I shouldn’t have to create a curriculum to teach the history of those who are 50% of the population. Women’s history, recognizing that it is even such a thing, became my safe place. Through women’s history I found my voice and my passion. Have you ever heard of Madame Lou Graham? The history of this women stuck out to me in relation to educating women.
Walking beneath the city of Seattle revealed a history not often spoken about, or at least to my knowledge. The original Seattle burned down, then was attempted to be used with weird passageways and crevices, until it resulted in not being safe or practical. The floors beneath the city can be toured; the dark, cold, and damp underground makes for an eerie experience. The original city, the now underground part, had a 1 to 10 ratio of women to men. The partially burned city was dangerous as people had to climb up and down alley ways, as the city was structured on two different levels, which lead to lots of, what the tour guide called, involuntary deaths. The rebuilding of this dangerous, majority-male, city led to women’s education through Madame Lou Graham and her sewing industry.
This a nod to Madame Lou Graham, to why she inspires me, to an unexpected learning experience, to secret badass-ery. Madame Lou Graham, real name Dorothea Georgine Emile Ohben, had the biggest sewing industry in Seattle near city hall. Madame Lou Graham’s original building burned in the deadly fire, but because of the profit made within the first building she was able to build another and expand. Her premise was to educate the women who worked for her. This was not truly a sewing industry, but really a brothel; a place for men to come to have sex with women. Graham’s brothel had prices similar to high-end hotels. At her brothel, Madame Lou preached the use of thimbles, which really meant condoms and safe sex. I think I got lucky that the tour guide told us this. But beyond the sex, it was a place to have intellectual and business conversations, especially for the women. It was a secret place of education; a safe place for education. The goal of Graham was to educate her women, leading the women to have intellectual conversations with the men who visited the brothel, and thus the women to gain more knowledge. Conversations within the brothel walls were related to politics, economic, and other current news. Graham’s women held active roles in the brothel, stepping away from the traditional object subject dichotomy of brothels. Images within the tour also suggest that the brothel could have been a safe trans place. Madame Lou Graham donated money, more money than anyone else during her time, to public schools in Seattle but does not receive recognition. She changed education in Seattle and changed the lives of so many people, but this woman’s history is not in history books. Her work was seen as dirty, but truly her motives were for the empowerment of oppressed groups. As the tour guide said Graham died of an “occupational hazard” meaning her death was related to sex. But before her death, she was one of the wealthiest citizens of Seattle. With her wealth she financially saved prominent citizens, businesses, and schools of Seattle.
So, thanks Madame Lou Graham for educating women and using “thimbles” back in 1888. Thanks for making a difference without demanding attention and for recognizing feminine strength. I want to teach history, meaning a history that includes women’s history to teach secret stories like this, stories that shouldn’t be secret.
Why is women’s history important to you? Share your answer with us on social media with #WomensHistoryBecause
Kaela Bright, education intern for the Women’s Museum of California