Women's History 2014

Averyt: Everyday Heroes

Mar 27, 2014

Every child needs a hero. Mine was Great Aunt Virgie - a larger than life presence who stood barely five feet tall, wore an apron, tied her hair in a bun, and could make even a small child feel important by the way she tilted her head, listened ever so carefully, and smiled readily with approval.

Her house sat high on a ridge overlooking an aging industrial city in upstate Pennsylvania , but to me it sat in the heart of Never-Never Land. Not as in never grow up, but as in never turn down a challenge, never give up, and never, never let anyone say a girl isn’t good enough.

Collection of the Vermont Historical Society

Strolling through the State House in Montpelier , looking at the many portraits of governors, legislators, and other notable Vermonters on its walls, it wouldn’t take anyone too long to notice a theme – with a few exceptions, including Governor Madeleine Kunin, they mostly represent men. But at the top of the stairs, right before the entrance to the Senate chamber, there’s one portrait of a woman that really stands out.

Rokeby Museum

Rachael Robinson Elmer may be Vermont’s most talented unknown artist. She was born in 1878 to artist parents at Rokeby, her family’s Ferrisburgh home and now a National Historic Landmark. Her father, Rowland Evans Robinson, worked as an illustrator, and her mother, Anna Stevens Robinson, painted dozens of traditional Victorian oils. When young Rachael showed signs of artistic interest and talent, her mother went to work.

I recently read Book of Ages, Jill Lepore’s new book on Jane Franklin and her relationship with her famous brother Benjamin Franklin. The book is about a lot of things, but mostly is about a strong brother-sister sibling bond. Jane Franklin struggled in ways her brother did not, but their surviving letters document an attachment that was mutual.

Richard Perry / Norwich Historical Society

Dewees Cochran lived and worked in Norwich from 1947 to 1960, where she fashioned some of the dolls for which she is best known – her “portrait,” “look-alike,” and “grow-up” dolls. Life magazine and Vermont Life featured articles about her and her doll making. Eager buyers flocked to department stores in New York and Chicago to purchase them.

During a recent Vermont Symphony orchestra concert, I found myself counting bow ties in an effort to assess whether or not there was equal representation of each gender on stage - and that made me curious about the overall progress of women in the professional world of classical music in general.

Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Purchase through gift of The Dorothea Leonhardt Fund of the Communities Foundation of Texas, Inc.

When Clara Sipprell tucked her knee length hair into her safari hat and jumped into her convertible automobile to drive through New York City in the 1920s, she considered herself quite a bohemian. She had won prizes at male dominated camera club exhibitions in Buffalo and New York City, the hub of photographic artists of this era. She had broken those glass ceilings with gusto - swinging her cape, and decked out in oversize jewelry and long scarves as she made her mark.

In recognition of Women's History Month, VPR again collaborated with the Vermont Commission on Women in March, 2014, to present a series of stories about women from our region who achieved significant success in the arts.

We heard from women who are notable in their own right about innovators and trail blazers in the fine arts, from writers to painters, and designers to photographers.

Martha Wood Belcher’s career as an artist spanned two centuries and two continents. She fulfilled the traditional roles of mother, sister, daughter and wife, as well as what is usually considered to be the more contemporary role of an equal financial partner with her husband in supporting - through the sale of her artwork - her mother, sisters and children.