Female Pioneers of the 19th Century

Bio travels around the world to explore the amazing stories of women who were trailblazers of the 19th century.
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Elizabeth Blackwell Photo

Elizabeth Blackwell

On January 11, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. Her accomplishment had a great impact on women's education in the field of medicine, and she also spent her life advocating for social and moral reform at home and abroad. 

Blackwell is one of the more recognizable female pioneers of her time — in an era which greatly limited women's abilities to carve out a future outside of domesticity. But thankfully, she wasn't the only woman making history...

Here are five women from around the globe who, despite being lesser known, were revolutionizing the way women viewed themselves and their potentiality. Willing to sacrifice their reputations, identities, and even their lives, they helped redefine what it meant to be a woman living in the 19th century and helped lay the foundation for the ongoing struggle for gender equality today.

Cathay Williams - First African-American woman to enlist in the U.S. Army

Cathay Williams Portrait

A portrait of Cathay Williams in uniform.

Born into slavery, Cathay Williams worked on a plantation in Jefferson City, Missouri. After the death of her master, the Civil War broke out and Union troops took over Jefferson City shortly after. Williams, 17, was forced to work as a cook. When the war ended in 1865, there was very little opportunity for employment, and out of desperation, Williams decided her best option was to enlist in the U.S. army, which provided steady pay, shelter, education, medical attention, and a pension. 

At the time, women were forbidden to enlist for combat service, so Williams disguised herself as a man, switching around her name as William Cathay. "I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent of relations or friends," she later told a newspaper. She was cleared for duty in November 1866 and served in the 38th Infantry in Fort Bayard, New Mexico. The only two people who knew about her secret was a friend and cousin, who were also part of the same regiment. Having contracted small pox, Williams was hospitalized numerous times, but it took almost two years before a doctor discovered she was a woman. She was discharged in October 1868 and moved from city to city, working as a cook and laundress, before settling in Trinidad, Colorado. 

Williams never fully recovered from her past illnesses, and even had to amputate her toes due to her diabetes. She applied for a disability pension but was denied. Very little information is available about her life or her military record, but she is believed to have died around 1892. Historians believe there were hundreds of women like her who enlisted as men during the Civil War, but she is the only documented woman of color to have had enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Elizabeth Yates - First female mayor of the British Empire

Elizabeth Yates New Zealand Photo

Portrait of Elizabeth Yates who became the first female mayor (of Onehunga, New Zealand in the British Empire in 1893.

Elizabeth Yates was born in Scotland as Elizabeth Onan. She, along with her parents and younger sister, moved to New Zealand to the Onehunga area (a suburb of Auckland) in 1853. It was there that she met her husband, mariner William Yates.

William was active in local politics, becoming a councilman and then serving as mayor of Onehunga from 1888 to 1892. Elizabeth was equally involved, supporting the women's suffrage movement and participating in parliamentary debates. (In 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world to allow women to vote, and Elizabeth was the first woman to cast her vote on record.) When her husband fell ill, Elizabeth accepted the nomination to be mayor and beat her male opponent by a mere 13 votes. Elizabeth's mayoral victory also automatically made her a Justice of the Peace, and she at times presided over cases involving women. News of the first female mayor of the British Empire made headlines everywhere — even Queen Victoria offered her congratulations. 

Elizabeth's win was short-lived, however. She was mayor of Onehunga just shy of a year, and during that time, she experienced staunch opposition. A number of councilmen immediately resigned when she won the election, citing her "dictatorial" and "tactless" approach to governing, and they continued to fight her on every proposal she brought forth. Despite the opposition and the limited time she was in office, Elizabeth made remarkable strides for Onehunga, including improvements to its sanitation, roads, fire brigade, and liquidating the debt, among other things. 

Qiu Jin - Early Chinese Feminist Revolutionary & Martyr

Qiu Jin Photo

Qiu Jin, Chinese revolutionary, 1875-1907.

Born on November 8, 1875, Qiu Jin lived in the upper classes of Chinese society. She received an excellent education and wrote poetry on a broad ranges of subjects — from flowers to female heroines and Chinese warriors. Her sense of joy and confidence was quickly depleted when, at 19, she was pressured by her father to wed a wealthy merchant's son. "That person’s behavior is worse than an animal’s….," she writes about her husband. "He treats me as less than nothing.” Her oppressive marriage soon dashed Jin's dreams of becoming a famous poet, and she spent her time reading up on politics and current events, concerned for the future of her country and the rights of its women. Like that of most Chinese, Jin identified herself as a descendent of the Han dynasty and soon joined a nationalist, revolutionary group that sought to overthrow the current Qing dynasty, which was viewed as an alien dynasty established by the Manchus 250 years earlier.

In 1903 she left her two children to study in Japan, and it's there that she explored her love for martial arts and wore Western male attire. She continued her anti-Qing politics and wrote a manifesto that condemned foot binding and unhealthy marriages and concluded that Chinese women would best thrive under a Western-style government. In 1906 Jin returned to China with two thousand fellow revolutionaries with the intent of overthrowing the current government. 

In China Jin fought for women's rights and education and founded a radical feminist journal with a fellow female poet (however, the journal was quickly shut down by authorities). In 1907 Jin's fellow revolutionary cousin, Xu Xilin, was captured before a scheduled uprising and was later executed. A week later, authorities arrested Jin and tortured her for more information. She refused to talk. After finding incriminating evidence that proved she had conspired with her cousin, they beheaded her in front of her village. She was the first woman to attempt to lead an uprising against the Qing dynasty, and her death at the age of 31 was seen as martyrdom. Her nationalist comrades praised her as a heroine for women's independence in China. 

A poem by Qiu Jin:

Don't tell me women are not the stuff of heroes,
I alone rode over the East Sea's winds for ten thousand leagues.
My poetic thoughts ever expand, like a sail between ocean and heaven.
I dreamed of your three islands, all gems, all dazzling with moonlight.
I grieve to think of the bronze camels, guardians of China, lost in thorns.
Ashamed, I have done nothing; not one victory to my name.
I simply make my war horse sweat. Grieving over my native land
hurts my heart. So tell me; how can I spend these days here?
A guest enjoying your spring winds?

Edmonia Lewis - First African/Native-American Woman to Achieve International Fame as a Sculptor 

Edmonia Lewis Photo

Edmonia Lewis, Albumen print, circa 1870.

Born to a Haitian father and an African/Mississauga Ojibwe mother in 1844, Edmonia Lewis worked tirelessly to become a world famous sculptor. She studied at Oberlin College and moved to Boston to continue her craft. She was inspired by famous Civil War heroes and abolitionists and was recognized for her bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, successfully selling numerous plaster copies at 15 dollars each. She was also known for her portraits, of which she famously made of abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown. In 1865 she moved to Rome, where she joined a circle of expatriate artists, and honed her sculpting skills in the neoclassical style, further establishing herself in the fine arts.

Trying to avoid being pigeon-holed as an "artist of color," Lewis often sculpted her female figures with European features to please her mainly white audience and patrons. She achieved worldwide fame with her statue The Death of Cleopatra, which was exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Her various works sold for a great deal of money, and even President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to render a portrait of him.

Once neoclassical art began declining in the late 1880s, so did Lewis' popularity. Not much is known about Lewis' later years (she never married nor had children), but recent scholarship has discovered she lived in London before her death in 1907. 

Henrietta Dugdale - Australia's First-Wave Female Suffragist and Women's Rights Advocate

Henrietta Dugdale Photo

Henrietta Dugdale as a single woman circa 1845.

Originally born in London in 1827, Henrietta Dugdale moved to Australia in 1852, where she met and married her sea captain husband William Dugdale. After 15 years together and raising three children in southern Victoria, Dugdale left her husband and moved to Camberwell, where she would spend the rest of her life fiercely advocating for women's rights and the right to vote.

Dugdale was known to be assertive and confident, although some would criticize her as rather histrionic in her writings; still, she was unapologetic about asking women to create a new future for themselves. Commenting on the Married Women’s Property Bill and of women's rights in general, she wrote the following to a Melbourne newspaper in 1869: 

"Some there are who say 'If we permit woman to go beyond her sphere, domestic duties will be neglected.' In plainer language, 'If we acknowledge woman is human, we shall not get so much work out of her.'"

In the 1880s Dugdale pushed the envelope even further after she published a utopian novel, A Few Hours in a Far-Off Age, that explored her progressive ideas on marriage, women's education, women's dress reform, and even Christianity, which she found to be tyrannical and hypocritical. "You will see—provided you have a grain of common sense—that I attack principles, not individuals," she wrote.

In 1884 Dugdale, along with fellow suffragist Annie Lowe, founded the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society, the first organization of its kind in Australia and New Zealand. In one year the membership had grown just shy of 200 members (both men and women included), with the following year ballooning to 300. Along with the women's right to vote, Dugdale fought for the working class to be educated, an eight-hour work day, and fairer wealth distribution. 

Dugdale's decades of work paid off; at 75, she was able to witness Australian women cast their vote for the first time in 1902. She would continue to fight for women's equality until her death at the age of 91.