Today it can be easy to forget that there was a time when women weren’t afforded the same rights as men and lived in a world very different from our own. They had to fight to be heard, to have an education, and to work.
Throughout history, women have faced numerous inequalities and hardships. But there have been many heroines (and heroes) in the past who have stood up to face injustices and relentlessly pushed for progress. It is to these women, and men, that we can say a wholehearted thank you and can use them for inspiration to continue to advance societal progress. By remembering the past, we can learn from challenges faced, better understand the hurdles they overcame, and learn from any potential mistakes made. This prepares and arms us to take on new challenges in our modern society.
The four women we are highlighting made waves in their respective cultures and societies, which helped forge new eras for women’s rights and societal norms, effectively changing the world.
Direct + Committed Women’s Rights Activist
From Teacher to Activist – Lucy Stone (1818-1893)
Lucy Stone, born in Massachusetts, worked as a teacher to earn money for college. She became the first woman to earn a college degree in Massachusetts and started down a path of many firsts, both for herself and womenkind. Her life was dedicated to improving lives, equality and human rights.
After earning her degree, Lucy was hired by an abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, to work on his American Anti-Slavery Society. During her work with Garrison, she was frequently attacked and jeered at by angry mobs when she would speak publicly about women’s rights. Not to be dissuaded, Lucy remained anything but conventional for the times. In 1850, Lucy put together Worcester, Massachusetts’s first National Women’s Rights Convention; she further refused to take her husband’s last name and left out the line of a wife’s obedience to her husband in their vows.
When the 14th and 15th amendment was changed in 1868-1870 to give those of African American descent the right to vote, Lucy and Julia Ward Howe (along with other notable women) formed the AWSA (American Women Suffrage Association). They did this because the amendment excluded women of any ethnicity from voting, and they wanted to put an end to inequality.
How that Impacts Today· With the help of women like Lucy, women eventually earned the right to vote· Women’s Rights conventions became more popular; making it topical · Moved women closer to accessing education serves as an important role model to women and young girls
Determined + Strong Social Reformer
The First (Indian) Female Teacher + Modern Feminist – Savitribai Phule (1831-1897) Savitribai Phule, an Indian social reformer and educationalist, had a key role in changing women’s rights and education for women in India during British rule. Her life, not different from many others at this time, prepared and encouraged her to fight for social change and equality. Once a child bride, at nine years old, she later became a champion and fighter in her teens for social justices, women’s rights, and fought against immoral gender and caste systems.
In India during this time, education was seen as a privilege for higher castes and not widely available to women or lower castes. Savitribai believed that, along with food, water, and shelter, education was also a basic human right and need. She and her husband founded the first Indian girls’ school, in Pune in 1848 – this was the first of many, with another 18 schools to soon follow. When society strengthens all members and not a select few, it will grow stronger and become better. Savitribai, however, didn’t just stop at education, her compassion ran deeply for her fellow humans and their plights – Savitribai set up a home, Balhatya Pratibandhak Griha, to prevent female infanticide, and a shelter for widows, women, and child brides in 1854.
Her journey to open secular schools, further women’s rights, and right social injustices was marred with isolation, cruelty and difficult challenges at every step. Her mission, however, was clear. Savitribai wouldn’t stand by when something could be done and she could accomplish it, even if it was just through sheer will and determination. By holding fast to the belief of education and equality for all, Savitribai became an inspiration to the women then and now, while helping shape current Indian society.
How that Impacts Today· Child marriage is almost entirely abolished (in India)· Women receive education in India· No longer taboo for widows to remarry· Bolstered female empowerment
Compassionate + Formidable Entrepreneurial Nurse
Angel of the Battlefield – Clara Barton (1821-1912) Clarissa Harlowe Barton (Clara Barton), born in Oxford, Massachusetts in 1821, became a teacher at the young age of 15. She worked for 12 years as an educator, and then was the headmaster (and founder) of a free school, located in New Jersey. Her career in education was cut short when her position was voted to be filled by a man, and she left to pursue work as a clerk in the US Patent Office. Clara made the pay equivalent of her male counterparts, and famously said “I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.”
When the American Civil War started, the wounded poured into the Washington Infirmary and Clara came to tend them as best she could. She took charge of bringing food, clothing, and soliciting relief aid for the victims of the war. She acquired the title of Angel of the Battlefield after bravely bringing medical supplies to the battlefield, as well as caring for and feeding the wounded.
Her time spent with injured soldiers on bloody battlefields, inspired her to establish the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of United States in order to help find lost, unknown or killed men in action. During this initiative, Clara and her team answered over 60,000 letters and identified 22,000 soldiers. She didn’t stop there; motivation to do more was spurred by her experience aiding the men in war, soliciting donations and relief aid, and seeing tragedies first-hand. But, how could she help further? Clara saw the work of the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland and garnered political support to enter the Geneva Treaty (an international agreement to care for sick and wounded). Through her efforts, the American Association of Red Cross was established and later went on to establish the National First Aid Association of America.
Clara Barton’s compassionate nature not only helped thousands but inspired new innovative associations to aid fallen or missing soldiers and helped foster international cooperation.
How that Impacts today· The American Red Cross · National First Aid Association of America· Created the groundwork to find missing, wounded or KIA (killed in action) soldiers with the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of United States· Identified 22,000 soldiers· Achieved international cooperation by getting America to join the Geneva Treaty· Showed women are strong; strong and capable enough to be on battlefields
Talented + Tenacious Astronomy Pioneer
First (Female) Professional Astronomer – Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) Caroline Herschel, born in Germany in 1750, was the first female professional astronomer who made serious contributions to the world’s understanding of space. Caroline, already at a disadvantage for the times due to her gender, was also struck with another challenge: her health. Her height was stunted at 4’3 and had acquired vision loss in her left eye when she fell ill with typhus at 10 years old. Due to these additional hurdles, her mother wanted her to train as a servant instead of receiving an actual education, making her accomplishments all the more impressive.
At 22, Caroline left for England to work with her brother, an astronomer. Together they discovered the planet Uranus – a major detection in planetary finds. Caroline, however, accomplished much more. She was the first female to discover a comet; throughout her career discovering a total of eight from 1786 -1797, including the famous Encke Comet. In addition to her eight comets, she unearthed 14 nebulae – she created a catalogue for star clusters and nebulae, as well as an Index to Flamsteed’s Observations (561 stars).
Caroline is a well-decorated astronomer, being the first woman to receive the golden medals from the Royal Astronomical Society (1828) and the Prussian Academy of Science (1846). She further became an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society (1835) and the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin (1838). Caroline also touts having a comet, an asteroid, a Moon crater and a telescope named after her for her incredible contributions and discoveries.
How that impacts today· Opened the way for other women to pursue careers in science and astronomy· Discovered Uranus (with brother)· Discovered 8 comets· Discovered the Encke Comet· Discovered 14 nebulae · Helped shape our understanding of space Created the foundation for the NGC (New General Catalogue)
History has a way of teaching valuable lessons in what is right and wrong, as well as how grit, determination and hope can accomplish great deeds. The women and men who have crusaded for and championed social equality, justice, and innovation gave everything for us to have what we do. Using examples of the past, we can forge a future where gender has no bearings on capabilities, and equality for all becomes second nature.
Which woman has inspired you the most? Let us know your thoughts! This is the first in our Historical Women Leaders + Influencers series, stay tuned for future instalments as we take a look through the ages.