An American marine biologist and conservationist turned author, Rachel Carson advanced the environmental movement around the world, beginning with the publication of her work, Silent Spring in 1962. The title referred to the silencing of birds due to their being killed by widespread spraying of toxic chemicals. Her book was roundly condemned by commercial farming interests and manufacturers of chemical pesticides and herbicides. Carson’s work pointed out the dangers to the environment and the human race from chemical contamination of waterways and food, led to the banning of the pesticide DDT, and drove a grassroots movement to improve the environment.
“If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth,” wrote a representative of the chemical industry, Robert White-Stevens. Others were equally condemning of her work. She was accused of being a member of the “cult of the balance of nature” and a communist by defenders of the chemical industry. She prevailed, her work largely validated by the scientific and academic communities. Carson died in 1964, from complications from breast cancer. Six years later President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency in response to the public demand raised in large part by her lifetime of dedication to removing toxic chemicals from America’s land, waterways, and air.
Journalist and inventor Elizabeth Cochran Seaman used Nellie Bly as a pseudonym for her reporting work. At a time when most women working in journalism were reduced to writing about domestic life, such as housework, gardening, and child-raising, Bly became a hard-hitting investigative reporter, exposing corruption in the Mexican government of Porfirio Diaz. Threatened with arrest and imprisonment by the Mexican government she fled the country. When she learned of terrible conditions found in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum at Blackwell Island (Roosevelt Island, New York) she admitted herself, undercover, to learn the truth.
Her report of the conditions she discovered, published in the New York World and later in book form, led to public outrage, state-mandated reforms, and Bly’s immediate fame. She parlayed the fame into a journey around the world, emulating the fictional journey of Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days. She completed the journey in just a few hours over 72 days, a record for circumnavigation in 1888. During her lifetime Bly was a journalist, industrialist, adventurer, and philanthropist, inspiring women to enter each of those fields. She was the first internationally recognized female investigative reporter, a field in which women around the world continue to follow in her footsteps.
Known to the world as Coco Chanel, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel freed women from the corsets and formal appearance which preceded her designs. Chanel changed women’s clothing fashions, jewelry design, accessories, and her signature product, perfume. Her business expanded in post-World War I Europe, and her influence on women in the upper strata of society brought her into contact with leading politicians and influencers of public opinion throughout Europe and the United Kingdom. Among them were Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales. Samuel Goldwyn hired her to design costumes for Hollywood films, and several leading stars of film hired her privately to design their clothes, including Greta Garbo.
She became controversial during and after World War II, allegedly collaborating with the German occupiers of France. She closed her shops and businesses during the war, residing in Paris at the Hotel Ritz. Following the liberation of Paris, she was investigated by French intelligence and only the personal intervention of Churchill prevented her arrest. Her collaboration led to legal disputes over her ownership of Chanel perfume. An agreement gave her 2% of ownership for the remainder of her life, giving her $25 million per year, as well as an agreement for the French government to pay all of her expenses. She remains a cultural icon in France, and Chanel No. 5 remains one of the world’s most popular fragrances among women.
Marie Van Brittan Brown lived in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York in 1966. Her neighborhood suffered from a high rate of crime, and she noted the relatively slow response time to calls for police assistance. Brown worked as a nurse, her husband as an electrician, and their work schedules seldom coincided with each other. Both were concerned about their safety, especially at night. They worked together to create a home security system, which employed a camera which displayed images of someone outside their front door on a television set in their home. The camera could be maneuvered from inside the door, and was supplemented by peepholes.
They patented their system in 1966. It was the first closed-circuit television (CCTV) system, and variations of the design became ubiquitous around the world. Security cameras which record images came into existence in businesses, homes, and public areas around the world. As of 2016, according to a report by New Scientist Magazine, over 100 million CCTV systems operated around the world, helping prevent crime. They also became invaluable in helping investigators solve all forms of crime, identifying miscreants through the support of the public.
Sarah Breedlove was born in Louisiana in 1867, to a family so poor that she was forced to work as a domestic servant as a child, following the death of both her parents. She married twice, her first husband died, her second was abusive and she abandoned him. In 1906 she met and married Charles Joseph Walker, a salesman. She began calling herself Madam C. J. Walker. Though they divorced in 1912 she continued to use the name. In the early twentieth century, she developed hair care products for her personal use, as well as for friends and family, using expertise provided by her brothers who worked as barbers in St. Louis.
In 1910, while still married, she started the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, creating hair products and other toiletries for African-Americans. By 1919 she employed several thousand black women to market her products across the United States, especially in the south. They marketed her products door-to-door and in beauty parlors and barber shops. As her famed and influence grew, Sarah became active in philanthropy, civil rights, and women’s rights. Before she died in 1919 Sarah went from a dirt-poor orphan to America’s first self-made female millionaire. Her company continued to operate until 1981.
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