While the history books are resplendent with the accomplishments of great men who won wars, founded countries and climbed mountains, the exploits of amazing women have gone criminally under-reported. Centuries of deep-rooted sexism tried to keep women in the home and out of public life. And yet, despite this sad fact, countless women still achieved amazing things, yet were never given proper credit. It would be impossible to name all the amazing women whose names have been forgotten by history, but the names below are at least a start. Read on for 24 facts about some amazing women who shouldn’t be unknown any longer.
History’s Lost Women Facts
25. Civil Rights Before the Civil War
In 1854, Elizabeth Jennings was a schoolteacher at one of the only private schools for black youth in a time when slavery was still very much legal. One day, she was late for church and tried to take one of the horse-drawn streetcars that New York used back in the day. They were also privately owned and able to refuse service, so when Jennings tried to ride the streetcar, the driver told her to get off. It took two men to remove her from the streetcar, and she ended up suing them in court. She was supported by none other than Frederick Douglass, and represented by a lawyer named Chester A. Arthur, future POTUS. Although she won her case and desegregated the streetcars, little is known about the rest of her life, except that she apparently founded the first kindergarten for black children in New York.
24. Leave Voltaire Out of This
In an ideal world, Emelie du Chatelet would go down as one of the great intellectuals of the 18th century. She laid the groundwork for the discovery of infrared radiation and made a comprehensive French translation of the work of Isaac Newton which is still used in France today. Unfortunately, her relationship with the legendary Voltaire was used against her. While Voltaire gave Emelie’s accomplishments more attention, the scientific community was reluctant to credit a woman for her work, so they gave all the credit to Voltaire instead. Emelie spent centuries only credited as Voltaire’s girlfriend, rather than as one of the great French minds of the 1700s.
23. Just a Researcher’s Assistant??
Rosalind Franklin was only 33 when she discovered the structure of DNA in 1951. It was a huge scientific breakthrough when she took an X-ray phtotograph of her findings. Unfortunately, a man named Maurice Wilkins came across her work and, assuming she was just a researcher’s assistant and not a researcher herself, showed it to James Watson and Francis Crick, who promptly stole the credit for her work and became heroes in the scientific community. They also managed to steal her deserved Nobel Prize for the discovery.
22. Bus Hero
Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, Claudette Colvin was told to give up her seat for a white woman, taking a stand at the age of sixteen. She was forcibly taken off the bus and arrested, even as she argued for her constitutional rights. Sadly, she was told by many, even her own mother, that her case was not as good as Parks’, and though she was part of a successful court case (Browder v. Gayle), she and her family have been fighting for history to acknowledge that more women than Rosa Parks refused to be bullied by a racist system.
21. Is It a Boy or a Girl?
Nettie Stevens is responsible for discovering that a baby’s sex is determined by chromosomes found in male sperm. However, because her male colleague, E.B. Wilson, was also working on a similar paper around the same time, he was given all the credit, despite Stevens being far more accurate in her findings. More proof that it doesn’t take a microscope to recognize sexism.
20. The British Are Coming!
People are quick to acknowledge what Paul Revere did during the American Revolution, but nobody takes time to acknowledge Sybil Ludington. On the night of April 26, 1777, this 16-year-old daughter of an American Colonel rode forty miles on horseback to rally her father’s men so they could stop the oncoming British. Not only was she successful, she received a personal commendation from George Washington himself. Revere, on the other hand, was a full grown man who was accompanied by many other forgotten men on the night of his famous ride. It was only thanks to a popular poem that Revere’s name is celebrated while Ludington’s gets a universal shrug.
19. Stolen Stardom
In 1925, Cecilia Payne approached a man named Henry Norris Russell with a paper on the elemental make-up of stars. Because this ground-breaking discovery was very different from current scientific thought, Russell urged her not to assert her conclusions. Because of his advice, Payne tempered her results, saying that her findings were “spurious,” and as a result they went largely unacknowledged. Four years later, Russell published his own paper which came to Payne’s conclusions, and even though he did include a paragraph acknowledging her, he is usually given credit for the findings.
18. Enjoy Your Boardgame
Monopoly is a classic game. The earliest form of the game was invented by Elizabeth Magie as ‘The Landlord’s Game,” which she intended as a tool to help educate people about the economic philosophy of Henry George. Several versions later, Charles Darrow was given credit for the renamed and reorganized game that we all know and love today. Magie was not credited for her contributions in her lifetime and died in obscurity.
17. Can’t Women Write Science Fiction?
In the 1960s and 1970s, a series of short stories by James Tiptree Jr. became all the rage in the sci-fi community. What people didn’t know was that James was actually a woman. Her real name was Alice Bradley Sheldon, a member of the Air Force and graphic designer. She figured that a male name would give her a better chance at publication, and her pen name’s success sadly proved her point. She wasn’t identified as James Tiptree Jr. until after her death. Given the examples of S.E. Hinton and J.K. Rowling, it’s sad that the prejudice still hasn’t gone away.
16. Thanks for Nothing, Spielberg!
Oskar Schindler’s legacy owes a lot to the 1993 film about his efforts to save Jewish people from the Holocaust through his factory. What the movie failed to show was how much his wife, Emilie, did for those same Jewish people. She redirected four wagons containing 250 Jews away from the death camps to the factory, and when food rations were low, she continued to nurse and feed the factory workers. Renowned filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard actually accused Spielberg of neglecting Emilie while she was living in poverty in Argentina, though Roger Ebert was quick to point out that Godard himself had not done anything for her either.
15. Let’s Get Physical
Before it was cured, polio was a very dangerous illness that affected millions throughout history. While the conventional wisdom was to immobilize muscles affected by polio, Australian Elizabeth Kenny was the first to discover that exercising the muscles was actually far more effective. Her method helped improve thousands of lives, including those of actors Alan Alda and Martin Sheen. Her work also also formed the groundworks for physiotherapy.
14. Medieval Gynaecologist
The Trotula is a three-part text from the 11th century which focuses on women’s health. One of those parts was written by Trota of Salerno, who was herself an accomplished physician, to the point where her knowledge of health made people assume that she must be a male doctor. Sadly, very little is known about her today, though she was famous in her time for her writing.
13. More Than an Artist’s Wife
Jackson Pollock is continually held up as one of America’s best artists, but what few people remember is that Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, was just as influential to the Abstract Expressionist art movement as he was. The two of them worked together for years, but Krasner’s star never rose nearly as high as Pollock’s, despite their equal amount of talent. The 60s and 70s feminist movement did much to bring Krasner’s artwork into the spotlight, but she’s still relatively unknown compared to her husband.
12. Take It From my Cold Dead Hands!
Mary Edwards was a nurse in the Union Army during the American Civil War. She was captured by Confederate forces and it is believed that she actually allowed herself to be taken so that she could act as a spy for the North. She was the first woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor in 1865, but in 1917, they changed the criteria for the Medal of Honor and actually revoked her medal. They even asked for it to be returned, but she continued wearing it until she died, because screw them. Later in 1977 they awarded it back to her, but we can assume her ghost didn’t have time for any of that.
11. Good Government
When President Roosevelt issued his New Deal programs during the Great Depression, he could count on his Secretary of Labor. Frances Perkins was not only the first woman to hold this position, she’s also the second-longest running Cabinet member in history. She was partially responsible for elderly pensions, the 44 hour work week, overtime laws, and minimum wages.
10. You’re Welcome, Tim Burton
Margaret Keane was the one behind the painting aesthetic that involves pale skin and very large eyes. Unfortunately, she was also a very introverted person with a husband who didn’t mind exploiting her. He took credit for her paintings for years until she finally had enough. She divorced him and fought for the credit she deserved. After years of legal battles, she won her case and was awarded $4 million in damages. In a final insult, though, a federal jury later overturned the monetary damage award. But on the (slightly) bright side, she did get a movie about her struggles in 2014, directed by, you guessed it, Tim Burton.
9. A Real Soldier
When the American colonies declared their independence, many joined the movement by enlisting in the army. One of them was a man named Robert Shutleff, but what nobody knew was that Shutleffe was actually a woman. Deborah Sampson was able to convince everyone that she was a man as she fought in the Continental Army. On one occasion, she was wounded in battle, but couldn’t risk being examined by doctors, so she snuck out of the hospital and operated on herself! When she was wounded a second time, her secret was revealed, but while she was immediately discharged from the army, she was given a military pension.
8. Been There, Done That
It didn’t matter that Barbara McClintock had a Ph.D. and had discovered that certain parts of chromosomes could swap genes. The year was 1948, and nobody cared that a woman had made a monumental scientific breakthrough. The discovery wasn’t acknowledged until 1961, when a group of male scientists reached the exact same conclusions. To add insult to… further insult, McClintock wasn’t awarded a Nobel Prize until 1983, when people finally listened to her and agreed that she’d been decades ahead of the curve.
7. Shoot for the Moon
If we asked you to name someone involved in the Apollo Project, you’d probably name Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, or Tom “Houston, we have a problem” Hanks. Who you wouldn’t likely name is Margaret Hamilton. However, it’s thanks to her, the lead software engineer on the Apollo Project, that anyone has ever set foot on the moon (and yes, conspiracy theorists, the moon landing was real, get over it).
6. She’s Saved Everyone’s Lives
Before Mary Anderson, people had to stop their cars and manually wipe the snow off the windshield if they didn’t want to get into a car crash. Shockingly, when she first developed the idea of windshield wipers, the automotive industry didn’t give her a second glance. By the time her patent ran out in 1923, however, attitudes were changing, and just in time for her idea to be publicly available. Be sure to remember Mary Anderson next time you drive through a blizzard.
5. Bring Home the Gold
The Olympics have led to some legendary stories of African-Americans proving their athletic ability to the world. One of the tragically less remembered ones is high jumper Alice Coachman. In 1948, she became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal, helping to open the door for black women everywhere to pursue greatness in sport.
4. Scorn in the Face of Death
During the Second World War, the Netherlands was occupied by Germany. Many Dutch people began a Resistance against the Germans, including one Hannie Schaft. She helped Jewish people get their hands on fake IDs until she was arrested and sentenced to death. When the firing squad failed to kill her with the first round, she scornfully declared “I could shoot better!” Why she doesn’t have a movie about her based on those last words alone is beyond us.
3. The President Behind the President
Edith Wilson was President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, and she proved to be his most important ally. When he was campaigning for the United States to join the League of Nations, he suffered a stroke which left him bedridden. Edith spent the next year and a half hiding the extent of her husband’s incapacity while basically acting as the President when papers and matters came before her.
2. More Than a Composer’s Wife
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the greatest musical prodigies of all time. What is less well known is that his wife, Constanze (nee Weber), was not only a brilliant singer, but was arguably one of the big reasons that Wolfgang is so well remembered. After her husband had died at a young age, Constanze was left to raise his sons and manage the family’s remaining debts by herself. Constanze organized memorial concerts of her husband’s music and published her husband’s work. She also collaborated with two different authors who wrote the first biographies of Mozart, ensuring not only her husband’s legacy, but also her children’s futures. However, their relationship did not start auspiciously: Mozart met and started courting her when she was only 19, and her parents certainly did not approve. Things worsened when Constanze disgraced herself by moving in with the composer, and her family had to threaten Mozart with police action to get him to marry their daughter.
1. Splitting the Atom, but Only for Science
We have the term “nuclear fission” thanks to Austrian physicist Lise Meitner. Forced to flee her home in 1938 because of her Jewish background, Meitner still collaborated, though from a distance, with Otto Hahn on the discovery of nuclear fission. Hahn conveniently forgot to credit her when he published the reports and won a Nobel Prize in 1944. Meitner was invited to join the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb to fight against those who had driven her into hiding, but Meitner refused, declaring she had no intention of using her scientific discovery for destruction. It was an attitude that ought to be celebrated as much as her snub should be reversed.