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Adler, Polly (16 April 1900?–09 June 1962), prostitution madam and author, was born Pearl Adler in Yanow, Russia, the daughter of Morris Adler, a tailor, and Gertrude Koval (called “Isidore” and “Sarah” in her autobiography). Later in life Adler also used several aliases, including Joan Martin and Pearl Davis. When Adler was twelve, her family arranged for her to be tutored by the local rabbi in the hope that she would receive a scholarship to study at a Gymnasium in Pinsk. A year later, before learning the results of the scholarship competition, Adler’s father sent his daughter to live in the United States. Traveling alone, thirteen-year-old Adler arrived in New York in December 1913....

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Margaret Anderson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-112044).

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Anderson, Margaret (24 November 1886–19 October 1973), editor and author, was born Margaret Carolyn Anderson in Indianapolis, Indiana, the daughter of Arthur Aubrey Anderson and Jessie Shortridge. Anderson’s father was a railway executive who provided a comfortable middle-class existence for his wife and three daughters. Anderson, whose chief interest as a young woman was music and literature, was soon regarded as the rebel of the family. After three years at Western College for Women in Ohio, she dropped out and made her way to Chicago, hoping to find work as a writer. After various stints as a bookstore clerk, print assistant, and part-time critic, Anderson decided to start her own literary journal. With little money but a great deal of enthusiasm and support from friends, Anderson founded the avant-garde ...

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Angelou, Maya (4 Apr. 1928–28 May 2014), writer, performer, and activist, was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, the second child of Bailey Johnson, Sr., a doorman and Navy dietitian, and Vivian Baxter, a registered nurse, cocktail hostess, and Merchant Marine. Her brother, Bailey, Jr., nicknamed her Maya, and the name stuck. After their parents’ divorce, the two young children were sent alone on a train from San Francisco to Stamps, Arkansas, to be met and raised by their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and their father’s brother, Uncle Willie, who was disabled. Grandmother Henderson had managed to build and own a general store with living quarters in the back, and it was also a safe black community gathering place in the segregated town. Uncle Willie provided a steady stream of good reading and high scholastic expectations, and their grandmother, “Momma,” taught them no-nonsense life skills, took them to church, and loved them....

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Antin, Mary (13 June 1881–15 May 1949), author, was born in Polotzk, Russia, the daughter of Israel Antin, a scholar and unsuccessful shopkeeper, and Esther Weltman. The assassination of Czar Alexander II three months before her birth unleashed a series of brutal pogroms and increased restrictions on the employment, residency, and education of Jews. These events formed the background of Antin’s childhood, a world she recalled as divided in two, between Polotzk and Russia, Jews and Gentiles, with the constant presence of anti-Semitism....

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Ashbridge, Elizabeth (1713–16 May 1755), Quaker minister and autobiographer, was born Elizabeth Sampson in Middlewich, Cheshire, England, the daughter of Thomas Sampson, a ship’s surgeon, and Mary (maiden name unknown). What little is known about Ashbridge’s life is elicited almost entirely from her brief but compelling autobiography, ...

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Barr, Amelia Edith Huddleston (29 March 1831–10 March 1919), author and teacher, was born in Ulverston, Lancashire, England, the daughter of the Reverend William Henry Huddleston and Mary Singleton. When Barr was young, her family moved often, according to her father’s assignment as a Methodist minister. Although her early education was frequently interrupted by relocations, returns on the Reverend Huddleston’s investments allowed Barr to attend the best private schools wherever the church sent the family. Furthermore, reading sophisticated books and treatises to her father reinforced her formal schooling and contributed to an excellent early education. This childhood security ended abruptly in 1847, when a family friend absconded to Australia with the Reverend Huddleston’s fortune, and Barr had to earn her own living as a “second teacher” at a school in Downham Market. Soon the family’s monetary situation improved and enabled Barr, in 1849, to attend Normal School in Glasgow to learn the Stowe teaching method, with its emphasis on moral training, lifelong learning, and understanding rather than rote learning. Marriage, in 1850, to Robert Barr, a prosperous young Scottish wool merchant, ended her teacher-training program. Nevertheless, teaching, on a formal or informal basis, was an important part of Barr’s life for the next twenty years....

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Bowers, Bathsheba (1672–1718), spiritual autobiographer and Quaker preacher, was born in Massachusetts, the daughter of Benanuel Bowers and Elizabeth Dunster, English Quakers who had resettled in Boston at the end of the seventeenth century to escape the Anglican faith of her father’s father. Because Bowers’s adolescent years were disrupted by the ruling Puritans’ persecution of Quakers, she and at least two of her eleven siblings were removed to Quaker Philadelphia, were Bowers spent most of her adult life....

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Braden, Anne (28 July 1924–06 March 2006), civil rights activist and journalist, was born Anne Gambrell McCarty in Louisville, Kentucky, to Gambrell and Anita McCarty. Because her father was a traveling salesman, she grew up in various southern states, but mostly in rigidly segregated Anniston, Alabama. Her conservative white Episcopal parents fully embraced  the norms of southern racial hierarchy, and they remained comfortable throughout the Depression years of her childhood, but the young Anne, idealistic and devoutly religious, was troubled by the suffering around her. After graduating from Anniston High School in 1941, she left home to study literature and journalism at two Virginia women’s colleges, first Stratford Junior College and then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, where she discovered the life of the mind in a serious way and first met critics of racial segregation. In 1945, upon graduation from Randolph-Macon, she returned to postwar Alabama as a newspaper reporter, first for the ...

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Cantwell, Mary (10 May 1930–01 February 2000), writer, was born Mary Lee Cantwell in Providence, Rhode Island, the daughter of Leo Cantwell, a man of Scottish descent who worked as a production manager in a rubber plant, and Mary Lonergan Cantwell, a former teacher and the descendant of nineteenth-century Irish immigrants. As described in her nostalgic memoir ...

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Chona, Maria (1858–1936), oral autobiographer, was born in the village of Mesquite Root, part of the Papago Indian Reservation west of Tucson, in what is now the state of Arizona. At the time of her birth, the reservation was part of the Gadsden Purchase, a large parcel of land in the American Southwest that had been acquired by the United States from Mexico in 1853. Chona was the daughter of José Marie, chief of the Tautaukwañi Papago, who were known to English-speaking settlers as the Bean People or Desert People; the name of Chona's mother is unknown. José Marie was the principal war chief among all the Papago tribes and led frequent raids against neighboring Apaches. He was also a lover of gambling, according to his daughter, who nicknamed him "Con Quien" ("the Gambler")....

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Cohen, Rose Gollup (04 April 1880–1925?), author, was the daughter of Abraham (Avrom) Gollup, a tailor, and Annie (maiden name unknown). Rose, the oldest child in her family, grew up in a small village in western Russia, probably what is today Belarus. The onset in the early 1880s of attacks on Jewish communities—known as pogroms—and the expulsion of Jews from numerous Russian towns and cities made life increasingly intolerable for the Jewish minority. These attacks, coupled with increasingly systematic discrimination against Jews in higher education and economic life, contributed to the growth of the large-scale exodus of Russian Jews. About two million emigrated between 1880 and 1914, with the vast majority going to the United States....

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Delany, Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” (03 September 1891–25 September 1995), and Sarah Louise “Sadie” Delany (19 September 1889–25 January 1999), dentist and schoolteacher, were born in Raleigh, North Carolina, the daughters of Henry Beard Delany, an educator and Episcopal bishop, and Nanny James Logan Delany. Bessie was to become a dentist, and Sadie a schoolteacher; late in life, they gained fame for their published reminiscences. Descended from a mix of black, American Indian, and white lineages, the sisters grew up in a family of ten children in Raleigh on the campus of St. Augustine's, the African-American school where their father, a former slave, served as priest and vice principal. The sisters graduated from St. Augustine's (Sadie in 1910 and Bessie in 1911) at a time when few Americans, black or white, were educated beyond grammar school. “We had everything you could want except money,” recalled Bessie. “We had a good home, wonderful parents, plenty of love, faith in the Lord, educational opportunies—oh, we had a privileged childhood for colored children of the time” ( ...

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See Delany, Annie Elizabeth “Bessie”

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Amanda Khiterman and Michal R. Belknap

Dennis, Peggy (01 January 1909–25 September 1993), communist Party activist and journalist, was born Regina Karasick in New York City to Meyer and Berta Karasick, Jewish-Russian revolutionaries who in 1904 had traded the confines of czarist oppression for the capitalist society they despised. Determined never to assimilate once they settled in America, the Karasick family remained active in the socialist movement, even after the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, which dashed their hopes of returning home....

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Dyer, Mary Marshall (07 August 1780–13 January 1867), anti-Shaker author, was born Mary Marshall in Northumberland, New Hampshire, the daughter of Caleb Marshall, a farmer, and Zeruiah Harriman Marshall. Raised on the northern New England frontier, she had no formal schooling, though later in life she recalled proudly that she and nine of her eleven siblings became teachers....

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Farrar, Elizabeth Ware Rotch (12 July 1791–22 April 1870), author, was born in Dunkirk, France, the daughter of Americans Benjamin Rotch and Elizabeth Barker. Both her father and grandfather, William Rotch, were Quakers, devoted members of the Society of Friends, and successful whale merchants in Nantucket, Massachusetts. During the Revolutionary War the whaling industry in Nantucket, which was run primarily by Quakers, suffered attacks both by colonial and by British forces owing to the Quakers’ neutral position and afterward because of the British duty on sperm oil. William Rotch was sent to France by the Nantucket whalers to see whether a tax-free whaling port could be established in Europe. He and his son Benjamin settled in Dunkirk, where Eliza, as she was known, was born, but fled during the French Revolution to escape the terror of the Robespierre government. William Rotch returned to the United States. Despite his intention to follow his father, Benjamin was detained with his family in England because of a lawsuit over a vessel burned at sea. Eventually the family settled in the small Welsh village of Milford Haven, where he established a successful whaling business....

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Fisher, Carrie (21 Oct. 1956–27 Dec. 2016), actress and writer, was born Carrie Frances Fisher in Beverly Hills, California, to Eddie Fisher, a popular singer and the grandson of Russian-Jewish immigrants, and Debbie Reynolds, a Hollywood actress whose forebears were Anglo-Saxon Protestants of modest means. At the time of Carrie’s birth, Fisher and Reynolds, who had married to great fanfare a year earlier, were a celebrated young couple, labeled “America’s sweethearts” by the media. The public doted on newspaper and magazine coverage as well as film footage of the seemingly perfect couple and their adorable little daughter. The arrival little more than a year later of a son, Todd, only enhanced their image....

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E. D. Lloyd-Kimbrel

Fisher, M. F. K. (03 July 1908–22 June 1992), writer, was born Mary Frances Kennedy in Albion, Michigan, the daughter of Rex Brenton Kennedy, a newspaper editor, and Edith Oliver Holbrook, a real estate broker. When Fisher was three years old, the family moved to the Quaker community of Whittier, California, where her father took over the editorship of the local newspaper. The Kennedys were Episcopal and somewhat “outside the faith” in their new home. Rex Kennedy continued as editor of the ...

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Frémont, Jessie Benton (31 May 1824–27 December 1902), writer, was born at “Cherry Grove” in Rockbridge County, Virginia, the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, a U.S. senator from Missouri, and Elizabeth Preston McDowell. High-spirited and precocious, she was her father’s favorite: “We were a succession of girls at first, with the boys coming last, and my father gave me early the place a son would have had” (...