Whether you’re just entering the job market, planning to start your own business or change careers, or trying to carve your own niche in a competitive industry, women have been there before. And they’ve got the go-to advice to prove it.
Here are 15 pieces of career advice for women from female entrepreneurs, activists and ground-breakers through history that will help you through the challenges of the modern workplace. Pin them up in your cubicle and let them guide the way.
Dame Nellie Melba, Groundbreaking Opera Diva (1861-1931)
“The first rule of opera is the first rule of life: Do everything yourself.”
Melba, one of the world’s first serious operatic celebrities (she’s the one featured in Downton Abbey) tolerated absolutely no interference and refused to delegate unless it was necessary.
Rita Dove, First African American Poet Laureate (1952-)
“You have to imagine it possible before you can see something. You can have the evidence right in front of you, but if you can’t imagine something that has never existed before, it’s impossible.”
Dove is one of the most-awarded poets in American literature, and has pushed hard for her position — and knows full well that she imagined it for herself.
Bernice Fitz-Gibbon, Advertising Pioneer (1894-1982)
“Creativity often consists of merely turning up what is already there. Did you know that right and left shoes were thought up only a little more than a century ago?”
Fitz-Gibbon, one of the major movers and shakers in the evolution of advertising as we know it today, knew the power of a good idea: just think of something obvious that nobody else has picked up yet.
Marie Curie, Scientist And Winner Of 2 Nobel Prizes (1867-1934)
“We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”
Curie was one of the most successful scientists in history, regardless of gender — and it was partially down to her brilliance and partially because of her serious work ethic.
Susan B. Anthony, Women's Rights Activist (1820-1906)
“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform.”
Anthony, one of the most prominent members of the fight for women’s rights, was certainly never shy about fighting vocally for her demands to be met: an inspiration for those tough meetings.
Dame Anita Roddick, Founder Of The Body Shop (1942-2007)
“Whatever you do, be different – that was the advice my mother gave me, and I can’t think of better advice for an entrepreneur. If you’re different, you will stand out.”
Roddick’s idea to market organic, high-quality cosmetics, and body care to the masses got her a damehood and a fortune, and she was one of the most-demanded entrepreneurial speakers in the world before her death.
Estee Lauder, Founder Of Estee Lauder Cosmetics (1906-2004)
“I have never worked a day in my life without selling. If I believe in something, I sell it, and I sell it hard.”
Lauder’s cosmetics empire is still going strong, obviously, and Lauder herself, who received the Presidential Medal Of Freedom and created a $2 billion company, always located her success in her belief in her products.
Madam C. J. Walker, First Female American Millionaire (1867-1919)
“There is no royal flower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”
Walker’s story is amazing all round — the daughter of slaves, she founded a haircare empire hat made her the first female self-made millionaire in America — but the most notable aspect of it, for her, was that she achieved it on on her own grit and hard work.
Ann Bradstreet, First American Female Poet (1612-1672)
“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”
Bradstreet was the first American woman to have her poetry published. Part of a Puritan family, she’s most famous nowadays for her religious verse, but the fact that she managed to be a recognized poet in seriously misogynist early America is testimony to a serious drive to succeed.
Maria Callas, Opera Diva (1923-1977)
“Don’t talk to me about rules, dear. Wherever I stay I make the goddam rules.”
Callas was one of the true divas of opera, and a seriously hard-headed businesswoman who forged her own path to stardom. And there’s something to her point-blank refusal to do what she’s told that people needing courage in the workplace can learn from.
Bette Davis, Classic Movie Star (1908-1989)
“This has always been a motto of mine: Attempt the impossible in order to improve your work.”
A massive star during the golden age of Hollywood, Bette Davis — who often risked her career to play “unsympathetic” women — was a skilled negotiator who revived her career several times after severe setbacks.
Elizabeth Blackwell, First American Female Doctor (1821-1910)
“It is not easy to be a pioneer — but oh, it is fascinating! I would not trade one moment, even the worst moment, for all the riches in the world.”
Blackwell was one of those feminist pioneers who broke ground just because she couldn’t see a good reason why anybody was standing in her way. The first qualified female doctor, she always relished her role in the rise of female medical professionals.
Brownie Wise, Tupperware Superwoman (1913-1992)
“You can’t lead anyone else farther than you have gone yourself.”
Brownie Wise knew a bit about leadership: she was one of America’s most successful saleswomen, and developed Tupperware’s killer “party” system – but she always led the way herself.
Lillian Vernon, Catalogue Queen (1927-)
“Work hard, that’s the bottom line. Don’t spend more money than you’ve got. Don’t spend money before you’ve got it.”
Vernon was one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs, female or otherwise, at the height of her catalogue company’s success. And she always gave practical and hard-headed advice to fellow bright sparks.
Coco Chanel, Founder Of The Chanel Fashion House (1883-1971)
“Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door. ”
Chanel is the prototype for modern chic entrepreneurs: from a hat shop, she built Chanel into a global fashion powerhouse based on her own strong ideas about chic. She was also a big fan of moving on from setbacks quickly and trying new things as much as possible.