10 Incredible Women Who Wrote Their Own History

by Ancestry® Team

Our family histories are filled with stories of overcoming hardship: Families surviving the Great Depression, communities facing oppression, neighbors weathering natural disasters, sacrificing during world wars.

And through these difficult times, a common thread emerges: generations of women stepping forward as trail blazers, caregivers, survivors, and heroes.

In celebration of the strong women in our family trees, here—in their own words—are some of the most inspiring stories of fierce female ancestors from Ancestry® customers.

Rosalia Schaffer, Great Depression survivor

“My grandma, Rosalia Schaffer, was a strong woman during the Great Depression. When the dust clouds started rolling over farms in Rush County, Kansas, she thought it was ‘a sign of the end of the world.’

“But she didn’t just fold up into a ball and cry. She kept fighting side by side with Grandpa to keep the farm going.

Image of a bride and groom who lived through the Great Depression
Rosalia fought alongside her husband to save the family farm.

“Ultimately, Grandpa did what many farmers did to survive. He became a bootlegger. One day, the sheriff found his still and took him away.  Afraid that Grandpa would land in “the state pen” for a very long time, Grandma decided to take action.

“She packed up all six Schaffer kids into Grandpa’s Model A and drove them 160 miles to Wichita, where Grandpa was being held.

“There she begged the authorities for Grandpa’s release because his family needed him at home. Her plan worked and Grandpa got to go–after promising never to bootleg again.” — Alice Pfeifer

Mae Virginia Wilson, WWI widow, mother of 9

“My Grandmother married young and had 9 children…Grandmother’s 1st husband went to war in world war I, and didn’t return. Her second marriage…her husband was off hunting and trapping leaving Grandmother and the children…

“Grandmother did whatever job was available in order to provide for her children and herself. She made sure all of her children knew how to hunt and fish at early ages.

“…Some of the jobs Grandmother did to support her children and herself were weeding onion patches for twelve cents a day and was a saloon girl, but her children always had something to eat. Grandmother raised her family in the desert and in a covered wagon or tent…

“My Grandmother asked me once, if l held it against her being a saloon girl. I told her I understand that she had to feed herself and her children and that she did everything she could to provide for her children.

“Grandmother shared with her grandchildren how hard life was but she didn’t complain…she did what she had to do to support her family.” — Virginia Johnson

Kathleen Hilbrandt, Women Airforce Service Pilots member

“Kathleen and the rest of the female pilots of WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) were a generation of brave ladies that helped change biased minds and politics. Inadvertently their courage inspired other women.” — Linda Hilbrandt

Headshot of Kathleen Hilbrandt in her WWII pilot uniform
Kathleen, “Kay,” Hilbrandt was a female World War II pilot.

Lydia Baggett, 40-acre homesteader and widowed mother

“[Her husband] died when he was only 39 years old, with the ‘old slow fever,’ leaving Lydia Baggett with 4 young children to raise.

“By 1900 Lydia Baggett was almost destitute and trying to feed her family. After her husband, Charlie J. Baggett, died and Lydia Baggett and her 4 girls were coming through Cullman in a one horse wagon.

Old woman sitting on a chair outside, with a lamb cake in her lap
Lydia Baggett “was never a person to refrain from hard work and provide for her family.”

“They had their cow tied to the wagon and it was bitterly cold. The children would get out and lead the cow because she didn’t like being tied to the wagon. Their feet were wrapped in rags because they had no money to buy shoes or warm clothing.

“When one of the girl’s feet would be almost frozen, she would get back in the wagon and another sister would climb out and lead the cow.

Later she homesteaded 40 acres of land near the Bankhead forest and cleared the land and raised her daughters in Winston County, Alabama. The government let her have another 40 acres to homestead. She sold the land eventually for $2.00 an acre, and moved to Upshaw Community, near Addison, AL.

“She was never a person to refrain from hard work and provide for her family.” —Rita Birdsong

Crystal Bird Fauset, the first Black woman elected to a U.S. state legislature

“…my mother’s Aunt, Crystal Bird Fauset, was born in 1893 and was the first Black woman in history elected to a US state legislature in 1938. As a Pennsylvania state representative Crystal introduced nine bills, three amendments on issues concerning public health & relief, housing & supporting women’s rights in the workplace….

“Crystal founded the Colored Women’s Activities Club for the Democratic National Committee and helped women register to vote. The Roosevelt Administration appointed her Director of the Women and Professional Project in Philadelphia…

Photo of Crystal Bird Fauset and Elenor Roosevelt seated
“Crystal’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt led to her…becoming part of President Roosevelt’s cabinet.”

“Crystal’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt lead to her appointment as race relations Director of the Office of Civil Defense, becoming part of President Roosevelt’s cabinet.

“After World War II Crystal turned her attention global & formed the World Affairs Council. She traveled globally to support independence leaders…”  — Denise Fore

Emma Bugbee, suffragist and pioneering journalist

“My aunt, Emma Bugbee, was a forceful advocate of women’s voting rights, and an active participant in demonstrations and other activities of the Suffragist Movement.

“As a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune she was able to cover the stories of the Movement and give it an active voice in the National press. When the 19thAmendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, she always became an enthusiastic voter in every election.

Three women in an open-topped vehicle, dressed in 1910 attire
“As a reporter…she was able to cover the stories of the [suffragist] Movement and give it an active voice in the National press.” [Image via LOC, Emma is second from the left]
She was the earliest woman journalist whose office was officially moved to the main news room, long the domain of men only. She went on to a long career of fifty five years at the Tribune.” — Tom Bugbee

Bettie Laura Arvin, an Oregon shipyard worker during WWII

“This is the story of my mother ‘Bettie Laura Arvin’ who was born in 1926 and who left school as a Junior in 1943, Wahkiakum High School in Cathlamet, WA.  She joined the women’s movement to fill jobs vacated by men leaving to join the military during WW II.

A profile photo of a woman who was a "Rosie the Riveter," wearing a head scarf
“Mom was tough and knew her way around a shop, using tools and a welder.”

“…She was hired by the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation, a World War II emergency shipyard located along the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. The shipyard built nearly 600 Liberty and Victory ships between 1941 and 1945 under the Emergency Shipbuilding program….

“…Mom was tough and knew her way around a shop, using tools and a welder. She immediately was assigned to a welding crew in the shipyard.

“She often told stories of the harsh conditions and fast pace to complete a ship ASAP.  She was so good she would often be the welding instructor for new recruits.” —David Linda Boys

Christian Pridgen, farmer, single mother defying  odds on behalf of her children

“…my maternal great-grandmother, Christian Pridgen. She was born in 1877 in Columbus County, North Carolina. This part of the world has historically been focused on tobacco farming. Her birth was at the heels of slavery, and she was born to two former slaves.

“She married at age 18 in 1895, and she and her husband (my great-grandfather Isaac Pridgen) began to farm the land. They had 6 children together.

An African American woman named Christian Pridgen standing, with her right hand resting on a piece of furniture
“Christian Pridgen…made sure all her children could [read and write]…she even sent them to college on her own…”
“What I am proud of, is that they owned the land and house outright.  However, even after her husband passed away she was able to maintain her standard of living and to continue to farm the land and raise her children independently.

“She was able to read and write, and she made sure that her children could, as well. She even sent them to college on her own — a tough feat even now, but monumentally so for a single black woman in the Jim Crow south. — Pridgen Green

Anna Anderson Whitney, Red Cross Nurse During World War I

“…my Grandmother, Anna Anderson Whitney…made a tremendous sacrifice for this country in 1917, as an Army nurse during the Great Influenza Epidemic. She was born in Conneaut, Ohio and graduated from nursing school in 1917.

“Soon after graduation, she packed her bag and took the train to Chanute Field, an Army Air Force Base, recently constructed.  She was 22 years old and tended to the sick servicemen.

“The…photo shows her with her Red Cross pin, which indicated that she was a Red Cross Nurse, serving in the Army.

A profile photo of a nurse in a white uniform, with hat, wearing a Red Cross pin
Anna left behind her small Ohio town “on her own to do a pretty tough job,” as a Red Cross Nurse during the 1918 influenza epidemic.

“…It had to have been quite an adventure to leave a small town like Conneaut and head out on her own to do a pretty tough job….I can only imagine what spurred her on to take such a bold step.” — Barbara Burch Aronson

Lupe Gonzalez, immigrant, trailblazer, and role model

“She was a trailblazer in so many ways. And I’m so very proud of her. Born in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, she decided to come to San Francisco. She traveled 1,100 miles all by herself.

A portrait photo of a young woman with dark, wavy hair dressed up, turning to face the camera
“Born in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, she….traveled 1,100 miles all by herself.”

“She got to San Francisco in 1937, and she walked on the bridge the day it opened to pedestrians traffic.

“My grandmother was quite a role model of what it means to be brave.”  — Laura Gonzalez

Who are the inspiring women in your family?

We all owe much to the women who came before us. And many of their stories are waiting to be discovered.

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These stories were voluntarily submitted by actual Ancestry® customers.Customers were not compensated for their stories. Ancestry does not endorse these stories and has not verified them for historical or factual accuracy.