Once you start learning about women's history, you realize that we're living in a golden time for women's freedom and rights.
As Ellen Burstyn details in her candid and heartbreaking interview with Anna Sale for the Death, Sex & Money podcast, after Burstyn's husband was placed in a mental hospital, she wasn't allowed to transfer the couple's car insurance to her name — even though her husband was incapacitated. Harvard didn't admit women until 1977, and Columbia sent women to Barnard instead until 1981. It wasn't until 1973 that women in all 50 states could serve on juries, and it was the 1970s before many of the last laws changed. Now women can own property, have their own credit cards and yes, even have car insurance in their own names. It's amazing to think that women haven't even been able to vote for 100 years yet.
But just because women weren't allowed or were discouraged from doing certain things, it doesn't mean they didn't do them. There have always been women willing, eager and able to do things that had typically been deemed "men's activities." Things like scaling mountains, building and flying planes, subverting assassination attempts and much more. These women remind us that there are always boundaries to be broken.
Nellie Bly was a journalist, a businesswoman and a world traveller. (Photo: H. J. Myers/Wikimedia Commons)
Nellie Bly was an investigative journalist who went undercover in a mental hospital to secure a job at a newspaper when she moved to New York City. She wrote about her experience spending 10 days in a mental ward: "What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck."
Following that blockbuster story, Bly circled the world in 72 days in imitation of Jules Verne's book, married a millionaire, ran his steel manufacturing company after he died and developed a number of patents for her business. She covered the suffragist movement in an article titled "Suffragists Are Men's Superiors" in 1913 but correctly predicted women wouldn't get the vote until 1920.
Ching Shih took over her pirate husband's business and was very good at it. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Ching Shih commanded more than 300 junks (Chinese ships that are still in use today) and more than 20,000 pirates. Some estimates even guess she was in charge of 80,000 people, including men, women and children. She was undefeated, and during the mid-1800sm she fought against Portuguese, British and other Chinese ships. She came from humble beginnings, and even worked as a prostitute for a time, but she was able to take over her pirate husband's business when he died and she expanded his operations significantly. In 1810, pirates were offered amnesty by the government if they left the business, and Ching Shih took them up on the offer, marrying her first mate when she quit the pirate life. She was also able to keep all of her loot in exchange for surrender. She's one of the few pirates (male or female) who was able to retire. She lived to be 69 years old.
Kate Warne was the first female detective in the United States. The young widow walked into the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago in 1856 and convinced Allan Pinkerton to hire her not as a secretary, but as a detective, according to Pinkerton's memoirs. She made her case, saying that women "... are most useful in worming out secrets in many places which would be impossible for a male detective." Pinkerton paraphrased more of her argument in his memoir: "A Woman would be able to befriend the wives and girlfriends of suspected criminals and gain their confidence. Men become braggarts when they are around women who encourage them to boast. ...Women have an eye for detail and are excellent observers." Warne gathered intelligence on a plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln by posing as a flirtatious Southern belle, and she continued to work on espionage work during and after the Civil War.
Warne's work at the agency turned out to be such an advantage that Pinkerton later hired more women to work for him. In advertising to a future hire he wrote: "I have several female operatives. If you agree to come aboard, you will go in training with the head of my female detectives, Kate Warne. She has never let me down."
Ethel L. Payne
Ethel Payne was known as the 'First Lady of the Black Press.' (Photo: NABJ Global)
Ethel L. Payne was a leading African-American journalist of her time. From Chicago, she earned an early reputation for defending the less powerful when she stood up for her frail, younger brother against bullies. According to Black History Now, "Payne attended Lindblom High School in a white district. She had to walk through a segregated neighborhood every day, enduring taunts, epithets, and rocks thrown her way." One of her teachers noticed she had a gift for writing and she thought she wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up. She wrote: "Just as I was so fierce about protecting my brother, I had a strong, strong, deeply embedded hatred of bullies. ... So I said, 'Well, I want to grow up and be a lawyer, and I want to defend the rights of the poor people.'" Due to financial straits, law school was difficult, so she answered a Red Cross ad to serve in Japan and kept a diary, which was later published, leading to her journalism career. She wrote for the next 27 years, eventually becoming the first African-American correspondent for CBS News on radio and television, consistently reporting on oppressed African Americans, including advocating for Nelson Mandela in her later years.
Lilian Bland (pictured at top) has several biographies, but the one that calls her a "crackshot" (as in, "Lilian Bland, Journalist, Photographer, Crackshot..." as the Belfast Telegraph did in 2010) might be my favorite. Born to a wealthy family, Bland went on to work as a journalist and press photographer. Beyond the fact that she had a career, she was unconventional in other ways too; she enjoyed smoking, wearing pants and she even practiced martial arts. In 1910-1911, she became famous for being one of the first women to not only fly a plane, but she built one of her own as well: a biplane that she modeled after the Wright Brothers'. It flew, and she kept going, next working on creating a full-scale glider, which she called the Mayfly.
Annie Smith Peck
Annie Smith Peck was a mountaineer who was criticized for her then-scandalous attire. (Photo: Brown Brothers/U.S. Library of Congress)
Annie Smith Peck was an American mountaineer, explorer and author who was born, raised and educated in New Hampshire. She applied to Brown University, where her brothers were attending school and her father had also attended, but she was denied entrance because she was a woman. She packed off to Michigan and lived independently, making a living teaching languages and math until she decided she really had to go to college. The University of Michigan had just opened its doors to women in 1871, and she graduated with a degree in languages and then pursued a masters degree in Greek, after which she went to Europe and was the first woman to attend the American School of Classical Studies.
At 35, Peck discovered a passion for mountaineering, and started scaling peaks throughout Italy and Greece, and she began teaching courses in archeology at Purdue and Smith College. In 1892, she gave up teaching to pursue speaking on the lecture circuit, climbed Mount Shasta in California and in 1895, she scaled the Matterhorn in Switzerland in what was then the controversial attire of pants, a tunic and boots. She kept going, speaking about Pan-Americanism, climbing peaks throughout Mexico and South America and publishing regular opinion pieces about the subject in the New York Times. She was very well-known at the time, and wrote four books about her adventures, including one on the safety and fun of brand-new air travel.
Grace O'Malley statue in Mayo Ireland. The statue is the only known depiction of the women who refused to bow to the gender norms of her time. (Photo: Suzanne Mischyshyn/geograph)
Grace O'Malley was also known as The Sea Queen of Connaght. Through her family, she became a woman of wealth, with an enormous amounts of property, animals and other holdings in Ireland during the 1500s. According to Irish legend, when she was just 12 years old, she told her father she was ready to go on an expedition to Spain with him. She was told no — because her long hair would get caught in the ship's ropes — so she cut off her locks. She later took over her father's business, and traveled and traded extensively, married twice (she stole a castle from her second husband after a year of being married), had several children, and took a lover 15 years her junior. She also kidnapped the grandson of an earl who snubbed her when she stopped by for dinner, avenged the untimely death of her lover by killing most of the family that was responsible and visited Queen Elizabeth I personally when English control over Ireland began running contrary to her business interests. O'Malley refused to bow to the queen, met her with a knife hidden under her clothing — and they conversed in Latin, because O'Malley didn't speak English.