These pioneering women decided their “place” in the world was anywhere they wanted it to be. They were heroines who chose to change the status quo and make it more than just “a man’s world.” No offense, men, but it had to be done.
You’ve probably never heard of these women, but I hope you’ll remember them after reading this. There are countless women I wanted to include, but I’m starting with these seven. I’ll work through history slowly, beginning with those born in the 1800s, not necessarily in chronological order. More heroines to come with Part 2.
Abby Kelley Foster (1811-1887)
An anti-slavery, equal rights, and social justice crusader, Foster worked tirelessly in the fight to abolish slavery and gain equal rights for women and African-Americans. In an era when women were expected to be meek and submissive, she boldly and radically demand equality.
She lived by the motto, “Go where least wanted, for there you are most needed.” She had a gift for convincing non-believers that slavery was immoral and should be abolished. Her stance on slavery and equal rights was extremely controversial for the time. She spoke to “mixed” or “promiscuous” audiences, meaning both men and women, and suffered great ridicule and harassment for standing by her principles. She paved the way for future suffragists and civil rights activists.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910)
The first woman awarded a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree, Dr. Blackwell was a pioneer for women in the medical profession. She promoted women’s education and eventually opened her own medical college for women that offered an innovative and progressively forward-thinking curriculum, rivaling that of any men’s college in the country.
Dr. Blackwell’s applications to all major medical schools were rejected because she was a woman. Geneva Medical School in New York accepted her, apparently as a joke, believing she would never attend. But in 1849, she graduated first in her class even after enduring ridicule, hatred, and discrimination from classmates and professors.
Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838-1927)
Considered a radical with provocative views and ideals for her time, Woodhull broke traditional boundaries of the Victorian era by being the first woman to run for President of the United States in 1872. An advocate for equal education for women, the right to vote, and the right to control her own health decisions, she was far ahead of her time by supporting eight-hour workdays, new divorce laws, welfare programs, and graduated income tax. She believed that women should be allowed to marry, divorce, and bear children without government interference.
Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Clafin, have the honor of being the first female stockbrokers, opening their own brokerage firm on Wall Street in 1870. They made a fortune and used it to start their own paper where they promoted equal rights, suffrage and labor reforms.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)
A trailblazer in the nursing industry, Mahoney was the first African-American woman to work professionally as a trained nurse. She received her diploma in 1879 from the New England Hospital for Women and Children after completing a rigorous training course, the first professional nurses training course in America.
Mahoney became a successful private duty nurse and was praised for her professionalism and efficiency, raising the standards of private nursing. She was one of the first African-American members of what is now known as the American Nurses Association. As an advocate of equal rights for women, she was one of the first women in Boston to register to vote after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. She campaigned faithfully throughout her career for the equal rights of African-American women in nursing.
Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919)
A doctor and Civil War field surgeon, Dr. Walker was the first woman awarded the Medal of Honor. One of the first women to earn a medical degree in the U.S., she volunteered to work on the battlefields during the Civil War, but was denied because she was a woman. She did it anyway, eventually becoming an assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry and was eventually captured as a POW by the Confederates.
She rejected the traditional role of a women and advocated women’s rights, dress reform, and sexual and political equality. She believed women should be allowed to retain their own surnames. She dressed in trousers, pantsuits, top hats and refused to wear dresses and corsets, quite radical for a woman at that time. She was arrested in New York City for impersonating a man, and her Medal of Honor was revoked. However, in 1977, the Army Board admitted she was a victim of sex discrimination and reinstated her Medal.
Blanche Stuart Scott (1889-1970)
Born to be an adventurer, Scott was the first woman to drive across the U.S. and has the distinction of being the first woman in America to fly. Her daring car trip came at a time when there were only about 218 miles of paved roads outside of major cities. It brought her so much publicity that she was offered a contract to learn to fly from Glenn Curtiss Exhibition Company. In 1910, she made her first public appearance as a woman aviator.
Scott set many firsts in her long career, like the lead role in the first movie about flying, The Aviator’s Bride, the first woman test pilot in America, and the nation’s first woman stunt pilot, “Tomboy of the Air.” In 1980, the U.S. Postal Service honored her with a commemorative stamp.
Martha Matilda Harper (1857-1950)
A former domestic servant from the age of seven, Harper was the inventor of the concept of retail franchising and the reclining shampoo chair used in modern salons to this day. In 1888, using her nearly floor-length hair as a marketing tool, she opened her first beauty salon in New York. At the time, hairdressers made house calls to clients, but Harper’s high quality, full-service salon paved the way for the modern day spa/salon concept. She is credited with introducing profit sharing, flextime, and paid personal time off for her employees.
She invented, manufactured, and trademarked her own line of all-natural hair and skin products and encouraged good hygiene, health and exercise. Her salons offered massages and other relaxation services, childcare, and evening appointments. She employed and taught women her customer-oriented business concept, and over the course of 30 years franchised her Harper network into 500 retail salons worldwide, all owned by women.
Sources of photos and research unless otherwise noted:
National Women’s Hall of Fame, http://www.greatwomen.org/
National Women’s History Museum, http://www.nwhm.org/
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