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Sunday, March 26, 2023

15 Women Who Challenged Convention and Spoke Truth to Power

Some remarkable women from America’s past.

Image Credit: Composite image by FEE | National Portrait Gallery - Public Domain | Museum of Fine Arts

Each year for Women’s History Month, which has taken place in March since 1987, the National Women’s History Alliance designates a theme. “Celebrating Women Who Tell Stories” is the theme for 2023.

Storytelling is a fine trait for anyone to possess, but it’s a little short of a cause for celebration, in my humble opinion. So I propose a loftier focus. How about “Celebrating Spunky Women Who Challenged Convention and Spoke Truth to Power”?

From America’s past, I offer these 15 nominees and a couple honorable mentions:

Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643)

An early feminist in the male-dominated Massachusetts Bay colony, Hutchinson stood her ground for civil and religious liberties. In the middle of the 17th century, she courageously fought both church and state over their intolerance. Though it led to her banishment and later death at the hands of hostile neighbors, her example was not forgotten.

Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814)

An incendiary playwright who opened her home to the revolutionary Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence, Warren was known in her day as “the conscience of the American Revolution.” To King George III’s displeasure, she declared that “Every domestic enjoyment depends on the unimpaired possession of civil and religious liberty.” When the Constitution was crafted, she urged the passage of a Bill of Rights. She lived to see President Thomas Jefferson require that each member of his Cabinet read her history of the Revolution.

Martha Coston (1826–1904)

Well into the 1850s, distance, weather, and darkness hampered communication between ships and from shore to ship. Sailors relied on flags to send messages, but depending on conditions, flags could be almost useless. In 1859, Coston unveiled her invention that solved the problem — a signaling flare and code system that made communication far more reliable. She formed her own company to market the invention. During the Civil War, one of her biggest customers was the federal government. Though she sold the invention below cost as a patriotic gesture and generously accepted IOUs as payment, the government ripped her off through its greenback inflation and settled at about a quarter on the dollar. In spite of that, Coston’s company survived for 125 years.

Sarah (1792–1873) and Angelina (1805–1879) Grimké

Few speakers on any subject drew larger crowds in the New England of the 1830–40s than the Grimké sisters. Like Maria Stewart, ending slavery and advancing equal rights for women were their passions, but they brought credentials to the table that made their message especially impressive. They came from a wealthy planter family in South Carolina, where their prominent father owned hundreds of slaves. They knew every jot and tittle of the Old and New Testaments, a fact that gave them a special ability to reach Christians with an anti-slavery message. The Grimké sisters maintained with great effect that the Golden Rule itself was a powerful argument against human bondage.

Prudence Crandall (1803–1890)

In 1833, Crandall, a white woman, opened a school in Canterbury, Connecticut, for young black girls from Northern free black families. The state legislature then passed a law making it illegal for blacks from other states to go to school in Connecticut, which (along with harassment from racist locals) eventually forced the school’s closure. She settled later in Kansas. Decades later, when she was 82 years of age, the Connecticut Legislature sent her a small pension to make amends. Mark Twain was among those who convinced lawmakers to compensate her and apologize. Her school in Canterbury remains open as a museum of her good work.

Harriet Tubman (1822–1913)

This amazing black woman did much more to fight slavery than write about it. She endured it, fled to freedom from it, led nearly a hundred others out of it as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, and even served as an armed scout and spy for the Union army. While in her 70s, she refused anesthesia while undergoing successful brain surgery. Her instructions to the operating physicians were, “Just let me bite down on a bullet.” She lived another 15 years to tell about it.

Hetty Green (1834–1926)

One of the savviest investors and independent financiers ever, Hetty Green was the richest woman in the world in the 1890s. Starting out with a small inheritance, she invested in stocks, bonds, and real estate — building her nest egg into well over a billion dollars in today’s value. Living frugally, she enjoyed making money far more than spending it. Acting as a one-woman bank, she loaned vast sums of money to people, companies, churches, organizations, and local governments. Changes in her interest rates made front-page news. Even New York City borrowed from Green to avoid going broke, more than once. She could have lived like a queen but resided in a modest flat in the Big Apple and never made a fuss about her generous philanthropy.

Walker, an African American, was the first woman ever to earn a million dollars entirely on her own. She did it by inventing and marketing a line of hair care and cosmetics products for black Americans. At one point, more than 10,000 uniformed women were selling her wares door to door in America and throughout the Caribbean. She advocated self-help through self-support; entrepreneurship, she believed, would inspire and uplift anybody of any color or background. Her generosity helped Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute get off the ground in Alabama.

Nellie Bly (1864–1922)

Most people have read or heard of the Jules Verne novel Around the World in 80 Days. In 1889, a 25-year-old journalist named Nellie Bly decided she could circumnavigate the globe by herself in less time than the fictional Phileas Fogg. No woman had ever even tried such a feat before, but Nellie did it (all 25,000 miles of it) in 72 days, six hours, and 11 minutes. Three years before, she gained fame by feigning insanity to get into the New York City Lunatic Asylum. She completely bamboozled the doctors and staff. The result was her book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, which revealed cruelty and malfeasance that led to beneficial reforms.

Bessie Coleman (1892–1926)

Fascinated by stories of World War I pilots, Coleman wanted to become a pilot but couldn’t find anyone who would teach a black woman to fly a plane. Thanks to hard work and savings, and learning French at a language school, she went to France for training, becoming the world’s first black woman to earn a pilot’s license. Back home in America, she barnstormed the country as a stunt flyer. Every air show in the country wanted her. For the half-decade before her accidental death, Americans recognized her as the greatest female civil aviator of the day, a daredevil flyer who thrilled crowds everywhere she went.

Althea Gibson (1927–2003)

Just as Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Gibson broke it in women’s tennis. In 1956, she became the first black female athlete to win the French Open, the Wimbledon doubles championship, the Italian national championship, and the Asian championship. After Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, Gibson became the second black American treated to a ticker tape parade down Broadway in New York City. Ranked as the No. 1 female tennis player in the world in 1957 and 1958, she was also the first black woman to grace the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time magazines.

Dorothy Thompson (1893–1961)

Thompson, a popular radio broadcaster, newspaper columnist, and foreign correspondent, was the first American journalist to interview Adolf Hitler. That was in 1931, before he came to power. Three years later, she became the first journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany. By 1940, she was celebrated as the “First Lady of Journalism.” She rankled Franklin Roosevelt by opposing most of his legislative agenda, including Social Security, about which she declared, “I wish to stand on what I consider my constitutional right to be insecure. It seems to me that all this solicitude for human rights ought to include the voluntary right to live dangerously, just for those who happen to like it that way. The government doesn’t know what kind of old lady I am going to be, and neither do I, but I think I can guess better than the government.”

Vivien Kellems (1896–1975)

Kellems invented a cable grip for bridge construction that she later adapted for use in World War II to handle artillery shells. A very successful entrepreneur, she branched out into politics and public speaking. A principled constitutionalist, she spoke widely in opposition to big government, especially when employers were compelled to withhold federal taxes from worker paychecks. A relentless opponent of the IRS and its tax code, Kellems lost the battle to stop compulsory withholding. But when the Connecticut Legislature attempted to bar women from working after 10 p.m., the plucky multimillionaire took a job as a waitress at an all-night café and dared the state to “come and get me.” She won that fight when, three days later, the Legislature repealed the law.

Virginia Walden Ford (1952–)

Few people in America have worked harder or longer on behalf of school choice than Ford. Still active in her early 70s as a public speaker, she pioneered an acclaimed choice scholarship plan for Washington, D.C. Her story made it onto the silver screen with the debut of Miss Virginia in 2019. Her courage in taking on teacher unions, public school bureaucracies, and liberal elites is remarkable. Visit the website of this living legend.

Honorable Mentions: Sacajawea and Pocahontas, two Native American women, neither of whom (so far as we know) ever claimed to be a white woman from Massachusetts.

Women, it’s often been said, are “the weaker sex.” But each one of those named above could rightly boast of more courage than a lot of the men we all know.

This article originally appeared on The American Spectator. 


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.