Question of the Week: Who was a groundbreaking woman in your family?

+9 votes

Today (March 8) is International Women's Day so let's celebrate the women in our tree! :)

Who was a groundbreaking woman in your family?

asked in The Tree House by Eowyn Langholf G2G Astronaut (1.3m points)
reshown by Chris Whitten
It depends on what is considered groundbreaking.  If I take it to mean doing something outside what we might consider "normal", I think of two women who travelled "across the world" on multiple-week sea voyages, whilst heavily pregnant, not knowing what was awaiting them when they got there.  One in particular who comes to mind is my great-great-great-grand aunt, who made the journey across the ocean from England to the Colony of New South Wales in the early 1830s with her then husband and their five children.  Isabella didn't make it all the way to Sydney town before the baby decided his time to join the world was while the ship was still mid-Indian Ocean.  I'm not sure if there was regular stop for resupply, or re-watering, or some other reason, or if they just happened to stop at one of the islands out there, but junior made his appearance on that island, completing the journey most likely squalling most of the way.  Isabella went on to have two more children (to that husband) in the colony.  She also had another three children to her second husband, but did not survive the birth of her last child, a son, dying just ten days after  he was born in what is now Tasmania.  In her time in Sydney Isabella and her mother (also involving her father, and her brothers) held musical evenings, entertaining even the "highest" in the colony, right up to the Governor and Lt Governor, taught music, ran a boarding house, and so on.  

The other who comes to mind travelled from Scotland to the Colony of New South Wales in the late 1860s, starting the journey a short time after losing her husband to a drowning incident in a Scottish lake.  We don't know if the husband was originally meant to travel as well, but Margaret packed up her six children, whatever goods she could bring, and her pregnant belly, and set off.  A short while after arriving (a couple of months) her last daughter (of marriage one) arrived, the first Australian-born of that line.  Three years later Margaret was married again, having three more children before that husband also died leaving her a widow for the second time.  Nothing daunted, she went on the marry for a third time two years later.

While maybe not startlingly groundbreaking in the way of someone making scientific discoveries, or inventing someone, they did step out of their ordinary lives and do something most of us wouldn't consider.  (I mean, it's a drag packing up and moving at any time, but while pregnant and NO AIR or train TRAVEL.  Not even a steam ship.  SAILING ships, seasickness, storms, children under the age of ten cooped up on a vessel not much larger than half my house .. did I mention children under ten years of age?  Illness, death, squabbling .. and not just the children.)
Cora Mae Brown Beach

She wrote a book called The Women of the West.

She also started the DAR in Wyoming and carried out the Census in Wyoming.

Her husband started the American Legion in Wyoming.

What a wonderful question and thread. Thank you! heart

More eccentric than groundbreaker, but my great-grandmother Caroline J Anders Leonard was said to be "not very domestic" but was always reading some book.   She learned to speak fluent French from their immigrant French farmhand that had fought at the Battle of Waterloo.
I have a cousin that operates a back-hoe.  :D
I have an ancestor [[Wilkinson-2670|Mary (Wiliknson) Furnas] who arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in Feb 1763 and is said to have given birth to her first son while they waited in the harbor for permission to disembark.  It is hard to imagine a transatlantic voyage in that tip period, much less in the final stages of pregnancy.

My mother, [Stanley-3940|Dorothy Jean (Stanley) Moore] at age 18 was the first woman pilot to fly solo out of Huntoon Airport in Topeka, Kansas in 1946.  She never flew professionally, becoming a meteorologist and then a stay-at-home mom.  Later, she became a free-lance photo journalist, mostly for local papers, covering local or regional events.  She did write travel pieces for the Kansas City Star-Times.  She was a founding member of the Kansas Trail Council. At age 65, she took a solo back-packing trip to Alaska to celebrate her retirement, sleeping in a deck chair on the ferry and then staying in "youth" hostels.

Another ancestor, [Teetzel-11|Julia Ann (Teetze) Street] is said to have walked through the "wilderness", there was a very rough "road" with only an axe for protection to file the deed request in Ottawa, Upper Canada (Ontario) in about September 1821.  I wish I could confirm if she really made this trek.  If she did, she had to leave her small children at home with her husband.
Joyce - my groundbreaker great aunt was a Dorothy Jeanne (Raymoure-4), too! She served with WAC during World War II (not as a pilot, though) so your story made me smile. She lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan and also spent time up in Alaska and wrote quite a bit of poetry about it. She lived with her WAC war buddy "Charlie" for many years and helped quietly pave the way for queer people in our family. She didn't marry until later in life to a man who'd been a business associate most of her life. She survived a double-mastectomy relatively early in life due to cancer and took up genealogy mid-life so I've greatly benefited from her research over the years as I've picked up the same passion.

Not my relative, but I wish she was.  Mary McKeehan Patton made gunpowder for the Americans during the Revolution (War of the Revolt).

My dad's mom was a single mom all her life, and chose to raise my dad single handed after his birth in 1926, as an illegitimate child.
She didn't give a hoot about what other people thought about her, or about her choices. Among other things, she would pick up horse manure from the paved street (for her potted plants), and regularly chatted with the city's originals, both things much to my fathers dismay. He was greatly embarrassed by this as a child, but later in life, he just laughed at it. She went everywhere she needed to go on foot, in order to save a little money, with which she was able to spoil my dad rotten. As an example, when my dad had had his swimming lessons in the harbor basin, she often waited there for him, with a thermos with coffee and Danish pastry. Danish pastry from the previous day could be had very cheap in those days at the bakers.
He lost her when he was just 15. All alone with no close family, he stayed determined to go through with his education as a locksmith, married my mom in 1947, and he was the best dad anyone could wish for. They were married for 65 years.
Louisa May Alcott, 6th cousins 6 times removed. She was an abolitionist and wrote Little Women which I remember was a requirement to read when I was in high school. Loved it. Also Lucy (Mack) Smith, mother of Joseph Smith Jr. He was considered a prophet and founded the Mormon religion.

30 Answers

+4 votes
One woman I really admire is my great grandfather's sister [[McCormack-1518|Julia. McCormack]]. Born in Ireland to a poor farming family, she lost her mother at the age of seven and her father five years later when she was only twelve. She and her six siblings were now orphaned and spent some time in the orphanage. Julia raised her younger siblings and had to leave primary school after sixth class. She immigrated to America and had a successful career as a nurse in a private hospital. She was beloved by her siblings, nieces and nephews and returned to Ireland a few times to visit her brothers family. She was remembered as being as very fashionable and refined but a lovely, generous person. She bought a beach house at Breezy Point and later retired to Florida. I think it's amazing how she started from the bottom and created a great life, so different to that of her ancestors.
answered by Alicia McCormack G2G2 (2.8k points)
+10 votes

My great aunt Phoebe Long Fenlason was a lady who was born in 1911 and was long before her time in recusing dogs and cats. She would do her best to find homes for them, but when no one would take them —she would keep them herself. She usually had five dogs and about 8 to 10 cats. She was all about spaying and neutering them, and she kept two veterinarians employed. She said that she needed two, so she could always get hold of one. She would only take a pedigree female dog after the breeder was through with them. She lived to be 85, and there is no telling how many hundreds of pets she saved before it was fashionable.

answered by Alexis Nelson G2G6 Mach 1 (18k points)
She seems to have been one really classy lady.  The kind you want to meet and have a cuppa with and a long conversation.
Yes, Phoebe was very welcoming to all her family, friends and neighbors. She would say “Please excuse the pet hair” when she greeted folks at the door, but spending time with her was a delight. She had the best family stories, and if someone was ill—she was right there to help. Thanks Melanie for telling me to write about her.
I can tell I would have really liked Phoebe!
Thank you E Childs for your sweet comment, bet she would have liked you too.
+4 votes
Well, I have the Royals on three of my four grandparents lines. My fav “ground breaking” Royal first cousin was Queen Anne Neville and my fav non-royal family member was Lucretia Folger Mott, the Woman’s Rights Activist. I would throw in Abiah Folger, 9th Gr Aunt (Ben Franklins Mother) who was outspoken against the Salem Witch Trials, despite her sister being one of the accusers (and for bringing Ben into the world). Then there is Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart buried on my tree as well. It’s all so fascinating and wicked cool!
answered by Gary Ell G2G Crew (540 points)
+4 votes

My 2nd great-aunt, Nina Handy Merryman, was the first woman to run for town council in Bladensburg, Maryland (in 1934); she was also a champion at competitive horseshoes...she won the championship sponsored by the Washington Evening Star three years running...and president of the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Maryland State Firemen's Association (and was left a thousand dollars in the will of the man who owned DC's most notorious gambling den, for reasons I can only speculate about).

answered by C Handy G2G6 Mach 1 (11.7k points)
I have Merrymans of Baltimore, MD in my line dating back to late 1600s.
I imagine her husband was descended from your Merrymans, then (they aren't in my direct line so I only have as far back as his parents, and only since his sister married my great-great-uncle William).
+6 votes
My mom, the first woman on either side of her family, including cousins, to get a Master’s degree.
answered by Pip Sheppard G2G Astronaut (1m points)

Bravo!!! and As was I. I was aware of a man getting a masters at around the same time as I did (really can't say if it was before or after), but I found consolation that at that time, so in 1964, I was the first woman on both sides of my family with a master's. However, one of my four sides (my father's paternal line) was disappeared by the kind of attrition that involves secrecy: Anna Bar/ Baer/Berg EVER posted his paternal ancestors. I don't know how to search for my Unknown GF. 

Dad's mother, Anna Elizabeth Berg, b. Germany, 1889, seems to be the crux of the mystery because she never revealed anything about this man to the family. My father's father was someone she did not marry. And probably never mentioned.

HOW DO I FIND German records (Frankfurt) of births for 1906 or 1907??

Best bet: post to G2G and be sure to add the tag “german _roots.” That tag will bring your query to the attention of those who specialize in German resources.

Thanks for the tip, Pip; Doing that is so obvious I wouldn't have thought of it. 

+4 votes
I'd go for my great-great-grandmother, Charlotte Sarah Burland. She was born in 1841 in the City of London (so a Cockney in the strict sense), the daughter of a labourer who lived in the densely packed alleys and courtyards near Mansion House, though her father's family were from Lambeth, across the river. She was among the first women to be trained as a midwife at Florence Nightingale's school of nursing, established in 1860 at St Thomas's Hospital. She moved to work in Liverpool and Birkenhead, and was already married and widowed by the time she married her second husband at the age of 30. He died eleven years later, leaving her with four children aged between 1 and 9. She died in her 70s, by which time she had been widowed for a third time, and was living with her fourth husband at the home of her youngest daughter.
answered by
Bravo Charlotte! SHE lived a serious life!

I hope you watch PBS, Jeremy!
+7 votes
Never thought of it this way, but perhaps its me! I was the first, and so far, the only female in my family to join the Royal Canadian Navy, regular force, and serve my country as a Wren.  For generations back men have served, in Canada and Britain, in the Army. I didn't want to be anything the civilian world offered me when I was 18, so I joined the RCN as a communications operator, and learned to operate ship/shore radio in Morse Code, and teletype. Best decision I ever made! Some of my peers from those days are still my dearest friends.
answered by Linda Hockley G2G5 (5.7k points)
Fantastic!! I love that you kept friends from those years too!!!
+6 votes
Yes, by way of my grandmother.  Deborah Sampson Gannett share our fourth great grandfather.  Deborah dressed as a man, joined the Continental army during the Revolution.  She served 17 months, was discovered after having been wounded.  She was honorably discharged.
answered by David Winslow G2G Crew (920 points)

My husbands Great Great Grandmother Sarah (Sally Lyndab) Price is a true inspiration in our family.  

The Grand Trunk Railroad from Toronto to Guelph and Stratford - While the railway was being built they had a workmen's camp four miles down the sixth line from the Price farm. Sally used to walk down to the camp twice a week and carry a basket of "button" on one arm and a basket of eggs on the other. She sold these at the camp to raise money to cloth and feed the family.

In 1837 Sarah carried victuals to the hiding place of William Lyon Mackenzie,the first mayor of Toronto,and sheltered him in her home. This was despite the fact that they were "High Church" and Tory. According to [UL::UL][UL:The Life and Times of William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion of 1837-38 :UL][UL::UL] by Charles Lindsey (original publication in 1862,reprinted 1971,p.106
-submitted to us by the superintendent,Janet Schwartz of The Mackenzie House in Toronto, this is the written account of this event; "Young W- and I jumped from the wagon,made toward the forest,asked a laborer the road to Esquesing to put our pursuers off our track,and were soon in the thickest of the patch of woods near the deep ravine,in which flows the creek named and numbered arithmetically as the Sixteenth.The truth is,Mackenzie could easily have been taken,but he owed his freedom from capture to a friendly loyalist whose name I do not feel at liberty to mention". Supposedly he (Mackenzie) was sheltered and fed for about an hour before he continued on his escape to the United States. There was a reward of 3,000 pounds on hishead at the time. When asked later why she did not give up the Rebel she said "Drat it,I didn't want any blood money on my hands."

+5 votes
In 1851 when talk of slavery and the Civil War were tearing the country apart, my Great Great Grandfather Wm Henry Jerome White age 33 and Great Great Grandmother Lisetta Cornealia White (nee Beitel) age 30 loaded a wagon and left a Moravian community in North Carolina heading for safer ground in Illinois. With them on the trip was a daughter age 6, one son age 3 and my Great Grandfather Amos Benjamin White age 2. Lisetta was pregnant on the journey but the baby only lived one month after birth in Illinois.
During the trip through Indiana Wm caught the fever and only lived less than two years after arriving in Illinois, upon his death Lisetta loaded the children up in a wagon and made the trip back to a Moravian community in Southern Indiana.
No records exist of their travel from North Carolina to illinois and then back to Indiana in a covered wagon but to make the trip with three small children, being pregnant and a sick husband must have taken a very strong woman.
If my genealogy records are correct there are over 275 members of this family that owe their existance to the strength of lisetta Cornealia White (nee Bietel).
answered by
+4 votes

My first cousin 3x removed, Hetty Stillwell Lee, Stillwell-1231, was a family genealogist, historian, and organizer of family reunions that continued for around 25 years in the greater New York area. It was her idea to get the (very extended) family together to celebrate all things Stillwell. No one to my knowledge did that before in our family.

answered by Marion Ceruti G2G6 Mach 1 (13.4k points)
+8 votes
My great aunt Elizabeth Reauveau, who in 1913 and at the tender age of 16 took her father to court for rape; what we would call incest today.  It was unheard of in 1913 that a father could do such a thing.  Her father was a local plumber, attended church, played in local sports clubs and was considered friendly, well known and well respected. The media published her name and the charges she was making against her father for all to see.  Even her own younger siblings were called to testify against her.  Her only support was her mother, her doctor and a female teacher.  He was acquitted however, she delivered a baby 3 months later.

The child only lived for 2 years and died of the flu, the catholic church seems to have lost all record of her and her burial.  Elizabeth went on to marry and had three more children, the last a still born, left her in bad shape and she died 45 days later.  She left behind two daughters; aged 4 and 1.  She is buried in an unmarked grave and all alone, no other family is buried with her.  Elizabeth only lived to be 25 years of age, her story had never been told until I started working on our family genealogy. Her descendants didn't even know her name.  I applaud this young woman's bravery, take pride in remembering her and telling her story.  I only hope a few of those married years were joyful. RIP Elizabeth!
answered by
How heartbreaking for your grand-aunt, but at least her mother believed her and supported her throughout.
Thank you, I hope some day I can learn more about her and fill in her story with other details rather than just these sad facts... her mother was a tiny little Irish woman and she eventually divorced the father, can't imagine that was easy either; what fortitude these woman must have had!
Wow. Thank you so much for sharing her story and keeping her memory alive.
+5 votes



My father’s side of the family encouraged education, even in the women. My 2nd great aunt got her teaching certificate (just like her eight sisters) and taught for 4 years. But for unknown reasons, in 1916, she decided to enter local politics and took her education to the voters of Sarpy County, Nebraska and ran for county public school superintendent. She purchased a 1916 Ford Model T, so she could travel the 250 square mile county and campaign. She ran on the Democratic ticket and with the help of the local newspaper, beat the incumbent. She was the first woman to hold the position of school superintendent for Sarpy County and she couldn’t even vote for herself. Her last year at that elected office was 1919, when she got married.

answered by Cathy Newell G2G Crew (350 points)
+4 votes
My great aunt [[Breece-1518|Josephine Breece]] was born 2 yrs before Abe Lincoln's assassination. Her baby brother, the last of 6 children was born 2 years before his father died in the civil war. As with all, practically everything was lost. Aunt Jo worked for an older sibling caring for her nieces and nephews and house cleaning until she saved enough to go out on her own.  She saw to her baby brother's education. She became a "first" of many in the area of what became women's liberation. She owned her own business, a millinery shop, she owned  an apartment building, she purchased part of the library (or was it the church; though she supported both.  A Governor-to-be asked for her hand in marriage but she declined, feeling she was not appropriate for what the position required. Traffic stopped for her when she held her hand up to cross a street.  Her will included about every living descendant when she died, including myself at 18 yrs.  She was 101 and 4 days and died 2 years before the assassination of President Kennedy.  Her only conversation in my presence, included her support for him for President. She was a Giver who left a long-lasting family memory, among dozens of kin.
answered by Barbara Roesch G2G6 Mach 3 (30.8k points)
edited by Barbara Roesch
Breece-133, Josephine Breece, born 1861? Lived a century? Quite a woman.
+5 votes
My great aunt (Gropp-54) served in communications in the US Army during WWII.  She had a high security clearance and worked in London during the Blitz.
answered by Cindy Curry G2G2 (2.5k points)
Proud of a US Military Lady!  Thanks for telling us about her!
+4 votes
My daughter is 5th generation single mom (as far back as we know). Of those, 4 generations went to college. I am very proud of the courage of the oldest on this line, Arleana Hollenbeck Rouch.  She belonged to a close Dutch community in Kansas.  She was groundbreaking in that she divorced her husband legally in about 1890 when women did not work outside the home and divorce was unheard of.  He was alcoholic, beat her, and allowed one of her babies to die of starvation after consistantly spending his salary in bars rather than on food. Her community condemned her for it rather than give support. She did sewing and kept her other 3 children alive thereafter.
answered by
+5 votes
There are some departed people so orphaned in this world that all the family they have is their wikitree profile manager.

I have a few of these people in my life who I have adopted into my heart as part of my family.

One named Nancy Brown was a groundbreaking woman of sorts. Having been born as a farm boy named Joshua about 1790 to slave parents in Rhode Island's Narragansett area, Nancy found her own way as a hotel worker in post Revolutionary times.

Nancy Brown/Joshua Hawkins Profile:
answered ago by R Adams G2G5 (5.3k points)

Nancy's lucky to have you! heart

Fascinating! Thank you, R., for sharing Nancy's story with us. 20 years ago, when I was just learning to use the internet, I found a website called People With A History, which collected historical accounts of GLBT people from around the world and many time periods. It was my first introduction, as a young teenager, to the concept that, just as the website says, they are people with a history -- they didn't just appear out of nowhere a few decades ago.

+3 votes
I'd have to say my great grandmother, Mary Elise (Fellows) White (Fellows-682). She was violin prodigy who study at the New England Conservatory and toured the U.S., Canada and Europe. She kept a detailed diary of both her life and personal experiences. Fortunately, my uncle Dr. Houghton White rescued her journals, transcribed and published them.  A MAINE PRODIGY: THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF ELISE FELLOWS WHITE
answered ago by John Crouch G2G Rookie (290 points)
+3 votes

The woman in my family who comes to mind when considering the idea of "groundbreaking" was Helen Adell Snyder, a second cousin to my maternal grandfather.  She was born Helena Adell Snyder on 5 December 1875 at Port Elmsley, Lanark County, Ontario (although there is a birth record for a child named Melissa Harriet Snyder on 4 December 1873 that could be her, or could be an older sister that died young).  She grew up in rural Canada but went on to college and became the first woman to earn a PhD in the Philosophy Department at Heidelberg University in Germany. 

As a young woman she met Clarence Dickinson and they fell in love and were engaged in three days.  Clarence later wrote:  "When I met Adell, I knew that here was inspiration in a young and beautiful woman who also possessed great knowledge."1

Clarence and Helen went on to become very famous in the world of sacred music, Clarence as an organist and composer; Helen as co-composer and author of books on music (I have a collection of Christmas carols from around the world compiled by Helen in the 1930s  or maybe earlier). 

A wonderful series of reminiscences by Clarence was published in The Diapason in 2008-2009 and can be seen at this link (source 1 above) along with a photo of Helen Adell Snyder on page 5:

Helen died 25 August 1957 at Tucson, Pima, Arizona, and her obituary appeared in The New York Times, Monday, 26 August 1957, on page 23.

answered ago by Bill Hull G2G3 (3.3k points)
+2 votes
As a descendant of families who kept moving west every couple of generations there are many women in my family who experienced the trials of leaving for unknown territory but two I wish I knew more about was Mary Starnes or Stearns and her daughter Elizabeth Strode.  Mary's grandfather was Frederick Stearns who was killed in 1779 at the 'Battle of Blue Licks' in what is now Madison County, Kentucky; her father also fought in the American Revolution.  Mary married Stephen Strode in Kentucky and in the early 1800's her parents moved to Louisiana.  Mary and Stephen remained in Clark County, Kentucky.   Stephen fought in the War of 1812 and is mentioned in the accounts of the "Battle of the River Raisin"  in Michigan which took place in January 1813, where many American's were captured and killed following the battle with the British and Indians hired by the British.  Mary had several small children at that time, Stephen survived the war and by 1820 they moved to the area that is now Callaway County, Missouri. A journey of about 500 miles.  Stephen apparently had difficulty adjusting and did a lot of traveling.  In the mid 1840's Mary divorced him and the divorce documents say Stephen was not informed because he was out of the state.  Mary's will dated 1849 left land to her children. In her lifetime, Mary traveled some 1000 miles from her birthplace, it's unknown whether that was on foot, in a wagon, or on horseback.   Her daughter Elizabeth Strode married about 1820 to Stephen Bruner, a tanner who was killed in an accident in the late 1830's.  Elizabeth had three sons under the age of 15 and the probate files for Stephen Bruner show that she was desperately trying to keep things together because she filed statements that a woman Marietta and Marietta's children  were  her sole and separate property because Marietta was a gift from her father, Stephen Strode.  I find it sad that my ancestors were slave owners, but knowing that Elizabeth tried to keep Marietta and her children together and didn't want them to be sold to settle her husband's debts has always intrigued me.  I want to know more of the story.  By 1844, Elizabeth married Stephen King and had at least one more child; Marcus L. King who went to California during the gold rush.  The last we know of Elizabeth is in the early 1870's when she and her son Robert Bruner sold land in Missouri.
answered ago by Leslie Bell G2G1 (1.4k points)
+2 votes

Ethel Marguerite Light Armstrong

The life of Ethel Light is a chronicle of Oklahoma. She was born 11 Dec 1900 to a railroad family in territory days, her mother making a home in a sodhouse on a homestead claim, her father traveling with the Rock Island Railroad, later settling as station agent in Hydro; she grew up in the depot, married Mansel Armstrong on 17 Oct 1920 in the waiting room, and lived in depots at Driftwood and Gracemont. Ethel represents the values and strength of the Oklahoma woman in service to her country, community, church, and family. An early photo shows her as a girl at the front of a Women’s Christian Temperance Union parade in her town. A 1918 letter from the president of the railroad commends her for purchasing World War I Liberty Bonds with her entire salary. She attended the University of Oklahoma and taught for six years in a one-room schoolhouse. After starting a family, the Armstrongs moved to Fair Acres Farm in Hydro, where Ethel raised chickens, canned her own fruit and vegetables, and encouraged her four children to excellence. She was active in the Demonstration Club, a group of women who met monthly to share skills and activities. My grandmother taught Sunday School, emphasizing foreign missions; she was thrilled to visit my family at a mission school in Colombia in 1978. In her late 70s, Ethel became an author, writing a history of her hometown, Hydro Heritage. She continued her whole life winning ribbons at the Hydro Free Fair, writing articles for the local newspaper, and setting a standard of patriotism, education and service. Ethel died 7 Jan 1991, having figuratively lived and literally written the history of our State.

answered ago by

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