6 women you've probably never heard of who refused to take no for an answer
History is written by those in power, and traditionally that means it’s emphatically not written by women. Who knows how many everyday stories of intrepid, inspiring women have been totally lost to time because our forebears were, for centuries, thwarted in their pursuits? Luckily, that did not happen to the following six ladies, though they are undoubtedly much more obscure than they deserve. These women led interesting, creative, groundbreaking lives that have been too poorly remembered, and I highlight them here in the hope of correcting that, but also to remind us that we have the capacity to be extraordinary, to overcome adversity, to change the world.
Who: Lesya Ukrainka
Accomplishments worth remembering: She wrote her first poem when she was eight years old, and published all of her work in Ukrainian at a time when the Russian Empire forbade publications in the language (she risked being exiled to Siberia if discovered). In 1888, at the age of 18, Ukrainka formed a literary circle called the Pleiades to promote Ukrainian independence. Despite having tuberculosis her entire life, she wrote a number of epic poems, dramas, literary criticism, and many sociopolitical essays.
Bragging rights: She spoke 10 (TEN!) languages in total — English, German, French, Italian, Greek, Polish, Russian, Bulgarian, and her native Ukrainian. How do you say “total boss” in Latin? I don’t know, but she would, because she also spoke Latin. That’s eight and a half more languages than I can speak. Was there Rosetta Stone in the 1800s?
Famous quote: “Who told you that I’m weak, / That I succumb to fate? / My voice is strong when I speak, / My thoughts and songs vibrate.”
Who: Nellie Bly
Accomplishments worth remembering: Nellie Bly was an investigative reporter in the late 19th century who did something totally crazy — literally. She pretended to be insane in order to gain access to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island and expose the brutality and abuses that occurred there. The resulting series (eventually published as a book in 1887), Ten Days in a Mad-House, revealed that women committed to asylums were virtually starved, beaten, made to take ice-cold baths, and sit on hard benches all day long. This exposé led to major social change.
Bly also took major issue with the fact that, in her time, women in the media were expected to write only about fashion, society, and gardening, topics that were stereotypically “women’s interest.” Her editors pushed her out of investigative journalism, so she simply left the newspaper and talked her way into another one, where she could write about what she believed in.
Bragging rights: She basically became the real-life version of the character Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days — except she made the trip in only 72!
Famous quote: “I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall.”
Who: Isadora Duncan
Accomplishments worth remembering: Born in 1877, Duncan was known for her structureless dancing, in which she “followed fantasy and improvised [dancing] any pretty thing that came into [her] head.” Unsatisfied with performing in the United States, Duncan traveled to London and eventually all over Europe around the turn of the century, creating an innovative new dance technique we now know as modern dance. She opened schools in Germany, Paris, and the United States to teach her philosophy of dance and of life.
Bragging rights: She dropped out of school as a child because she thought it suppressed her individuality. (I don’t recommend trying out this line on your parents.) By 10, she was teaching other girls in her San Francisco neighborhood to dance and her classes were quite popular.
Famous quote: “You were once wild here. Don’t let them tame you.”
Who: Martha Matilda Harper
Accomplishments worth remembering: Thank Martha Matilda Harper for those intensely therapeutic head massages you get at the hair salon — she invented the reclining salon chair and the shampoo sink in the late 1870s. She was also one of the first businesspeople and entrepreneurs to open a franchise a little over a decade later. (Not just one of the first women, mind you.) She sold a hair “tonic” — basically a shampoo that was entirely organic — and it was so successful that she was able to open a network of hair salons with her own hair-care line. Harper specifically allowed low-income women to open their salons under her name. Hear, hear!
Bragging rights: Her hair. I mean, just look at it. The length and magnificent wave alone is enough to sell millions of products. Seriously, where can I get a bottle of whatever she’s using?
Famous quote: “We are helping women attain the best that life has to offer — self-expression.”
Who: Elizabeth Blackwell
Accomplishments worth remembering: Blackwell desperately wanted to attend medical school but, in the 1840s, she was met everywhere with resistance. People told her to disguise herself as a man or else study at a school abroad. The only reason she was ever accepted into med school was because the all-male student body thought her application was a joke, and when asked to vote if she should be allowed, they unanimously said yes just for fun. Well, who’s laughing now, boys? In fact, when she did eventually earn her degree in 1849, the dean of her school stood up and bowed to her.
Bragging rights: Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to graduate from medical school, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States, and the first woman on the UK Medical Register. So, you know, that’s pretty cool, I guess.
Famous quote: “If society will not admit of woman’s free development, then society must be remodeled.” You said it, Liz.
Who: Marian Anderson
Accomplishments worth remembering: One of the best contraltos of the 20th century, Anderson faced racism and discrimination all her life. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to sing to an integrated audience at an event in Constitution Hall. The snub catapulted her into nationwide fame, attracting the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. With their help, Anderson performed an amazing open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which must have been incredibly moving for those who attended and those who listened on the radio: a total of 75,000 people.
Bragging rights: She taught herself how to play the piano when her family was unable to afford lessons. In 1955, she became the first African American singer to perform as a member of the New York Metropolitan Opera.
Famous quote: “When you stop having dreams and ideals — well, you might as well stop altogether.”