Not only us today International Women’s Day, but also this month we’re recognizing Women’s History Month and there’s no better way to learn more about the some of the world’s most important historical figures than by checking out Sam Maggs’ Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History.
Like the film Hidden Figures, Maggs uncovers the contributions that women have quietly made to the world. History books don’t teach that nuclear fission was actually discovered by Lise Mietner because her lab partner Otto Hahn won the Nobel Prize for its discovery. Or that Huang Daopo invented weaving technology that revolutionized textile production in China in 1240—that’s 5 centuries before Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin!
Thanks to our friends at Quirk books, we’re proud to share an excerpt of 2 of the 25 biographies featured in Maggs’ book.
“I made up my mind to try; I tried and was successful.”
The world did not believe in Bessie Coleman. White Americans never thought that Black people could become pilots. Many men—heck, even Bessie’s own brother—told her that women couldn’t, either. But Bessie believed in herself, and she went out and did her country proud anyway. So if anyone tries to tell you that you can’t do something because of who you are, just think back to this amazing, brave, high-flying lady.
Bessie was born in the tiny settlers’ town of Atlanta, Texas, on January 26, 1892—one of thirteen children born to Susan, likely a former slave, and George, who was three-quarters Cherokee. Times were hard; just because the Civil War had ended almost thirty years ago didn’t mean that things were all freedom and privilege for Black people in the American South. Neither of Bessie’s parents could read or write. More than a hundred lynchings took place in the South annually, and anything from “this Black person got gainful employment” to “this Black person tried to defend their property from gangs” could spur a violent mob. Because of racist poll taxes and literacy tests, Black Americans were unable to vote or have representation in the government. Jim Crow segregation meant that Black people were forbidden from riding in the same rail cars, attending the same schools, or using the same water fountains as white people. With more and more of their land and rights stripped away every year, Native Americans in Texas weren’t exactly having a great postwar life, either. Add to this dismal situation the depression that struck the nation in 1893, and things were kind of garbage for any- one who wasn’t a rich white dude in the South.
Despite this challenging climate, Bessie’s dad managed to get his hands on a quarter of an acre for $25 in a Black area of Waxahachie, Texas. Two-year-old Bessie’s family moved into a small, three-room shotgun home and joined the town’s booming cotton industry. But then George decided he was not about that racist Texas life, and he left for the Oklahoma-adjacent Indian Territory, where he would encounter less discrimination. Susan and the family stayed behind in Texas, which meant that Bessie, on top of her four-mile walk to a segregated one-room school overseen by an underqualified teacher, now took responsibility for her three younger sisters while her mom worked as maid and cook for a local white family.
Though it’s easy to be like, “Yeah, that’s rough, but I do my own laundry, too,” let’s not forget that Bessie was doing all this work with no electricity or running water, which meant lots of hefting heavy water buckets, labor-intensive scrubbing, and babies screaming by candlelight—all while Bessie was nine years old. In addition, every summer the annual cotton harvest interrupted her schooling, a disruption that Bessie hated (she was really good at math, for one thing). The budding girl genius would much rather be at home, reading aloud to her fam from Uncle Tom’s Cabin or nonfiction books about Harriet Tubman that her mother picked up at the traveling cart library.
By age eighteen, Bessie felt a drive to “amount to something,” which prompted her to save enough money to enroll as “Elizabeth” at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University, located in a Black municipality in Langston, Oklahoma. After cash ran out during her first semester, however, she was forced to head back to Waxahachie—with the university band in tow, lauding her arrival as though she was about to play in the Rose Bowl. (Another good moral: next time you want to make the best out of a bad situation, just get a marching band to tail you wherever you go.)
By 1915, after years of humiliating and painful work as a town laundress (for which she was forced to leave clothes on her white clients’ back steps to avoid being seen), twenty-three-year- old Bessie was ready for change. She bought a ticket to Chicago, climbed aboard the cramped, uncomfortable rail car designated for Black women, and made the twenty-hour trip, arriving in the city and moving in with her two brothers—Walter, a Pullman train porter, and Johnny, technically unemployed but probably funemployed by the mob, if you know what I mean. The three of them lived in the city’s South Side, home to 90 percent of Chicago’s Black population (a population that doubled in the decade between 1910 and 1920) and where all classes mixed together in relative peace and harmony. Since she hated what she perceived as the degrading nature of domestic service, Bessie enrolled in beauty school to become a manicurist and set up shop at a barber’s on “The Stroll” (eight blocks of radness that was basically the Black Wall Street and Broadway combined). Soon she was giving perfect pedis to Chi-town’s Black elite; she even won a contest for Black Chicago’s fastest and best manicurist. But Bessie wouldn’t be buffing and polishing for long. Shortly after her move to Chicago, Johnny, who was a veteran, happened to mention to his sister that he thought French women were superior to American women because the former “could even fly airplanes.” Instead of merely pointing out his flawed logic, Bessie decided to go ahead and prove him wrong by attempting to enroll at every flight school in the country. I say “attempted” because — surprise!—A merican f light schools were not okay with a woman, let alone a Black woman, becoming a pilot. The friendly skies of the United States were any- thing but for a woman like Bessie, and life on the ground in Chicago was no picture of perfection either, thanks to brewing race riots. Luckily, Bessie had met a lot of influential folks at her manicure table and the Stroll’s nighttime hotspots—including her mysterious husband, Claude Glenn, a man fourteen years her senior whom she had quietly wed in 1917 but likely never lived with (and then basically never spoke of again—safe to say they separated). Deciding that she would train in France, just like the pilots her brother was so all about, Bessie used her social smarts and some serious pluck to secure funding from one Robert Abbott (editor and founder of the Chicago Defender, a weekly newspaper read by 500,000 people) and Jesse Binga (a bank owner and real estate mogul who made his fortune by selling homes in rich white neighborhoods to Black families at a discount, then buying up the rest of the homes in the area as white residents fled). She started managing a chili joint and taking night classes in French and filled out a passport application (on which she said she was an unmarried manicurist). Then, on November 20, 1920, twenty-eight-year-old Bessie headed to Paris on her own.
In France, Bessie was on it. For instruction at the Ecole d’Aviation des Frères Caudon at Le Crotoy, she walked the nine miles to the airfield each day. She flew in an unstable Nieuport Type 82 biplane and once watched a classmate die in training. Her course was supposed to take ten months, but she finished in just seven; after nailing the final test of a figure-eight and an exact landing, she earned her pilot’s license on June 15, 1921 (two years before Amelia Earhart!). Bessie Coleman was officially the world’s first Black aviatrix. The next September, she sailed back to New York, where the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing and the Black media were all about her. The brush with fame was great (and probably felt incredibly validating in a “told ya so, bro” kind of way), but standing ovations when she attended musicals wouldn’t pay the bills. Commercial flights weren’t really a thing yet (keep in mind this is only about twenty years after the Wright Brothers), so she was unable to earn money that way either. Besides, Bessie wanted to use her powers for good, not just for cash; her ultimate goal was to teach Black kids about airplanes and “make Uncle Tom’s cabin into a hangar by establishing a flying school.”
So Bessie headed back to Europe, where she spent time in Germany and the Netherlands learning how to be a proper “barnstormer,” a trick flier who did amazing (and amazingly dangerous) air stunts for crowds at airshows. She even put together her own superhero costume, complete with military jacket, high lace-up boots, a leather coat, and goggles. With her act perfected, and some sponsorship from her old friend Robert Abbott, who publicized her as “the world’s greatest woman flier,” she returned to the States ready to perform—and the public was definitely ready to watch. In a rare instance of the white media acknowledging the accomplishments of a Black woman, the New York Times covered her first airshow in New York, reporting in an article entitled “Negress Pilots Airplane” that “about 1,000 spectators, mostly negroes, saw the exhibition, which was in honor of the Fiftieth (negro) Infantry regiment, New York National Guard.”
Flying World War I Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes, Bessie went on to perform across America, including a terrifying performance in Los Angeles during which her old plane engine crapped out midflight, nosedived at three hundred feet, and left her with several broken ribs and a broken leg (she recovered from her injuries in Chicago while giving lectures). But Bessie wasn’t just doing dare- devil stunts; she was also campaigning for equality. On a visit to her hometown of Waxahachie, Texas, Bessie refused to fly if organizers used segregated entrances. After they agreed not to segregate the event, she directed her team to airdrop leaflets about the event onto nearby Black neighborhoods. She even took Black women on passenger flights after a Houston show, “the first time colored public of the South ha[d] been given the opportunity to fly,” according to the Houston Informer. And on top of all that, “Queen Bess” or “Brave Bessie,” as the media dubbed her, opened a beauty shop in Orlando, lectured across America to inspire Black youths to become pilots, took a job doing airborne advertisements for Coast Firestone Rubber, and toyed with the idea of a movie career—which she promptly dropped when she was cast as a stereotypical downtrodden enslaved woman. (Billboard called her “temperamental” and “unreliable,” but you know she was just taking a stand against racist garbage.)
A tale as rad as Bessie’s had to come to an end eventually. At age thirty-four, when she was close to opening her own flight school, Bessie had finally saved up enough money (and gotten a little financial boost from her friends) to purchase her own Jenny. The plane was in Dallas, but at the time Bessie was in Jacksonville, so she had William Willis, her twenty-four-year-old white mechanic and sometimes-publicist, fly it over for her. The plane was super old and super trash—so much so that it needed several emergency landings during the trip to Florida. Once William arrived, Bessie’s friends and family begged her not to fly, but Bessie wanted a test flight to ensure that everything was in working order. So on April 30, 1926, she and Willis took the bird up before a show for Orlando’s Negro Welfare League’s May Day celebration, with Willis in control so Bessie could undo her seatbelt and lean out of the plane to assess the best location for a parachute jump. But the plane was indeed busted, and after a mere twelve minutes in the air it took an unexpected dive and flip, hurling Bessie to her death thousands of feet below (she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt). Shortly thereafter, Willis hit the ground in a fiery blaze and died on impact. A wrench stuck in the gearbox had caused the engine to malfunction.
It was a tragic—and perhaps foreseeable— end to a life of bravery and risk. But risk had always been part of Bessie’s life as an aviatrix, and it was that kind of danger that made her job and her journey so interesting and inspiring to millions of Americans. A half century after her death, the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club for women of all races was founded in Chicago, and every year on the anniversary of her death their pilots airdrop flowers on her grave. She has a road named after her at O’Hare Airport, a Bessie Coleman Day in Chicago, and a postage stamp with her face on it. But beyond all the nifty tributes, Bessie inspired countless Black women to fight for their dreams, even when racist institutions (or rude brothers) try to stop them.
“Because of Bessie Coleman,” said Lieutenant William J. Powell in 1934, “we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.”
Mary Sherman Morgan
American Rocket Scientist
Next time you brush off some task as easy because it’s “not rocket science,” think of Mary Sherman Morgan. For this amazing midcentury woman, it was all rocket science—and basically none of it was easy.
Born on a farmstead in rural North Dakota (so James T. Kirk!), Mary was the youngest of six children. She grew up in a family of bullying siblings and indifferent parents who kept her out of school to work on the farm until she was eight years old, when social services stepped in, threatening to arrest Mary’s father unless he allowed her to leave the house. The social worker provided Mary with riding lessons and a horse that would take Mary to and from the one-room schoolhouse.
Fortunately, the late start didn’t hinder Mary’s passion for education. After learning how to read and write while still managing to handle all her farm chores, she focused hard on her schooling and kicked the odds in the teeth by graduating as her high school’s valedictorian, despite being three years older than the rest of her graduating class because of enrolling so late. After running away from the farm to study chemistry at DeSales College in Toledo, she lodged in secret with her estranged aunt Ida. But her education would hit another bump: midway through her undergraduate years, the Second World War broke out. Among the upheaval caused by the conflict were new employment opportunities for women. As men headed off to fight, their now-vacant jobs had to be filled. Suddenly, a whole swath of the female workforce that might have otherwise been relegated to the secretarial sidelines was able to step up and apply for the openings—with Mary being among them.
Sometimes the jobs came knocking. While at college Mary had been approached by a “local employment recruiter” who needed “factory workers” trained in chemical engineering for a job in “Ohio.” As you may have assumed by my prolific use of “scare quotes,” the job the man presented wasn’t quite what it seemed.
In fact, the recruiter refused to say exactly what the work was, what the factory made, or where exactly it was located. Fortunately, Mary wasn’t afraid of opportunity (even when “opportunity” meant “strange dudes offering sketchy jobs”), so she accepted the offer, even when she had to get “top secret” security clearance from the U.S. government in order to do so. Hoping to complete her degree later, but also needing money to eat and survive, Mary bailed on college after sophomore year and accepted the position.
As it turned out, this supposedly ordinary factory job (and “definitely not spy stuff at all”) was in the Plum Brook Ordnance Works munitions factory near Sandusky, Ohio, the country’s top supplier of gunpowder, producing 400,000 pounds of explosives per day. As an employee, Mary created chemical compounds like DNT (used for making TNT), pentolite (used for firing warheads and bazookas), nitroglycerine (a liquid explosive), and TNT (aka trinitrotoluene, aka the explosive you may recognize from many a Looney Tunes cartoon). An impressive worker, Mary was devastated when she discovered she was pregnant (for a Catholic working woman without a husband in the 1940s, not the best news), and she knew she was on her own when the father, her college sweetheart, dropped off the face of the Earth after she told him about their future baby. In 1944 she gave birth to a daughter, who was adopted by her cousin, Aunt Ida’s daughter Ruth (married but unable to have children). To afford postnatal care, Mary worked for three weeks at the hospital with other unwed mothers.
After the war, Mary rocketed ahead (get it?), trying to stave off the unemployment that faced so many women after the war. She boarded a bus for California and applied for a job as a theoretical performance specialist with North American Aviation (NAA), an aerospace manufacturer that designed and produced rocket engines, where she would calculate how new propellants were expected to perform. Thanks in large part to the sterling recommendations she brought from Plum Brook (a highly respected institution after the war), Mary was officially hired in 1947. The NAA brought her on as an analyst—a special word for an engineer without a college degree whom they could therefore pay less money—in the Aerophysics Lab at the NAA’s Canoga Park Office, later renamed “Rocketdyne.” Mary was one of 900 engineers in the company, but the only one without a college degree, and definitely the only woman.
Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, Mary was named technical lead on NAA’s next big contract: developing a new fuel for the Jupiter missile. (Contrary to its name, the Jupiter was not a weapon sent to kill aliens on the eponymous gas giant, but rather a standard-issue medium-range ballistic missile used for blowing up bridges and other military targets.) Mary’s job was to produce a fuel that would replace the current formulation (composed of 25% water and 75% ethyl alcohol), providing a combustion powerful enough to propel a satellite all the way into space (a feat the United States had not yet accomplished). In addition, the fuel had to be stable enough not to cause the rocket to explode on the launch pad (which was happening, like, all the time). And because the rocket machinery could not be altered, Mary had to improve the propul- sion by changing only the chemical composition of the fuel—a task that most people thought impossible but that would see Mary facing a pink slip should she fail. Faced with this formidable challenge, Mary developed a fuel made up of 60 percent unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (H2NN[CH3]2) and 40 percent diethylenetriamine (HN[CH2CH2NH2]2). That would get mixed with liquid oxygen, or LOX. Mary, being wonderful, wanted to name her new fuel “bagel.” (Because bagel . . . and LOX. Delicious!)
Unfortunately for the world of rocket-science-related puns, the U.S. Army settled on the name hydyne.
Regardless of what it was called, the fuel worked! Hydyne increased thrust by 12 percent and effectively launched the United States’ first satellite, Explorer I, into orbit on January 1, 1958. (Of course, it was Explorer I’s de- signer Wehner von Braun who was lauded as the savior of the space program amid the formation of NASA that July.)
While working toward this blast of success (get it?!), Mary married fellow NAA employee and mathematical engineer Richard Morgan, and the couple would go on to have four children (one of whom is about to become crucially important to our story—stay tuned!). Mary retired in the late 1950s from an NAA office that then boasted at least a dozen women, and pretty much never spoke of her work again. She died in 2004, her passing marked by no major praise or plaudit, even though she was one of the world’s first female rocket scientists, without whom we may never have reached orbit.
Luckily for planet Earth, Mary’s son George Morgan was not about to let this injustice stand. After being approached at his mother’s funeral by a man who told him that Mary had “single-handedly saved America’s space program . . . and nobody knows it but a handful of old men,” George began digging into her past—and what he found was astonishing (as you know after reading all about it). When the Los Angeles Times refused to publish Mary’s obituary because it was unable to verify her accomplishments, George set out to make his mom a household name: he wrote a play about her called Rocket Girl, which was produced and performed at the California Institute of Technology in November 2008. Not content with already being the sweetest son ever, George published a complete biography of his mother in 2013—Rocket Girl: America’s First Female Rocket Scientist is three hundred pages celebrating the life of this fabulous but forgotten space-age heroine. He also swooped in and saved the day when an anonymous editor tried to give Mary’s supervisor credit for the invention of hydyne on Wikipedia (because, let’s get real, we know where people get their facts these days).
So now that we all know the truth, let’s never forget Mary Sherman Morgan, the raddest rocket scientist of them all.
Excerpted from Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs and Sophia Foster-Dimino. Reprinted with permission from Quirk Books.