“Of course, I am not worried about intimidating men. The type of man who will be intimidated by me is exactly the type of man I have no interest in.” –Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
We’ve heard the cliché: behind every powerful man is a powerful woman. How many powerful women lurk from the shadows of men, whispering (presumably) advice and manipulating their way? But then again, the shadows of history were sometimes the only place in which women could work. How much of women “secretly” influencing history is them deliberately trying to be discrete (especially if they were spies)? And how much have women simply been pushed from the spotlight? Is “secret influencer” the name we give women forcibly shoved from the center of their stories? We can’t promise to answer that here, but in the meantime, read on to uncover 42 facts about the remarkable women who secretly influenced world history.
Women Who Secretly Influenced History Facts
42. Canonically Awesome
Margaret Corbin was one of only two women to receive a Revolutionary War pension from the US Army. Why? She managed a cannon all by herself. At least towards the end: at the war’s outset in 1776, she and her husband managed a cannon together. When enemy fire struck and killed her husband, Corbin didn’t miss a beat and she managed to fire it alone until she herself was shot in the chest and left arm. Miraculously, she survived and lived on to collect a sweet $30 a month.
41. Making Firsts
Shirley Chisholm didn’t stop at being the first African-American women to be elected to US Congress; she was also the first woman and first black person to ever run for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Unfortunately, Chisholm was not successful in that bid, but the poverty-born Brooklyn native set an astounding precedent in electoral diversity that others would follow in the generations after.
40. She’s Got Her Reasons
Nanye’hi of the Cherokee won the title of “Beloved Woman” for her leadership in a battle against the Creeks. But when most Cherokees sided with the British in the American war, Nanye’hi paved her own way with the Americans, for motives that are still not entirely known. She freed American prisoners when news of Cherokee sieges came by. Even after the war, Nanye’hi remained a player as a key negotiator in the peace treaties with the US.
39. Breaking Boundaries
Born to slavery, Sojourner Truth grew up to be one of the most influential abolitionists of all time. As a child, she received a vision from Jesus which told her that she was destined to freedom. She took that vision and ran with it, becoming one of the biggest voices in both women’s rights and the abolition movement. Surprisingly, her name remains an understated presence in American history, despite making the Smithsonian’s voted list of 100 most influential Americans of all time.
38. Ready, Set, Soar
Why should Amelia Earhart get all the credit? Lilian Bland—despite her last name—led an exciting life as not only a sport journalist, but also the first woman in American history to design and fly her own aircraft.
Countless people can tell you about Benedict Arnold, the Revolutionary-era American turncoat whose name has become a byword for treachery, but he couldn’t have done it without his wife, Peggy Shippen. It was Peggy who used her British ex-lover as her husband’s go-between for the British. When it came time to address her husband’s guilt, Peggy successfully feigned a nervous breakdown, to the point where Alexander Hamilton and George Washington helped her to bed. Well played, Peggy.
36. What’s Your Number?
Little is known of “Agent 355,” other than she was A: a woman and B: one of George Washington’s most trusted spies. This femme fatale would infiltrate New York cocktail parties, high society soirees, and dances with elite British officers. Her intel would prove invaluable, although she mysteriously disappeared right before the war officially broke out.
35. Gotta Go Fast
Sybil Ludington was only 16 years old when she rode 40 miles in the freezing rain to warn American forces that the British were coming. For the record, this was twice as long as the more famous Paul Revere rode, and she was alone, while Revere had other men with him.
34. The Voice Behind the Pages
Zelda Fitzgerald was more than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s better, boozy half. She co-published some of her more famous husband’s short stories with him, but under his name. It’s also believed some of the more iconic lines in The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night were uttered by Zelda in real life and F. Scott merely wrote them down.
33. She Carries On
Coretta Scott King had a civil rights advocacy record to rival her husband, Martin Luther King. After his assassination in 1968, King became known as “The First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement” and continued their work. It’s because of her that Martin Luther King’s birthday is a national holiday.
32. Miss Resistance
Andrée “Dédée” de Jongh was only 24 years old when she saved 118 lives as an Allied spy against the Nazis in World War II. She founded the “Comet” line that smuggled soldiers to safety from Nazi-occupied Belgium and France. When the Nazis caught her, Jongh confessed to working with the resistance—but they refused to believe that a young girl could accomplish so much and threw her in a concentration camp. But don’t worry: Jongh survived and was eventually awarded the George Medal by the UK, the Medal of Freedom by the US, the Légion d’Honneur in France, and both the Order of Leopold and the Croix de Guerre in her native Belgium. She lived out her days as a Belgian countess until she passed away in 2007 at age 90.
31. Reporting for Duty
Martha Gellhorn’s brief marriage to Ernest Hemingway shouldn’t eclipse her own amazing media career. Not content to be “a footnote in someone else’s life,” Gellhon was one of the most accomplished war correspondents of the 1940s. Her reporting in Asia and Europe, in addition to her own novels, led to an annual award named after her: The Martha Gellhorn Prize, given to a journalist whose work presents what she called “the view from the ground.”
30. Working Girl
Before there was Hilary Clinton, there was Frances Perkins—the first woman to be appointed and serve in the US Cabinet. We have Perkins to thank for labor rights such as federal minimum wage, social security, and even the end of child labor.
29. Designing Woman
While everyone is quick to cite Steve Jobs as the innovator behind your favorite Apple devices, it’s Susan Kare who designed the buttons that would actually make them usable. Do you like the Command key? Or the trash can? Thank Kare, who invented those features but goes largely unsung for her contributions. BTW, she also went on to design Photoshop’s lasso tool and the Chicago typeface that people might recognize from early Mac operating systems and from the first three iPods.
28. Less Than Fun Run
In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to officially run in the Boston Marathon. But not everyone took kindly to her status; a racing official by the too-good-to-be-true name of “Jock Semple” attacked her mid-race, trying to pull her number off. Fortunately, Switzer’s boyfriend managed to tackle Semple to the ground and she completed her journey. Of course, she was only the first woman to “officially” run…
27. Blast from the Past
Before Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to officially (she was registered and got a number) run in the Boston Marathon, there was Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb, the first woman to dash the rules and sneak into the race anyways. In 1966, the Boston Athletic Association turned down Gibb for being “not psychologically able” to do the race. So, she simply squeaked past the officials and ended up beating half the male “official” runners with a run time of 3 hours and 21 minutes.
26. Miss Medicine
When she was only 26 years old, Dorothy Hodgkin discovered the structure of penicillin. To impart how exciting that is, Hodgkin’s discovery meant penicillin could be modified to fight more powerful strains of infection. If that weren’t enough, she also discovered the structure of vitamin B1 and insulin. Simply put, disease beware!
25. Thriving Before 30
When she was only 23 years old, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh was honored as the first Muslim woman ever to make the Forbes 30 Under 30 media list. Her website, MuslimGirl.com, was also the first Muslim company to ever make the Forbes rankings.
24. Blooming Violet
Before there was Coco Chanel, there was Amelia Bloomer—fashion media magnate and champion for female comfort. Her platform? Women should throw away those constraining corsets and opt for breezy tops and panted skirts underneath their clothes. Although she did not invent the undergarments to be known as “bloomers,” this comfy underwear was certainly named in Amelia’s honor.
23. It’s the Little Things That Matter
Beulah Henry was nicknamed “Lady Edison” for, you guessed it, her Edison-like records of invention. Henry had 49 patents and over 100 inventions to her name, including a can opener, a hair curler, and even a vacuum ice cream freezer. Lord knows I couldn’t live without any of that, so thank you, Beulah.
22. Grand Theft Science
If you can picture the iconic double-helix structure of DNA, thank Rosalind Franklin, who was the first to ever capture “the secret of life” on film. Unfortunately, Franklin’s discovery was hijacked by Francis Crick and James Watson. Franklin’s photograph, known as Photo 51, was stolen by another scientist named Maurice Wilkins, who himself showed the picture to Watson. The three male scientists in question—Watson, Crick, and Wilkins—won the 1958 Nobel Prize for their discovery, without even a mention of Franklin.
21. Teacher Goes to Washington
Mary McLeod Bethune is one of the more notable people in US history to hold the position of Secretary of Education. As a member of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet,” she was one of the first black politicians ever to hold a high-ranking seat in US government. For her efforts in civil rights, she was known as “The First Lady of the Struggle,” decades before the 20th century civil rights movement reached its climax in the 1960s.
20. From Model to Memento
Chances are, you’ve seen some of Lee Miller’s World War II photographs and you simply don’t know it. Miller began as a Vogue model and “muse” to the surrealist artist Man Ray. But Miller would eventually prove that she had as much talent behind the camera as she did in front of it. Her work focused on humanizing the women of the war effort, including workers and resistance folk; she even photographed concentration camps. But her work with the trauma of war contributed to her own post-traumatic stress disorder, meaning these photos would be hidden away and not make her a name in photography until after her death in 1977.
19. Charting Her Way to Success
Move over Lawrence of Arabia; after the end of the Ottoman Empire, it was Gertrude Bell who put her cartography skills to work and helped established the boundaries of modern-day Iraq and Jordan. Both British and Arab leaders praised her for her prodigious knowledge and experience in the area, but she remains mostly background character in the history of exploration.
18. Don’t Mess with This Doc
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was taken as a POW during the American Civil War. For her bravery and continued warfront medical efforts, she was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1865. But, since we will never give women full credit, Dr. Walker’s medal was revoked due to a criteria change made decades later in 1917! However, the good doctor refused to give the medal back and wore it proudly until her death in 1919. Cut to decades later, in 1977, her medal was reinstated, making her not only the first woman to receive a US Medal of Honor, but also the first to (re)gain one after death.
17. Pain and Paint
Margaret Keane made her mark on the 1960s art scene with her pictures of children with big eyes (hence, the movie made about her life, Big Eyes). Unfortunately, her husband Walter took all the credit—initially unbeknownst to Margaret, but when she discovered what he was doing she kept silent out of fear. When they divorced, Margaret revealed that she was the real talent in their partnership. The judge arranged a “paint battle” in court to get to the truth. Walter refused to paint anything, making the terrible excuse of “shoulder pain,” but Margaret won the case by painting a child in 53 minutes. However, she did not get to keep the $4 million in damages. Although the appeals court upheld she was the real artist, they also overturned her monetary settlement, because why let a woman catch a break?
16. The Proxy President
For the last year and a half of US President Woodrow Wilson’s term, his First Lady Edith Wilson essentially acted as the real President. After suffering a stroke, the President was left bedridden. Edith took charge of all his meetings and controlled what issues where important enough to get his attention. So, unofficially, Edith Wilson was the first female President of the United States.
15. Wipe Those Tears Away
Mary Anderson invented the first windshield wipers in 1903. She filed a 20-year patent for them, but never managed to sell the idea to the auto industry. But if it makes you feel any better: when the industry started to boom in 1920, the guy who invented the next model of windshield wiper also failed to truly capitalize from his tech. The auto industry is a fickle beast.
14. The Book of What?
For ages, scholars believed that the Trotula—a three-part medical text on women from the 11th century—just had to be written by a man. As it turns out, the pioneering work was largely written by a woman named Trota of Salerno. Little is known of her life, other than that she was essentially a medieval OBGYN and deserves more credit for her commitment to such an important part in human history.
13. Look to the Skies (So He Can Steal Your Success)
In 1925, Cecilia Payne wrote a paper about the stars, which uncovered exactly what elements they were made of. This seminal work was read but rejected a male reviewer, who thought it would be ridiculed for going against the thought of their day. Lo and behold (emphasis on “low”), this same male reviewer would publish a paper four years later that used her ideas to come to the exact same conclusions. Hmmm…
12. Not the Roald Dahl Version
Margaret Rossiter founded the theory of the “Matilda Effect” which describes “the systematic repression and denial of the contribution of woman scientists in research, whose work is often attributed to their male colleagues.” Devoting her career to studying the history of women neglected in science, she published a critically acclaimed book on the subject, countless papers, and even won a MacArthur Grant. So what was the one thing that she lacked for so long? A tenured position as a university. Even the author of the Matilda Effect was not immune, it seemed, to its consequences. But finally, the University of Georgia hired her to create and chair their History of Science Department. Matilda, that!
11. Behind the Pen
Alice Bradley Sheldon wrote under the male pen name “James Tiptree Jr.” all her life. Although her science fiction works were acclaimed, even making the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, the real identity of “Tiptree” would be kept a secret until her death.
10. Too Soon
Benazir Bhutto was the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan and the first woman to be head of state in a Muslim-majority country. While her tenure saw the end of military dictatorship, Bhutto’s work was cut short after she was assassinated in a 2007 suicide attack.
9. Mother Governance
Why should Alexander the Great get all the credit when his mother, Olympias, did the dirty work of running the government when her son was off conquering? And if you know anything about Alexander the Great, that means Olympias spent a lot of time governing. She also outlived her son; after Alexander’s death, it was Olympias who continued to wage war and manage the state.
8. Four Hands, One Woman
People said there were “four hands” on each Alfred Hitchcock script: two from Alfred and two from his wife, Alma Reville. In fact, Reville was an acclaimed film editor in her own right before her marriage. She would advise her husband on every part of his movies, so much so that “Alma enjoyed the pages” was his shorthand for “I like it.” Hollywood legend even goes that she was the force behind the iconic screeching music during the shower scene in Psycho.
7. Goodbye, Sally
Until her death in 2007, Sally Menke was the only editor with whom Quentin Tarantino ever worked. He called her his “hands-down… number one collaborator.” To keep Menke’s mood up during grueling editing sessions, Tarantino would drop shout-outs to her in the film of his movies by having his actors turn to the camera and go “Hello, Sally!” Tragically, she died one day while hiking with her dog in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. After she didn’t return home, a frantic search was held, and authorities eventually found her body at the bottom of a ravine. Her dog was still alive and was found sitting next to her body. It was later determined that her death was related to the extreme heat on that day, as temperatures soared to 113 °F.
6. I Love Lucy
Trekkies should thank TV legend Lucille Ball for their favorite show’s existence. When NBC rejected the original Star Trek pilot, it was Ball who financed the second pilot—and introduced William Shatner in the lead role.
5. Forgive but Never Forget
When Betty Williams and Mairead Maguire witnessed the murder of the latter’s niece and nephews outside of their Belfast school, these two Irishwomen were not content to grieve quietly. Only three days later, they started the Community of Peace People, which led marches of thousands of people all over Northern Ireland to London in protest of the Irish conflict. Williams and Maguire were awarded the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize for their passionate contribution to this part in Irish history.
4. Wax On, Wax Off (About Intel)
Patience Lovell Wright was a simple 18th-century American widow who, as people did back then, sculpted wax to support herself, and she eventually became famous for her craft. Even the King and Queen of England wanted her sculptures, which put Wright in the prime position to collect British intel for Revolutionary Americans. Where did she hide them? In her wax masterpieces, of course.
3. Your Policy is In Retrograde
President Ronald Reagan looked to the stars. Or rather, he and his wife Nancy utterly depended on their astrologist, Joan Quigley, for guidance. Quigley was so influential within the administration that the Reagans would change flight plans and landings based on her advice. She first came to the White House after John Hinckley’s 1981 attempt on the president’s life, and she remained there until 1988.
2. From Hollywood to Silicon Valley
When World War II broke out, Hedy Lamarr was the epitome of Hollywood glamor, her career having recovered from a lurid scandal years before (she had appeared in a European film where she’d been filmed close-up making ‘orgasmic’ noises, and this was apparently too much for the American public in 1933). But Hedy Lamarr was more than an actress—she was also a computer genius on the side. In fact, she designed her “frequency-hopping spread-spectrum” as a way to help the Allied effort in World War II. Although the US Navy refused to take the superstar’s invention seriously, Lamarr’s innovation would be the foundation of why you’re able to read this at all: Her research helped invent Wi-Fi.
1. Little Soldiers
Freddie and Truus Oversteegen were only 14 and 16, respectively, when they joined the anti-Nazi resistance. Their job? To lure Nazis into the woods, where the resistance would be waiting to shoot their targets. But their job wasn’t just to charm the enemy: the sisters also smuggled and stole official identity papers that were important to the long-term cause. The Oversteegens were not honored for their service until 2014.