Virginia Woolf

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” —Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf (1882-1928) was an English writer and journalist, widely considered one of the most distinguished writers of the 20th century. An early feminist, she attacked the double standards of the day in her writing, and her voice, still admired nearly a century later, is still strong. Her influential, stream of consciouness-styled work has been translated into fifty different languages. Some of her most famous books are: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando. She was known also as a biting critic and journalist, widely respected in amongst the London literary circles of her day.


Nellie Bly

“I’ve always had the feeling that nothing is impossible if one applies a certain amount of energy in the right direction. If you want to do it, you can do it.”
― Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly (1864 – 1922) was an American journalist known for her investigative and undercover reporting. Though at first she found difficulty being hired as a female reporter, she took unusual risks to get the job. Nellie earned acclaim when she feigned insanity in order to expose the conditions of asylum patients at Blackwell’s Island in New York City. Her investigation resulted in several mental health care reforms. She continued her career as a stunt journalist, going undercover in various guises to expose corruption and injustice in jails, factories, and state legislature. Nellie achieved further fame after her newspaper sent her on a trip around the world in the fictional footsteps laid out in Jules Verne’s book, Around the World in Eighty Days. She did it in seventy-two, establishing a new world record. Nellie Bly was a spirited pioneer in her field, remembered most for launching a new kind of investigative journalism.

Mathilde Kschessinska

“If you miss one class, you know it; if you miss two classes, your teacher knows it, and if you miss three classes, the audience knows it.”

—Mathilde Kschessinska

Mathilde Kschessinska (1872-1971) was a flamboyant and controversial ballerina of the Imperial Russian Ballet. The first Russian to be given the title Prima Ballerina Assoluta, after mastering 32 consecutive fouettés en tournant (“whipped turns” done in place and on one leg), a feat considered in that era the supreme achievement in dance technique.

Emily Dickinson

“The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.” —Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was an American poet.  Throughout her life, she seldom left her home and visitors were few. The people with whom she did come in contact, however, had an enormous impact on her poetry.  Emily Dickinson published only eight poems during her lifetime.  Mostly published after her death, her almost- 2000 profound thoughts on life and death, nature, love, and art make her one of the most important poets of the English language to this day.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Florence Nightengale


“Nursing is an art: and if it is to be made an art, it requires an exclusive devotion as hard a preparation, as any painter’s or sculptor’s work.
—Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale  (1820 –  1910) was an English nurse and social reformer who greatly affected 19th-and 20th -century policies around proper nursing care.  During the Crimean War, she was put in charge of nursing allied and British soldiers in Turkey. As she walked around the wards at night, tending to the wounded, she became known as the “Lady with the Lamp.” Her efforts to formalize nursing education led her to establish the first scientifically based nursing school in 1860. She also helped set up training for midwives and nurses in workhouse infirmaries. Florence Nightengale is revered as the founder of modern nursing.

Sojourner Truth


“Truth is powerful and it prevails.”—Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth (1787-1883) was sold as a slave at 9 years old. She eventually became a freed woman, but when her own young son was sold into slavery by her third owner, she took the matter to court and, against many odds as a black woman at the time, won her son back. Her courageous example  became a  triumph of hope against injustice. Impassioned by her Christian  belief that every man and woman had the divine right of freedom, she joined forces with other abolitionists, and became a traveling preacher. She also became an outspoken advocate for women’s rights. During the Civil War, Sojourner recruited black soldiers to fight for their own freedom. Mostly she was known as a fierce orator, traveling the country describing how it was to be treated as a slave and gaining empathy and momentum for the abolitionist cause.

This is her most famous speech, delivered at the Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio in 1851:

*Ain’t I A Woman?

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

PS* It’s likely Sojourner did not use the word “ain’t” because she was from New York state and her first language was Dutch (she was born into slavery in a Dutch household) but “Ain’t I Woman?” just sounds so good, doesn’t it? 🙂

Sara Forbes Bonetta Davies

Sara Forbes Bonetta  (1843 – 1880) was a West African princess who was orphaned in a slave-hunt war, and captured into slavery.  By a remarkable turn of events, she was eventually rescued  by a British Navy captain and presented (as a gift, if you can believe it) to a charmed Queen Victoria, who adopted Sarah as her goddaughter.  She became recognized and admired throughout the royal court for her intelligence and ability to outshine her tutors in all studies. The queen eventually advised the match between Sara and her husband, a wealthy Yoruban businessman. Shortly after her marriage, Sarah gave birth to a daughter and was granted permission by the Queen to name the child Victoria – the Queen also became her godmother.


Mary Cassatt

“If painting is no longer needed, it seems a pity that some of us are born into the world with such a passion for line and color.”
—Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) was an American painter and printmaker. Born into a privileged family, she spent parts of her childhood visiting Europe. At age 16, Mary enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but she was disappointed in the course offerings and the patronizing tone of the male instructors. She dropped out and moved to Paris, where she could study the works of old masters in the Louvre.  On discovering the work of the artist, Edgar Degas, she said: “It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” She soon befriended Degas and began showing her work with the Impressionist Painters. Mary was the only American member of this circle of artists, and she became famous in Europe for her intimate portraits of mothers and children. She was not a mother herself, as she never married, preferring to forge a career for herself, but she was very close with her sister and brother and nieces and nephews, and often used them for models. She painted women as “subjects, not objects,” another idea that made her stand out in her time. When she returned to the States, though her own work was not well known,  she Mary encouraged collectors and museums to buy the work of her friends and so introduced  a taste for this style to America.

Susan La Flesche Picotte

Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915) was the first American Indian woman to become a physician. She was also an active social reformer who worked to discourage drinking on the reservation where she worked as doctor. She was daughter of the chief of her Omaha tribe (both of her parents were of mixed race and wanted her children to live in both the white and Native American worlds. . When she was a child, she experience the poor living conditions and watched a Native American woman die because a white doctor refused to give her care. Susan did move between both worlds, and after her education in Philadelphia, she returned to work at a government boarding school, caring for both white and Native American patients. She strove to change health care for all patients, advocating for better hygiene to fight tuberculosis, a huge contagion at the time.

Susie King Taylor

“There were loyal women as well as men, in those days who did not fear the shell or the shot, who cared for the sick and dying.”—Susie King Taylor


Susie King Taylor (1848-1912 ), who was born into slavery, learned to read at secret schools as a child. Later she befriended two White youths, who illegally taught her what they had learned themselves.   With her rag-tag education, she became the the first African American to openly teach former slaves in a Georgia school. She taught children in the day and adults at night.  During the Civil War, she became the first African American nurse to serve in the Army. She travelled with an all Black troop with her soldier husband and tended to their wounds. When the solders were off duty, she taught them how to read and write.  Susie Taylor was also the only African American woman to publish a memoir of the Civil War.