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15 Historical Heroines You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

We all know that well behaved women rarely make history, but frequently even breaking a rule or two wasn’t enough to gain you entry into the hallowed halls of historical record. As we take time this month to celebrate the stories of remarkable women throughout the ages, I wanted to highlight just a few you may not have heard of before, but whose contributions have brought us groundbreaking advancements in science and technology, literature and the arts, politics and civil rights, and everything in between. 

Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894)

Amelia Bloomer was a women’s suffrage advocate who started her own newspaper, The Lily, after becoming frustrated that there were no papers that discussed women’s issues. She used The Lily to promote the suffrage and temperance causes, as well as to advocate for more comfortable and practical clothing for women, including (gasp) pants! Love your favorite pair of boyfriend jeans? You have Amelia to thank. 

Nellie Bly (1862-1922)

Nellie Bly was an American investigative journalist at the turn of the last century, most celebrated for feigning mental illness to infiltrate the notoriously horrific mental asylums and exposing how patients were treated. Her bold and courageous approach to uncovering a story helped to develop the field we now call investigative journalism, and led Bly to become one of the most prominent journalists of the time.

Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948)

Zelda Fitzgerald, wife to the celebrated author F. Scott Fitzgerald, was the original wild child – a party-throwing, thrill-seeking, scandal-loving “bright young thing” of the roaring 20s. Zelda was widely acknowledged to be Scott’s muse, inspiring iconic characters such as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, but what is less well-known is that she was a writer and novelist in her own right, and that she even accused Scott of having stolen her work to publish as his own towards the end of his career.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Rosalind Franklin was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose contributions played a pivotal role in our understanding of the structures of DNA, RNA, and even viruses. Franklin worked hand in hand with James Watson and Francis Crick (remember them?) to uncover the double helix structure of DNA, but her male colleagues discovered her private notes and claimed her findings as their own. It wasn’t until years later that Franklin began to get the credit she deserved, and she’s still frequently left out of the history books.

Grace Hopper (1906-1992)

Grace Hopper was a pioneering American computer scientist and naval officer. She’s most celebrated for her revolutionary contributions to the development of computer languages, and was the first to devise the theory of machine-independent programming languages, a version of which is still in use today. Lady-coders, look her up!

Andrée de Jongh (1916-2007)

Andrée de Jongh, known as Dédée, worked as a member of the Belgian resistance during the second world war. She was responsible for creating and organizing the Comet line, a system through which Allied soldiers could travel safely through occupied Belgium and France.

At just 24 years old, de Jongh was responsible for saving the lives of 118 men throughout 24 missions, and was later made a countess and awarded the George Medal for her contributions to the war effort. I don’t know about you, but my CV suddenly feels extremely sub-par…

Mildred Loving (1939-2008)

Perhaps the most aptly-named historical figure of all time, Mildred Loving made history for doing just that. When Mildred, a Black woman, and her husband Richard, a white man, were criminally charged under a Virginia statute outlawing interracial marriage, the couple took their case all the way to the supreme court. With the help of the ACLU, the Lovings won their case, and the law was abolished in 1967. The landmark dispute went on to be cited as precedent in later cases demanding the legalization of same-sex marriage under the Fourteenth Amendment.

I recommend you check out Loving, which tells their story. 

Sybil Ludington (1761-1839)

Paul Revere gets far too much credit. While Paul is remembered in song and fable for his 20 mile ride to warn the colonists of the British advance, Sybil, a 16-year-old girl, traveled nearly 40 miles to do the exact same thing. Riding through the night, Sybil warned scattered militiamen across the state of Connecticut that the town of Danbury was under attack. George Washington himself thanked Sybil for her efforts, but Paul still gets all the glory (are we sensing a pattern yet?).

Effa Manley (1897-1981)

Effa Manley was an American businesswoman, sports executive, and Civil Rights activist. From 1935 to 1948, she co-owned the Newark Eagles baseball franchise in the Negro leagues with her husband. Under Manley’s management, the team won the 1946 Negro World Series, eventually winning Manley her place as the first and only woman in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Moreover, Manley also served as treasurer for the Negro National Baseball League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and was constantly campaigning for the rights of Black Americans.  

Fe del Mundo (1911-2011)

Fe del Mundo was a pioneering pediatrician, responsible for revolutionizing Philipine medicine, expanding access to medical care for poor families, making breakthroughs in immunization treatments, and countless other innovations throughout her 70+ year medical career. Del Mundo was the first Asian woman to attend Harvard, but returned to the Philippines during the second world war to establish a children’s branch of a Japanese internment camp, and to direct the Manila Children’s Hospital.

She later went on to become the president of the Medical Women’s International Association, the first female president of the Philippine Pediatric Society, an honorary member of the American Pediatric Society, and a consultant of the World Health Organization.

Jeanette Rankin (1880-1973)

American politician and women’s rights activist Jeanette Rankin was the first woman to hold federal office in the United States. Blazing the way for future female politicians, Rankin campaigned hard to expand women’s right to vote, to ensure better working conditions for laborers across the nation, and to improve healthcare for women and children. Perhaps her greatest contribution, however, was in introducing legislation which would ultimately become the 19th Amendment, granting the right to vote to all American women. Anyone else baffled by the fact that women could hold political office before they were universally allowed to vote?

​Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002)

Sylvia Rivera was a transgender activist and advocate of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent. Rivera is most celebrated as one of the insighters of the pivotal Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969, but her contributions to the LGBT+ community go far beyond this event. She was also a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activists Alliance, and STAR, a group dedicated to helping homeless trans youth. Today, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a non-profit that works to provide free legal support and services for transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming low-income people of color. 

Amelia Boynton Robinson (1911-2015)

Amelia Boynton Robinson was a Civil Rights activist and leader in Selma, Alabama, and an influential figure in the Selma-Montgomery marches. Robinson’s career in activism began in her childhood, when she became heavily embroiled in the women’s suffrage movement. She was the first Black woman ever to seek a seat in Congress, and while her campaign was unsuccessful, she was awarded both the Martin Luther King, Jr. Foundation Medal of Freedom and the National Visionary Leadership Award for her work during the Civil Rights Movement.  

Hazel Scott (1920-1981)

Hazel Dorothy Scott was a Trinidadian-American jazz pianist, singer, and actress, famous for her ability to play two pianos at once (seriously, watch this video, she’s the most talented lady ever!). A child prodigy who received a scholarship to the Juilliard School at age eight, Scott quickly rose to stardom, becoming an acclaimed performer, and the first Black American to host her own TV show, The Hazel Scott Show. She also used her platform to speak out about racial descrimination and segregation, and to improve representation of Black actors in the movies.  

Anna May Wong (1905-1961)  

Anna May Wong was a Chinese-American movie star in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Throughout a roller coaster of a career consisting of over sixty movies, Wong fought hard to portray characters without adhering to the racist Asian-stereotypes that were ubiquitous in Hollywood at the time, and to be considered a leading lady in her own right, not in her capacity as an Asian woman. While Wong faced constant discrimination and rejection, her career also included significant highlights, such as her starring role in the hit film Shanghai Express alongside Marlene Dietrich, and her leading role in the TV series The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.

While there are countless other noteworthy women who have helped to shape our modern world, I hope this small sample offers some inspiration, some insight, or even sparks some curiosity about these more obscure historical figures!

Alexandra is a fourth year at the University of St Andrews in Scotland studying English and Modern History. She is also the founding president and editor-in-chief for the St Andrews Her Campus chapter, and can usually be found buried in a theatre rehearsing for the next musical, opera, or play. In her spare time, she loves writing creative fiction, traveling, and generally enjoying living in Scotland!