History’s Heroines

Dr. Margaret McFarland – The Woman behind Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

Dr. Margaret McFarland
1905 – 1988

Born in rural Pennsylvania at the turn of the Twentieth Century, Margaret McFarland was the youngest of three children. Her father’s passing, just five years later, would have a monumental impact on the trajectory of her life.

Years later, Ms. Mc Farland pursued an education in childhood psychology, earning degrees from Goucher College (1927), and both a Master’s (1928) and Ph. D. from Columbia University. For a woman to do so at the time, took will, determination and a fierce passion for the work that lay ahead.

At the start of her career, Margaret worked in early childhood education. Teaching in classrooms both abroad and stateside throughout the 1940s she then moved into upper education at the new decade begun. By 1951, she had become a professor at the University of Pittsburg. It was there that she first met the young Fred Rogers.

At the time, Fred Rogers was a puppeteer pursuing a divinity degree. He had a show for children on a local Pittsburg public television station and came to talk to Margaret about how to better connect with his audience. It was the start of a professional relationship that would last more than forty years. When he moved to WQED with his new show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood in 1968, Margaret became his Chief Consultant, meeting with him weekly to discuss the show’s content, music, and scripting. Fred took her advice so seriously he was said to have taken copious notes by hand, and by voice recording for later review during the editorial process. He is quoted as giving McFarland credit for the tremendous influence she had on him and the legacy of the show they built together.

Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood would leave a positive, lasting effect on the generations of children who tuned in to regularly watch the PBS program. Fred Rogers’ demeanor on the show, is evidence of the unique talent McFarland had to use story and art to connect with children and to make each one feel so very special and important.

After her passing in 1988, Fred Rogers honored his mentor by naming a character from the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood spin-off show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, after her. Margaret McFarland remained unmarried throughout her life and chose not to have children of her own. Toward the end of her life, she developed a rare bone disease, though kept working until her death in 1988 at the age of 83.

photo courtesy: pittwire.pitt.edu

Elenore Abbott – American Illustrator


Elenore Abbott 1875 – 1935

Elenore Abbott was an American literary illustrator and landscape painter. She studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia; the latter under the direction of famed author and illustrator, Howard Pyle. A pioneer in his field, Mr. Pyle created a style that combined Pre-Raphaelite, American Realism and Symbolism techniques, with a fantastical element rooted in his great love of history. Ms. Abbott is said to attribute the style of her own work to her time under Mr. Pyle’s direction. 

     As with Mr. Pyle’s, Elenore’s work was decidedly Art Nouveaux, comprising the organic shapes, and nature-inspired design elements inherent in that style. She often worked from photographs which then informed her oil paintings.

     Ms. Abbott’s illustrations appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s Magazine and Scribers’, however, her paintings are most recognized as being the illustrations for many classic fairy tales including Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Robinson Caruso, Treasure Island, and Swiss Family Robinson, among many others. 

     Today, in addition to the legacy of her literary illustrations, her work can be seen on display at the Brandywine River Museum in Pennsylvania, the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, Delaware and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.  

photo courtesy:

  1. WikiArt.org
  2. pintrest.com

Harriet Quimby- First licensed female pilot in the U.S.

Harriet Quimby
1875 (Michigan) – 1912 (Massachusettes)
photo courtesy: pilotspost.com:

     The morning of April 16, 1912, was damp and chilly. The sky overcast and tinged with fog. For days, it had set Harriet Quimby back from attaining the thing she wanted most. Standing aside her Blériot XI monoplane, Quimby assessed the skies undeterred, for not even the thickest of fog could hold her back from the greatest flight of her life; the crossing of the English Channel. Were she successful, Harriet Quimby would become the first female pilot to achieve such a monumental feat. 

     Two years prior, while working as a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Dramatic Review, Quimby was introduced to the world of aviation. While covering the first-ever U.S. air show in Los Angeles in 1910, Ms. Quimby became enamored with the sport. Soon after, fortune crossed her path with the great pilot, Alfred Moisant, whom she asked to give her flying lessons. He agreed, however, died in a plane accident shortly thereafter. Undeterred, Harriet, then employed in New York as a journalist for Leslie’s Weekly as its drama critic, attended the aviation school named in his honor; Moisant Aviation School in New York. Deep discrimination at the time forced the young pilot to hide her femininity during training and nearly cost her the opportunity for licensure from the Aero Club, the principle licensing organization of the time. However, due to her “splendid flying that day” the judges couldn’t not grant her the license. On August 1, 1911, she became the first female licensed pilot in the U.S. and the second internationally behind the French pilot Baroness Raymonde de la Roche. 

     Aviation was a natural extension for the sports and motoring enthusiast. Following her licensure, Harriet was invited to join the Moisant International Aviators Exhibition team. She traveled the world with this group, where her skills earned her enormous prize money for the day as well as the title of “the first woman to fly over Mexico City”; a feat attained when the group performed at a celebration in honor of the city’s new president. 

Demonstrating excellence both in the skies and on the page, Quimby was driven to achieve all that her male peers had attained and encouraged other women to do the same. Having seen Louis Blériot make the crossing prior, she set her mind to it. By March 1912, Quimby had gained a letter of introduction to Louis Blériot and had set sail for France where she was to meet him. Upon her arrival, she as told that the 70 hp plane she had ordered from him wasn’t yet completed and so, she arranged to borrow his personal 50 hp Blériot XI monoplane. Shipping it secretly to Dover, England and with Blériot and Gustav Hamel, another Channel crossing celebrity at her side, she prepared for the flight. According to Hamel, she would need to use a compass to guide her for the entire flight, something she had never done before. Donning her signature plum-colored jumpsuit, she took to the skies. The first hour of her flight was mired in thick fog that obscured her vision and made her heavily reliant on Hamel’s compass. Dipping down to check her path, Quimby found a break in the fog, revealing the shores of France. She was elated at her victory. The rest of the world, however, failed to notice. Just two days prior, the great “unsinkable” Titanic had met its demise losing over 1,500 souls, and back in New York, the male-dominated city governance was still recovering from the recent suffragette march of 20,000 women. It was a terrible blow for the great aviator. Following this upset, she returned to the exhibition circuit. 

July 1st of that year, after having participated in a Boston exhibition, she was enjoying at leisure flight with the event’s main organizer when the plane had a fatal malfunction ejecting both passengers from the aircraft. Harriet Quimby was 37 years old. In the years to come, her legacy lived in the pages of the papers for which she wrote and in aviation periodicals but much of her successes had been forgotten. In 1991, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative 50 cent stamp in her honor. In her plum jumpsuit and aviator’s cap, she is superimposed over her Blériot XI beside the caption “Pioneer Pilot.”

Berthe Morisot – la Grand Dame of Impressionist Art

Bethe Morisot
photo courtesy: theartstory.com

Bertha was born in France to a wealthy family of great artistic abilities. Her father was a skilled architect and her mother hailed from one of the greatest Rocco painters of the time; her great-uncle, Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Education was greatly valued in her family, though, while her brother could go to school, Berthe and her sister were educated at home by a tutor. As part of their studies, the girls had lessons in art and went weekly to the Louvre Museum to paint copies of the master works there. Bertha would continue this through adulthood eventually becoming a certified “copiest” with the museum. 

While there, Berthe met many upcoming artists including: Corot, Monet, Degas, (who would become a close, life-long friend,) and Eduard Manet, whose brother, Eugene, would later become her husband. Her later work was greatly influenced by these new friends, though she would come to create a style all her own by incorporating oil paint, watercolors, and pastels in combination with the long brush strokes and unfinished edges of the Impressionists. Ms. Morisot sketched extensively before painting, and, unlike her peers, would use transfer paper to “transcribe” the image to her canvas before painting. The technique allowed her to paint whole faces and bodies in one brushstroke. 

Berthe Morisot’s, The Cradle
photo courtesy: britanica.com

Though she had shown her early work to great acclaim in the highly esteemed Paris Salon, by 1874 she was showing exclusively with the Impressionists and became not only known as one of three “grand dames” of the movement, but in certain art circles, “the only Impressionist with any talent.” 

Berthe Morisot’s, Summer’s Day
photo courtsey: nationalgallery.org.uk

Her subjects included scenes of daily life and the people who lived them. She also favored landscapes, gardens and flowers as she liked to paint “en plein air”  (outside). 

Some of her paintings include; The Cradle, The Reader, and A Summer’s Day 

Bridget Riley – “Op” Artist

photo courtesy: theartstory.com

     Bridget Riley 1931 – Present

Bridget Riley is considered one of the founders and leaders in the genre of Optical Illusion art, otherwise known as, “Op Art.” Born into a family who supported her from an early age, Bridget had an extensive art education and later worked as an art teacher. She was  greatly inspired by Seurat. Much of the work she produced early in her career is in the style of Seurat’s Pointillism. 

     By the 1960’s, however, she began to experiment with line, shape, and color. She wanted to develop her own, unique artistic style that would evoke an emotional and physical response in those who viewed her work. Using her background in Pointillism, Bridget painted pieces that created movement and dimension so that her work seemed to “vibrate” on the canvas. 

photo courtesy: studiointernational.com

In 1968, her black and white Op Art paintings won the coveted Venice Biennial Prize. She was the first female to attain the award. After that, she began experimenting with color, again referencing the complementary colors used by Seurat. Her success lead her to be considered the most prominent painter in the American Op Artist  Movement. Her work greatly inspired the fashion and art worlds of 1960’s London. 

“Blaze” – photo courtesy: The Guardian

Ms. Riley continues to work today, splitting her time between London and France. Her work can currently be seen at the Tate Modern in London and The MoMa in New York.  

Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986

    Georgia O’Keeffe is best known for her oversized paintings of flowers, animal skulls, and colorful dessert landscapes. The natural world was one she quite familiar with, having grown up as one of seven children on a Wisconsin farm. Taking art classes after school, she loved to draw the natural world around her. 

     By the age of twelve, she knew she wanted to pursue art as a career. After completing high school, Georgia attended the Art Institute of Chicago, but had to leave, due to illness, after only one year. Upon her recovery, she continued her education in Virginia, and later New York. Her early career was fraught with so many disappointments and challenges, however,  that O’Keeffe gave up painting for four years. It was her professor at Columbia University, Arthur Weasley Dow, that encouraged her to come back to art. He taught her to develop a style all her own; one that incorporated both the abstract style she loved with the realism of the subjects she painted. He encouraged her to recognize the importance of composition, telling her to “fill the space in a beautiful way,” and to use shapes and colors in unexpected, emotion-filled ways. By the late 1920’s she moved, with her husband, famed photographer, Alfred Stieglitz to New Mexico, where she connected immediately with the beauty of the landscapes there. She would live in the dessert oasis for the rest of her life. 

     Her contributions to abstract and modern art were so significant that she is consider the “Mother of Modern Art,” and was the first female to gain respect as an American Artist in New York’s art circles of the early Twenty-First Century. 

Some of her paintings include: Oriental Poppies, Soul with Calico and Roses, Red Canna, and Black Iris. 

photo courtesy: crfashionbook.com

Maya Lin – Artist, Sculptor, Designer


Maya Lin

1959- Present

     Maya Lin was born in Ohio to a family immersed in the arts. Her father was a ceramic artist, and dean of the Ohio University College of Fine Arts, and her mother, a poet, and professor of Literature at Ohio University. Like their mother, Maya’s brother, is also a poet, while her aunt, a skilled artist herself, is considered the first female architect in contemporary China.

With an undergraduate degree in the Arts and a Master’s in Architecture, Maya’s own artistic sensibilities seem a natural balance of her family’s talents. Each sculpture and monument she creates tells a story, meant to draw the viewers attention to the narrative she has set forth to tell and to evoke an emotion resulting in inward reflection or, with her more recent pieces, action. The concepts of her work, like the pieces themselves, are significant in size and purpose and have been from the start of her career. 

In 1981, Lin entered a blind design contest for the creation of a memorial in honor of Vietnam Veterans and won. When her identity as a young, inexperienced woman was revealed however, her victory was contested. Maya defended her design in front of the United States Congress eventually winning the right to proceed with her design for the memorial. She went on to design a number of other memorials, including the Civil Right Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and The Women’s Table on the Yale University campus. 

In recent years, her work has focused on climate change and its effects upon the depletion of waterways, the natural environment, and the endangerment of animals. In each piece, she uses recycled, upcycled or sustainable materials. 

Her work can be seen around the world as near as San Francisco’s de Young Museum, on the Snake and Columbia Rivers in Oregon and Washington,  and as far as Sweden where she did an earthwork entitled “Eleven Minute Walk.”

She currently lives and works in New York. 

photo courtesy of myhero.com


Maria Merian – Entomologist and Botanical Illustrator


Maria Sybell Merian 

German Scientific Illustrator 


     Maria Merian is considered to be one of the greatest entomologists and botanical illustrators of all time. Her discoveries in the field of entomology were groundbreaking at the time and dispelled many popular misconceptions about the lifecycle of insects. Her classifications of caterpillars and butterflies are still used today. 

     Maria’s father was an engraver and book publisher. He taught his children all he knew about the art of engraving, a skill Maria would use later as an adult. When he passed away, Maria’s mother re-married an artist who taught Maria how to paint still life’s. Maria loved to paint and draw, especially the natural world around her. 

      As a young girl, she was very interested in plants and insects. She caught and raised as many silkworms and caterpillar varieties as she could recording the way they transformed through each stage of their life cycle. She would eventually record the lifecycles of 186  different species. As an adult, she would travel the world with her two daughters drawing and painting many plant and insect species previously unknown to scientists at the time. 


Maria published four books on her scientific observations of the lifecycles of both plants and insects; two of which centered upon the metamorphosis of caterpillars. Of her designs, she made 60 copperplate engravings, over 250 paintings, and numerous books of botanical embroidery patterns. Her paintings are held in the Royal Collection, her likeness was featured on the 500 Deutschmark bill, and on a stamp. Numerous school in Germany are named in her honor, as are a ship, a spider, a bugle-lily and a butterfly.  

This post was taken from my “Famous Female Artist” series for primary grade art students.

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