As a student, bestselling author and illustrator, Ann Shen struggled to fit into the notion of what her peers and teachers considered successful commercial art. "A lot of my work was largely geared toward a feminine audience, and my teachers didn't really understand it," says Shen.
To better understand why she was facing so many obstacles and to find some perspective, she dove into the stories of other women in history who hadn't followed the rules. "The more I researched these women who went on to become the first to do things in their particular field, the more I realized they struggled with the same type of head-scratching--or worse--that I was coming up against," says Shen.
Cobbling her research into an illustrated Zine, complete with portraits and bios, Shen was excited to share the stories of these amazing women who had gone before. Remarkably, her professor didn't think the project had merit. Shen persisted, and just a few years later, she'd sold the project to Chronicle Books. Out earlier this month, Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World has become an instant bestseller.
And given the women Shen profiled, it comes as no surprise that they inspired her to color outside the lines. Here are just five things she learned from these rule-bending ladies:
1. The women who change the world face all kinds of trials and tribulations.
Often considered the founder of romance novels as we know them today, Jane Austen didn't publish under her real name while she was alive. Instead, her books were published simply as "By a Lady." It wasn't until years after Jane's death in 1817 that her nephew revealed her as the writer.
"A lot of the women had really sad lives," Shen says. "We may think of these forerunners as strong, amazing, resilient women, but there was usually a whole other side to what they had to sacrifice to do what they were doing." Though her identity went unknown during her lifetime, Jane's books were beloved by the public. She never married, and instead supported her family with the money she made from her novels.
2. Every woman must follow her own unique path to achieve greatness.
Elizabeth Blackwell's father was a Quaker, which allowed her to get an education as a young girl. She went on to become the first woman to go to medical school and was the first female doctor. "Contrast that with someone like Harriet Tubman," Shen says, "who was born into slavery and horribly abused by her master before escaping to Philadelphia."
Harriet continued to return to the South even after her escape. She was also the first woman to lead a charge during the Civil War in an effort to free other slaves. "I think what was interesting was that courage can come from anywhere and any kind of background," Shen explains.
3. Many groundbreaking women were painted as villains during their time.
Empress Wu Zetian was the first and only woman in Chinese history to rule as an emperor. "A lot of stuff written about her basically portrays her as this evil creature," Shen explains. As Shen delved further into the historical accounts, she began to think about who was actually writing these stories about the Empress. "It made me wonder how much was true and how much was rumor," Shen says. "It's hard to say. History was written by the people who had the privilege to write it."
4. Sometimes you have to take the road less traveled by.
Shen faced many critics while writing her book, and often turned to a Dolly Parton quote for inspiration: "If you don't like the road you're walking on, start paving another one."
"I was reminded that I needed to not care so much about what other people think," Shen says. "That's a major one for me and it has applied to so many aspects of my life."
5. As women, we have to stick together.
Shen included Bonnie Parker of the famed Bonnie and Clyde duo in her book because she, like many others, challenged what women were allowed to be. "People were so taken aback by the idea that a woman would run around with a man she wasn't married to, and be an outlaw even though she never fired a shot," Shen says.
Though many of Bonnie's actions were ill-advised, there's no denying that she broke the mold. "I think it takes a lot of women to chip away at the shame that's often pinned to women who defy convention," Shen explains. "Hilary Clinton, for example, gets to stand on the giants before her. We all do."
Additional reporting by Jessica Demarest