Throughout history, women have struggled to break the glass ceiling. From politics to medicine, women have made strides against societal pressures and pervasive prejudice.
Many of those women are little known and rarely applauded for their successes. Today, we’re highlighting four women who set the stage for us all to live and work in a more just and inclusive world.
Breaking with norms was a lifestyle for Nellie Bly. A prolific journalist, Bly was on the cutting edge of investigative reporting, going undercover to expose injustices in society—from terrifying factory conditions to the unimaginable treatment of people in “insane asylums.”
A fighter with words as her ammo, Nellie Bly earned her first writing job after criticizing an article titled “What Girls Are Good For” that determined females were only suitable in the house.
A woman with a voice destined to be heard, Bly was not deterred even when forced out of Mexico for protesting the imprisonment of a Mexican journalist critical of corrupt government practices. She even advocated for divorce law reform at a time when women had little power to fight for their share.
Her impact spanned from increasing funding for mental health institutions to inciting a rush of female undercover reporters. Her investigative report about the asylum was such a boon for the New York World that every other paper in town wanted a “girl stunt reporter,” proving that women were not just capable but incredibly talented in reporting outside of the lifestyle sections. According to the Smithsonian Magazine by 1900, there were more articles written by women than men.
Women journalists still have a hard time rising to positions of leadership in newsrooms, but Bly’s bravery and tenacity helped pave the way for more women to tell hard-hitting, culture-changing stories.
As one of the handful of people behind what the New York Times called the “most sweeping socio-medical revolution in history,” you’d think more people would know Katharine McCormick’s name. Without her financial contributions and commitment to women’s rights, we might not have a birth control pill.
McCormick was a biologist and the second female graduate of MIT. After her husband died in 1947, she inherited a massive fortune. So, she took her money and worked with her old friend from the suffrage movement, Margaret Sanger, and Dr. Gregory Pincus to develop a “magic pill.”
McCormick gave $2 million of her fortune to fund the research. No government or university money went into the project, and because contraception was illegal in 30 states, much of the work was done in secret.
McCormick worked in many ways to provide birth control options to American women. She traveled to Europe and pretended to be a scientist to meet with diaphragm manufactures where she bought hundreds of devices. She then hired local dressmakers to sew them into dresses, gowns, and coats, which she packed into steamer trunks and smuggled them back into America. McCormick distributed more than 1,000 diaphragms in the United States.
The ability to plan pregnancies allowed women to enter the workforce in higher numbers and design their careers around dreams and desires—not biology. It could be argued that the influx of women in the office changed American corporate culture more than any other single event—a movement made easier thanks to the birth control pill. Learn more in an interview with the author of “Birth of the Pill,” Jonathan Eig, on Fresh Air.
As one of the few openly gay employees at National Public Radio in the 1990s, Stifter quietly pushed NPR to change the health insurance policy to include domestic partners, while loudly advocating for inclusion and acceptance with friends and allies in the industry.
After one year at NPR, during open enrollment, Catherine put her partner’s name on the insurance form. She didn’t ask anyone about it; she just wrote it down.
HR came to me and held up my form and said, ‘We need to talk.’
Catherine calmly told them that as a valued employee of the company, she and her partner should have insurance. The end. There were negotiations, but eventually, NPR changed their policy for all unmarried couples.
“I was just a worker bee and in a position to make it happen.”
When Stifter started, friends warned her NPR wasn’t the most friendly place for gay people, but she said being closeted at work was never an option for her.
“I was out right away,” she said. While interviewing for the job at NPR, she had a lesbian friend encourage her to remain in the closet, telling her “Don’t come out, and whatever you do, don’t out me.”
“I had to tell her that I already came out in my interview,” said Catherine. “I saw through being out in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was no safety in being in.”
Even though some folks were afraid to speak up, she found people who were vocal, and together they organized. They began to make coordinated, powerful strokes, moving toward more inclusion, representation, and acceptance in the industry. They founded Gays and Lesbians in Public Media (GLPR) and began holding receptions and having a presence at public media conferences.
From there, she was part of a group that founded the National Lesbian and Gay Journalism Association, now the Association of LGBTQ Journalists. She’s quick to point out that it was a significant effort on the part of many talented and brave visionaries in print, radio, and TV journalism.
Tammy Duckworth made history when she rolled onto the Senate floor with her newborn daughter, Maile Pearl Bowlsbey. She also sent a strong message to working moms and American employers: it’s OK to be a mom and work, and it’s important to make accommodations for those moms and babies.
Duckworth worked to change a rule in the Senate, to allow children under one to accompany their mothers on the floor during votes. She then became the first US Senator to not only give birth while in office but also bring her baby on the floor.
Being the “first” isn’t a new thing for Duckworth. She was the first Asian American woman elected to Congress in Illinois, the first disabled woman elected to Congress, the first double amputee in the Senate, the first Senator to give birth while in office, and the first member of Congress born in Thailand.
The more people like Duckworth fight to open opportunities for veterans, women, mothers, and immigrants, the more open and inclusive our country becomes—and that reflects in company cultures.
According to the CDC, “Mothers are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labor force. Approximately 70% of employed mothers with children younger than three years work full time.” The Affordable Care Act requires workplaces to provide spaces to breastfeed that aren’t bathrooms, and San Fransisco recently passed a law securing greater protections for breastfeeding employees.
These policies are fantastic, but without bold women like Duckworth normalizing breastfeeding at high levels of business and government, women won’t feel comfortable taking advantage of these protections. Culture changes at a policy level and a personal level. It takes individuals making counter-culture choices—whether that’s breastfeeding while working, doing jobs they were previously told they couldn’t, or claiming benefits they know they deserve.
So what’s next? What needs to change, what can be improved, and where can we be more open and inclusive? What small thing can you stand up for? Who can you link arms with and make a coordinated effort to see change in your workplace?
Reach out to us on Twitter to let us know how you want your work culture to change and what you’re doing to make that happen.