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“Well-behaved women seldom make history,” wrote Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich memorably in 1976. She argued that “ordinary” women who don’t happen to marry future presidents…or lead the way to be the first in their fields…or get burned at the stake are rarely remembered by History with a capital H.
But when it comes to the handful of extraordinary, accomplished women who routinely get remembered during Women’s History Month, K-12 curricula or popular celebrations rarely go deeper than a two-dimensional, sanitized version of their lives. Yet it is these women’s more complicated—and occasionally unflattering—pasts that can help us more realistically and effectively imagine the future.
Not only are those nuanced stories more accurate; they’re also usually far more interesting.
Take the founding of national Women’s History Month, which itself has a juicy back story. According to official accounts, a small passionate group of scholars and activists, inspired that Sonoma, California honored the female half of the population with a Women’s History Week, traveled to Washington in the summer of 1979 to convince President Jimmy Carter—successfully—to expand that regional celebration into a national one. The group had just concluded a summer women’s history institute at Sarah Lawrence College, and its founder Gerda Lerner, a pioneering figure in the field, later detailed the historic moment in her memoir.
But that wasn’t the whole story, by a longshot. According to historian Alice Kessler-Harris, one of the institute’s organizers, the Sarah Lawrence workshop had actually been funded, in part, by the Lilly Endowment, the charitable arm of the drug company that had knowingly marketed DES, a synthetic estrogen that caused cancer and infertility in women. Disturbed by what they saw as “guilt money,” one faction of the group demanded the scholars and activists return the funds and publicly denounce the pharmaceutical giant. Ultimately Lerner and others kept the Lilly funds—and kept quiet—spending the money to travel to Washington and successfully lobby for the presidential declaration of the first national Women’s History Week. Seven years later, Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month in perpetuity. Knowing how this group that included union leaders, gay liberation activists, Girl Scouts, and academics navigated these differences, as well as a major ethical dilemma, provides a clearer picture of the past and can inspire activists of the present in a moment when the women’s movement has never been more diverse.
It’s a good example of how, when it comes to popular history, easy, polite portrayals too often win out over messy realities. Below are six women whose triumphs are tempered by some of those realities. How they—and many, many more—fit in to commemorations of women’s history are questions for consideration—in schools, on social media and beyond.
MADAM C.J. WALKER (1867-1919)
Why She’s Celebrated: Sarah Breedlove was born in Louisiana to sharecroppers just two years after the Civil War. Like many other poor black women, she worked in the cotton fields, as a laundress and a cook—an existence so grueling and unsanitary that she started losing her hair. Breedlove began using, and then selling, an existing brand of hair-growth stimulant, and eventually launched her own enormously successful beauty company that targeted underserved African-American women. She soon changed her name to “Madam C.J. Walker,” in part because it gave her products a vaguely French cachet, and in part because in an era of intense racism, she relished being addressed with such a grand title. Walker, one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire, trained and employed legions of black women as saleswomen and beauticians, and became a philanthropist and activist, donating to organizations like the YMCA and NAACP and speaking out against lynching. Her legacy rightly still inspires—so much so that Sephora reissued her hair-care line in 2016.
Why She’s Complicated: In Walker’s day, contemporaries critiqued her unapologetic extravagance; Walker countered by pointing to her formidable philanthropy and claiming that her lavish mansion was a “Negro institution” built to show other African-Americans what was possible for them. While her focus on beauty and self-fashioning offered empowerment to women of color—especially as many transitioned from rural to urban life—some argued that by selling “skin brighteners” and hair-straighteners her business perpetuated white beauty standards. At the height of the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s and 70s, more forceful critics said such products fostered black self-hatred. Walker sourced ingredients from Africa and served a neglected market, but her story also suggests the limits of effecting social change through a business that ultimately relies on consumer demand.
HELENA RUBINSTEIN (1872-1965)
Why She’s Celebrated: Polish-Jewish immigrant Helena Rubinstein also overcame outsider status to transform the early-20th-century beauty industry. After emigrating to Australia with a stash of her mother’s homemade face creams, Rubinstein first gave away the concoctions while working odd jobs—until one impressed recipient suggested she manufacture and market the creams herself. Arriving in the marketplace just as the idea of store-bought cosmetics caught on due to women’s increased purchasing power, Rubinstein seized the moment. She eventually opened salons in Australia, New Zealand, London, Paris and New York, pioneering high-end skincare and sumptuous salon experiences. In New York, she even expanded beyond beauty to open an adjacent fitness studio. Rivaling fellow beauty entrepreneurs Elizabeth Arden and Eugène Schueller (founder of L’Oréal), Rubinstein made her fortune catering to working women with newly disposable income and a desire to spend unabashedly on their own self-improvement.
Why She’s Complicated: Rubinstein beat the odds to shape an industry that continues to exert enormous influence over women’s lives. That impact, many feminists have argued, has often done more harm than good in perpetuating women’s insecurities about their appearance and establishing unrealistic beauty standards. Indeed, Rubinstein famously proclaimed that “there are no ugly women, just lazy ones,” and arbitrarily raised prices on unpopular products to convince customers of their worth. Sometimes she donned a white lab coat to give a veneer of expertise to her beauty advice, though she had no medical training.
MARGARET SANGER (1879-1966)
Why She’s Celebrated: Perhaps it should be no surprise that Margaret Sanger, who grew up with 11 siblings and a sickly mother who suffered seven miscarriages, would devote her life to freeing women from what she called “enforced motherhood.” As a nurse who witnessed firsthand the havoc unplanned pregnancies could wreak on women’s lives, Sanger co-founded Planned Parenthood in 1916, when disseminating information about birth control was illegal; she and her fellow cofounders were jailed. Over the next decades, Sanger successfully lobbied to roll back legal restrictions on providing—or even discussing—contraception. She also raised funds for scientific research to improve existing technologies and to develop the birth-control pill.
Why She’s Complicated: Sanger’s advocacy for maternal health and for frank sex education established her as a pioneer for reproductive rights. But she often framed her defense of contraception in terms of population control rather than female autonomy, finding common cause with racist eugenicists who saw these innovations as a way to control “undesirable” minorities. In 1921, Sanger openly declared that “the most urgent problem” was the “over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” While historians argue that Sanger was likely being strategic in making such arguments, her willingness to do so has led others to protest her lionization and to claim that Planned Parenthood is rooted in racist ideology.
MOTHER TERESA (1910-1997)
Why She’s Celebrated: Recognized as a saint in 2016, the Catholic nun known as Mother Teresa devoted her life working with and tending to the most indigent in Calcutta, India. From 1950 until her death in 1997, she and her Missionaries of Charity built institutions to provide care to the ill and dying and spoke out against the world leaders whose policies created such poverty. With almost no supplies or support early on, she taught children by drawing in the dirt and endeavored to help the terminally ill die with dignity by providing them food and basic hospice care. When she died, she had expanded the services of Missionaries of Charity to build hospitals, orphanages and schools around the world. She was honored with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
Why She’s Complicated: Even sainthood doesn’t spare one from criticism. The facilities Mother Teresa raised millions to build were rundown and unsanitary, some charged (she advocated reusing hypodermic needles) and she refused an audit that would explain how that could be. Medical treatment was often grossly insufficient, and needed care sometimes proved secondary to the goal of converting souls to Catholicism, critics said. At her Nobel acceptance speech, she condemned abortion as “the greatest destroyer of peace,” and later, she advocated codifying a ban on divorce in the Irish constitution. In both cases, her positions were extreme, even for the Catholic Church—and widely perceived to further disadvantage poor women. Her very presence as a white European Catholic “savior” in India (she was born in Macedonia of Albanian descent), others point out, embodies a long tradition of political and spiritual colonialism.
HELEN GURLEY BROWN (1922-2012)
Why She’s Celebrated: When Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and the Single Girl (1962), she didn’t just write a bestselling book; she also essentially invented the now-familiar figure of an economically independent, sexually liberated woman in no rush to marry. When she became editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan in 1965, she ushered in a new era in the history of women’s magazines, disrupting a focus on fashion and domesticity with advice for “single girls” unapologetically seeking to squeeze maximum pleasure—especially sexual—from their unattached youth.
Why She’s Complicated: Brown, who led Cosmo for more than three decades, remained a media and society fixture well into her 80s, and always declared herself a feminist. Conservatives certainly agreed that she represented an assault on traditional family and gender roles. Others have questioned her feminism, pointing out her relentless focus on appearance—and not just the joy of dressing in designer clothes bought with one’s hard-earned money. Brown solemnly advised, “Be thin forever. Be thin at any price.” While her single girl might find liberation in independence from family or prospective husband, she also lacked sisterhood, since in Brown’s world view, other women were often perceived as competition for professional advancement or male attention. Married men, in Brown’s opinion were fair game for flirtation or more; she openly claimed a “cavalier attitude about wives” that one contemporary critic points out inspired “a generation of home-wreckers.” Brown dismissed the issue of workplace sexual harassment in the 1990s, claiming such attention from men was usually flattering. From the vantage point of 2018, it’s hard to conclude whether Brown was behind or ahead of her time, as she did anticipate the ethos of HBO’s “Sex and the City” by about 30 years.
PHYLLIS SCHLAFLY (1924-2016)
Why She’s Celebrated: If not every woman considers herself a feminist, few claim anti-feminism as passionately as did conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. Best known for her successful battle during the 1970s to “STOP ERA,” or the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, Schlafly devoted her life to mobilizing thousands of Republican women to run for school boards and PTAs to defend traditional “family values” against the onslaught of women’s liberation. Impressively educated with multiple degrees, Schlafly was passionate about foreign policy early in her career, but even her accolades couldn’t help her break into the old boys’ club of the GOP establishment. She ran for Congress in 1952 with carefully crafted platform and strategy, but was dismissed out of hand as a “powder-puff” candidate. When she turned her attention to social issues like family and education, however, she caused a sensation by igniting conservative women to take action.
Why She’s Complicated: Schlafly adored baiting her feminist opponents by beginning her speaking engagements—often before big crowds—by thanking her husband for permitting her to speak. It worked; pioneering feminist Betty Friedan once spat at Schlafly in a public debate, “I’d like to burn you at the stake!” Yet, Schlafly’s rise was facilitated by the very feminists she so reviled. Like them, she gained traction by politicizing the personal, leveraging her identity as a woman and a mother to speak out on social issues such as education, abortion and homosexuality. In her rarely examined private life, Schlafly also embraced mothering practices, such as exclusive breastfeeding and nourishing her children with natural foods, that surprisingly aligned her with cultural feminists who rejected the male-dominated, technology-driven approach to midcentury mothering that recommended heavily sedated labor, baby formula and highly processed foods.
“Remember the ladies,” Abigail Adams famously implored her husband in 1776, as he and the other Founding Fathers began to contemplate the prospect of American independence. Her words still resonate because they reveal that women’s history is as old as the nation; less often remembered is that Adams’ advocacy largely involved asking for kindness and consideration from men rather than fighting for women’s political equality. More than two hundred years later, remember the ladies serves us well, about Adams and the generations that succeeded her, and in March and beyond.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is an associate professor of history at The New School, where she studies the politics and culture of the modern United States. The author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture, she also hosts the “Past Present” podcast.