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Bustable Women

9 Mar

The Hall of Famous Missourians has been in the news recently, igniting debate over who should be honored in our state capitol. Here at Missouri Women, we like to imagine a fantasy Hall of Famous Missourians. One that would include a few more women. Like these ladies:

Virginia Minor

Women can vote today because of women like Virginia Minor. She sued the St. Louis voting registrar for her right to vote as a United States citizen in 1872.

Maya Angelou

Poet, novelist, inspiration. She has changed the way we see ourselves.

Edna Gellhorn

She canvassed Missouri to get support for voting rights and taught countless women how to vote.

Fannie Hurst

Her book The Imitation of Life continues to challenge how we navigate race relations today.

Kate Chopin

Her book book The Awakening became a feminist classic.

Carrie Nation

She to smashed up bars with a hatchet. Her radical activism brought national attention to the issue of alcohol abuse at the turn of the 20th century.


Slave girl Celia killed her owner after suffering five years of repeated rapes. Her inspiring stand against abuse cost her her life.

Adeline Couzins

This nurse picked up the pieces after Civil War battles and was the first woman to receive a pension from the US government for it.

I’ll be talking about the seven women who are currently in the Hall on our women’s history tour of the Capitol next Sunday the 18th at 1:30pm. I hope you can join me.

Who do you think we should honor in our state capitol?

Betty Grable

5 Feb

Conn and Lillian Grable had a pact – no more children. It was 1916 – Marjorie was 6 and their little son John had just died. But when Lillian found herself pregnant again she was not going to give up her baby- no matter what Conn said.

Lillian’s dream was to be a dancer. She had no talent but was determined to produce a star. Marjorie had taken to throwing fits when Lillian tried to get her to dance so the new baby was all the hope she had left. Lillian had a rough pregnancy- ten weeks in she broke her hip but refused treatment so she could continue her pregnancy – the injury left her with a lifelong limp. Betty Grable was born on December 18, 1916 in St. Louis at 3858 Lafayette Avenue.

Betty Grable in a dance compeition in St. Louis.

Betty took naturally to her mother’s dance instructions – practicing on demand and for hours to perfect her technique. Lillian bribed her with visits to the horse stables to convince Betty to practice because Betty loved horses. She went to Clark’s Dance School in St. Louis and attended the Mary Institute,  located where the St. Louis airport is today. When she was seven, Lillian entered Betty in an amateur talent show – directly going against Conn’s wishes. He didn’t want his daughter paraded around on the stage, but his opinion didn’t count with Lillian. She wanted a star and she was determined to get one.

Betty won the first heat of the competition but came in third in the final competition and was dealt a serious blow – literally. Lillian slapped her across the face as soon as she walked off the stage. She pointed to her hip saying, “I suffered agonies bringing you into this world. Don’t you ever dare to let me down again!” This was the first time Betty really felt the wrath of her mother’s desire for stardom. She learned then she had to be a star.

After Conn came into some money in the early 20’s, the family moved to the Forest Park Hotel on West Pine in St. Louis. Betty and her mother left the rest of the family and moved to California so Betty could audition in films. By the time she was 13, Betty was a chorus girl in a Hollywood film – a direct violation of child labor laws. Lillian had lied about her age and dyed her hair platinum blonde so she would look older. Betty would later be fired for this infraction.

Betty Grable, 1916-1973

It wasn’t long, though before Betty would be starring in plenty of movies. She was a chorus girl through the 1930s, typecast in several movies as a dancing co-ed. By the late ’30s she had made enough money to support herself, her husband and her family. She was ready to give it all up and finally find the occupation that would make her happy, but was offered another contract with 20th Century Fox. She made the decision to stay in the business. A few years later, in 1943, she posed for a publicity picture looking over her right shoulder. The picture went viral and Betty was catapulted into stardom. She was the top box-office draw that year, and by the end of the 1940’s was making over $300,000 a year, the highest paid entertainer of 1947.

The image that made Betty Grable an icon.

Betty’s draw were her legs – they were such a commodity that 20th Century Fox insured them for a million dollars. Although she had skill, she never denied the fact that she was overpaid and undertalented. She was known for saying, “there are two reasons why I’m in show business, and I’m standing on both of them.”

Between her overbearing mother and her sex appeal, the real Betty Grable can be hard to discern. It’s interesting to speculate about what she would have chosen for her life without having the influence of an abusive mother who demanded Betty fulfill her dreams for stardom and a family who relied on her financial support. The remarkable thing about her, however, was her pragmatism. Through it all she emerged a person very down to earth with genuine connections to people. She died in 1973 and is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA.

Betty Grable’s star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame

Hall of Famous Missourians, State Capitol, Jefferson City

Forest Park Hotel National Registry Nomination

The Girl with the Million Dollar Legs by Tom McGee

Laura Ingalls Wilder

29 Jun

"I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all." Laura Ingalls Wilder

If you were in elementary school in the past thirty years, chances are you read about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her Little House books have impacted thousands of kids – the easy to read stories sweep readers away to Laura’s childhood as a pioneer on the frontier. She wrote the books in Mansfield, Missouri.

Laura came to Missouri in 1894, a wife and mother in her 20s. Married nearly 10 years, Laura had a young daughter- Rose. Laura and her husband Almonzo put a down payment on a piece of undeveloped property and decided to try and make a go of life in the Missouri Ozarks. They named their farm the Rocky Ridge Farm. No strangers to hard work, Laura and Almonzo tried all sorts of things to make a living. They farmed, started an orchard, and supplemented their income by taking jobs in Mansfield. Eventually with help from their parents, they were able to purchase a house which got them ahead financially.

After life was a little more comfortable for the Wilders, Laura started writing. In 1911 she submitted an article to the Missouri Ruralist and was employed as a regular columnist. Her column, “As a Farm Woman Thinks,” gained popularity because of her pragmatic approach to women’s issues of the day. Laura’s daughter, Rose had also started writing around the same time. Its widely accepted that Laura and Rose collaborated on Laura’s articles for the magazine.

In the late 1920’s and early 30’s, Laura started writing about her childhood. She wasn’t trying to change the world or do a big show about recording history, but as she got older and after her sister died, she was compelled to reflect. Laura wrote about herself and her family traveling and living on the frontier. Laura had immense personal experience to draw from – she was born in Wisconsin in 1867. Her father was a pioneer – not afraid of moving into uncharted land to settle his family and attempt to make a living. Laura moved with her family to Kansas, Minnesota and finally settled in South Dakota. Laura experienced what was probably typical for any pioneer kid at the time – what was extraordinary was her skill at storytelling.

Laura's books were the base for the Little House TV series that ran from 1974-1983

She describes all the joys and struggles that made up her family’s pioneer experience. She described her sisters, her little brother and her parents – she wrote about their hard times: struggling to survive winters, trying to find food and other supplies, but she also described the good times – the games they played, the jokes they shared, the love and simple togetherness of what seemed an ideal, close family.

Laura’s first attempts at finding a publisher weren’t successful, but with unsuccessful attempts came revisions. It is likely that her daughter Rose helped Laura revise the books and prepared them for publishing. Little House in the Big Woods was first published in 1931, with several sequels to follow. The books have been in continual print and have been translated into 40 different languages. There is still today some debate over whether Rose or Laura actually wrote the Little House books, but that debate doesn’t make the books any less fantastic.

Laura died on February 10, 1957, three days after her 90th birthday. She is buried in the Mansfield Cemetery.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

You can visit Laura’s home, where she wrote the Little House books in Mansfield, Missouri in the 1930s.

Visit Laura in the Hall of Famous Missourians in the State Capitol, Jefferson City.

Women’s History Month

9 Mar

Missouri Women's History Exhibit at MSU

It’s that time of year again!  There are so many great Women’s History Month activities– reading the 19th amendment aloud in front of a crackling fire, going to the mall to sit on Susan B. Anthony’s lap–  that it’s easy to get overwhelmed.  It’s important to remember the true purpose of the season: coming out to support your local Women’s History blog!  So why not attend one of  our upcoming programs?

Pioneering Missouri Women — Missouri State Museum (in the State Capitol), Jefferson City, March 12, 1:30 pm.  This tour of the capitol will leave from the tour desk.  Call 573-751-2854 for more information.

Women’s History Tour of MSU — Missouri State University, Springfield, March 15, 12:30 pm.  This tour of the MSU campus will begin in Craig Hall.  Call 417-380-8749 for more information.

You can also stop by the MSU Campus and see the Missouri women’s history exhibit we installed on the second floor of the Meyer library.  It’ll be up all March.  Or just check out the web version.  And if you’d like to see some of the other Women’s History Month activities going on throughout the state, visit our events page.

Hall of Famous Missourians

7 Dec

There are seven women (out of 38 inductees) in the the Hall of Famous Missourians in our State Capitol, Jefferson City. What do you think of the women deemed “Famous” and who would you select to be included?

Josephine Baker

Susan Blow

Rose Duchesne

Betty Grable

Ginger Rogers


Laura Ingalls Wilder

Ginger Rogers

3 Dec

Life Magazine, 1938

In the middle of the summer, 1911, Lela McMath gave birth to a little girl in the front room of a 2 bedroom house on Moore Street in Independence, Missouri. Shortly after, Lela divorced her husband, left her daughter with her parents and went to Hollywood to write movies. Lela’s little girl, Virginia Katherine McMath, or “Ginja” would become a Hollywood legend and Lela would be right there with her.

Ginja grew up at her grandparent’s (Walter & Saphrona Bell Owens) home on Bellefontaine Avenue in Kansas City, with frequent visits from her mother. Lela wrote several movies under a different name in Hollywood and became one of the first women Marines, working as a publicist during World War I. When Ginja was 9 Lela married John Rogers in Liberty, Missouri and the family moved to Texas. Lela landed a job as a theater reviewer for a Dallas-Forth Worth newspaper and took Ginja to work with her, which meant attending vaudville performances in the early 1920s. Ginja

The Ambassador Theater, St. Louis

learned the Charleston and won the Texas Charleston Championship in 1925, launching her vaudville career. 

Ginja McMath soon became Ginger Rogers and toured across the country spending about 6 months headlining at the Ambassador Theater, at the corner of 7th and Locust in St. Louis. Lela managed her daughter’s career and soon the two moved to California: Ginger began her career in movies and Lela began a long influential career at RKO Pictures. Ginger Rogers became a Hollywood legend, most known as Fred Astaire’s leading lady (they made 10 movies together) and won an Academy Award in 1940 for her role in Kitty Foyle, she struggled to be known for her acting talent. Lela would manage Ginger’s career, negotiating her contracts and giving her advice until Lela’s death in 1977.

Lela and Ginger Rogers

What made this mother/daughter team so successful? One magazine summed it up to Lela’s “faith in her daughter,  shrewd head for business, iron nerves, collossal assurance and undestructible intestinal fortitude.” Lela appeared as Ginger’s mother in The Major and the Minor. The women were very close and very like minded. Ginger credited her mother with much of her success. And from what I can gather, they had admirable mutual respect, neither one overstepping boundries but instead supporting each other in all aspects.

One only has to look at the little house on Moore Street to really appreciate the humble beginnings for this mother-daughter team. The house was recently up for sale, and was purchased this past August for around $30K. Ginger visited the home in 1994 and the city presented her a plaque recognizing the home as her birthplace. Ginger Rogers also made an appearance at the opening of the JC Penney store at the Blue Ridge Mall, Kansas City. Ginger Rogers was inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians in the State Capitol in 2009.

Ginger Roger’s birthhome reduced to $20,000

Ginger Rogers: A Bio-Bibliography by Jocelyn Faris

Backwards and in High Heels  (The Ginger Rogers Musical)

Ginger: My Story by Ginger Rogers

Gingerology – Listen to Ginger Rogers read from her book Ginger: My Story here

Josephine Baker

4 Mar

“. . . I improvised, crazed by the music. . . . Even my teeth and eyes burned with fever. Each time I leaped I seemed to touch the sky and when I regained earth it seemed to be mine alone.”

Josephine Baker only spent the first 15 years of her life in Missouri but she is one of the most well known women to have spent time in the state. She was born in St. Louis, dirt poor, and as a teen attracted attention for her street dancing which landed her in several vaudville shows. She was soon swept off to New York and became a part of the Harlem Rennaisance, dancing as a chorus girl in numerous broadway plays.

Josephine Baker came from extremely humble beginnings and yet developed the confidence and skills to achieve anything she set her mind to. She went against the grain of main stream society – not only in her performances (appearing nude), but also in her efforts to fight for civil rights (forcing integration by refusing to perform for segregated audiences). Baker did all sorts of interesting things: spied on the Nazis, adopted a dozen children, lived in a castle.

She’s got a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame at 6501 Delmar, and is included in the Hall of Famous Missourians in Jefferson City.


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