7 Famous Quotes You Definitely Didn’t Know Were From Women
“Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” said Thomas Edison .
The quote immaculately and succinctly captures the ingredients to success, and appears to be – at least to those who still believe he invented the light bulb – classic Edison: genius.
Except for one minor detail.
Edison never actually wrote or said those words. What’s more – experts now say that that a woman you’ve never heard of should get the credit.
And she’s not the only one, though we’ll never know all their names.
How Edison’s quote evolved hints at a tendency of prevailing culture to put words in the mouths of famous men – in a way that amplifies their greatness. A “courtesy” perhaps, that has never quite been extended in much the same way to women, many remaining largely unknown or forgotten.
So how did seven famously inspiring quotes come to be attributed to Edison and the likes of Emerson, Twain, Voltaire, Vonnegut and Kafka when these were originally conceived, or written by, women?
1. “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”
Attributed to: Thomas Edison
Credit due to: Kate Sanborn
In the early 1890’s an academic named Kate Sanborndelivered a series of lectures on the topic “What is Genius?” She defined genius as a mix of “inspiration” and “perspiration”. “Talent is perspiration,” she said, explaining that genius required more perspiration than inspiration. If she provided a ratio, it was never recorded.
Sanborn was ridiculed in a newspaper editorial column that said she was “getting a lot of attention” for stating something so obvious.
Nevertheless, her definition may have found its way into the consciousness of a famous and influential contemporary: Thomas Edison.
Edison, later asked for his definition of genius is said to have answered, “2% is genius and 98% is hard work.”
When probed on whether genius was inspired, he replied, “Bah! Genius is not inspired. Inspiration is perspiration.”
Within a month of Edison’s comments being published, several writers and speakers re-jigged his statements – and after clever re-writes (without his further input), this eventually culminated in the quote as we now know it.
Edison may have provided a ratio, but who deserves the credit?
“In my opinion Kate Sanborn’s lectures were very important in the evolution and construction of the quotation that is now popularly attributed to Thomas Edison,” writes “Garson O’Toole” in an email to me.
He’s the Quote Investigator (QI) – a Magnum P.I for the quote world if you will, that is, if Magnum also had a PhD.
Shapiro also happened to write “Anonymous Was a Woman” – a piece published several years ago in Yale’s Alumni Magazine.
“If I was writing my ‘Anonymous Was a Woman’ article now,” he tells me, “I would include Sanborn and Edison as another example of a woman not being given credit for a famous saying.”
Coming from a quotes legend like Shapiro, that’s all the confirmation needed: Kate Sanborn was a precursor of Edison’s famous quote and deserves major points.
Then again, this game called life isn’t really about keeping scores against others, is it?
2. “Sometimes you’re ahead; sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.”
Misattributed to: Kurt Vonnegut / Baz Luhrmann
Credit due to: Mary Schmich
Wise words indeed from Mary Schmich, often misattributed to Kurt Vonnegut or even Baz Luhrmann (via 1998’s Sunscreen Song).
Schmich, a journalist, had written a column for the Chicago Times about what she’d say to the class of ’97 if she were to be asked to give a commencement speech.
If the quote seems unfamiliar, her opening line to that column is sure to jog the memory of any kid from the 90’s:
“Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97: Wear sunscreen.”
The essay became the subject of a fake e-mail chain claiming to be a MIT commencement address given by counterculture hero Vonnegut.
The e-mail went viral and the association with Vonnegut became so widespread that his lawyer was flooded with requests to reprint, prompting Vonnegut to reply: “What [Schmich] wrote was funny, wise and charming, so I would have been proud had the words been mine.”
“Poor man,” responded Schmich. “He didn’t deserve to have his reputation sullied in this way.”
So it goes.
Schmich went on to win a Pulitzer in 2012 – the ultimate symbol of success for a journalist. But, success doesn’t always necessarily mean winning. Consider this still-refreshing definition:
3. “To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
Misattributed to: Ralph Waldo Emerson
Credit due to: Bessie Anderson Stanley
In 1904 a Boston firm, in conjunction with a woman’s magazine, ran a competition in which people were asked to answer the question “What Constitutes Success?” in 100 words or less.
The winner was a woman from Kansas named Bessie A. Stanley. Her submission, presented in its entirety below, earned her the prize money of $250.
He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much;
Who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;
Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
Who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty or failed to express it;
Who has left the world better than he found it,
Whether an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
Who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had;
Whose life was an inspiration;
Whose memory a benediction.
In 1951, in a piece titled “What Is Success?” a writer quoted the words he claimed to be from Ralph Waldo Emerson (the quote at the start of #3.)
According to QI, what the writer presented as an Emerson quote was “clearly derived” from Stanley’s essay.
However, the attribution to Emerson stuck (the writer’s column was syndicated) and the quote firmly entered popular culture when Ann Landers featured it in her famous column in 1966 and then again in 1980.
4. “Don’t bend; don’t water it down, don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”
Misattributed to: Franz Kafka
Credit due to: Anne Rice
In 1995, a collection of short stories by Kafka was published, including a foreword by the author Anne Rice. Here’s an excerpt:
Kafka became a model for me, a continuing inspiration. Not only did he exhibit an irrepressible originality—who else would think of things like this!—he seemed to say that only in one’s most personal language can the crucial tales of a writer be told. Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly. Only if you do that can you hope to make the reader feel a particle of what you, the writer, have known and feel compelled to share.
According to QI, Anne Rice did not use quotation marks in the passage above because she was not quoting Kafka. “She was presenting her conjectural thoughts about Kafka’s attitude toward writing.”
Proving this one is a slam dunk: Anne Rice deserves full attribution for her quote.
5. “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Misattributed to: Ralph Waldo Emerson
Credit due to: Muriel Strode
In August 1903, Muriel Strode published a poem titled “Wind-Wafted Wild Flowers.”
Here’s the relevant excerpt:
“I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path, and I will leave a trail.”
In 1992, an academic periodical printed Strode’s slightly revised quote (replacing just the I’s) with an attribution to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Not long after, it appeared as a sign at a school once again incorrectly credited – and from there you could say it took off, becoming widely accepted by the general public as an Emerson quote.
“It is clear that the linkage of the saying to Ralph Waldo Emerson occurred many years after his death and is not substantive,” concludes QI.
In terms of misquotes Emerson ranks up there with another great writer – Mark Twain.
6. “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.”
Misattributed to: Mark Twain
Credit due to: Agatha Christie
According to Cindy Lovell, Executive Director of theMark Twain House and Museum, this is not a Mark Twain quote. Several other Twain experts agree. “Mark Twain remains the most frequently quoted American author,” Lovell writes, “which means he is also the most frequently misquoted author.”
Here comes the plot twist.
In a surprising email to me, Agatha Christie Limited (a private company set up by Agatha Christie prior to her death) confirms that this is indeed one of hers. They say the quote originated during an old press interview – but are unable to locate the source.
John Curran, an expert on Agatha Christie with whom I share this bit of news, tells me he shall “remain dubious” until he sees the original citation.
With Twain definitively out of the running for this quote though, and unless it can be proven otherwise, Agatha Christie deserves at least a tentative full-credit for now.
7. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Misattributed to: Voltaire
Credit due to: Evelyn Beatrice Hall
In her 1907 book Friends of Voltaire, Hall wrote:
Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional.‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ was his attitude now.
With the quote marks, it easy to see how the words eventually came to be attributed to Voltaire. But, Hall was not actually quoting Voltaire – she was describing his attitude.
In 1934, the quote entered popular culture when it was misattributed to Voltaire in the “Quotable Quotes” section of the Readers Digest.
Later, in an interview with a newspaper, Hall tried to correct the misattribution. “I did not mean to imply that Voltaire used these words verbatim and should be surprised if they are found in any of his works. They are rather a paraphrase of Voltaire’s words in the Essay on Tolerance — ‘Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.’”
Still though, decades later, the quote still seems to stick to Voltaire.
So, what’s the big deal if quotes are misattributed or not attributed at all? If some of these women were around now, would they really have minded at all?
It might have mattered.
In this day and age, an uncredited quote could amount to millions of dollars in lost royalties – well, at least to Vivian Greene.
Greene has been struggling for years to get credit for her work.
Even copyrighted, her quotes still appear unattributed on various products sold in household-name stores around the world – denying her not just recognition, but a substantial amount of income from royalties.
Despite this, and several other setbacks she’s faced along the way, she still maintains a tremendously positive spirit.
You could say she’s figured out one of life’s secrets:
“Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass … it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
After all, she came up with that quote back in the 70’s.
Let’s give this woman, at least, credit in her time.
* Much credit due to “Garson O’Toole” – the QI. He provides an invaluable resource on the web for checking quotes – research he appears to provide out of sheer passion, enjoyment and complete goodwill. And without whom this piece would never have evolved. It would be wise to run a quote through hisdatabase first before attributing in future.