Lessons We’ve Learned From Women Who Paved the Way

Her Story of Success is all about celebrating stories of women who are achieving amazing things.

At the same time, we also know it’s important to acknowledge that, although we’ve come incredibly far in terms of women’s empowerment, there’s still a long way to go. Women — especially women of color, trans women, and other historically disadvantaged groups — are still underrepresented in many industries, underfunded as founders, and often underpaid. 

As we seek to empower women to achieve new levels of success, we draw inspiration from our peers in the present, but also from women throughout history. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re looking back at eight incredible trailblazers and leaders in different industries and examining the ways in which their stories can inform our efforts today.

Photo of Madam CJ Walker

Madam CJ Walker

“I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself, for I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.”

Madam CJ Walker turned her own experience with hair loss into a million-dollar business, creating a line of hair care products that was specifically designed for Black women. As the first person in her family to be born outside of slavery, Madam CJ was extremely passionate about furthering opportunities for other Black Americans. She grew her business into a major company that included a beauty school and a factory and employed 3,000 employees. 

Along with becoming the first self-made woman millionaire in the U.S., Walker dedicated her life to the advancement of Black women. She was intentional about promoting them in her company and even put a rule in the charter that said the president had to be a woman. She also created scholarships at the Tuskegee Institute and donated large amounts of money to organizations like the NAACP and the Black YMCA. 

Photo of Jackie Mitchell in baseball uniform
Jackie Mitchell

Jackie Mitchell and Lizzie Arlington

“If not for her bloomers she would be taken for a man on the diamond.” -A writer for the Hartford Courant describing Lizzie Arlington’s pitching skills

Forty-five years before a professional baseball league was created for women, Lizzie Arlington became the first woman to sign a professional baseball contract. She pitched for the Reading Nationals and won her first and only game, but when she was supposed to play against Hartford, local authorities kept her from playing because they didn’t want to lose to a woman. In 1931, Jackie Mitchell followed in her footsteps, pitching for the Chattanooga Lookouts in an exhibition game against the Yankees. In that game, the 17 year old struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, two of the greatest baseball players of all time. 

Though these women faced incredible barriers that kept them from having long, successful careers, they unequivocally proved that women could succeed in the sport, and in doing so, they helped open doors for generations of women baseball and softball players who would come after them. 

Photo of Jeanette Rankin

Jeanette Rankin

“I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.” 

When Jeanette Rankin took office as the first woman in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916, many women still didn’t even have the right to vote. Jeanette had spent years organizing women for suffrage and labor around the country, and after playing an instrumental role in implementing women’s suffrage in her home state of Montana, she decided to run for office. 

While in Congress, she advocated for issues like nationwide suffrage, child welfare and improved labor conditions. Equally importantly, she paved the way for the 392 women who have served in Congress since. 

Photo of Marian Anderson singing

Marian Anderson

“I could not run away from the situation. I had become, whether I liked it or not, a symbol, representing my people. I had to appear.”

Many critics have hailed Marian Anderson as one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, but as a Black woman in the mid-1900s, she had to work past many barriers in order to perform at the level she deserved. Fortunately, Marian’s talent and determination won out, and she became both the first Black singer to perform at the White House and the first Black person to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. 

Throughout her incredibly successful career, which included performances at two presidential inaugurations and the longest concert tour in history, Marian blazed a trail for other performers to follow in her footsteps. She even created the Marian Anderson Award in 1942 to provide funding for other young singers, especially young Black women. 

Photo of Dorothy Arzner with movie camera

Dorothy Arzner

I was averse to having any comment made about being a woman director… I wanted to stand up as a director and not have people make allowances that it was a woman.”

After working her way up from a job as a typist at Paramount Studios, Dorothy Arzner became the only woman director working in Hollywood from 1927 to 1943. In that time, she directed 17 films, became the first woman member of the Directors Guild of America, and was the first woman to direct a film with sound. Along with building one of the most successful and long-lasting careers of any woman director in the 20th century, Dorothy also launched the careers of actresses like Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball. 

To this day, women struggle to make a name for themselves as directors. Only five have ever been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, and only one has won. But Dorothy proved early on that women deserve space in the industry, and she made it a point to hire other women as editors for many of her films.

Photo of Gabriela Mistral

Gabriela Mistral

“At this moment, by an undeserved stroke of fortune, I am the direct voice of the poets of my race and the indirect voice for the noble Spanish and Portuguese tongues.”

A Chilean schoolteacher who experienced several tragedies early in life, Gabriela Mistral turned her grief into art. In 1914, she published Sonetos de la muerte (Sonnets for the Dead) and her work soon gained international acclaim. Gabriela continued to publish poetry throughout her life, but she also traveled across the world as a cultural ambassador for the League of Nations. 

In 1945, she became the first Latina writer to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Through her work, she gave voice to a part of the world that was traditionally overlooked and brought attention to Spanish literature in a new way. 

Photo of Valentina Tereshkova in space suit

Valentina Tereshkova

“A bird cannot fly with one win only. Human space flight cannot develop any further without active participation of women.”

Valentina Tereshkova started out as a textile factory worker with a love for skydiving. After completing many jumps and becoming an expert at parachuting, Valentina wrote a letter to the Soviety space center and asked for the opportunity to join them. The program was already working to build a team of women who could eventually go into space, so they allowed Valentina to join the training. 

In 1963, Valentina became the first woman in space, taking 45 revolutions around the earth and proving that women can achieve anything they set their minds to. 

If you’re a business owner or leader who’s interested in being a part of Her Story of Success’ mission to empower more women to reach new levels of success today and in the future, contact us today to learn about our sponsorships and other opportunities to partner together!