5 Awesome Historical Women Who Had Grit Way Before It Was Trendy

They knew that talent would only take them so far.
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They knew that talent would only take them so far.

Ah, summer. What a relaxing time of year. We get to slow down, go on vacation, spend a few afternoons by the pool. But for some historical women, summer was far from the time to relax. They achieved milestones that changed the course of history during the hottest days of the year.

Looking to these women and their impressive accomplishments has us asking ourselves: What’s the common thread here? Well, it seems all these women had some serious grit. You’ve probably heard the buzzword grit lately, and it may have you wondering whether it’s brawn more than brains that gets some of us ahead in life.

Grit is a psychological trait that means having passion for long-term goals and perseverance to achieve them. According to the best-selling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by psychologist Angela Duckworth, it’s not innate intelligence but resolve and tenacity that makes people successful.

If you fear that you’re not talented enough to achieve your dreams, take heart. If these women prove anything, it’s that dogged perseverance can help you tackle even the loftiest of your goals. We’re not saying you should pull an Amelia Earhart or Gertrude Ederle and spend your vacation breaking world records, but these women do set good examples. But here’s how you can employ a little grit—just like these women did—to accomplish your goals this summer and beyond.

Build Your Resilience Like Gertrude Ederle

Photo: The Robinson Library

Photo: The Robinson Library

While the unenlightened were still throwing around the idea that women were the “weaker sex,” Gertrude Ederle swam across the English Channel two hours faster than any man ever had—at age 19. She was also the first woman to swim the channel, although she quit during a rocky first attempt. The channel is choppy, dangerous, and frigid even during the summer, but that didn’t stop Ederle from crossing it in fourteen and a half hours in August 1926. Her record wasn’t broken until 1950.

Ederle exhibited a no-nonsense, veni, vidi, vici attitude toward meeting her goal. As she told the press, “I knew it could be done, it had to be done, and I did it.”

This resilient athlete reminds us that we can withstand a lot more difficulty than we think. Whether or not your goal requires facing obstacles like twenty-foot waves and mouthfuls of ice-cold water, if it’s your dream, it’s worth pursuing. Setbacks are only temporary, and failure is one more reason to carry on. So when setting out to achieve something, make sure your goal is SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. These qualities will set you on a path toward success just like Ederle.

Be Daring Like Amelia Earhart

Photo: Jim Handy Productions

Photo: Jim Handy Productions

Amelia Earhart is the quintessential female daredevil. Not many women would pursue a record-breaking attempt that had already killed three others, but Earhart had her heart set on a solo flight across the Atlantic. She made it in May 1932, and she was the first woman to do so.

Earhart wasn’t born a pilot; she didn’t even step foot in an airplane until her early twenties. While at first she didn’t have enough money for flying lessons, she worked several jobs to be able to pay her way to the cockpit. She had to walk four miles after getting off the bus to get to the airfield, but this was a small price to pay for her dream.

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act,” she said. “The rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do.”

Some may say she was reckless to take the risks that eventually resulted in her disappearance. But like reporter Walter Lippmann said in his famous obituary, the why of Earhart’s exploration mattered less than the what. Earhart stepped out where there was no precedent. She was curious, and she never let other people bring her down.

Of course daring doesn’t have to mean setting out to challenge the status quo of history. While those goals are great, you can be daring in much simpler but still impactful ways. Whether it’s daring yourself to finally go for that short haircut you’ve always wanted to try, or as Marianela Camelo wrote for Verily, daring to be yourself in your approach to love and dating, simply giving yourself permission to experiment at the risk of failing can boost your confidence immeasurably.

Have Tenacity Like Susan B. Anthony

Photo: History

Photo: History

Championing a score of controversial issues, Susan B. Anthony was no stranger to scorn, physical and verbal threats, and angry mobs. As a 17-year-old, she began campaigning for abolition. From that point on, she faced constant opposition.

Anthony was passionate about many causes, but she was willing to make sacrifices to pursue what was most important. She and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were a power team: The two founded The Revolution, a weekly women’s rights magazine, and campaigned tirelessly across the United States for the protection of women’s rights at work, in politics, and at home.

It wasn't uncommon for Anthony to do things even when she knew she would fail, just to make a statement. In 1872, for instance, she was arrested for voting. Despite fierce opposition, setbacks, and enmity, Anthony never stopped her quest for female equality.

“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform,” she said.

The Nineteenth Amendment (also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment), which gave women the right to vote, was ratified in August 1920, after Anthony’s death.

Anthony’s infamous “aggressive yet compassionate” nature is a poignant reminder of tenacity, a core element of grit. It’s true that nothing worth having comes easy; staying the course and holding to your convictions can be incredibly hard. But without resolve, you’ll never be able to achieve life’s toughest (and often most rewarding) challenges. Forbes lists “follow-through” as one of the five characteristics of grit. But tenacity is more than just persevering; as Anthony showed, it’s about staying the course with enthusiasm.

Maintain Urgency Like Harriet Tubman

Photo: PBS

Photo: PBS

Harriet Tubman was lucky enough to escape slavery herself, but she ventured back into the lion’s den just a year later to free those who were still in captivity. Throughout her life, she fought tirelessly for the abolition of slavery, freeing hundreds of slaves through the Underground Railroad.

Although she bore the physical and emotional scars of slavery, she continued to champion abolition any way she could. During the Civil War, she was a scout, a spy, and the first woman to lead an assault: She headed the Combahee River Raid in June 1863, in which 700 slaves were set free—which is why it’s no surprise that this freedom fighter is poised to be the new face of the $20 bill.

The passion that inspires real grit comes from pursuing a goal higher than oneself. Tubman never would have been able to achieve abolition if she weren’t trying to save her family and emancipate a generation. With a goal this important, it was essential that she began right away. Her example is a great reminder not to wait for “the right time” to pursue your goals; start now. As Duckworth writes on the matter, “Achievement is the product of talent and effort, the latter a function of the intensity, direction, and duration of one’s exertions toward a long-term goal.” Effort you put in today will pay off—both now and later.

Stay Positive Like Flannery O’Connor

Photo: De Casseres

Photo: De Casseres

Queen of the Southern Gothic literary genre, there is no question that Flannery O’Connor was gritty—and in a good way. Known for her intense stories, O’Connor suffered for ten years from a debilitating disease, which led to her death before she was 40 years old. Her condition of lupus caused inflamed skin, joint pain, weakness, and hair loss. O’Connor spent time on bed rest and started using a cane when she was 29. All the while she kept writing. In her work, O’Connor saw life as it was, and she presented it honestly. She avoided romanticism and sentimentalism, all without wallowing in cynicism.

It’s this iconic honesty that comes through in her remarks, such as this: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

Despite physical illness, O’Connor maintained a hopeful spirit. Grit requires a realistic but positive view of life as we pursue our goals. As Julia Hogan, LPC, reminds us, one way to maintain a good attitude is to remind yourself of your past accomplishments. Thinking about your other successes provides the confidence boost to take on newer goals. It’s also important to be emotionally intelligent and know your limits. Whether it means committing to working on your relationship, practicing ways to be more productive during your day, or tracking your time so that you can be busy but still happy, maintaining positivity and stamina means keeping yourself inspired and motivated to accomplish your goals.

Here’s to remembering true women of grit—and to being them.