Women’s History Month: Historic heroines and trailblazers of Montclair
By Kelly Nicholaides
for Montclair Local
Some of Montclair’s female figureheads became the firsts in medicine, social justice, engineering, science, professional sports and fashion.
“I was fascinated with their stories, learned what prompted and moved them forward and why they chose to do what they did. The common thread was they all persevered even though they faced some level of discrimination,” Jane Eliasof, Director of the Montclair History Center, said.
Six women were spotlighted as Montclair celebrates Women’s History Month and marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. Eliasof dug into research from a book on New Jersey women, “Legendary Locals of Montclair” by Elizabeth Shepard and Mike Farrelly, online journals and the Montclair History Center archives to prepare for the club’s event.
Suffragist and Susan B. Anthony ally Lucy Stone was born in Massachusetts in 1818. Fiercely independent, Stone kept her last name when she married Henry Blackwell.
She moved to Montclair, lived at 118 North Mountain Avenue.
“The reason she moved here was she refused to pay taxes in her Orange home, said that would be taxation without representation [because she couldn’t vote in local elections]. She pushed for states to allow women to vote before it became a national movement,” said Eliasof, adding Montclair did not have taxes at the time.
She died before women got the right to vote. Her daughter Alice continued the cause. Lucy Stone’s last words to her were “make the world better,” Eliasof revealed.
Although she’s best known as the matriarch in the book “Cheaper by the Dozen,” Lillian Gilbreth was an industrial engineer and time management innovator. With her husband Frank, she applied science to turn their home into experiments in efficiency for consulting.
“Their motion film studies included wrapping of soap to determine the fastest way to package products. Hours of film was used. Everything was calibrated to save time. One of the things she changed is the kitchen design — sink, stove, refrigerator — into a triangular work setup as opposed to traditional kitchen. She changed a lot of things we take for granted,” Eliasof explained.
Emily Blackwell applied to 12 medical schools before she got into Rush Medical College in Chicago. She later attended Western Reserve in Ohio in 1853.
“She said I’m going to do what I need to do despite it all. She and her sister Elizabeth founded the nation’s first women’s medical college [Women’s Medical College, NYC, in 1868]. Blackwell was the third female physician in the United States. When Elizabeth moved to England, Emily went on to run program until she closed the school in 1899 when Cornell began accepting women,” Eliasof said.
In professional tennis, Althea Gibson broke the color barrier for African-American women in the 1950s. “She was the answer to Jackie Robinson,” said Eliasof.
Gibson was the first African-American woman to win the U.S. National Championships, now known as the U.S. Open. She played at Wimbledon, the French Open, and began winning titles left and right on courts that were previously off limits, and during times when dressing rooms were in their cars.
Carleen Hutchins moved to Montclair with her family in 1913. “She was always interested in the great outdoors, Girl Scouts. She played the bugle and trumpet and did woodworking in school. Her mom fought to have her take shop versus home economics class,” Eliasof said.
A science teacher, Hutchins studied acoustics and developed the violin octet. “Her lifelong quest was to make the best luthiers’ instrument. She used a method to tune eight instruments off a half step so they played together and produced a remarkable sound. She taught others to move forward the science of violin and other stringed instruments. Her home was filled with photos of Catgut Acoustical Society photos of violins, a lab where she built over 500 violins and taught music,” Eliasof said.
In the world of haute couture, was a bold and glamorous Wilhelmina model who appeared in Vogue, Mademoiselle, Bazaar and Glamour magazines. In 1973, she attended a French show featuring 36 American models, including 10 African-Americans. “It was the Battle of Versailles Fashion Show, with American and French designers competing. They were the movers and shakers of that period of vibrancy,” Eliasof said.
Brainy, as well as aesthetically beautiful, Darden earned a degree in liberal arts from Sarah Lawrence College. After her modeling career ended due to a medical condition, she ran a catering business and two restaurants. She and her sister Carole wrote the cookbook “Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine: Recipes and Reminiscences of a Family.”
All the Montclair women who became firsts in their community and left a legacy of excellence in achievement are too many to list. But the six detailed here provide a core group of superstars that achieved success and notoriety on local, national and global levels, said Eliasof.
These women’s lives were detailed in the Montclair Women’s Club topics in “Historic Heroines and Trailblazers of Montclair” presentation on March 14.