Even slow progress is worth celebrating.
Today is International Women’s Day, and I’m reflecting on women pioneers—trailblazers who paved the way for women in sales, entrepreneurship, engineering, law, and other male-dominated professions. And that includes women in my own family.
Did I tell you about the washing machine case? My cousin studied law at the University of Southern California (USC) in the early 1970s. She was one of few women in her class. One day the professor assigned a case to her, explaining, “This case is about washing machines. I’m sure that will be familiar to you.” (I’m paraphrasing, but it’s close enough.)
Turns out, the entire class was appalled. They boycotted and didn’t show up the next day. The dean even took their side. These young men standing up for their female classmate and winning the support of a male administrator—well, it was progress.
After all, American women had come a long way since my mother graduated summa cum laude from Syracuse University in the late ‘30s. Despite her academic honors and degree in finance, she couldn’t get a job in a bank. They didn’t hire women—not even women who were smarter than most of the men in her class.
Still, my cousin couldn’t have started her own law firm in the early 70s, unless her husband helped apply for credit. Women in the U.S. won the right to vote in 1920, but they couldn’t get a loan without their husband’s signature until 1974. Can you imagine starting a business and needing a man’s signature? This was real—not in the 1800s, but in the 1970s.
Since then, progress has been slow but steady, and this year on International Women’s Day, I’m choosing to focus on the “steady” part. The women trailblazers featured on this list—who represent a tiny fraction of women leaders throughout history—have never let things like legal loopholes and biased hiring managers stop them from doing whatever they set their minds on doing.
Join me in celebrating International Women’s Day by honoring seven of the many women who paved the way for the modern woman—earning her not just the right to vote, but the right to be heard, to own her own business, to enter politics, to lead a country, and to choose a profession previously only available to men.
Ada Kepley and Arabella Mansfield
In 1870 Ada Kepley became the first woman to earn a formal law degree when she graduated from Union College of Law in Chicago, now known as Northwestern University.
A year earlier, Arabella Mansfield became the first female lawyer in the U.S., when she was admitted to the Iowa bar.
Decades later, the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act paved the way for more women to enter the legal profession. Women were first admitted into the Law Society in 1922 and into Harvard Law School in 1950.
Wife of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) stepped up in ways that first ladies never had. She gave press conferences and wrote a newspaper column called “My Day,” in which she spoke out for human rights, stood against racial discrimination, and advocated for issues that affected American women and children.
This was not an easy undertaking in the ‘30s. Roosevelt famously resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution after the society refused to allow African-American opera singer Marian Anderson to perform at its Constitution Hall before an integrated audience. “You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed,” she wrote in her resignation letter. In protest, the First Lady and others arranged for Anderson to instead perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Roosevelt was also an advocate—and role model—for working women. Not only did she co-found a business with another woman, but she also used her influence to open doors for other professional women.
Augusta Ada King (1815-1852), known as Ada Lovelace, was a brilliant mathematician, exceptional writer, and one of the world’s earliest computer programmers during the mid-1800s. Known for her work on Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Engine,” she was the first to recognize that computers were capable of more than just calculation. She suggested that Engines (an early concept of computers) “might act upon other things besides number … the Engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”
Lovelace was the first to articulate the transition from calculation to computation, earning her the nickname “the prophet of the computer age.” Her father was the poet Lord Byron, and her mentor Charles Babbage is known as “the father of the computer.”
You might have never heard of inventor Mary Anderson, but you’ve probably used her invention thousands of times! One frosty day in 1903, the Alabama native was touring New York City via trolley. The streetcar driver, she noticed, had to climb out every few minutes to clean off the windshield so he could see through the wintry mix.
All these delays made Anderson wonder if there might be a better way. What if there were some sort of blade that could wipe off the windshield without making the driver get out of the streetcar? Anderson went back to Birmingham, Alabama, sketched up her device and applied for a patent. Her automatic car window cleaning device, which could be controlled from inside the car, was called the windshield wiper.
Madam C.J. Walker
The first black woman millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) became an entrepreneur for the same reason many people start businesses—she needed products that didn’t yet exist. After suffering a scalp ailment that caused her to lose her hair, she invented the first line of hair care products designed especially for black people. She traveled the country, giving lectures and product demonstrations, and eventually founded Madame C.J. Walker Laboratories to manufacture cosmetics and train beauticians.
Also a philanthropist and activist, Madam C.J. Walker used her success to advocate for civil rights and the advancement of black Americans. Her story was brought to life by Octavia Spencer in the 2020 TV show Self Made.
Marie Van Brittan Brown
When Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999) felt unsafe in her neighborhood in Queens, New York, she took matters into her own hands and invented the first home security system and first closed-circuit television.
Her original invention included peepholes, a camera, monitors, a two-way microphone, and an alarm button that contacted police. After receiving a patent in 1966, she improved on the invention, and her technology paved the way for modern home security systems.
Let’s celebrate International Women’s Day 2021
It’s been 100+ years since American women gained the right to vote. It seems as if we should have made a lot more progress over the last century, doesn’t it? Of course, making progress is tough when governments and businesses are dominated by men. The saving grace? Generations of women pioneers who proved what women are capable of achieving. Women who blew past gender barriers and knocked them down on the way past, so other women could follow in their footsteps. We also have men with daughters and sisters, and many of them use their influence to make a better working world for the women they love. And when they don’t, they have their wives to answer for it.
Remember my cousin and the sexist law school professor? Fast forward 35 years and my cousin attended a social event for USC law school alums, where she met that professor’s wife. The wife said, “Oh, you’re the washing machine case.” Turns out, she was appalled at what her husband did and let him know it at the time.
In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, let’s all take the time to celebrate the power of women—and our amazing dads and brothers! While we’re at it, let’s think about how all of us can encourage and support the young women in our lives, and create a better world for them to work in some day.
(Featured image attribution: Library of Congress)
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