5 Tough American Women

We Can Do It

We Can Do It

American women are pioneers, scientists, explorers and fighters for human rights. They are tough as nails and continue to shape and define America. Today we highlight five tough women who pushed the boundaries of their times and continue to inspire women of all ages.

All five stood strong for their missions their entire lives. Gender and age were never factors despite the naysayers or dangers that surrounded them. They never gave up.


Calamity Jane

1. Martha Jane Canary ( “Calamity Jane” ) 1852-1903 – Wild Wild West Woman

Martha Jane Canary was unlike any other woman of her time. She was a cursing, gambling and drinking frontierswoman. Her early career was spent as a scout during the Indian Campaign. Although she had to fend off her male counterparts at times the Bozeman Montana newspaper wrote “when cowboys in an Oakes, North Dakota saloon began to ‘chaff’ her, Canary smiled, whipped out two revolvers, shouting, ‘Dance, you tenderfeet, dance.’ Dance they did ‘with much vigor.’ Calamity Jane was not a person to be trifled with.

In addition to being a scout she also worked as a pony express rider, a nurse during the smallpox epidemic, an inn keeper and cattle raiser. At 35 years old she had a baby girl with husband and native Texan Clinton Burk but upon her death she requested to be buried next to her true love – Wild Bill Hickok.

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones

2. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones 1837-1930 – Labor Rights Leader

Mary Harris Jones was an Irish-American who lost everything in the early part of her life. Her husband and 4 children died of yellow fever and her dress making studio was destroyed by fire. Instead of being mentally and financially ruined, she become an early advocate for labor rights.

She organized the Knights of Labor, the United Mine Workers union and co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World.

In 1902 she organized mine workers in order to demand rights from the mine owners and was considered “the most dangerous woman in America.” She also helped organize the railroad workers’ strike in Ohio, women bottlers in Milwaukee, and streetcar workers in Texas and New York. She protested to help men receive a livable wage and made sure women were paid adult wages. She also advocated to enforce child labor laws.

She never stopped fighting for worker rights until her death in 1930.  She stated “My address is like my shoes. It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong.”

Harriet Tubman

3. Harriet Tubman 1820-1913 – Moses of Her People

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery and at one point nearly died after suffering a severe head injury from a metal weight. Even though she was a slave she was allowed to marry a freeman. She tried unsuccessfully to convince her husband to escape with her to the North so she could gain freedom. He refused and remarried.

Alone, she ran away from a Maryland plantation in the middle of the night and made it to Pennsylvania by way of the underground railroad. When she learned that her family members were going to be sold and split up back in Maryland she returned to the plantation and led them to freedom. For the next 11 years she made 19 more expeditions during the Winter months and rescued 300 slaves.

After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, she became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War due to her knowledge of the area. This assault on plantation owners helped free 700 slaves during the Combahee River Raid.

“There was one of two things I had a right to,” Tubman said, “liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”

In her later life she advocated for women’s suffrage working along side Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland. In 1903 she donated a parcel of real estate to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Auburn to create a home for “aged and indigent colored people.” However, when the church required everyone to pay a $100 entrance fee, she was dismayed.

She later died in the home she helped establish and was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn for her government services.

Annie Peck4. Annie Smith Peck 1850-1935 – Women’s Rights Mountaineer 

Annie Smith Peck was one of the first great American mountaineers. Despite not being allowed in Brown University due to her gender, she left home to attend the University of Michigan. Following her graduation she became the first woman to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece. It was at this time she discovered her love of mountaineering. She climbed Mount Hymettus in Greece, Mount Shasta in the USA, and the Matterhorn on the border of Switzerland and Italy in addition to many other mountains.

She became famous after her Matterhorn climb due to her choice of clothing rather than her climbing achievement. During this time women were arrested for wearing trousers in public and she wore a long tunic, climbing boots and a pair of pants during her summit climb.

At 50 years old, she was the first person to climb Mount Nevado Huascaran in Peru (6768 m) and in 1911 at 61 years old she climbed  Mount Coropuna in Peru. At the peak she placed a “Women’s Vote” banner on the top in support of her fight for Women’s suffrage.

She said, “Climbing is unadulterated hard labor. The only real pleasure is the satisfaction of going where no man has been before and where few can follow.”

Diana Nyad

5. Diana Nyad – Relentless Marathon Swimmer

“The toughest athlete in the world is a 62 year old woman” — D.L. Stewart for the Dayton Daily News

He is talking about American swimmer Diana Nyad, who swam from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida.

The first evidence of her fearlessness came about in 1967 when she jumped out of her Emory University dormitory window wearing a parachute. She survived but was thrown out of the school and later became a marathon swimmer. She wound up setting a women’s world record in her first race (10-miles).

In 1978 at 28 years old she attempted to swim from Havana to Key West inside a steel shark cage. The weather moved her off course and she had to abandon the attempt. The following year she swam her last competitive race and became a CBS and NPR sports news contributor.

In 2010 at age 60 she announced that she would make another attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida despite not swimming for 30 years. She began training by swimming between 8 and 14 miles every week.

On August 7th 2011 she entered the water and headed to Key West. Twenty-nine miles into the swim she had to abandon the attempt after being pushed off course by strong currents and experiencing shoulder pain. The expedition cost $500,000 dollars.

She made another attempt in September 2011 but was severely stung in the face and body by box jellyfish and Portuguese men-of-war. She continued to swim despite the stings but finally had to be pulled from the water for medical attention.

On August 18, 2012 she tried again only to reach the halfway mark before the attempt was ended. She was stung again by jellyfish but refused to leave the water. It was a lightning storm which pushed her and her support team wildly off trajectory that made a course correction impossible.

Faced with turning 64 she began her 5th attempt at 8:59:02 on August 31, 2013 at the Hemingway Marina in Havana, Cuba. Covered in a body suit at night to avoid being stung by box jellyfish she arrived successfully at Smather’s Beach, Florida on September 2, 2013 in 52 hrs, 54 mins & 18.6 seconds.

“When I walk up on that shore in Florida, I want millions of those AARP sisters and brothers to look at me and say, ‘I’m going to go write that novel I thought it was too late to do. I’m going to go work in Africa on that farm that those people need help at. I’m going to adopt a child. It’s not too late, I can still live my dreams.”


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