Badass Women in History

In honour of Women’s History Month, Glass want to bring some shine to a few important women we think you probably haven’t heard of, who were perfectly poorly behaved in a world made for men.


Nellie Bly 

In 1887, at the age of 21, Nellie Bly went undercover as a patient at one of America’s most notorious insane asylums. This wasn’t easy. First, she checked herself into a temporary boarding house and stayed up all night to give herself a ragged appearance, and then began to act erratically, claiming the other borders were insane. She eventually scared the matron so much that the police intervened. A policeman, a judge, and a doctor all declared Bly insane, and she was taken to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. 

Once on the island, Bly dropped all pretense of mental illness and the staff began to interpret her normal behaviour as insane. She became convinced that some of the other inmates were also sane. 

The nurses at Blackwell’s were mean and abusive, verbally and physically abusing the women. The food given to inmates consisted almost entirely of spoiled meat and undrinkable water. Dangerous patients were even tied together with ropes and rats crawled across the hospital. The freezing bathwater the inmates were forced to bathe in was not changed from person to person, and healthy inmates had to use the same towels as those with skin inflammations, sores, and boils. 

When she was eventually released, Bly’s book Ten Days in a Mad-House was an instant hit, and prompted a grand jury investigation into the Asylum. This saw a budget increase allowing for better training for staff and amenities. Many consider Bly to be the first investigative journalist, at a time when women’s journalism was restricted to puff pieces. 


The Nuns of St Clare’s 

In 1990, one of the world’s oldest convents of nuns, Order of Saint Clare (often referred to as the Poor Clares) went on the run. They had just learned that the bishop of their diocese in Bruges, Belgium, would not be admitting any new nuns to the order, essentially meaning that the order would die with the last of them and the possessions of the Order would be returned to the Church. The Sisters didn’t appreciate that – not one bit. 

Lead by their Mother Superior Sister Anna, the nuns exploited a loophole in Belgian law that allowed the ownership of non-profits, such as their Order, to be exchanged. With the help of some savvy financial advisors, the nuns sold their convent for $1.4 million (in 1990!) and promptly bought themselves a French Chateau, a FLEET of Mercedes’, a couple of racehorses, and a farm. The oldies took all of the paintings and artworks in the convent with them for good measure. The full story has even more twists and turns, and reads like a Hollywood script.  


Mum Shirl 

Mum Shirl, born Coleen Shirley Perry Smith, was a leading Wiradjuri woman from New South Wales in the 20th century who pioneered some of Australia’s first Aboriginal legal services. She was a founding member of the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Medical Service, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the Aboriginal Children’s Service, and the Aboriginal Housing Company, all with the aims of improving the lives of First Nations Australians. 

Mum Shirl knew sixteen Aboriginal languages and traveled across NSW to visit incarcerated Indigenous prisoners after one of her brothers was imprisoned, and she discovered that her visits were beneficial to other prisoners. She came to accompany Indigenous people to court when they were unfamiliar with the legal system. Her nickname, “Mum” came from her habit of replying, ‘I’m his mum’ when officials asked about her relationship to prisoners. Mum Shirl became the only woman in Australia to have been granted unrestricted access to prisons in New South Wales. The Government would later revoke this pass, making her support work incredibly difficult. 


Arwa Mboya 

In 2019, Ronan Farrow reported for the New York Times that the MIT Media Lab had continued to accept funding from disgraced financier and convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein even after allegations of sexual misconduct, allowed him to advise on how the money should be spent, and even made their donations anonymous so they could continue to accept money from him. Epstein was so entrenched in the Media Lab that the staff referred to him as Voldemort – a secret not to be discussed. 

Joi Ito, the Media Lab director, resigned after these facts emerged, but this only came to be reported on due to internal pressure from MIT students; specifically, Arwa Mboya, a graduate student from Kenya. Mboya studied economics and filmmaking, and was interested in virtual reality as a student at MIT when she first made a public call for Ito to step down. That’s right. In only the second year of her graduate program, Mboya called for her program director’s resignation, who was also one of the most powerful and respected men of any profession in the United States. He was also the reason Mboya had decided to study there in the first place. 

But Mboya put this to one side and braved a firestorm before more reporters took up the story. By the time Farrow had published his write up in the New York Times, Mboya had been largely forgotten in the whole narrative. 

Mboya now works at MIT as a virtual reality programmer. 


Erika Cheung 

If you’re across the Elizabeth Holmes saga, you’ve likely heard of Erika Cheung. You might remember her as the ‘other’ whistleblower in the story, often outshined by her close friend Tyler Schultz, the grandson of former US Secretary of State, George Schultz, who also played a key role in exposing the deceit that Theranos was built upon. For those who haven’t been bingeing The Dropout (podcast and TV series) or John Carreyrou’s bestseller Bad Blood, Erika blew the whistle on Theranos, a Silicon Valley start-up that proclaimed to revolutionise blood testing. The problem was that the proclamation was only that – a proclamation. There was very little actual science to support the millions of dollars being invested in Theranos by hoodwinked investors.

Our girl Erika (yes, we are on a first name basis), a Berkeley graduate with a dual degree in Molecular and Cell Biology and Linguistics, could smell a fish. Erika started asking questions and delving into the ‘science’ behind what was happening at Theranos. And what she and her co-whistleblower Schultz found was enough to give journalist John Carreyrou, a story to run. From that story, an investigation was launched. And from that investigation, a trial. Elizabeth Holmes has now been convicted of fraudulently misleading investors and customers, and this conviction is partly due to Erika and her courage to speak up. Erika notes that during this time she felt ‘…anything but courageous. I was scared, I was terrified, I was anxious. I was ashamed.’ Erika now runs a nonprofit that aims to foster ethical entrepreneurship and prevent scandals like the one that unfolded at Theranos from occurring again. 

Articles: 109

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