Trailblazers: Eight Women Who Rewrote The Rules

As International Women’s Day falls on the 8th March, I thought it fitting I lay out eight condensed histories of high-achieving women with whom you may not be familiar. As with literature, music, art, and theatre, it’s easy to fall back on the same examples, the same handful of icons, over and over again. But in the vast ocean of countless drops that is human history, why deprive ourselves of so many sources of inspiration that, until the Internet age, have simply been less publicised than others? This is a string of introductions to influential women who deserve more attention. Attached to the end of each are links and reading suggestions for you to learn more about these remarkable women.

Sadie T.M. Alexander (1895 – 1989). First black woman to be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar

“I stayed home for one year and almost lost my mind – it was then that I decided I had better go to law school.”[1] So said Sadie Alexander (née Tanner Mossell), who became Pennsylvania’s first black female lawyer less than a decade after earning a Bachelor of Science, a Masters, and a PhD in economics. In 1930 she fired up a conversation that continues almost a century later by publishing an article asserting the economic value of women’s domestic work, despite such work falling outside of capitalist markets. On top of all this, she was elected as a committee member of the ALCU and, in 1946, appointed to President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights.

Sadie Alexander carried the double burden of racism and sexism through four university degrees, a full-time law practice, and over half a century of social justice activism. It’s time to give her the recognition that’s been long overdue.


Alice Guy-Blaché (1873 – 1968). First Female Film Director

“From 1896 to 1906,” as author Alison McMahan begins on the Women Film Pioneers Project website, “Alice Guy was probably the only woman film director in the world.”[2] The pressure and loneliness of being so unique is almost unthinkable. And yet neither this, a polio epidemic, Spanish influenza, two children, divorce, nor a lack of funds stopped Alice GuyBlaché from making some of the first ever synchronized sound films, or from being the first woman to found her own film studio.

Fortuitous timing played a small part in the beginnings of Guy-Blaché’s career: by 1895, she was working under Léon Gaumont’s supervision as a secretary for a Parisian company that produced still-photography. The Lumière brothers were hot on the scene at the time, and artists the world over wondered what the exciting school of photography would do next. By 1897, Gaumont had promoted Alice Guy (pre-Blaché) to the head of film production, a position she held for the next decade. She was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1955.

Guy-Blaché was instantly smitten with filmmaking – she learned about special effects from photographer Frédérique Dillaye, and at one time was producing a film a week for six months. No wonder her complete works total over a thousand films, ranging from one minute to forty-five. Sadly, only 140 of them have survived.

As of 2017, Kathryn Bigelow remains the only woman to have ever won the Academy Award for Best Director. There is almost certainly a 21st-century Alice Guy-Blaché out there making magic with a smartphone and some editing software. But as the current measure of equality stands, our running time is far from over.


Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836 – 1917). First woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in Britain

A disclaimer: Dr James Barry (1789 – 1865) – aka Margaret Bulkley – was really the first British female physician and surgeon, but the only way to survive and thrive in the male-only world of army medicine at the time was by spending the majority of her life disguised as a man. Despite Bulkley’s incredible feat, right now I want to focus on Anderson, who was able to achieve remarkable success without the additional headache of concealing her identity.

In a wonderful moment of serendipity, the then twenty-three year old Elizabeth Garrett crossed paths with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, a British émigré who had become the first woman to secure a medical qualification in the United States a few years earlier. After this meeting, it seems, inspiration promptly struck like fire from a match.

There was no straightforward route around the many closed doors into medical school, so Garrett had to be resourceful with gaining experience: six months as a surgery nurse here, some private Latin and Greek tuition there… Eventually, via a legal loophole in the Society of Apothecaries’ exam candidate criteria (it had never occurred to them that a woman would attempt to take the exam, and therefore women were not explicitly forbidden from doing so), she elbowed her way into the British medical profession.

When Anderson co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874 with Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake (another remarkable woman), she set a precedent that would have been utterly unthinkable mere decades earlier. In becoming dean of her school in 1883, she was also the first dean of any British medical school.

She was also the first female mayor and magistrate in England (of Aldeburgh in 1908), the only female member of the British Medical Association for almost twenty years and – in 1870 alone – the first British woman to be elected to a school board and the first woman to gain a medical degree in France (at the Sorbonne). Like her fellow feminist (and sister) Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Elizabeth remained an active suffragist well into her 70s. Hers was a life forged by undeterred ambition and a fruitful network of contemporaries who were blazing trails of their own.


Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915 – 1973). First gospel artist to get a single in the top 10 RnB chart (1946). Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll

In 1938, twenty-three year old Rosetta Tharpe signed her first record deal with Decca. The four sides she recorded shot up the charts, making Tharpe one of the first ever commercially successful gospel recording artists. Music aficionados the world over view Tharpe as the artist who laid down the blueprints for rock ‘n’ roll, by making gospel music palatable to rhythm and blues fans, influencing future male and female rock legends alike.

Tharpe threw all assumptions about which gender was naturally suited to the guitar out the window. Watch any of her recorded performances and the realisation will hit you hard: this black woman was bopping, grooving and twanging before Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley or The Beatles had even hit puberty. In a regal voice that commands attention from the opening note, one can hear echoes of future stars like Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner.

Tharpe was inducted posthumously into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2007. She may have died aged just 58 and in relative obscurity, but the recent resurgence of interest in her genre-bending music means she has recently started to get the respect and recognition she deserves.

Pauline Park (1960-). Trans and Human Rights Activist

It’s important to celebrate not only accomplished women from the past, but also to draw attention to those figures enacting significant change in our present, whose effect we can see and support in real time. Moreover, with a 170% surge in trans hate crime rates in the UK alone,[3] I feel compelled to highlight the work of a trans activist who is taking a stand.

Park’s achievements are almost too numerous to mention: in 1998 she co-founded NYAGRA (the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy), the first statewide organisation of its kind; in 2005 she was made the first openly trans grand marshal of the NYC Pride March; in 2011 she negotiated the first trans-inclusive legislation in New York’s DASA (Dignity for All Students Act). And in 2012, she participated in the first US LGBTQ delegation tour of Palestine.

In addition to publishing New York City’s first and only public directory of trans healthcare providers in 2009, as well as initiating a city hospital’s first transgender sensitivity training sessions, Park’s achievements are setting an important precedent that the rest of the country (and the world) will hopefully be inclined to follow by example. She shows no signs of slowing down any time soon: “The work is endless because the needs are unlimited.”[4]

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832 – 1919). First female surgeon in the United States Army. First and only woman to receive the Medal of Honor

Mary Edwards Walker was a nineteenth-century female army surgeon who was awarded the highest possible decoration for bravery the U.S. has to offer after suffering as a prisoner of war; she then spent the rest of her life as a feminist and fighting against racial injustice in the wake of slavery. She was described by a contemporary New York Times reporter as a “curious anthropoid”.[5] Personally, I’d go with “fearsome role model”.

Raised by unusually progressive Christian parents, Walker was taught from a young age that corsets were unhealthy and that girls could do labour intensive chores just as well as boys. The only woman in her graduating medical class of 1855, she typically wore men’s trousers under a simple skirt rather than long skirts with petticoats, which she condemned for spreading dust and dirt. Naturally, upon joining the Civil War as an unpaid army surgeon, Walker wore only men’s clothing.

In 1864, whilst treating injured civilians in enemy territory, she was captured by Confederate forces, arrested as a spy, and held prisoner in Richmond, Virginia. She suffered from starvation and partial muscular atrophy for four months until a prisoner exchange secured her release. In November 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Armed Forces Medal of Honor.

Post-war, Walker was vocal about suffrage and dress reform for women, and was arrested for wearing masculine clothing (complete with a magnificent top hat) on numerous occasions. Upon her death at age eighty-six, she was even buried in a black suit. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.


Wilma Mankiller (1945 – 2010). First female chief of the Cherokee Nation

Aside from her incredible surname (designating a Cherokee military rank) Wilma Mankiller was influential in representing and strengthening her Native American Cherokee tribe, stepping into a role that had previously been exclusively filled by men. A politically active student of social sciences and community development, she assisted with the nineteen month long Native American Occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, intended to result in a permanent takeover of the island that would allow the protesting group to establish spiritual and ecology centres, as well as Native American museums.

Having co-founded the American Indian Community School in Oakland in 1975, Mankiller then worked her way up the leadership ladder until she was elected as chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1987. Her administration focused heavily on community projects designed to foster infrastructural growth, as well as improving federal-tribal communications. Mankiller’s crowning achievement was the foundation of the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department, which led to a population increase of Cherokee citizens from 55,000 to 156,000. She accomplished all of this despite serious physical injuries sustained from a 1979 head-on car collision, and had a landslide re-election victory in 1991, just one year after a kidney transplant.

Mankiller’s accomplishments didn’t go unnoticed during her lifetime: she won Ms. Magazine’s Woman of the Year Award in 1987, the Elizabeth Blackwell Award in 1996, and finally she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. Upon her death in 2010 from pancreatic cancer, President Obama paid tribute to her “vision and commitment to a brighter future for all Americans”[6], and over 1000 people attended her memorial service.


Fatima Al-Fihri (c. 226-c. 880). Founder of the world’s first degree-granting university

Time has unfortunately ravaged the story of the most historic heroine featured here. But on a website devoted to academic enrichment, and on a day devoted to women’s survival and success, it would be ridiculous to omit the this supremely intelligent woman who invested in the education of generations upon generations to come.

Despite being named after al-Fihri’s hometown in Tunisia (Qayrawan), The University of Qarawiyyin is actually based in Fes, Morroco, where she and her family migrated. After the death of her husband and brothers, al-Fihri was set on doing something meaningful for the local community with her substantial inheritance. She oversaw construction of the university from start to finish, even buying up property around the initial mosque site to ensure its wide coverage – the satellite image of a square forest of green amongst miles of sandstone buildings indicates her success on that front.

The University of Qarawiyyin, its library, and its mosque (one of the largest in North Africa) are all still operational. The original curriculum encompassed an eclectic mix of subjects, from the natural sciences and study of the Qu’ran, to grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, and music. The library is home to approximately four thousand manuscripts, and was refurbished in 2016. It’s a great shame that centuries upon centuries separate us from a fuller insight into Fatima Al-Fihri the individual, but as a role model her legacy remains untarnished by time.


These few short biographies are just a tiny glimpse into the vast landscape of women’s history. On International Women’s Day, not just in 2017 but also in years to come, it is so important to pay attention to the stories that are not told often enough, lives that do not appear in the pages of a GCSE textbook or dance across a Google homepage. Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Ada Lovelace, Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Frida Kahlo, Gloria Steinem, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks…these are all amazing women, let there be no doubt about that. But limiting ourselves to only these women draws an unconscious circle around the women’s history we are allowed to explore. It’s the epistemological equivalent of only ever eating one type of food, of only reading what’s on the bestseller chart, of only listening to the top 40 – there’s nothing wrong with any of these things, but why stifle your curiosity? Why deprive yourself of the delight that comes of connecting with a heroine across centuries and nations? Neither education nor activism are about being comfortable with what you already know; carry these histories with you, but also venture outside your comfort zone and add some more to your collection.

[1] Nina Banks, “Black Women and Racial Advancement: The Economics of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander”, The Review of Black Political Economy (Summer 2005): 139-161.


[3] Peter Yeung, “Transphobic hate crimes in ‘sickening’ 170% rise as low prosecution rates create ‘lack of trust’ in police”, The Independent, July 28, 2016, accessed March 7, 2017


[5] “The Case of Dr. Walker, Only Woman To Win (and Lose) the Medal of Honor”, From the archives of The New York Times, June 4, 1977. Accessed March 7, 2017