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Posted by Jeevan Sivasubramaniam, Managing Director, Editorial, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.
In her latest book, Helene Lerner talks about the need for women to step up and take the reins and be confident. The traditional myths that have always held women back (lack of confidence, feeling unready or unqualified) are just those and in order to crush those myths, women have to be willing to step up and assume control and convey confidence.
The following five women are examples of those who stepped up in unexpected ways and changed the lives of thousands or tens of thousands. You may not recognize some of the names, but their achievements are legendary:
1. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
In 1865, Anderson was the first female doctor in England and in France. Her entire life story is one of continually being refused admittance to medical schools and the medical profession but she fought the establishment every step of the way at a time when women were not permitted to practice medicine. Despite numerous times being told that she lacked the proper "skills" to be a doctor, she relented. She eventually became the first Englishwoman to qualify both as a physician and a surgeon in England, co-founded the first hospital staffed entirely by women, and became the first dean of a British medical school and also the first woman allowed to practice medicine in France. Her story is well worth reading.
2. Caroline Herschel
Herschel was the first woman to be paid for her contribution to science and to be awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. Born in 1750, Caroline suffered from typhus at age ten which stunted her growth. She never grew past four-foot three inches. Her family assumed she would never marry or have many prospects in life and so she was trained as a maid, and later, as a singer. However, her keen interest in her brother William's work in astronomy eventually made her more than just a qualified and competent scientist. Despite the fact that many regarded her as someone not qualified to be more than a domestic servant, she went on to discover several comets and form theories and scientific hypotheses around various celestial movements. She was also the first woman admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society. Read more about Herschel here.
3. Helen Octavia Dickens
Dickens was the first African-American woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons in 1950. She came from a poor background as the daughter of a former slave. Helen applied to all the best schools for medicine and was continually rejected until she managed to register at the University of Illinois and graduate in 1934. Dickens often spoke of always having to sit right at the very front in her classes because she otherwise could not pay attention to the instructor because of the mockery and insults directed towards her by her classmates. Dickens was one of the first doctors to encourage young women to empower themselves by conducting extensive research into teen pregnancy and sexual health issues. Read more about Dickens here.
4. Marlee Matlin, actress
Marlee Matlin received an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the 1986 movie Children of a Lesser God, and was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2009. We can all agree that these would be amazing achievements for any actress, but we left something out: Marlee Matlin is also deaf. Her whole life she has had to work through the hardships and difficulties that come with not being able to hear in an industry that is as harsh as it comes, and she has triumphed. Learn more about Matlin here.
5. Sandra Day O'Connor
When Sandra Day O’Connor graduated from Stanford Law School, she was turned down for interviews by over forty law firms because she was a woman. For a time, she even worked for free in various law offices just to gain experience and get her foot in the door. Then she slowly began to ascend and in 1981, she became the first woman appointed to the US Supreme Court and served even through personal trials such as breast cancer. Read more about her here.