HerStory July 2020: Susan La Flesche Picotte

July’s HerStory recipient is Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American woman in the US to receive a medical degree.

Inspired by witnessing the tragic death of a Native American woman because a white doctor refused to treat her, Dr. La Flesche Picotte pursued her education aggressively. Her childhood was, in a word, complicated. Both parents straddled the worlds of European and Native American ancestry, and the resulting struggle between cultural pride and a belief in assimilation-for-survival surely affected and inspired much of what Picotte accomplished. Her father became Chief of the Omaha tribe, but his leadership pushed the tribe toward white acceptance. Picotte was not given an Omaha name, and even though her mother in particular spoke Omaha exclusively, Picotte was encouraged to speak English. This seems to be a fitting metaphor for what the First Nations people as a whole were struggling with at the time (mid-to-late 1800s, but also, honestly, now too): the balancing act between honoring their culture and traditions, while making themselves “safe” for and from the white colonizers. 

Picotte was able to navigate this tight-rope well; in applying for grants to attend medical school, she made sure to indicate that she’d teach hygiene to her fellow American Indians, as well as treating them medically. You see, the mission statement of the Women’s National Indian Association included “civilizing” the “Indians” by teaching them about cleanliness and godliness. (Excuse us while we vomit into our knitting bags). She graduated from medical school, not only the first Native American woman to do so, but also the first person, period, to receive federal aid for professional education. She returned home and provided medical care to all who needed it, working diligently on the reservation both as a doctor and as an advocate for Native American’s rights. She pushed for prohibition, as she saw alcohol abuse as a huge problem in her community, used primarily by the colonizers to take advantage of her people and keep them down. She helped to found the first hospital on a reservation, and inspired many Native American women to pursue medicine. She worked tirelessly for her community, fighting her way through the convoluted land-ownership laws and policies, so the Omaha people could gain more autonomy in their ownership of and inheritances of properties. She aspired to and achieved great things in her short 50 years on the planet, and has earned her place in HerStory. 

Our Omaha colorway is our homage to her persistence and hard work. Her legacy is long-reaching, and we are honored to be honoring her this month.

HerStory June 2020: Sophie Blanchard

“Up, up, and away, in my beautiful balloon…” So goes the Fifth Dimension song from the mid-1960s. Adreamy song for a dreamy diversion, floating along in the basket beneath a hot air balloon. This month, we are honoring the first female aeronaut, Sophie Blanchard, who made a name for herself
floating across France before her untimely death at 41 with our Up, Up, and Away colorway. She had the distinction of being both the first female to pilot her own balloon AND the first woman to die in a balloon accident.

Madame Blanchard, as she was known, was the aeronaut of choice for two world leaders; NapoleonBonaparte named her “Aeronaut of the Official Festivals”, and, upon the restoration of the monarchy in1814, after performing for Louis XVIII, she was named his “Official Aeronaut of the Restoration”.

She married professional balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard in the late 1700s (who was by all accounts kind of an asshole who left his first wife and children to suffer in poverty so he could gallivant around Europe ballooning), and learned the profession from him. After he passed away in 1808, she continued in the family profession, working to erase the debts her husband had left her, and attempting even more daring feats of derring-do. The basket she used was tiny (seriously, the thought of standing in it
floating under a hot air balloon sends our heart a skittering), and she was a true performer, utilizing pyrotechnics and trick-flying, often at quite a cost. She passed out on at least 2 occasions due to the extreme altitudes at which she flew, and experienced very scary take-offs and landings on other occasions. She gained a huge following, and lots of support and enthusiasm, and her flights were always heavy on the wow factor, a fact that surely contributed to her demise.

Blanchard’s final flight was to be a night-flight, one of her favorites. Against the advice of many, the flight included a pyrotechnic display, as she floated in Tivoli Gardens in Paris. The fireworks caused an actual fire to start in her balloon, and, in trying to guide herself to safety, she became entangled in her ropes and fell out of the afore-mentioned teensy basket and to her death. She was 41 years old.

Madame Blanchard’s death was indicative of the danger that ballooning represented, and the public nature of her death helped to usher in the beginning of the end of this golden age of aeronauts. Her legacy, however, lives on to this day. She and her fellow female aeronauts paved the way for women in all fields of aviation, and her fearless determination inspired young women in the early 1800s to realize there was a world outside of that which seemed to be prescribed for them. She was brave and shewas strong and she proved that women can fly high as a bird, up, up, and away, in a beautifulballoon… We hope you have dreams of floating in the clouds (in a safe and secure way, of course) as you knit with the balloon-inspired skein of Up, Up, and Away.

HerStory May 2020: Janet Guthrie

Check out our May colorway, Vroom Vroom! Named so because we are zooming around the racetrack for our May HerStory. May is the month when the Indianapolis 500 typically takes place (although in very atypical 2020, it has been rescheduled for August…we planned this all out waaay before there was even a hint of a global pandemic, so there you go ;)). Vroom Vroom is racecar green, with speckles representing sponsorship stickers sprinkled all over. 

This month, we are honoring Janet Guthrie, a woman who chalked up a lot of firsts in American auto racing. She was the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500. She was the first woman to compete in the Daytona 500. And, she was the first woman to lead a lap in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. 

Janet Guthrie was always interested in moving fast and taking risks. Her parents (both airplane pilots) encouraged her fearlessness, and, with hopes of becoming an astronaut, she studied engineering in college. The astronaut thing didn’t pan out, but she worked as an aerospace engineer for a time, and was both a pilot and a flight instructor. Feeling restless, in the 1960s, Guthrie set her sights on auto racing.

If you think auto racing now is a big ole sausage-fest, you should have seen it in the mid-1960s. All men, as far as the eye could see, and very little institutional interest in widening that gap. Guthrie didn’t let that deter her, however; for 10 long years, she worked hard, built her own cars, and even slept in her car when at the race track. Finally, in 1977, she gained sponsorship and was able to fully compete with her racing peers as a fully supported driver. Of course, she continued to face bucketloads of sexism and misogyny, but she kept competing, as long as the sponsorship held out (auto racing is prohibitively expensive without sponsorship). Her racing career didn’t last very long, but her legacy continues to this day. She inspired women like Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher, and Danica Patrick to take up the mantle of Indycar racing. In 2019, she became the 5th woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, which is awesome and also proves there is a long way yet to go in achieving equality in the auto racing world (the Automotive Hall of Fame was founded in the 1930s and has over 800 worldwide honorees).

In an ESPN special focusing on her life, Guthrie stated: “You can go back to antiquity to find women doing extraordinary things, but their history is forgotten. Or denied to have ever existed. So women keep reinventing the wheel. Women have always done these things, and they always will.”

HerStory April 2020: Zahida Kazmi

Our April colorway, Paxi, is inspired by the story of the first female taxi driver in Pakistan and the legacy that her courage has left. 

In 1992, as a newly-widowed mother of 6, Zahida Kazmi took advantage of a government assistance program to purchase a yellow cab, and began ferrying people from the airport to their homes all over Islamabad. Although Pakistan was more moderate then than it is now, jobs like driving taxis were reserved for men and men alone. She fought against not only the societal misogyny that surely followed her throughout her career, but the ingrained misogyny carried by her family members. At first, she covered up as much as possible, wearing first burkas and then hijabs, but as her business and her presence became more established, she stopped covering her head. Over the years, Kazmi gained the respect of her fellow taxi drivers, as well as her customers, and eventually became the chairperson of Pakistan’s Yellow Cab Association. 

In 2017, as a response to a study published by the International Labor Organization which identified a lack of safe transportation as a major contributor to the low number of Pakistani women participating in the workforce, Paxi was formed. Paxi is a fleet of pink taxis whose purpose is to provide a safe route to work for women. Public transportation in Pakistan can be unsafe for women, many of whom face sexual harassment or worse while just trying to get to work. Paxi offers transportation specifically for women, aiming to create a safe environment and remove the transportation barrier to women’s ability to work. It’s not perfect (it’s much more expensive than even regular taxi service, which means many lower-income women are totally priced out of it), but it’s a definite step forward in safety and an attempt to support women who want to/need to work. So, as you cast on your Paxi socks, spend some time and send some good energy to those women who break barriers out of necessity and pave the way for more equity in our world. Thank you, Zahida Kazmi, for doing what you needed to do for your family, and thus helping other women to have a bit more autonomy and safety.

HerStory March 2020: Libby Riddles

Every year in early March, teams of people and dogs race across the Alaskan landscape for upwards of 1,000 miles, each trying to best the other in the annual Iditarod Dog Sled Race. It began in 1967 as a short race, and was a commemoration of the emergency dog sledding treks to Nome to help battle a diptheria outbreak in 1925. In 1973, the race that has evolved into the current-day Iditarod was first run. Teams consist of a musher (driver) and 12-16 dogs, and, depending on weather and other factors, the Iditarod can take 10-20 days to complete.  

In 1985, Libby Riddles, a 28-year old Alaskan originally from Wisconsin, became the first woman to win the Iditarod, pushing herself and her dogs to drive through absolutely awful conditions to triumph. While many of her fellow mushers hunkered down at a checkpoint to wait out the worst of a massive storm, Libby set out on her trail to victory, and kept up her lead throughout the rest of the race. Her win was so inspiring, not only because she was the first woman to do so, but because she came out on top by being the most courageous musher on the field. Her win catapulted dog sled racing into the mainstream, and inspired countless young women to pursue dreams in the once-typically-male domain. 

Not only a consummate musher, Libby is also an animal-rights activist in the dog-sledding circuit. She won Humanitarian Awards for Best Treatment of Dogs in the Iditarod, the Kusko 300, and the John Beargrease Races (three big dog sled races). She continues to raise and train dogs (her kennel is called Blazing Kennels, and hosts 20-40 dogs at any one time), and she’s written three books about her career: one memoir and two children’s books. She is a public/motivational speaker, and continues to inspire young women with her story of strength and perseverance. 

Our Mush colorway is inspired by the varied colors of the coats on the dogs that pulled Libby to victory all those years ago. Working as a seamless team, musher and dogs traverse unforgiving landscapes over the course of a long and lonely 2-3 weeks. This skein is an homage to those dogs and the woman who pushed them to victory, paving the way for more equity in the sport. We hope you give the sweet doggos in your life behind-the-ear scritches as you knit your Mush socks, and think about the perseverance it took for this brave team of pups and their fearless leader, Libby Riddles, to ride through the storm and win that race.

HerStory February 2020: Bessie Coleman

For our second HerStory of the new year/decade, we’re soaring through the air with Bessie Coleman, who had the wonderful distinction, in 1921, of being BOTH the first African American woman AND the first Native American woman to pilot a plane. The daughter of a black maid and a Cherokee sharecropper, Bessie fought against the “can’ts” her entire life; she worked at picking cotton with her mother during harvest season, giving up her education for the season, she had to drop out of college due to financial constraints, and there was just plain never enough money. When she was a young adult, she moved to Chicago to live with her brothers and got a job as a manicurist in a local barber shop. She became obsessed with the idea of becoming a pilot, thanks to some brotherly teasing (they had served in WWI and knew that, in France, it was actually possible for a woman to learn to fly. Of course, that wasn’t an option in America.) Bessie worked hard, learned French, and applied to flight school in Le Crotoy, France, where she received her international pilot’s license. Honestly, just that, in the 1920s in America, was a ginormous accomplishment. But Bessie did not stop there.

She came back to the US in 1921 and began performing as a “barnstorming” pilot, loop-de-looping all over the place (this was well before commercial flight, and there weren’t many options for pilots other than paid performing). She flat-out refused to speak or perform any place that was segregated, and she prioritized the lifting up of other black women over anything else. Her activism and advocacy paved the way for future female (and male) pilots of color, and she never once compromised her morals, even it it meant a deferment of her dreams. In fact, she was asked to star in a film production, which would have helped a great deal in her goal of owning her own plane, but when she saw that she’d be cast in a stereoptypical and derogatory role, she refused. Bessie Coleman was not about to feed into those long-held perceptions about black people, even if it meant her career would suffer.She didn’t live long enough to fulfill her life’s mission: opening a flight school for black women. She died as she lived, flying high in the sky, a definite loss for so many communities. But, Coleman’s legacy is long-lasting, and felt even today, every time a young woman of color pushes through the “can’ts” and the “not for you’s” and achieves what had previously been thought of as insurmountable. As you knit your Queen Bess socks, take a moment to reflect on the heights Bessie Coleman soared in her short life, and what she was able to achieve. Fly like the wind, and don’t compromise your beliefs to get ahead. A lesson we can all stand to learn, especially in this emotionally difficult and sometimes frightening world.

HerStory January 2020: Junko Tabei

As we brainstormed HerStory 2020, one overarching theme kept cropping up: firsts. We wanted to honor women who were the first to do this or the first to accomplish that, both for the very real spearheading they did, but also, (and maybe even more importantly), for the opportunities they uncovered for others by being the first to ____. To that end, our first HerStory recipient is Junko Tabei, the first woman to summit Mount Everest and complete the Seven Summits.

Tabei came to mountain climbing through sheer force of will; her family didn’t have the money to support her burgeoning hobby as a child, so it wasn’t until she was in college that she was able to fully pursue her mountaineering dreams. She founded the Ladies Climbing Club in 1969, whose slogan was “Let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves.” It was revolutionary, to create a woman-only club focused on a male past-time such as mountain climbing; many men thought Tabei’s interest was feigned, solely to secure a husband. 

Mountain climbing is not an inexpensive endeavor, so a part of Tabei’s focus was in funding her club’s expeditions. Securing funding for the summiting of Mount Everest seemed an insurmountable obstacle, but Tabei and her team were finally able to do so (while still being tasked with coming up with the equivalent of a year’s salary each) in the early 1970s. They were told, quite frequently, that they “should be raising children instead,” but their passion for climbing carried them through. The climb itself was arduous, as any climb to the summit of Mount Everest is. Tabei and her team were caught in an avalanche (like literally buried in snow), but still persevered, and on May 16, 1975, Tabei and her Sherpa guide Ang Tsering reached the summit of Mount Everest, the first woman ever to do so. But Tabei didn’t stop there; over the next 30 years, she would go on to become the first woman to complete the Seven Summits (the highest points on all seven continents), and would eventually summit mountains in over 76 countries, all while raising a family and, for the final four years of her life, fighting cancer. Her personal life-mantra was: “Do not give up. Keep on your quest.” She kept on her quest, throughout her life, inspiring countless other women to push through the sexism, misogyny, and complete unwillingness to recognize that a woman could and would want to summit mountains and explore the limits of herself, as well. 

Junko Tabei aspired to and achieved Great Heights (the colorway you hold in your hand) in her lifetime, and has earned her place in HerStory. We are honored to share her story for our first HerStory of 2020.