Eleanor Roosevelt, The First, “First Lady of the World”

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Not too long ago, women were expected to stay in the background of their men. They had fewer rights, less practical input in their own homes and zero influence in the United States. Less than 100 years ago, women couldn’t even vote. One hundred years may seem like a long time to you and me, but it’s a blink of an eye in the development of our country. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the first women to start the progression of the modern-day woman and no matter what time period you use to judge her, she was a total badass.

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Eleanor Roosevelt was married to arguably the greatest president that this country has ever seen, but instead of lurking in the shadows of FDR while he ran the country, she used her role as the First Lady to inspire change. President Harry Truman called Eleanor Roosevelt the “First Lady of the world” because of her human rights accomplishments. Like I said before, total badass.

This is a woman who had a position of influence and used it to her advantage. She was an incredibly outspoken woman for the time period, so naturally, she ruffled some feathers whenever she spoke for an agenda that was seen as taboo. The woman behind the most powerful man in the world at the time took her title of First Lady and parlayed that influence into changing the lives of both men and women in the present and future.

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1. The First First Lady to Hold a Press Conference

Hillary Clinton ran for president after an eight-year stint as the First Lady. Michelle Obama was very active and outspoken when her husband and former President Barack Obama was in the Oval Office. These women knew how to take advantage of the resources around them and that trend started with Eleanor Roosevelt.

As the Women’s Rights Movement was in full-swing, Eleanor Roosevelt hosted the first-ever press conference by a First Lady. As a form of solidarity to her female companions, this press conference was only for women in the media. This type of open forum gave her the platform to express her agenda without any type of censorship, encouraging more women to enter the press corps while also influencing female voters. Eleanor Roosevelt gave women across the country and around the world a voice.

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2. Eleanor Roosevelt Spoke for FDR

With her husband confined to a wheelchair, Eleanor Roosevelt took every opportunity to hit the road and speak for FDR. This was a time period where women didn’t have much of a say and yet there was the First Lady speaking publicly on behalf of the President of the United States. One specific area where Eleanor Roosevelt was incredibly vocal was about how to improve the economy through FDR’s New Deal policies.

She was also a symbol of the United States while the country was at war. As FDR had trouble traveling because of his debilitating disease, it was Eleanor Roosevelt who would travel around to greet service men and women. She was a big supporter of women’s roles in the war and the women who had to enter the job force because their husbands were in Europe or Asia fighting.

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3. Civil Rights Activist

Segregation was—and still is—a problem in our country but one of the most outspoken Civil Rights activists was none other than Eleanor. The beauty behind this is that while she was a staunch advocate for women’s rights, she cared about all people who were wronged, especially due to race or socioeconomic status.

The most incredible example of her Civil Rights actions came at the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham in 1938. When she entered the room, she immediately sat next to an African American at the conference. She was told to sit in the “Whites Only” section by one of the conference organizers, at which point she asked for a ruler. People were confused but once Eleanor Roosevelt was given a ruler, she measured the distance between the white and black seating sections. Once the distance between the two seating sections was measured, she moved her chair to sit in the exact center until the meeting was over. At a time where she could have been arrested for a protest like that, she stared segregation laws directly in the eyes without blinking.

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4. Other Interesting Tidbits About Eleanor Roosevelt

  • Amelia Earhart attended a dinner at the White House and hit it off with Eleanor Roosevelt. As the party became stagnant, the two snuck out to Earhart’s plane and took a quick ride around the skies.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt was an influential author. She wrote the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. She also produced a syndicated newspaper column that ran six days a week for 27 years. The column covered her day-to-day life as well as her political views.
  • Eleanor was actually her middle name. Her full name is Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, but she preferred her middle name to her first name. Her mother called her by the nickname “Granny” as a child because Eleanor acted in such a serious manner. Talk about foreshadowing…
  • Family ties: President Teddy Roosevelt was her uncle and her husband FDR was actually her fifth-cousin once removed.

According to Eleanor Roosevelt, the happiest day of her life was the day she made her field hockey team at her private school. She was 76-years-old when she made that statement, so the White House obviously wasn’t as fun as dominating field hockey.

 

Badass Gal: Nellie Bly

Journalism’s First Original Gonzo-Immersionist

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Best known for her record-breaking globe-trotting journey and ten undercover days spent in a madhouse, Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Cochrane, lived with a tenaciousness most could only dream of possessing.

Her life should serve as one vivid example on how to take control of life and spend our days exactly as we’d like.

Learn more about the queen of investigative journalism and lifelong badass, Nellie Bly, below.

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1. Operated on a No-Bullshit Policy

It’s staggering the amount of people waiting for someone else to take control of their lives. For anyone struggling with personal empowerment, Bly is the poster child of motivation.

She first received attention as a teenager after writing a passionate response to the editor of the “Pittsburgh Gazette” due to a column it ran titled, “What Girls Are Good For,” which based its central thesis arguing that girls are strictly good for birthing and housekeeping. Bly’s heated prose resonated so well that the Gazette’s editor published an ad calling on the writer to identify themselves. When Bly did, she was offered an assignment with the paper.

Later at the Gazette, when she was confined to women-centric topics commonly known in journalism as “pink topics,” she didn’t bite her lip and play it professional. Instead, she quit and went to Mexico, spending half a year as a foreign correspondent reporting on the lives and customs of Mexicans. Her Mexico experiences were chronicled in a collection called “Six Months in Mexico.” Bly was only 21 years old at the time.

While in Mexico, Bly protested the imprisonment of a local Mexican journalist, ultimately landing her on the radar of Mexican officials. Under threat of arrest, Bly fled to the U.S., but didn’t stop criticizing then-dictator Porfririo Diaz about suppressing the Mexican people and controlling the press.

Bly would end up leaving the Gazette a second time after Mexico due to more soft assignments and because, as we know by now, she operated on a no-bullshit policy.

When the male senior staff at the “New York World” first learned of her around-the-world proposal, they wanted to send a man. Bly said she’d work for another paper and beat whatever man they’d send. Bly got her way with the senior staff, and a year later she stood at Hoboken Pier in New Jersey waiting to depart.

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2. An Unprecedented Investigative Journalist

Bly’s first assignment at the Dispatch was titled “The Girl Puzzle,” a piece advocating for divorce reform. It impressed the editor enough for him to offer Bly a full-time job. She got started with an investigative series covering the conditions of women working in factories.

She later found herself in Joseph Pulitzer’s “New York World” offices, ultimately taking an assignment to act insane as part of an expose into the neglect and harsh treatment at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Bly was reportedly so convincing in feigning insanity that a roommate of hers at a boarding house (prior to the asylum) refused to sleep in the same room as her. Bly passed the demented test with flying colors and transferred to Blackwell Island and its 1,600 women patients.

While at Blackwell, Bly experienced cruel treatment in the form of ice cold baths, minimally supplied clothing, and sparse meals. Her investigative work, aptly titled, “10 Days in a Madhouse,” led to massive system reform, including cleaner facilities, more funding, and better treatment of patients. It also paved the way for a new kind of journalism that others would (less successfully) mirror.

Eventually, she decided to follow in the fictional footsteps of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg and go around the world in 80 days. By herself. She ended up only taking a record-breaking 72 days to do it. Afterwards, and as a bona fide celebrity drawing high acclaim for all over, Bly would continue covering social justice pieces, including the orphan market in New York, a look into zoo cruelty, and a piece on the homeless. At the end of her career, Bly covered WWI and women’s suffrage.

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3. Fashion Sense

Not much is spoke of regarding Bly’s fashion sense, but she displayed it on her jaunt around the world. Bly traveled by herself, and with her main concern being speed, didn’t bring much. In fact, Bly’s luggage would make today’s backpackers look like hoarders. Photos of her from the trip show her holding a bag only sixteen inches wide by seven inches high packed with only the essentials:

  • spare underwear
  • toiletries
  • writing instruments
  • tennis blazer
  • dressing gown
  • a cup
  • two caps
  • three veils
  • pair of slippers
  • needles and thread
  • handkerchiefs

Oh, and the most important items, one jar of cold cream and a flask.

As if these life accomplishments weren’t enough, Bly held many patents, including for a 55-gallon oil drum, stackable garbage pail, and an improved version of the milk jar. She also briefly owned a company after her late husband past away and gave her control. A woman in 1907 as president of a company was unprecedented. It’s still uncommon these days.

Though Bly would succumb to pneumonia at age 57, she lived a full life full of assertiveness and excitement. Her story should inspire anyone with passion, but particularly those who don’t know how to channel and direct it into greater life gains.

Be like Nellie Bly: don’t take no for an answer and be fucking fearless!

Keep visiting the VK Nagrani blog for more accounts of truly badass people throughout history.

 

VKN Badass Gals: Marilyn Monroe

Throughout history there have been exceptional women who’ve inspired us by the way they lead their lives and accomplish success. This is VK Nagrani’s Badass Gals.

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Born Norma Jean Mortenson, baptized Norma Jean Baker, one of Hollywood’s most beloved icons ever considered Mona Monroe and Jean Adair as potential stage names before deciding on a winner in 1946: Marilyn Monroe.

As synonymous with sex as black lace, Monroe appeared in 30 films in her 15-year career, which grossed 200 million, but most in the public eye never saw her as more than a blonde bombshell stumbling her way through fame and fortune.

How wrong they were. Here’s why Marilyn was a badass.

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1. She overcame a bleak upbringing

USC Professor Lois Banner wrote in her book “Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox,” that Monroe was a national institution as well-known as hot dogs, apple pie, or baseball.

Another major reason she was the perfect American icon is that she represented the classic rags-to-riches story that brought so many people to America in the first place.

Marilyn’s mother was institutionalized with paranoid schizophrenia when Marilyn was a child, and with no father in the picture, became an orphan. Like many orphans, she bounced around the system on and off for much of her childhood. She experienced instances of sexual assault and was raped at age 11. This tumultuous early life needed an escape, so she married her neighbor at the age of 16.

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2. She was anything but a dumb blonde

Monroe’s film roles rarely strayed from the dumb blonde persona, and her audience loved it. They loved it so much in fact, that they never realized Marilyn Monroe the actress—the hourglass figure and platinum curls, was different than Marilyn Monroe the person—full of wit and a keen sense of humor.

Consider her line as Lorelei Lee in 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:”

I can be smart when its important, but most men dont like it.

A lot of men still don’t like it, so you can imagine how 1950’s L.A. felt about it. But Monroe wasn’t content being Hollywood’s bubbly bimbo. She was always interested in improving her craft, and ultimately, wanted to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress. She did the former in 1955 when she joined Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio and took classes on method acting. The investment in her craft later materialized with a Golden Globe win for Best Actress in 1956’s “Bus Stop.”

Monroe was also an avid reader, with a 430-book library when she died. She even took a literature extension at UCLA. If you thought she was an idiot prior to reading this piece, do the honorable thing and check how much of her book collection you’ve read.

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3. One of first women to start own production company

Monroe battled the Hollywood image that made her a star her entire career, which finally culminated in 1954 when she co-founded Marilyn Monroe Productions (MMP) with photographer Milton Greene. On its own, the move demands respect, but it was actually influenced by some contractual issues she was having with Fox not agreeing to change her contract. Way to stick it to the man, Marilyn.

Unfortunately, MMP independently produced only one film, 1957’s “The Prince and the Showgirl,” while also sponsoring “Bus Stop,” which was produced by Fox. Monroe’s decision did pay off though; her and Fox came to a new seven-year contract, which allowed her to choose her own projects, directors, and cinematographers.

Marilyn never fulfilled that contract though, as a barbiturate overdose in 1962 ended her life at age 36.

To this day her legacy remains as firm as ever. So firm that a dress she wore in “The Seven Year Itch” sold for 4.6 million in 2011. Then that price was topped by the famous limestone encrusted dress she serenaded JFK in, which sold for 4.8 million in 2016.

Let’s revisit that moment, shall we?

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Read about other inspiring men, women, places, and moments in time, all a part of VK Nagrani’s Badass series.

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In memory of Marilyn Monroe:

The Women’s March may be over but the fight for equality isn’t. This coming Women’s Day, let us keep supporting women who inspire us to be better. At VK Nagrani, we are proudly supporting a small local woman-owned business called Tatas & Vag NYC.

Feel free to visit our store at 87H or at tatasnvagnyc.com to check out their tote bags!