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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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Albert, Octavia Victoria Rogers (24 December 1853–1890?), author and activist, was born in Oglethorpe, Georgia, the daughter of slaves. Details of her life are sketchy. Little is known of her parents or her childhood beyond the date and place of her birth and the fact that she was born into bondage; thus, it is particularly intriguing that in 1870, only five years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and one year after Atlanta University opened, seventeen-year-old Octavia was among the 170 students enrolled at that institution. Further details of her life are equally sketchy. Most of what we know is culled from information in ...

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Ayer, Harriet Hubbard (27 June 1849–23 November 1903), businesswoman and journalist, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of Henry George Hubbard, a real estate dealer, and Juliet Elvira Smith. Her father died when Harriet was three years old, but his legacy of valuable land purchases enabled the family to live comfortably. Poor health limited Harriet’s early education to private tutors. Although Episcopalian, she entered the Catholic Convent of the Sacred Heart at the age of twelve, graduating three years later....

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Beach, Sylvia Woodbridge (14 March 1887–06 October 1962), bookstore owner and publisher, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the second of three daughters of Sylvester Woodbridge Beach, a Presbyterian minister, and Eleanor Orbison, an artist. Disinclined toward both religion and formal education, she often pleaded illness and eventually fled the Presbyterian parsonage of Princeton, New Jersey, for Europe. Beach spent 1907–1908 and 1911–1912 in Florence, 1914–1916 in Spain, and in midsummer of 1916 settled in Paris, where her father had served as associate pastor at the American Church from 1902 to 1905. Paris would remain her home until her death there forty-six years later....

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Nellie Bly. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-97447).

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Bly, Nellie (05 May 1864–27 January 1922), reporter and manufacturer, was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Michael Cochran, a mill owner and associate justice of Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, and Mary Jane Kennedy Cummings. Judge Cochran, the father of fifteen children by two wives, died suddenly without a will in 1870, leaving Mary Jane with little money. Mary Jane’s abusive third marriage to John Jackson Ford ended in divorce in 1878, and “Pink,” as Elizabeth Jane was known, at age fifteen, went off to Indiana (Pa.) Normal School, adding a final ...

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Bracken, Peg (25 Feb. 1918–20 Oct. 2007), humorist, book author, and food writer, was born Ruth Eleanor Bracken in Filer, Idaho to John Lewis and Ruth McQuesten Bracken. She had one brother, Jack. She grew up in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, and graduated from Antioch College in ...

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Cannon, Poppy (2 Aug. 1905–1 April 1975), cookbook author, journalist, and advertising executive, was born Lillian Gruskin in Cape Town, South Africa, to Robert and Henrietta Gruskin, Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. (Henrietta’s maiden name is unknown.) The family moved to the United States in ...

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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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Jacobs, Harriet (1813–07 March 1897), autobiographer and reformer, was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, the daughter of Elijah, a skilled slave carpenter, and Delilah, a house slave. In her slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself...

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Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs (1820?–26 May 1907), White House dressmaker during the Lincoln administration and author, was born in Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia, the daughter of George Pleasant and Agnes Hobbs, slaves. Her birth date is variously given from 1818 to 1824 based on different documents that report her age. The identity of her father is also uncertain; in later life Keckley reportedly claimed that her father was her master, Colonel A. Burwell. George Pleasant, who was owned by a different master, was allowed to visit only twice a year and was eventually taken west....

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Lewis, Augusta (1848–14 September 1920), journalist and labor leader, was born in New York City, the daughter of Charles Lewis and Elizabeth Rowe, occupations unknown. Having lost both her parents while still an infant, Lewis was raised by Isaac Baldwin Gager, a commission merchant in Brooklyn Heights. She received her early education at home, after which she lived for several seasons with one of her private teachers in Cold Spring, New York. Returning to New York City, she studied at Brooklyn Heights Seminary and then entered the Sacred Heart Convent School in Manhattanville, New York, from which she graduated with honors....

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Malkiel, Theresa Serber (01 May 1874–17 November 1949), trade union leader, woman suffragist, publicist, and educator, was born in Bar, Russia. In 1891 she emigrated with her parents to the United States.

Soon after her arrival, Theresa Serber became a pioneer in the Jewish workers’ movement and socialist labor agitation in New York City. Employed in the garment industry, she joined the Russian Workingmen’s Club in 1892. In October 1894 she was among a group of seventy women who founded the Infant Cloak Makers Union (ICMU). Although it was a depression year, she and her associates decided not to accept wage cuts and deteriorating labor conditions any longer. Their action was front-page news. Eventually the ICMU became part of the Socialist Trades and Labor Alliance. In 1896, Serber was among the delegates to the first convention of the latter alliance; in 1899, along with many others, she broke with labor leader ...

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Lillian Parks. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Parks, Lillian Rogers (01 February 1897–06 November 1997), White House seamstress and author, was born Lillian Adele Rogers, the daughter of Emmett E. Rogers, Sr., a waiter, and Margaret “Maggie” Williams Rogers. Source information is sketchy regarding her early years, but her godchild, Peggy Holly, believes that Lillian Parks was born in the District of Columbia and as a child spent summers with relatives in Virginia. Her father—by Parks's account an alcoholic unable to hold a job—left his family when she was a child; in 1909 her mother took a job at the White House at the beginning of ...

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Pennell, Elizabeth Robins (21 Feb. 1855–7 Feb. 1936), author, art critic, and culinary writer, was born Elizabeth Robins in Philadelphia to Edward Robins, a member of the Philadelphia Exchange, and Margaret Miller, who died shortly after giving birth to her. In spite of the family’s devout Episcopalian background, Robins converted to Catholicism and enrolled his daughter in a convent at Conflans, France, and then at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Torresdale, a suburb of Philadelphia, where she was a bright, capable student. At the Convent of the Sacred Heart, she met Agnes Repplier, who would also go on to become a writer, with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship....

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Robinson, Harriet Jane Hanson (08 February 1825–22 December 1911), textile mill worker, suffragist, and author, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the daughter of William Hanson, a carpenter, and Harriet Browne. When Harriet was six, her father died. Her mother then ran a boarding house in Industrial Lowell, Massachusetts, with the help of her children....

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Stevens, Alzina Ann Parsons (27 May 1849–03 June 1900), printer, labor organizer, journalist, and settlement worker, was born in Parsonsfield, Maine, the daughter of Enoch Parsons, a farmer and carpenter, and Louisa Page. While Alzina Parsons was still young, her father gave up farming and settled the family in the mill town of Somersworth, New Hampshire, where she attended high school. A lifetime of self-supporting work began after her father’s death in 1864, when she took a job in a textile mill....

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Terhune, Mary Virginia Hawes (21 December 1830–03 June 1922), novelist and domestic expert, was born in Dennisville, Amelia County, Virginia. She was the second of seven surviving children of Samuel Pierce Hawes, a merchant originally from Massachusetts, and Judith Anna Smith Hawes, the daughter of well-to-do Virginia planters. Mary Virginia’s father gave his precocious daughter early access to classic literature and provided her with a broad education unusual for a southern girl of the period. She was schooled at home by tutors and governesses and spent two years attending a Presbyterian girls’ seminary in Richmond after the family moved to that city in 1845....

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Trudier Harris

Terry, Lucy (1730–1821), poet, , is generally recognized as the first African-American woman to have written a poem, the substance of her documented literary effort. Penned in 1746 but not published until 1855, when it appeared in Josiah Gilbert Holland’s History of Western Massachusetts...