Girl Power: A Story of Strong Women and Armor

Girl Power: A Story of Strong Women and Armor

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How do you identify a strong woman? Tough and thick-skinned? Kind but assertive? Career woman or homemaker? Our new art columnist explains how correct answer is all of the above and more.

How do you identify a strong woman?

Is she tough? Is she kind but assertive? Is she nerdy? Is she a diva? Is she cool? Is she a business-focused woman with a successful career or a classic homemaker-type who can cook dinner every night and raise three kids?

The correct answer: all of the above…and more.

Throughout history, there are numerous stories of strong women supporting other women and the best way to continue to inspire these stories is to continue to pass these stories down to future generations – creating a supportive cycle of “girl power.”

Even the Cincinnati Art Museum has quite a few stories to tell. When it comes to the Cincinnati Art Museum’s (CAM) collection of 65,000 items spanning 6,000 years, even the smallest item can tell an intricate story. Historically, independent, artistic women have always been a large part of the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), established 1881. The museum itself was, in part, founded by the Women’s Art Museum Association (WAMA). Women have been closely involved ever since.

So what does armor have to do with it? Well, our newest exhibition, Masterpieces of Japanese Art, actually tells a surprising story of female empowerment and a suit of Japanese armor.

When Asian Art curator, Dr. Hou-mei Sung, started at CAM 12 years ago, she had no idea that the museum even had an Asian Art collection but after years of research and digging up information, several of her favorite items are now featured in the brand new exhibition.

This detailed collection of Japanese Art is the oldest in the United States and Dr. Sung has worked tirelessly to catalogue this information to create the first published piece on this particular subject entitled “Masterpieces of Japanese Art.” A labor of love, she holds the process of finding the suit of armor especially close to her heart.

“The discovery of the Suit of Armor was dramatic. It came to the museum very early,” said Dr. Sung, “We had three suits and two of them told a very unique story.” This story, told in her catalogue, reveals that one suit of armor, generously donated by Mrs. Enoch T. Carson (1837-1921) through WAMA, was on view in 1883 in the world armor exhibition. The other two were sold to CAM by Dr. Adeline Kelsey for a very worthy cause.

In 1885, Dr. Kelsey, a medical missionary with the Woman’s Union Missionary Society, traveled from Cincinnati to Japan and was inspired by two young Japanese women, Kaku Sudo (1869 – 1963) and Hana Abe (1873 – 1921), who were eager to obtain their medical degrees in the late 19th century. Dr. Kelsey took a special interest in them and was determined to help them obtain this goal and did so by selling many of her Japanese gifts, given to her as a result of her missionary work, to fund the girls’ education.

Dr. Kelsey’s sold two suits of Japanese armor to CAM, along with other items from Japan, to pay for Sudo and Abe’s tuition and board as they settled in Cincinnati to attend the Laura Memorial Woman’s Medical College , one of the few U.S. medical schools that accepted female students at the time.

“The doctor helped these two female students and sold the two suits so that they could go to school,” said Dr. Sung, “I found this story inspirational.”

The duo graduated from Laura Memorial Women’s Medical College in 1896 and promptly joined Dr. Kelsey in Japan to found the Negishi Hospital near Yokohama. In 1907, the three doctors returned to the U.S. after serving the poor for several years.

Although this story was atypical of the time, Dr. Sung sees it as tremendously significant to the era. “It tells a touching tale of humanity in an almost forgotten chapter of local Cincinnati history,” said Dr. Sung.

Without the generosity of the strong women in our past, Mrs. Carson of WAMA and Dr. Kelsey, where would these treasures have ended up? Without the funding that these suits of armor provided, how different would the futures of Sudo and Abe have been? As for the present, what kind of history would we have missed out on?

You can enjoy Masterpieces of Japanese Art, on view Now through August 30. The exhibition is free and open to the public. Read the entire history of this exhibition and the Japanese Art collection at CAM in the Dr. Hou-mei Sung‘s catalogue, “Masterpieces of Japanese Art” sold at the CAM Gift Shop.

The Cincinnati Art Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. To plan your trip, please visit

Columnist - Raised nearly 45 minutes outside of Cincinnati in rural Okeana, Jessica Stringfield has always considered herself a proud Cincinnatian and happily adopted a new life as a ‘City Mouse’ closer to Downtown in 2012. She is the Marketing and Communications Associate for the Cincinnati Art Museum as well as a Journalism and Political Science graduate of Miami University where she also completed a Communications/PR internship with NBC Washington’s “Meet the Press”. Despite having an interest in Politics, she decided to ultimately follow her heart and dedicate herself to the Arts community. She is involved with several non-profit organizations including Give Back Cincinnati, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Butler Tech School of the Arts. With her past experience as a journalist, she hopes to shed a new, exciting light on one of Cincinnati’s oldest treasures; the Cincinnati Art Museum. Contact her at