Mary Millicent Garretson Miller grew up with river water and steam coursing through her veins.
When Mary was born in 1846, Portland was a bustling river city just west of Louisville. Her father, Andrew Garretson, was a steamboat engineer.
She married George Miller, a talented boat builder with a good reputation. They built a life together on the river operating the Saline on the lower Mississippi and Red Rivers.
They maintained a home in Portland but lived with their children for several months of the year on the Saline. The husband and wife team plied the waters around New Orleans and threatened their competition.
They were so much of a threat that those competitors tried to cut the sea legs from underneath the Millers. In addition, the competitors alleged that George was serving as both pilot and captain of the Saline, which would have violated federal rules.
In response to the accusation, George declared that while he piloted the ship, Mary was the master. This is significant because a pilot guided the ship through tricky waters, but the master oversaw the entire operation.
The assertion that Mary was the Saline‘s master only inflamed the critics. They demanded to know whether it was proper for a member of the fairer sex to serve as a ship’s master. Finally, the question made it to the United States Secretary of the Treasury, Charles J. Folger.
Over the objections of the Steamboat Inspection Services’ supervising inspector in New Orleans, Folgers ruled that Mary ought to be granted the master’s license as long as she could perform the duties without allowance for her gender.
Mary, of course, aced the test and was granted the license in February 1884. She was the first woman to be given a steamboat master’s permission. Her triumph inspired a cartoon in the famous Harper’s Weekly publication captioned “By All Means Commission The Ladies.”
More importantly, her triumph also opened the channel for more women to pursue their licenses.
Mary’s story highlights several vital insights about breaking new ground as a leader.
You might have the experience, you might know, you might have the skill, but for some, it will never be enough to prove you are worthy. Other New Orleans steamboat masters noted Mary’s talent and abilities with admiration, but she still faced significant opposition due to societal norms. Nevertheless, she persevered despite criticisms and questions utterly unrelated to her skill.
Few things are as valuable in life as a supportive family. George seemed to view Mary not just as his helper or someone to look after his home and children but as a trusted partner. He valued her skill and was willing to speak up for her and put her at the forefront of their operation. Today we might say he “had her back.”
Achieving equal opportunity for all requires some moxie from other leaders, too. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that women belonged in the home and certainly not on the rough and tumble river scene. So Secretary Folger stuck his neck out and risked public wrath by allowing Mary to test for her license. It took courage for him to do the right thing.
I might have missed this incredible homegrown story of moxie had it not been for a recent addition to Louisville’s waterfront, the newly-christened Mary M. Miller riverboat. What an incredibly fitting tribute to a local hero.
I regularly share stories of moxie here. Who inspires you? Tell me more in the comments.