The gutsy ladies who rocked turn-of-the-century society
Throughout history, women have played a key role in changing the world. I mean, we do make up half the population, so why wouldn’t we be on the front lines of progress? But for much of history, women who raised their voices against the status quo were considered scandalous rather than revolutionary. Here are a few women who fought for gender equality around the turn of the 20th century.
Journalism has long been a bit of a boy’s club, and many women breaking into the industry have to deal with some pretty sexist nonsense. As a female journalist during the late 1800s, Nellie Bly went through it all and then some, but refused to give up on her dream of covering hard-hitting topics. Bly, who was caused quite a stir by being a girl reporter, had a lot of adventures in the name of a good story. Once, she had herself committed to a mental hospital to cover the abhorrent conditions patients were living in. On another occasion she traveled around the world in 72 days to break the standing world record.
Bly retired from journalism at the age of 31 following her marriage to a millionaire, but she wasn’t ready to live a life of leisure just yet. She became the president of a manufacturing company and pursued inventing. Although she was a leading industrialist, employees bankrupted her through embezzlement, and she left manufacturing. Bly did go back to reporting to cover the First World War and women’s suffrage, rounding out a journalism career defined by taking on topics long thought too demanding for women.
Ann Lohman’s story gives a whole new meaning to starting from the bottom. The daughter of a laborer, she worked as a maid in England before emigrating to New York. She was widowed shortly after the move, and supported herself by working as a seamstress. After remarrying, she started selling patent medicines and contraceptives, which was looked down upon by society and the authorities. Lohman, known as Madame Restell, was also an abortionist, which drew the eye of moral crusader Anthony Comstock in 1878.
Patent medicines were a shady practice, and women’s reproductive rights were heavily curtailed by social stigma. But Lohman’s work helped save lives in the mid-to-late 1800s, when women had little control over their own bodies and death during childbirth was a common occurrence. Lohman also made a fortune, with an estimated $12 million to her name when she died. Her story was the basis for Kate Manning’s novel My Notorious Life.
At a time when women of color did not have a voice, Lyda Newman was a force to be reckoned with. She worked in Manhattan as a hairdresser, and invented an easily cleaned hairbrush. But that’s probably one of the least impressive things Newman did in her life, even if it is the first thing that a Google search turns up.
Newman was one of the founding members of the African-American branch of the Women’s Suffrage Party. She played a key role in advancing the vote for women, canvassing her neighborhood and coordinating with the wider Women’s Suffrage Party. Considering the treatment white women faced when standing up for their rights, Newman was taking a serious risk by being a leader for her community. Sadly, she doesn’t receive nearly the attention given to more prominent, white women’s activists from the period, so little is known of her wider activism.
Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin
When it comes to these trail-blazing sisters, the question really is what didn’t they do? Born penniless to a family of con-artists, the lovely sisters moved to New York City in 1870 and became the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street. They made a fortune on the exchange, in addition to receiving financial backing from Cornelius Vanderbilt. Victoria and Tennessee used the money they made to start up a weekly magazine promoting radical ideas, like free love, sex ed, suffrage, and vegetarianism. Victoria later ran for president as the first female candidate, nominated by the Equal Rights Party in 1872.
Victoria and Tennessee were pretty controversial, and not just because of their stance on women’s rights. They loved the spotlight, and weren’t afraid to cause trouble. They were discredited by suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, who felt the sisters were opportunistic rather than sincere. Both sisters were arrested for publishing their newspaper, which was considered obscene. But despite the controversy surrounding them, they managed to push more envelopes than any other woman of their time.
Ruth Hanna McCormick
McCormick wore many hats, all of them fabulous. She owned a dairy farm and served as president of a newspaper in Rockford, IL, before getting involved with the women’s suffrage movement. In 1919 she became the chair of the first women’s committee of the Republican National Committee, and then took over for Alice Paul when Paul left her post as the head of the Congressional Committee of the NAWSA.
McCormick’s political involvement didn’t stop when women’s suffrage was passed. She went on to be elected to the House of Representatives in 1929. She served one term before returning to publishing and moving to New Mexico with her second husband, but her journey from dairy farmer to suffragette to Congresswoman is an incredible testament to the changes women set into motion at the turn of the century!