Throughout history, we've neglected to tell the stories of remarkable women. In 2018, the New York Times recognised that for over 100 years their obituary section had been dominated by white men, and ran a series called 'Overlooked', sharing obituaries of exceptional lives that never had so much as a mention in a paper. This got us thinking about the myriad of stories that haven't been celebrated. It's important we rewrite our patriarchal history, sharing tales lost to years of stifling and suppression.
This International Women's Day, we celebrate the lives of some incredible women that persevered, dreamed, hoped, loved, and challenged the status quo, often with little or no encouragement or recognition. There are many things that continue to hold women back today but, as you read these stories, may you be inspired to creatively break down the barriers you might be facing, and to speak out where you see stories worth telling.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
We discovered this exceptional woman through a Google Doodle one day, and were surprised to know nothing about her. Sojourner was an African American abolitionist, women’s rights activist and author who lived a terrible life as a slave, serving several masters throughout New York before escaping to freedom in 1826. After freedom had finally been granted to her, she became a Christian and spent time proclaiming the freedom Jesus brings for all people, no matter what their gender or ethnicity. Sojourner found liberation in Christianity, sharing stories of women in the Bible who had done amazing things (like Esther, who saved her people from genocide). She championed human rights, ate with Presidents of the US and is famous for a speech entitled ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’, in which she sets out her point that women deserve equal rights. She’s more than deserving of a Google Doodle.
'Those are the same stars, and that is the same moon, that look down upon your brothers and sisters, and which they see as they look up to them, though they are ever so far away from us, and each other.'
— Sojourner Truth —
Mary Seacole (1805-1881)
Mary was born in Jamaica in 1805. Her mother was a champion of herbal medicine, and both Mary and her mother learnt from slaves coming from Africa. She married in 1836 but was soon widowed. She travelled to London to offer to serve as a nurse during the Crimean war, but was told she couldn’t because she was a woman. She was later rejected from Florence Nightingale’s nursing team, but as a determined (and very bold!) businesswoman, she decided to travel to Crimea nonetheless. Mary treated patients on the battlefield, daring to go where women were usually prohibited. She is remembered for her compassion and impartiality, as she treated wounded soldiers on both sides.
'Beside the nettle, ever grows the cure for its sting.'
— Mary Seacole —
Nellie Bly (1864-1922)
Nellie was an incredible journalist who was desperate to write pieces for a male and female readership, although she was more often than not encouraged to write only for women. She was inspired by the book 'Round the World in 80 Days', which led her to undertake a record-breaking trip around the world. She did it in 72 days! If that’s not enough of a reason to be famous, Nellie also executed an exceptional undercover investigation of a notorious mental hospital in New York. She feigned mental illness in order to expose how patients were treated, living day to day alongside people who were seriously ill and horrendously treated. Her work paved the way for future investigative journalism. A courageous and bold lady, she deserves to be remembered as one of history’s leading journalists.
'Nonsense! If you want to do it, you can do it. The question is, do you want to do it?'
— Nellie Bly —
The Angel of Prisons
Elizabeth Fry (1780 - 1845)
In the early 1800s, prisons were brutal places of punishment and very few people were optimistic that this would ever change. In 1813, at age 33, a lady called Elizabeth Fry bucked this trend by turning her attention to the situation of the female prisoners in Newgate prison, London. She began to visit the prison every day, and what she found there horrified her. She was moved to act, and so took up teaching about basic hygiene, comforted women, taught from the Bible, and helped prisoners to learn skills that would help them get a job when they left (e.g. sewing and quilting). As a result, she was known as the ‘angel of prisons’. In 1818 Fry gave testimony before the House of Commons on the state of English prisons; her evidence led to the Prison Reform Act of 1823. Throughout her life, she continued to promote prison reform throughout Europe. Elizabeth was a Quaker and saw social justice work as an integral part of her faith. Her efforts inspired others, including Florence Nightingale, as well as others who have dared think differently about ways to resolve social issues for many decades.
‘The first step of peace is to stand still in the light.'
— Elizabeth Fry —
Elizabeth Jennings Graham (1827-1901)
Elizabeth was an African American teacher and civil rights activist in the US who, 100 years prior to Rosa Parks giving up her seat on a bus, challenged racial segregation on public transport. She was a church organist and one day, whilst running late for church, she refused to give up her seat on a streetcar, but found herself being ejected because of her skin colour. She went on to win a lawsuit against New York’s Third Avenue Railway Company. Whilst racism was far from being stamped out, we do know that her actions led to the eventual desegregation of all New York City transit systems by 1865. Later in life, Graham opened a kindergarten for African American children in her home. We’re encouraged by her story, and that sometimes the brave and bold actions of just one person can spark an entire system change.
'I was a respectable person, born and raised in New York, did not know where he was born and that he was a good for nothing impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church.'
— Elizabeth Jennings Graham —
Mabel Grammer (1915 - 2002)
Mabel was an African-American journalist, who spent her early life as a civil rights activist in the US. She married a man who was stationed in Germany by the US military, and they moved there together. Mabel visited German orphanages and began to realise that there was a stigma around mixed race babies, who weren’t being adopted. They were called 'mischlingskinder' (a derogatory German term for mixed-race children) or 'brown babies'. Many of these children had lost parents during World War II. Using her connections with high-profile journalists in the US, Mabel publicised the issue, setting up her own adoption agency. Her ‘Brown Baby Plan’ led to the adoption of 500 mixed race German orphans. Mabel and her husband went on to adopt 12 children themselves, demonstrating radical generosity in their own home.
'I never had so little financially as we have now, but my children are just as well provided for as any others. If you really want to do something you can.'
— Mabel Grammer —
Elizabeth Peratrovich (1911 - 1958)
Elizabeth grew up in Alaska, where segregation was the norm. She was adopted at birth by a Presbyterian minister and a basket weaver. Growing up, Elizabeth would’ve been used to seeing separate schools, libraries and shops for Alaska Natives. But one day Elizabeth and her husband, Roy, came across a sign on a hotel door declaring: ‘No Natives Allowed’. An indignant letter to the governor of Alaska marked the beginning of Elizabeth’s life-long campaign to fight discrimination in Alaska. A failed antidiscrimination bill and having a family did not stop Elizabeth and Roy from urging Native Alaskans to campaign for seats in the Legislature. After several years and much passionate debate, a bill was eventually approved. It was the first antidiscrimination act in the United States. It would be nearly 20 years before the federal Civil Rights Act would be passed.
'My mother was determined to stand her ground, but she would always do it with grace and dignity.'
— Elizabeth Peratrovich —
Ida B Wells (1862 - 1931)
Ida was born into slavery during the US Civil War. Having been freed by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1884, she moved to Memphis where, following a horrendous experience, she filed a lawsuit against a train car company for unfair treatment. She was a thorough researcher and went on to explore racist crimes and white mob violence, publishing her findings in local papers. She travelled internationally speaking to people about lynching in the US, confronting those who ignored it. Despite her efforts championing women’s rights, Ida was sidelined by many in the women’s suffrage movement because she was rightly outspoken about lynching. Her tenacity and continued commitment to stand up for what she believed in led her to found the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, which addressed both women’s suffrage and civil rights issues.
'I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I said.'
— Ida B Wells —
Katherine Johnson (1918 - 2020)
Katherine was an African-American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. manned space flights. During her 35-year career at NASA, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped the space agency pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks needed to help send Americans into space. Right up until her death last year she continued to encourage her grandchildren and students to pursue careers in science and technology. You may recognise her name; her story is told in the film ‘Hidden Figures’. Do give it a watch (if you haven’t already!)
'Like what you do, and then you will do your best.'
— Katherine Johnson —