How does someone go from a tough childhood to become the world’s first African-American female billionaire? How does a woman defy stigma to prove, with her hit 1950s TV show, that women are indisputably funny? How does a girl orphaned in her teens, with five younger siblings to support, become the first woman owner and editor of a black US newspaper, and a world-famous activist against lynching?
These questions arose while writing the book Modern Women last year, a collection of illustrated profiles of women, including Oprah Winfrey, Lucille Ball and Ida B Wells, whose respective stories are outlined above. The 52 women in the book are phenomenal and these are the lessons that emerged.
1) Be courageous, not fearless
As writer Maya Angelou said, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because, without courage, you can’t practise any other virtue consistently.” It’s important to distinguish this from fearlessness. Who is actually fearless? (I can think of one person, currently in the Oval Office, who illustrates the problems with this mindset.)
Environmentalist and pro-democracy activist Wangari Maathai, who faced death threats and imprisonment, had a different take. What people considered her fearlessness was really persistence, she wrote in her 2006 autobiography Unbowed: “Because I am focused on the solution, I don’t see danger.” This is evident, too, in the work of Ida B Wells, whose commitment to her campaign against lynching enabled her to continue, even when her newspaper offices were trashed and she had to flee Memphis for New York. Courage is an acknowledgement of risk and a willingness to act anyway. Find a cause you care about, and a practical way to pursue it, and your courage may surprise you.
Ida B Wells
2) Biology is not destiny
Throughout history, women have had to struggle with the suggestion our role is simply to reproduce, and our bodies are somehow essentially weaker than men’s. The cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova defied these expectations to become the first woman in space in June 1963; Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Everest in 1975, after her all-female team had been mocked by the press; and Amelia Earhart became a world-famous aviator in the 1920s, when women were authorised to pilot commercial planes – but advised not to have passengers on board.
You will be told at some point you are too weak, feeble, young or old – essentially too much of a woman – to achieve something extraordinary. Ignore this.
3) Don’t wait for permission
Ada Lovelace hadn’t even considered writing an original paper about her friend Charles Babbage’s invention, the Analytical Engine, until he suggested it. Her plan was simply to translate an Italian essay on the subject. Instead, she annotated the translated essay and the result was an original work in which she conceptualised the modern computer for the very first time. One of her notes also featured an algorithm – the first computer programme ever published.
It isn’t surprising Lovelace needed encouragement – this was 1842 and it was incredibly unusual for women to publish scientific papers. But she stands as a reminder of all the visionary women who weren’t given permission, whose brilliant ideas were lost to history. Don’t wait.
4) Make your own culture
Does the culture around you seem sexist, racist, homophobic or just plain dull? Make your own. When Kathleen Hanna started punk band Bikini Kill in the early 1990s, it kicked off the Riot Grrrl revolution and women all over the world started bands, made zines and changed the culture around them. It’s important to critique culture, but much more important – when it comes to your health, happiness and the cause of progress – to create it.
5) Tenacity is essential
Artist Louise Bourgeois became world famous in 1982, when she was in her seventies, and Lucille Ball was nearing her forties when she began starring in a new TV show. (Even at this young age, Ball was expected to wave Hollywood goodbye.) With I Love Lucy, she instead became the biggest TV star in America.
Women face culturally imposed boundaries as they grow older, which very often become self-imposed boundaries. Live like Martha Graham, who created her last choreography six months before she died, aged 96. Dance like everyone’s watching.
6) Sisterhood is powerful
Feminism is about collective work towards a better world – it’s never about the individual. Gloria Steinem knew this in the 1970s, when she decided she’d only do speaking engagements if joined by a black woman speaker. She went on the road with activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes and they discovered, Steinem has written, “that a white woman and a black woman speaking together attracted far more diverse audiences”.
Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes
Sisterhood also helped spur Oprah Winfrey’s decision to take ownership of her TV talk show. Her bosses had said her staff didn’t need pay rises, because they were just “girls”; owning her own show enabled her to fix this. It proved a good move.
7) Remember radical self-care – and joy
Women often feel under moral pressure to put themselves last, which actually does no one any good. The writer and activist Audre Lorde wrote about the need for self-care in A Burst of Light, her 1988 journal of her years with cancer. She considered time spent looking after her body each day to be a key part of her political work, “a kind of training in self-love and physical resistance”.
Lorde also advocated joy, observing in her 1978 essay The Uses of the Erotic that women “have been raised to fear the ‘yes’ within ourselves”.
Saying yes – whatever the circumstances – takes courage. But it’s the first step, always, to a big life.