16 Incredible Women You Didn’t Learn About in History Class
From mathematicians to athletes to entrepreneurs, here are the empowering stories of women you may not know about, but definitely should.
Amazing women in history
Whether supporting war efforts abroad, fighting discrimination at home, or inventing new scientific methods, women are equally responsible for the growth of a free, modern society as men yet have not received even close to equal credit for the feats, accomplishments, and victories. History textbooks are historically flawed because they have been written and curated by, in large part, Caucasian men who have time and time again, squeezed women—and even more women of color—out of the narratives. To celebrate women’s history month, here’s a look at incredible women whose contributions to world history are criminally under-discussed and taught.
Born into poverty in Omaha, Nebraska in 1874, Rose O’Neil grew up to be one of America’s most important political cartoonists. She was the only woman on the editorial staff of Puck magazine in the late 1800s. She shot to fame after introducing the Kewpie characters in 1909 in Ladies Home Journal. In the Kewpie Primer, O’Neil described Kewpie as “a benevolent elf who did good deeds in a funny way.” Creative talent and invention were just the beginning of this remarkable woman’s skills. O’Neil was a brilliant marketer too and Kewpie became the most popular cartoon character in the world until Mickey Mouse came along. Not only did she turn them into a massive, profitable industry—patented long before Barbie—she used their popularity to promote women’s suffrage in her political cartoons, and talk about issues like racism and segregation. Rose O’Neil was way ahead of her time, and it is about time more people know about her. It’s hard to imagine now that 100 years ago, women weren’t allowed to do these 13 things.
Annie Jump Cannon
Originally hired as a “female computer,” the term used in the late 19th century for those who did calculations, Annie Jump Cannon performed unspecialized and tedious work, but her legacy would soon be written in the stars. Cannon is the astronomer best known for coming up with the current system of stellar classification. “Her system—ranking stars as O, B, A, F, G, K or M, with ‘O’ being the hottest stars and ‘M’ the coolest (the sun is a “G” star)—is still used today,” and the way that letter sequence is easily remembered is also credited to her, because she created a saying—”Oh! Be A Fine Girl – Kiss Me!” per Space.com
Over the course of her distinguished life, Cannon classified the spectra of over 350,000 stars. “Legend has it that she could look at any stellar spectra and classify it in just three seconds,” and yet the man in charge at Harvard Observatory has had far more ink spilled in his honor. Again, according to Space.com, “While Cannon was one of the more famous female computers at Harvard, critics note that Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, received much more credit than they did. Pickering was highly decorated in his lifetime and there are craters named after him on the moon and Mars. Meanwhile, “Annie Jump Cannon’s enduring achievement was dubbed the Harvard—not the Cannon—system of spectral classification,” reports Smithsonian Magazine.
Cannon is the poster child for a remarkable woman who got squeezed out of male-written and male-dominated history books. Check out these history lessons your teacher lied to you about in school.
Beryl Markham grew up in what was British East Africa before it became Kenya and was quite incredible in not just aviation but several other male-dominated industries, including horse racing. In 1936, at age 33, Markham became the first woman pilot to cross the Atlantic solo, nonstop, and ‘the hard way,’ (east to west, harassed by storms and wicked headwinds). The pilot would go on to live a life seemingly pulled right out of the tabloids, penned West with the Night: A Memoir, played a role in the classic best-selling novel and film, Out of Africa, and had multiple biographies penned about her talents and love life. These are 17 more of the best memoirs everyone should read.
After having already fought in the Spanish Civil War against Nazi-supported fascists, Andree Borrel became a true unsung hero of WWII by, “organizing the first underground railroad from France to Spain that helped Allied airmen escape Nazi-controlled France,” according to War History Online. She would rise to second in command for England’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), be the first to go behind enemy lines by parachuting into Paris in September 1942, and help destroy a German power station (Chevilly la Rue Power Station in March 1943). When captured and arrested by the Gestapo, the brave Allied spy refused to answer any questions and was sent to a concentration camp, according to History Collection’s account of three SOE heroine. She would later be executed at the Natzweiler-Struhof concentration camp but her contributions in fighting Nazis should be known and never forgotten.
Born in Baltimore during the depression, Gloria Richardson’s family would move across the Chesapeake Bay to a small town near the current site of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Church Creek Maryland. After graduating from Howard University, Richardson worked for the federal government during World War II before becoming a mother and homemaker after being unable to land a job as a social worker because of the color of her skin. Her daughter’s participation in protests against segregation and racial inequality led her to the movement and eventually, according to Bustle to, “Critiquing how Black women were treated in the modern Civil Rights movement.” Richardson would then go on to be the only woman on stage at the 1963 March on Washington.
Per Dorchester County Tourism [Maryland], “Gloria Richardson was the first woman in the country to lead a grassroots civil rights organization outside the Deep South. She helped found and lead the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC) during a period of civil unrest 50+ years ago caused by racism and lingering segregationist practices.” The 19th Amendment is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2020 but there were states and U.S. territories where women could vote before 1920.
As we wrote in an article on famous women in flight, Bessie Coleman should be considered a national treasure. Sadly, that has yet to happen and so the name of the first African-American of any gender to earn a pilot’s license (in 1921, doing so after moving to France since she wasn’t allowed to accomplish this feat in the United States because of the color of her skin and her gender) doesn’t roll effortlessly off too many tongues. Fighting against the segregation of the day, Coleman gave speeches and showed off her flying tricks to inspire others, but only in places that were not segregated—a stance that surely cost her money and widespread fame. Unfortunately, before her dream of opening a flight school for other African Americans was realized, Bessie Coleman died in a plane accident. We’re still waiting for Queen Bess’s Hollywood treatment but here are 11 films that celebrate remarkable women.
The first Uruguayan woman to receive a medical degree, Paulina Luisi was a physician, educator, feminist, diplomat, and social reformer during her 75 years. As president of the Uruguayan delegation to the First American Congress of the Child, she worked on behalf of children and did the same for women’s health as the Uruguayan delegate to the International Congress on Social Hygiene and Education, Paris. The suffragette was committed to promoting education for women and also served on the League of Nations consultative committee on the Treaty to End Traffic in Women and Children for four years running, from 1922 to 1925. “She was the first woman in the Western Hemisphere to represent her government as an officially appointed delegate to an intergovernmental conference” and, “believed that female education and equal political rights were crucial to improving working conditions and health care for women and children,” per Encyclopedia.com. “In late 1932 Uruguay became only the second Latin American country to grant women full voting rights,” notes Bustle. During that time, “Luisi was in Europe serving as a diplomatic representative, but she resigned to return to Uruguay to fight totalitarianism at home and abroad.” Don’t miss these stories of inspiring women who are changing the world today.
We’re willing to bet your high school English classes featured lots of novels by male writers, from Twain to Dickens to Hemingway. But their craft may not even have existed if it hadn’t been for Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese woman widely considered to be the world’s first novelist. Shikibu was a noblewoman living in Japan around the year 1000 AD. She wrote a two-part novel called The Tale of Genji, which tells a riches-to-rags story about the son of a Japanese emperor forced to live life as a commoner. In addition to The Tale of Genji, widely considered to be a masterpiece of Japanese literature, Shikibu also wrote a book of poetry. A statue in Kyoto, Japan, commemorates this pioneering writer. Check out these other trailblazing women who accomplished female firsts.
Maria Sibylla Merian
Today, children as young as preschool can happily explain how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. But there was a time when no one knew this—not even scientists. Until the 1670s, scientists thought that caterpillars and butterflies were two totally distinct creatures. Thanks to Maria Sibylla Merian, we know the truth about these beautiful winged insects. Born in Germany in 1647, Merian was fascinated by insects, and she began collecting, studying, and drawing them when she was as young as 13. She was one of the few naturalists of her time to actually study and sketch live insects. It was through her study of caterpillars that she discovered the truth about their life cycles, and she went on to publish two volumes of naturalist research about the life cycles of insects. Her work provided major contributions to the field of entomology. Women, get your educations. You deserve it.
Ada Lovelace, born in 1815, was the daughter of celebrated British poet Lord Byron, but she wasn’t a poet herself. She was the world’s first computer programmer. We think of computers as a recent invention, but people were toying with the idea of “computing machines” in the mid-19th century when Lovelace was alive. Lovelace’s mathematical genius was apparent at a young age and caught the attention of Cambridge professor Charles Babbage. Babbage was working to design early computing machines that he hoped would be able to quickly solve math problems. Lovelace, his protégée, wrote some suggestions as to how to program the machines to calculate a specific sequence of numbers.
In addition to designing this early computer program, she also was first to suggest that these computers might be able to do more than, well, compute. She envisioned them doing everything that could possibly be represented by a string of numbers, from producing images to composing music. Quite the visionary.
If you know (or are!) a woman who decided to keep her own surname after getting married, she is continuing a tradition started by Lucy Stone. Born in 1818, Stone married a fellow activist and initially changed her name, but decided to change it back a year later. She held the belief that “a wife should no more take her husband’s name than he should hers.” She became the first American married woman to retain her maiden name for her entire life. Both she and her husband also fought the prevailing idea that husbands had legal dominion over their wives. But those are far from her only claims to fame. Stone was also one of the founding members of the American Equal Rights Association and fought for the abolition of slavery. Meet some amazing women who are changing the lives of women around the world.
Famous investigative journalist Nellie Bly, née Elizabeth Cochran, was born in 1864 in Pennsylvania. When a Pittsburgh Dispatch journalist wrote an editorial claiming that working women were a “monstrosity,” Bly wrote a scathing rebuttal that got her a job offer from the paper. She was 18 at the time. She began writing for the paper with the pen name “Nellie Bly,” inspired by a popular song at the time. After two years, she began writing for the New York World. In her most famous assignment, she spent ten days living in a mental institution to expose the truth about the conditions the patients faced. Her exposé launched a major investigation into the treatment of mental patients. In 1889, she set out to travel around the world in 80 days, emulating the hero of Jules Verne’s 1873 adventure novel. And she made it—in only 72 days. Take that, Jules Verne!
Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to parents who had been freed from slavery only a few years earlier because of the Emancipation Proclamation. By the time she was seven, both of her parents had died, and she moved in with her sister. In 1890, she developed a condition that caused her to lose her hair, and with it, an interest in hair care. She began working for black hair care entrepreneur Annie Turnbo Malone. Eventually, Walker began making and marketing her own hair-care products designed for African-American women, a virtually untapped market at the time. Her self-starter company evolved into the enormously successful Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She is widely recognized as America’s first black female self-made millionaire. And she was generous with her fortune, donating much of it to the NAACP and helping to fund a YMCA in Indianapolis.
You might know Hedy Lamarr from the silver screen; she starred in many films from the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, including Samson & Delilah and The Strange Woman. But her film career is far from her only noteworthy achievement; she was also a brilliant inventor. She was born in 1914 in Austria and moved to the United States in hopes of pursuing a film career. In 1942, in the midst of her Hollywood success, she and composer George Antheil received a patent for a device that could change radio signal frequencies. The purpose of the technology was to keep military enemies—specifically, the Nazis—from decoding messages. But it did more than that—it paved the way for much of the wireless technology we use today. As if that weren’t enough, she left her Austrian husband after learning that he was selling weapons to the Nazis. Way to be. These are the best movies to watch to celebrate Women’s History Month.
Alice Coachman was the first African-American woman to win Olympic gold. She was born in 1923 and grew up in Georgia, where segregation prevented her from joining sports teams. So she trained on her own. She eventually competed—and broke records—in the Amateur Athlete Union (AAU) national championship and received a scholarship to the Tuskegee Institute. She was winning national championships in the 1940s but was unable to compete in the Olympics—the Games were canceled in 1940 and 1944. Finally, Coachman competed in the 1948 Games in London, where she not only won a gold medal but set a record in the high jump. And she still wasn’t done breaking barriers—in 1952, Coca-Cola reached out to her to be their spokesperson, making her the first African-American (male or female) to get an endorsement deal. Don’t miss these other Olympic moments that made history.
Youyou Tu, born in 1930, became the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, and the first Chinese woman to win any Nobel Prize. In the 1970s, Tu, a skilled chemist, worked to find a way to prevent the spread of malaria. She discovered how to extract a substance called artemisinin, which can hinder the parasite that causes malaria, from the sweet wormwood plant. Today, artemisinin is used in life-saving, malaria-fighting drugs around the world. Tu won the Nobel Prize in 2015, and today, she is the Chief Scientist at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Next, check out some of our favorite quotes from history’s most incredible women.