Women’s History Month: ground-breaking women

Women’s History Month poster from Kensington and Chelsea Libraries

March is Women’s History Month, and our display of books from our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library highlight’s some of history’s most ground-breaking women. Every profession, every arena of social, cultural, political, or religious engagement, every artistic genre, and every field of achievement were once reserved exclusively for men.

In each of these fields, into which women have broken through over generations of slow and often difficult progress, there was a ‘first’ woman: the first to practice as a doctor in the UK (Elizabeth Garrett Anderson), the first to pilot a plane (Amelia Earhart), the first to win a Nobel prize (Marie Curie), the first to be the provost of an Ivy League University (Condoleezza Rice), the first to have an exhibition of paintings in a major gallery (Georgia O’Keeffe), to become a self-made millionaire (C. J. Walker), and on and on through every area of excellence.

In this blog post we focus on three very different female ‘firsts’ from the past who changed the landscape for their fellow women for ever.

The first female to publish a book

Book cover of ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’

Although her mentor and fellow Norfolk woman, the anchoress Julian of Norwich, is credited with being the first woman to publish a book in the English language, the Christian mystic Margery Kempe (1373–1438) has particular significance in relation to our Biographies Collection because her The Book of Margery Kempe is generally considered to be the first work of autobiography-not only by a woman, but by any individual-to be published in English.

Like most people during this period, Kempe was illiterate (it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that women’s rates of literacy caught up with men’s). She employed a scribe to write her book at her dictation, describing her religious visions. Unlike Julian of Norwich and other early female theologians and mystics, Kempe was not a nun but was a married woman with 14 children. She was tried for heresy several times due to her encroaching on religious activities reserved for men, but was not convicted, and went on to travel on pilgrimages in Europe and Jerusalem. 

The first UK female physician and surgeon

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836–1917) has an impressive list of ‘firsts’ to her name: as well as being the first woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in the UK, she co-founded the first hospital to have a female staff, became the first female dean of a British medical school, the first woman to serve on a school board and the first British woman to become a mayor.

Portrait image of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Born to a prosperous family in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, Anderson was frustrated with the limited education provided to her as a girl. As a young woman, she was determined to become a doctor. She began practicing as a nurse at the Middlesex Hospital in London while studying with private tutors, and despite excelling herself, she was forced to leave after male medical students objected to her presence in lectures. Inspired by the first American woman to become a physician, Elizabeth Blackwell, whose London lecture tour she attended, Anderson eventually obtained her medical degree through the Society of Apothecaries, via a loophole in its constitution that made it unable to exclude women. However, she was still unable to practice until gaining a further qualification, which was only available to women at the Sorbonne in Paris (she learned French especially for the purpose).

In 1866, Anderson set up the St. Mary’s Dispensary, which became the New Hospital for Women in 1872, just after Anderson married and before the birth of the first of her three children. It was renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in 1918 and remained open until 1976; it still exists in the form of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Wing of University College Hospital. Its mission was to provide medical care for poor women, whose health was often terribly neglected. In the 1870s, Anderson became involved in debates about the suitability of medicine as a profession for women, most notably countering the arguments of the eminent psychiatrist Henry Maudsley, who contended that too much intellectual exertion would render women infertile and/or insane. Anderson argued that the reverse was true, and in fact, it was boredom and frustration, and being starved of purpose and intellectual stimulation, that were injurious to women’s health.

The first self-made female millionaire in America

Book cover of ‘Madam C.J. Walker’

Madam C. J. Walker (1867–1910) became the first female self-made millionaire in America. This would have been a landmark achievement for any woman in the late nineteenth century, but for one born into dire poverty, the daughter and sibling of enslaved people in Louisiana, it is remarkable. Walker had been employed as a domestic servant while still a child, having been orphaned at the age of seven and married at the age of fourteen to protect herself from abuse within her family. A strong motivation for her business enterprises was to secure a better future for her own children.

After working for a cosmetics company, Walker saw a gap in the market for hair care products for black women. Through a combination of time-honoured recipes passed down through generations and the modern laboratory research she funded as her business grew, Walker produced beautifully packaged products, developed a mail order service, and was the first woman to give her name to a brand. In addition to acquiring a beautiful mansion (which became a hub for the greatest names in the African-American community), state-of-the-art early motor cars, and all the luxuries that wealth made possible, Walker ploughed a large proportion of her vast fortune into philanthropic work. She invested in training schools for beauticians and for women wanting to run their own businesses, and causes such as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, to whom she made the biggest single donation they had ever had.

Her business expanded into the Caribbean and was so well known and trusted for so long that it became part of the cultural landscape. Only this year, a heritage line of products using her name and paying tribute to her work is being marketed in the United States. Though she became richer than she could have imagined as a young girl, Walker never forgot her early days and the people amongst whom she had grown up, whose lives were blighted by poverty and racism. Her generosity to a variety of causes was legendary, and on her sadly early death at 51, she bequeathed two-thirds of all future profits of her company to charity. 

Photo of Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library

We hope you enjoy discovering these and other trailblazing women, whose stories are told in our Biographies Collection.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Check out our relaunched podcast, Biography Central, here https://anchor.fm/biographycentral or wherever you get your podcasts.