You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down
“If you want to school yourself on the women who have paved the way for the rest of us, then this is the book for you…” −Becca Anderson, bestselling author of The Book of Awesome Women
Societal mores of sexism and misogyny have kept generations of women on the sidelines of history. But in every era, there are women who refuse to sit back in the shadows. Fabulous Female Firsts is a celebration of those women―the role models who proved that with enough daring and enough tenacity, the impossible can become possible.
Enough is Not Enough. That’s what she said. From rebel girls who refused to let their wings be clipped to the suffragettes who claimed new space for women, each trailblazer in this collection of biographies pushed the boundaries for what was possible for women in their time, even if it meant being seen as stubborn, improper, or just a trainwreck. This book is in praise of “difficult women” who made the world a better place.
Feminism Throughout History. Maybe you know their names, but do you know their stories? You’ll find inspiration in the company of women. This collection includes the stories of some of the most fabulous women in world history, including Aretha Franklin, Sandra Day O’Connor, Lucy Walker, Sally Ride, Kathryn Bigelow, Misty Copeland, Viola Desmond, Pauli Murray, Emma Gatewood, General Anna Hays, Junko Tabei, and Gertrude Ederle.
Young readers and people of all ages who are inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank and the life of Harriet Tubman will find new heroes in this book. If you enjoyed feminist books like The Book of Awesome Women, Bad Girls Throughout History, and Behind Every Great Man, you’ll love the inspiring stories in Fabulous Female Firsts: The Trailblazers Who Led the Way.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Black Magic (1987)
In 1973, the Doobie Brothers crooned, “I wanna get lost in your rock’ n’ roll and drift away.” Thirteen years later the lyrics, rather than a paean to romantic fulfillment, alluded to women who had to drift away from their dream of becoming the Founding Mothers of Cleveland’s newly instituted Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The gender gap reared its head when the music emporium listed its first ten inductees: Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and the Everly Brothers. Apparently, the museum did not abide by First Lady Abigail Adam’s admonition, “Remember the ladies.” The decision did not sit well with those who had spent the last two decades consecrated to the Women’s Liberation Movement. Had society not read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, perused Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine, listened to Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman”? Perhaps their struggle finally bore fruit: in 1988, Aretha Louise Franklin received her R-E-S-P-E-C-T when she became the first female inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The Queen of Soul was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1942. Her mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, was a gospel singer and pianist. Her father, Clarence la Vaughn, C. L., preached black-liberation theology, and his career as a pastor led the family from Memphis to Buffalo and then to Detroit where he traded his pulpit for the New Bethel Baptist Church. Her parents separated over C. L.’s wandering eye when Aretha was six, leaving her in her father’s care. Barbara remained in contact with her children who were devastated when she passed away four years later after a heart attack. A rock star among preachers, C. L. was known as “the man with the golden voice.” His sermons, often delivered beneath a neon-blue crucifix, were broadcast on radio and released on vinyl. With his celebrity status, he charged $4,000 for appearances. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed with the family when he visited Detroit, and C. L. helped him organize the historic Walk to Freedom.
The Franklin household door was always open to gospel and secular musicians such as Mahalia Jackson who served as Aretha’s mentor. Future Motown artists such as Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross lived nearby. After hearing Clara Ward perform at her aunt’s funeral, Aretha taught herself to play the piano-there were two in the house-before she was ten, where she emulated songs from the radio and her records. Proud of his daughter whose voice was already magnificent, C. L. placed her on a chair in his church, and she became a star soloist. C. L. told her with her God-given talent she would one day sing for kings and queens. At age twelve, Aretha became pregnant and had son Clarence two months before her thirteenth birthday. Baby daddy was Donald Burk, a boy she knew from school. At age fourteen, she had a second son, Edward, whose father was Edward Jordan. She dropped out of junior high after having her children, and ditching diaper duty, went on tour with C. L. Big Mama, her grandmother, was left with baby rearing responsibilities.
Aretha took off for New York City at eighteen, hoping to become a star in the music industry. John Hammond, the Columbia Records executive who had championed Billie Holiday and would one day bring Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to his label, signed Aretha in 1960. The following year Aretha met and married Ted White, who became her manager and the father of their son Ted Jr.
In 1967, after her contract ended, Aretha moved to Atlantic Records. For her first session, Ms. Franklin travelled to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record a smoldering blues ballad with an all-white group of studio musicians. Their song, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” detailed a woman’s devotion to a no-good man. Ted got into a drunken fistfight with the trumpet player, and husband and wife returned to Manhattan. The song recorded that evening went on to sell a million records and launched Aretha’s reign as the Queen of Soul. On Valentine’s Day, Aretha recorded “Respect,” a demand to be treated with dignity and the instruction to “give it to me when you get home.” The daughter of the preacher man’s song caught on with the black-power movement, feminists, and human rights activists across the world. In 2018, it became a symbol of the #MeToo Movement. Ms. Franklin stated, “I think women have to be strong. Some people will run all over you.” The signature song surged to Number One and garnered Aretha her first two Grammy Awards for best R & B and for the best R & B performance (an award she won each succeeding year through 1975). By the end of 1968, she had made three more recordings for her label including the wildly popular “I Say a Little Prayer” and “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.”
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Dr. Mary Walker (1865) Congressional Medal of Honor
Chapter 2: Marie Curie (1903) The Nobel Prize
Chapter 3: Ella Anderson de Wolfe (1905) American Interior Decorator
Chapter 4: Gertrude Ederle (1926) Swim the English Channel
Chapter 5: Hattie McDaniel (1940) African-American to Win an Academy Award
Chapter 6: Alice Coachman (1948) African-American to Win Olympic Gold Medal
Chapter 7: Golda Meir (1948) Prime Minister of Israel
Chapter 8: Emma Gatewood (1955) Hike the Appalachian Trail
Chapter 9: Kathrine Switzer (1967) Run the Boston Marathon
Chapter 10: Muriel Siebert (1967) Securities Broker on The New York Stock Exchange
Chapter 11: Nichelle Nichols (1968) First Inter-racial Kiss on American Television
Chapter 12: General Anna Hays (1970) American General
Chapter 13: Diane Crump (1970) Jockey to Ride the Kentucky Derby
Chapter 14: Carol Channing (1972) Perform at Super Bowl Half-Time
Chapter 15: Junko Tabei (1975) Climb Mt. Everest
Chapter 16: Pauli Murray (1977) Episcopalian Minister
Chapter 17: Sandra Day O’Connor (1981) Supreme Court Judge
Chapter 18: Sally Ride (1983) American in Space
Chapter 19: Wilma Mankiller (1985) Female Chief of the Cherokee Nation
Chapter 20: Aretha Franklin (1985) Inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Chapter 21: Whoopi Goldberg (1994) Host the Academy Awards
Chapter 22: Madeleine Albright (1997) Secretary of State
Chapter 23: Kathryn Bigelow (2010) Best Director Academy Award
Chapter 24: Misty Copeland (2015) African-American Principal Dancer: American Ballet Theater
Chapter 25: Viola Desmond (2018) Woman on Canadian Postage Stamp
What People are Saying About This
“If you want to school yourself on the women who have paved the way for the rest of us, then this is the book for you. This celebration of pioneering women is filled with effervescent stories about diverse groups of female creators, entrepreneurs, and dynamos who not only fought for women’s rights and equality but are at the center of our history. Well-researched and engaging, every page gives the motivation to strive for greatness, just like these awesome women did.”
−Becca Anderson, bestselling author of The Book of Awesome Women
No matter how near we are to our biblically allotted three score years and ten, we always remember our milestone firsts: first kiss, first car, first horizontal episode. Mothers are likewise big on firsts: first word their child spoke, first step, first lost tooth. These events constitute the magical moments, forever tucked away in the tissue paper of the heart.
While these firsts serve as the Proustian madeleine that summon remembrance of things past, trailblazing women opened doors that affected the world, thereby allowing entry to those who followed. Because of these pioneers, generations of women have felt empowered to reach for their own brass-rings. The runner ups make the hole wider and the edges duller until the ceiling starts to disappear, leaving behind the oasis of opportunity. Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female Supreme Court Justice, and she helped usher in other females to attain the same lofty position.
Of course, behind their monumental achievements lies an unfortunate truth: had gender discrimination not been entrenched since Eve caused the exit from Eden, women’s entry into erstwhile all-male domains would nary have raised an eyebrow. The fact that intrepid females used their variations of battering rams to muscle their way into the realm of equality is all the more remarkable as they did so against a prevailing zeitgeist that dictated they were not welcome in the polling stations, pinnacles off power or boardrooms. Rather, the bedroom and the kitchen were their domains. The triumph of female accomplishments is enhanced as they succeeded despite biblical and societal sexism.
When I was coming of age in my Torontonian hometown, the boys took shop class; we attended home economics classes-the other type of economics was never in our provenance. And why would it be? After all, we were going to be a Mrs., and our husbands would worry about all matters financial. Similarly, at recess, while the guys raced by on the school’s skating rink, dreams of becoming the next Bobby Orr, gals congregated on the non-icy patches of the playground.
Our accomplishment was mastering the intricacies of Double Dutch on our skipping-ropes while belting out the equally difficult task of correctly spelling M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I, the rhyme that accompanied our jumps. We did not aspire to more athletic pursuits because no sports scholarships existed for our gender and thus the lack of parental nudging. Inside our school, the teachers were predominantly female; the principals were men.
At home, our mothers greeted us with cookies and milk and the admonishment to be on our best behavior so as not to tax our fathers after a hard day at the office. Given such a non-fertile environment, my friends and I only competed to be the first to be married, the first to own a house, the first to procreate. Perhaps in some future utopian clime, our daughters will look at the concept of glass ceilings as baby boomers do bobby socks, saddle shoes, and poodle skirts, a nod to a bygone milieu.
Hope is on the horizon. Language is a litmus test of societal mores and the sexist diction of my youth has gone the way of the dodo: postman, policeman, fireman; the titles Mrs. and Ms. have evolved to Ms. In 2017, Merriam-Webster chose their word of the year that speaks to possibilities rather than limitations. Their decision was based on the avalanche of online hits after three events from that year: the Woman’s March, the movie Wonder Woman, and the hashtag Me Too: the word was “feminism.”
Currently, on a similar wave of optimism, there has been a number of female advancements into key leadership roles in business, higher education, and government, a sign the winds of change are blowing. For example, the College of William & Mary, the second oldest institution of higher education in the United States, recently named Katherine Rowe its first-ever female president. The 2018 midterm election witnessed a record number of women elected to Congress, including several firsts: the first Native American woman, Muslim woman, Somali-American woman, openly LGBT woman, and youngest woman.
Hillary Clinton gave her best shot to strike a hammer at the glass ceiling in the political arena when she became the first female major party presidential nominee in United States history. She acknowledged this momentous occasion in a video played at the Democratic National Convention where her face appeared among shards of glass after a montage of previous all-male presidents. She had plans to hold her election night celebration in Manhattan’s Jacob K. Jarvis Convention Centre that has a literal glass ceiling. In her concession speech, she metaphorically crossed her fingers, “I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but someday, someone will.” Indeed, that will be a monumental first.
The concept of female firsts is a shout-out to those who refused to view anatomy as an impediment to success. As Susan B. Anthony so eloquently expressed the need for gender equality, “Men their rights and nothing more/Women their rights and nothing less.” Because ladies were able to rise above chastity belts, bound feet, and corseted bodies, they deserve the shout-out, “Let’s hear it for the girls!