Women Making HER-STORY!
By Taylor Boyd
To celebrate Women's History Month this year, Dish has compiled a list of some of our favorite American women, who have changed the course of history both for themselves, and for other men and women.
Elizabeth Blackwell: 1821- 1910
"It is not easy to be a pioneer—but oh, it is fascinating! I would not trade one moment, even the worst moment, for all the riches in the world." - Elizabeth Blackwell
A hundred years before women would be given the right to vote in The United States of America, Elizabeth Blackwell broke down barriers by becoming the first woman in America to receive a medical degree.
Raised in a forward thinking family, Blackwell was taught about the importance of an education, even for girls. She was also brought up to believe in the evils of slavery. Her family gave up sugar cane to protest the slave labor used in its harvest.
As an adult, Blackwell and her sisters opened a school for girls. She would work for many years to save up enough money to finance her greatest ambition—to become a doctor. Many schools turned her down and she was encouraged by some of her friends to try and pass as a man in order to enter college, but she refused. Blackwell's determination paid off when she was finally admitted to Hobart College, 1847. The student body was largely accepting of her and she proved herself to be more than capable. During breaks from college she worked, with some resistance by older doctors, for hospitals to gain practical experience.
In 1849, with her brand-new medical degree, Blackwell set off for Europe. It was on this journey that she was stricken with an infection transmitted from a patient, and lost her vision in one eye.
Upon returning to America in 1852 , Blackwell opened up her own medical practice alongside her younger sister, Emily, who had recently followed in her sister's footsteps and had earned a medical degree. She continued to see patients until she retired in 1877.
Harriet Tubman: 1822- 1913
"I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other." - Harriet Tubman
Born into slavery, Harriet Tubman faced many trails on her path to freedom. As a small child she was let out to other slave owners for various uses, where she was often mistreated and beaten. When she was still quite young, she suffered a blow to the head that left her with epileptic episodes for the rest of her life.
Tubman saw the opportunity to escape to her own freedom in 1849. Using the underground Railroad, a system of safe houses and people, both black and white, freed and enslaved, who were willing to put their lives in jeopardy to help others, she made it to the state of Pennsylvania—free and determined. She then spent the next decade returning south to lead others to a new life, including her own family. Over the years Tubman saved more than seventy people from lives in bondage. William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist, called her "Moses" because she led her so many people to freedom. In 13 expeditions, she never lost a soul.
During the Civil War, Tubman worked as spy passing information to the Union Army and led raids to free slaves. After the war, Tubman turned to advocate for women's rights and cared for her parents, who would die free thanks to the selfless bravery of their daughter.
Margaret Sanger: 1878- 1966
"When motherhood becomes the fruit of a deep yearning, not the result of ignorance or accident, its children will become the foundation of a new race." - Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger was appalled that women in the twentieth century lacked the ability to control the size of their family and were not the "mistress of her own body". She then set out on a campaign to bring about an awareness that women could never be equals in the work force without the ability to control unwanted pregnancies. This was a stance that she would soon be effectively exiled and arrested for.
Sanger saw firsthand the toll multiple pregnancies had on a woman's body. She was the sixth living child from her mother's eighteen pregnancies. When her mother died, Sanger and her sisters were left to care for their younger siblings. After working as a nurse, where she saw many women attempt self-induced abortions to keep from having too many children they could not afford, she decided to start writing advice for girls and women about how they might prevent pregnancy and keep themselves safe. The controversy surrounding her books and newspaper columns led to a trial for indecency. In 1915 she fled to Europe to prevent prosecution.
During her exile in Europe, Sanger learned about the newest mode of contraception—diaphragms. Pleased, she arranged to have some imported to America, where the methods of birth control were still limited to douching suppositories. She praised the more liberal attitudes towards the birth control movement happening in some European countries.
She returned to America and in 1916, opened the first Birth Control Clinic. She was promptly arrested for being a "public nuisance." It was against the law to distribute contraceptives in 1917. She was sentenced to 30 days in the workhouse.
By 1918 Sanger won a victory when it was allowed by law in New York for a doctor to prescribe contraceptives. Her arrest had won her public sympathy and numerous financial supporters for her clinic. She continued to write and speak publicly about women's rights and founded the American Birth Control League.
Eleanor Roosevelt: 1884 - 1962
"You must do the things you think you cannot do." -Eleanor Roosevelt
Much was expected of young Anna Eleanor Roosevelt from the time she was born. She was a member of the prominent Roosevelt and Livingston families, well bred and even better connected. Sadly, this did not secure her a happy childhood. She had lost both parents and a bother in her early youth and was sent to live with her remaining relatives. Eleanor found a silver lining in this arrangement when her grandmother sent her away to school where she thrived and her intellect was nurtured.
Eleanor was devastated when her grandmother pulled her out of school at the age of eighteen so she might debut and find a rich, well-connected spouse. Eleanor did manage to find a husband, her 5th cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His mother opposed the match, but the two were married in a lavish ceremony, President Theodore Roosevelt, a relative of both bride and groom, gave the bride away.
The next decade in Eleanor's life was devoted to her husband and five children. She live under the constant scrutiny of her mother-in-law, who attempted to run every detail of the Roosevelt's marriage and children. Eleanor bore it all until she found evidence of her husband's infidelity. From that time on, Eleanor became more focused on having a career outside the home, a life in politics.
1921 saw life change yet again for Eleanor and the Roosevelt family when Franklin came down with polio. Eleanor convinced her husband to believe that his health issues would not be the end of his political career. The two of them became more of a partnership than ever before. When his health wouldn't allow him to make an appearance, Eleanor stood in for him. In 1928, Franklin was elected Governor of New York. The year before, Eleanor had been a part of starting a school for girls where she taught literature and history. She left the school reluctantly for Washington D.C. to become First Lady.
In the past, the role of First Lady was very much about domesticity and regulated to the background. Eleanor was determined to make social changes herself and was the most outspoken First Lady America had yet to see. She held press conferences and wrote articles for newspapers, focusing on and advocating for the right of women, minorities, and refugees displaced by WWII. She made friends with people from all over the country, including Amelia Earhart and Marian Anderson. When WWII ended, Eleanor campaigned to have the Untied States enter the United Nations.
Public life had not seen the last of Eleanor Roosevelt after the death of her husband. Beginning in 1945 she served as the United States Delegate to the United Nations until 1952.
Olivia de Havilland: born 1916
"We were like a stock company at Warners. We didn't know any of the stars from the other studios." - Olivia de Havilland
She is the last remaining artist of the "Golden Age of Hollywood" but she has had a huge impact on the way studios operate and how they can influence careers of performers.
De Havilland made a splash in Hollywood in the 1930s, culminating in her portrayal of Melanie Hamilton in Gone With the Wind, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. Despite her success in the film industry, de Havilland was becoming increasingly frustrated with the roles being offered her. She wanted more control over her own career, but the movie studios at the time held all the cards. Actors had to sign contracts for seven years, promising not to work with any other studios and to accept the roles offered to them, whether they liked the part or not. If an actor balked at a role or refused to take it, the studios had the option of "suspending" the actor, or extending the contract months, even years, longer than the actor originally signed on for.
By 1942 de Havilland was about to be released from her seven years with Warner Bothers Studio. She was ready to pursue a new contract that would allow her more freedom of choice over her own career and to take parts that would challenge her abilities. Warner Bothers had other ideas. They insisted she owed them more time because she had refused roles offered to her and had been placed on "suspension." They claimed she could not exit her contract with them.
Angry and devastated, de Havilland did the unthinkable—she took Warner Brothers to court, claiming that they had no right to extended her contract and had to release her. She triumphed and was released by Warner Bothers. The De Havilland law is still in effect in California as part of the state’s labor laws curbing the power of big studios and allowing for more creative freedom for performers.
Sadly, because of her lawsuit, de Havilland was blacklisted in Hollywood for several years. However, her talent won the studios over and she began making films again, winning two Academy Awards and continued working for several decades.
We hope that you enjoyed reading about some of these strong women in our shared American history, who paved the way for a better life for countless others, with ourselves included! Didn’t see a famous American woman you think should have been on this list? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we might put your suggestion(s) into our next roundup of famous, innovative, and revolutionary women from American “her-story”!