In honor of Women’s History Month this March, I’d like to take a deeper look at the women of history that don’t usually make an appearance in the textbooks. The women of women’s history are diverse and interesting, and I can’t list them all–which is why I’m choosing to limit myself by assigning each to a letter of the alphabet!
Enjoy, and have an enjoyable–no, historical, Women’s History Month!
Some things never change: Hollywood has had a race problem ever since it was first established. Anna May Long was one of the first to speak out against it. She was vocal about the typecasting of the Chinese in films of her era, who were often depicted as brutish and villainous, and eventually began to refuse to play any roles that required her to play out Chinese stereotypes. When she was not given roles that didn’t include the latter, she began to only accept roles in B-movies and not the big-screen movies she had been used to being in–just so she could give genuine representations of Chinese culture. She was almost universally lauded for her amazing acting.
A fervid abolitionist and wickedly smart, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States, making her our country’s first female doctor. Blackwell was inspired to get her degree when she was told by a dying female friend that she would have been much comfortable with her death if she had been tended to by a female physician. Talk about friendship goals.
A big problem with openly celebrating historic women is that while many of their beliefs were revolutionary for their time, they also often held incredibly racist ones as well. Fortunately, Lydia Maria Child is not one of those historic women. She centered her life’s work around advocating for minorities–which included slaves and Native Americans, not just women. She was a champion of intersectionality before intersectionality was a thing!
Oh, and she was the woman that wrote the “Over the River and Through the Woods” song your elementary school forced you to sing for your parents every Thanksgiving, so these might be some fun facts to bring up to your family when that holiday rolls around.
Isadora Duncan was the queen of, quite simply, not giving a damn. Born in 1877, Isadora decided that she was not a fan of traditional ballet dance, which emphasized rigidity, and decided to strike out her own path in dance. Her loose movements, unconventional dance costumes, and emphasis on the “female form” enraptured audiences. She had two children, and decided that she did not wish to marry their fathers, which was completely unheard of at the time. And she decided to be openly bisexual: even more unheard of! She shattered every single social convention of her time that she possibly could–just because she wanted to, and saw no reason why she couldn’t. That’s an attitude I think we could all get behind!
E: Sylvia Earle
Sylvia Earle has dedicated her life to the study and preservation of the oceans, and an iconic example of finding what you love and sticking to it. Her mission to study the oceans has lead her to spend over 7,000 hours underwater over the course of 100 unique expeditions. She is the founder of the organization “Mission Blue”, which connects marine-protected areas in an effort to preserve them as well as possible. And even though she is now 82 years old, she shows no signs of slowing down–she still actively participates in oceanic dives and explorations. I wonder if she was afraid that she wouldn’t love her major in college for the rest of her life like the rest of us are…
F: Anna Freud
In deference to Women’s History Month, and as a psychology major, I will no longer be taking questions or jokes about Sigmund Freud this month. Instead, I will only answer to anything related to Anna Freud, his daughter. Her research on child development followed in the footsteps of her father’ ideology, meaning that a lot of it relied on ideas of the ego (AKA, things that many psychologists don’t believe in anymore, though her work is commonly referenced in modern psychoanalysis circles). Nonetheless, she was a great contributor to the developing field of child development. She was able to clearly define herself as a psychologist separate from her father–which could not have been easy to do, given his fame and extreme sexism.
G: Emma Goldman*
Born in 1869 to a Jewish family, Emma Goldman helped to spearhead the anarchist movement in the United States which she saw as being the only way to true freedom. She saw her life’s work as being the creation of new social order, and threw herself behind radically charged ideas of the era, such as women’s rights, birth control, and union rights. She was an incredibly fiery, powerful public speaker, and her unwillingness to back down from her ideas often got her jailed–and even deported. But that did not stop her. Whatever country she ended up in, she would still support her ideals, and harshly criticize the government she was under–including the USSR, at one point. She’s an incredible example of the power in always speaking your mind.
*It’s important to think critically when we celebrate Emma Goldman, considering that she was involved in a conspiracy to murder one of her opponents early in her anarchist career, but it’s hard to deny that she’s an incredibly interesting figure of women’s history.
Originally a school teacher, Dolores Huerta was moved by the farm children she taught in school on a regular basis. The children of Latino farm workers, they would often come into school in poor conditions and hungry. She decided that she could make more of an impact on their lives by lobbying for their parents rather than teaching them, and in 1962, helped to found the National Farm Workers Association. She negotiated better contracts for farm workers through the organization, as well as contributed to the success of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which gave farm workers bargaining rights with their employers. She’s an amazing example of a Latino activist.
I: Ida B Wells
Ida B Wells’ journalism helped to document the black experience in the late 19th century/early 20th century South–a time where black voices were being silenced with violence and fear. She routinely wrote exposés on the horrors of lynching, a common practice to kill black men without repercussion during her time, and openly criticized white feminists that ignored issues of intersectionality. She was also greatly outspoken about the myth of the “black male rapist”, which was often used loosely to justify lynching. Her courage deserves to be recognized.
Born in 1945, Marsha P Johnson was an openly transgender women in a time where it was incredibly dangerous to be so (something that has, unfortunately, not changed much). She was one of the first instigators of the Stonewall riots, a moment in history that is often credited as being the beginning of the modern LGBTQ+ movement. She was also responsible for founding STAR, a safe place that housed runaway trans teenagers in an effort to keep them off of the streets. Her courage in the face of hatred is inspiring, especially in the wake of modern homophobia and transphobia.
Born a slave in Virginia in 1818, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley unfortunately suffered many of the same horrors other slaves of the time period endured–beatings, forced transfers from master to master, and rape. Nonetheless, she endured, and became an incredibly talented seamstress that won the respect of many white clients. Eventually, her work became so well loved by these rich clients that she used the money she earned to buy and her child’s freedom. She then fled Virginia and became the personal seamstress to the First Lady, Mary Lincoln. It was highly unusual in that time for even a male slave to make the proper money to buy their freedom–for a woman to do so was nothing short of revolutionary.
L: Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace was the child of famous poet Lord Bryon, whose first words to his newborn daughter were “Oh! What an implement of torture have I acquired in you!” By setting the tone of his relationship with his daughter right there and then, her mother soon decided that Ada could not afford to grow up as a dramatic poet like her husband was. She immersed her daughter in expensive tutoring on mathematics, an incredibly unusual education for a girl in the 19th century. Nonetheless, Ada loved it, and would later go on to create a code that would allow a machine designed by her mentor to calculate numbers, making her the world’s very first computer programmer. She was also one of the first to foresee a future in which computers could function as far more than mere calculators–that they could possibly transcribe images or music. This was a function that not even the inventor of the machine predicted! What do you think her current views on the male-dominated STEM field would be?
M: Mary Shelley
While most know Mary Shelley as the author behind the famous “Frankenstein”, less know that she was only nineteen when she published her famous novel. Even fewer know that it is often overlooked as the world’s first example of a science fiction novel, an honor often given to male novelists–though there is some wiggle room, depending on your definition of science fiction. Regardless, we need to give her the credit she deserves!
Fun fact: she was the daughter of who many consider to be the “first” feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft.
N: Nellie Bly
In 1887, Nellie Bly, a female journalist, was asked by her editor to investigate New York City’s most infamous mental asylum, Blackwell’s Island. Not only did Nellie Bly accept the offer, but she feigned mental illness in order to be submitted to the asylum–thus subjecting herself to the beyond poor treatment that the actual patients were receiving, including neglect and abuse. She then published an expose of the asylum, which sparked massive change within the way mental health facilities were operated. That’s some hands-on action!
While you might be vaguely aware of O’Keffe’s famous paintings of flowers, you might not know about the person that dwelled behind the paintbrush. O’Keeffe is especially inspiring because of how strong she was–she was diagnosed with depression, was admitted to clinics for nervous breakdowns, and even gave up painting three times over the course of her life. But she always found a way to move on, and mothered the American Modernism movement in art and over two thousand paintings in doing so. Even when she went blind later in life, she did not let this hold her back from art–she just turned to sculpting instead.
Not to mention that she was sassy as hell–her response to her paintings of flowers being sexualized was “…you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower–and I don’t.” Finger snaps.
Here’s some more recent history, but history nonetheless: Pramila Jayapal is the first Indian-American woman to be ever elected to the House of Representatives. She also is the head of an immigrant advocacy non-profit group called OneAmerica. She actively tackles sexist comments and public issues on her Twitter account–something we need a more positive example of in a world where our president actively tweets threats of war.
When we think of women and airplanes, our thoughts immediately go to Amelia Earhart. And she’s pretty cool too! But Harriet Quimby was actually the first woman in the United States to get her pilot’s license, and eventually, the first woman to fly across the English Channel. What’s even more iconic, though, is that when Quimby went to see an airshow to cover it for the newspaper she wrote for, she commented to her friend that flying appeared to be “Quite easy. I believe I can do it myself, and I will”, and actually convinced her newspaper to pay for her flying lessons so she could write about them. And you’re afraid about asking your boss for a raise?
R: Rosa Parks
I know what you’re thinking: “Rosa Parks? Who doesn’t learn about her?” But most people are taught such a botched account of this awesome civil rights activist’s life that they might as well be learning about a different person! Rosa Parks was not just tired and idlily minding her business when she was told to give up her seat–evidence proves that she organized with the NAACP and aimed to be arrested so that anti-black bus seating laws could be challenged! She knew full well what she was getting into. And that makes her all the more amazing.
While the story of Florence Nightingale, savior nurse of the Crimean War, is often taught in school, the story of Mary Jane Seacole is often ignored. Seacole was also a highly influential nurse during the Crimean War, but unlike Nightingale, faced many challenges in becoming a nurse. As a mixed race woman in the 1800s, she was denied the opportunity to be hired as a nurse by British officers despite her long history of medical experience. Instead of taking no for an answer, Seacole used her own money to build a hospital and rest center in Balaclava near the conflicts, and often wandered into the battlefield to nurse the wounded. Talk about taking matters in your own hands!
Here’s a real blast from the past–the world’s very first recorded chemist was a woman named Tapputi in 1200 BCE Mesopotamia. She is also said to be the world’s first perfecter of perfume, writing a treatise on its creation that made perfume longer lasting and more fragrant. It just goes to show you that girls have belonged in STEM since the beginning of time!
U: Umm Kulthum
We tend to have an incredibly Western perspective when it comes to who we consider to be game-changing, influential musicians. Enter Umm Kulthum, an Egyptian singer who began her career in 1934 and revolutionized the Middle East’s perception of musical performance. By broadcasting her concerts on radio all across the Middle East, she made musical performance accessible to the public, something that was not possible before unless you were rich and high class. What’s more, she used her popularity to become an ambassador for Egypt to other countries, and helped bolster the careers of other artists from the Middle East. Talk about using your fame for good.
V: Urvashi Vaid
When it comes to the iconic movers and shakers of the LGBTQ+ movement, there’s a tendency to only focus on the rioters of Stonewall. And while that was an important turning point, there was a lot of work done afterwards that has gotten us to where we are today. Enter Urvashi Vaid, an Indian-American LGBTQ+ activist. She has lead many pro-LGBTQ+ activist groups in a diverse spread of areas, such as legal concerns, poverty, and prison conditions for LGBTQ+ persons. She even founded the first lesbian Super PAC, LPAC.
While Margaret Sanger is arguably the most famous woman associate of Planned Parenthood, it is impossible to understate the contributions of Faye Wattleton, who assumed the role of president of Planned Parenthood after Sanger’s departure. To this day, she is the youngest person to ever take on the role, and yet, it was her presidency that transformed Planned Parenthood into what it is today. She dramatically increased Planned Parenthood’s involvement in politics and pushed for the opening of more health clinics, leaving the organization in 1992 with over 170 clinics in 49 states.
Poor Xanthippe gets a pretty bad rep. She was the wife of philosopher Socrates, who supposedly married her solely because she was naturally argumentative and believed that if he could put up with that he could put up with any argument in Athens. And to boot, her name now means (as archaic a word as it might be) a “quarrelsome, nagging wife”. All because of her jerk of a husband, who used her as a philosophical sounding board and babymaker. Maybe it’s time that we reclaim her name.
Y: Yosano Akiko
Often referred to as a Japanese Mary Wollstonecraft, Yasano Akiko was a 20th century poet whose poetry directly challenged Japan’s patriarchal views of female sexuality. While the ideal of Japanese women was seen as demure and obedient, Yasano Akiko’s poetry focused on dominant women who took their sexuality into their own hands, and spent time detailing the features of their lips, breasts, and other parts of the body. While this depiction of women was almost universally panned by literary critics of the time, her work was among the first examples of sexual agency within Japanese society. She was also incredibly outspoken about the Japanese government and the toll of war, which earned her quite a few enemies.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias was the perfect example of a jack of all trades–except for the small detail that she was the master of them all. Dabbling in everything from golf, basketball, track and field, softball, and even competitive sewing, Zaharias racked up major trophies in almost every sport that she touched. She set multiple records at the Olympics in events such as the javelin and the hurdles, won fourteen major golf tournaments in a row (and was the first woman to compete in a PGA tournament), and was the founding mother of the LPGA, the professional women’s golf team of the USA. She even won an entire track competition that was meant to be entered in by a team just by competing by herself!
Now that you’re inspired, go out and make your own herstory!