Of course, there have also always been intrepid individuals who refused to accept these roles — whether or not they've received recognition for doing so.
It's officially Women's History Month, which means it's time to celebrate the many accomplishments that are so often looked over throughout the rest of the year. With that in mind, here are just 10 of the many brave, intelligent women who bucked the sexist traditions that sought to limit them and, instead, did what they wanted to do — paving the way for future generations of women to do the same.
1. Nellie Bly
Nellie Bly entered the journalism scene in an unabashedly feminist way, by submitting a letter to The Pittsburgh Dispatch that rebutted one writer's diatribe about how women belonged in the home. An editor saw Bly's potential and hired her in 1885. Just two years later, Bly famously posed as a mental patient on Blackwell's Island for a New York World expose; a few years after, she that took a record-setting, 72-day trip around the world, writing about it for the same paper.
Few people are aware that one of the first investigative journalists to embed themselves in the field and put themselves thoroughly at risk for the sake of a story was a woman. Bly's insistence doing such risky investigative work is especially astonishing considering that women were almost exclusively society reporters at the time. Thankfully, Bly eschewed paternalistic notions of women's passivity and decided to take on the world — and write about it.
2. Hedy Lamarr
Lamarr bucked societal notions that women couldn't be both smart and sexy at a time when they were encouraged to be neither. Though known best for her acting career, Lamarr was hardly content to let her pretty face be her only mark on the world. The actress was also an inventor who co-created technology essential to controlling torpedoes during World War II, work which later enabled Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology. She was also the first actress to simulate an on-screen orgasm, acting in the 1933 film Ecstasy.
Despite her accomplishments, Lamarr faced pushback due to her gender. When she attempted to join the National Inventors Council so she could contribute to war efforts, Lamarr was reportedly told that she should instead use her celebrity status to sell war bonds. Luckily, she continued to invent anyway, and her contributions to the war and society at large were formally recognized in 2014 when she was inducted into the Inventor's Hall of Fame. "I'm the sworn enemy of convention," the inventor once said. Reviewing her accomplishments, one has no choice but to agree.
3. Agent 355
Long before 007, there was 355. History books would do well to liven their account of the American Revolution by mentioning this member of the Culper Spy Ring, America's first elite spy network. One of George Washington's most valuable spies, the woman known only as "Agent 355" was likely the only one who could rock an evening gown while gathering information critical to the colonies' achieving independence.
The agent, who was reportedly "described as a person of disarming wit and beguiling charm" and was a regular on the Manhattan social scene, according to the Huffington Post, apparently vanished before the end of the Revolution. Though there were hardly an abundance of female spies at the time — or for years after — Agent 355 clearly had a calling and, thankfully for America, served her country anyway.
4. Mary Shelley
There are plenty of reasons why Mary Shelley's Frankenstein endures as a great work of literature. Shelley wrote the novel at just 20 years old, and the book has been wildly popular for centuries — it is now considered the pioneering work of the science fiction genre, making Shelley the genre's mother. No author had previously attempted to approach a scientific premise from a literary perspective, but the lack of precedent hardly stopped Shelley from initiating a cultural phenomenon.
5. Murasaki Shikibu
Little is known about the Japanese author credited with writing the world's first modern novel, The Tale of Genji, other than that she certainly overcame plenty of obstacles to do so. Even her name is an invention, drawn from one of the novel's characters and the author's father's job, according to Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Not only was Shikibu educated — a rarity for women at any point for most of history, but especially around the year 1010 — but she also became literate in both Japanese and Chinese.
Scholars have gathered that Shikibu was a widow and member of an elite noble family, two factors that were inarguably essential to her ability to write the book, according to the encyclopedia. But the fact that this Japanese woman sat down and essentially created the entire concept of fiction writing 1,000 years ago — long before the white men who dominate the modern literary canon were even born — is pretty remarkable.
6. Amelia Earhart
Though the Wright brothers had only launched the first glider a couple decades earlier, Amelia Earhart wasted no time getting in on the aviation game and was issued a pilot's license in 1923. A mere five years later, she became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.
Earhart didn't just shirk confinement to her public life, either: On the day of her wedding, she wrote a letter to her future husband stating, "I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly." Although her impressive career was soon cut short when she disappeared trying to circumnavigate the globe in 1937, it's clear that Earhart hardly felt confined to gendered conventions: She did exactly what she wanted.
7. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell
Blackwell was a teacher until a close friend who experienced mistreatment while dying told her she would have been spared some pain had she had a female doctor. It's well-documented that Victorian-era physicians treated male and female patients differently, and that women's health in general was hardly prioritized or understood at the time.
This hostility towards women's health didn't seem to faze Blackwell, who became the first woman to receive doctor of medicine degree from an American medical school. She also opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children in 1857 with two other women: her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. Although there's still sexism in the field of medicine today, Blackwell's incredible contributions to medicine arguably changed the game for women in terms of practice and treatment.
8. Maria W. Stewart
Though her name is (unfortunately) not one often included in history books, Stewart can claim plenty of impressive firsts. She was the first American woman to speak to an audience of mixed genders and races, as well as one of the first African-American woman to deliver any public speech at all.
Beyond the unprecedented nature of her lectures themselves is the content of her speeches: Stewart spoke passionately in favor of women's rights and against slavery. It goes without saying that taking these stances in the early 19th century was a bold choice largely discouraged for anyone, let alone a black woman. But Stewart knew that history would prove her stance correct, and bravely spoke her mind anyway.
9. Madam C.J. Walker
No matter your stance on capitalism, attention must be paid to the first American woman to become a millionaire — especially one who made, rather than inherited, her fortune. Walker overcame a childhood of cotton-picking and domestic labor to realize her dreams of entrepreneurship. Seeing a need for hair care remedies for black women, Walker decided to create and sell such products door-to-door herself. These efforts evolved into a business empire that included a beauty product factory, trained salesmen and a beauty school.
Walker hardly coveted her wealth, though, and was known as a generous philanthropist as well, contributing to important causes such as educational scholarships, elderly care and the NAACP. Walker was hardly following a previously established "Guide to Being A Black Female Millionaire," but she amassed her fortune and paved the way for female entrepreneurs, anyway.
10. Pauli Murray
Pauli Murray wore many hats, and each one was equally impressive. Murray became a civil rights lawyer in the late 1940s, a particularly impressive feat given that women in general, let alone black women, had been prohibited from becoming lawyers only decades before.
In 1951, Murray published a book, entitled States' Laws on Race and Color, that Thurgood Marshall described as "the Bible for civil rights lawyers." In 1960, President John F. Kennedy appointed Murray to the Committee on Civil and Political Rights; she used this platform to express the important role of women in the struggle for civil rights. In 1977, Murray tacked onto her already impressive resume the accomplishment of becoming the first ordained black female Episcopal priest. As a black woman fighting for civil rights, Murray certainly faced obstacles. Thankfully, she refused to accept them and did the work to which she was called anyway, and was therefore in no small part responsible for the rights and freedoms women enjoy today.