What better way to celebrate International Women’s Day than to shine a light on four strong, passionate women. Meet Joséphine, Annette, Giorgina, and Thérèse: a cabaret dancer, an athlete, a lighthouse keeper, and an activist who have equally contributed to the advancement of women throughout the years. French illustrator, Pénélope Bagieu, has devoted (among many others) several works to their achievements. The comic book titled Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, so eloquently depicts their incredible lives.
1. Joséphine Baker
Born in Missouri, United States in 1906, Joséphine was introduced to the workforce at a young age to provide for her family. In 1920, she quit school at 13, to get married. A second marriage followed at the age of 16, which eventually ended, when she decided to try her hand at Broadway! During one of her performances in Paris one evening, she caught the eye of an American embassy member’s wife, and was offered a spot in La Revue nègre, a popular Parisian musical show.
In 1927, after a triumphant tour in Europe, she took the stage at Les Folies Bergères in 1927, a cabaret music hall in Paris. There, before she rose to fame, she danced to Charleston music dressed in her signature banana costume. Three years later, she graced the stage of the Casino de Paris accompanied by her cheetah, Chiquita. Shortly after, in 1931, she released a hit song, J’ai deux amours (I have two loves).
She became famous for her dance skills, but secretly she also had a successful career as a spy! Joséphine was recruited by French intelligence at the start of the Second World War. Her trick was to conceal messages in her music. Eventually, the French honoured her years of service and she received the Resistance medal and the Legion of Honour insignia.
After having a miscarriage, in the early 1950s, she learned that she could not bear children and turned to adoption. With her fourth husband, she adopted eleven children from different backgrounds — her rainbow tribe as she liked to call it.
She died at 68, of a stroke, on April 12, 1975.
2. Annette Kellermann
Suffering from symptoms of polio at 6 years old and unable to walk without braces, life was difficult for this young Australian girl. Her doctor prescribed a sport to help stimulate her legs, so she took up swimming. From then on, her life took a turn for the better.
At 13, after hours of practice, Annette regained full use of her legs. At 15, she mastered all swimming techniques and won her first competition. At 17, she continued to persevere: dove from 28 meters, swam the 27 km across the Thames, and won a 36 km race in the Danube River.
At 19, she set out to cross The British Channel, but after swimming for more than 10 hours, she gave up. While men could swim it naked, she was forced to wear a conservative swimsuit, which restricted her movements. She decided to design her own swimsuit, more comfortable and more practical, but it also revealed her arms and hugged her body, which was seen as bold and scandalous at the time. In 1907, she was arrested for indecent exposure during a competition in Boston, but was released after arguing the point that she was an athlete. Regardless of her circumstances, she believed and persisted, and went on to create her own collection of women’s swimwear.
In addition to her athletic career, she turned to cinema in 1916 and often played the role of a mermaid in aquatic ballets, which made her the forerunner of synchronized swimming.
She died at 89; her ashes were scattered over the Great Barrier Reef.
3. Giorgina Reid
Giorgina was born in 1908, in Italy, and moved to the United States with her mother as a teenager. A very curious young girl, she liked to read, learn, and discover. It’s only natural that she’d pursue academic studies. Throughout her life, she never lost her passion for discovery and learning.
When they retired, she and her husband bought a house on a cliff in Rocky Point, New York. One day, after a bad storm, the cliff eroded and they lost 30 cm of their garden. Her husband planned to sell, but Giorgina refused to! She decided to document everything and try to find a way to save her garden. She collected wood and reed debris, and modified her set-up following a Japanese technique. When the next storm came, her garden remained intact!
Montauk lighthouse stood at the edge of an island on a cliff that was receding every day. The coast guard tried to stop the erosion, to no avail. They didn’t have the budget to continue their efforts and the lighthouse was condemned.
In 1971, touched by the cause, Giorgina pitched her patented project to the coast guard and offered to do the same for the lighthouse for free.
For 15 years, every Sunday, with the help of her husband and a few volunteers, they tirelessly devoted their time and energy to landscaping the cliff. In 1985, the project was complete.
At the end of her life, Giorgina suffered from Alzheimer’s, but was able to explain the smallest details of her earthmoving technique, until her death at 92.
Born into a bourgeois, Catholic family in a Parisian suburb, Thérèse religiously honoured her family’s wishes and got married at age 20.
In 1968, a pivotal year in the country’s history, she wanted a different life and started her own personal revolution. Without her husband’s knowledge, she began a life of activism, fighting for women’s rights. She soon discovered that clandestine abortion was the first cause of death for women and joined the abortion and contraception movement.
At 40, growing weary of her married life, she filed for divorce, got her driver’s license, found a job and moved with her four children to Montreuil, France. There, in 1999, she created the association La Maison des Femmes de Montreuil, a shelter for women who have been victims of violence.
The same year, following the death of her mother, whom she looked after for a long time, she reflected on a new project: a house exclusively for elderly women, based on self-management, solidarity, citizenship, and ecology.
This anti-retirement home, that she later named Babayagas’ House — an ironic reference to witches and ogresses of Russian folklore — has about twenty low-rent units reserved for women aged 60 to 80 years. There are no caregivers, no medical rooms, the occupants are self-sufficient and help one another age well.
Her project, which she calls a “realistic utopia,” was postponed several times and was on the verge of being canceled on the grounds of being “discriminatory.” It was relaunched in 2009 by the town of Montreuil and finally opened at the end of 2012.
Thérèse died on January 15, 2016. Since then, the shelter in Montreuil is named after her.
If you liked these stories and want to know more, the comic book Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World is available in most bookstores.
Adapted from French by Jonelle Larouche