5 Badass Women Your History Class Might Have Skipped

Updated on December 27, 2017
S R Gibby-Brown profile image

Sckylar is a graduate from Arizona State University where she studied English literature, creative writing, film, and history.

It’s not news that the history books have often skipped over women. Throughout the centuries women have often been stifled from their badassery, forced to stay confined indoors, silent and unseen, while men ruled the world. However, despite the efforts of the patriarchy, more than a handful of women defied gender roles, fought for their beliefs, and sometimes risked their lives for the betterment of society. Some of these women were powerful enough to earn a spotlight in the textbooks. Badasses like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Amelia Earhart, Elizabeth I, and Frida Kahlo have won their well-deserved space in classroom curriculum. But these ladies are merely drops in the bucket of amazing women who have helped change the world. It would take me years to tell you about all the amazing women who impacted the world. So, I've had to limit myself just to the last few hundred years in my home country. Below is a list of five badass females that your American history books might have skipped over.

Sybil Ludington- Rode 40 miles to warn Revolutionaries that the British were attacking Danbury
Sybil Ludington- Rode 40 miles to warn Revolutionaries that the British were attacking Danbury

1. Sybil Ludington- 1761-1839

You’ve heard of Paul Revere—the man who rode 20 miles through the night shouting “The British are Coming!”—but have you heard of Sybil Ludington, the 16-year-old young woman who rode twice as far through a stormy night, and did the same thing?

Sybil was born in 1761 and was the eldest child of 12 to Colonel Henry Ludington, a veteran of the French and Indian War and commander of the Revolutionary militia in Dutchess County, New York.

On April 26, 1777, an exhausted messenger reached Colonel Ludington’s home with urgent news: 2,000 British troops were just across New York State lines in Danbury, Connecticut and were wreaking havoc. The soldiers were burning any buildings that were not British supporters, stealing the supplies, and drinking all the whiskey. Colonel Ludington immediately began planning his retaliation, but his men had returned to their farms for planting season and were scattered across the county. The messenger was too tired to continue, so Sybil took on the task.

Sybil left her father’s house at 9 pm that evening and rode through the rain with only a stick to defend herself from bandits and to knock on the doors of her father’s men. “The British are burning Danbury. Muster at Ludington’s at daybreak!” She returned home at dawn. After riding through the night and over forty miles Sybil managed to rouse 400 men who were ready to march.

Source: Women History Blog

Nellie Bly- Mother of Investigative Journalism
Nellie Bly- Mother of Investigative Journalism

2. Nellie Bly- 1864-1922

The mother of investigative journalism began writing for a newspaper via happenstance. Nellie was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran (she later added an “e” to Cochran) on May 5, 1864 to a miller in Cochran, Pennsylvania. Her father died when Nellie was 6 and her mother remarried to an abusive husband whom she later divorced. As a young woman, Nellie dropped out of Indiana Teacher’s College to help run her mother’s boarding house.

In 1885 Nellie unwittingly began her career when she penned an angry letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch regarding their negative view of women dictated in an article titled “What Girls Are Good For.” The editor was so moved by her writing that he offered her a job. It was for the Dispatch that she created the pseudonym “Nellie Bly”. Nellie spent the next two years writing topics that usually weren’t covered by a newspaper at all, such as conditions among working girls in Pittsburgh and slum life. In 1886 Nellie traveled to Mexico and sent back reports on the corruption of the government and the conditions of the poor. The topics of her writing had her expelled from the country.

In 1887 Nellie took a job in New York City writing for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. It was for this paper that Nellie wrote her most famous piece, “Ten Days in a Mad House.” Nellie was given the assignment to report on the conditions on the mentally insane, but she took it one step further. She committed herself to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island and then published her experience in the paper. It is with this assignment that Nellie is credited for creating investigative journalism. Her exposé of the treatment of the mentally ill brought about a grand-jury investigation of the asylum and convinced the local government to contribute one million more dollars a year to caring for the mentally ill.


Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Sarah Breedlove Walker- The first self-made female millionaire.
Sarah Breedlove Walker- The first self-made female millionaire.

3. Sarah Breedlove Walker- 1867-1919

When she was born in 1867 to recently freed slaves Owen and Minerva Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana no one had any idea that Madame Walker would become the first self-made female millionaire in America. Sarah’s parents died when she was seven. Sarah then moved to Mississippi to work as a maid. At the age of fourteen she married Moses McWilliams and later gave birth to her only daughter, Lelia. When her husband died, Sarah and her daughter moved to St. Louis where Sarah worked as a wash woman for $1.50 a day.

Sarah met Annie Turnbo Malone at the 1904 World Fair and began working for her, selling hair products and earning a commission. Malone sent Sarah to Denver, Colorado in July of 1904 where Sarah continued being a successful commission agent for Malone. Soon, Sarah left Malone’s company and began her own hair care and cosmetics company. She met her second husband Charles J. Walker, an adman than created his own company advertising Sarah’s products which she named Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. Within just a few years Sarah’s company was making more than $4.2 million dollars in contemporary dollars.

Sarah used her success to influence change in the country. Sarah contributed to African American orphanages, old-age homes, the YMCA, the YWCA, schools, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the National Association of Colored Women.

Source: PBS

Dr. Mary E. Walker- The first and only women to be given a Medal of Honor.
Dr. Mary E. Walker- The first and only women to be given a Medal of Honor.

4. Mary Edwards Walker- 1832-1919

Dr. Mary E. Walker was the first and only women in American history to be given a Medal of Honor. Mary had always set herself apart from her peers since the day she was born in Oswego, New York in 1832. Mary was the only female in her class when she graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. She became a medical doctor at a time when female physicians were rare.

At the age of 29, Mary applied to be an Army surgeon for the north side of the Civil War. Though the Medical department laughed in her face and rejected her appointment, Mary was not discouraged. She stayed in Washington D.C. and served as an unpaid assistant surgeon. Mary continued to serve in the war and continued to request a commission for her good works. Finally, in 1863, Mary was appointed as an assistant surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland and was assigned the 52d Ohio Regiment. Unfortunately, only a few months later, she was captured by confederate troops while she was attending to the wounded after battle. The confederates accused Mary as a spy and she was held as a prisoner of war. Four months later she was traded for a confederate surgeon and was released. The Medical Department then granted Mary a contract as an acting assistant surgeon, but she was not assigned battle field duty again.

After the war, President Andrew Johnson granted Mary with a Medal of Honor in 1866. She wore it every day for the rest of her life. Near the end of her life, in 1916, Congress revised the standards of the Medal of Honor to include only actual combat with the enemy. Mary and 910 other Medal recipients had their medals revoked. However, Mary refused to give up her Medal of Honor. Nearly 60 years after her death in 1977, Army Secretary Clifford L. Alexander reinstated Mary’s award. She remains the sole female recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Source: Association of the United States Army

Clara Barton- Founder of The American Red Cross
Clara Barton- Founder of The American Red Cross

5. Clara Barton- 1821-1912

Born in Oxford, Massachusetts in 1821, Clara was the youngest of five children. At the age of 18 Clara began teaching and, at age 32, she established the first free school in Bordentown, New Jersey. However, when the school hired a man at twice Clara’s salary, she quit. When the Civil War began in 1861, Clara quit her job as a copyist and made it her mission to bring supplies to Union soldiers. In 1862, Clara was awarded permission to transport supplies to battlefields. Clara began her life-long mission of aiding in the time of crisis and in 1864 she began head nurse for one General Benjamin Butler’s units even though she had no official medical training. When the war was over, Clara helped to locate missing soldiers, marked thousands of graves, and testified in Congress about her experiences in the war.

Clara traveled to Europe to 1869. It was here that she learned of the International Red Cross. When Clara returned to America, she advocated for an American chapter of the Red Cross to be created. On May 21, 1881, The American Association of the Red Cross was created. Clara was elected president of the chapter in the same year. Clara stayed with the Red Cross for the next twenty-five years. In 1904, she created the National First Aid Association of America which emphasized emergency preparedness. Clara dedicated her life to helping those in need, women’s suffrage, and education. In 1975, her Glen Echo, Maryland home became a National Historic Site.

Source: National Women's History Museum

Who is your favorite badass woman from American history?

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© 2017 Sckylar Gibby-Brown

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