How Breaking the Rules Can Help You Succeed—And Change the World

Author and illustrator Ann Shen defied her critics to create an illustrated book that highlights female change agents throughout history. Good thing she persisted.

Ann Shen's portrait of Amelia Earhart

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 (a theme very close to our hearts at Skirting 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 last week, Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World has become an instant bestseller. Here are just some of the cool things she learned about following the urge to color outside the lines from a few of the women she profiled.

Ada Lovelace was the world’s first computer programmer: 

“She was one of the first women I came across, and I found her story to be fascinating. The estranged daughter of Lord Byron, her mother actually pushed her to study mathematics because it was the opposite of the poetry her father was known for. Ada ended up working with Charles Babbage, who developed the Analytical Engine which was the forefather to the computer. Her book of notes on a paper written about it contained what we could consider the world’s first computer program. Ada was of course fascinated with the father she never knew, and her interest in poetry and her talent in mathematics gave her the perfect tools to compose code. This makes her the first computer programmer in the world—not the first woman, but the first ever.”

Jane Austen supported her whole family with her writing: 

“A lot of the women had really sad lives, which was really interesting. 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. With Jane Austen, I was surprised to learn that she didn’t publish under her name when she was alive—all of her books were published simply as “By A Lady.” It was only revealed years after her death that she was in fact, the writer, by her nephew. But despite this, when she was alive, her books were beloved by everyone and she was able to make a decent living and support her family. She never married and had a short-lived relationship with a to-be lawyer who was poor and expected to marry up. That sort of set the stage for what we now read in her romantic stories.”

Dolly Parton took the road less traveled:

“When facing critics while writing the book, there were so many times I was reminded that I needed to not care so much about what other people think. I think a lot about Dolly Parton and her quote, ‘If you don’t like the road you’re walking on, start paving another one.’ That’s a major one for me and has applied to so many aspects of my life.”

Elizabeth Blackwell and Harriet Tubman came from different worlds, yet each found courage where they could: 

“Each woman had a different path to achievement. The first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell, benefited from her father being a Quaker. This allowed her to get an education as a young girl before going on to become the first woman to go to medical school. Contrast that with someone like Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery and horribly abused by her master before escaping to Philadelphia. Despite her tough history, she still returned to the South 19 times, and was the first woman to lead a charge during the Civil War to help free other slaves. I think what was interesting was that courage can come from anywhere and any kind of background.”

Bonnie Parker was a rebel without a cause: 

“I included Bonnie Parker in the book because her story took the nation by storm. 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. Even in her short life, people tried to shame her for what she was doing. I think it takes a lot of women to chip away at the shame that’s often pinned to women who defy convention. Hilary Clinton, for example, gets to stand on the giants before her. We all do.”