Much of what we know of our world history has been dominated by male figures. Julius Caesar, Constantine, Napoleon Bonaparte, George Washington… anyone with a basic high school education can rattle off an entire list of influential men who helped to shape our modern world in one way or another. What most people aren’t familiar with are the women who didn’t make the historical records; there are scores of strong females who had an incredible impact on how we live our lives, and yet were passed over in the history textbooks.
There are too many rockstar women of history to list in just one article, but here’s a quick debrief on some of the more impressive names that definitely deserve more notoriety than they’ve received.
A lot of people might think that Marie Curie has the corner market in the “Snubbed Women of Science” category, but Rosalind Franklin is actually pretty legendary as well. Franklin is responsible for the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, which was huge for our understanding of not only human biology, but the biology of every other living creature on the planet. And while her male colleagues who worked with her on the discovery received Nobel prizes four years after her death, Franklin’s contributions were never properly recognized until years later.
All Americans know the story of Paul Revere riding through streets on horseback, yelling “The British are coming! The British are coming!” But did you know that Sybil Ludington actually rode twice as far to make sure all of the scattered American militia were up and ready for the battle? Because of her, the militia were able to respond much quicker to the threat of British soldiers and eventually drove the troops back into their ships.
She never got the fame that Paul Revere did, but she was thanked personally by George Washington and was later featured on a stamp for the U.S. postal service.
Sojourner was born Isabella Baumfree; she lived as a slave until age 29, when she had a vision from God urging her to flee for her freedom. She not only managed to escape (with an infant daughter in tow!), but went on to become one of the strongest voices both for ending slavery and for promoting women’s rights. She is now best known for her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”, which was delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.
She is the first black woman to have ever been honored with a bust at the U.S. Capitol.
Freddie and Truus Oversteegen
These two badass women joined the Resistance in WWII when they were just teenagers. They spent their youth seducing Nazi soldiers and luring them out into the woods, where they would then by shot by Resistance operatives. Truus went on to become an artist and a public speaker at war memorials for WWII; Freddie has lived a relatively quiet life until she and her sister were featured in a documentary by Dutch filmmaker Thijs Zeeman.
Huda spent many of her younger years living as a member of harem, where she became extremely dissatisfied with the lack of freedom her sex experienced. Driven to make a change, she founded the first philanthropic organization run by women in 1908, and followed up with a school to help educate young girls two years later. But she didn’t stop there; in 1919 she organized the largest women’s protest against British colonialism.
Once Egypt became independent, Huda returned her focus to women’s rights, and founded the Egypt Feminist Union. This was the first nation-wide feminist movement in the country’s history.
Margaret Heafield Hamilton
Remember when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon? “One small step for man, on giant leap for mankind.” Of course you do; even people who weren’t alive to witness the event via fuzzy black-and-white television know the story. But did you know that it was actually a woman who made the entire Apollo Space Program possible?
Margaret Heafield Hamilton wrote the mathematical sequence that made the landing on the moon possible. She did it all by hand (which is pretty impressive, considering that the sequence can be stacked into a tower even taller than she was), and was so accurate that NASA actually used her to double-check the math once computers started doing the equations. She was honored by NASA in 2003, and again in 2016 when President Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Empress Wu Zetian
Empress Wu Zetian is the sole female emperor in Chinese history. She started out as a concubine for Emperor Tai Tsung, and skillfully navigated the ranks of the political system until she married Emperor Kao Tsung. She continued to gather power after he died, and went on to become one of the most peaceful and beloved rulers in Chinese history. Her influence led to the highest development of Chinese Buddhism in the nation’s history, and she was fair to the rich as well as the poor; she lowered oppressive taxes, bolstered public works, and overall managed to strengthen both Chinese agriculture and the economy.
It’s pretty common to see immersion journalism nowadays… whether it’s in books (like A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans) or in articles, with titles like “My Experience with A Seven Day Detox” and so on. This type of journalism involves the writer putting themselves directly in the experience of the people or situation they are observing, and was pioneered by Miss Nellie Bly.
Nellie is famous for traveling around the world in 72 days just to see if Jules Verne 80-day-limit was actually achievable. She also pretended to be insane and had herself committed for ten days in order to report on the conditions of mental hospitals. Later on, she married a 73-year-old millionaire, and spent the rest of her life patenting various inventions.
These are just a few of the incredibly smart and capable women who have helped to mold our modern world. It’s hard to say where we would be as a global community without their contributions to the sciences, the arts, and human rights. These inspiring figures prove that you don’t need to be born with a specific gender/ sex to change the world; you just have to have a few good ideas, and the passion to see them through.