Inspirational Women: 7 Influential Women Who Failed Before They Succeeded

The Huffington Post  |  By 

“Looking back at my own life, there are the things that can trip us up and dampen that spirit,” Arianna Huffington told graduating high school seniors last year. “The first thing is failure — or even the fear of failure.”

But an important part of achieving what we set out to do — and something that seems to be particularly difficult for women — is overcoming bumps in the road we may experience along the way. We forget that failure is often a necessary part of eventual success. In order to remind ourselves of this, we’ve gathered the stories of seven fearless women who experienced failure before ultimately becoming legends in their respective fields.

lucille ball

1. Lucille Ball

Lucile Ball is now remembered as the first woman to run a major television studio (she gained full control of Desilu Productions in 1962) and the winner of most every major entertainment industry award (including 13 Emmy nominations and four wins), but her success was hardly immediate. In fact, Ball’s first films were failures, and she was even dubbed the “Queen of the ‘B’ Movies” in the 1930s and 1940s. Luckily for all of us, Ball went on to star in “I Love Lucy” and pave the way for women in the entertainment industry.

marilyn monroe fbi file

2. Marilyn Monroe

Though Marilyn Monroe became a successful actress (whose films grossed more than $200 million), her first contract with Columbia Pictures expired in 1948 before she had acted in a movie. Soon after, though, Monroe met agent Johnny Hyde, who took her under his wing. Eventually she landed roles in “The Asphalt Jungle” and “All About Eve” and the rest is Hollywood history.

oprah winfrey

3. Oprah Winfrey

Before Oprah hosted a talk show that dominated daytime TV for 25 years and became the queen of her own media empire, she was demoted at one of her early jobs. After working as a news co-anchor on Baltimore’s WJZ-TV for seven and a half months in her early twenties, Oprah was put on morning TV (the “morning cut-ins” as she recalls) — a significant step down from her original role. But the experience wasn’t all bad: Oprah met her best friend Gayle while working in Baltimore, and her initial failure arguably launched her on her path to incredible career success.

vera wang wedding

4. Vera Wang

Vera Wang’s path to becoming the insanely successful designer she is today was hardly conventional. First, Wang — who was a competitive figure skater in her youth — failed to make the 1968 U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Team. Thankfully for fashion fans, this failure prompted Wang to take a job as an assistant at Vogue in 1971, where she was promoted to senior fashion editor within a year at 23. After 15 years with the magazine, Wang was ultimately passed over for the editor-in-chief position. But she ended up exactly where she needed to be and is now an incredibly successful and iconic fashion designer. It’s hard to even think of wedding attire without her name coming up.

stephenie meyer sundance

5. Stephenie Meyer

Before the Twilight series broke sales records, author Stephanie Meyer faced the failure of rejection — multiple times. Meyer wrote 15 letters to literary agencies andreceived 14 rejections. Luckily, one literary agent took her on and eight publishers bidon the rights to publish the now wildly successful series which ultimately earned the author a place on the 2011 Forbes Celebrity 100 List (and an ever-growing fortune to boot).

jk rowling

6. J.K. Rowling

The Harry Potter author’s story is practically the stuff of legends. Rowling wroteHarry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (the first book in the series) as a struggling single mother on welfare and faced 12 rejections from publishers, eventually selling the book for the equivalent of $4,000. The series went on to break numerous sales records, be turned into an incredibly successful film series and earn a permanent place in the hearts of children and adults all over the world. J.K. Rowling is now worth an estimated $1 billion.


7. Arianna Huffington

Though Arianna Huffington is one of the most powerful businesswomen out there, she is the first to admit that she is no stranger to failure. While the first book Huffington wrote was well-received, her second book was rejected by 36 publishers. But failure, Huffington has said, is often the key to success. She told CNN this past March, “You can recognize very often that out of these projects that may not have succeeded themselves that other successes are built.” She is now the author of 13 books as well as the President and Editor-in-Chief of the Huffington Post Media Group.

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A Message From The Creator


Women’s News: The Conversation We Need To Have About Women And Anxiety


Emma Gray

Editor, HuffPost Women

When I was four years old I had a series of recurring, hazy dreams, after which I would wake up in a panic — heart pounding, palms sweaty, eyes wide open, feeling as though the entire world had slowed down and I was being swallowed up by it. I remember the content of the dreams far less than the feelings they elicited. Years later, I realize these are probably my earliest memories of anxiety attacks.

Anxiety is a mental health issue that 40 million Americans struggle with — and women are diagnosed with anxiety disorders at nearly twice the rate of men. This statistic has proven highly controversial. Are women simply biologically wired to worry? Are we socializing our girls to be more anxious than our boys? Are men just less likely to admit that they experience anxiety?

Daniel and Jason Freeman, authors of The Stressed Sex argued in a TIME Op-ed that the gender differences we see in mental illness diagnoses are real — and we refuse to acknowledge them for fear of being sexist. They wrote:

This data isn’t illusory: it shows that huge numbers of people are struggling with psychological problems — and the majority of them are female. Some would say that men experience just as much mental illness as women: they just don’t admit it. But the scientific evidence to back up such an assertion simply isn’t there.

Of course it’s easy to fall into damaging gender stereotypes when discussing mental illness — especially since disorders like anxiety have historically been associated with the image of the “hysterical” woman. Hysteria was a catch-all mental illness diagnosis used for women up until 1980 when it was finally erased from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and replaced with conversion disorder. And though it hasn’t been a serious diagnosis for decades, its associations are harder to shake. Just last week I overheard a snippet of one young couple’s conversation as they walked along Broadway. The girl, who was about 18, was trying to explain to her boyfriend that anxiety attacks are a real and scary thing, something that she had experienced. His response? “Oh, I thought that was just another term for ‘psychotic’ that girls use.”

While researchers and mental health professionals may, as Freeman and Freeman argue, be afraid of coming off as sexist if they diagnose and treat men and women differently, those of us who struggle with anxiety or depression or eating disorders (all illnesses which women suffer from in greater numbers than men) are often afraid to speak up about the potentially gendered nature of our experiences for a different reason. We are acutely aware that doing so means we may be labeled a “crazy woman.” And “crazy” women aren’t taken seriously, professionally or otherwise.

And yet my struggle with anxiety has almost always been tied to my femaleness. It’s closely linked to negative feelings about my body and physical attractiveness, dating and the irrational fear that I’m going to end up childless and alone. It’s responsible for my tendency to feel like an imposter when I accomplish something professionally. Body image, love life,impostor syndrome — all characteristically feminine sources of worry. And I doubt that I’m the only one whose “issues” stem (at least in part) from the often-stifling pressure to be perfect.

It’s these social differences between men and women that I believe provide the most compelling explanation for why women suffer disproportionately from mental health issues. As Freeman and Freeman wrote in their op-ed: “Considering that on the whole women are paid less, find it harder to advance in a career, have to juggle multiple roles, and are bombarded with images of apparent female ‘perfection,’ it would be amazing if there wasn’t some emotional cost.”

By not speaking up — about our individual experiences and about the general experiences of women struggling with mental health issues — we do everyone a disservice. (In 2010, Glamour reported that the average woman waits nine to 12 years after experiencing symptoms of anxiety disorder before she is properly diagnosed.) There has to be a happy medium between refusing to acknowledge that women are suffering from mental health disorders at greater rates than men are and assigning ladies the “crazy psycho” label. Because as Freeman and Freeman point out, there’s no way to know for sure what is causing this mental health gap until we start having these conversations and start funding research that can give us answers.

Over the years I have learned little tricks and coping mechanisms for handling my anxiety: put both feet on the ground, breath in and out of your nose, take a walk, be aware of destructive thought patterns and actively work to change them. I have come to know my anxiety like a close “frenemy,” and the more I talk about her, the more I find that other women relate. When we’ve reached a point where 23 percent of American women are all struggling with the same demons, it time to start talking about them and confronting them — collectively.

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