For those of us who are building a business in the 21st century, why on earth would it be remotely relevant to look back into history, in order to find a way forward?
Because for every challenge that today’s women entrepreneurs and business leaders encounter, there are dozens of inspiring examples of women throughout history who have gone before us, blazing a trail. And if they could do it, in the face of unbelievable odds – so can we. The attitudes, behaviours and choices of these inspiring ladies aren’t so far away from the ones that successful women today must develop in order to succeed.
Here are three key traits which are as relevant today as they’ve even been, for ambitious and capable women around the world.
Trait #1: Define yourself…don’t let other people do it for you
History is littered with examples of women who simply would not conform to the definitions that society sought to impose upon them at the time. Definitions influenced not only by gender, but by their position in society, their race, their background, their education (sound familiar?) and innumerable other ‘common sense’ factors that those around them – both men AND women – believed to be immutable barriers to a women being able to achieve her potential.
Choose to define yourself. In doing so, you’ll be following in the footsteps of those who were determined to carve out their own role and position in the world, and to define themselves on their own terms and not accept conventions imposed upon them. Queen Elizabeth the First of England, for example, was expected to marry and hand over the reins of government (surely too heavy for a woman to carry?!) to her husband the King. She chose not to, remained the virgin queen, ‘wedded’ to her people and country, fought off invasion – to the extent of donning armour herself and riding amongst her troops – and is remembered in English history as Good Queen Bess – one of the most remarkable women of her time.
So ask yourself: who’s defining YOU? Is it you…or someone else?
Trait # 2: Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo, and do so with courage
Strong women in history have seldom been the ones to stand by and let circumstances dictate their fate. They have stepped up to grab those circumstances by the scruff of the neck, and challenge them outright. The early twentieth century saw the bitter political battle for women’s rights to vote, and the suffragettes used bold and personally dangerous means to highlight the injustice of women’s disenfranchised status. In the face of ‘common sense’ arguments that women would be worse mothers, would make irrational voting decisions and that suffrage would lead to the corruption and breakdown of society, these women stood their ground at considerable personal cost and moved forward, for all of us. Why? Because the status quo might have been what everybody knew and understood… but they knew it had to change.
Another remarkable example is Nusaybah Bint Ka’ab, an early convert to Islam, who took up arms as men around her were deserting the battlefield, and fought alongside the Prophet, receiving commendations for her bravery. She asked why the Qu’ran mentions men but not women, leading to the revelation to the Prophet of verses including both men and women in the blessings of Allah. Here is someone who challenged accepted conventions of womanhood of her time and place, combining her role as wife and mother with fighting (literally) for her principles, and earning her place in history. Looking back it can be difficult to imagine what it must have been like at the time for these women to stand up and be counted, when there was no guarantee of success, and every likelihood of ignominious failure. They made bold decisions, often in times of crisis. And sometimes, so must we.
So ask yourself: if I was a little bit braver, what limiting conventions would I challenge? Who would benefit, beyond myself?
Trait# 3 Don’t seek permission where you don’t need it…and find a way round obstacles in your path
Where obstacles exist – or are put in our way – sometimes it’s a matter of having the courage of our convictions and not taking ‘no’ for an answer. Of not giving someone else authority over our decisions. Of not seeking someone else’s permission to move forward. History remembers the role of Florence Nightingale in the Crimean war, and her remarkable contributions to nursing, which form the basis of the profession today. Nightingale came from a wealthy family with high connections, was highly educated and overcame objections from her parents – who wanted her to do the sensible thing, get married to a suitable man and settle down – to pursue what she saw as her God-given role in helping others. Through her family connections, she was commissioned by the government to take a team of nurses directly to the war zone, and tend to the wounded.
Fewer are aware of the work of Mary Seacole. She had none of the advantages of wealth and status of Nightingale. From a mixed race background in Jamaica, she had learned herbal medicine from an early age. Determined to help with the Crimean war effort, she offered her services to the War Office. She was refused. Lesser mortals might have given up at the rebuff, but not Mary Seacole. Undeterred, she went anyway, travelling to the Crimea at her own expense and setting up a ‘hotel’ for convalescing soldiers close to the battlefield. In doing so, she earned the respect of many – Nightingale among them. Whilst her contribution to medical science may not have rivalled that of Florence Nightingale, her spirit in defying the conventions of the age and overcoming gender, racial and social prejudices to do her own thing, is a source of inspiration.
So ask yourself: whose permission do you need to succeed, and how will you work around barriers, and not stop where you find them?
Sometimes, the odds can seem overwhelming. The women of our past though, have overcome challenges far greater than the ones we face today, as we build our businesses and educate our daughters to step forward boldly into their own futures. We can learn and take inspiration from their stories and their example, and in doing so –
Stand on the shoulders of giants (Sir Isaac Newton)
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