11 Watershed Moments for Women's Equality

On March 7, 2017, a crowd gathered about the 'Fearless Girl' statue in New York City.
On March 7, 2017, a crowd gathered about the 'Fearless Girl' statue in New York City.
iStock

From Mary Walker, the first woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, to Katharine Graham, the first woman to run a Fortune 500 company, these pioneering women—and their winning moments—helped set the stage for the generations that followed.

1. The first women's rights convention is held in New York

Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B Anthony
Elizabeth Stanton sits as Susan B Anthony stands nearby.
Library of Congress

Informed that they wouldn't be able to vote or speak at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott grew frustrated at their lack of voice in American society. As they stewed in the women’s section, they decided something needed to be done about it. By 1848, Stanton, Mott, and friends had organized a two-day women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The pair, alongside 66 other women and 32 men, crafted the Declaration of Sentiments. Modeled off the Declaration of Independence, the convention wrote out their list of demands, including for women’s right to vote.

Although this pioneering convention was largely mocked by the country, what was accomplished in those two days eventually kicked off Suffrage and the women’s rights movement. Unfortunately, only one of the signers would see one of the convention’s main goals come to fruition when women could finally vote for the first time in 1920.

2. MARIA MITCHELL IS ELECTED TO THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS AND SCIENCES.

On a clear night in October 1847, Maria Mitchell was sitting on the roof of her father’s business and consulting her star charts with a telescope. All of a sudden, she saw a blurry light streak across the sky—a comet. She had discovered what was later nicknamed “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” and the accolades came rolling in. Mitchell was the first female professional astronomer, and in 1848, she became the first woman to receive entry to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Mitchell would remain the only woman in that honored group until 1943.

This accomplishment opened the world up to Mitchell, who believed that women could achieve anything men could, and she traveled to Europe, meeting with famed astronomers along the way. In her later years, she went on to work at Vassar College—becoming the first female astronomy professor. That didn't mean she settled for getting paid less than a man, according to the college. She received equal pay in the 1870s for her work while inspiring young women to reach for the stars.

3. VICTORIA CLAFLIN WOODHULL RUNS FOR PRESIDENT UNDER THE EQUAL RIGHTS PARTY.

Although no woman has been elected to the highest office in the land yet, Victoria Claflin Woodhull was the first to make the attempt. In 1869, with help from Cornelius Vanderbilt, Ohio-born Woodhull and her sister opened the first female-run stock brokerage on Wall Street in New York City, though they were never allowed a place on the floor. This move gave Woodhull the leverage and money she needed to run for president in 1872.

"Notorious Victoria" ran on women’s suffrage, welfare for the poor, 8-hour workdays and regulation of monopolies, among other things. Unfortunately, her radical views on religion and marriage, among other things, made her a tough sell. It didn't help when her unconventional campaign style landed her in trouble with the law. Days before the election, Woodhull was jailed for sending out "obscene" publications that took shots at her opponents. She eventually agreed to a plea deal that involved dropping out of the presidential race.

4. MARY WALKER RECEIVES THE MEDAL OF HONOR.

Dr. Mary Walker
Dr. Mary Walker
Library of Congress

After graduating from Syracuse Medical College, Dr. Walker set her sights on volunteering for the Union. Her parents were abolitionists and she wanted to devote her skills to the North by signing up as a surgeon. Because women were not allowed to do that kind of advanced medical work, she settled for volunteering for the Union Army.

A few years into the war, Walker had worked her way up in the ranks and was sent to Virginia in 1863 as a field surgeon. While aiding a Confederate surgeon on a particularly bloody day of battle in 1864, Walker was captured by the Confederacy. She was held there for four months until she was swapped for another prisoner of war. For her efforts, in 1865, she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson, becoming the first woman to be given the honor. Favoring men’s clothing and her freedom, Walker remained a staunch advocate for the rest of her days. She was even permitted to wear male clothing by an act of Congress. Walker’s medal was taken away from her in 1917 (some argued that she was ineligible because the award was meant only for soldiers), but President Carter restored it to her posthumously in 1977.

5. MARGARET SANGER OPENS THE FIRST BIRTH CONTROL CLINIC IN AMERICA.

Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger in 1925
General Photographic Agency / Stringer / Getty Images

The future activist started as a nurse in 1912 in New York City. After watching women die by the dozens of self-induced abortions, she renounced nursing and decided to find a solution. She founded a magazine called Woman Rebel to start her "birth control" (a phrase that she coined) movement. The issues were promptly banned by the New York Post Office, and the threat of imprisonment caused her to flee the country. “Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty,” Sanger wrote in 1914. When the charges had been dropped, she returned in 1916 to open the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Her organization later became Planned Parenthood and she fought for the rest of her life to provide safe contraception for women.

6. SEPTIMA CLARK FIGHTS FOR THE RIGHT TO TEACH.

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks
Septima Clark (left) sits with Rosa Parks in 1955
Library of Congress

Septima Clark, a Civil Rights activist, put the issue of education at the front of the movement. Due to sacrifices from her parents, a former slave and a laundress, Clark was able to earn two degrees and train to be a teacher. Unfortunately, in Charleston, South Carolina, where she lived, black teachers weren’t allowed to teach in 1918. That didn’t deter Clark. That year, she went door-to-door gathering about 20,000 signatures of fellow African Americans who wanted black teachers in the black schools. The ban was struck down, and Clark spent many of her years teaching elementary school children.

7. EDITH WHARTON WINS A PULITZER FOR THE AGE OF INNOCENCE.

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton
Library of Congress

At age 11, Edith Wharton attempted to write her first novel. Like many of New York City’s elite who were raised in what was considered the Golden Age of New York, she traveled to Europe extensively and got to experience the best of what life had to offer. She would eventually write more than 85 short stories and a dozen novels. But her life experiences would go on to heavily influence one book in particular, The Age of Innocence, which examined and even skewered the New York society. In 1921, toward the end of her life, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but it was contentious. Many members of the board wanted to take her prize back, but she retained it—making her the first woman to win a Pulitzer. She would go on to also be nominated for the Nobel Prize three times.

8. GRACE HOPPER INVENTS A COMPUTER LANGUAGE.

In 1934, Grace Hopper was on a path all of her own. She graduated with a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University. When World War II arrived, she flew from her academic post at Vassar to join the Navy’s war effort in 1943. There, she put her vast intelligence to use by working on the Harvard Mark I computer, which would help an atomic bomb engineer determine that the bomb would implode rather than explode. After the war, she started working on UNIVAC, the latest computer, and argued that a computer language should be written in English. Although her idea was laughed off, Hopper was determined, publishing papers outlining her reasoning. She finally implemented her own English-based coding language, called COBOL, in the Navy and eventually in the wider world. She's also responsible for the term "computer bug." Throughout her life, Hopper would go back into active duty Navy service and served a total of 42 years, earning her the nickname “Amazing Grace.”

9. KATHARINE GRAHAM LEADS A FORTUNE 500 COMPANY.

Katharine Graham
Katharine Graham in 2001
Vince Bucci / Stringer / Getty Images

Journalism was always in the cards for Katharine Graham, who grew up with a father who worked as the publisher of The Washington Post. Graham became interested in media at an early age and after a stint at a few papers, got a job on The Washington Post’s editorial staff. Eventually, she convinced her husband to buy the paper from her father. The couple worked together to create a media empire by acquiring the competition. In her 1997 memoir, she described her relationship with her husband as "that of a chief executive officer Phil and a chief operating officer me."

In 1963, that changed when her husband committed suicide. Unexpectedly, Graham found herself at the helm of a media empire. She raised the Post to the fifth most profitable media company in the country, landing her a spot as the first woman CEO of a company on the Fortune 500 list. Under Graham, the Post published the Pentagon Papers and broke the news of the Watergate scandal. Before her death, Graham received the Freedom Medal and a Pulitzer Prize for her memoir.

10. ARETHA FRANKLIN IS INDUCTED INTO THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME.

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin performing in April 2017.
Noam Galai / Stringer / Getty Images

Considered the “definitive soul singer of the Sixties” by Rolling Stone, Aretha Franklin grew up in Detroit where her father was a pastor and known for his voice. She toured with her gospel group in her teenage years and later transitioned into R&B tunes with the help of several record companies. By 1960, her voice was all over the radio and she was a force, collaborating with the Beatles and receiving awards from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Still, it wasn’t until 1987 that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Franklin as one of the greats—and she became the first woman to join the ranks.

11. KATHRYN BIGELOW WINS AN OSCAR FOR BEST DIRECTOR.

Kathryn Bigelow wins oscar
Kathryn Bigelow accepts her Oscar in 2010.
Kevin Winter / Staff / Getty Images

Before becoming one of the most well-known film directors in Hollywood, Kathryn Bigelow wanted to be a painter. After making her first short film called The Set-Up in 1978, Bigelow decided that her passion lay elsewhere. More than three decades later, in 2010, that passion helped her make history. She took home the Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, a film that examined the work of bomb disposal by teams in Iraq and Afghanistan up-close. Only four other women had been nominated for best director before her victory.

When Harriet Tubman Helped Lead a Civil War Raid That Freed 750 People

A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

As clouds flitted across the moonlit sky on the night of June 2, 1863, three gunboats snaked up the Combahee River in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region. The Civil War was raging and the vessels were filled with Union troops, many of them from the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, on a mission to strike Confederate plantations. There to guide them on this perilous expedition was a black woman already famed for her bold excursions into hostile territory: Harriet Tubman.

From Underground Railroad to Union Spy

Born into slavery, Tubman—the subject of the soon-to-be-released movie Harriet—had liberated herself in 1849, fleeing north from bondage in Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia. Though a fugitive with a price on her head (her former slaveholder promised $50 for her capture, $100 if she was found out of state) Tubman repeatedly returned to Maryland to usher other slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network of people, both black and white, who facilitated the escape of enslaved people northwards. It is believed that Tubman rescued around 70 slaves this way, and by the end of the Combahee River Raid on that June night in 1863, she had helped free some 750 more.

After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, John Andrew, the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, had asked Tubman to head to the South and assist with the "contrabands"—a term used to refer to the thousands of enslaved people who fled to Union camps amid the chaos of the conflict. It was a fitting role for Tubman, since helping African Americans shed the bonds of slavery had become the driving purpose of her life.

She volunteered in Fort Monroe, Virginia, before heading to Port Royal, South Carolina, where she worked as a nurse for soldiers and liberated slaves. Disease ran rampant during the war, and Tubman was skilled in herbal medicine. She also oversaw the building of a laundry house, so she could train African American women to become laundresses—a vocation that would prove useful as they embarked on a new, free chapter of their lives. But according to H. Donald Winkler, who writes about Tubman’s wartime exploits in Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War, “many believe that the humanitarian aspects of her trip … were a cover for her real work as a spy operating within enemy lines.”

Biographer Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, agrees that it is possible Tubman was sent to the South at least in part to gather intelligence. “Certainly she was someone who was able to go behind the lines and make contact in a way that the soldiers were not, because she had done that on the Underground Railroad,” Clinton tells Mental Floss.

Time and again as an Underground Railroad rescuer, Tubman had proven her cunning, charisma, and steely resolve, slipping into slavery territory and back out again with multiple fugitives in tow. She secretly reached out to enslaved people to encourage their escape, scouted dangerous areas, and cultivated contacts who were ready to offer shelter and support. Tubman liked to stage her rescues on Saturday nights, because Sunday was a day of rest; by the time they were discovered missing on Monday, Tubman had been given a head start.

She also possessed an uncanny ability to avoid detection, often with the help of disguises. In her book, Clinton writes that on one trip through a town near her former Maryland home, Tubman caught sight of a man who had once been her master. Fortunately, she had a bonnet pulled low over her face and two live chickens in her hands. When the man came close, Tubman pulled on strings tied to the birds’ legs, causing them to fuss and flap—and giving her an excuse to avoid eye contact.

Such exploits earned Tubman a legendary reputation among abolitionist circles. She was nicknamed “Moses,” after the biblical figure who led the oppressed to freedom.

Whatever the initial purpose of her journey south, by 1863 Tubman was working as a covert Union operative. She recruited a small but trustworthy group of black scouts, several of whom were water pilots with a thorough knowledge of the coastal landscape. The spies would sail along waterways, take note of enemy positions and movements, and communicate the information back to Union brass. Colonel James Montgomery, a fervent abolitionist, relied on Tubman’s intelligence to stage several successful raids, according to Winkler. The most famous of these was the Combahee River Raid.

Tubman's Turn to Lead

Combahee River basin, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge, Beaufort County, South Carolina
The Combahee River basin in Beaufort County, South Carolina, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge and near where the raid is believed to have taken place.
Henry de Saussure Copeland, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The goal of the mission was to destroy Confederate supply lines, disable mines in the Combahee River, and cripple prosperous plantations along the shore. As Tubman had shown with her Underground Railroad rescues, “the great weapon was to go into enemy territory and use the subversive weapon of the enslaved people themselves,” Clinton says. So if all went according to plan, Tubman and Montgomery intended to free the plantations of their slaves, too.

But first, they would need to plot their attack. Before the fateful night, Tubman and her team of spies secretly sailed up the Combahee to map the locations of rice and cotton storehouses. Tubman also found the enslaved people who had laid Confederate “torpedoes”—stationary mines beneath the water—and promised them liberation in exchange for information. It was important to spread the word about the upcoming raid, so that when it happened, the slaves would be ready to run.

Montgomery, who had worked with Tubman to raise the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, was in command of the several hundred black troops who ultimately set out up the Combahee to execute the raid on June 2. But Tubman was there to guide the ships through the mines, which were difficult to spot on a dark and cloudy night. She thus became, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the first woman in U.S. history to lead a military expedition.

One of the three Union gunboats stalled after it ran aground, but the other two were able to proceed as planned. John Adams, the lead boat, pushed up to Combahee Ferry, where there was an island, a causeway, and a pontoon bridge. Montgomery’s men burned the bridge. They also set fire to plantations, storehouses, and rice mills, pillaging whatever food and cotton supplies they could carry, according to an account by the U.S. Army. And when the gunboats approached, slaves came pouring onto the shore, where rowboats were waiting to bring them to the ships. Tubman was floored by the scene.

“I never saw such a sight,” she later recalled. “Sometimes the women would come with twins hanging around their necks; it appears I never saw so many twins in my life; bags on their shoulders, baskets on their heads, and young ones tagging along behind, all loaded; pigs squealing, chickens screaming, young ones squealing.”

The scene grew all the more chaotic when it became clear that there were too many fugitive slaves for the rowboats to accommodate at once. According to The New York Times, those left behind held onto the vessels to stop them from leaving. Hoping to restore some calm, a white officer reportedly asked Tubman to speak to “your people.” She didn’t care for the turn of phrase—“[T]hey wasn’t my people any more than they was his,” she once said—but she nevertheless began to sing:

“Come along; come along; don’t be alarmed
For Uncle Sam is rich enough
To give you all a farm.”

Her voice had the desired effect. “They throwed up their hands and began to rejoice and shout ‘Glory!’ and the rowboats would push off,” Tubman remembered. “I kept on singing until all were brought on board.”

All of this commotion did not go unnoticed by Confederate troops. But their response was sluggish. “With malaria, typhoid fever and smallpox rampant in the [Lowcountry] from spring through early fall, most Confederate troops had been pulled back from the rivers and swamps,” Winkler explains. A contingent did approach Combahee Ferry, with orders to push the Yankees back, but reportedly only succeeded in shooting one fugitive slave. Major Emmanuel, the Confederate ranking officer in the area, came after the retreating ships with a single piece of field artillery, but his men got trapped between the river and Union snipers. They were only able to fire a few shots that landed in the water.

The raid was, in other words, a tremendous success, and Tubman’s contribution was “invaluable,” Clinton says. For the next year, Tubman stayed in the South, assisting in guerrilla activities and working to support liberated slaves.

Recognition Deferred

During her three years of military service, Tubman had been paid just $200 (about $3000 in today's money). Finding herself in difficult financial straits after the war—she was the sole supporter of her elderly parents, whom she had extricated from the South during her Underground Railroad days—Tubman appealed to the federal government for additional compensation. Her cause was backed by a number of influential supporters who believed that Tubman deserved a veteran’s pension, but her campaign for payment would nevertheless span more than 30 years.

It was only in the early 1890s that Tubman began receiving a pension—not for her own wartime work, but because her late husband, Nelson Davis, had served with the Eighth United States Colored Infantry, which entitled her to $8 per month as a veteran widow. In 1899, Congress approved an Act raising that sum to $20, but as the National Archives points out, “the Act did not acknowledge that the increase was for Tubman’s own service.” The government’s resistance may have stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that documentation of Tubman’s activities on the frontlines was lacking. But Clinton believes other factors were at play.

“I found evidence that one of the members of the [pensions] committee was a South Carolina politician who blocked her pension,” Clinton says. “And it was really in many ways a point of honor ... that a black woman not be given recognition as a soldier.” Upon receiving the increased funds, Clinton adds, Tubman used the money to “bankroll a charity. That’s who she was.”

When Tubman died in 1913, she was buried with military honors in Auburn, New York. The Combahee River Raid was just one remarkable chapter in her remarkable life, but it left a powerful impression on her. Looking back on that night, when hundreds of slaves rose up and made a dash for freedom, the woman known as Moses would remember them like "the children of Israel, coming out of Egypt.”

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

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