History, it is said, is written by the winners and history more often than not is written by men and about men. When the European powers began the colonisation of North America in the 16th century, they believed that the struggle to win the continent would be between each other ‘ not foreseeing any time that the colonists might see themselves wanting independence. Some of those prominent early figures of colonisation, and later independence, would set the USA on the road to being a superpower and some of those key figures would be women. The following list is a tribute to the women that made American history.
1. Virginia Dare (1587 ‘ Unknown)
Born in 1587, she was the first child of English parents to be born on the American continent. She breathed her first in the short-lived colony known as Roanoke, now an island in the state of North Carolina. The date of her death is unknown but she has become a cult figure, featuring prominently in Carolinian folklore, in children’s books and used as a marketing tool for local produce. It is unlikely that she lived very long as the colony did not survive until her third birthday. When her grandfather returned, he found the colony deserted and never saw her or her parents again.
2. Pocahontas (1595 – 1617)
The most famous Native American of them all has also passed into myth. Part of the Virginia tribe, it is said that she saved a colonist by the name of John Smith by placing her head on top of his when her father was about to decapitate the hapless Englishman. Six years later, she was captured by the colonists and held for ransom though she chose to stay at the colony and later married John Rolfe, converting to Christianity. It was the first recorded interracial marriage in the colonies and she was taken to London to show the potential of the ‘noble savage’ and to plead for money for the colony.
3. Martha Washington (1731 – 1802)
As the wife of first President George Washington, she was the country’s first ever First Lady. Born in County Kent in Virginia, George Washington was actually her second husband ‘ she had been widowed just a few years before. During the war, she helped to keep alive the spirits of the troops. However, she was vocal about her opposition to his presidency and was not present at his inauguration. She was in life a strong willed woman of independent means as well as having acquired a third of her first husband’s estate.
4. Sybil Ludington (1761 ‘ 1839)
Many heroes of the Revolutionary War are men and American history text books are full of daring feats and races against time. This woman though, had military and bravery in her blood. The daughter of Colonel Luddington, one night she fearlessly took a horse to the base camp of the colonial forces to warn them of the arrival of the British army. The ride is spoken of alongside the ride of Paul Revere but in truth, she rode twice his distance and was only sixteen years old at the time.
5. Lucy Stone (1818 ‘ 1893)
With the colonies finally established and growing social movements of slavery abolition and women’s emancipation growing across the world, it was inevitable that there would be vocal supporters of both movements in the former colonies of the USA. This outspoken orator became the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a university degree. She would go on to be a vocal campaigner for the abolition of slavery and was instrumental in compiling the Thirteenth Amendment. It was also noted that she kept her maiden name following her marriage ‘ something unheard of during her lifetime.
6. Clara Barton (1821 ‘ 1912)
A well-known humanitarian figure during her lifetime, she is most famous for founding the American Red Cross in a time when few women were active outside of the home. She was a teacher, a patent clerk and a nurse. She had politics in her blood, with her father both a selectman and an active member of a militia so it is not really surprising that her organisational skills and no nonsense approach helped her to achieve the things she achieved. During the Civil War she acted as a field nurse, helping soldiers as was her ‘Christian duty’.
7. Calamity Jane (1852 ‘ 1903)
One of the most famous Frontiersmen of them all was not a man at all, but a woman. Martha Jane Canary, better known as ‘Calamity Jane’ was a professional scout and hunter along the American frontier. In life she claimed the acquaintance of Wild Bill Hicock ‘ a lawman, sharpshooter and professional gambler. It is said that she was ferocious in a gunfight and compassionate when helping the sick and needy. There are a number of explanations for how she acquired the nickname ‘ from always finding herself in trouble or maybe for being a doom-monger.
8. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 – 1962)
The longest serving First Lady of the USA was married to one of the most famous Presidents. However, she was not merely a shadow of FDR. Harry Truman would later hail her for her diplomatic and humanitarian work, referring to her as ‘The First Lady of the World’. She persuaded her husband to stay in politics following contracting polio and for a while campaigned as a proxy for his elections. She courted controversy in her life because of her outspoken views on refugees, civil rights and for publicly disagreeing with her husband on some issues while he was in office.
9. Rachel Carson (1907 ‘ 1964)
Arguably the mother of the entire environmental movement, the author was a marine biologist who spent an early career winning awards for her nature books ‘ well know, but not a global figure. It wasn’t until 1962 that she shot to prominence with the publication of the ground breaking Silent Spring in which she highlighted the problems with many pesticides being used at the time. President Kennedy took her seriously enough to order an immediate investigation. Following this, many harmful pesticides were banned and it led to further environmental laws.
10. Rosa Parks (1913 ‘ 2005)
History can often be made by people who might otherwise have made no impact. Some have the ability to make history because they are born into money and status or they are in the public eye. Rose Parks led a pretty uneventful life until she became involved ‘ as many others did ‘ in the Civil Rights Movement. What set her apart though was getting onto a bus and sitting in the white section and refusing to move when asked to do so. She wasn’t the first but her bravery in standing up to the courts spurred on the Civil Rights Movement.
History needn’t be about battles, wars, disasters or peace treaties. Sometimes it is about individual people doing extraordinary things. From the highest of society to the most deprived, some of the list of above women did not intend to make an impact on history but through fate, determination and fortune they have become prominent figures in US history.