You probably know Alexander the Great, Darwin, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci. Although not always mentioned, woman have contributed greatly to history as well. Perhaps you are already familiar with Queen Victoria, Rosa Parks and Marie Curie. But if you are not you should and then this article can be an eye-opener for you into how women helped shape today’s world. I choose only those woman who added something memorable, like the men mentioned before. This article is also not an attack on men, it is simply adding the forgotten women in history. Women were unfortunately ignored or their achievements attributed to a man in the past because of their gender. In light of international women’s day, the 8th of March, we can still share their stories and achievements so they may be remembered today. The topics are grouped into Sciences, Politics & Special Mentions. Feel free to skip ahead to a topic of your choice.
Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852) Mathematics & Programmer
Ada Lovelace (the Countess of Lovelace) is considered to be the world’s first computer programmer. She was the first person ever to publish an algorithm intended for a computer, her genius being years ahead of her time and only recognised a century after her death. Her notes on Babbage’s Analytical Engine became recognised as the first description for computer and software, ever. Ada was also a charming woman of society who was friends with people such as Charles Dickens.
Mary Anning (1799 – 1847) – Palaeontologist
Mary Anning had a long career as a “fossil hunter”. She had little formal education and so taught herself anatomy, geology, paleontology and scientific illustration. She found many Jurassic marine fossils near her home in fossil beds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis in the county of Dorset in Southwest England. Her observations played a key role in the discovery that coprolites, known as bezoar stones at the time, were fossilised faeces. She also discovered that extinct belemnite fossils contained fossilised ink sacs like those of modern squids or octopuses.
Her discoveries included:
- The first ichthyosaur skeleton correctly identified;
- The first two more complete long-necked plesiosaur skeletons found;
- The first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany
- A pterodactyl
Her findings helped scientists to draw a picture of the marine world 200 million to 140 million years ago during the Jurassic. Scientists of the time traveled from as far away as New York City to Lyme Regis to consult her about anatomy and hunt for fossils with her. Her observations on these prehistoric animals would change the way scientists approached the origins of natural history and prehistoric life and her work would lay the foundation for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. In 2010, one hundred and sixty-three years after her death, the Royal Society (UK National Academy of Sciences) included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science (along with Mary Somerville, Caroline Herschel, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Hertha Ayrton, Kathleen Lonsdale, Elsie Widdowson, Dorothy Hodgkin, Rosalind Franklin and Anne McLaren).
Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) – Physicist & Chemist
Marie Curie was a famous physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She developed the theory of radioactivity (a term she coined) and techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes. She also discovered two radioactive elements, polonium (used in heaters in space probes and antistatic devices) and radium (found in uranium and used in nuclear medicine for example for cancer treatment). During World War I she developed mobile radiography units to provide X-ray services to field hospitals She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and the only woman to win the Nobel prize twice, and the only person to win the Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields.
Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848) – Astronomy
Caroline Herschel was a brilliant german astronomer in her own right and the brother of Sir William Herschel. She discovered new nebulae and star clusters and was the first woman to discover a comet (she discovered eight in total). She was the first female scientist in a lot of other things too: the first to have her work published by the Royal Society and the first British woman to get a salary for her scientific work. Caroline retired in 1822 to Hanover were she started compiling a catalogue of nebulae. Herschels’ work would increase the number of known star clusters from 100 to 2,500.
She also received many honours in her field, including
- A Gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society
- The title Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society (1835, with Mary Somerville)
- The title Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy (1838)
- A Gold Medal for Science from the King of Prussia on her 96th birthday
Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872) – Mathematics Astronomy
Mary Sommerville experimented with magnetism and produced a series of writings on astronomy, chemistry, physics and mathematics. She did not merely translate astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace’s The Mechanism of the Heavens into English, but added her own commentaries and explained the complexities in such a way that a layperson could understand. Her translation was used as a textbook for much of the next century. Somerville’s preface to the translation, in which she explains the background to Laplace’s book, was expanded upon and published separately the following year as Preliminary Dissertation on the Mechanism of the Heavens. Afterwards she published The Connection of the Physical Sciences which summarised all that was known in the physical sciences, but also showed how different branches of science overlap in techniques and ideas.
In February 2016, after a public competition, The Royal Bank of Scotland announced that Mary Someville’s face would appear on the bank’s new £10 notes and they new banknotes bearing her image were issued in the second half of 2017.
Alice Ball (1892-1916) – Chemist
Alice Ball was an African American Chemist who developed the “Ball Method” which is named after her and was the most effective leprosy treatment at the time. Ball studied the properties of chaulmoogra oil, which was a promising treatment for leprosy at the time but difficult to use due to its chemical makeup. Ball developed an injectable form that isolated the active ingredients, rendering a more effective treatment, but she died at the age of 24 from an unknown illness before she could publish her findings. She was the first woman and first African American to receive a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii, and was also the university’s first female and African American chemistry professor. In 2019 the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine added her name to the frieze atop its main building, along with Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie, in recognition of their contributions to science and global health research.
Nettie Maria Stevens (1861-1912) – Geneticist
Nettie Maria Stevens was an American who is credited with the discovery of sex chromosomes (X an Y chromosomes). In 1905, soon after the rediscovery of Mendel’s paper on genetics in 1900, she observed that male mealworms produced two kinds of sperm, one with a large chromosome and one with a small chromosome. When fertilized with a female egg, the large chromosome would produce female offspring and the small chromosome would produce male offspring. Having noticed these chromosome differences applied to humans as well as other animals, Stevens developed the concept of the X-Y determination system, which stated that female offspring were determined by two large sex chromosomes (XX) and male offspring by a large and small sex chromosome (XY). Although Stevens and Edmund Beecher Wilson both worked on chromosomal sex determination, many authors have wrongly credited Wilson alone for the discovery. Wilson only realised the importance of the sex chromosomes after he read her published research and admitted in footnote in later research that Stevens should be credited for the discovery. Before Wilson read her papers, he had believed that environmental factors played a role in sex determination. Additionally, Thomas Hunt Morgan has been credited with and has taken credit for the discovery of sex chromosomes although at the time of the discoveries, he argued against Wilson’s and Stevens’ interpretations.
Emilie du Chatelet (1706 – 1749) – Mathematics & Physics
At age 27, Emilie du Chatelet began studying mathematics seriously and later continued into physics. Chatelet’s made the French translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia with personal commentary, which is still the standard French translation in use today. Principia states Newtons famous law of motion which would form the foundation for Newton’s law of universal gravitation. Her ideas were heavily debated at the time and because of it represented in the most famous text of the French Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot. She had an affair with another famous person at the time, philosopher Voltaire, with whom she shared the love of science.
Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921) Astronomy
Henrietta Leavitt worked as “computer” at Harvard College Observatory and was tasked with examining photographic plates in order to measure and catalog the brightness of stars of over 2,400 stars. She discovered the period-luminosity relation, the relationship between luminosity and the period of a specific kind of variable stars called the Cepheids. Her discovery helped astronomers understand the scale of the universe and helped measure the distance to other galaxies. Edwin Hubble (from the Hubble Telescope) used her discovery to help establish Hubble’s law, which states that the universe is continuously expanding.
Maria Merian (1647-1717) – Biology
Maria Merian was a German naturalist with an unusual interest in insects. She observed and took copious notes on the life cycle of butterflies by observing them directly. Unfortunately because she wrote in German instead of latin and butterflies were considered unworthy subjects to study her significant discoveries and findings about insect metamorphosis were dismissed by scientists. She traveled to South America to observe, record and illustrate insects and plants that had never been seen before. Years later, she would go on to publish Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, based on her unofficial expedition. Merian’s scientific discoveries and paintings of the natural world would make her one of the leading entomologists and scientific illustrators of her lifetime and her classifications are still used today.
Cleopatra (51 BC – 30 BC)
Cleopatra was the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt during the Roman Era. Although a co-regent (with her brother), she commanded power in Egypt throughout her reign and kept it independent in times of political turmoil. Cleopatra secured her position and her kingdom’s independence through her influence over Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, some of the most powerful Western men of the time. Cleopatra could speak multiple languages, most importantly Egyptian, the language of her subjects but als Koine Greek, Latin and Arabic along with Ethiopian, Troglodyte, Hebrew, Parthian, Median and the Syrian language. Centuries after her death Cleopatra still captivates historians, storytellers, artists and the public in general. The most staring example being Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra (1606–07)which was inspired from Roman historian Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. It was the work of the masterful playwright that immortalized Cleopatra, making her into the popular cultural icon that she is.
Hatshepsut (ca 1479 BC – 1458 BC)
Hatshepsut was the second historically-confirmed female pharaoh (the first being Sobekneferu) and the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt. Hatshepsut came to the throne of Egypt in 1478 BC. Her rise to power was noteworthy as it required her to utilize her bloodline (she was the the daughter, sister, and wife of a king), education, and an understanding of religion. She is generally regarded by Egyptologists as one of the most successful pharaohs, reigning longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. One of Hatshepsut’s major achievements was expanding the trade routes of Ancient Egypt. Most notably was an expedition to the Land of Punt, which became a major trade partner supplying Egypt with gold, resin, wood, ivory, and wild animals. Her greatest achievement was the enormous memorial temple at Deir el-Bahri, considered one of the architectural wonders of ancient Egypt.
About two decades after her reign an into Thutmose III (her nephew and step-son) his reign, for reasons unclear today, he or his son began ordering his men to remove mentions of Hatshepsut as pharaoh. Her name and image were destroyed, scraped form engravings and her statues toppled- no easy task considering the numerous buildings and other works built under her rule, often featuring her in some way in them. This elimination was carried out in the most literal way possible. Her cartouches and images were chiseled off some stone walls, leaving very obvious Hatshepsut-shaped gaps in the artwork.
Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603)
Queen Elizabeth I ruled during Englands Golden Age and called herself ‘The Virgin Queen’ because she chose to marry her country instead of a man. Elizabeth established an English church that helped shape a national identity and remains in place today. Queen Elizabeth I is one of the most successful monarchs in British history. Elizabeth was also the first Tudor (and probably one of the few rulers…) to recognise that a monarch rules by popular consent. The Golden Age period is famous for the flourishing of English drama, led by playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and for the seafaring prowess of English adventurers such as Francis Drake. England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 associated Elizabeth with one of the greatest military victories in English history. In short, under Elizabeth I England became a major European power in politics, commerce and the arts.
Catherine the Great (1729 – 1796)
Catherine the Great was Empress of Russia during the Russian Golden Age (Catherinian Era) from 1762 until 1796 and is the country’s longest-ruling female leader. She came to power following a successful coup d’état that she organised against her husband Under her reign, Russia was revitalised and was recognised as one of the great powers of Europe. Catherine is credited for modernising Russia along western European lines and established the first state-funded school for girls and issued a nation wide vaccination program against smallpox. As a patron of the arts she presided over the age of the Russian Enlightenment, including the establishment of the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe. She reeled back the power of the church within the state and encouraged the development of the economy, trade and the arts. Catherine reformed the administration of Russian guberniyas (provinces), and many new cities and towns were founded on her orders (including the beautiful city of Odesa in modern Ukraine).
Rosa Parks (1913 – 2005)
Rosa Parks was an American activist in the civil rights movement (anti discrimination movement) best known for her pivotal role in the Montgomery bus boycott. On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks rejected bus driver James F. Blake’s order to relinquish her seat in the “colored section” to a white passenger, after the whites-only section was filled. Parks’ act of defiance inspired the Montgomery bus boycott which both became important symbols of the civil rights movement. She organised and collaborated with civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr and became an international icon of resistance to racial segregation.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
Sojourner Truth was an American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She was born in slavery in the state of New York under the name Isabella Baumfree and escaped in 1826 with her youngest infant daughter Sophia and gave herself the name Sojourner Truth. She had to leave her other children behind. The state of New York passed law for gradual abolition; after that date 1799, children born to slave mothers were free but required to work for the mother’s master for an extended period as indentured servants into their late twenties. All remaining slaves were finally freed on July 4, 1827. Truth learned that her son Peter, then 5 years old, had been sold illegally by Dumont to an owner in Alabama. She took the issue to court and in 1828, after months of legal proceedings, she got back her son, who had been abused by those who were enslaving him. Truth became one of the first black women to go to court against a white man and win the case.
During the American Civil War, Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. After the war, she tried unsuccessfully to secure land grants from the federal government for former slaves (summarised as the promise of “forty acres and a mule”).
Her best-known speech was delivered in 1851, at the Ohio Women’s Rights which became widely known during the Civil War by the title “Ain’t I a Woman?,” a variation of the original speech.
Arts & Other
Amelia Earhart (1897 – 1937) Aviator
Amelia Earhart was an American aviator who became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and the first person ever to fly solo from Hawaii to the US. Earhart set multiple aviation records and attempted to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe in July 1937 which led to her unfortunate disappearance and presumed death. Earhart disappeared somewhere over the Pacific, her plane wreckage has never been found and to this day, her disappearance remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the twentieth century.
Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)
Jane Austen was an English novelist. Her writing stands out for its comedy, self-awareness and realistic, detailed portrayals of characters and their relationships. Her books interpret, critique and commented upon the British landed gentry at the end of the 18th century with biting irony, realism, humour, and social commentary. Austen’s plots often explore the dependence of women on marriage in the pursuit of favourable social standing and economic security. She is known primarily for her six major novels: Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park. Emma, Persuasion. Her six full-length novels have rarely been out of print, although they were published anonymously (referring to the authors as “By a Lady”) and brought her moderate success and little fame during her lifetime.
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) – Artist
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was a a prominent French portrait painter of the late 18th century. She became an artist completely self-thought despite major obstacles. She created a name for herself by serving as the the portrait painter to Marie Antoinette who helped her to get admitted into the French Academy at the young age of 28 as one of only four female members. Her artistic style is generally considered part of the aftermath of Rococo with elements of an adopted Neoclassical style. Vigée Le Brun created some 660 portraits and 200 landscapes. In addition to many works in private collections, her paintings are owned by major museums, such as the Louvre, Hermitage Museum, National Gallery in London, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and many other collections in continental Europe and the United States.