This Day in History – August 26TH

1920 – The 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution takes effect, giving women the right to vote – The beginning of the American women’s rights movement is generally traced back to a convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 advertised as “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” It included speeches by leading early feminists including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and famous African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who argued in favour of women pursuing suffrage, or, the right to vote. It took over 70 years of fighting, but finally, on this date in 1920, the federal government under President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the 19th amendment incorporated into the U.S. Constitution. The amendment reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Tennessee had become the 36th and final state necessary to officially ratify the amendment two days earlier. Similar political changes were taking place in Canada in the same era, with Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden pledging during the 1917 election campaign to extend equal suffrage for women. Winning in a landslide, he introduced a bill enfranchising women in 1918. On May 24, 1918, female Canadian citizens who were “age 21 or older, not alien-born and meet property requirements in provinces where they exist” became eligible to vote.

1962 – Arizona TV host Sherri Finkbine returns home from Sweden after receiving a legal abortion – Sherri Finkbine, who was known as Miss Sherri on the local Phoenix, Arizona version of the kids program “Romper Room,” became the unlikely face of the American abortion reform movement in August 1962. Finkbine, who was a mother of four when she became pregnant again in July 1961, began taking pills to ease the symptoms of her morning sickness without realizing they contained thalidomide. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, thalidomide was commonly given to pregnant women for this reason but, by 1962, the deformities it could cause a fetus in the womb were becoming more well known. Finkbine’s doctor recommended she get an abortion and arranged the procedure. Abortions were illegal in Arizona at the time, but permitted if the mother’s life was at risk. Finkbine contacted a journalist friend to tell her story to warn other women about the drug. Though she had wanted to remain anonymous, her identity was revealed in the story and the hospital cancelled her procedure for fear of bad publicity. Finkbine and her husband were forced into a highly publicized court battle with the hospital, receiving threats over the phone and by mail. Finkbine lost her job as a TV host, and they also lost their court case. Denied any recourse in her home state, Finkbine and her husband flew to Sweden, where her request for an abortion was granted on Aug. 17, 1962, and the procedure was carried out the following day. It was then that the couple learned the fetus had no legs and only one arm, and would not have survived. It was too badly deformed to be identified as a boy or a girl. About 8,000 women worldwide gave birth to babies with deformities caused by thalidomide. On this date in 1962, the couple returned home and, three years later, had a healthy baby girl. Finkbine’s story, which was turned into an HBO TV movie in 1992 starring Sissy Spacek, galvanized the U.S. abortion reform movement with many Americans polled on the subject saying they believed she had done the right thing.

1985 – South African long distance runner Zola Budd breaks the women’s 5,000 m world record – Zola Budd, who turned 50 in May this year, first rose to fame at the age of 17 when she broke the women’s 5,000 m world record with a time of 15:01.83. But there was a catch. Since her run took place in her home country of South Africa, the International Amateur Athletics Federation refused to ratify her run due to South Africa’s apartheid policy, which permitted wide-spread, government-sanctioned racism. The following year, her father persuaded Budd that, since her grandfather was British, she should apply for British citizenship. There was some controversy when her application, which was quickly accepted, was said to have received preferential treatment compared to others who had to wait years for their application to be accepted. There were occasions when Budd, who preferred to run barefoot, would be invited to participate in a race only to have the invitation rescinded due to demonstrations by anti-apartheid activists. Still, she kept at it – setting a new world record of 5:33.15 for the women’s 2,000 m – and earned a place on the British Olympic Team for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. She failed to medal in the 3,000 m race at the Olympics when she collided with American runner Mary Decker, causing Budd to be harshly booed by the many US fans in attendance. Again, she kept running and, on this date in 1985, she ran the women’s 5,000 m in a time of 14:48.07 – faster than her previous record-breaking run, and, this time, it was officially accepted. Following the end of apartheid, Budd returned to South Africa and, in 1992, ran for the country in its first Olympics since 1960. Her record in the 5,000 m was broken the following year by Norwegian runner Ingrid Kristiansen. The current world record holder is Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia, with a time of 14:11.15.

1994 – British man Arthur Cornhill becomes the first to receive an battery-operated heart – On this date in 1994, a pioneering operation at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire, England resulted in a then-unnamed 62-year-old man receiving the world’s first battery-operated heart. The patient was later revealed to be Arthur Cornhill, a retired stuntman from southern England, who only had months to live when he was offered the chance to be a test subject for a new medical device. The device in question was called a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD), made in America from titanium and plastic. The machine is an electrical pump which essentially takes over the work of the heart’s pumping chamber. The operation was performed by a team of 11 people, including heart surgeons Sir Terence English and John Wallwork. In 1979, English had performed Britain’s first successful heart transplant. Cornhill’s operation took four hours and involved placing the LVAD into his abdomen and connecting it to his heart. The pump was powered by a battery pack that could be worn on a belt. After the procedure, Cornhill was in stable condition. Sadly, he died nine months later due to kidney failure. Since then, further developments in medical technology have allowed many people with heart disease to go on leading active, healthy lives.

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