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Sacajawea. Empress Maria Theresa. Sojourner Truth. All badass historical moms. Even though anyone who knows their history knows that these women may be far apart in ideology, birth right, and wealth. Yet, there's one thing they all have in common, two maybe. They were all mamas, and their lasting legends can teach us something about mothering even in our very different times. Their paths were harder than ours, their lives often shorter, and their mark on the world deep.
Yet, motherhood connects us all. There are certain truths that exist in the very being of the title "Mom." Below, find out what these badass historical moms can teach us about ourselves and what we can overcome while raising our own BAMF children. After all, that's the goal, right?
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Above you see a picture of Alexandra, the Czarina, with her oldest child, Olga. The Grand Duchess was the first of four daughters for the doomed royal family. However, when a son was finally born the family struggled to celebrate. The sickly boy was born with hemophilia, and the prognosis wasn't good. When conventional doctors couldn't find a way to ease Alexei's symptoms, the Czarina turned to a spiritual healer, Rasputin. While we all know the bloody, nasty way the story ends, we can't deny that this Romanov mother was pretty ballsy. She knew the court didn't approve of her connection to Rasputin. Alix heard the incendiary and false rumors that she was sleeping with the notorious fellow. Yet she bulldozed her way forward because she honestly believed he was was helping her child (Alexei was noted to improve after Rasputin's hypnotizing sessions).
Interestingly, it was recently discovered that Alexei suffered from a very rare form of Hemophilia, known as Hemophilia B. To read more about this you can visit ScienceMag.
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Irina Sendler's probably a name you haven't heard much before. However, she's the saving grace of about 2,500 Jewish children fleeing Nazi prosecution. A young Irina, a mother herself, worked in the Social Welfare Department in Warsaw. There, she took on the task of assigning false papers and identities to those thousands of children, saving them from certain death. Every time she did this she risked her own life. Her own daughter, who remembers waiting for hours at times for her mother to come home and be safe, has said that her mother was "walking good," harboring no ill feelings toward anyone due to race or religion.
Janina grew up to be an editor in the publishing industry and one of her brothers was a successful archivist. Irina's daughter has mused that it's ironic that all their mother wanted to do was save people, while their careers led them to be more isolated.
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Sacajawea has had coins made in her honor, places named after her, and characters like the one in Night At the Museum done in her image. The truth is, though, we actually know very little about this woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their famous journey. She was part of the Lemhi band, a branch of the Shoshone tribe. Her husband, however, was a Frenchman and trapper. Their son was given a French name, and Lewis delivered the boy for the couple. This was the only child that Lewis would play midwife for, but not the only child the Native American woman would have. Throughout the entire mapping journey, Sacajawea carried her infant son strapped to her back, saving him from a boat tipping over, swarms of mosquitoes, and illnesses other members of the crew fell to.
It is not known what exactly Sacajawea died from. Experts have estimated she was only 25 when she passed from what was called "putrid fever." Her son and daughter, this little one born on a hunting and trapping trip, lived out the rest of their lives under their godfather, Clark's, care.
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Loretta Janeta Valazquez had three husbands and cross dressed before she had her son. If that's not an interesting enough history, add this to the narrative- she cross dressed because she wanted to be with her first husband, who was enlisted in the Civil War on behalf of the rebel army. Upon hearing her plan, her husband forbid her from joining up with him. This Cuban born lady then dressed as a soldier, gave herself the title of lieutenant, and gathered her own regiment of volunteer soldiers from Arkansas. She eventually found the man she wanted so badly to be with, reuniting with him just days before he died. Twice, following his death, Loretta gave up her soldiering and cross dressing to serve as a female spy for the Confederate government.
Loretta's story only came out when, after the death of her third husband, she was in bad need of money to support her infant son. Therefore, she wrote and published her memoirs about her time in the fighting forces. She said she didn't care much if people chose not to believe her accounts. She was comfortable in her belief she did what she did for the right reasons.
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Amelia Earhart. That's the name we all know. Yet, Amelia had a little sister, Muriel, who was just as good at breaking the mold set for women. Muriel was a tomboy like Amelia. The two often rode horses together at their Kansas family home. Seeking greatness, Muriel enrolled in higher education, graduating from Radcliffe University after her marriage to a manufacturer. Muriel was a teacher for many years, was named "Citizen of the Year" by her community in Massachusetts, and wrote three books. She did all this while having two children, a boy and a girl. Two of her books were about her famous sister, though Muriel received just as much fame for her widely published poetry.
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She's the notorious RBG. She's also arguably "historical." This isn't because she lacks in importance but because she's still very much alive. However, we know she's without a doubt going to be a historical figure of monumental importance someday. Long before we knew her as a Supreme Court justice, Ruth was supporting her growing family with her work. In fact, she once resorted to wearing baggy, figure hiding clothing because she was afraid she'd lose her job as a law professor at Rutgers due to her second pregnancy. It worked out for her. She was eventually named the first woman faculty member in Harvard Law School's long history.
When Ruth's husband came down not once but twice with cancer, Ruth cared for him, the children, and the family's finances. Ruth's husband was also lawyer. When healthy he managed much of the household and cooking responsibilities, finding that Ruth wasn't necessarily as gifted in these areas as she was at the law.
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Marie Antoinette is credited with saying, "Let them eat cake." She never said this. You can read more about this faulty attribution here. Another woman at court did. Yet, people were hellbent on disliking the foreigner queen who had a taste for the finer things. The truth was, Marie wasn't much interested in politics. She was a woman who gave birth in front of multitude of courtiers, married a man she'd never met, and was shocked by the french court after a religious upbringing. Marie was so constantly under scrutiny she even made herself her own village. It was a hamlet where she could escape into a quiet country life, right at court.
One thing Marie was- a dedicated mother. Is this at odds with her legacy of selfishness? Maybe. Her biographer said, "There is not a letter to Marie-Antoinette's friends, not a letter to her brothers, which does not abound in details of the health and a thousand incidents in the life of her dear little ones. She goes to see them at every hour of the day and night."
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Sojourner Truth gives "badass" depth. She was a teen when one of her owners married her to another slave and immediately began producing children. Then known as Isabella, the woman refused to accept slavery. She took her infant daughter, one of her five children, and ran away to the home of a family she knew to be sympathetic to the abolition movement. The family paid for her freedom and helped her find her son, Peter. Peter had been sold away from his parents and into the Alabama slavery system.
Uniting her family wasn't enough. The woman who'd renamed herself Sojourner Truth, who could neither read nor write, went on to speak publicly about the importance of women's rights and met with none other than President Lincoln. We wonder what she would have thought about this piece Mommyish did, focusing on the kids who were assigned the creation of slave posters as homework.
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Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Leader. Teacher. Mother. She was given a Christian name, Frances Abigail, because her country was controlled by the British. These colonizers had pushed Western ideals and religion onto Nigeria, just as they did in other parts of the Commonwealth. However, Funmilayo didn't accept these ideas as inherently right. Though her people were separated and the classes stratified, Funmilayo became one of the only female students at Abeokuta Grammar School, a place she would go back to teach at. Funmilayo decided to further her education in Britain, although there she was the victim of terrible harassment. She returned to Nigeria and dropped her Christian name.
This lady went on to establish one of the most powerful groups whose primary objective was to fight for Nigerian self governance. She named it the Abeokuta Women’s Union. Her active political life led her to participate in the negotiations for Nigeria's pre-independence constitution. She was not only the mother of three children but the mother of Nigerian independence as well.
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Who was the first woman in space? Anna Lee Fisher, who was also a mom. This lady, who had her PhD in medicine before coming to the attention of NASA, said she always wanted to go to space. However, in her youth she never acted on this dream because she didn't see any way forward for a female astronaut. Therefore, when she was chosen to be part of Discovery's expert team when she was eight months pregnant, she jumped at the chance. Just a year after giving birth to her daughter and months participating in grueling training while recovering, Anna made history. She became the first mother to leave Earth's atmosphere in service to her country.
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Who can we thank for awarding women the right to vote in American elections? Phoebe Ensminger Burn. Don't feel badly if you've never heard of her. She's not as lauded as she probably should be. However, to her son she was the deciding factor that pushed him toward voting for the 19th amendment. Who was her son? Harry Burn, a Tennessean representative who was the youngest man to serve in the state legislature. On the day he was set to vote, having been fully in the anti-suffrage camp, Harry opened a letter from his mother that encouraged him to let women have their part. When Harry followed her advise and received some pretty harsh backlash for his change of opinion, he said, "I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow." Score points in the badass mama plus column!
This totally reminds us of the Nia Vardalos line, “The man may be the head of the household. But the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head whichever way she pleases.”
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That was the belief of Gloria Bates and her husband way back in the 70's. After having two boys biologically, Gloria and her husband wanted to round out their family with the adoption of daughters. They, being admittedly naive hippies, said they would welcome children of any race. What they got was two African American daughters. Theirs was one of the first sanctioned trans-racial adoptions. They saw no problem with this. Their family, friends, and all white Oregon community had different opinions. Gloria came to find out that their deeply held beliefs in equality didn't necessarily make the world easier for their daughters who grew up with no role models who looked like them. Gloria later admitted that she'd never known, in fact never conversed with, a black person before opening her arms to her daughters.
In the book about the family, Gift Children: A Story of Race, Family, and Adoption in a Divided America, Gloria answers these questions- Would she take back the adoptions? No, absolutely not. She sees a beauty in her family, in their resilience and dedication to loving one another. Would she be better informed beforehand? Yes, definitely.
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When you think Mary Poppins, you probably think Disney. That's because Walt Disney bought the movie rights to the original book from it's author, Pamela Lyndon Travers. If you think Travers was anything like the clean, impish nanny that has become iconic, think again. This lady loved adventure, yes, but didn't mind walking on the naughtier side of life. Her first published pieces appeared in an erotic poetry collection. Travers remained unmarried but had romantic liaisons with both men and women, a scandalous thing for a woman born in the last year of the 1800s. She was known to butt heads with Walt Disney. Rumors abounded that she didn't like the way he made Mary Poppins overly precious.
As far as badass goes, Travers receives an A+. However, some of her mothering was questionable. Pamela was approached by an acquaintance who had temporarily housed abandoned twin brothers. Pamela took one, told him she was his biological mother, and let the boy know the truth only in adulthood when he encountered his twin. Why didn't she take both boys when, financially, she was capable? Their horoscopes. Only one had a bright future, according to Pamela's guru. That was the one she took.
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While we can't know for certain, it would seem that Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the famed and final Egyptian pharaoh, wanted her children to have a much more stable upbringing than she herself did. After surviving Octavian's annexation and her parents' joint suicide, Selene and her brother were taken to Rome. There, they were paraded in Octavian's triumphal march in their mother's place. Then, they were sent to live with their father's other wife. Her brother disappears from history at this point, maybe because of illness. Maybe because of murder. Selene lives on, marrying another Roman child made an orphan through Octavian's war machine. She and her husband, Juba, went on to make Mauritania their own kingdom.
While some of her peers became famous for their bloodshed and soldiering, Selene became renown for her expert hand at governance. She united the people of Mauritania, built a metropolitan capitol, issued her own coinage, and had two children. We don't hear much about their lives because, due in large part to their mother, they simply lived. They survived and went on.
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Carrie made history by bringing the anti-damsel in distress, Princess Leia, to life. Leia was a badass princess and later became a badass historical mom by bringing Kylo Ren, the destroyer of worlds, into being. Leia was the daughter of the ultimate baddy who gave birth to the next generation's naughtiest boy. Her evolution from princess to general is serious #goals. The woman who played her also evolved, growing from an actress' daughter to a leading lady to an advocate for mental health and drug abuse issues.
Carrie Fisher unfortunately succumbed to her vices. Her daughter, however, doesn't let that ruin the memory of her mother. Famously calling her "Momby," Billie Lourde has been just as candid (and hilarious) about her family's struggles. Her very daughter's resilience is a testament to Carrie's strength and legend.
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Ann Dunham was eighteen the first time she married and when she bore her only son, Barrack Obama. She married her son's father when she was three months pregnant, in a trans-racial marriage that would have been illegal in most states. The marriage didn't last long. Her love for her son is what he credited with carrying them through. He described the way she loved him as "unconditional...it sustained me entirely."
Ann was an unconventional woman who didn't live long in one place. She traveled widely, went by the first name Stanley, and made her son rise early to complete his homework. She was heard often saying that her boy was special. He could do anything he wanted if he was bold enough to reach high.
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Maureen O'Hara was an actress. She was a beautiful, talented actress who had no problem making her way in Hollywood despite being an Irish immigrant at a time when these people weren't overly welcomed. She was also much, much more than that. Maureen was an athlete. She did her own stunts including fencing and fighting scenes. This red headed bombshell sang a nearly flawless soprano. She was a woman married to a pilot that held several aeronautic records. With him, she managed a sea plane company that served the tourist hub of the Caribbean. On her own, she wrote for and published a travel magazine.
Maureen's only child, a daughter, followed her into show business. She also followed her mother in death, dying only seven months after Maureen's own 2015 passing. Maureen is quoted saying, "Every star has that certain something that stands out and compels us to notice them. As for me I have always believed my most compelling quality to be my inner strength."
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What's worse than having one child serving in war? How about having 11? That was the truth of Esther McCabe's life during WWII. Of her 12 children, 11 were sons. All served overseas in the military at one time or another during the 40's. Most amazing of all? Esther did it all on her own. Her husband, a miner labor organizer, died in a train accident.
Miraculously, all of Esther's boys made it home from the war. Two suffered from long term emotional health complications, and their upright Catholic mother opened her doors to them, caring for the two men for the rest of her life. When asked about his mom, a son that grew to have a lifetime naval career said, "She was a great woman."
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Badassery is climbing through a ventilation shaft in order to escape steerage during the sinking of a massive ocean liner. It's making it on the last lifeboat to leave the doomed ship. Mary Kelly, an Irish immigrant managed both on the night the Titanic sank. The young woman was aboard as a way to get to her fiance in America. When she saw a man leading two scared, small boys Mary did the only thing that felt right. She put out her arms to the two French children who couldn't understand a thing she said. Within the following hours, both became fatherless.
Mary cared for the boys on the tiny lifeboat, then later on the rescue ship that picked up survivors. For some time, no one could figure out who the boys were and the two and three year olds were too traumatized to talk. Only upon landing in New York did Mary Kelly give up their care to people who knew that the boys had been abducted from their mother by their father and snuck on board under aliases. They were safely returned to their very worried mother. Mary then went on to marry her intended and bear six children of her own.
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Imagine that you lived before the invention of birth control. Eesh. Now, imagine that you also lived before standardized, accessible healthcare for mothers and babies. Bad combo. Finally, think about what it would be like to have multiples every time you fell pregnant. Do I hear an "Oh, hell no!" from anyone else?
That's exactly what happened to Valentina Vassilyev. This lady gave birth 27 separate times to 16 sets of twins. Her other children came in bundles of threes and fours. Believe it or not, this woman, born in 1707 in a small Russian town, only lost two babies along the way. Some have guessed that she was able to survive this number of labors because multiples tend to be born smaller in size. Others have said the reason Valentina bore so many children is hyper ovulation, a condition which allows a woman to release multiple eggs in one cycle. She lived into her seventies, pretty much stunning everyone.
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Maria Theresa of Austria is often considered the mother of Austrian progress. She was also mother to 16 children, one of whom would turn out to be another woman listed here, Marie Antoinette. Unlike her daughter who wasn't a political player, Maria Theresa was a mastermind in the game. She also was afraid of one thing, giving birth.
This is known because she wrote her expecting sister that she knew no peace as her sibling's confinement drew nearer. And she was right to be worried. Her niece was stillborn, and her sister succumbed to postpartum complications short months later. Yet, that didn't stop Maria Theresa from producing the heirs her kingdom needed. In fact, during one of her labors she instructed that a rotten tooth be pulled at the same time. Already in pain, she was willing to kill two birds with one stone. We bow to you, Empress BAMF.
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Vera Brittain was haunted by her past. Yet, she refused to share those dark stories with her children. Instead, for hours everyday, Vera secluded herself in a room and banged away at a typewriter. The book she produced, a forthright telling of all the losses she endured during WWI, is Testament of Youth. She didn't let her children read it or question her about it until they were much older, not wanting to burden them with things outside of their control.
The book tells the story of how Vera learned that her younger brother, her fiance, and two of her closest friends died while serving the allied forces. Vera herself gave up much of her life to become a field nurse during the war years. Her daughter, Shirley, said this didn't make her mother paranoid although there were times she seemed overly protective of her children. Vera's story was reprinted in the 70's and recently turned into a feature film.
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Emmeline Pankhurst, we salute you. This lady not only somehow found and married a man who respected her rather astonishingly progressive attitudes about women's place in the world in 1879, but she went on to support his work as he wrote the Married Women's Property Acts. These were the first pieces of legislation that allowed women to own and keep property both before and after their marriages. Once he died, Emmeline kept up the workload on her own. While raising their children she founded two women rights focused groups, the second of which became known for their rather aggressive tactics.
These women, which would later include her two daughters, went on hunger strikes, got themselves frequently arrested, and resorted to arson when they felt they weren't being heard. Despite that (or maybe because of it) the movement was successful. First married women over the age of thirty were granted the vote. Then, at age 21, women were granted equal voting rights as men.
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Susan's own parents taught her to embrace her mixed race heritage, as they were of both Native American and the majority white world themselves. Susan went on to fully live this teaching when she became American's first female Native American physician, returning to her home reservation but doctoring all people, both white and Native. She advocated for all people to receive better healthcare.
It was said that, as a child, Susan once watched a tribal elder die because a white doctor refused to treat the elderly lady. She decided then that she could do the job better. When Susan married a man from a Sioux tribe, she continued breaking barriers. While bearing two children, Susan fought against traditional expectations and continued working professionally full time.
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Who invented duct tape? A woman, and a mother. Her name was Vesta Stoudt, and her two sons served in the Navy during the second World War.
Vesta realized, while working at an ammunitions plant, that the boxes she was packing were flawed. They were sealed with paper based tape and then dipped in wax for waterproofing. While this was fine at the factory, it was damning in the field. Under fire, soldiers had to dig for a pull the tab that released the tape. Knowing that time was of the essence, Vesta invented a fabric based tape that would keep boxes dry and closed but be easy to open with a knife. When her bosses quickly dismissed the idea, Vesta contacted the President. He saw her genius and gave Johnson and Johnson the go ahead to start producing her idea.
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Before there was Brown Vs. Board of Education there was hardcore mom, Felicitas Mendez. When this mama went to enroll her two children in her local school, she was denied on the basis of race. When the Mendez children and their cousins showed up to school, they were informed only three could enter the building since they were light enough to pass. The others, of similar Mexican descent, were deemed too dark.
Felicitas didn't allow this to shame her or the children. Instead, she took legal action and won in the landmark case history has often forgotten. In 1946, she outmaneuvered the Westminster School District and paved the way for the better known civil rights case that would come after.
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Lucille Ball is best known as the vintage lovable comedian. What many people don't realize is how much of badass historical mom she was. The redhead who made everyone laugh was the first woman to head a television production company with power in Hollywood. She also starred in her own show and refused, while carrying her second baby, to hide her condition. She wrote it into the script instead, making her the first female star to be openly pregnant on major television.
Lucille also worked alongside Desi to make sure their program didn't further deepen racial stereotypes in their American audience. Desi was a strong provider. Lucy was an independent thinker.
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Who came up with the idea of minimum wage? This lady right here. Her name was Frances Perkins, and she was a trailblazer on every level.
Before she became the first acting female cabinet secretary, serving under FDR as Secretary of Labor, she was a factory inspector for the state of New York. She was also the breadwinner in her family, as her husband struggled with his mental health. Frances was in her highest role during the Great Depression, an economic hardship she was determined to help workers fight. It was then she came up with the minimum wage and the advent of social security. She finished her career as a professor at Cornell University.
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Before being a celebrated poet, before being granted 50 some honorary degrees, Maya Angelou was a teen mom. She had her son when she was 16. In one interview in 1983, Ms. Angelou admitted that after her child was born she did anything she could to support him. She listed her job history as a cook, an automotive paint peeler, and a prostitute. She also toured over 20 countries as a theater dancer.
Maya Angelou penned her biography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and it's all history after that. The girl who once spent five years silent, whose poetry has touched the hearts of millions, was appointed a collegiate instructor before her death.
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Mary Ann Shadd Cary was a whole lot of things. She created and published her own black audience newspaper, which made her the first female African American news editor. She then became the second woman of color to earn a law degree in the US. In the intervening years she moved to Canada and opened a school that taught both black and white children together and had two children of her own.
These are still only samplings of what Mary Ann accomplished. She assisted her family with missions on the Underground Railroad. She also served as a recruiter for black men during the Civil War, advocating for the Union Army which she hoped would lead to greater freedoms.