Unveiling Centuries of Remarkable Women – Connecting Heart and World

Justine Durrell wrote about the lives of remarkable and surprising women from the past – highlighting their grace, challenges, and creativity to engender their living presence in your life.


Photo: Harry A. Webb

Defying the odds, Susan La Flesche Picotte became America’s first Indigenous woman physician and practiced during a historically destabilizing time. As a young girl, Susan La Flesche had comforted a very ill Omaha woman as they waited all night for a white doctor who never came. The next morning the woman died. Out of that experience Susan dreamed of one day becoming a doctor who could minister to her people honorably.

Born on June 17, 1865, in a buckskin tepee during a buffalo hunt, Susan arrived in turbulent times―the civil war had just ended and the stripping of Indigenous lands persisted. Both her parents, Mary Gale and Joseph La Flesche, were the offspring of Native American women and white men. Joseph, the last recognized Omaha chief, had seen hundreds of Euro-American immigrants (often desperate themselves) foul the water, use up the wood, and over-trap. Most egregious of all was the wanton slaughter of buffalo. This sport by white men spelled ruin for Indigenous people who relied on bison for food, clothing, shelter, and spiritual sustenance. With this onslaught, Joseph came to believe Omaha survival depended on assimilation―he endorsed wood-frame houses and cultivation of land; he practiced Christianity and sent his four daughters to white schools.


Paolo Veronese (1520)

In the evocative myth of Arachne, a gifted mortal challenges a deity to a weaving contest and suffers tragically. The Roman poet Ovid, narrated the most complete version of this tale in book VI of his opus, Metaphorphoses (circa 8 CE). Lyrically rendered with humor, horror, beauty, and complexity, Arachne’s demise unfolds—from audacious lass to spineless spider.

The story plays out in a small village in the Lydian kingdom, east of ancient Ionia. There a young woman of lowly birth and marriage, raised her status through her skill in working wool.  So stunning was the beauty of her work that nymphs were drawn from their vineyards and mermaids from their rivers to come witness her magic flair. From rough wool to “fleecy cloud”, thread by thread with “her agile thumb around the graceful spindle,” she spun and then “embroidered with a slender needle….” It was commonly believed she must be a pupil of the divine Minerva [Greek Athena]―the sponsor of arts among the deities.


Photo Gerda Peterich,1943

In 1943, Pearl Primus leaped onto the New York stage of modern dance with her solo debut of “Strange Fruit.” Based on a poem by the same name, written by Lewis Allan and made famous in song by Billie Holiday, Pearl portrayed a White woman in the midst of a mob, who upon leaving the lynching grounds is suddenly gripped by the utter horror of the Black body swaying and the smell of burning flesh. Pearl raced across the stage and threw herself to the ground, writhed in evoked agony, pounded her fists on the floor, rose again, climbed five feet into the air, arched her back, and thrust her arms towards the heavens―all with explosive force and daunting grace.