Know Your Place
In 1837 Poet Laureate, Robert Southey tried to tell Charlotte Brontë to know her place, telling her "literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be". As we know, Charlotte and her sisters ignored this advice and went on to become one of the world's most celebrated literary families.
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of her birth we have created a "dictionary of defiance" - stories of people who have followed in the Brontë family’s footsteps and challenged society's norms, defied conventional wisdom, and not taken "no" for an answer.
Scroll down to see the stories of defiance, or press "i" for more information about the project. ➚
You must give up your seat for a white person
1913 - 2005 Alabama, USA
On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks refused to obey bus driver James F. Blake's order to give up her seat in the coloured section of the segregated bus for a white passenger, as the white section was full. She refused. Her quiet act of defiance and subsequent legal challenge to segregation laws lead to her losing her job and years of death threats, but became a turning point for the civil rights movement in the United States. She became an international icon of resistance, and on her death, became the first ever woman to lie in state in the US Capitol.
Stick to singing in the choir
Born 1984 USA
Katy Perry might seem like an odd choice for this list, how can we compare her to Charlotte Brontë? Her album ‘Teenage Dream’ became the first by a female artist to produce five number-one songs in the US. However she grew up in a very religious community and singing in gospel choirs is where she developed her talent. Her parents disapproved of her choice to place herself in the hyper-sexualised pop market; her mother has reportedly said "she knows how disappointed we are". Regardless, Katy is now one of the best-selling musical artists of all time, having sold 100 million records globally.
Nursing is not a respectable profession
1820 - 1920 United Kingdom
During the Crimean War nurses were considered to be stupid, uneducated and promiscuous. When Florence Nightingale told them she wanted to become a nurse, Florence’s parents forbade her. Luckily for everyone she ignored them, refused a marriage proposal and enrolled in nursing school at the age of 30. Nightingale improved sanitary conditions at hospitals, collected data on her patients and developed better nursing practices. She transformed patient care, and is considered to be the founder of modern nursing.
You must wear a chador
1929 - 2006 Tehran
Oriana Fallaci was an Italian journalist and former World War II resistance fighter. She managed to get unprecedented access to interview the notorious Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. She was allegedly forced to wear a chador before being allowed to speak with the Islamic cleric. As a result she repeatedly questioned him on women’s clothing and rights, calling him a tyrant and the chador a "stupid medieval rag". When he insisted it was the proper dress for modest women, Oriana ripped her chador off in front of him and he promptly walked out of the interview. When he agreed a day later to meet with her again to finish the interview Oriana was told not to bring the matter up again. She ignored this too... and this time instead of getting angry the Ayatollah laughed. After the interview was finished, the Ayatollah's son complimented Fallaci for being the only one in the world to make his father laugh.
You can't be a movie director
Born 1952 Illinois, United States
Film maker Robert Zemeckis grew up in a house where the only ‘culture’ was to be found on the television. His parents response to him applying to USC's film school was “Don’t you see where you come from? You can’t be a movie director!”. They figured someone from their social status, from their place in the world could never achieve the success he dreamed of. Robert wasn’t deterred and to date he has made over 30 films. If he’d listened to his parents, classic films like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, which he won an Oscar for, would never have been made.
Your children will be a drain on society
Born 1965 United Kingdon
Alison Lapper is an artist who was born without arms, and has spent her life battling society's preconceptions. She had always wanted to be a mother, but was constantly being told it would never happen. When she became pregnant, those closest to her urged her to have an abortion - but she refused. She became famous after Marc Quinn's statue of her pregnant body went on display on the 4th plinth of Trafalgar square in 2005. One day while in a chemist she overheard two women openly talking about her. They were discussing how her child would end up being "a drain on society". Alison fights continually against this idea. "I insisted on changing his nappies, I insisted on picking him up. I did everything I physically could". Now 14, she describes her son as "my greatest piece of art work and creation" and campaigns for disability rights.
Creating a blue LED is too difficult
Born 1954 USA
Red and green LEDs were first produced in the 1950s, but scientists were frustratingly unable to produce blue ones. Shuji Nakamura is a Japanese-born American electronic engineer and inventor who tried to solve this problem. Initially his bosses were willing to support his project, however the company eventually ordered him to stop, as the challenge was too complex and it was costing far too much time and money. As an inventor he knew he could succeed - and defied those who felt it was too complex a challenge to continue to develop the blue LED on his own. In 1993 he succeeded in making it work. Combining red, green and blue LEDs meant he would go on to create white LEDs which have had a huge impact on lighting and touch screen based technology. Developing the first blue LED may not sound world changing, but has impacted every one of us, and won him a Nobel prize.
You're fired for being too innovative
Born 1949 New York, USA
Anna Wintour has been editor-in-chief of Vogue since 1988. Her reputation as having flawless taste and a witheringly aloof nature is allegedly part of the inspiration for the lead character of the novel ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. However early in her career she was fired from Harper’s Bazaar by the Editor Tony Mazzola for being “too innovative” with her photoshoots, and working beyond her place in the fashion world. Since then she’s been quoted as saying “I recommend that you all get fired. It's a great learning experience”.
Get a day job
J K Rowling
Born 1965 United Kingdom
Joanne Rowling's first novel ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone’ was written while she was living in poverty. She managed to find a literary agent but the book was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury agreed to publish it. Despite this no longer being the 1800s she was advised to use her initials instead of her full name as the book was aimed at boys and it was felt they would be put off reading a book by a woman. Barry Cunningham at Bloomsbury is said to have advised Rowling to ‘get a day job’ in the meantime as there is very little chance of making money from children's books. Of course we all know the happy ending to this story, as Britain’s best-selling living author, with sales in excess of £238m and a franchise worth billions, her stories have given pleasure to millions around the world.
Black people can't play major league baseball
1919 - 1972 USA
Jackie Robinson was a baseball player who early in his career played in the US ‘Negro Leagues’. Despite his place as a black man in a segregated society Robinson pursued potential major-league interests. He was offered the chance to try out for the Boston Red Sox but it ended in farce, receiving verbal abuse from the management in the stands. In 1947 he signed up to play with the Dodgers, becoming the first black major league baseball player. He still faced abuse from crowds and other players, even those on his own team - but a few people stood up for him and with his natural strength of character he became an important trailblazer. His story was made into a film in 1950.
A marathon is too far for a fragile woman
Born 1947 Boston, USA
In the 1960s, the Boston marathon was only open to men. Kathrine Switzer was a 20 year old runner, who wanted to run it. Her coach told her that marathons were too far for a “fragile women” - but she was determined to run it anyway. She applied for the 1967 race using her initials - and nobody noticed. That was until partway through the race when race official Jock Semple tried to physically stop her, shouting "Get the hell out of my race". Kathrine's boyfriend shoved Semple and sent him flying, allowing her to complete the race in 4 hours 20 minutes. Photographs of the incident make headline around the world. It wasn't until a full 5 years later that women were officially allowed to run the Boston marathon - a change initiated by none other than Jock Semple.
You must learn the piano to be accepted
1926 - 1991 Illinois, United States
Miles Davis was a black musician growing up during the era of segregation in the United States. Miles’s mother, Cleota, really wanted Miles to explore his skill and love for music by learning the piano. She longed for him to take up a more respected place in the world as classical music was more acceptable to white society. However their marriage was troubled, and in an act of double defiance, Miles’s father bought his son a trumpet and jazz lessons to spite his wife. Out of this disharmony Miles used his amazing talent to become one of the most influential and acclaimed figures in the history of jazz (his parents later divorced).
Women can't be scientists
1867 - 1934 Poland & France
Marie Curie was a chemist and physicist from Poland best known for her work with radioactivity and x-rays. She spent much of her career working together with her French husband Pierre, and together they discovered the elements Radium and Polonium. However this partnership was not treated equally by the scientific community of the time. In 1894 she was denied a place at Kraków University, because they did not accept women. In 1903 they were invited to talk about their discoveries at the Royal Institution, but he had to do it alone because women weren't allowed to speak there. Later that year when their work was nominated for a Nobel Prize, her name was not included. After Pierre complained, her name was added and she became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize
You might have won the election, but you can't be president
1933 - 2009 Philippines
Corazon Aquino, known as Cory, became a politician in the Philippines after her husband, Senator Benigno Aquino Jr, was assassinated under the authoritarian regime of President Ferdinand Marcos. Cory then stood against Marcos in what was technically an illegal election (he had already stood a maximum number of terms). After a bloody and fraudulent polling day he declared military rule so he could stay in power. Cory rejected this, calling for civil disobedience and bringing about what became known as the People Power Revolution of 1986. Eventually she was recognised rightfully as the 11th president of the Philippines, where she successfully implemented a new national constitution, civil rights and economic stability.
I will not follow the crowd
1910 - 1944 Germany
August was a worker at the Blohm + Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany during Nazi rule. He’d run afoul of the Nazi Party as he was carrying out an unlawful relationship with Irma Eckler, a Jewish woman whom he loved and wanted to marry. He was famously photographed standing with his arms folded, resolutely not doing a Nazi salute when a new ship was being launched from the shipyard in 1936. However this story of defiance does not have a happy ending. August was found guilty in July 1937 of "dishonouring the race" under Nazi racial laws when Irma became pregnant for a second time, and was later imprisoned for a time before being forced into military service where he was killed in action. Irma was ultimately sent off to a concentration camp and was never heard of again.
A woman can't work in a recording studio
1937 - 2001 USA / France
Delia Derbyshire was a musician and composer. When at University she approached the careers office saying she was interested in "sound, music and acoustics” they suggested a career in hearing aids. After graduating she approached Decca Records who told her that there was no place for women to work in the recording studios. Delia didn't let this rejection stop her - eventually she got a job studio at the BBC where she discovered their Radiophonic Workshop. She worked there for eleven years making music and sound for almost 200 radio and television programmes most notably producing the original theme tune for Doctor Who, one of the first television themes to be created entirely by electronic means. For many years she was denied a co-composer credit because of BBC bureaucracy.
No black pilots allowed
Eugene Jacques Bullard
1895 - 1961 USA / France
Eugene Jacques Bullard lived an incredible life of ups and downs. At various times in his life it is believed that he was a boxer, a perfume salesman, a security guard, an interpreter for Louis Armstrong, a soldier and most notably the first ever African American Fighter Pilot. He achieved this incredible place in history as a member of the French Lafayette Flying Corps, not with the United States Army Air Service however, as only white pilots were allowed to serve for them. For his services and achievements he was made a Chevalier (a Knight of France) by Charles de Gaulle who called him a ‘real French hero’.
Women cannot do creative work
1916 - 1990 California, USA
In the 1930’s Disney Studios thought there was no place for female animators "Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen". They believed that women didn’t have the natural creativity required and were considered only for routine tasks such as inking and painting. Retta Scott was a recently graduated artist and illustrator, and was hired by Disney in 1938. Retta’s beautiful and powerful sketches caught the attention of Walt Disney himself, and she went on to animate the terrifying dog chase scene in Bambi - making her the first woman to receive screen credit as an animator at Disney. She went on to work on several other animated films, and had a long as successful career as an animator and illustrator.
Go home Go back to driving trucks
1935 - 1977 USA
Elvis' career began aged 19 in 1954. When he started out, his style of music and performance was very new. Some found it quite shocking and even indecent. At his first and only performance at the infamous venue The Grand Ole Opry, the manager of the venue at the time, Jim Denny, is believed to have told Elvis that he would be much better off going back to Memphis to drive trucks. Of course Elvis, and his fans disagreed, and he went on to become The King of Rock and Roll and one of the most recognisable icons of the 20th century.
Black women cannot be rocket scientists
Born 1947 United Kingdom
As a child, Katherine Johnson showed a talent for maths. However due to segregation, her local school would not teach black students past the eighth grade. She had to attend school in a different town, and later became the first African American woman to study at West Virginia University. She wanted to become a research mathematician, but her race made this extremely difficult at the time. NASA (still in its early days) was open to employing people of colour, and in 1953 she was employed as a "computer" (when this was a job, rather than a machine). As part of a pool of "colored computers" she still faced workplace discrimination and segregation. Through her assertiveness (for example asking to be included in editorial meetings, where no women had gone before) and intelligence, she made allies and from 1958 she worked as an aerospace technologist. She calculated the trajectory for the mission carrying the first American in space, and the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. Her story is going to be told next year in the film Hidden Figures.
You are the devil
1838 - 1927 USA
Victoria Woodhull was a suffragist, an activist fighting for women’s place in society and an advocate for free love. To Victoria free love meant giving women the right to marry, divorce and have children without interference from the government. For the time her speeches about a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body were thought to be so outrageous she was frequently imprisoned on obscenity charges. She was considered so wicked and dangerous that she was caricatured by Thomas Nast as ‘(Mrs.) Satan’. She was the first female to run for President of the United States, as a candidate for the Equal Rights Party in 1872 a full 48 years before women won the right to vote.
Your invention will make women hysterical: stick some flowers and tassels on it
Born 1939 USA
In 1967, Margaret Crane was a 26-year-old product designer at Organon Pharmaceuticals. At the time, pregnancy tests involved a trip to the doctors and samples being sent off to the lab. At night, Margaret built a prototype home pregnancy test using a paper clip box, a test tube and a mirror. She took her model to her employers and begged her managers to consider her idea. They all said no - citing fears of alienating their customers (doctors) and terrifying scenarios where hysterical women jumped from bridges on learning they were pregnant. The bosses however secretly got approval to develop the plans. When she found out, Margaret crashed their design meeting and was appalled to see the male designers had decorated their tests with flowers, frills and tassels. Her simple design won out, and she was credited as the inventor on the patent. Social resistance meant it would 10 years before the test was available in the USA, but the home pregnancy test has since empowered women all over the world.
There should be no education for girls
Born 1997 Pakistan
As Malala Yousafzai grew up in the Swat District of Pakistan, the Taliban were gaining more and more influence. Ruling with military force and fear, they banned television, music, and restricted women's rights. The terrorists banned education for girls, and destroying hundreds of schools. Malala started writing a blog for the BBC in 2008 under a pseudonym. Despite the threat to her life she continued studying for her exams. As she gradually became a public activist for women's education and peace there was an assassination attempt on her life that left her in a coma for 8 days and required multiple surgeries. Her continued campaigning for the right of all people to be educated has lead to her being recognised the world over, and in 2014 became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
No-one from round here will make it to Cambridge
Born 1960 UK
Aged 15, Carol was on free school meals in a comprehensive school in North Wales. After achieving one of the highest sets of O-level results in the country, she had her heart set on applying to Cambridge University, which at the time had only just accepted girls into mixed colleges (1976), and predominantly recruited from public schools in the South of England. She went to see the school careers advisor. His advice was not positive: "Don't be ridiculous; nobody from the area has ever got into Oxford or Cambridge before; you won't get in". He advised instead that she should apply to Wrexham Technical College to do an HND in Computing. She ignored him, and against all the odds and unable to be trained for the specialist Oxbridge exam, was offered one of only a handful of conditional offers by the university. "When I was only 17 I went to Sidney Sussex College with 2 other girls from Northern state schools. Our college took a chance on us and I don’t think we’ve let them down". Carol now campaigns to inspire girls to study science, engineering and maths.
You can't make a living dolly waggling
Ronnie Le Drew
Born 1948 UK
Ronnie Le Drew grew up on a South London council estate. At the age of 14, he saw a traditional marionette production of "The Little Mermaid" at the Little Angels Theatre, and was immediately spellbound. He set his heart on becoming a puppeteer, but his parents protested that 'dolly-waggling' was not a viable career. His headmaster told his mother "Your son is leaving school for what I would assume is a hobby rather than a job". Undaunted, he got a job sweeping the floor at the theatre; and went on to become one the most respected puppeteers in the country. He worked on films such as Labyrinth, Muppet Christmas Carol and Little Shop of Horrors; and on TV bringing to life Muffin the Mule; Sweep; and most famously, Zippy on Rainbow.
Stop dressing like a Jezebel
Born 1946 Tennessee, USA
Dolly Parton is perhaps the best known, and certainly the most iconic female country singer in the world. To get there, she's had to overcome many obstacles along the way. She began her life born into a family of 12 children living in a one bedroom shack with no water or electricity. Her father had to pay the doctor for her birth with a bag of oatmeal, and it was his attitude and hard work which inspired Dolly to succeed. She established her unique look early on - her grandfather (a Pentecostal preacher) told her she looked like Jezebel. "I was always myself — they couldn’t beat it out of me, they couldn’t scare it out of me, they couldn’t scold it out of me. I just couldn’t help it! I didn’t know how else to be. Still don’t... I like being myself and I feel everyone should have that right".
Women cannot report war
1908 - 1998 USA / Worldwide
Martha Gellhorn is now considered one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century. She was married to Ernest Hemingway, and reported across Europe in the years leading up to the Second World War. However, the military would not accredit women journalists to report from the frontline of WW2. Knowing the importance of D-Day she was determined to report the story, so she snuck onto a hospital ship, and hid in a bathroom as it sailed to Normandy. On arrival she impersonated a stretcher bearer - and became the only woman to land at Normandy on D-Day. Martha demonstrated incredible bravery and courage, reporting on some of the most significant wars of the 20th century including the Spanish Civil War, WW2 and Vietnam. She consistently reported on the unseen human side of warfare, concentrating on how normal people were affected by military action.
We don't want to hear from women scientists
1799 - 1847 Dorset UK
Mary Anning was an early 19th Century fossil collector and paleontologist who came from a very poor background. She made many important fossil finds and scientific discoveries on the Dorset cliffs. However, as a women from a working class background, she was continually told to know her place and was completed excluded from the scientific hierarchy of her time. Her finds and expertise were used extensively by the scientific community but she was never credited. Despite everything that went against her, Mary kept going and her discoveries helped shape our modern understanding of evolution and the history of the Earth. She was the inspiration for the famous tongue-twister "She sells seashells on the seashore". In 2010, she was finally honoured by the Royal Society when she was included in a list of the ten most influential British women in the history of science.