"Bravest Woman in America"

Relief Carving of Ida Lewis

Original content by: Dr. Paul Goodwin

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

Ida Lewis (1842-1911) was best known for her heroic lifesaving feats near the Lime Rock Light in Newport, RI., which was renamed the Ida Lewis Light in 1924 in her honor. Her father was the keeper until he was incapacitated by illness in 1857, after which Ida and her mother unofficially assumed his duties. Her mother was appointed keeper in 1872 after her father's death and served until the lighthouse duties passed to Ida 1879. She served until 1911 when, while on duty, she apparently suffered a stroke and died. She is famous, however, not for her duties as lighthouse keeper, but as a woman who is credited with rescuing 18 (some accounts say 16, others 36) people from drowning.

Ida Lewis was hailed in national publications (such as Harper’s Weekly, Putnam’s Magazine and the New York Tribune) and was later awarded a medal of Honor from the Society of the American Cross as the “bravest woman in America.” Accolades also came from the General Assembly of Rhode Island and, in 1869, from President Ulysses S. Grant.

It was her professionalism and extraordinary skill as a handler of small boats that overcame the gender biases of the time. That she earned $750 a year—the highest lighthouse keeper salary in the United States—is testimony to her professionalism and heroism.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Why were women discriminated against with regard to employment in certain professional positions?
  2. How was Ida Lewis able to overcome those biases? Might there be a subtle connection between professions, such as nursing and lighthouse keeper? For example; both involve care and comforting during some form of distress.
  3. Where can gender biases still be found in today's society?