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Women Who Shaped HistoryMarch 01, 2012
by Katie Newingham
What do Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Marie Curie have in common? They were all wives and mothers who made history. But their journeys weren't easy.
Stowe penned Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1851, famously saying God wrote the book, she just dictated. This anti-slavery novel was the first of its kind to expose ignorant citizens to the slave system in the United States. According to the book Women Who Have Changed the World, Abraham Lincoln commented upon meeting Stowe, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started the Great War." Though Stowe achieved widespread success, selling millions of books during her lifetime, she received hate mail from African Americans who said her portrayal of Tom was racist and from slave owners, one even sending her the ear of a slave and threatening to inflict more harm if she continued writing. With the support of her husband and seven children, Stowe never stopped writing or advocating for the freedoms of African Americans.
As the Madame of the mobile X-ray ambulance, Marie Curie is remembered as a Nobel Prize winner and a woman who defied all odds. Growing up in Warsaw, Poland, women were not allowed to attend University, but Curie found a way around this. She used the money she earned as governess for a wealthy family to ultimately move to Paris where she studied medicine at the Sorbonne. In 1895, Marie married Pierre Curie, her chemistry partner. Together the two started a family and grew the body of research surrounding radioactivity, which led to the discovery of Radium and her first Nobel Prize. Eleven years later, Pierre was tragically killed, leaving Marie to raise their two young daughters. One of Marie’s most famous quotes, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood,” speaks to the scientist’s intrinsic curiosity, resulting in her overcoming the conventional roles of women in the late 1800's.
Eleanor Roosevelt, was not just the first lady or even ‘The First Lady of the World,’ as President Truman called her, she was a woman of distinction, who understood her life was not about herself at all. In 1943, Eleanor wrote a commonsense guide for life called You Learn by Living. She writes, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. [But] you must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Her wisdom is notable given her life story. Eleanor lost both her mother and her estranged father when she was only 8 years old. During her early years, Eleanor struggled with confidence and described herself as plain. Her only aspiration was to be a conventional housewife. It wasn’t until the mother of six discovered her husband was cheating on her, that Eleanor was faced with a monumental decision. She didn’t know then that her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would become the 32nd president. But her decision to stay in the marriage changed history. Eleanor used the betrayal as a catalyst to campaign for child-labor laws, got anti-discrimination legislation passed and drafted the Declaration for Human Rights for the United Nations. She wasn’t just the woman who stood behind the man, instead she stood out, as noted in Women Who Changed the World:
“Eleanor Roosevelt grew up never expecting to be remembered other than as somebody’s daughter, niece or wife. She became America’s longest-serving First Lady and will be remembered in her own right for her commitment to international humanitarianism and her perseverance in translating ideas into action.”
Wouldn’t you like that said about you? Most of us don’t know the imprint we make on another's life, whether it is our children, our husbands or a whole nation. It may seem like the only difference we’re making is in the pile of laundry we do everyday, but our everyday decisions have an impact that is far-reaching. For some of us, we’ll look back and see the lives we’ve changed, while others of us will look back and see a nation changed. For all of us, change will be made, and we’ll make it by doing the very thing we think we cannot do.
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