in the toilsome effort of winning her own bread.”

Now I don’t know about you, but I think these words could still be relevant today.  Do we work to live or live to work? Mrs Rayne seems to be advocating that it’s of the utmost importance for women to do something they love – and get paid for it!  Certainly words to live by, even by today’s career standards.

In 1900, women represented around 19 percent of the total American workforce, compared to a figure of around 54 percent in 2009,   and  only 1 percent of the lawyers and 6 percent of the Nation’s physicians were women. (See attached article on American Labor in the 20th Century by Donald Fisk).  Compare these figures to 2009, where employed women held around 40 percent of management, professional and related occupations.

So what could a woman do in 1900?  Aside from encouraging women to consider becoming teachers, journalists, lawyers and doctors which was clearly very progressive, Mrs Rayne highlights the possibility that women could also aspire to be wood engravers, or turn their hands to raising poultry or bee-keeping, amongst other choices.

In discussing why women were particularly well-suited to bee-keeping, Mrs Rayne had this to say;

“Bee-keeping, although a laborious employment, demands no great outlay of strength at one time.  It embraces the performance of many little items, which require skill and gentleness, more than muscle. The hand of woman, from nature, habit and education, has acquired an ease of motion which is agreeable to the sensibilities of bees, and her breath is seldom obnoxious to their olfactories, by reason of tobacco or beer.”

And of wood engraving?

“Women who engrave on wood, says a writer in Harper’s Bazar, will tell you that this exacting occupation tries them less than sewing does: and if, after seeing them bent over the magnifying glass through which they follow the movement of their tools along the surface of the boxwood, you ask if their eyes do not trouble them; they will smile and say that the exercise strengthens the optic nerve.”

Are you surprised at the career choices that were available to women in 1900? Are you aware of any women in your family who held jobs during the 1900’s? What did they do?

Can-Do Equality

Today I’d like to spotlight an amazing little cookbook that I found on e-Bay several months ago.  It’s called “The Working Couple’s Cookbook”, by Peggy Treadwell, published in 1971.  Aside from having incredible 1970’s graphical illustrations by Craig Torlucci, the book is even more interesting, in that it was published right in the heart of the Second Wave of the American Women’s Movement which was primarily concerned with gender inequities in law and culture, and the sexist structure which was deeply entrenched in the society of that time.   At the heart of the feminist consciousness of this era,  was Betty Frieden’s 1963 tome, The Feminine Mystique, which questioned  women’s traditional roles as subservient housewives and plotted a new course for women as equal contributing members of a gender-neutral society.

Indeed this little cookbook seeks to provide practical ways for women to realize this goal of gender-equality in the home, and the back cover sets the tone:

The introduction of the book, seems to clearly suggest an acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships as a normal state, which is apparently a radical concept by today’s politics, but is entirely appropriate when you consider the the milestones of the Gay Liberation Movement during the the same era.  The struggle for gay and lesbian rights, women’s rights and civil rights as a whole were inextricably linked during the 1960’s and early 1970’s.  And so this little book does its bit for the cause by pointing out that:

“…the “his” and “hers” divisions of culinary duties are, of course, interchangeable and could easily be desginated his and his or hers and hers.”

I love the thought of "cooperative meal preparation"

And now for an actual recipe.  Be sure to read this right through.  It says a lot about the times; our need for convenience, but most importantly, equality.

Fantastic illustration don't you think ?

It sounds almost exotic.....

I love #4.

It still seems like the "Hers" instructions are more than the "His"

What kind of household did you grow up in ? Was there an equal division of household duties ? Is there now ?

The Original Can-Do Woman

In constructing this blog this week, imagine my surprise in seeing the news that Geraldine Hoff Doyle, the real-life inspiration for the “We Can Do It” graphic, that serves as the visual symbol for this blog, and indeed the American feminist movement , died at the age of 86 on December 26, 2010.  (Read her full obituary here).

 

In World War II with many men away at war, and manufacturing efforts increased to feed the American war machine, millions of American women left their homes and went to work, in response to government propaganda campaigns.  In white-collar jobs previously held by men, and in the munitions factories and other manufacturing ventures, women filled the labor gaps and  “Rosie the Riveter”, memorialized in a 1942 song of the same name, became the symbol of their dedication to the war effort.

Geraldine Hoff Doyle

Although the “We Can Do It” poster, created in Geraldine Doyle’s likeness,  was originally commissioned by the Westinghouse Company in a campaign to deter strikes and absenteeism,  it was not associated with Rosie the Riveter at that time.  In later decades, after the poster was rediscovered, it became a popular symbol of the American Women’s Movement in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and the character of Rosie and the “We Can Do It” poster became synonymous symbols of the efforts of American women in World War II.

Imagine what it must have been like for women, until World War II tied to home life and menial labor, to suddenly be able to enter the work-force in jobs previously only held by men, earn their own money, and finally feel like valued members of society.  It must have been incredibly liberating for many women.  Although, following the end of World War II with the return of the men,  can you then imagine being expected to return to home life and give up responsible jobs for which you had worked so hard?  This must have been an equally devastating feeling for so many women in the years following the war.

Did any women in your family hold jobs relating to the war effort of the 1940’s ? What did they do ?  Did they remain in the workforce after the war ?


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