Narrating Herstory: Five Selfish Women of History

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The word ‘selfish’ is one that often misunderstood in society. The dictionary definition describes ‘selfish’ as:

a person, action, or motive that lacks ‘consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure’.

Whilst it can certainly be a negative trait or act in a number of situations, this definition of selfishness casts it in a solely negative light. It ignores the importance that I believe being selfish can play in a person’s own on-going development and achievements. In a way, to be first-and-foremost concerned with your own well-being, dreams and ambitions is an important, natural and fundamental part of leading a satisfying and fulfilling life.

Even, that is, if it upsets, ostracizes and outrages those around you who will disagree with your actions, choices and beliefs. In this way we need to reorientate our understanding of what selfishness is. It is not diametrically opposed to ‘selflessness’, or something that pits good and bad, sinner and saint at oppose ends of a moral spectrum. Selfishness is something we must all do from time to time, in order to improve and further ourselves and – inevitably – make ourselves happier for it.

Selfish Women of History

Here I will discuss five women who during their time periods made personal choices in their lives which exemplify this new meaning for ‘selfishness’ that I want to provide. Be that for breaking social conventions, speaking up for what they believe in or challenging the expectations set for women at the time. These women paved the way for future generations of women to put themselves, their ambitions, interests and what they believe in, first. Without them the world we live now would be very different and – most definitely – a little bit less brave.

Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)

Born a slave in the Confederate state of Mississippi Ida B. Wells used her platform as a journalist and activist to battle sexism, racism and violence. She also used her skills to shed light on the treatment of African Americans in South, particularly the practice of lynching.

Born in 1862, Wells was freed from slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War but conditions for African Americans following this remained dire. It was in 1884 that an incident on a train sparked her activism and, consequently, her journalistic career. After Wells had brought a first-class train ticket she was ordered by a train conductor to give up her seat and move to another carriage, she refused on principle and was dragged off the train. This injustice inspired her to pick up a pen and write, with her reporting focusing on racial inequality.

In the 1890s Wells turned her attention to documenting white mob violence and the practice of lynching in the South, following the lynching of some of her own friends. Her investigations took her all over the South, where she interviewed people associated with the lynchings using investigative interviewing techniques. She published her findings in pamphlets as well as writing articles for newspapers. Wells undertook this work at great personal risk, in fact in 1892 an enraged white mob burned down her newspaper office and forced her to relocate as the threats on her life were so strong.

Wells travelled internationally in order to bring her anti-lynching campaign to wider, white audiences. As a result of these tours she received significant coverage in the press and gained extensive white supporters.

The work of Ida B. Wells was radical, brave and devoted. The scope of her influence on American society cannot be conveyed in just a few paragraphs. She was a woman who spoke out at a time when it was life-threateningly dangerous to do so and by holding onto her beliefs, regardless of the risk, she brought about change for an entire community.

Ida B.Wells Image: Chicago Tribune

Ida B.Wells Image: Chicago Tribune

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

By the end of her life, Eleanor Roosevelt was a woman who was almost universally respected. She was again and again voted ‘the world’s most admired woman’ in international polls, a tread that has continued in years gone by and she is considered one of the most influential women of the twentieth century. In an obituary featured in The New York Timesfollowing her death in 1962 she was described as ‘one of the most esteemed women in the world’. However, during her time she was considered a controversial First Lady. This was for her outspoken nature on civil rights and women’s issues, as well as – sometimes – openly disagreeing with some of her husband’s policies, travelling too much and being involved in causes that a presidential spouse should ‘have left alone’.

Born in 1884, Roosevelt was a member of the prominent political Roosevelt and Livingston families. It was in 1905 she married her fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who would later become President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Long before her husband’s presidency Roosevelt lead an active public life which was focused on social work, taking her far beyond the simple role of ‘wife’. For example, during the First World War she was involved with the Red Cross and then in the 1920s with the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). Her involvement with the WTUL helping to bring about a 48-hour week, minimum wage and abolition of child labour in the United States.

During her time was an actual First Lady she was a lady of many, many firsts. She was the first presidential spouse to: write a newspaper column, write a magazine column, host a weekly radio show, speak at a national party convention and hold press conferences. She also held women only press conferences for female reporters, at a time when they were barred from attending White House press conferences.

Following the death of her husband Roosevelt was appointed by President Harry S. Truman as a delegate to the United Nations. In 1946 she became the first chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, within this she played a fundamental role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For her achievements in human rights President Truman dubbed her the ‘First Lady of the world’.

In many ways Eleanor Roosevelt was a woman who transformed the role of First Lady from that of a glorified housewife to what she wanted it to be: a platform for social activism and change. She stuck to her beliefs and challenged conventions in a time period and society that that wanted to simply see women as wives and mothers. Her tenacity made her the ‘symbol of the new role women were to play in the world’.

Eleanor Roosevelt Image: jimnicar.com

Eleanor Roosevelt Image: jimnicar.com

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)

Bessie Coleman was a woman who took on discrimination at every turn in order to achieve her dreams of becoming a pilot. In the early twentieth century women, African-Americans and Native-Americans had no opportunities for flight training in the United States due to systematic racism and patriarchal sexism. The determination of Coleman – a woman who was triple stigmatised for her gender and both her African-American and Native-American descent – saw her overcome all odds to become the first black person to hold an international pilots licence.

Coleman was born in 1892 to a family of sharecroppers in Texas. She grew up in a brutal world of poverty, segregation, discrimination and lynching where the opportunities for women, especially non-white women, were extremely limited. When she was 23 she moved to Chicago to work as a manicurist and it was there that she heard fantastical tales of flying from pilots returning from the First World War, sparking a determined interest in aviation.

After juggling two jobs to save the money to learn how to fly, she was turned away from every flying school she approached because she was both black and a woman. Undeterred, Coleman travelled to France where she was allowed to become a pilot. After seven months training at the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, Coleman was awarded an international pilots license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Upon her return to the United States she was a media sensation, with scores of reporters turning up to meet her. Over the next five years Coleman performed at countless air shows as a stunt flyer. She performed dangerous tricks that enthralled crowds, quickly gaining her a reputation as a daring and skilled pilot and the nicknames Brave Bessie and Queen Bess.

In the near century since her death Bessie Coleman has not been forgotten. She remains a symbol of bravery, adventure and success in adversity, whereby sheer self-determination and a commitment to yourself and dreams will see you succeed even if the world around you does not want you to.

Bessie Coleman Image: Genealogybank.com

Bessie Coleman Image: Genealogybank.com

Gertrude Ederle (1905-2003)

Gertrude Ederle’s achievement as the first woman to swim the English Channel is a story of determination, self-belief and overcoming the expectations set for women. Famously, in a 2001 interview Ederle recalled how ‘People said women couldn’t swim the Channel’ and so ‘I proved they could’.

Born in 1905, Ederle was a professional swimmer who set a number of feats throughout her career. Ederle set her very first record when she was just 12 years old, making her the youngest world record holder in swimming. This early achievement set a precedent for the rest of her career where Ederle held at least 29 U.S and world records, as well as earning three medals at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

It was in 1925 that Ederle first set her sights on being the first woman to swim the English Channel, a feat that only five men had previously completed. However, on this first attempt Ederle was disqualified. Her coach at the time commenting that women might not even be capable of swimming the Channel.

It was one year later in 1926 that Ederle successfully arrived on the shores of Kingsdown as the first woman to swim the Channel in a time of 14 hours and 43 minutes, shaving a huge two hours off of the record. Ederle achieved this despite battling the adverse conditions of heavy seas, currents, debris and riptides throughout the swim.

Gertrude Ederle should be remembered as a shining example of determination and for having confidence in her own abilities, in spite of what the society around her thought. She was a woman who proved that women could not simply swim the Channel but that they could do it faster than any man had previously.

Gertrud Ederle Image: University of Kent

Barbara Seaman (1935-2008)

Being fired, blacklisted and censored did not stop Barbara Seaman from sticking to her guns and reporting on the hidden truth of the pill during the 1960s.

Born in 1935 Seaman was an activist and women’s health journalist who has since been credited with starting the women’s health feminist movement. She became aware of women’s health issues when her Aunt Sally died of uterine cancer in 1959. Sally cancer was attributed by her doctor to Premarin, which was prescribed to her for the relief of menopausal symptoms. Premarin contained estrogen, something which was known to cause cancer in menopausal women and Seaman was horrified that Sally’s gynaecologist had not informed her of the risks. In her own words, Seaman ‘became obsessed with informed consent’.

Seaman wrote articles that were centred on the patient rather than the pharmaceutical industry, doctors or the health ‘fads’ of the time. She revealed how women were not being provided with accurate and risk-based information in order to make informed decisions on contraception, breast-feeding and natural childbirth. In 1969 she published her first book The Doctor’s Case Against the Pillbut publication was delayed as several drug companies tried to get an injunction against it. Alongside these injunctions Seaman was also blacklisted from several magazines for her criticism of the pill as pharmaceutical companies would refuse to advertise in those magazines which carried her articles. The importance of Seaman’s work saw the issue of the safety of the pill go to congress and by June 1970 a warning label was added – the first of any kind for a prescription drug.

Without Barbara Seaman women today would certainly be less informed about the risks of the drugs we are prescribed for a range of women’s health issues. Seaman’s passionate belief in fair and accurate information reaching patients, despite those that sought to silence her, goes to show the difference that one person can make to the lives of millions.

Barbara Seaman Image: Womens Health

Barbara Seaman Image: Womens Health

 

We love all of these amazing and inspiring women and can’t wait to see more women make more differences all over the world.

 

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