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Victorian Trailblazers Ignored Rules

Victorian trailblazers ignored rules of conduct expected of women of their era. They were dissidents, rebels and leaders. They were scientists, artists, performers, journalists and freedom fighters. They were queens and they were servants. They opened minds and created possibilities for all who followed.

There are so many, but following are twelve of my favorite wild Victorian trailblazers.

Nellie Bly And Elizabeth Bisland Raced Around the World, 1889

Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland are two of my top Victorian Trailblazers for capturing my heart and imagination. In December of 1889, they had completed a little more than half their plotted courses around the world in opposite directions. Bly was aboard the Oceanic, somewhere between Hong Kong and Yokohama on her way to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Bisland spent the day in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) before continuing on her westward course. Although in separate places, both celebrated their Victorian New Year on their roads to fame.

Female Moses Harriett Tubman Led Civil War Raid

Harriett Tubman was known as the female Moses for leading more than 70 slaves to freedom before the Civil War. During the war she was a nurse and a spy behind enemy lines for the Union Army. Working with Colonel James Montgomery in the 1863 raid on Combahee Ferry, the female Moses was instrumental in leading more than 750 slaves to freedom. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, was published in 1869, four years after the Civil War.

Victoria Woodhull Chipped Glass Ceilings

Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin chipped several glass ceilings.  Among them was Victoria Woodhull’s campaign to run for the office of the President of the United States in 1872. Together they overcame a tawdry childhood to become powerful forces for female empowerment. Woodhull and Claflin challenged the nineteenth-century status quo. Many considered their radical views on marriage, sex, business and politics disgraceful. They were criticized, maligned –even jailed. They were also admired and staggeringly successful.

Surfing Princess Kaiulani Fought Annexation

Surfing Princess Kaiulani was heir apparent to the throne of the Hawaiian kingdom and a beloved Victorian trailblazer. She was known to some as the Peacock Princess for the beloved pets that roamed her childhood estate in Waikiki. She was named the Island Rose in the poem Robert Louis Stevenson, a family friend, wrote in her diary. She was considered the People’s Princess because of her noble efforts to stop America’s annexation of Hawaii. For the same reason, some U.S. papers called her the Heathen or Barbarian Princess. Most consider her the Tragic Princess who was denied her throne and died at age 23. 

Victorian Strongwomen Reshaped Body Images

They were heavy lifters of the changing female body image. Women were still discouraged from any exercise that could build more muscle. Some doctors even warned female patients that cycling could lead to the dreaded bicycle face, among other serious ailments. Even so, Victorian Strongwomen pushed social and physical boundaries. They embraced the emerging freedoms of the “New Woman.” Gone were thin white arms and frail musculatures.

Indian Warrior Queen Battled British Rule

The Indian Warrior Queen fought for her country’s independence from British rule in the mid 1800s. The Rani of Jhansi (Queen of Jhansi) is often portrayed on the back of her rearing horse with a sword in either hand and her adopted son strapped securely to her back. Still in her twenties, Lakshmibai died on the battlefield in 1858.

Annie Peck Scaled Myriad Peaks

Annie Peck scaled myriad peaks in her 84 years. Born in October 1850, she claimed many “firsts” in academia. When she tired of that, she became one of few females with a lucrative career as a traveling speaker. At 44, Peck started scaling actual peaks, setting numerous records in mountaineering into her eighties. Peck scandalized conservatives by wearing pants and the occasional mustache painted on her face covering.

Marie Bottineau Baldwin Asserted Native Customs

Marie Bottineau Baldwin was one of the first Native American women to become a force in federal politics for her people. She was born in 1863 to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa/Ojibwe in North Dakota. As such, she crossed between two worlds: countries (Canada and the U.S.), cultures, and centuries. Bottineau Baldwin lived at a time when all women had to fight for their rights, but women of color had to fight two battles.

Kate Warne Became First Female Pinkerton Detective

Women had proven their mettle as spies for centuries. So when a 23-year-old widow named Kate Warne responded to an ad for a detective agency in a Chicago newspaper in 1856, she was not interested in clerical work. Fortunately, the owner hired her as his First Female Pinkerton Detective and the first female detective in America.

Allan Pinkerton published numerous popular detective books based on his agency’s cases.

In The Expressman and the Detective, 1874, he wrote about his first meeting with Kate Warne:

“I was seated on afternoon in my private office, pondering deeply over some matters, and arranging various plans, when a lady was shown in. She was above the medium height, slender, graceful in her movements, and perfectly self-possessed in her manner.

Harriet Quimby Set Multiple Records Including First

Harriet Quimby, like Nellie Bly, aspired to be a journalist. She was born May 11, 1875. Nellie Bly was born May 5, 1864. Theirs was a time when few women worked as reporters. Even fewer had front-page bylines. Also like Bly, once she became an accomplished journalist, she established new goals for herself. In Quimby’s 37 years, she set many records. Among the most notable, she was the first American woman to become a licensed pilot and to fly solo over the English Channel. I wish this Victorian Trailblazer would have had many more years to fly high.

Aida Overton Walker Broke Stereotypes: Victorian Era Stage

Aida Overton Walker broke stereotypes of the Victorian Era Stage both as an African American and as a female musical performer. In vaudeville and musical theater, she was praised by critics and loved by audiences. As a result, she achieved steady financial success throughout her career.

Overton regularly performed in white venues in New York, an achievement few African-American entertainers of the Victorian Era could claim. In her later career, her performance of a classical dance on a concert stage shared by white actors was highly controversial, but received with great acclaim. Like so many Victorian Trailblazers, Aida Overton Walker broke the rules along with the stereotypes.

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