In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re looking beyond the male-heavy history books you read in high school and shining some light on inspirational historical women who paved the way for the society we have today.
Annette Kellerman did it all. She overcame physical disabilities to become a record-setting professional swimmer. She was an author. She was the first Hollywood actress to appear nude on the silver screen. She was a women’s rights advocate who was arrested on charges of indecency for wearing a one-piece bathing suit. She even went on to launch her own swim line, making way for the modern one-piece swimsuit. Oh yeah, and she worked as a performing mermaid in her spare time. How she escaped the pages of most history books is beyond us.
Kathrine Switzer wasn’t about to let her coach talk her out of running marathon distance because she was a “fragile woman.” She was the first woman to run as a numbered entry in the 1967 Boston Marathon (Bobbi Gibb was the first woman to run without a number the previous year). Registered under the name K. R. Switzer, her registration was seen as an oversight, and race official Jock Semple attempted to physically remove Switzer from the race, grabbing at her clothes while yelling, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers.” Women were not officially invited to race in the Boston Marathon until 1972.
Elizabeth Cochrane (who wrote under the alias of Nellie Bly) entered the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island by faking insanity, to write an expose on the brutal and abusive treatment of patients for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper. Her account of her time in the asylum, Ten Days In A Mad-House, prompted an investigation of conditions in the asylum and ultimately launched a huge reform of mental health care in the U.S. In addition to being a journalist, Cochrane was also an adventurer and is known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days.
More than 100 years before Hillary hit the scene, Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for President of the United States. Her progressive agenda included women’s health and reproductive rights, a woman’s right to vote, graduated income tax, an 8-hour workday and social welfare. In addition to her political aspirations, Woodhull also published a weekly newspaper and opened a brokerage firm with her sister — making them the first female brokers in the U.S.
Freelance journalist turned notorious spy and Nazi foe during World War II, Nancy Wake was a force to be reckoned with. She once killed a German sentry with her bare hands and was dubbed “The White Mouse” for her ability to elude capture. She loved a good drink, French men and didn’t give a damn that she “wasn’t a very nice person.”
Annie Peck had a thirst for adventure, and didn’t let the social norms of her day hold her back. She was the first woman to scale the Matterhorn in 1895 and set the women’s altitude record on Mount Orizaba in 1897. Peck was an avid mountain climber and continued the sport into her 80s. She was also a women’s rights advocate, once hanging a sign reading, “Votes For Women,” on Mount Coropuna in Peru.
Hedy Lamarr was not only an ultra glamorous actress, but also a brilliant inventor. Her frequency hopping technology played a vital role in WWII, paving the way for secret communications systems and radio-controlled torpedoes, which may well have changed the course of the war.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell
After being denied by nearly 20 medical schools and later being mocked by a professor that subject materials would offend her “delicate sensibilities” as a woman, Elizabeth Blackwell went on to become the first female doctor in U.S. history. She valued her independence and rejected suitors, choosing not to marry, though she did adopt an Irish orphan as a daughter.
The daughter of famous poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace didn’t inherit her father’s knack for words, but instead found poetic inspiration in numbers. She was a talented mathematician whose work is often regarded as the first computer programming system. Her notes on the analytical engine included coding and the process of looping, which are still used in modern computer programs.
Devoted social activist Jeannette Rankin was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Congress. She helped to pass the 19th Amendment, allowing women the right to vote. Upon her death, Rankin left part of her estate to help “mature, unemployed women workers.” That contribution became the seed money for the Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund, which provides assistance to low-income women over 35 who desire to return to school.
Before you go, check out our slideshow below: