Jezebel and Asherah: Controlling a Culture by Slut Shaming the Queen

Today I am pleased to welcome Kyra Kramer, author of “The Jezebel Effect: Why the Slut Shaming of Famous Queens Still Matters.”

Jezebel, the Painted Queen, is one of the most notorious women to have ever lived. Her name has come to literally mean a woman who uses sex to corrupt men and tempt them into sin. She is the ultimate trollop and has been slut shamed longer and more fiercely than any other woman in history. But why? Did she really lead her husband, King Ahab, astray from the paths of righteousness? Did she really use her womanly wiles as a weapon to destroy God’s chosen prophets? History and archeology suggest not. It seems as if Jezebel’s real “crime” was to embrace the Hebrew religion a little too well. Could she have been maligned not for turning Ahab away from Yahweh, but for keeping him loyal to Yahweh’s feminine side?

ezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth's Vineyard by Sir Frank Dicksee (source)

Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth’s Vineyard by Sir Frank Dicksee (source)

Most people don’t know it but Yahweh (AKA Jehovah or God or Allah) had a goddess consort named Asherah for thousands of years. In fact, Asherah may have been more than a consort. Just as a coin has two sides but is a single object, or like the Holy Trinity represents a single deity, Asherah may have been God’s female ‘face’ — the female hypostasis of God. This means that to venerate Asherah was not necessarily a distinct form of worship, but rather would have been an official part of the Hebrew religion itself.

Asherah disappeared from official Judeo-Christian dogma roughly three thousand years ago, but archeological evidence shows her presence throughout Israel and the ancient Near East for millennia before that. In several instances her name is directly linked with Yahweh. An archeological site in eastern Sinai, called Ajrud, found inscriptions on ancient Israelite stelae that decree, “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah/asherah”, “by Yahweh of the South and by his Asherah/asherah”, and “I bless you by Yahweh of the South and by his Asherah/asherah”.

Evidence of Asherah also lingers in the written historical record of Judaism, if you know how to spot it. Asherah was associated with trees and groves, and was often symbolized by a wooden pole or tree. She was so strongly connected to trees and tree images (especially oak, palm, tamarisks, almond, terebinthes, and poplar) that Biblical mentions of planting trees near altars, shrines, or holy places are forgotten references to her. Furthermore, the multiple mention of burials of holy men and women taking place near (or under) sacred trees are also contextual remnants of her worship.

Several passages in the Bible suggest miracles Asherah wrought via her sacred trees. For example, when Jacob’s father-in-law tried to trick him after promising him every spotted member of his flock:

“Jacob … took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. 38 Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, 39 they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted” (Genesis, 30:37-39). Why would Jacob use poles made from poplar and almond trees to facilitate this miracle if it were not to call on Asherah, the feminine half of the God of Abraham, for aid? Additionally, when Joshua reaffirmed the covenant between Yahweh and the Hebrews, he recorded it “in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the Lord. 27 “See!” he said to all the people. “This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the Lord has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God” (Joshua, 24:26-27).

An oak tree in the sacred place of Yahweh was almost certainly a symbol of God’s feminine aspect, Asherah.

Acceptance for Asherah worship was also implied by what wasn’t said in sacred text. When Jehu overthrew Ahab’s son and became the unlawful king of Israel, his excuse was that God commanded him to purify Yahwehism. Nevertheless, Jehu didn’t tear down or desecrate a religious structure built by Ahab to honor Asherah, which suggests Asherah WAS a part of orthodox Yahwism. In 1 Kings Chapter 18, four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal were slaughtered in Kishon Valley because they worshiped a false god, but there is no mention of an execution for the four hundred prophets of Asherah that had accompanied Baal’s priests. Why would the prophets of Asherah be spared if they were not legitimate practitioners of Yahwism? Finally, devotion to Asherah was not explicitly condemned in the earliest books of the Hebrews and seldom even in the later works. If her worship was so closely connected to that of Baal, why was her veneration treated with kid gloves? The lack of prophetic criticism for the worship of Asherah is a strong indication that devotion to her was once a normal part of Yahwistic piety.

Asherah figurine at the National Maritime Museum, Israel by Deror Avi (source)

Asherah figurine at the National Maritime Museum, Israel by Deror Avi (source)

Asherah’s legitimate status among Hebrew practitioners opens up the possibility, even the likelihood, that Jezebel acted as a priestess of Asherah as part of her responsibilities as queen of Israel. As an official part of Yahwism, the goddess Asherah would have doubtlessly had state celebrations and rituals in her honor that would have been overseen or implemented by the highest ranking woman in the nation, which was obviously the wife of the king. Jezebel is mostly connected to Baal in popular culture, but it is practically a given that she was a follower of Asherah. Not only did four hundred prophets of Asherah “eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19), her father was recorded historically as being a priest of Astarte [Asherah] or a priest of the Goddess. That means that Jezebel would have been, at least in practice, a pluralistic Yahwist who venerated Asherah along with her Hebrew husband.

Of course, we know in hindsight that the fundamentalist arm of the Jewish religion was victorious in the end. The Hebrew conservatives, known as the deuteronomists, eventually eradicated almost all evidence – even the memory – of Asherah as a part of the Yahwistic godhead or consort to God. One of the ways this happened was with creative editing of the early Hebrew texts. The veneration of Asherah was repackaged as having always been counter to the will of Yahweh and having never been an acceptable part of Yahwism. Although the idea of an exclusively masculine God only became significant during the Babylonian exile of the Jews, the deuteronomists rewrote the earlier records and cleared out as many direct references to Asherah as they could. Over time, the people forgot that there had ever BEEN any other form of Judaism. The idea that God has both a male and a female aspect was not just removed from the orthodox belief system; the very concept of it was lost to believers because it never existed in the first place.

This was not an overnight process. It took hundreds of years to remove Asherah from the state cult and codified texts, and even then she remained in Jewish rituals long after she had ceased to be formally acknowledged as a part of Yahwism. Nor has Asherah disappeared entirely even in modern times. The menorah — the seven-branched candlestick used during the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah – appears to be modeled after the seven-branched stylized “Tree of Life” that represented Asherah and thus serves as an unrecognized and unspoken testament to Yahweh’s female aspect.

There are several biblical records of direct conflicts between those who still wanted to co-worship Asherah and those who wanted Yahweh to stand alone. The prophet Jeremiah told Jews living in Egypt that if they did not stop their reverence for Asherah then God would punish them. Defying the prophet, the people resisted this command:

15 Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, 16 “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! 17 We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. 18 But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.” 19 The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?” Jeremiah 44:15-19

Likewise, the prophet Hosea was in despair because the Israelites “consult a wooden idol, and a diviner’s rod speaks to them. A spirit of prostitution leads them astray; they are unfaithful to their God. They sacrifice on the mountaintops and burn offerings on the hills, under oak, poplar and terebinth, where the shade is pleasant. Therefore your daughters turn to prostitution and your daughters-in-law to adultery” (Hosea 4:12-13). The prostitution and adultery Hosea speaks of is the continued worship of Asherah in her sacred groves, which was described by deuteronomists as “harlotry” because it was “cheating” on Yahweh — failing to maintain Yahwistic purity — in their opinion.

Clearly, the conservatives faced an uphill battle in eradicating Asherah from Judaism, even centuries after the death of Ahab and the establishment of deuteronomistic authority. The situation must have seemed especially dire for fundamentalists during Ahab’s reign. The deuteronomists of Jezebel’s time couldn’t have known that their version of the Lord would become the orthodox version of the Hebrew religion. For the contemporary conservatives, Jezebel’s worship of Asherah (which would have been seen as a righteous act by the majority of the Israeli populace) was terrifically problematic. As the queen of Israel, Jezebel’s influence would have been seen as a formidable obstacle for the fundamentalist cause to overcome because she promoted and participated in the populist worship of Asherah. With the queen bolstering the goddess, it would be even more difficult for Jewish extremists to convince the Hebrew people that Yahweh had no consort.

From a deuteronomistic perspective, Jezebel had to die and her death had to be seen as a punishment from God to undermine those who considered Asherah to be a part of Judaism. Unsurprisingly, that is exactly how the queen’s murder was portrayed.

The Death of Jezebel by Gustave Doré (source)

The Death of Jezebel by Gustave Doré (source)

According to Biblical text, Jezebel died after being thrown out of a window at the behest of the God-sent usurper Jehu. In Canaanite royal society, the “lady-in-the-window” motif was a common way to represent many goddesses throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East, including Asherah. For Yahwistic fundamentalists the act of looking out of the window would have been symbolically linked with the “harlotry” of goddess worship. If Jezebel, looking out of the window, was the representation of Asherah, then having the queen thrown down from the window served a twofold purpose. It wasn’t just the queen who died. Jezebel’s fall symbolically represented the destruction of Asherah worship in Yahwism.

Okay, but why did Jezebel get slut shamed? Asherah worship did not indicate unfaithfulness to Ahab, her husband. Nor are there Biblical texts indicating Jezebel had sex with anyone else. If she committed no sexual infidelities or transgressions, how did she become remembered as a strumpet? Well, it comes back to the fact that devotion to Asherah was seen as the worst kind of “harlotry” by the conservatives. Jezebel’s harlotry was particularly bad because it served as an example and support for others who wanted the continuation of Asherah in official Yawheism. Over time, Jezebel’s polyamorous spirituality became confused and conflated with the physical act of intercourse. Thus, Jezebel the harlot who worshiped Asherah became Jezebel the slut.

By recasting Jezebel from a devout queen to an evil slut, those Hebrews who supported Asherah worship – especially the women – could be implicated for immorality because they followed in Jezebel’s footsteps. Women would have their honor and reputation denigrated if they were found to venerate Asherah, making women less likely to risk private rituals or pass that knowledge on to their children. Public rituals would become a source of shame, something ‘good girls’ didn’t do. Worshiping Asherah had come to mean that a woman was like Jezebel, and no one wanted to be an evil slut in the eyes of her people. The flame of Asherah was rapidly snuffed out after her followers were branded de facto sluts.

Jezebel was slut shamed in order to control an entire culture and eradicate the last traces of Asherah.

*****

Kyra Cornelius Kramer is a freelance academic with BS degrees in both biology and anthropology from the University of Kentucky, as well as a MA in medical anthropology from Southern Methodist University. She has written essays on the agency of the Female Gothic heroine and women’s bodies as feminist texts in the works of Jennifer Crusie. She has also co-authored two works; one with Dr. Laura Vivanco on the way in which the bodies of romance heroes and heroines act as the sites of reinforcement of, and resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies, and another with Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley on Henry VIII.

The Jezebel Effect book coverHave you heard that Catherine the Great died having sex with her horse? Or perhaps you prefer the story that Anne Boleyn had six fingers and slept with her brother? Or that Kathryn Howard slept with so many members of the Tudor court that they couldn’t keep track of them all? As juicy and titillating as the tales might be, they are all, patently untrue.

Modern PR firms may claim that no publicity is bad publicity, but that, too, is untrue. The fact that Cleopatra is better known for her seductions than her statecraft, and that Jezebel is remembered as a painted trollop rather than a faithful wife and religiously devout queen, isn’t a way for historians to keep these interesting women in the public eye, rather it’s a subversion of their power, a re-writing of history to belittle and shame these powerful figures, preventing them from becoming icons of feminine strength and capability. This is The Jezebel Effect.

Bibliography:

Ackerman, Susan. (1993) “The Queen Mother and the cult in ancient Israel” Journal of Biblical Literature p. 385-401.
Cohen, Daniel. (2010) “Asherah: Hidden Goddess of the Bible” in Goddesses in World Culture
Dever, William G. (2012) The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archaeology and the Bible Intersect
Kein, Jenny. (2000) Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism
Hadley, Judith M. (2000) The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess
McKinlay, Judith E. (2004) Reframing Her: Biblical Women in Postcolonial Focus
Moascati, Sabitino. (2001) The Phoenicians
Seeman, Don. (2004) “The Watcher at the Window: Cultural Poetics of a Biblical Motif” In Prooftexts 24:1
Silver, Morris. (1995) Economic Structures of Antiquity
Yee, Gale A. (2003) Poor Banished Children of Eve: Woman as Evil in the Hebrew Bible

Biblical quotes are from The New International Version (NIV).

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today, March 8, is celebrated as International Women’s Day across the world. As with many other holidays, it has evolved over time in its meaning and means of celebration. Initially, the day had a political purpose promoting the rights of women, particularly working women, demanding suffrage, and celebrating accomplishments. This is still true in many countries, although in some places the focus is simply an occasion to express love and appreciation of the women in our lives.

Maasai women rally for International Women's Day in Tanzania in 2013, by Thomson Safaris (source)

Maasai women rally for International Women’s Day in Tanzania in 2013, by Thomson Safaris (source)

The earliest observance was in the United States on 28 February 1909 in remembrance of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union strike of 1908. The next year, at a women’s conference in Denmark, a proposal for an International Woman’s Day was put forth and agreed upon. Although no official date was decided at the time, on 19 March 1911 over a million people demonstrated across Europe promoting equal rights and suffrage for women.

The date for International Women’s Day wasn’t uniformly fixed as March 8 until 1914. That year in Germany, the marches were focused on women’s suffrage, which they finally won in 1918. This poster urges women to join the fight. It’s English translation is as follows: “Give Us Women’s Suffrage. Women’s Day, March 8, 1914. Until now, prejudice and reactionary attitudes have denied full civic rights to women, who as workers, mothers, and citizens wholly fulfill their duty, who must pay their taxes to the state as well as the municipality. Fighting for this natural human right must be the firm, unwavering intention of every woman, every female worker. In this, no pause for rest, no respite is allowed. Come all, you women and girls, to the 9th public women’s assembly on Sunday, March 8, 1914, at 3pm.”

International Women's Day poster from Germany 8 March 1914 (source)

International Women’s Day poster from Germany 8 March 1914 (source)

In 1917, International Women’ Day demonstrations were particularly effective in Russia. Held on the last Sunday in February (March 8 on the Gregorian calendar) women marched in St. Petersburg calling for an end to food shortages, czarism, and World War I. The slogan was “Bread and Peace” and touched off the February Revolution. Although it lasted less than a week, it resulted in the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and paved the way for the October Revolution later in the year.

In many countries, particularly in the east, the day is an official holiday including time off from work. In others women receive flowers and gifts similar to Mother’s Day. In 1975, the United Nations began sponsoring the day, and since 1996, they have proposed a theme for each year. This year, 2015, the UN theme is “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity. Picture it!”, highlighting the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995.

Afghan girls sing at a celebration of International Women's Day in 2002 (source)

Afghan girls sing at a celebration of International Women’s Day in 2002 (source)

The overall theme for 2015 for International Women’s Day is “Make it Happen” – for greater awareness of women’s equality, for more women in senior leadership roles, for fairer recognition of women in sport, for equal recognition of women in the arts, for growth of women owned businesses, for increased financial independence of women, and for more women in science, engineering, and technology. You can follow on twitter @womensday and use the hashtag #MakeItHappen to join in the discussion.

Commemorating International Women's Day in Cameroon, 2006

Commemorating International Women’s Day in Cameroon, 2006 (source)

What are your plans? Will you join in the celebration? Let us know in the comments.

 

Menses Madness: Menstruation Myths and the Medieval Mindset

Today, I am pleased to welcome Karen Harris and Lori Caskey-Sigety, authors of “The Medieval Vagina: An Hysterical and Historical Look at All Things Vaginal During the Middle Ages.”

Beware the woman in red.

Beware the woman in red.

Blood, which the warrior/hunter man of ancient times associated with injury and death, took on a paradoxical quality in women. This blood meant life, though this may not have been widely known in medieval times. What was known was that menstrual blood was a powerful and toxic substance, laden with an evil, magical quality. As with many other aspects of life, the object of a society’s fear and ignorance became the subject of myths and legends which, of course, did nothing to advance scientific and medical inquiry. These stories and legends served only to perpetuate the idea that womanly blood held sinister magic, thus reinforcing the wide held belief that all females should be handled with suspicion and kept in a subservient role.

We can trace back much of the misconceptions about menstrual blood back to the first century writings of Pliny the Elder, a man who claimed to have a deep understanding of the female body. His ideas, as crazy as they seem today, were viewed as indisputable facts for centuries. He claimed that contact with menstrual blood could wreak all sorts of havoc including cause rust on bronze and iron objects, drive dogs mad, turn wine sour, kill off hives of bees, cause unripe fruit to fall from the trees, turn sharp blades dull, and shrivel seedlings.

Always an enterprising philosopher, Pliny even proposed harnessing the poisonous power of female menses for the greater good. He suggested that menstruating women stroll around the farmers’ field stark naked, using their evil, bloody power to kill off the destructive worms, beetles, mice, and moths. This idea, he claimed, was taken from unnamed ancient writings he once read in which plagues of insects were banished by hordes of menstruating women who did nothing more than walk through the streets with their skirts hiked up to their waists.

Pliny the Elder can’t be blamed for all of the falsehoods that surrounded menstruating women in medieval times. There were certainly plenty of other myths and rumors circulating that supported the idea that menstrual blood was powerful magic. Menstrual blood was thought to be corrosive in nature; therefore it could eat through a man’s penis if he were tempted to engage in sexual intercourse at an inappropriate time of the month. Another popularly held belief was that if a couple had sex while the woman was on her period, the resulting child would be dim-witted, puny and red-headed. Menstruating women were blamed for cases of medieval Sudden Infant Death Syndrome for it was thought they could poison a sleeping infant with just their mere proximity.

Working in the fields takes on a very different meaning after reading Pliny.

Working in the fields takes on a very different meaning after reading Pliny.

Medieval medical lore was concerned not only with the existence of menstrual discharge but the quantity of it as well. Too much or too little monthly flow was to blame for a range of problems. A heavy flow, for example, could drown a man’s seed and lead to stillborn babies or malformed fetuses. Light or absent periods could cause a woman to become too masculine, flat-chested and barren. This was seen as such a pressing problem that numerous medical texts of the Middle Ages devoted pages to remedies that could bring on menstrual bleeding, although some scholars contend that these recipes could also be viewed as euphemisms for contraception or drug-induced abortions. If a medieval woman sought to induce menstruation, she was advised to drink any one of a variety of concoctions such as rue, savin and hyssop, figs, garlic seeds, St. John’s wort, myrrh, Shepard’s purse, or Bishop’s weed. If that didn’t work, these same ingredients could be made into a pessary and inserted into the vagina. Saffron and hazelnuts were also used to make pessaries. With all of these, very specific directions were carefully outlined to ensure success. Rue, for example, could be safely consumed in the evening but could be deadly if drank in the morning.

Monthly bleed, at least from a Christian standpoint, was seen as a curse bestowed on all females as punishment for Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Every drop of menstrual blood was a reminder that all women, beginning with the very first woman, are untrustworthy, manipulative liars. The folklore and myths that sprang forth from this attitude only served to foster the misogynistic beliefs of the day.

Men have always been rather skittish when it comes to womanly bleeding and this is especially true of the medieval man. Menstruation was eyed with fear and disgust and these attitudes transformed into myths and misconceptions. And in keeping with the prevailing beliefs of the time, these misconceptions contained more than a hint of misogyny. Menstruation, rather than being viewed as a requirement for procreation or tangible proof of fertility, was seen as a byproduct of the sinister, evil ways of the woman.

*****

Karen Harris is a college instructor by day and a writer by night. Writing offers Karen a chance to dabble in her other areas of interest, including history and science. She has written numerous freelance articles and feature stories for publication. She is a hobby farmer, environmental volunteer, and advocate for volunteer firefighters.

Lori Caskey-Sigety started writing in 1991. She hasn’t stopped. Her writing includes blogs, book reviews, essays, lyrics, plays, poems, and puppet shows. Lori has authored two poetry books, and her other works have appeared in Wildfire Magazine, Orlo, Indiana Libraries, and Public Libraries. She is an artist, college instructor, librarian, and musician.

The Medieval VaginaIn the Middle Ages much like today, the vagina conjured fear and repulsion, yet it held an undeniable allure. In the Medieval Vagina, the authors explore this paradox while unearthing medieval myths, attitudes and contradictions surrounding this uniquely feminine and deeply mysterious organ.

What euphemisms did medieval people have for the vagina? Did medieval women use birth control? How was rape viewed in the Middle Ages? How was the vagina incorporated into literature, poetry, music, and art? How did medieval women cope with menstruation? The Medieval Vagina delves into these topics, and others, while introducing the reader to a collection of fascinating medieval women – Pope Joan, Lady Frances Howard, Margery Kempe, Sister Benedetta Carlini, and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath – who all shaped our view of the medieval vagina.

The Medieval Vagina takes a quick-paced, humorous peek into the medieval world; a time when religious authority combined with newly emerging science and medicine, classic literature, and folklore to form a deeply patriarchal society. It may have been a man’s world, but the vagina triumphed over oppression and misogyny.

You can find more information about the book, interviews and guest blog posts at Snark Publishing and the book itself on Amazon. Interested in the Kindle version, click here?

 

Not Quite First Lady – Rachel Jackson

Rachel Jackson c. 1830 by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (source)

Rachel Jackson c. 1830 by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (source)

The Presidential campaign of 1828 was brutal. Andrew Jackson felt that the election of 1824 had been stolen from him (he won the popular vote) and John Quincy Adams was defending his position as incumbent. Although it was considered undignified for the candidate to campaign, their supporters pulled out all the stops even attacking the wives. Louisa Catherine Adams was considered by many a foreigner who brought unwelcome influence to Washington, (she was born and raised in England, although her parents were Americans), but the worst criticism was reserved for Rachel Jackson. Called a whore, a bigamist, and an unsophisticated westerner (my goodness she smoked a pipe!), many considered her unqualified to inhabit the White House.

When Rachel Donelson was 12 years old, her family left Virginia to travel to the frontier of Tennessee. The trip was arduous and the situation with the Indians unsettled, but eventually they established themselves as one of the most prominent families in the area. They built a palisade which surrounded the family home and several cabins where boarders lived. This is where Rachel and Andrew met and fell in love. Rachel was a beautiful young woman and Andrew was tall and handsome with an instinct to protect women. Rachel may have seemed like she needed protecting – from her husband, her first husband.

A few years earlier, when the situation with the Indians was very dangerous, the family briefly moved to Kentucky. There Rachel met and married Lewis Robards. The Donelsons and Robards were of similar social standing and circumstances. Lewis was from a large family who welcomed and liked Rachel. It seemed like a good match. And it was for a while, but the vivacious and friendly nature of Rachel that attracted Lewis became a problem. She was raised with seven brothers and quite innocently enjoyed the company of men, but Lewis was of a jealous nature. By 1788, the situation had become unbearable and Rachel’s brother came to get her, bringing her home to her family in Tennessee. It is unsure whether Rachel intended the move to be permanent or not, but later in the year Lewis followed her to Nashville and moved in with her and her family.

Andrew Jackson c. 1824 by Thomas Sully (source)

Andrew Jackson c. 1824 by Thomas Sully (source)

It was during this time that Andrew Jackson moved to Nashville. Rachel and Andrew were attracted to each other, but there is no evidence that their relationship was inappropriate. However, Lewis couldn’t accept this; he forbid her to talk to Jackson and interrogated her about the few interactions they had. Finally, during the summer of 1789, Lewis made the mistake of telling other men that Jackson was too intimate with his wife. Lewis was not well-liked, but Jackson and the Donelson family were. Word got back to Jackson and he confronted Lewis and threatened to cut off his ears.

Rather than challenge Jackson to a duel, which he undoubtedly would have accepted, Lewis had a warrant issued against him. While traveling to see the magistrate, under armed guard, the looks that Jackson gave Lewis terrified him so much that he ran off. Of course the fact that the guards allowed Jackson to carry a knife and to chase after Lewis, may have had something to do with the fact that Lewis didn’t show up at the magistrate’s office. Without a complainant, the charges were dismissed. This was the last straw for Lewis, he left Tennessee and returned to Kentucky swearing to have nothing more to do with Rachel and her family.

By this time, Rachel and Andrew knew that they were in love and wanted to marry. While attitudes toward marriage and divorce were more relaxed in the west, including self-marriage and self-divorce determined by the families rather than a bureaucrat from across the mountains, the Donelsons liked to abide by the legal niceties when possible. This was particularly important with regard to property rights. Rachel’s father had died in 1885 and although his will had yet to be settled, anything that came to Rachel would legally belong to Lewis Robards.

Women had no legal right to divorce (at least none that would be acceptable to a southern judge), so the hope was that Lewis meant what he said and would file. In the meantime, the only option Rachel and Andrew had to live as husband and wife was to elope to an area beyond American Law. The closest place whether Andrew could hope to earn a living was Natchez (now in Mississippi) which was then still Spanish territory.  In the summer of 1789, Andrew began to establish connections there.

Approximate location of Natchez Trace between Nashville, TN and Natchez, MS (source)

Approximate location of Natchez Trace between Nashville, TN and Natchez, MS (source)

That fall, they heard rumors that Lewis was angry and preparing to come get Rachel and force her to return to Kentucky with him. He was within his legal rights to do so and Rachel and Andrew made a decision. In December of 1789, they boarded a flat boat and headed down the river. There is no documentary evidence that they married in Natchez, but there is evidence that they presented themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Jackson. They made connections with family friends and entertained, making no effort to hide who they were. Neither purchased land; presumably they rented with the intent of returning to Nashville when they could.

By July 1790, Lewis had not returned to Nashville and Rachel and Andrew decided to go home. The journey up Natchez Trace with an armed party was uneventful with one exception. One of their traveling companions knew Lewis Robards and later reported to him that Rachel and Andrew were living as husband and wife. This testimony was the tangible evidence he had been waiting for and he made a petition to the Virginia legislature for an action of divorce. This gave Lewis permission to sue Rachel for divorce in Kentucky supreme court. (Kentucky was still part of Virginia at the time.)

There were other requirements that had to be met: notice in the Kentucky Gazette, filing a writ in Kentucky, and taking depositions from witnesses. But, Lewis put off doing these things. Maybe because of anger toward Rachel or because of lingering hopes of receiving her inheritance, nevertheless, the divorce wasn’t finalized until three years later in September of 1793. The charge was adultery, but neither Rachel nor Andrew appeared in court. After all, they weren’t going to fight something they had been hoping for all along.

Rachel and Andrew had been living in Nashville as husband and wife since 1790, so they quietly married (remarried?) on January 17, 1794. They enjoyed their lives together and the events of the previous years receded into memory until the election of 1828.

In spite of the ugliness of the campaign, Jackson won the election by a landslide. Briefly, Rachel considered not going to Washington with Andrew, but they decided that that would be admitting they were wrong, which they didn’t believe. So Rachel prepared to become First Lady of the land. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. On December 22, 1828, Rachel Donelson Jackson died, leaving Andrew a deeply sad and embittered man. He would always blame those who attacked Rachel for her death. Two days later, Rachel was buried in the white satin gown she had planned to wear to the inaugural ball.

The tomb of Rachel and Andrew Jackson (source)

The tomb of Rachel and Andrew Jackson (source)

Resources
A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson by Patricia Brady
C-SPAN: First Ladies Influence and Image – Rachel Jackson

Susan LaFlesche Picotte – Pioneering Physician

Susan La Flesche, early 1900s, Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collections (source)
Susan La Flesche, early 1900s, Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collections  (source)

In 1889, Susan LaFlesche Picotte was the first American Indian woman to receive a medical degree. A number of people helped her achieve this goal, but the primary push came from Picotte’s innate ability and drive. This determination helped her to graduate at the top of her class and then practice in situations where she served as many as 1200 people spread over a large area. She achieved her ultimate dream in 1913, two years before her death, when she opened a hospital on the Omaha Reservation in the Nebraska town of Walthill.

Susan La Flesche was born to Chief Iron Eyes (Joseph La Flesche) and his wife One Woman (Mary Gale) on the Omaha Reservation on June 17, 1865. She was the youngest of eight children, five by Mary Gale and three by Joseph’s second wife, Ta-in-ne. The children worked along side their father on the farm, planting, hoeing, and harvesting crops, tending livestock, butchering and preserving meat, among other tasks. They also attended the reservation school run by missionaries.

Joseph LaFlesche (source)

Chief Iron Eyes, Joseph LaFlesche (source)

The focus of the reservation school was to transform the students into “respectable” citizens of the United States. Basically, the intent was to pull them away from their Indian culture, beliefs and traditions, forcing them to conform to the standards of the white settlers. In spite of this, Joseph encouraged his people, including his children, to work hard to achieve an education. Susan attended the reservation school until the age of 14, but as she continued her education her focus was, and would always be, to help her people and to preserve their culture.

Having progressed as far as she could at the mission school, Susan was sent east to complete her education at the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey, where her sister Susette had graduated in 1875. She returned to the reservation at the age of 17 and began a 2 year stint as a teacher at the Quaker Mission School. During this time, she often tended the sick and one of those individuals was Alice Fletcher. Fletcher was an ethnographer who had become acquainted with Susette, Susan’s older sister, when she was traveling on the east coast lecturing with Chief Standing Bear and T.H. Tibbles about the living conditions of the Indians.

Mary Gale LaFlesche (source)

One Woman, Mary Gale LaFlesche (source)

Fletcher worked closely with Susan’s half-brother Frank LaFlesche on a two volume history of the Omaha Nation, but she would also be of help to Susan in her quest to become a doctor. After teaching at the mission school, Susan returned east to attend the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. She graduated at the top of the class and gave a speech at graduation in 1886. Fletcher was there and was once again impressed with the young woman, so she approached Sarah Thomson Kinney, the president of the Connecticut Indian Association about a scholarship for Susan to attend medical school.

Susan received high recommendations from the Hampton professors, including their resident physician, Martha Waldron, who was a graduate of the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia.  This is where Susan applied, and once accepted, with a stipend from the Office of Indian Affairs and help from the Connecticut women, she began her official training as a physician. At first, in her letters home, Susan wrote how homesick she was and how much better prepared her classmates were, but the staff and students welcomed her and soon she felt at home. It wasn’t long before she was writing about how much she enjoyed her classes (even dissecting cadavers) and sending them medical advice.

First Female Medical College Building c. 1850 (source)

First Female Medical College Building c. 1850 (source)

Although her studies were challenging, Susan and her classmates took advantage of the culture of the city, going to the theater, opera, museums and lectures. In spite of becoming thoroughly acclimated to city living, her intention was always to return home to help her people. She spent the second summer back on the reservation trying to help fight a measles epidemic, where she encountered another challenge that she would face as a practicing physician. Many in the tribe didn’t trust the white man’s medicine, but attitudes began to change when they saw her take the medicine herself.

On March 14, 1889, Susan again graduated at the top of her class. Her high marks earned her a four month internship at the Women’s Hospital, but by August she was very glad to be back home.

Once Susan returned, she was appointed physician for the agency school, but before long she was taking care of the health of anyone on the reservation. This also included advice on hygiene and cleanliness, but Susan went beyond that. Able to speak the Omaha language and with an understanding of the larger world, she also gave advice on land issues and other legal matters. A typical day meant translating documents, writing letters and reports, taking care of patients in her office, and spending hours visiting her patients in their homes. She rode horseback or drove herself in a buggy, often returning at 10:00 at night and leaving a light in the window so that people could find her.

In addition to serving as the tribe’s physician, Susan was asked to become the medical missionary for the Women’s National Indian Association. She accepted and added the organization of Sunday School, morning and evening Sunday services and Wednesday night prayer meetings to her busy schedule.

In 1894, Susan surprised her friends and family by marrying. Henry Picotte was a handsome, outgoing and well-liked man of the Yankton Sioux. They had two sons, Caryl born in 1895 and Pierre born in 1898. Henry began farming on Susan’s land allotment and in spite of the increased responsibilities of being a wife and mother, Susan continued her work. Their life together wasn’t long. In 1905, Henry died of alcohol related disease. The ready availability of alcohol on the reservation was an issue that was very important to Susan and she took reducing this availability as one of her many causes.

Often Susan had to send seriously ill patients on the train for operations or hospital care. Her dream was to build her own hospital. Finally on January 8, 1913, in Walthill, Nebraska, her dream became a reality when the long awaited facility opened with 17 beds, both wards and private rooms, an operating room and all modern conveniences. After her death it was named the “Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital” and served the Omaha people until after World War II. It now houses a museum and community center.

Dr. Susan FaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital (source)

Dr. Susan FaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital (source)

Throughout Susan’s adult life, she suffered from a degenerative disease which she called neurasthenia. It caused severe pain of her ears, head, and neck. On several occasions she collapsed and spent weeks recovering. Finally, after two surgeries to attempt to remove diseased bone, Susan succumbed to her illness on September 18, 1915.

Susan LaFlesche Picotte was a well-respected physician with both Indian and white patients. She championed legislation and spoke to Congress on behalf of the Omaha and all Native Americans. She organized the Thurston County Medical Society, chaired the health committee of the Nebraska Federation of Women’s Clubs, and was a member of the Nebraska State Medical Society. She made tremendous contributions in the area of public health as well, but she was probably most remembered for her great love and care for her people. After her death Reverend D. E. Jenkins of the Presbyterian Mission board had this to say:

“Dr. Picotte gave herself unselfishly, passionately and often with what amounted to reckless disregard of herself to the task of relieving, helping and uplifting the Omaha Indians. By day and by night she dreamed dreams and saw visions of larger and better things yet to come for her beloved people.”

Sources

The Doctor Wore Petticoats: Women Physicians of the Old West by Chris Enss
Walking in Two Worlds: Mixed-blood Indian Women Seeking Their Path by Nancy M Peterson
U.S. National Library of Medicine: Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915)
Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Susan La Flesch Picotte
LaFlesche Family Papers: Biographical Note

 

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